i thought the premise was INTERESTING: a book that recounted the life narratives of several women who raised sons and daughters that went on to become NOTABLE and INFLUENTIAL musicians. in practice unfortunately it came out a bit INCOHERENT and TEDIOUS, almost like reading a book report.
that is not to say that i have anything against the late VIRGINIA HANLON GROHL, mother of DAVE GROHL of FOO FIGHTERS / NIRVANA fame. like her, i was an high school ENGLISH teacher so inherently i feel a sense of obligation in and of that connection to support my fellow brethren. teaching is an identity and is something i have not been able to shake in the intervening years (this blog included), so i understand intimately that deep need to NURTURE, EDUCATE and ELEVATE others. as such, you can palpably feel the LOVE and EMPATHY that went into creating FROM CRADLE TO STAGE: STORIES FROM THE MOTHERS WHO ROCKED AND RAISED ROCK STARS (SEAL PRESS, 2017) and the intensive process of intelligently relaying the disparate paths of women in raising and unconditionally supporting musicians like MICHAEL STIPE (R.E.M.), MIKE D (BEASTIE BOYS), AMY WINEHOUSE, WARREN HAYES (GOV'T MULE), DR. DRE (N.W.A.), TOM MORELLO (RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, AUDIOSLAVE), PHARRELL WILLIAMS (N.E.R.D., THE NEPTUNES), HAIM, ADAM LEVINE (MAROON 5), DAVE MATHEWS, MIRANDA LAMBERT, ZAC BROWN, JOSH GROBAN and KELLY CLARKSON among others.
one issue is that the narratives tend to bleed into each other and taken together become a bit PREDICTABLE (i.e. tales of ENERGETIC, RAMBUNCTIOUS kids that discover music or an instrument as a preteen and then become uninterested with formal their studies, yet maintain a near compulsory self-ingrained drive to create and explore music well into high school and beyond). there are variations to this script but those pre-teen years seem to be the through line in the lives of most of these musicians which makes EMOTIONAL and PSYCHOLOGICAL developmental sense. i appreciate how GROHL utilizes her own narrative with her son to anchor down a base narrative to compare all others to. that was a smart organizational device.
another issue is that the premise of this book very much downplays the role of fathers and men in the lives of their children. unquestionably women play a gargantuan part in the EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL and INTELLECTUAL development of their children, but men play some role as well. even in ABSENTIA as with the handful of musicians from divorced, single-parent households. i thought it was an COMPELLING choice to at least not pay lip service to the contributions of the fathers that were an ACTIVE part of their child's lives, but then that is outside of the conceit of the book. which is silly in retrospect. i suppose that was beyond GROHL's capacity as a mother to intuitively speak AUTHENTICALLY about being a mother and not a father. i am just point out the UNFORTUNATE omission.
far and away my favorite running feature of this book were the TOUCHING vignettes that GROHL wrote about her son that touch on his early years, musical development and later career highlights. these vignettes very much take you behind the scenes on his INCREDIBLE career trajectory from the perspective of his mother and how the choices she made regarding his upbringing and education impacted such, pre and post-fame, during high and low points therein. through such you get the sense that UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, SUPPORT and SECURITY is what she provided to a son that participated in an industry that is notoriously SAVAGE and CUTTHROAT. if anything, this sense of being a one-person support network is a common dominator of all these mothers.
somewhere in this book GROHL makes mention of the fact that she has nothing but TRUST and FAITH that teachers will find ways of bridging the curriculum and lesson activities to the varied interests of their students. this was something she took great pride in as an educator. case in point she allowed her students to rap a scene from a SHAKESPEARE play rather than act out the actual lines of the play in class to great aplomb, so much so that decades later she was sent the original handwritten lines of the rap as a gift and token of appreciation. this is undoubtedly a prime example of the MAGIC of the classroom and the potential for TAILORED instruction by a CONFIDENT, ENGAGED educator. what GROHL makes explicit soon after is her lack of TRUST and FAITH in school administrators who are distanced from the classrooms and student populations they are set out to advocate on behalf of. amen sister. the later was my experience in no uncertain terms, which is SAD and UNFORTUNATE.
and this is the related bigger point, the fact that our schools are FAILING students whose TALENTS and INTERESTS lay just outside the purvey of the curriculum. many of these mothers had intensely CREATIVE sons and daughters who just got by in school and saw the whole experience as TEDIOUS and a DISTRACTION from their true calling in life. DAVE GROHL didnt fail in his attempt to pass high school. THE EDUCATION SYSTEM FAILED HIM in not being able to support his gifts much like his family did.
pointing that SYSTEMATIC FAILURE is such an ASTUTE observation. this was undoubtedly my biggest takeaway from this book, which hitherto such seemed to not have a larger agenda. i should have known and expected such from a seasoned educator and colleague. ye of no FAITH that i am. GROHL in essence managed to neatly sum up all my deep FRUSTRATIONS and HEARTBREAK over the education system in a TIDY little bow. book report, indeed.
RIP VIRGINIA HANLON GROHL
its hard for me to overstate how foundational the music of R.E.M. was for me as a music listener, as some of my earliest memories of experiencing new music was both the OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and MONSTER (WARNER BROS, 1994) albums. ironically it was the former record that got me interested in playing guitar as a first grader. its ironic because that was the specific album in their discography where guitarist PETER BUCK essentially abandoned the instrument in favor of mandolin.
i think with those initial OUT OF TIME singles like "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and "LOSING MY RELIGION" there was a sense of both pop abandon and real pathos in the LYRICS, MANNERISM and VOCALS of singer MICHAEL STIPE. its interesting that he was one of my earliest introductions to a 'rock singer' given his AMBIVALANCE to fame and his highly IDIOSYNCRATIC presentation that showcased a COMPLICATED figure with strong ideas and a seemingly UNDEFINABLE sexuality, this in addition to his obvious INTELLIGENCE and CHARISMA. STIPE was (and still is) a real MERCURIAL and COMPELLING figure, especially for a curious seven year old.
when MONSTER came out the tone was more SOMBER and AGGRESSIVE with singles like "STAR 69," "BANG AND BLAME," "WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?" and "CRUSH WITH EYELINER." all the guitar feedback and lyrics about DISLOCATION, strained relationships and potential VIOLENCE was a world away from "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and was more in keeping with the NIRVANA, SOUNDGARDEN and PEARL JAM songs i heard on the radio station 106.7 FM KROQ out of nearby LOS ANGELES that bordered ORANGE COUNTY where i lived growing up. both visually and aurally, MONSTER was a major record for me growing up and was somewhat of an introduction to the aggressively REFLECTIVE and SELF-DISPARAGING aesthetic of ALTERNATIVE ROCK much as OUT OF TIME was an introduction to the PLAINTIVE, direct songwriting stylings of INDIE ROCK.
whats interesting to me as an adult looking back is how arguably the STRONGEST R.E.M. record ever made, AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROS, 1991), which came out between OUT OF TIME and MONSTER, was not in the mix for me during that period. until discovering it later in my late teens i had no memory of the record whatsoever. back in the early and mid 1990s there was no SPOTIFY or YOUTUBE, just the tail end of a national cassette trading network that i was not privy to at that age. i was literally only aware of what was on the radio and what my parents, usually my father, added to their CD collection. getting compact discs was a REVELATORY ritual up until the birth of MP3 trading and disc burning that began when i was in high school in the late 1990s and later the adoption of the iPod that came about a few years into the new millennium. prior to such i was TRANSFIXED to the ARTWORK and details of PACKAGING and their connection to musical content. that experience with OUT OF TIME and MONSTER was as TRANSCENDENT an experience as the music itself in many ways. that eye to visual ICONOGRAPHY, TYPOGRAPHY, LAYOUT and GRAPHIC DESIGN vocabulary in general was an education in and of itself and my earliest VIVD memories of experiencing such, again are probably those two records (as well as LIVING COLOUR, SOUNDGARDEN and PEARL JAM releases from that same period).
i find it more than amusing that since i began parodying album covers in an effort to promote my regular DEER GOD RADIO show at nonprofit radio station MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC, the only pushback i ever got back was from 'angry' R.E.M. supporters. i was told on INSTAGRAM by a random person that STIPE didnt take kindly to people stealing from him and would sue me to oblivion. my hope and expectation is that if he did discover my promotional parodies he would be delighted by them as a LOVING homage to a band i ADORE and have respected since childhood. i certainly make no money from such and nor does the station. all that being said, R.E.M. please dont sue me.
embedded below is a DEER GOD RADIO episode from the spring of 2022 on nonprofit internet radio station MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC dedicated to the music of R.E.M. from throughout their extensive catalogue. enjoy!
parodies by nacrowe
join us TONIGHT at 8PM EST for an all new episode of DEER GOD RADIO on MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC with a playlist celebrating INDIE ROCK icons R.E.M.!
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i dont believe MONSTER (WARNER BROS, 1994) is the best or even the most consequential record by seminal INDIE ROCK band R.E.M., but it was the one that had the most effect on me during my time growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1994) reminds me of my time in early elementary school and very much got me into playing guitar (which is ironic because that was a mandolin-heavy record written by guitarist PETER BUCK after being temporarily bored by his instrument), while MONSTER for me was a much more emotionally heavier affair.
originally conceived as a possible venue for collaboration with NIRVANA frontman KURT COBAIN, his unfortunate passing earlier in 1994 is sonically and spiritually all over this record. with its more muscular production and riff-heavy sonic textures and opaque lyrics that referenced and challenged notions of VIOLENCE, IDENTITY and SEXUALITY, MONSTER very much felt like a contemporary ALTERNATIVE ROCK record of the period. or at least as close as R.E.M. would ever venture.
i was 10 when COBAIN passed and it was a shock to me and my friends. my grandmother passed away around that period and between the two it was basically my introduction to the concept of DEATH. in particular i remember hearing "BANG AND BLAME" on 106.7FM KROQ all the time and how that song invoked (to me) the pain of being left behind and sorting out the emotional carnage in the wake of such an event. im almost certain that is not what singer/lyricist MICHAEL STIPE intended, but that was my interpretation. that was definitely a big song during my youth. ive read that "LET ME IN" was explicitly about COBAIN and written shortly after his passing. emotionally there is a sense of catharsis in STIPE's vocals on that track, which almost has a GOSPEL-tinge to it, as if you can imagine him singing it in front of a choral ensemble. the droning, guitars are lifted by a solemn lilting melody sung to great effect.
i remember taking two friends of mine in 1994 to KNOTT'S BERRY FARM for my birthday and my recollection of that period is very much painted by PEARL JAM's VITALOGY (EPIC, 1994) and MONSTER. especially the energetic singles "CRUSH WITH EYELINER," "WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?" and "STAR 69." the waves of delayed fuzzed-out distortion on those tracks to me are still a high-water mark of BUCK's sound even though i am cognizant of how much of a departure such was from his signature clean, jangly, RICKENBACKER-based sound. to this day i cannot dissociate such from recollections of the period, at this point those tones are part of my sense of IDENTITY. i just remember going into 4th grade and having difficulty internalizing how the world was becoming more complex and my friends were changing (because of girls and puberty in retrospect). it felt like the rules were being altered and it was that moment of TRANSITION and TRANSFORMATION that this record crystallizes in my imagination. and this was all before i moved to AFRICA two years later, which was the real defining transition point of my life i can say now in retrospect. that was the rubicon after which nothing was the same.
so yeah, MONSTER to me represents a point in my youth when everything was up for grabs and the music oddly expresses such in my projected experience. to me AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROS, 1992) was their best record objectively, but i still hold out at times to MONSTER for emotional and sentimental reasons. it is definitely worth revisiting and further investigation, even among other standout records in their catalogue. highly recommended.
while this is not the best R.E.M. album, OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) is very much one of those records i remember as a young kid (i was 7 when this was released) with songs like "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" and "LOSING MY RELIGION" became massive hits on the radio. in fact i initially took guitar lessons in first grade because i was to learn those two songs. ironically this was the mandolin-heavy record that guitarist PETER BUCK wrote when he was on sabbatical from the guitar, but that is neither here nor there. for me this record was very much the entry point into the world of making and playing music. sadly i quit shortly thereafter because my hands were not big enough to play barre and open chords, that came later in middle school. my father took up lessons instead with my guitar teacher and several continents, 3 bands and nearly 20 guitars later he's still playing and learning his way around the instrument on a daily basis.
so yeah, thats what this record represents to me: my childhood and getting excited about guitar-playing in general. i know for some die-hard INDIE ROCK fans "SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE" is kind of a black-eye in their discography as it marks a point of seemingly unadulterated commercialism, but i disagree. there is nothing inauthentic about celebrating life and being content with oneself. to me it is very much in keeping with what i interpret as the persona surrounding MICHAEL STIPE and his willingness to be vulnerable and see the good in people. in a sense i view it as a song about FAITH, you are searching out for the good in people despite the fact that such leaves you susceptible to pain. for me that song in particular is almost a the flip-side to that of the deep introspection and seemingly painful process of SELF-DISCOVERY and SELF-ACCEPTANCE at heart in "LOSING MY RELIGION." its almost as if that sense of openness only comes from a sense of acceptance of ones own shortcomings.
i think this album often gets overlooked because of it singles but it is well-worth revisiting. for me i hold onto it for sentimental meanings as it reminds me of my bonds with my father, which encompasses the better parts of my childhood.
FILM REVIEW | R.E.M. BY MTV
photo manipulations by nacrowe
R.E.M. BY MTV (VIACOM, 2014) is a pretty straightforward documentary cobbled together from, you guessed it, archival interview and performance footage of the band on MTV from throughout their career. the result of which is a surprisingly intimate narrative that for the most part is told in first-person from the band's perspective, as well as a sprinkling of record producers, record executives and the like.
the value of this documentary for me had nothing to do with their biography (of which i will spare you any plot summary), but rather the mysterious alchemy that was their songwriting process and how it was affected over time by external factors. in a sense their process was very pure as their was a communal ethic to their process. each brought in material and as a group they would mold it into shape. importantly this was concept was buttressed by the business decision to split publishing royalties evenly, which might sound like a boring detail but you'd be surprised how many bands have fallen by the wayside due to this important decision. over their career there was a sense of group ownership of their material which only deepened their trust in each other as financial incentives were not an issue.
when i think of guitarist PETER BUCK and his sound it very much reminds me of what JOHNNY MARR termed in his memoir as a "anti-Rockist" approach. like MARR, he tends to have a RICKENBACKER sound that can be at times clean and precise in an almost traditional FOLK sense and then impressionistic with suspended chords drenched in reverb. with R.E.M. there is a definite contrarian streak throughout their career and BUCK's guitar approach reflects such. his use of mandolin on OUT OF TIME (WARNER BROS, 1991) and the incorporation of sounds based in electronic music on later albums in the wake of drummer BILL BERRY's departure being prime examples. fundamentally his work, along with the rhythm section sets the tone that singer MICHAEL STIPE reacts to in his lyrics and vocal approach.
obviously STIPE is an iconic and celebrated singer who both popularized the COLLEGE ROCK / INDIE ROCK of the 1980s as well as helped usher in and very much participated in the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the 1990s. but to consider what it was he actually contributed is much harder to discern. its almost like the HEISENBERG UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE in that the closer you look, the more you are missing the point. taking his cue from the impressionistic sound of his band, there is an intuitiveness to his lyrics and voice. he almost seems to revel in ambiguity, especially early in his career. songs were more about presenting an emotion rather than delivering an idea. the fact that songs are gender neutral only adds to this ambiguity. only after their initial run of albums did he alter slightly his approach to address the bigger crowds at their shows.
what interests me about STIPE's career is how his writing and stage persona tackled this problem while maintaining his credibility. given his greater platform and the vapidness and skullduggery of dealing with the press, he consciously addressed issues he was passionate about including AIDS awareness, animal rights, gun legislation, LGBTQIA issues, etc. maybe this was influenced by his allies in PATTI SMITH, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, ADAM YAUCH, EDDIE VEDDER and KURT COBAIN, all who similarly fearlessly addressed such matters without fear of blowback, almost inviting it. some find this kind of outspokenness pretentious. some find STIPE's opaque lyrics in general pompous as well. as immortally stated in SPINAL TAP, "its a fine line between stupid... and uh, clever." luckily despite such external pressures, STIPE is the type that of artist that has a strong sense of self and follows his own trajectory.
and for me that sense of purpose is the legacy of R.E.M. even years now after their breakup. they are a great example of not compromising artistically and being commercially viable. and that art vs. commerce balance is quite the tight-rope act.
just the idea of listening to yourself is empowering. thats what i take from R.E.M.