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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Road to road to ruin

I’m sorry I couldn’t do better than a centaur joke yesterday, but what can I say?  I was working under duress, and have been for some time now.  For example, after doing my two-day site visit at the U of Buffalo, I awoke yesterday at 5 am to catch my return flight to Altoona.  Why Altoona?  Because I didn’t decide to fly to Buffalo until about two weeks ago.  For reasons that now escape me, I had planned to drive up from State College—which would have made sense in October, perhaps, back when our review of Buffalo was originally scheduled.  But when Janet reminded me that northwest Pennsylvania might not offer ideal driving conditions in late January, I got in touch with Buffalo’s English department and informed them that (a) I would be flying in and (b) I would need a second night’s lodging because I wouldn’t be driving back on Tuesday night.  Yes, that’s right, I had been planning to return by car on Tuesday night.  I don’t know.  Maybe I was thinking under duress.

But I didn’t hear back from Buffalo until the next day, by which point the State College - Buffalo fares had jumped to nearly $700.  Not wanting to saddle an English department with that kind of airfare because of my own indecision and ineptitude, I booked a much cheaper flight out of Altoona.  Only after I made the reservation did I realize that the Altoona airport is in fact the Altoona-Blair County airport, located in the southeastern corner of Blair County 25 miles from Altoona; in other words, I would be looking at a 75-minute trip to Martinsburg, PA instead of the usual 45-minute hop to Altoona itself.  And the airport is basically a box on the side of the road.  Which was OK, because it made check-in pretty easy.

I didn’t think a 6:25 am departure would be all that troublesome, because I always sleep on planes, usually within 30 to 60 seconds of boarding.  No, that’s not quite right: I fall asleep when I see pictures of airplanes.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m on a transcontinental jumbo jet or a six-seater turboprop whose co-pilot begins the flight by donning his leather hat and goggles and yelling “contact” as he spins the propeller by hand.  By the time we’re on the runway, I’m out.  Except that for some reason, this didn’t happen yesterday.  I was constantly, painfully awake for the entire trip back, and though I was able to put the finishing touches on my seminar prep (we finished Henri-Jacques Stiker’s A History of Disability yesterday), I was running on fumes by the time I drove back to State College, arriving at noon for my 12:20 class.

The one good thing about my travels was the Ramones, to whom I listened all the way to Altoona and back.  There’s a back story here: when, three or four years ago, I decided to replenish my late-70s punk/New Wave holdings by buying CDs to replace the albums I would never likely never play again, I introduced Nick to The Ramones and Rocket to Russia.  (I never thought much of Leave Home, and still haven’t gotten around to buying Road to Ruin.) Well, within days Nick had yoinked both CDs (his verb, and a particularly evocative one at that) and had put them in the 6-CD changer we’d installed in the trunk of the Bonneville ten years ago.  Not long after that, the CD changer broke, leaving all 6 CDs stuck in the trunk.  “Nick, my son,” I said, “you’re a man now, and it’s your job to fix the CD changer—or, more precisely, to take it to Circuit City for repairs.” Did Nick ever bring the thing to Circuit City?  Please.  Is the Pope a relativist?

So we haven’t heard those Ramones since 2003.  When, at long last, the Bonneville died and we sold it to a local mechanic, we received in return a box full of detritus, almost as if the automobile funeral directors were presenting us with the Bonneville’s last remains and personal effects.  Soda cans, maps, a couple of novels, three different tire gauges, a Franz Ferdinand postcard, a battery of batteries, and . . . six compact discs, The Ramones and Rocket to Russia among them.

And you know what?  I don’t care any more that those guys were three-album wonders.  They were and are, finally, America’s greatest rock and roll band.  Amanda was right all along.

Still, my loyal readers have every reason to demand an explanation of what happened to their alternate suggestions.

The 32-band tournament was broken down into four regional tournaments: East, South, North, and West.  Under the controversial “Neil Young Rocks!” provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Crazy Horse was allowed to compete in the North bracket, along with The Band.  Bachman-Turner Overdrive and the Guess Who, however, did not make the cut.

The East, as expected, was a highly competitive region.  Parliament Funkadelic coasted the Mothership to an easy early victory over Aerosmith, and the Ramones had little trouble disposing of the Pixies, but both the Sonic Youth - Talking Heads matchup and the truly bizarre Velvet Underground - E Street Band contest went into double overtime.  Though the Talking Heads and the E Streeters emerged victorious, the former on the strength of Remain in Light and the latter thanks to the down-low combination of Garry Tallent and Roy Bittan, they went into the second round depleted.  Bruce’s boys wound up unable to keep pace with the relentless funk of Clinton and Crew, while the Heads folded quickly when faced with the Ramones’ speed and straight-ahead attack.  The regional final thus presented fans with drastically different styles, but the Ramones took the palm when P-Funk went into a disastrous miasma of noodling just when it looked like the East Region would make its funk the P-Funk on the grounds that it wanted to get funked up.

The South regional was a study in contrasts, as well.  REM lost a squeaker to the Allmans, who relied heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the play of Duane and their oft-imitated, never-replicated two-drummer defense.  The Wesley-Parker-Stubblefield-Nolan edition of the James Brown Band routed the dBs, as expected, and the Meters trounced the B-52s, but Los Lobos’ upset of NRBQ had many heads shaking.  In the second round, the Duane-less Allmans proved to be no match for the classic James Brown sidemen, as the “funky drummer” approach outpaced even the dueling solos of Hot ‘Lanta.  Los Lobos proved to be less versatile and dexterous than the Meters, with the result that the wolf did not survive the second round.  But the finals went to the James Brown Band in the end, even though their frontman collapsed no fewer than four times and had to be helped off the court after each collapse.

The North was controversial from the start, not only because of Crazy Horse and The Band but because Guided by Voices protested their seeding, saying there should have been a “Midwestern” bracket for them, Wilco, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü.  As it was, they narrowly defeated Wilco in the opening round, largely because of that band’s relative lack of tournament experience.  Hüsker Dü won an ugly victory over Sleater-Kinney, who insisted that Bob Mould should have been flagged on “Eight Miles High” for unnecessary screaming.  The Replacements managed to get by Nirvana, largely by pruning all the turgid crap from their great mid-1980s albums and overwhelming Cobain and company with an underrated emotional range.  The Band defeated Crazy Horse with surprising ease when they hit upon the brilliant idea of deleting Neil Young’s incandescent solos from “Like a Hurricane,” leaving the band exposed as sloppy and directionless, and then proceeded to remind younger listeners of just why Music from Big Pink matters.  They went to the same well against the Replacements, however, and found it dry, while Hüsker Dü totally pwned GbV on their way to edging the Mats in the finals, just as this humble blog predicted they would.

The West was full of surprises.  The Grateful Dead kept playing for three hours after they’d been defeated by X, oblivious to the fact that the tournament had moved on.  Meanwhile, the Beach Boys, sentimental favorites, had no trouble with Creedence Clearwater Revival, opening a substantial lead in vocals and never looking back.  The Jimi Hendrix Experience won a fiery match with the Steely Dan Consortium of Crafty Studio Musicians, some of whom were surprised to be playing in the West bracket in the first place, and in the must-see matchup of the opening round, Sly and the Family Stone got by the Minutemen in overtime, mounting a final “Stand” that befuddled the Minutemen’s signature double-nickels-on-a-dime formation.  But Hendrix did not have the stamina to outlast the Beach Boys in round two, while X breezed by Sly with a series of audacious Hail Marys and “We’re Desperate” plays that left the everyday people reeling.  The final was a classic matchup of light and dark SoCal, appropriately billed as “Fun, Fun, Fun Under the Big Black Sun.” Cowboy punk and dystopian-LA cynicism against the cheery, crew-cut America of “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Be True to Your School.” Though I expected X to win this one going away, I confess I found myself pleasantly surprised by the Boys’ depth on “Don’t Worry Baby” and their breadth on “God Only Knows,” and unpleasantly reminded of X’s pretentiousness at their very worst.  And so it was with profoundly mixed feelings that I watched Wilson’s outfit win the region in triple overtime, after X’s terrible misplay on “See How We Are” cost them the narrow lead they’d established with “4th of July.”

The semifinals were a letdown, largely because of unfortunate mismatchings.  The Beach Boys simply couldn’t compete with the James Brown Band, and the Ramones had the eerie effect of making Hüsker Dü appear thin and derivative.  When, at halftime, it became clear that Mould and Hart had no answer for brilliant pop melodies like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “Rockaway Beach,” the contest was effectively over.  For the championship game, the Ramones simply reverted to the strategy that had worked so well against P-Funk; when, however, Dee Dee and Johnny realized that the James Brown Band was not likely to waste any time in noodling or other forms of post-psychedelic excess, they hauled out the heavy artillery, beginning with “Chainsaw” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” and then driving home with “We’re a Happy Family” and “Cretin Hop.” Undeterred, the James Brown Band answered the Ramones’ cover of “Do You Wanna Dance” with a groove that began with “Licking Stick” and segued to “Sex Machine,” “Get on the Good Foot” and “Doing it to Death,” implicitly schooling the boys from Queens on what serious dancing music sounds like.  Inexplicably, however, they responded to “I Wanna Be Sedated” with “King Heroin,” a decisive mistake that cleared the dance floor and left much of the crowd restive and querulous.

So, then, the Ramones it is.  Thanks for playing (and listening), everyone.  I’ll be back later with the results of another exciting competition that’s just concluded.

Posted by Michael on 02/02 at 04:06 PM
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