Why “Beat It” Is Eddie Van Halen’s Defining Moment

Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.

More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.

I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.

For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.

“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.

Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations. 

Eddie Van Halen’s song canon includes far more complex and intense guitar solos, but perhaps none more influential than “Beat It.” And that’s just what Michael Jackson and Producer Quincy Jones wanted. Jackson wanted to include a rock song on Thriller “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song”). Jones was happy to oblige. (In fact, depending on what source you read, the idea of recording a rock-oriented song was Jones’s idea.) Years later, Van Halen would remember joining Jones in the studio to record the famous solo:

Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,

“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”

I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.

I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”

Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”

The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.

How Elvis Rediscovered Greatness

Why do artists lose their creative spark? And how do they regain their mojo?

To find an answer, I examined two famous artistic comebacks: Elvis Presley’s resurgence in 1969 and Johnny Cash’s return to glory in 1994. Both men have a lot in common. They started their careers in Memphis recording at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips in the 1950s. They suffered creative tailspins before experiencing triumphant comebacks (in Johnny Cash’s case, two comebacks).

Elvis and Johnny Cash also regained their creative powers by collaborating with the right partner.

Let’s take a closer look at Elvis’s story. I’ll follow up later with a post about Johnny Cash.

The Return of the King

In January 1969, Elvis made one of the most important decisions of his life when he chose to record music with producer Chips Moman in Memphis, the city Elvis called home. This was a crucial time for the King. He had pissed away most of the 1960s by making bad movies and recording horrible soundtracks. But in December 1968, he showed signs of greatness when the “Elvis” Christmas special showcased the raw talent and charisma that had catapulted him to fame in the 1950s. On the heels of that artistic and commercial triumph, he wanted to go back in the studio and record new music.

But he couldn’t pull it off by himself.

A Decade in Decline

Elvis was acutely aware of the creative decline that had taken hold after he’d returned to the States in 1960, at the conclusion of a two-year stint in the Army. The problem stemmed from Elvis’s Hollywood train wreck. He had started making movies in 1956 with Love Me Tender, and at first putting Elvis in the movies made sense. Movies broadened his reach globally, and they provided lucrative earnings from sales of tickets and soundtracks. Elvis had even made a few good films such as King Creole before he was drafted into military service in 1958.

But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, flogged the formula. Between 1960 and 1969 alone, Elvis appeared in 24 films. And they were shlocky films with pointless plots. The titles alone said a lot: Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, and Harum Scarum to name a few. The soundtracks were wretched, requiring Elvis to sing numbers such as “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”

He knew those movies and songs sucked. He coasted through soundtrack recording sessions as quickly as he could, arriving late for recording sessions, taking as few takes as possible, and leaving early. Every once in a while, he’d jump off the miserable creative treadmill and record gospel music, but gospel had limited commercial appeal. And there was always a new film and soundtrack to make. The ugly truth was that the allure of money was too great for both Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis needed the money. He spent it as fast as he made it. And he spent a lot — on himself, on his large entourage known as the Memphis Mafia, and on his family and friends. The Colonel lived extravagantly, too, and he was a notorious gambler. He needed his cash cow.

But did the movies and soundtracks have to be so bad, though? Well, when your goal is to crank out as many films as you can even though you are not a natural actor, standards are going to go by the wayside. In addition, Elvis’s own business interests got in the way. Elvis did not write his own songs. But through his publishing ventures, he collected a share of the royalties of the songs that other people wrote, an arrangement that the Colonel engineered to line the King’s pockets with more cash (and, by extension, the Colonel’s). The problem from a creative standpoint was that not every songwriter was willing to cut a deal to share the profits of their music with Elvis. So he was limited to the songwriters who would play ball with the Colonel. By limiting his choices, he hurt his creative range.

It must also be noted that when Elvis was in the Army, he began abusing Dexedrine pills (the start of a lifelong dependency), but it’s unclear how much his drug use might have impaired his creativity in the 1960s (although the impact of drugs would become painfully clear in the 1970s). He did not write his own songs. And drugs did not cloud his ability to recognize both bad and good material. He constantly expressed disappointment with the quality of the songs he recorded for his movie soundtracks. When he recorded gospel, where he had more creative control, his instincts were spot-on. It’s likely he would have deferred to the Colonel’s game plan with or without the influence of the pills he abused.

At first, it didn’t matter how bad the movies were; his early soundtracks sold tremendously well. But then the sales dried up. So eventually he had two problems: he was making bad music that no one was buying.

Elvis could have landed some good movie roles during this period were it not for the publishing entanglements and the Colonel’s lack of imagination. At one point, Elvis was considered for the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. But the Colonel shot down the idea, partly because he didn’t want Elvis in a movie about gangs — but also because Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who composed the film’s songs, were not about to give Elvis’s publishing ventures a cut of their earnings.

Imagine spending nearly 10 years creating something you hate. Over and over. All you get is the money, and then less of it. Now imagine doing that knowing you’d once recorded some of the most important songs in popular music. You invented rock and roll. Now you were a joke.

The Beginning of the Comeback

But the jokes stopped — temporarily, at least — in December 1968, when the Elvis Christmas special reminded the world he was still relevant as an artist.

The Colonel had wanted Elvis to sing a bunch of Christmas carols for the show. But fortunately for Elvis, the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, and director, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Elvis had not performed in front of an audience for many years. They decided it was time to reintroduce him to the American public by having him sing the hits of his glory years in front of a hand-picked audience. To pull it off, Elvis would need to get physically trim and rehearse. Matched with someone who challenged him creatively, Elvis rose to the occasion. Dressed in a stunning black leather suit, he practically seduced his audience in the studio and on TV. The show was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the Number One show of 1968.

But a one-off TV special relying on his past hits was one thing. Could he actually record great music again? He and the Colonel knew they needed to strike while the iron was hot. He might not get another chance at credibility if he blew it. The easy and predictable choice was to go into the studios in Nashville, where Elvis was comfortable recording, and work with producers and musicians who would never challenge him. He was, after all, still the king of rock and roll, and the king operated by his own rules.

But Elvis had a good friend named Marty Lacker, who had recorded with a hot shot producer named Chips Moman over at Moman’s own American Sound Studios, also located in Memphis. Lacker told Elvis that Moman was someone who understood how to make hits — and great ones. Moman had produced the first-ever hit single for Stax Records, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas. He cowrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which had become a phenomenal success for Aretha Franklin, and Elvis needed someone who could write good songs. As a producer, Moman worked with stars such as Joe Tex and Dusty Springfield (Moman produced her iconic version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that would enjoy a revival when it appeared in Pulp Fiction years later). He was working with Neil Diamond on a single, “Sweet Caroline,” that would become a hit later in 1969. He also employed a crack studio band, the Memphis Boys, who could go toe to toe with the great studio bands of Motown and Stax.

The Memphis Boys consisted of guitarist Reggie Young, bassists Tommy Coghill and Mike Leach, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and pianist Bobby Wood. They could play anything from rock to soul (still emerging as a musical form in the 1960s). Tommy Coghill had played a celebrated bassline on “Son of a Preacher Man” and had performed with King Curtis. Reggie Young had opened for the Beatles in 1964 when he played with the Bill Black Combo. Bobby Emmons would go on to work with superstars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. In 1977, Emmons would co-write, with Moman, one of the biggest hits of Jennings’s career, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” The Memphis Boys never sought the spotlight. They chose to elevate other more famous musicians with their considerable talents.

Elvis knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe this time. And besides, when he’d collaborated with Bob Finkel and Steve Binder on his Christmas Special, he’d achieved both artistic and commercial success. Finkel and Binder had brought skill, passion, and vision to the Christmas special. If Moman could do what they did, maybe he’d score another success.

So he headed to American Sound Studios. He brought plenty of company including his longstanding producer, Felton Jarvis (technically there to assist but mostly there to keep an eye on Moman); a suit named Harry Jenkins from his record label, RCA; Tom Diskin, the Colonel’s right-hand man and spy; and, of course, Memphis Mafia. In addition, other members of Team Colonel Tom Parker would occasionally surface at the studios to Moman’s annoyance.

Welcome to American Sound Studios

Now, there was something else about Chips Moman that Lacker probably kept to himself. Moman was a king, too, and he was not to be trifled with. American Sound Studios was his empire, and the Memphis Boys ruled along with him. The Memphis Boys had their own opinions about how a song should sound, and they were not afraid to share them. Moman and the Memphis Boys didn’t need Elvis. He was a guest in their house.

Elvis walked into American Sound Studios for the first time at 7:00 p.m. on January 13, 1969. Right away he knew this experience was going to be different. For one thing the studio felt different. The place was located in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood. You could hear rats scurrying in the rafters.

“What a funky place,” he said. “I like it. It reminds me of Sun.” Which was a very good sign. Sun Studios was where he had invented rock and roll with Sam Phillips.

At first no one knew what to make of Elvis. From the moment he walked in with his Memphis Mafia, he exuded star power. He was slender and beautiful, like some sort of Greek god, and he took command of the room before he’d even sung a note. As pianist Bobby Wood said, “He was in his prime. He looked better than most women I’ve seen.”

But Elvis also dressed and acted like he was performing for his entourage, cracking jokes and horsing around. Most star performers wore jeans and T shirts in the studio. Elvis wore silk scarves, fancy jackets, and even capes, like he was onstage. And the butt-kissing Memphis Mafia was annoying. When Elvis produced a cigarillo to smoke, several toadies simultaneously whipped out lighters to assist him.

The Memphis Boys were horrified. Who were these people? Was Elvis serious about making music, or was he just going to stand around acting like Elvis? They were about to find out.

Getting Started

The first step in recording was for Elvis to review a batch of songs that the Colonel had sent with him from his publishing company, Hill & Range. Little did Elvis realize, but he also had a few hits in his possession already — the song “In the Ghetto,” which songwriter Mac Davis had sent him just before the sessions started, and “Kentucky Rain,” a song written by Eddie Rabbitt that Elvis friend Lamar Fike had recommend. Moman and the Memphis Boys all offered opinions of the song line-up. Some of the Hill & Range songs, such as “Long Black Limousine,” made the cut. But the Memphis Boys told Elvis many of the other Hill & Range selections were worthless. Elvis’s own people were aghast. No one ever spoke to Elvis like that. He’d recorded with yes-men who’d done what they were told, which meant recording all the songs that Elvis had a financial stake in recording.

As Reggie Young said in an interview years later,

He brought his publisher and they began to play songs they wanted to record. Like those songs he did in his movies. Elvis would ask me if I liked the song we just heard, and I said “No.” He asked Bobby, and he said, “No” also. We didn’t realize that you didn’t say “No” to Elvis.

But Elvis could take a “No.”

He may have been a star who surrounded himself with toadies, but he never lost his ear for good music. It’s just that with the movie soundtracks, no one was presenting him with good music. He was intrigued by the opinions he heard. He’d wanted to try something new, and that’s exactly what he was getting. He listened without argument.

The first song they recorded, “Long Black Limousine,” is a cautionary story about a woman in search of fame who leaves a man behind in a small town, only to return, dead, in a hearse. The song is told from the perspective of the man she left behind. The moment Elvis started singing, Moman and the Memphis Boys knew he was serious about recording great music. From the very first takes, his voice resonated with a sadness and hurt that brought an emotional depth to the words. Elvis’s voice also had a husky edge because he was suffering from a cold. The cold served him well. The Memphis Boys played along with him, tight and powerful.

Elvis sang three songs during his first session. He didn’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the next day. And Moman worked him hard. He patiently insisted on multiple takes. Elvis never flinched. His voice came alive, take after take. It was as if he were unleashing all the pure emotion and passion that had been bottled up during the fallow years. He kept at it until he started to lose his voice.

A Creative Breakthrough

That first night had been a breakthrough. Elvis realized he was going to have to work harder than perhaps he’d ever done in his life. Moman and the Memphis Boys realized that when presented with good songs and challenged by good creative partners, a talented band, Elvis would rise to the occasion, as he had with the Christmas special.

Now that he’d gotten the measure of Elvis, Moman began to make his mark even more. As Elvis returned for more sessions in January and then later in February, Moman started to offer him more songs that he thought might work well, including one that would become a career landmark “Suspicious Minds.” 

“Suspicious Minds” would also cause friction between Moman and Team Colonel Tom Parker. When the Colonel’s men pressured Moman to share the writing credits for the song with Elvis’s publishing interests, Moman pushed back — hard. He threatened to can the entire session right then and there. Team Parker appealed to Elvis, but he refused to play referee. Fortunately that RCA suit Harry Jenkins, who seemingly had nothing to do but watch his star record songs, ended up playing a pivotal role: he resolved the problem by sticking up for Moman.

But the distraction over the songwriting credits annoyed Moman, and he let Elvis know it. There were just too many people hanging around the studio between the Memphis Mafia and the Colonel’s people. Again, Elvis listened. He showed his entourage and the Colonel’s people the door. The Memphis Boys breathed a collective sigh of relief. (When Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis had cleaned house, the Colonel replied, “Let him fall on his ass.”)

These decisions were crucial. Free of distractions, it almost felt like Elvis was one of the Memphis Boys. He became less self-conscious and more relaxed. He joked around with the band and laughed at his mistakes. And Moman had Elvis’s ear. The Colonel was absent from the recordings, and there was no one around to filter the song choices. There was just Chips and Elvis talking face to face about songs.

Elvis and Chips Moman

Elvis’s musical instincts were true. He wanted to hear more of what Moman had to offer. He told his own publishing team, “From now on, I want to hear every song I can get my hands on. If I’ve got a piece of the publishing, that’s fine. But if I don’t and I want to do the song, I’m going to do it.”

But he was still a star, and stars have egos. Moman knew how to handle Elvis’s. To gain Elvis’s trust and to avoid embarrassing him, he approached Elvis quietly and one on one when he needed to correct his delivery instead of broadcasting instructions through a talkback microphone from the producer’s booth. Moman also appealed to Elvis’s competitive side. Moman knew that “In the Ghetto” had greatness written all over it. But Elvis was reluctant. He agreed with Moman about the song’s potential, but it was unusual for Elvis to address social themes, and he wondered if he could credibly pull it off, being a wealthy white man who knew nothing about the ghetto. Moman listened and then shrugged his shoulders. If Elvis didn’t want the song, he’d give it to someone else to sing.

Elvis backed down and insisted on singing the song.

Of course, “In the Ghetto” would go on to become a hit and one of Elvis’s best vocals ever. Although Elvis knew nothing about ghetto life, he knew something about growing up poor, based on his hardscrabble childhood. The artist in him drew from an inner well of compassion to deliver the words with sensitivity and grace. A lesser artist would have overdelivered the song. Elvis went in the opposite direction. His quiet delivery gave the lyrics space to be heard, which made the song better. (Listen to how he slows down the tempo on the verse, “Steals a car/tries to run/But he don’t get far.” His phrasing underscores the tragedy of the narrative.)

Redefining Elvis

During these sessions in January and February, Elvis sang songs that redefined him as a contemporary adult star who bridged the worlds of country, soul, and pop. On “Kentucky Rain,” his voice captured a heartache and hope of searching for something lost. 

On “Suspicious Minds,” he created an emotional terrain that spanned paranoia, angst, guilt, and jealousy. He was bluesy on “After Loving You” and flat-out hurt on “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.”

He gave us a new Elvis: someone who had lived and lost. He wasn’t a brash, youthful tease anymore. He wasn’t singing “Love Me Tender” to an adoring woman. He was grappling with rejection and betrayal. Another song from the Moman sessions, “Don’t Cry Daddy” (also written by Mac Davis) explored the topic of divorce, which was also new ground for Elvis. What made all these songs feel fresh was an emotional authenticity in Elvis’s voice.

The Memphis Boys in Their Glory

The Memphis Boys filled out his sound in a way that no one else ever had. Bobby Wood’s piano gave “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” a gospel refrain. Guest pianist Ronnie Milsap (who would become a country) added a forceful piano touch to “Kentucky Rain” (Elvis told him he wanted to “hear the thunder roll”). Reggie Young’s urgent guitar on “Suspicious Minds” added to the song’s sense of fear and angst, and his sitar on “You’ll Think of Me” was soulful and funky. The bell overdubbed at the beginning of “Long Black Limousine” set an ominous tone for the story that followed.

Here, the wisdom of working with a creative force like Chips Moman paid off. These musical flourishes, often overdubbed after Elvis was done recording, elevated the songs to another level of greatness.

Hits and Acclaim

The sessions resulted in two albums, From Elvis in Memphis (released in May 1969) and Back in Memphis (November 1970).

Both of them were excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is regarded as the better of the two. It received uniformly strong reviews and is ranked among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. As AllMusic’s Bruce Eder put it, From Elvis in Memphis “was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well.”

RCA also released four singles from the Chips Moman sessions, all of which were Top 20 hits: “In the Ghetto” (Number 3), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number 6), “Suspicious Minds” (Number 1), and “Kentucky Rain” (Number 16). In addition to hitting Number 1, “Suspicious Minds” became one of the biggest sellers of his entire career. With a new decade dawning, Elvis, in the prime of his life, was once again an artist to take seriously.

The Aftermath

Elvis would go on to enjoy an all-too-brief creative renaissance. He never returned to American Sound Studios, likely because Chips Moman was just too headstrong for Colonel Tom Parker. But for the next few years, he achieved greatness on stage by redefining the Las Vegas entertainment industry, a period of his life that I discuss in my October 2019 post for Festival Peak, “The Myth of Fat Elvis.”

Elvis managed to squeeze in one more great album, Elvis Country (1971), and a few good ones, too. Unfortunately, a punishing workload and personal woes accelerated Elvis’s drug abuse. His health declined visibly as the 1970s wore on until his death in 1977. But before the fall, he rose mightily and astonished the world.

Ten Great Albums for Two in the Morning

When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone with your worries, music can help you make it through. But not just any music. Only a 2:00 a.m. record album will do.

A 2:00 a.m. album keeps you company in the darkness while you wrestle with fear and watch the dull glow of the stereo lights. A 2:00 a.m. album does not necessarily uplift you: a brass band marching through your living room feels wrong in the wee hours, which is why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cannot be a 2:00 a.m. album. But 2:00 a.m. music does not drag you over the emotional abyss, either; Joy Division’s relentlessly depressing Closer needs to stay on the shelf after midnight. What you need is a friend who keeps you company without overstepping their boundaries. Albums like these:

1. Only the Lonely

Frank Sinatra once said, “I like recording late at night. The later the better. My voice was not made for daytime use.” Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded Only the Lonely in 1958. Today it feels like a time capsule that he left for future generations to discover during the lonely hours. Hearing the interplay between his crooning voice and Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement is like sipping a warm cup of tea. The songs, such as the gentle “What’s New” and “Willow Weep For Me,” comfort your soul. Sinatra called these songs “saloon songs” because they feel perfect when you’re alone in a bar with a blinking beer sign. They work just as well in your home. When he sings “Excuse me, while I disappear” on the song “Angel Eyes,” you want to go where he’s going. And stay there.

2. The Dark Side of the Moon

David Gilmour makes Dark Side a 2:00 a.m. album. There’s the keening wail of his pedal steel guitar. And his low voice, soothing and reassuring, even as he sings Roger Waters’s lyrics that dwell on the pressures of everyday life. I realize that Dark Side might fall into the too-bleak-for-late-night category for many; it works for me because the album absorbs and reflects fear and melancholia like that friend I mentioned who simply keeps you company in the night. And that’s all because of Gilmour. If you want to feel loathing and anger, try Pink Floyd’s Animals. For paranoia, give The Wall a spin. But for 2:00 a.m. anxiety, I’ll see you on The Dark Side of the Moon.

3. Automatic for the People

The quiet reflection of “Night Swimming.” The emotional transcendence of “Everybody Hurts.” The bittersweet longing in Michael Stipe’s voice. The haunting respite that a quivering electric piano and guitar provide in “New Orleans Instrumental № 1.” I pick up something different each time I listen to this brooding masterpiece. And each time, when Michael Stipe sings, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone,” I feel like he’s right there in the room singing to me.

4. Spirit

Listening to Willie Nelson is like eating a heaping plate of comfort food. The album, true to its name, takes you on a spiritual journey. Many of the songs consist of nothing more than Willie and a guitar sounding like he’s hanging out on a country porch with his family gathered around. When he sings “Too Sick to Pray,” he sounds like a Psalm writer having a conversation with God. The moment when he asks, “Remember the family Lord, I know they will remember you,” is as intimate and endearing as anything you’ll ever hear on a record.

5. Strange Days

The Doors have recorded a lot of perfect 2:00 a.m. songs. There’s “Riders on the Storm,” exuding dark dread. The ethereal “Crystal Ship.” But Strange Days is the one Doors work that endures as a 2:00 a.m. album from start to finish. The moment you hear Ray Manzarek’s creepy Moog synth playing on the opening track, you are transported out of your world and into the universal mind of the Doors. Jim Morrison’s voice, like David Gilmour’s on Dark Side, makes the album. He’s powerful without overpowering you on “When the Music’s Over,” and soft as a whisper on “You’re Lost Little Girl.” It’s a dark album. But its surreal undercurrent keeps Strange Days from passing into the realm of the overly foreboding.

6. Hounds of Love

Kate Bush’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery meshes with the lush arrangements to make you feel like you’re floating weightless somewhere in the clouds. In the dead of night, I can dig a sensation like that. On the opening song, ‘Running up That Hill,” a delicate bed of synthesizers and drums pulls you into Kateland before her voice soars and dances across the music. This album rewards the listener with unexpected, breathtaking moments, like the glorious choral section from the Georgian folk song “Zinzkaro” that makes “Hello Earth” a balm. Maybe it’s the way that her voice soars on every song, but Hounds of Love makes me feel hopeful.

7. Substrata

This ambient exploration of mood from Biosphere is unlike anything on this list. Substrata uses samples of running water, creaking wood, blowing wind, human voices, reverb, echo, guitar, and synthesizers to create a strange sonic landscape that is, quiet, provocative, and even menacing. I listened to this album often after I became a father and spent many late nights watching over my newborn.

8. The Trinity Session

The Cowboy Junkies recorded The Trinity Session in one night using a single microphone in Toronto’s Holy Trinity church. The church itself is like another instrument whose acoustics enhance Margo Timmins’ gentle voice. Her a capella reading of “Mining for Gold” creates a kind of loneliness that feels right — not desperate, but melancholy enough to make you feel like she understands your 2:00 a.m. solitude.

9. Kid A

Those descending chords from an electric piano that open Radiohead’s Kid A offer a clue about what comes next: synth, heavy bass, and voice distortion. I’ve never been able to enjoy Kid A in broad daylight. Thom Yorke’s dissonant but affecting vocals, processed by Pro Tools, sounds like your head does when off-kilter thoughts collide in the night.

10. All Things Must Pass

George Harrison understood what being awake at 2:00 a.m. means. On “Beware of Darkness,” the 10th song on All Things Must Pass, he sings, “Watch out now, take care/beware of the thoughts that linger/Winding up inside your head/The hopelessness around you/In the dead of night.” Like Willie Nelson’s SpiritAll Things Must Pass is a meditation on matters of faith. It’s heavy, dark, and reflective. But it’s also hopeful. On the title song, George sings, “Now the darkness only stays the night-time/In the morning it will fade away/Daylight is good at arriving at the right time/It’s not always going to be this grey.” Those words lift the soul at 2:00 a.m., and they can carry you into the day that lies ahead if you let them.

Parts of many other albums work well, too, such as Led Zeppelin III (for the bucolic vibe of Side Two) and Sticky Fingers (“I Got the Blues” is mandatory for a 2:00 a.m. playlist); In addition, Wish You Were Here belongs on a 2:00 a.m. album list, but I wanted to represent artists besides Pink Floyd on my Top 10. What do you listen to at 2:00 a.m., and why?

How David Bowie’s “Blackstar” Taught Us How to Die

Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.

Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.

But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:

On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?
By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
There I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:

I know something is very wrong
The pulse returns for prodigal songs
With blackout hearts, with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes

On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:

Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.

Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.

As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:

He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.

The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.

Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.

As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”

Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.

How Kanye West Became the Reincarnation of Al Green

Kanye West has made a career of throwing people off balance, just as he is doing now with his embrace of Christianity. And when Kanye embraces something, he goes all the way. In October, he released a set of Christian praise songs,  Jesus Is King. The next month, he appeared at the mega-church of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. Oh, and on Christmas Day, he released Jesus Is Born, an album version of his Sunday Service worship events.

Is he for real? How could a hip-hop artist who has seemingly rapped about every sexual act imaginable now release Christian music? Is the Sunday Service a sincere attempt to spread God’s word, or is Kanye just hustling us to sell more music and $240 crewnecks? What’s up with West appearing at Joel Osteen’s church, discussing his love for Jesus, and then announcing that he’s the greatest artist God has ever created?

As journalist Tobi Oredein wrote of Kanye’s Sunday Service, “He’s employing a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the centre of this gathering? I’m not sure he is.”

In fact, Kanye West, is not taking a left turn. In his art, spiritual themes have existed alongside the profane for years, most notably in the song, “Jesus Walks,” from his 2008 album, The College Dropout. His exploration of spirituality alongside songs about consumerism, sexuality, crime, and racism have always made him a more interesting and complex artist.

He’s not the first artist to explore the spiritual and earthly realms in his music. Let’s go back to 1974 to take a closer look at another man who confounded his audience by injecting faith into his music.

Al Green: Sex and the Lord’s Prayer

Al Green. One of the greatest soul singers ever. He sang “Love and Happiness,” “So Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a host of other hits about love, sex, and romance, on his way to becoming named one of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”

But at the peak of his popularity, there was more to Al Green than “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” He was also capable of unsettling contradictions. For example, watch the following video from a 1974 appearance on Soul Train, in which he seduces an enraptured audience while gyrating in canary-yellow pants. He sings, “Oh, I wanna dance with my sweet love sixteen” in between grunts and shouts — and then, in one fluid motion, he brings the song “Sweet Sixteen,” a song about obsession with young love, to a close — and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he prays with the same conviction as when he sang “You try to move your body, you might lose control” only seconds earlier. Then, as his band lays down a quiet groove, he eases into “Jesus Is Waiting,” the song that closes his 1973 masterpiece, Call Me.

“Jesus, save my soul, I’ll live for You,” he sings, his bejeweled fingers gesturing to the audience, his arms outstretched. With a charismatic flourish, he presents the Bible with one hand and Lolita in the other.

The disturbing part is that the moment works. Perfectly. Why? Because in the Soul Train performance, Al Green creates a convincingly smooth persona who is part-Lothario, part-preacher. This persona makes no distinctions between the carnal “Sweet Sixteen” and the spiritual “Jesus Is Waiting.” He is the same slender, twisting, sexual dervish, as he performs both.

In doing so, he shows us there is no difference between seducing and preaching. Both actions draw from the same reservoir of energy. When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he is both praying and engaging in foreplay.

And is this association off the mark? Not at all. We all know of real-life ministers throughout history whose legacies have been tarnished by sexual misconduct — some of them well known (Jimmy Swaggart), some of them historical (Martin Luther King Jr.). But the stories of prominent pastors stumbling badly keep coming. Consider “the Billy Graham Rule,” or Rev. Billy Graham’s practice of avoiding meeting women in private to avoid falling prey to temptation. Billy Graham knows whereof Al Green sings.

As The Daily Beast commented in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, “Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.”

With this 11-minute musical flourish, Al Green seems to say, “It ain’t hypocrisy if you own it.” In doing so, he teaches us something about great art: art confronts and confounds. Great art makes connections you don’t see, but were right in front of you: in this case, the carnal and the spiritual.

Dual Impulses in Song

Those dual impulses were always evident in Al Green’s recorded music. “Jesus Is Waiting” (“Jesus is waiting/If you’re broken down/Jesus is waiting/Don’t let yourself down”) appeared on the same album in which he sang of a smoldering, unapologetically sexual attraction in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (“All this love’s inside of me/I believe there’s going to be an explosion”). When he wrote the hit song “You Ought to Be with Me” in 1972, he had God in mind, not a woman. As author Jimmy McDonough recounts in Soul Survivor, a recently published Al Green biography:

When writing the song [“You Ought to Be with Me”], Al explained that he was “playing with God . . . I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again . . . I was saying: ‘You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.’”

In the song “Take Me to the River,” from Al Green Explores Your Mind, carnal desire and gospel overtones somehow made their way into the same song.

The sacred and the profane themes were an expression of Al Green’s own life. Spiritual forces and sexual desire roiled away inside him always. According to Soul Survivor, he was a notorious womanizer, happily (and callously) partaking of groupies and paramours, even after having a religious awakening in Anaheim in the early 1970s. As Al Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River:

As I spent more and more time out on the road, I had begun to accumulate a certain type of girlfriend from one town to the next. It wasn’t a romantic or even a physical thing, just a way to satisfy the fascination I’ve always had for beautiful women. I’d come into town and give them a call, and they were always available to drop by and spend a little time.

In 1974, one of Al Green’s girlfriends, a woman named Mary Woodson, assaulted him with boiling grits in his home, before committing suicide, despondent that Green would not marry her. This ugly incident contributed to the mythology of Al Green: a man so desirable that a woman would kill herself if she could not have him.

And yet, spiritual impulses coexisted with his fascination with women. The spiritual longing manifested itself in 1975, when he founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Al Green had become a minister for real.

Alienating His Audience

After he became a minister, Green attempted to amplify the spiritual side of his identity in his concerts, praying onstage and making overt references to Jesus in his stage patter. His immersion in both worlds of love and spirituality could be upsetting. One of his longtime musical collaborators, Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges, became frightened. As quoted in Soul Survivor:

I got scared. He started mixing the songs up, R&B and gospel . . . I can understand if he do a show and then maybe a few gospel songs at the end. But going from “Sweet Sixteen” to “Jesus Is Waiting?” No, I couldn’t handle that.

Al Green’s audiences eventually couldn’t handle it either. Here’s how Soul Survivor describes one night when his references to scripture onstage went too far:

It happened again one night when Al was playing “this weird little casino gig. I stood onstage and said, ‘When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy’ . . . I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies . . . were gone.” Lee Hildebrand attended a Circle Star Theatre show where Green started preaching between hits. “I remember a lady sitting behind me saying quite loudly, ‘I didn’t pay to hear no gospel shit!’ She was upset.” When the woman rushed the stage to touch the hem of Al’s garment, he recoiled: ‘No, no, no — I want you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’”

Al Green went from packing theaters to clearing them. His willingness to push an audience beyond their comfort zones was costing him commercially. He continued to mix love and spirituality on his records, as in the 1977 album, Belle, when he sang, “It’s you I want, but Him I need.” But after an incident in which he fell off a stage, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to stop singing secular music.

The Flawed Preacher

Al Green began to record gospel exclusively and focused on preaching. He met another gospel singer, Shirley Kyles, who became his wife. But this new direction didn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, even in church — perhaps especially in church. For Al Green as a minister was as charismatic as he was a singer. Now he possessed spiritual agency. And women knew where to find him every Sunday. According to Soul Survivor:

One woman in particular was a thorn in Green’s side. He and the band returned from the road to find an unexpected visitor in Al’s home. “She’d jumped over the fence, went to the pool and was lyin’ out there naked.” This same dame showed up at the service wanting to say a few words about what the Almighty had done for her. “The Lord turned out to be Al Green, and she was dreaming of having sex with him right there in the middle of the service,” said Johnny Brown, who claims Al “knocked her cold.”

A man facing these kinds of temptations regularly needed more than the Billy Graham rule. He needed a 24/7 watch. And, as it turns out, he fell, and fell often. Shirley Kyles filed for divorce twice, alleging adultery and spousal abuse. He admitted to spousal abuse under oath.

Although his church sermons evolved into free-form concerts, his recorded music became one-dimensional. Gone were songs about burning for women. He sang about God full-time. He won Grammy awards for his gospel, but McDonough contends that Green lost his artistic spark. Indeed his gospel albums are generally less critically acclaimed than his secular music, and I seldom listen to them. His gospel lacks the tension between the secular and spiritual; the tension that made his music so interesting was gone.

In addition to losing his secular audience, he also struggled to gain acceptance by other gospel singers. He was viewed with suspicion, as Kanye West is now. Was Al Green for real? Was he going gospel only because he had run out of secular songs to write? But those misgivings did not stop him. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he recorded even more gospel. At the same time, he was immersed in cocaine. His performances became erratic.

Such are the risks that people take when they strive for a life of the spirit: they fall short. And he fell short in his personal life, while becoming a less-interesting artist.

A Return to the Secular

Eventually, Al Green returned to secular music, recording three albums full of familiar themes of romance and love throughout the 2000s. These albums received generally positive reviews. They did not open any new artistic vistas, but they reminded the world that he was capable of singing about those time-honored themes that made him famous in the 1970s.

These days, Al Green continues to preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It is said that his sermons are still like dynamic showtime. Here’s a taste of Al Green in the present day, exuding emotion as he preaches and sings in a free-form style — you can judge for yourself:

He recently toured as a secular artist, too. At one concert in Chicago, he played the role of gospel-tinged romancer, handing out roses to the women (as he famously did at the height of his fame) and once again moving between songs about earthly love. But he was older and out of shape. His performance lacked the power of Al Green in his prime, although that sweet voice could still hit those high notes.

Kanye West: Spiritual Narcissist

The Kanye West we know today has updated Al Green’s secular preacher persona with his own spin. For Kanye, faith exists comfortably alongside narcissism and materialism. On “Closed on Sunday” from Jesus Is King, he sang, “Follow Jesus, listen and obey/No more livin’ for the culture, we nobody’s slave.” But on the show, Carpool Karaokehe gushed about getting a $68 million tax refund and thanked God for the financial windfall.

This duality was evident when Kanye appeared at the mega-church of Joel Osteen on November 17. He talked of God sending him visions and the struggle to be taken seriously as a gospel performer. He referred to himself as a superstar and then said, “The only superstar is Jesus,” in one sentence.

Here, apparently, is Kanye West as he wants to be known today: follower of Jesus and denier of the devil. “I’m here in service to God,” he said at Osteen’s church, and denounced his past “service to fame.” Even so, standing onstage at a church, his notorious egotistical behavior emerged as he gave his confession: “Now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.”

Hence, the questions about Kanye. Is he in love with God, money, himself, or all three? In fact, the Kanye who talks of money is completely in sync with the teachings of “prosperity theology,” a type of Christianity that teaches God rewards the faithful with material blessings on earth. Prosperity theology also teaches that God wants us to experience happiness and joy. Prosperity theology has been criticized for encouraging people to become focused on material wealth. Its critics also contend that and that taken to an extreme, prosperity theology’s ethos of self-care can lead to narcissism.

Prosperity theology has been around awhile, adopted by a number of televangelists, such as the aptly named Creflo Dollar. Guess who the face of prosperity theology is today? Why, none other than Joel Osteen. But he’s far from the only proponent. After analyzing the growth of prosperity theology and visiting with Osteen personally, Edward Luce of the Financial Timeswrote in 2019:

Hardline evangelicals dismiss the prosperity gospel as unchristian. Some of Lakewood’s more firebrand critics even label it “heresy.” They point to the belief, which Osteen seems to personify, that God is a supernatural ally whom you can enlist to help enrich your life. There is scant mention of humanity’s fallen condition in his motivational talks.

Yet the market share of US churches run by celebrity prosperity preachers, such as Osteen, Creflo Dollar (sic), Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White keeps growing. Three out of four of the largest megachurches in America subscribe to the prosperity gospel. Formal religion in the US has been waning for years. Almost a quarter of Americans now profess to having none. Among the Christian brands, only “non-denominational charismatics” — a scholarly term for the prosperity preachers — are expanding.

Though precise numbers are hard to find, one in five Americans is estimated to follow a prosperity gospel church. This offshoot of Christianity is quintessentially American — a blend of the Pentecostal tradition and faith-healing. It is also expanding worldwide. Among its largest growth markets are South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil.

Luce also observes that Osteen himself has a fortune estimated at $60 million and lives in a $10 million mansion. So just how incongruous is Kanye’s Jesus-Is-King-of-My-Wallet ethos with this brand of Christianity? It seems perfectly fitting that there is talk of Kanye and Joel Osteen touring together.

Will the Struggle Stay Real?

As with Al Green, Kanye West now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career: growing as an artist. Jesus Is King debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and all 11 of its singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. But the jury’s still out as to whether the album represents an artistic triumph. The album received a 55 Metacritic score, meaning mixed or average reviews.

I find Jesus Is King to be fairly standard praise music — overreaching for emotional highs in a singular pursuit of sermonizing. And frankly, the video for “Closed on Sunday” looks like a cringeworthy, if slickly produced, segment of Kanye and the Kardashians.

I prefer the earthier, complex “Jesus Walks” and wonder if Kanye, like Al Green, will end up becoming a less-interesting artist. But Jesus Is King is new to my ears. Sometimes a new sound for an artist takes time to catch on. And I’m encouraged by the news that he will collaborate with Dr. Dre on the sequel to Jesus Is King. I’m praying that Dre’s influence will go beyond his legendary production skills.

As for Kanye the flawed preacher, I’ll let Al Green have the last word from his biography:

Black people in America have always been torn between walking with Jesus and wandering in the world, clear back to the times of slavery when we either cried out in captivity by singing the blues or held out for a better hope by singing spirituals. We’ve been walking the line for hundreds of years. It’s only natural that some of us lose our balance once in a while. That struggle is part of what makes us great as a people, and part of what makes our music so powerful.

Struggle makes Kanye West create great art. Will Kanye the Christian keep the inner struggle alive?

Why We Buy Vinyl

My name is David. And I’m a vinyl addict. 

At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelins Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).

I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.

I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.

I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.

Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.

Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy? 

Why Vinyl?

Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.  

This question has been on my mind since it was widely reported that sales of vinyl are going to surpass compact disc sales for the first time (an article that many of my friends have shared with me). The data behind the story has been disputed. And even if the data is accurate, vinyl still accounts for a small percentage of total music sales. That said, vinyl sales continue to rise even as streaming continues to assert its undeniable dominance. 

Many people buying vinyl were not even alive during the glory days of the format in the 1970s. So why does anyone buy vinyl?

I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe. 

But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.

Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing

Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.

But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.

But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home. 

Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.

And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia. 

Coolsville

But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.

The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.

Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.

Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.

The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.

But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool. 

No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.

Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.

Three Lessons for Brands from Ellie Goulding’s Thanksgiving Day Stand Against the Salvation Army

Thanksgiving Day means more than eating Turkey and watching football. For British musician Ellie Goulding, Thanksgiving has become a time for social activism, at the expense of the NFL and Salvation Army.  

Ellie Goulding Knocks over a Red Kettle

Goulding is scheduled to perform in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills game. The show marks the official start of the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. For the past 22 years, musicians ranging from Eric Church to Destiny’s Child have appeared on the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show, befitting the particularly close relationship between the Dallas Cowboys (who play each year on Thanksgiving) and the Salvation Army.

At first Goulding seemed like the perfect choice for the NFL and the Salvation Army. Her millennial-friendly electronic pop is interesting without being risky, and she is a noted philanthropist. Indeed, on November 7, the Salvation Army issued a press release gushing about her upcoming performance, which quoted Goulding as follows:

I am honored to perform at the Dallas Cowboys halftime show and kick off The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. With so many people in need, I believe it’s our duty to help, and I encourage everyone to donate to The Salvation Army. The money they raise during the Red Kettle Campaign will change lives for the better all year long.

So far, so good, right? But after Goulding shared on Instagram a photo of herself at a Salvation Army location, some of her fans pointed out that the Salvation Army has a reported history of anti-LGBTQ+ actions and beliefs.

Thus chastened, Goulding issued the following statement threatening to cancel her performance in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show:

Upon researching this, I have reached out to The Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community. I am a committed philanthropist as you probably know, and my heart has always been in helping the homeless, but supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this 

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Goulding’s threat to pull out of the halftime show put the NFL into an especially difficult position, and not just from a logistics standpoint. The NFL is already caught in a cultural maelstrom stemming from the fall-out from Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. The league could really do without another headache like this one.

The Salvation Army Leaps into Action

Fortunately for the NFL, Goulding apparently decided to perform after all, according to The Dallas Morning News. And the NFL has the Salvation Army to thank. Her threat prompted a dialogue with the Salvation Army, which convinced her that the show must go on. Obviously, the Salvation Army is ready for this kind of negative news. Instead of circling the wagons, the organization quickly responded to Goulding and talked with the news media about its stance toward LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, Salvation Army representatives talked with The Dallas Morning News and put a positive spin on the situation. Maj. Jon Rich, a Salvation Army commander in Texas, said,

It brings attention to how inclusive we are as an organization and serving everyone no matter who they are, what their sexual orientation is, what their station in life is. We serve without discrimination. It’s our international mission statement that we serve human needs without discrimination.

He said that the organization is evolving its practices to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and characterized anti-LGBTQ+ statements from Salvation Army members as uncharacteristic of the Salvation Army’s values. The interview was a textbook case of being responsive in a moment of crisis. 

The NFL Is Caught in the Middle

Goulding’s reluctance to perform created a negative news cycle for both the Salvation Army and the league at a particularly trying time for the NFL. The NFL, caught in the middle, was wise to say nothing, even though at least one writer in Business Insider called on the league “to take a page from Goulding’s book and back her up” (the writer stopped short of recommending specific actions). It’s not that the Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is insignificant; rather, the news quickly began to blow over. Why draw attention to the story – especially as the NFL was dealing with Colin Kaepernick once again creating news for the league?  

Social and Political Activism Creates Complications 

The Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is the latest high-profile example of a brand/artist collaboration taking a left turn into the realm of political/social consciousness. I recently blogged about the 1,000+ musicians who have boycotted the Intersect music festival because it is sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The musicians object to AWS’s work with Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Musicians can lend incredible cultural relevance to brands. Lyft bought its way into coolness by forming a partnership with Kendrick Lamar for his Championship Tour. Belvedere Vodka looked woke by working with Janelle Monáe on brand-sponsored short films. But in an era of political and social activism in music, brand-artist collaborations can create tension.

The Lesson for Brands

If you’re going to partner with a musician, it’s important to:

  • Understand that all musicians now operate in context of a wide-ranging social and political awakening (“pop’s great woke awakening,” as Pitchfork puts it). Do your homework and understand the social and political forces pressuring musicians to take a stand.
  • Find a musician who aligns with your brand. If your business has embraced brand activism, then an outspoken artist might be the perfect match. If you avoid brand activism, then find a safer musician. Whatever you do, find someone who aligns with your brand values. As part of your due diligence, examine what they say and do on social media.
  • Be ready to act when things go the way you didn’t expect. As I noted, on the surface, Ellie Goulding aligned well with the NFL and the Salvation Army. But all it took was one Instagram post for the relationship to nearly become derailed. Be prepared to act when the unexpected hits, as the Salvation Army was when its name got dragged through the mud. Anyone who works with performers in a live setting should know that planning for the unexpected is part of the process, politics and social activism aside.

With an election year coming up, brands can expect musicians to become even more outspoken than they are now. Buckle up. We’re all in for a bumpy ride.

How the Intersect Music Festival Demonstrates the Risks of the Band/Brand Relationship

Many brands try to create enduring emotional ties with people by being culturally relevant. Cultural relevance is about connecting with an audience through their beliefs, interests, and behaviors. Forming marketing relatinships with musicians is a way for businesses to achieve cultural relevance. The deal works like this: the brand uses its muscle to give the musician exposure; and the musician lend a cool factor to the brand with a desired audience, such as Millennials and Gen Z. Hence, YouTube affiliates itself with the Coachella Music Festival, and Red Bull embraces music through content such as the Red Bull Music Festival, to name a few examples (of which there are legion). But cultural relevance is a two-edged sword, as the Amazon Web Service (AWS) Intersect music festival illustrates.

What Is Intersect?

Intersect — officially Intersect by AWS — will be held December 6–7 in Las Vegas. Yes, that’s right. AWSone of the world’s largest the largest cloud hosting providers, is putting on a music event. Here’s how the Intersect website describes it:

At the place where music, technology, and art converge, you’ll find Intersect, a new kind of festival coming to the Las Vegas Strip this December 6–7. Presented by AWS, the most broadly adopted cloud platform, and produced by Production Club, the team behind some of music’s most state-of-the-art live experiences, Intersect was born out of the massive after party for AWS’s annual re:Invent conference, held in Vegas since 2012, with over 25,000 guests last year alone. Now open to the public for the first time ever, the festival offers an inspiring two-day journey to culture and tech’s leading edge.

And the line-up sure looks compelling, with right kind of mix of headliners (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Kacey Musgraves) emerging, critically acclaimed voices such as Weyes Blood.

But there’s just one problem: many musicians are speaking out against the festival.

How No Music for ICE Crashed the Intersect Party

The launch of Intersect has galvanized more than 1,000 artists and industry types (as of this writing) to sign a petition pledging not to participate in Amazon-sponsored events. The boycott is known as No Music for ICE. What’s their beef with Amazon and AWS? Well, it turns out that the mighty AWS cloud hosts the software for Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). AWS also works with the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s what the petition says:

We pledge to not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future, until Amazon publicly commits to:

* Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses

* Stop providing Cloud services & tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine

* End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product

* Reject future engagements w/ aforementioned bad actors.

We will not allow Amazon to exploit our creativity to promote its brand while it enables attacks on immigrants, communities of color, workers, and local economies. We call on all artists who believe in basic rights and human dignity to join us.

In addition, two musicians originally scheduled to appear at Intersect, The Black Madonna and Japanese Breakfast, claimed they were not told of AWS’s affiliation with event. The Black Madonna raised such as stink on Twitter that she was released from her contract to perform. Her name no longer appears on the event’s website.

How No Music for ICE Reflects Changing Times

No Music for ICE illustrates the impact of changing times. In context of the fractured political climate and culture wars that grip the United States today, many musicians have embraced a social and political voice (a topic I blogged about here.) Their values reflect the surging Millennial and Gen Z populations, who are more likely to hold businesses accountable for their impact on society. In that context, AWS finds itself thrust into a conversation that the company most certainly does not want to be part of.

The Intersect boycott is especially significant because we’re talking about indie artists who could use the exposure, as opposed to a politically active musician such as Roger Waters, who can afford to pick and choose his venues. Fortunately for AWS, the headliners such as Kacey Musgrave have stayed out of the controversy. There is plenty of time for the issue to blow over (although there is also plenty of time for the protest to gain steam). AWS’s best bet is to keep the PR around the event focused on the big names and the up-and-coming acts on the bill who are committed to the event. Tell a narrative that focuses on their music.

The Lesson for Brands

The lesson for brands: tread very carefully when you make a play for cultural relevance through a relationship with an artist. You might get what you asked for, but not in the way you envisioned. Find artists who align with your brand (and, to be fair to AWS, it looks like the company has succeeded with the exception of Black Madonna and possibly Japanese Breakfast). And accept the baggage that comes with today’s climate of political and social consciousness in music.

The Myth of Fat Elvis

History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.

The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.

By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.

And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.

Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.

He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).

In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.

Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegaswrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”

You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.

Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International HotelOn Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.

Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.

How the University of Kansas Made Snoop Dogg Dangerous

God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.

On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.

Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:

But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:

We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.

KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:

Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?

Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”

Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?

Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.

But cultural context makes an artist dangerous. Snoop Dogg performing “Gin and Juice” at the Las Vegas House of Blues is not news. But University of Kansas is another matter. KU wants to maintain an image as a sparkling institute of higher learning and noble athletic endeavors. But it’s been hard for KU to do that lately. On September 23, the NCAA charged KU with a lack of institutional control in its sports program, including responsibility violations by Coach Self. The charges do not specify what KU did wrong. But it’s public knowledge that KU men’s basketball has been associated with an FBI probe of illegal payments made by an Adidas consultant. And guess what? Adidas brought Snoop Dogg to Late Night in the Phog — in fact, Bill Self had promoted the concert ahead of time, wearing gold chains and an Adidas T shirt.

Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.

Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.