Category Archives: 1991

Today’s Top 5: February 1991 (via Broken Arrow) – Neil Young

fullsizeoutput_fd6When I look back, the pre-Internet life seems quaint – almost like a black & white movie.

For decades, the morning routine was basically the same regardless of one’s household: we rose, brewed and drank coffee, ate breakfast and consumed the first news of the day from a newspaper delivered to our doorstep; the radio, with said news often being little more than the weather, sports and traffic interspersed amongst the music from our preferred radio stations; or the TV, where the day’s first headlines were relayed on the morning shows, which – as today – were as much entertainment/lifestyle-focused as news-oriented.

And when we split for work, we either tuned in a favorite terrestrial station or plugged in an 8-track tape, cassette or CD.

Life unfurled at a slower pace; and we didn’t expect fast results. For music fans, that meant artists zoomed through the atmosphere like comets, burning bright for weeks or months at a time before leaving orbit. New releases brought with them publicity, reviews and sometimes tours, but what they performed in the cities before or after yours was a thing of mystery. Even in the age of MTV and USA’s Night Flight, they rarely appeared on TV for anything more than a performance; and interactions with fans were generally at the stage doors or hotel lobbies.

Then as now, however, fans always wanted more – and, thus, sprung the fanzine. By the late 1980s, I read a bunch of them devoted to specific genres, artists and bootlegs – Beatles’ bootlegs, to be specific. They weren’t available in normal music stores, not even the new-fangled CD store I worked at, but they could be had in indie shops and Tower Records. Backstreets, Beatlefan, The 910, and dozens of others (whose titles I can’t, at the moment, remember) all passed through my hands at one point or another.

Another favorite: Broken Arrow, a ‘zine focused on all things Neil Young. I first encountered it in the mid ‘80s at City Lights Records in State College, but it wasn’t until the early ‘90s – and our regular excursions to Tower Records – that I began reading it with any regularity. This issue, which I actually bought in March (as evidenced by the price tag), is a good example of why:

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Anyway, given that a recent Top 5 covered January of this year, I won’t go into a summary of my life. It was more of the same. I had a job I enjoyed, a wife I loved and a life that was more fun than not.

For today’s Top 5: February 1991 (via Broken Arrow). Aka, Neil!

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1) “Days That Used to Be.” Dave Sigler reviews the 1990 Bridge School benefit, which featured Elvis Costello, Steve Miller and, of course, Neil with Crazy Horse: “Neil donned a black, amplified acoustic and led the Horse into a stunning version of ‘Love and Only Love,’ complete with extended jams. ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ followed and was done well. The band then did ‘Days That Used to Be’ and it was kind of halfway between the treatment Neil gave the song during the ’88 Bluenotes tour (as well as the ’89 shows with the Restless) and the Ragged Glory version.” (Click on the image to read the whole account.) Here’s the ’88 version of the song:

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2) “Danger Bird.” Rick Zeek spotlights a memorable, and much bootlegged, show: the Catalyst on Nov. 13, 1990.

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3) “Stringman.” This is an old song of Neil’s, originally slated for the never-released Chrome Dreams in 1977, that eventually saw the light of day in 1993 on Unplugged. Some say he wrote it for old friend Stephen Stills, but who knows?

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4) “Cocaine Eyes.” In spring of 1989, Neil Young released the El Dorado EP in Australia and Japan with a band he dubbed the Restless (Chad Cromwell on drums and Rick Rosas on bass). The songs were drawn from the unreleased Times Square album he recorded in December 1988; and a few of them would resurface, again, though in different mixes, on Freedom that fall. This fierce song, also allegedly written about Stills, ranks with his best.

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5) “Rock Forever.” A different year, a different Catalyst show. And a song that works better in theory than practice, but is fun nonetheless.

Today’s Top 5: January 1991 (via CD Review)

fullsizeoutput_fbdYears long ago, we had a 5-CD Sony player hooked into a receiver with a double-cassette deck, the brand of which escapes me now. Good speakers. No turntable, as by then (1991) we – like many folks – had moved full-force into the age of the shiny platter. What I loved about that system was this: fading in or out when making a mix tape. I could open a tape with, say, a minute-long rendition of “Drift Away” by the 10,000 Maniacs, lifted from the 1994 In the Garden of Eden bootleg, where it tracked with “Hey Jack Kerouac”; and close the side with the Beatles performing a ragged version of “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” during their Get Back sessions, the audio verité manner of the bootleg it hailed from (Songs of the Past Vol. Whatever, I believe) making it part of a track longer than the 1:10 it actually is.

The 5-CD platter was an even better feature. Diane and I chose two discs each, agreed on a third (or flipped a coin), hit shuffle and…away the night would go, the two of us obsessively playing any of a number of games – Acquire was quite the habit for a time. Trivial Pursuit was another. We had good friends in South Philly – usually we’d go to them, as they had a dog (and lived close to Nick’s, which had the best hot roast beef sandwiches in the region); occasionally they’d come out to us, though if they did the night never went on quite as long, as they had someone who needed tending. Regardless, a good time was always had.

I’m getting ahead of myself by a few years. What can I say? Time flies; and memories intermingle. The point I was going for: In the pre-Internet age, information wasn’t a few mouse clicks away. Life was slower. If you watched TV, you watched – no “second screen.” If you listened to music, you might do something else – read a book or magazine, play a game, etc. But, often, you (or I) just listened. And for information on music – the local newspaper might have a weekly column about it but, really, fans were reliant on magazines, including Rolling Stone, Record, Spin, Creem and Circus, along with a slew of fanzines. By the late 1980s, two additions were added to my menu: ICE, the International CD Exchange, which was more of a newsletter; and Digital Audio and CD Review, which went in-depth into digital gear and CD sonics.

The reason for those last two: Not everything on vinyl was available on CD. And some that was, well, let’s just say the sound quality was lacking. The first few Byrds releases on compact disc, for instance, sounded like the master tapes had been put through a blender. Likewise, Simon & Garfunkel’s Collected Works came from second-generation masters because Columbia lost the originals. The result sounded okay, but it’s not as good as, say, the re-reissues from a few years back, which were redone from tapes one step closer to the source.

Anyway, at some point, Digital Audio and CD Review dropped the first three words of its title. CDs were graded for both artistic and sonic elements, though the reviews themselves often said little about the audio quality.

Onward to today’s Top 5: January 1991.

fullsizeoutput_faf1) Rosanne Cash – “What We Really Want.” Holly Gleason opens up her review of Rosie’s 1990 release, Interiors, with: “Rosanne Cash never has been one to be content with just wearing her heart on her sleeve. She also puts her anxieties, misgivings, and rage out there—and it’s made her one of the most honest, affecting artists of any genre of the ‘80s.

“Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Interiors, Cash’s first disc of the new decade, is the kind of work that digs out the truth no matter how painful. Filled with moments of faltering and self-doubt, she paints herself and those around her in often fading light, struggling for the truth, often coming up short and continuing in spite of the odds.”

She sums up the CD with an apt comparison: “Like Joni Mitchell’s classic Blue, Interiors yields to catharsis. Sensual without being sexual, there’s a revelation at every turn and hope in the face of devastating interpersonal realities.”

To my ears, it’s one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time. And this song is as true today as it was then.

fullsizeoutput_fb22) Emmylou Harris – “Tougher Than the Rest.” Holly Gleason also tackles Emmy’s 1990 Brand New Dance album: “[S]he follows the brave new path of eclecticism she began staking out on 1989’s Bluebird. Once again Harris challenges her listeners, offering them something other than obvious hooks and cheap instrumental fills. Instead, producers Richard Bennett and Allen Reynolds have built an album on thoughtful playing and songs that work from the inside out, which yields a work that fairly resonates with raw beauty. For instance, Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” is chilling in its contrast of the song’s sentiment and the softness of the track.”

fullsizeoutput_fb63) Kathy Mattea – “A Few Good Things Remain.” In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Mattea was on a roll, hit after hit, and racking up ACM, CMA and Grammy awards. Diane and I saw her two or three times in that span at the Valley Forge Music Fair – she always put on a good show.

Anyway, going for the trifecta, Holly Gleason also reviews A Collection of Hits, Mattea’s first greatest hits set. She writes, “Given her second Country Music Association award for Female Vocalist of the Year, it would be almost di rigueur for Mattea to continue to follow her pre-defined musical path. Instead, she broadens her lyrical horizon with a track recorded in 1990, ‘A Few Good Things Remain,’ an exceptionally mature song that has a deeply personal quality to it.”

fullsizeoutput_fba4) Carlene Carter – “I Fell in Love.” Carlene, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, has had her fair share of ups and downs in her personal and professional lives, but when she’s on – as on I Fell in Love – well, she’s just plain great. Reviewer David Okamoto says that “[l]ike 1980’s Musical Shapes, I Fell in Love is a country album performed by roots-conscious rockers. Howie Epstein—bassist for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers—produced this playful disc, co-wrote two songs and recruited fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench plus Dave Edmunds, David Lindley, Albert Lee, Levon Helm, and James Burton to help out. Together with the sturdy rhythm section of drummer Ed Greene and bassist James Ciambotti, they lend a loose, infectious energy to these 11 songs that rarely comes across on today’s overpolished country discs.”

img_23205) Richard Hell & the Voidoids – “Blank Generation.” Paul Robicheau explains that “Blank Generation has been reissued on compact disc (with a booklet of informative liner notes as well as lyrics), a dated but delightful rock nugget to pick up—especially if you’ve never heard it before.” True, that.

He sums up with: “With all due respect to the Voidoids’ itchy but incisive musicianship, it was Hell’s clever, cavalier lyrics that gave the group its real spark. An aspiring poet, he was firmly committed to indifference; ‘Blank Generation’ and ‘Who Says (It’s Good to Be Alive)’ are testaments to his cynical stance. But Hell’s tongue is firmly in cheek and his delivery even campy, especially when his vocals go gloriously off key on slower tunes like the pseudo-waltz ‘Betrayal Takes Two’ and a perfectly lame, jazzy cover of Frank Sinatra’s ‘All the Way.'”

… here are the portions of the reviews that I didn’t include above. (As with most images on my blog, clicking them pulls up a far larger pic.)

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Today’s Top 5: 1991

dodgecolt002Twenty-five years ago today as I write, on Wednesday Sept. 25, 1991, Diane and I were brand-new to married life, having gotten hitched the previous Friday in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, a great day – up until we walked out of the French restaurant where we held the wedding: my brother and a friend had decked out my car, a Dodge Colt, in festive wedding gear, and tied empty cans to the back. That centuries-old tradition sounds charming, I suppose, but try driving with said cans clanging on Chestnut Hill’s cobblestone streets… as Bill the Cat might say, “Ack!” At the first opportunity, I cut ’em loose. Anyway, we waited until the following spring for our actual honeymoon, a wondrous California odyssey, and spent the weekend down the shore. We already lived together, so the adjustment was minimal – changing our W-4s was it, I think.

Here’s our living room from January 1991:

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Yes, that’s a lot of CDs; and the number only increased, as they spawned often. By decade’s end, they took over that end of the living room.

smokey_ogc001Although I don’t remember the specifics of this particular Wednesday, I can still lay out a large chunk of what happened based on routine: I woke around 6:30, left at 7:35am, arrived at work 10-15 minutes later, and then sat at a desk for a spell. Those were the days of hour-long paid lunches (what a concept!), and I made use of the time by heading home most middays. Without morning traffic, it took 10 minutes each way. I brought in the mail, likely indulged the original old grey cat, Smokey, with a few treats, and worked on the Great American Novel, which I spent much of the ‘90s writing, re-writing and never completing.

That’s to say, in addition to a cat, we had a computer – a second-hand x286 IBM clone. It came with an eight-gig hard drive, 256MBs of memory and a modem, which meant we could, and did, connect to the sandboxed universe of Prodigy. My dad, God bless him, dumbed down the DOS operating system for us and installed a simple menu, so accessing a program was never more than one or two keystrokes away – as in, A, B, C, D or E. For me, at lunchtime, that meant firing up the word processor and tap-tap-tapping away.

The top movie of 1991 was The Silence of the Lambs, which Diane and I saw while down the shore for a week in the spring. (We read the book and Red Dragon, the novel that preceded it, in the same week. Yes, we were eyeing everyone with suspicion.) Other popular films included Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Point Break and Hook, none of which interested me then or now; and Thelma & Louise.

On the economic front, America was teetering: unemployment averaged 6.8 percent for the year and inflation, at 4.2 percent, was a source of concern as January dawned, though it (thankfully) fell over the next 12 months. Still, there was reason to rejoice: the USSR officially disbanded on December 26th and, with it, the Cold War came to an end – at least, it came to an end for a time. We’ve recently seen the rich man’s Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, upping Russia’s nationalistic ante as a way to distract everyday Russians from their own economic woes; and those dupes who’d play cards with him, such as Donald Trump, apparently have no clue that he’s dealing from a stacked deck.

Back on point: In the music-history books, 1991 is heralded for the breakthrough of the paradigm-shifting Nirvana, whose influential Nevermind was released 25 years ago yesterday. I’d love to say that I was among the first to buy it and take the music to heart. I wasn’t. I was in a different mind-space, as my list below shows. That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t appreciate the immediate impact and lingering influence of Nevermind; if I was creating an objective list for the year, I’d rank it No. 1. I’m not, however, so I won’t.

Before I get to the list: My main music-related memory from 1991 isn’t of an album, but of two sterling shows that we saw in the span of a few weeks, both at the TLA in Philly: Rosanne Cash on her Interiors tour; and the Irish singer Mary Black on her Babes in the Woods tour. Rosie’s was, as Dan DeLuca phrases it in his review, “an ‘I can’t remember the last time I saw anything this good’ show’; and Mary Black’s was as magical. (I reference it in this Of Concerts Past post about her 1994 show at the Chestnut Cabaret.) Other shows we saw in 1991: Elvis Costello with the Replacements; Emmylou Harris with Chet Atkins; Kathy Mattea with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Roger McGuinn; Bonnie Raitt with Chris Isaak; and K.T. Oslin with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman’s group, the Desert Rose Band. There were plenty of others.

For today’s Top 5: 1991.

1) Mary Black – Babes in the Wood. Selected track: “Still Believing.” I mentioned that memorable show of hers above because, looking back, I’m sure that live experience played a major part in my picking this as my favorite of the year. To this day, whenever I play the CD – or, now, stream it – I’m transported to the TLA, seated about halfway back, with Diane by my side.

2) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld. Selected track: “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Now, this is my idea of grunge. Neil Young returned from the wilderness in 1989 with the stellar Freedom; followed it the next year with the raucous, Crazy Horse-infused Ragged Glory; and put a cap on his comeback with the electric tour captured on Weld, which could well be summed up in two words: brutal grace.

3) Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend. Selected track: “Divine Intervention.” One of my most-played albums of ’91, which is saying something as it was released in October of that year. This track, like the album as a whole, is delightfully trippy – and very Beatlesque.

4) John Mellencamp – Whenever We Wanted. Selected track: “Whenever We Wanted.” This, Mellencamp’s first release of the ‘90s, bypasses much of his late ‘80s Americana stylings in favor of the crunchy rock of Uh-Huh; and often substitutes sloganeering for the incisive short stories that accent Scarecrow, Lonesome Jubilee and Big Daddy. That said, a handful of songs – including this cut – stand with his greatest work.

5) Soundtrack – Falling From Grace. Selected track: Nanci Griffith’s “Cradle of the Interstate.” So John Mellencamp made a movie. I have no idea if it was good, bad or mediocre, as I’ve never seen it., but I can say without equivocation that the soundtrack – which preceded the film by a few months – was uniformly excellent, featuring tunes from Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Larry Crane, Lisa Germano and Nanci Griffith.

And a few bonuses:

6) Nanci Griffith – Late Night Grande Hotel. Selected track: “It’s Just Another Morning Here.” A solid, if slightly overproduced, outing from the folkabilly singer-songwriter, who was one of our favorites. The songs played better live, as recall. I do wonder what’s become of her…

7) Lisa Germano – On the Way Down From Moon Palace. Selected track: “Riding My Bike.” Germano, of course, came to the fore as the fiddler in Mellencamp’s band – and is a phenomenal fiddler. This jazzy solo effort is likely not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it.

8) Blake Babies – Rosy Jack World. Selected track: “Temptation Eyes,” Juliana. John. Freda. What else need be be said?