Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vampire Music Part IIII

To continue the choices I made for the chapter on music in my book Vampires' Most Wanted, I offer Blondie and Sting.

4.  A Carnival Ride
The drums roll with the urgency of a car crash leading straight into Blondie’s ska flavored “Screaming Skin” a lyrically clever song about a vampire going to feed.  The song is found on the groups’ 1999 CD “No Exit” which is full of the most eclectic and enjoyable music of its career.  Debbie Harry’s voice is able to pull off breathy and ethereal, as well as straight up cocky.  Known for mainstream hits like “Heart of Glass” and “Call Me” the group has been around since the mid-70s and its music has remained elastic, alternating between edgy punk and danceable pop always with a challenge to take it or leave it.

“Screaming Skin” possesses creative lyrics as it describes a vampire who perhaps waited a bit too long to feed.  “Swallowing my pride no longer/I take the forbidden sun/If I’ve been sculpted by hunger/I’m not the only.”  The song has a sort of carnival feel to it with its energetic beat and flowing guitar though Harry’s deep-voiced vocal leaves no question of her intent when she sings, “My skin cries/My blood sighs/I still owe some dread on this hide of mine.”  There is no secret to what she’s after.

3.  Bourbon Street Blues
There was a rumor decades ago, when talk of a movie version of Interview with a Vampire was first bandied about, that Sting was being considered for the part of Lestat. In those early days of The Police he certainly exuded the sort of poetic conceit that Rice’s most famous vampire possessed.  Whether the rumors were true or not, it’s now a matter of record that the movie took quite some time to finally be made.  In 1985, Sting released his first solo album “The Dream of the Blue Turtles” when it seemed as if The Police had been put to rest.  A jazz aficionado, he assembled some of the rising stars in jazz at the time including Branford Marsalis and Omar Hakim to spice up an album that explored all sorts of musical styles.

“Moon Over Bourbon Street,” inspired by Interview with a Vampire, is a song that seems perfect for a stage musical.  In it, Sting tells the story of a reluctant predator as he cruises the streets of New Orleans, considering fate of endless night, forever an outsider “Oh you’ll never see my shade/or hear the sound of my feet/while there’s a moon over Bourbon Street.”  After explaining himself, his longing, his loneliness, at last, as if the confession were ripped out of him, he cries out “I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love.”  Sting captures the lonely melancholy projected by Louis the heartbroken vampire who can never reconcile what he must to do to survive.  Lestat may have the flash but were it not for the quiet soul of Louis, there would have been no Interview.

Next up, a bloodletting and a creepy ode to Bela Lugosi.

Vampire Music Part V

And so we come to the end of the chapter on vampire music from my book Vampires' Most Wanted. It was a lot of fun to go through so many great tunes to get these ten. Here are numbers 2 and 1.

2.  Bloodletting
Johnette Napolitano’s biker chick voice is perfectly suited to Concrete Blonde’s hard driving introspective sound.  Formed in 1982 and recording off and on over the decades, the band had a minor hit with the song “Joey” off the album “Bloodletting” which also contained “Bloodletting (the Vampire Song)” another song influenced by Anne Rice’s vampires.  The song has a sauntering swagger to it with evocatively cryptic lyrics that seem to elude to the singer’s run in with a vampire that may have changed her life forever “Oh, you were a vampire/ and I may never see the light.”  The encounter leaves her with much to ponder, “I got the ways and means/to New Orleans…I’m gonna have a drink/and walk around/I got a lot to think about.”   Another allusion to vampires is made in the chorus of “The Beast” when she sings, “Love is the vampire, drunk on your blood.”  The band’s sound is not pure gothic rock, but, fast or slow, the melodies are haunting, the lyrics poetic often times speaking to themes of loss and longing.  All the while, however, Napolitano’s fierce vocals are charged with defiant independence.  Even after a run in with a vampire, she would be nobody’s victim.

1.  Bela Lugosi's Dead
This song is straight from the crypt.  Over nine minutes long it comes off as sort of an undead jam session.  It’s minimalist, guided by simple, bone dry percussion sounding in parts as if someone were scratching on a coffin lid.   The guitar licks are striking, the voice, with the drone of Jim Morrison, is deep, ladened with reverb. The lyrics come to the point quickly “The bats have left the bell tower/the victims have been bled/Red velvet lines the black box/Bela Lugosi’s dead.”

Formed in 1978 in Northampton, England, the Bauhaus are credited with being at the forefront of the gothic rock movement which combined the anger and disillusionment of the fading punk rock movement with the musical exploration of New Wave. There was also an element of glam rock to the band’s music and style. The group took its name from the 1920s German Bauhaus movement and in some respects the band’s music could be a match for the German impressionist films of the time.

The song opens the 1983 Tony Scott film “The Hunger” as scenes of the band performing are intercut with scenes of the vampire Miriam and her paramour David enticing two club goers to go home with them for the  night.  The band less then two months old, they recorded five songs and in an audacious move, released “Bela Lugosi…” as their debut single in 1979.  Never a hit on the U.K. charts, the song none the less remains a classic in the gothic movement.

There you have it. Hope you enjoyed it. As I stated when I began, I don't claim these to be the ten best. Everyone has their own opinion. They were among the best though. If you have any songs you'd like to suggest, drop them in a comment.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Vampire Music Part III

This is the third part in my series featuring the chapter on vampire music in my book Vampires' Most Wanted. There is a surprising amount of music out there inspired in some way by vampires that it was really hard to choose. My choices in the whole book don't necessarily reflect my opinion on what's best. Just what I found interesting. Best, biggest, brightest is just too subjective a thing to try to state. But I only had ten entries to work with. Here are numbers 6 and 5:

6.  Opera of the Dead
The Italian gothic metal band Theatres des Vampires has a fixation for vampires, among its other dark song subjects.  This is not upbeat music.  It’s dramatic and unrelenting yet curiously beautiful in its black mood.  It seems to understand the romance and the danger of the modern concept of vampirism and how a soul can be lost to its deceptive beauty.

“Vampiryca” begins with a gentle piano and the soft sounds of a woman crooning.  As the tempo picks up, a guitar wraps around the song like a rope being pulled taught.  The song is both an entreaty and a warning.  “When you walk my dark path/ love like a blood bath.”  The singer is answering a prayer yet cautioning that the gift will change life in dark ways unexpected. 

“Suicide Vampire” is a slower song, yet meaty and operatic, guided largely by violins and a heavy beat.  The desperate confusion of a person torn between two extremes is palpable in a chorus performed with the staccato of a chopping ax.  The singer speaks of his immortality purchased with other lives, but it’s “A dismal journey in the valley of death.”  Perhaps this is the gift in “Vampiryca” making itself fully realized.  Eventually, the song drifts to an end as if disappearing into the night like the vampire itself.

“La Danse Macabre du Vampire” is another song of operatic passion.  An 80s sounding synth line threads throughout the song punctuating the cat-growled lyrics with a curiously poppy feeling.  Make no mistake, though.  This is a hungry song.  Attempting to seduce, “I’m your pleasure…” yet promising, “…your pain/this night we rise for our thirst/this night we rise to live.”

The group’s name is taken from Anne Rice’s Paris vampire coven in Interview with a Vampire.  Members have romanced the notion of vampirism adopting nicknames like Lord Vampyr, Incubus and Strigoi and using album titles like “Nosferatu” “The Vampire Chronicles” and “Vampyrisme.”  Hardly understated, but definitely worth a listen.

5.  Oh Yes They Will
There’s a gothic, lonely-drifter feeling to My Chemical Romance’s “Vampires Will Never Hurt You.”  The song can be found on the New Jersey group’s 2002 CD “I brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love” a musical scream from start to finish.  The CD was recorded three months after the group’s formation in 2001 and is surprisingly tight for so young a band.  Citing among their influences the arena rock of Queen, the media-punk of The Misfits, and the drama of the Smiths, its no wonder their songs contain an element of theatricality in their storytelling.

In "Vampires" two people seem stranded in a horrifying situation.  It's a dramatic song, the music harsh and unrelenting, almost frightened, the singer desperate in his desire to save them both.  One can practically envision the singer and his love holed up in some ghost town, terrified of what will happen when the sun goes down.  The singer vows that he'll do what he can to protect his beloved from whatever undead seems about to come upon them.  All the while, he tells her, "And if they get me take this spike to my heart."  But as much as he insists, "I'll never let them hurt you now tonight" it seems it's a promise he's unable to keep.  The force they're running from is just too powerful and at some point the sun will go down.

Next time, two names that started in the late 70s yet managed to stand the test of time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Vampire Music Part II

In my last post featuring bits from the music chapter of my book Vampires' Most Wanted, I offered #10 "Vlad the Impaler" by Kasabian, a grungy and bizarre little ditty, and reggae songs for the #9 entry featuring Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sinead O'Connor, Black Uhuru and Tribal Seeds singing songs titled "Vampire." I think of the latter bunch, my favorite would be Tribal Seeds for the sheer drama of its sound, but I like them all.

So let's continue with numbers 8 and 7:

8.  Love and the Horror Hostess
Formed in 1977 The Misfits are noted as the progenitors of horror punk which would influence later bands embracing more gothic elements.  A New Jersey band, it took its name from the 1961 Marilyn Monroe film “The Misfits” and plunged happily into the emerging punk rock movement that had been making its way over from England.  They released a few EPs and played live gigs, even touring the U.K., but it wasn’t until 1982 that they released their first full length album “Walk Among Us.”  Heavily inspired by horror films and sci fi of the 1950s this is mosh pit madness. Rarely going beyond one minute 50 seconds, the songs of The Misfits are surgical strikes:  You’re in, you’re out, you’re onto the next song before your ears have stopped ringing.  Or bleeding, depending on the song and how loudly you’ve listened to it.

“Vampira” is an ode to the 1950s TV frightfest host Vampira, she of the freakishly small waist and high arched brows.  There is no subtlety musically or lyrically nor should there be.  The singer has been in love with her since he was a kid and is calling to her now with the aggression of a high school quarterback juiced up on steroids.  “Mistress to the horror kid/Cemetery of the white love ghoul, well/Take off your shabby dress/Come and lay beside me.”  He’s only been allotted so much time to get his point across so he does so with the bluntness of punk.

7.  Dracula’s Wedding
There’s a lot going on musically for this quick song but the beginning lyrics say it all.  “You’re all I’ve ever wanted but I’m terrified of you.”

In 2003 the members of Outkast each recorded solo albums and put them together to give us the double CD “Speakerboxx/The Love Below.”  Nestled in on track 16 of Andre 3000’s “The Love Below” is the song “Dracula’s Wedding” which uses Dracula as a metaphor to illustrate the fear of commitment that strikes everyone when “till death do us part” comes into play.  “I wait my whole life to bite the right one/then you come along and that freaks me out.”  You may have found your forever love but forever is a long time and a lot can happen between now and forever.

Heavily jazz influenced, the whole CD has a sort of stream of consciousness vibe to it, Andre 3000 moving in any direction the impulse took him.  “Dracula’s Wedding” has an electro/gothic/folk/funk feel as it speaks to the fear of intimacy and being trapped between a desperate longing and fearful uncertainty.  It would seem when it comes to love, even the king of vampires can take fright.

Next time, a chemical romance and gothic metal.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vampire Music

Halloween is sneaking up on us preparing to pounce. It's waiting, crouched in the bushes, just a few weeks down the street and if you're not careful, it's going to GET YOU!!!

You'll be covered in candy corn before you know it.

In honor of this, I thought I'd share my chapter on vampire-inspired music from my book Vampires' Music Wanted (2011 Potomac Publishers) for the next couple of days. As with most of my work I wanted to have a little fun, so I  picked and chose from a variety of styles to indicate that the vampire can infiltrate everywhere. Mwwwwhahaaaaaa!!!!

 We'll start backward with numbers 10 and 9:

10. Beware of Drifters Carrying Sticks
“Vlad the Impaler” by Kasabian is notable not only for the mind thumping music but also for the video, directed by Richard Ayoade and starring Noel Fielding of “Mighty Boosh” fame as Vlad, or a vampire, or a serial killer, or all three.  The song can be found on the British indie rock band’s 2009 album “West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum” but the lyrics seem to have no connection to Vlad or impalement.  Which is fitting since the video is left ambiguous as to who Vlad is and why he spends his time alternating between impaling and staking people for judging by his demeanor while doing it, it seems more a duty than a pleasure.  Never the less, the song is perfect for the video; or the video is perfect for the song.  The video has the look of a trailer for a 1960s Italian horror flick (or a Quentin Tarantino homage to a 1960s Italian horror flick) in which a mysterious man in black (aside from the white boots) travels the countryside, walking softly but carrying a big stick.  A distorted bass and drums slam into each other as Vlad marches with fixed determination down the road.  Dressed in a black cape with long hair and a thick mustache he even resembles the historical Vlad as he chases down people at a tennis court and a nighttime campsite the music swelling wildly as he chases women across a field.  Impalement may not be easy, but someone has to do it.

9.  The Rasta and the Vampire
For such a sunny sound, reggae has a surprising amount of vampires lurking in its songs, but Jamaica certainly has suffered its share of “vampires” from Columbus on through the years.

“Vampire” by Lee “Scratch” Perry is a catchy song telling the tale of a vampire hunter, “Obadiah Obadiah, Jah Jah sent us here to catch vampire,” later informing the listeners of what a true Rasta man would do so they can better recognize the vampire posing as the Rasta.  Perry, a producer and songwriter and one of the big names in reggae has been in the business since the 1950s.  In 2005, Sinead O’Connor, backed by some respected reggae artists, released “Throw Down Your Arms” a CD of Reggae covers.  Her version of Perry’s “Vampire” has a slightly faster tempo than the original and her malleable voice with its gentle brogue captures the spirit of the song nicely.  Her voice, as powerful at a whisper as it is at a scream, is well suited to this style of music.


“Vampire” by Black Uhuru has an almost joyful sound to it, its opening pronouncement “Oh what a sight to see/a goddamned vampire” sounding a bit like a tall tale told around a camp fire.  Black Uhuru has been around since 1972 when it was just called Uhuru.  The band found some of its greatest success in the 1980s, Rolling Stone ranking their album “Red” 23rd of the 100 best albums of the 1980s.  The song is infectious the vampire slightly cocky when he insists, “You be man/you have no control over I and I.”  In the end, however, the singer vows that, “I and I gonna drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsucker.”  The righteous will ultimately triumph.

The third song was released by a band that started out a long way from Jamaica.  The Tribal Seeds have their roots in San Diego but seem drawn to the spiritual side of reggae and count among their influences Bob Marley and Midnite.  Their “Vampire” has a bit more urgency to it, starting off more dramatically with an almost regal blast of orchestral synth that falls into the steady rhythm of melody.  It’s a defiant cry, a charge to fight the hypnotic power of the vampires prowling everyday life.  These aren’t supernatural blood suckers, however but rather soul suckers in society.  “Beware of the system that preys ruthlessly upon you/It’s a corrupt authority claiming they represent you/Guilty of dishonesty, lacking all integrity/They come and try to suck our blood while we are sleeping.”  Vampires come in many guises and all are deadly in their own right.

Next time: Love and The Horror Hostess and Dracula's Wedding

Feel free to tell me some of your favorite songs featuring allusions to the children of the night.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Chicken Heart!


Did I scare you? I thought that since October has begun, I'd ease into the Halloweeny spirit. Halloween has fast become like Christmas in as far as it's becoming a month long celebration. People are even decorating their houses early (albeit a bit scarier) to drag the "holiday" out as long as possible. 

I love this time of year. Not just for Halloween. In the Midwest (well, before global warming) one can expect the temperatures to start dropping just as readily as the leaves did from the trees. The air becomes crisp, the days shorter, the threat of winter is upon us. It is a perfect day for a celebration like Halloween.

So I think I'll pop in every so often with a bit of Halloween spice. Today, we'll start with something I found particularly fun. 

A few years ago, when I was moderating the Pioneer Pageturners online book club for Pioneer Press, I chose as one of the books The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

A fantastic book, highly recommended. There are a number of issues going on in the book, including the issue of race, medical ethics, and the ethics of DNA research, but the main imputes of the story involves a woman named Henrietta Lacks who went to the hospital in 1951 and discovered that she had cervical cancer. It would eventually claim her life. Doctors, however, took some of the cells that they had scraped from her cervix and cultured them for later tests, as often happens in hospitals. What they discovered was that these particular cells did not die. They were termed "immortal", continue to divide and were named HeLa (after Henrietta Lacks) cells. The HeLa cells have been used in any number of experiments. In some respects, Henrietta is still with us, decades after her death.

The notion of these cells that wouldn't die caused a bit of a stir early on (of course this sort of research was in its infancy). Some found the idea creepy and in fact, the story of the HeLa cells inspired a story called "The Chicken Heart" that was heard on a radio show called "Lights Out Theater."

Now, I happen to know of "The Chicken Heart" story because of a bit that was on a Bill Cosby record I had as a kid. Cosby was brilliant at infusing humor into the story of his childhood and in this bit he told a story about being alone at home one night as a child and listening to "The Chicken Heart" being played out on "Lights Out Theater."

At the time I thought it was just a fake broadcast he made up for the bit. Thirty years later, while reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I discover that there was indeed a radio play called "The Chicken Heart" and you know what...it's pretty creepy. It relies heavily on the listeners imagination and can at times fall into melodrama, but if indeed you're able to allow yourself to fall into it and really imagine the possibility, it's a scary concept. It may well have been the inspiration for the 1958 movie "The Blob."

That could of course never happen. Or...could it? 

So for fun I thought I'd kick off the Halloween posts with something I found on YouTube while doing research for a post on the Pioneer Pageturners' blog. It's the broadcast of "The Chicken Heart" on "Lights Out Theater" with animation from the person who posted the clip. 

Enjoy...if you can. Muwwwahahahahahahaaaa!!!!!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tell Me A Story

I'm currently listening to "Mr. Penunmbra's 24-hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan on audio and it's a perfect example of how important the reader is to the success of such a project.

When the book started I was tempted not to continue with it. The text is written in the present tense which is a writing style I generally loathe (and one, unfortunately, becoming more popular).

I don't know why exactly I hate it so much. A friend of mine once described it as "lazy" though I don't know if I'd go that far. I suppose one could argue that it doesn't make sense. If the person is in the middle of a gunfight, for example, he isn't keeping a log of his thoughts and movements so any descriptive record of the fight would have to be chronicled after the fact. So logically the style would have to be in the past tense.

Okay, I suppose one could also argue that that reasoning is a bit too anal. Suffice to say that in general, present tense just doesn't read right to me. Typically, once I realize that the writing is in present tense, I close the book and walk away. Every so often, a book surprises me and I continue to read. "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger for instance. It was an exceptional book enabling me to look past the present tense style (in fact, I'm not sure if it would have worked as well in the past tense). Of course in that case, the performers, William Hope and Laurel Lefkow, helped keep me listening. They did a wonderful job with material made difficult by the logistics of the plot.

As for "Mr. Penumbra's," I might have put that book down but the talent of the performer, Ari Fliakos, encouraged me to ignore the present tense style and stick with it. Now I'm enjoying the reader and the story.

Audio books are wonderful for people who don't have a lot of time to read. Popping them into the car's CD player on the way to work you can "read" a book and make the commute more enjoyable. An audio book performance you don't connect with, though, can turn you off a book completely. I get the feeling, based on the skimming I've done, that I wouldn't actually like any of Janet Evanovich's work but when I tried one of her mysteries on audio, I couldn't get past the first few tracks. The reader's style was irritating. Too cutesy. I don't know if it's as her voice or just the way she was reading it or both.

I can't help but wonder if I would have liked Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight Saga" books were it not for the reader of the audio books. Oh, okay, who am I kidding? I probably would have disliked the book just as much if I read rather than listened. I did read the first one and while I wasn't blown away by it, I did find it a quick, mindless and fun sort of read. The only reason I moved on to the second and third books was because I was asked to take part in book discussions for them. So for the sake of expediency, I chose to listen to them on audio. The performer, rather like the text, was cloying and whiney and did nothing to save the series for me.

A similar thing happened with "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins I had chosen this book for an on line book discussion I moderated when I worked at Pioneer Press. It was popular due to the movie's imminent release so I chose it in the hopes of coaxing people to take part in the discussion. With me working long hours, the audio would been more convenient for me, but the performer for the audio book read it so melodramatically that it soured me on it. Because I had to moderate the discussion though, I had to finish the book by reading it. And I actually ended up liking the book (despite, once again, it's present tense writing). In that case, it was a fortunate thing I was forced to read the book because I discovered a quality in the writing that wasn't being presented by the reader on audio.

Ron Perlman's performance of the audio book for "The Strain" is fantastic. The novel is the first in a particularly eerie vampire trilogy written by Guillermo Del Torro and Chuck Hogan. I was able to listen to the next one in the series (still need to get to the third) and while the performer for that novel did a good job, Perleman's performance with the first novel contained the perfect blend of suspense and menace helping to make a well crafted horror story even more frightening.

Speaking of vampires, when I wrote "Vampires' Most Wanted," I read "Dracula" straight through (since it's featured in the chapter on books) for the first time. I'd tried years before but put it aside (I was always more of a "Frankenstein" fan) because it just wasn't catching me. Even though I finished it when I tried it the second time, the book nevertheless left me cold. It was only when I listened to it, as a refresher since I chose it for the online book discussion (for Halloween), that I really enjoyed it. (Unfortunately, I can't track down the information on the edition so I'm unable to name the man and woman who performed the reading). Perhaps listening to it enabled me to lose myself in the story better than reading it.

The books of Bill Bryson are especially fun to listen to since he performs the audio himself. He has a slightly deadpanned, slightly adenoidal delivery that is just right for the material. He's written books on all manner of topics: Science, travel, language, history. I enjoyed his book on Shakespeare, as well as "A Short History of Nearly Everything," "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America," and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." There's no guarantee that an author can read their own work better than anyone else, but Bryson does a good job with his work.

Jim Dale reading the audio for J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series was always a treat. I had a friend who made the reading of the book and later the listening of the audio a ritual with every new book released. Dale seemed able to inhabit each character, old or young, male or female, good or evil and it was a quality that, as with Rowling's writing, spanned across the series.

Joanne Harris has been one of my favorite authors since I fell in love with her novel "Chocolate". She put aside the "food theme" that she often weaves within her writing ("Blackberry Wine," "Five Quarters of the Orange,") with a book called "Gentlemen and Players," a psychological thriller set in a boys school in England. It was a wonderfully tense story made richer by Steven Pacey who performed the audio book.

I think my favorite audio performances are those by John Lee reading Ken Follet's novels in the "Pillars of the Earth" series and "The Century" trilogy. The audio books, again, were chosen by me over reading for convenience sake. The books are very long and my free time idiotically tight. An hour commute to work four days a week, however, helped me enjoy the work of a true master by listening to it on audio. Lee's talent for not only acting but accents is especially apparent in the "The Century" trilogy which concern the world wars and those characters from various countries caught up in them. Russia, British, American, German, French, etc. Accents that are called for are performed expertly turning Follet's intricately woven storylines into something akin to a radio play.

So next time you want to read a good book, why not try listening to a good book. You might get even more than you expect.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Guess Who

I became reacquainted with the genius of The Guess Who several years ago when I took a “greatest hits” compilation from the library. While I enjoy their music, I have a memory about the Guess Who that goes beyond the music. It’s a small point and personal, but strong.

I was five years old when The Guess Who, a Canadian band, hit it big in the U.S. with the song “These Eyes” off their “Wheatfield Soul” album. It’s a hauntingly passionate song made even more so by Burton Cummings’ voice whose heartbreak seems on the verge of bursting out (as indeed it eventually does). Cummings’ vocal style has a slight feral screech to it, as if he’s trying to keep himself from letting lose in each song (an attempt that usually fails by the end of the songs).

Jim Kale’s bass line is as solid as the vocal in directing the tone. Adding to the subtle mix is the sturdy twang of Randy Bachmann’s guitar and Garry Peterson’s restrained drumming.

Peterson’s drumming is more pronounced in the song “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” Cummings sounds more disappointed than torn apart that he has no girl to hang with. Where in “These Eyes” he sang the lyrics vindictively, there’s a playful disappointment in “No Sugar” leading one to think that the woman he’s missing isn’t so much a deep lover as much as she is a friend with benefits. By the time the song morphs into “The New Mother Nature,” it’s taken on a whole new dynamic. When Bachman originally presented his “No Sugar Tonight” to the record company it was decided the song was too short, so Cummings’ song “New Mother Nature” was added to it to flesh it, The transition from one song to another is surprisingly smooth, even with the lyrics though it seems apparent that there are two relationship dynamics going on in narrative.

The group had a funk/rock fusion thing going on in “American Woman,” the guitar lick prominent and memorable. It’s a perfect song for throaty vocals. I once had a debate with someone who accused the group of misogyny based on the lyrics of this song. What he didn’t understand was that the song isn’t about an actual American woman but rather about America itself. Released during the Vietnam War, it alluded to America’s imperial tendencies which flared up during the cold war and came to a head in the Vietnam conflict. The lyrics are simple and succinct. Unfortunately, over time, a misunderstanding has developed about the meaning and some Americans have acquired a curious patriotism about a song created by a Canadian rock band that wasn’t allowed to perform it for the U.S. President when they appeared before Nixon in 1970 because of what was considered at the time the song’s anti-American lyrics.

“Undun” is another haunting melody if perhaps lighter than “These Eyes” thanks to a flute swirling around the lyrics. Again, the bass helps forge the path while the drumming lays a consistent foundation to help guide the way. Though Cummings voice is more restrained, the growl does come out a bit later in the song as if to underscore the seriousness of the situation. The arrangement, more gentle then many of their songs, fits the helplessness of the lyrics as the singer recounts the tale of a woman’s hope lost.

The music of the Guess Who could range from fragile to fierce, sometimes in the same song, and they incorporated any number of styles effortlessly. “Wednesday in Your Garden” is one such song that at first seems strange coming from a band capable of producing “American Woman.” It combines that longing pain found in “These Eyes” with a delicate, jazz-feel to the arrangement. And as he sings, Cummings doesn’t sound so much angry as he confused. In “These Eyes” he’s taking an assessment sometime after the affair has ended. In “Garden,” he has no idea what happened, the break up perhaps too recent to see clearly.

By the time I was conscious of music in general, let alone the Guess Who, the group had had a few hits that I’m sure I heard, and enjoyed, often on AM radio even though I was too young to fully appreciate the lyrics or the artistry. Listening to the Greatest Hits compilation years ago, I rediscovered just how great their music was.

As stated earlier, though, I have a deeper appreciation for the group, and it involves not their music but rather their name.

My brother Dennis was nine years older than me. Almost a generation really. I have a lot of strong musical memories of my brother even though I don’t remember him being overly into music. It was his Rolling Stones 8-track tape that the family listened to while driving up to Wisconsin for vacation. The son of an electrician, Dennis displayed his own skill by wiring speakers in the ceilings of the kitchen, the living room and his bedroom which were all connected to the 8-track tape player embedded in his wall. Needless to say, Mom wasn’t overly fond of the upgrade (and yet she allowed it). With the flick of a switch, the music could be played in one or all of the three rooms.

The Turtle, as he liked to be called, standing
in front of the Model T truck he rebuilt 

He had an electric guitar. I don’t remember him ever playing the guitar (though I would guess he did). I just remember the guitar. I also remember myself sitting on his bed earnestly strumming the guitar to one of his Johnny Cash 8-Track tapes and being absolutely certain that the chords I played were the same that Cash was playing (they weren’t).

And then there was the joke. I don’t know if it was a joke that was going around among the big kids like him or one he came up with and patiently bided his time until he found someone gullible to use it on.

He found that person in his little sister. One night he showed me an 8-track tape in his hand and when I asked who the group was, he replied, “Guess Who.”

So I did, my guess being incorrect to which he said, “No, Guess Who.” To which I tried again. After about 10 minutes of this mini-Abbot and Costello bit, he finally released me from my childish frustration and explained that the band’s name was The Guess Who.

It was a corny joke and remains a simple memory, but it sticks out every time I hear the band’s name.

This year my brother would have been 58 if lung cancer hadn’t gotten him first when he was 42. For a variety of reasons (too complicated to visit here), he remains a mystery to me in a number of ways. By the time I was 9 or 10 he was out living on his own, and even before then he spent a good portion of his time working on jobs for my dad’s electrical contracting company. I don’t know what kind of music he was passionate about, if he was passionate about any, nor do I know what movies, TV or books he preferred.

But thanks to feats of genius like him wiring up the house for sound, and moments where he kept a lame joke going for 10 minutes, I have memories that help soften any regret I may have at not getting to know him better when I had the chance.

From the Stone’s “Get off of my Cloud” to Johnny Cash’s “The Orange Blossom Special” to “No Time” by the Guess Who, he remains with me.

Dennis and me so many years ago