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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 5: Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans

I have a love/hate relationship with what is called “prog rock”.  I love it because without it, I likely would never have gotten my beloved Sex Pistols.  The punk movement was a direct reaction to the excesses of progressive rock.  

Okay, that was a cheap shot, I admit.  In actuality, I'd do like some "prog rock", especially when the music takes me on a journey (preferably non-drug induced).  At the same time, I hate the vast majority of it because to me, it feels like a bunch of musicians just trying to show how technically great they are.

With Yes, it’s even more convoluted for me.  While I hate some albums, I love others.  In some cases, there are albums where I can’t stand ninety percent of what’s there but one song will be so good I can’t get it out of my head. 

Tales from Topographic Oceans is not one of those albums.  It’s hailed by fans as one of their greatest achievements.  It’s derided by critics as ego-driven bombast.  Amazingly, both things are more or less true but it makes the list of bad concept albums for me for a number of reasons.

Let’s start at the beginning though.  Yes had been climbing in prog rock circles for some time.  Every member of the band was/is a masterful musician.  These are people who dedicated their lives to becoming the best they could be on their respective instruments.  Their previous six albums had already produced songs that still play on rock radio today (“I’ve Seen All Good People”, “Roundabout”, “Starship Trooper”).  Each album had been more successful and more technically accomplished than the last.  Detractors said the music had no heart and was losing that primal connection the best rock music always had.  Fans of progressive rock saw them as a band that could potentially write an album that would stand up there with the greatest compositions of our time.  In fact, some thought they could surpass the classical masters.

Unfortunately, singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe bought into that latter vision but instead of involving the rest of the band, they decided to write their masterpiece mostly themselves.  Anderson was reading a book called Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  He became fascinated by a long footnote and started writing the concept.  He enlisted Howe and the two began hammering out basic musical ideas.  The result is the purest example of rock and roll excess that I know of.

Tales From Topographic Oceans is a double album.  Each album side contains only one song or suite as the case may be.  Each song speaks to a different spiritual subject.  Since there are only four songs, let’s take a quick look at each with a little help from the band themselves as they describe what’s going on.  WARNING:  Things are going to get snarky.

Track 1 – The Revealing Science of God: Dance of the Dawn (Running time – 20:23)

This track is based on Hindu scripture called the Vedas which are “revealed” to the practitioner.  Anderson is quoted as saying, “It should have just been The Revealing, but I got sort of hip.”

Hip, indeed!  Nothing is more "rock and roll" than a nine word song title with a colon.

Track 2- The Remembering: High the Memory (Running time – 20:35)

This track refers to epic poems called “smriti”.  Anderson described it as, “A calm sea of music”.  He supposedly directed the band to “play like the sea” with “rhythms, eddies, swells and undercurrents.”

Remember, none of the other musicians were included in the writing so being directed by their singer on what to do became a little bit of a sore point.

Track 3 – The Ancient – Giants Under The Sun  (Running time – 18:37)

This track is supposed to be about ancient times and supposedly contains eighteen “ancient” allegories.  Anderson commented on this one by saying, “Steve’s guitar is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilizations.”

Yes, you read that right.  You're supposed to be reflecting on the "beauties and treasures of lost civilizations" while listening to this track.  Remember, this is only fifteen years after Buddy Holly sang about the beauties and treasures of Peggy Sue.  

Track 4 – Ritual – Nous Sommes du Soleil (Running time – 21:33)

The final track is about the rituals or rites of the Hindu religion.  Anderson described the bass and drum solos as a representation of the struggle between “evil and pure love.”

I've been to a lot of concerts and I've been in more than a few bands.  The bass and drum solos I've heard have always been a struggle between "yawning" and "Beer-run".  

(That was for you, Tommy Warren.)

All of the examples cited above bring up another point about concept albums in general and Yes as a band.  Rock music was born from and has ultimately always been about two things:  Sex and Rebellion.  Maybe the song lyrics weren't specifically about sex, but the guy singing usually portrayed himself as a rebel, whether he wore a leather jacket or a cardigan.

When it comes to concept albums, the majority of them usually happen when an artist takes himself/herself way too seriously.  Even the most successful concept albums are rarely fun as concepts.  Most are trying to pass along some lesson or truth within their story.

Yes as a band embodied this "taking yourself too seriously" concept long before Tales From Topographic Oceans.  The result is that when they are "on", they make fantastic music but when they are "off", they're so full of themselves that it really lands with a thud for all but their most devoted fans.  

What I'm saying is that your mileage may vary based on how much you love Yes, which is what I meant earlier when I said the album can be described as both a success and a failure. It reached number one on the UK album charts and number 6 on the US album charts, however critics gave it mediocre reviews overall.

No matter how you look at it though, one thing is absolutely undeniable.

Tales From Topographic Oceans is 100% completely full of itself.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman left the band after the tour because he felt his contributions had been pushed aside for Howe and Anderson’s vision.  However it’s his frustrated quote to a journalist that sums up this album better than most. 

When asked why he was leaving, he supposedly said, “I got tired of fans asking me what the hell that album was about.”

If you want to hear the whole thing in one hour and a half shot, here's a link to it on YouTube.

Next week we're going to change things up a bit.  We're going to start looking at success stories for the last three entries in this series.  For many of you, there will be some surprises in here.

Speaking of surprises, why not check out my book, The Wash.  It's available on Amazon and I guarantee there are at least a few things in it that you won't see coming.

See you next week!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Southern California Vol. 11 - The Ghosts of the Whaley House, San Diego

The Whaley House.  Chances are, if you have any interest in ghosts or have ever watched one of those shows on Travel Channel about supernatural stuff in California, then you’ve heard of The Whaley House.  It is officially recognized by the U.S. Commerce Department as the most haunted place in California.  Located in Old Town San Diego, the house was built by Thomas Whaley in 1855. 

Prior to the house being built, the site had been used once before to hang a criminal named Jim Robinson.  He’d been convicted of trying to steal a boat and having a long record of previous crimes, the locals strung him up on a gallows.  Unfortunately for Robinson, he was taller than most people and so when he was hung, he was able to get his toes on the boards and occasionally lift himself to get a breath.  It took him forty-five minutes to die.

Most accounts mark this as the source for the first occurrences on the land.  Once Whaley built the house, he moved his family in and according to the docents and historians my wife and I spoke to when we visited Whaley House, they were the first to report seeing and hearing ghosts.  Whaley was not a superstitious man though and while his family reported hearing strange footsteps, he refused to be alarmed by it.

The Whaley family lived in the house all the way up to 1953, with only one exception.  There was a period where Thomas Whaley refused to live there because he was overcome with grief over the death of his daughter.  Otherwise, with the Whaley family spending almost 100 years in the house, you can imagine that there is some history there and that history includes some tragedy.  Overall, six family members died in the house.  Also, a small neighbor child died there in an accident involving a clothesline. 

Throughout its history, people living in the house have reported ghostly presences.  Now that it’s a historic site and museum, the volunteers who work there are the ones who see things most often.  Which brings me to our visit.

Karen and I had lived here for eighteen years and never bothered visiting the Whaley House.  We would go to Old Town San Diego about four or five times a year on average but just never bothered checking the place out.  Last year, we decided to visit it before heading home from a long weekend.  The tour is self-guided and the house has been set up to show the various things it has been used for over the years.  For instance, one of the great rooms is set up as a court room, since Whaley House acted as the courtroom for San Diego at one point.  Upstairs, there is a room that set up with a stage.  This room was used as a theater at one point.  The rest of the house is what you’d expect of a semi-wealthy family’s home from the 1800’s.

As Karen and I walked into the theater room, a docent was just beginning to give her speech.  There were about ten other people in the room, all sitting on chairs facing the stage.  We took two seats on the far side.  On the side nearest the door, there was a family of four (mom, dad and two daughters who were in their late teens or early twenties).  As the docent talked about the theater, the mother from this group jumped.  She said she felt something tug her hair. 
The docent stopped and then told everyone that there was a young child ghost that often liked to prank people in the house.  She went on to say that she was very susceptible to feeling the ghosts presence when they were in the room and that indeed there was one there.

Now, understand that I love horror movies, horror books, and all things spooky, yet I have never seen a ghost.  As much as I want them to exist, I highly doubt that they do.  Karen and I watched this whole thing unfold as if it were a theater of the absurd performance.  The docent continued her talk but occasionally broke it up by pointing and saying, “There’s a presence there.”
As she did that, this woman continued to get more and more freaked out.  She described her hair being pulled.  She felt someone tickle her neck.  She felt someone grab her arm.  After about ten minutes of this, she insisted her family leave and they did. 

I set my phone camera on “burst” mode and took a ton of pictures during this.  Every time the docent pointed somewhere, I turned and shot pictures.  The whole time this other lady was squirming, I was taking pictures.  When I got home, guess what I had?
Yep, a bunch of pictures of this lady and that room.  There was not one single ghostly image.

Don’t let that deter you though.  Go to Whaley House and check it out yourself.  At the very least, it’s a part of California history and it’s right next to Old Town San Diego where you can find fantastic Mexican food.  Not to mention there are a ton of great breweries all close by.  Maybe after a night of eating a drinking, you’ll see your own ghosts.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 4: Styx - Kilroy Was Here

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto, indeed.

There was a time when I was in high school that I loved Styx's album Paradise Theater so  much that I wore the cassette tape out.  Then something happened.  My taste changed.  The stars fell out of alignment.  I don’t know.  The bottom line is that now,  I can’t stand the vast majority of their music.  Other than a few cuts from Paradise Theater and the whole of Grand Illusion, I no longer own anything by Styx.  Something about the songs gets under my skin and I’m telling you this not to say I’m in any way “cooler” for not liking them.  I’m just saying that as you read this article, there is definitely a bias at play here. 

At the same time, history cannot be argued when it comes to the events surrounding Kilroy Was Here, so I’ll try to keep things as objective as possible. 

Styx was a HUGELY popular band in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  The two things that ultimately tore them apart are the same things that produced the album we’re going to discuss today.  Those two things are Egos and Greed.  The band had spent almost a decade releasing album after album and touring relentlessly to build an audience.  They reached a huge commercial breakthrough when their single “Babe” went to number one in 1979 and on the heels of that album (Cornerstone), they went into the studio and created what many consider their greatest album.

Paradise Theater is a concept album.  It was conceived by Dennis DeYoung who was one of three songwriters in the band (Tommy Shaw and James Young being the other two).  DeYoung had always striven to drive the band in a more theatrical, pop direction while Shaw and Young pushed back, wanting to play straight ahead rock and roll.  As long as those two forces reached a balance, Styx was cranking out huge hit albums, but the success of “Babe” (a song written solely by DeYoung) changed the dynamic slightly.  Thus, when DeYoung presented the Paradise Theater concept, he was able to push his bandmates to go along. 

The thing that made Paradise Theater work was that there was room to move within the concept itself.  The story centered around a theater whose heyday was in the 1920’s but had over the years fallen on hard times.  The songs didn’t tell a story so much as just painted a picture.  The opening song, “Rocking the Paradise” started things off in those early, heady days after the theater opened and by the time you got to the end of the album, you had heard songs about drug addiction (“Snowblind”), desperate people (“Half Penny/Two Penny”) and could piece together that the neighborhood around the theater had deteriorated.

It was a huge success and the subsequent tour was one of the highest grossing of that year.  As I said above, it’s considered by many to be the band’s best album and thanks to another huge DeYoung hit (“The Best of Times”), he once again leveraged his position to try to steer the band into a more pop/theater path.

This time, DeYoung pitched another concept album but it had a more focused narrative.  In fact, each band member would play a different character and the story would play out on stage with props, set pieces and a short film full of special effects to set the tone.  By most accounts, Shaw and Young fought back but through record company pressure (re: Greed) and DeYoung’s insistence (re: Ego) the concept was eventually forced upon the band.    

Thus Kilroy Was Here was born.


It tells the story of a world where rock and roll is outlawed by an evil dictator named Dr. Emmet Righteous.  Censorship has been enforced in order to maintain control over the populace.  Our hero (naturally played by DeYoung himself) is Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (get it?  The initials spell ROCK!).  He is a former rock star who was imprisoned on trumped up murder charges.  However, there is an underground rebellion looking to bring rock music back and overthrow the government.  They hack into the television signal that Dr. Righteous sends out to the public and they broadcast bootleg footage of Kilroy’s final concert.  Back at the prison, Kilroy sees this and is inspired to escape.  He overpowers one of the Japanese robots (a Mr. Roboto model) and hides inside it to get out.  Then he arranges to meet with the underground to bring back rock music (which of course will save us all).

Let’s just say this now.  That concept has a number of things going against it.  However, I should point out that times were different when it was conceived.  In the late 1980’s, there was a large push in the U.S. by Christian conservatives who wanted to censor rock music.  There were stories on the national news about people who supposedly discovered satanic messages hidden on rock albums and only a few years after this album was released, a group of Washington wives would form the Parents Music Resource Council (P.M.R.C.).  That organization actually forced hearings in Congress on the issue and ultimately got record companies to voluntarily sticker albums with explicit content. 

So while the concept is pretty heavy-handed and silly on a number of levels, it was actually DeYoung’s response to what he saw happening in American society.  When it was released, it was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm.  The record was a commercial success.  It made it to number 3 on the U.S. album charts and scored two top ten singles (“Mr. Roboto” and “Don’t Let It End”) which were both written by DeYoung.  

Even so, the concept was so strict that it hogtied the other two songwriters.  The rest of the album consists of songs that were written strictly to connect scenes together so neither Tommy Shaw nor James Young had much room to stretch out.  Where their songs were generally highlights on a Styx album, on Kilroy Was Here, they are completely forgettable. 

Critics slammed it and after that initial excitement from fans who bought it based on the first single, things got ugly.  Kilroy Was Here divided Styx’s fanbase because it was not a rock album.  It had more in common with the electro-pop that was dominating the airwaves at the time (think bands like Thompson Twins, who relied heavily on keyboards instead of guitars).  In retrospect, this makes sense as it was exactly where DeYoung wanted the band to go.  Unfortunately for their fans, Styx couldn’t come to the middle again.  Despite being successful, by the end of the supporting tour, the band decided to call it quits. 

DeYoung went on to a solo career and eventually ended up right where you would expect him to go. 


The rest of the band pulled a Pink Floyd and got together without him.  There was a lawsuit involved and the two sides don’t really talk any longer, however Styx continues to tour to this day.  When you look at the setlists though, you’ll notice they don’t include any songs from Kilroy Was Here

Also, to their credit they are not just a nostalgia act.  They’ve released six new studio albums without DeYoung, the latest of which was last year’s The Mission.

Guess what!  It’s a concept album.

It’s about a mission to Mars in the year 2033.  I personally haven’t heard it, but it was critically well received and actually touted as a worthy follow-up to Paradise Theater.  Unfortunately no matter how good it is, Styx will never completely erase the taste of Kilroy Was Here.  This is especially true as long as “Mr. Roboto” continues to be used in car commercials, sit-coms and is a staple on karaoke nights around the world.

This album will be my soundtrack in Hell.  Seriously.

Perhaps you don't agree with me though.  I'd love to hear from you.  Leave your opinion in the comments section or on Facebook.  

Also, if you haven't already, please check out my Author Page on Amazon.  It's got links to short stories as well as my horror novel The Wash, which I hope scares you but doesn't end up on your "worst horror novels of all time" list.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Diving, Zen and How to Tame the Beehive

Another quick post about diving and this time also about meditation and the power of the mind.  Years ago, I did a cage dive with my friend Will Mason.  We got dangled over the edge of a boat with some aluminum bars between us and some pretty big sharks.  It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life and when I got back, I wrote a long blog post that actually served as the very first entry in this whole blog thing.  Will wrote about it also and when I read his account, I realized something about myself and diving that I hadn’t realized before.  It was that diving was the closest thing to zen meditation that I've ever successfully experienced.

Since then, diving has become more than a hobby to me.  When I get to go (which is rarely these days), it's become an almost religious experience.  However, since my diving opportunities are not  what they once were, that opportunity to "reset" my overactive brain can sometimes pose a problem.  I've occasionally let stress get the better of me, so I began looking for ways to replicate what I experience underwater without having to strap on fifty pounds of gear.

One of the most successful things I've found is listening to ambient noise or white sound collages.  A good friend of mine named Eric San Juan (whose books on Hitchcock films, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad are a must for any film fan)happens to be an excellent musician in his own right.  He makes albums of this kind of music under the name M2 and his latest release, Coming Up For Air, is available for download free on Bandcamp.  The cover image (below) is actually a photo I took from about forty feet down while diving on Farnsworth Bank on the backside of Catalina Island.

Also, below is the original post about my headspace during shark dive so you don't have to go looking for it.  I hope you enjoy both.

Personally, I haven’t been diving long, but I’ve embraced it like few other things in my life. I took to it immediately and until now, I’ve never given much thought to why that is. Reading Will's excellent take on the shark dive over at sharkfinhat made me pause and think.

Two things in particular struck me. First was that he actually seriously considered we may die and secondly, that he felt the experience of being underwater was therapeutic.

Throughout my life, I've been fortunate to have something I like to think of as good intuition. Sometimes it's a feeling, sometimes it’s an actual voice in my head but either way, it's not something I get all the time. It’s not something I can count on as always being there but when it is, I heed it. It's served me well in these first 40 years.

Unlike “Spidey-sense”, this isn’t a feeling of impending danger (although I’ve gotten that a couple of times). Many times, it's more like a reassurance. It's a feeling that says, "Yeah, this is weird, but you're going to be just fine."

 I don't want this to come off as some macho posturing because anyone who knows me knows, I'm not "that guy", but from the moment I stepped onto the boat on the shark dive, I knew we weren't going to be in any danger, ever.

It wasn't like I felt that way thanks to any safety lectures or anything (because God knows, James left out some pretty important shit in the 'safety lecture' we got… for instance, how to avoid sharks if they get in the cage). Still, there was never a doubt about our safety in my mind. I KNEW we were going to be just fine. Call it overconfidence. Call it stupidity. No matter what you call it, though, I want to reiterate one thing.

I didn't think we'd be fine... I KNEW that we would be fine.

I've had that feeling of, "no matter what, I'll walk away from this" more than a few times throughout my life. It's a good feeling to have and it's one that has come to me in the weirdest and most stressful of situations. A good example is back in 1990, I got lost on a day hike in the Angeles National Forest and had to free climb 300 feet in the dark while wearing Vans slip-ons to regain the trail. I never once felt uncertain about what I had to do or questioned whether I’d make it to the top. It was a certainty in my mind that I would get there and I was right.

In the last two years, that feeling has hit me underwater more often than not.

So after reading Will's post and realizing that I definitely had that "Everything's Fine" feeling all day, I started asking myself why. I mean, it's not like we weren't in some of the most dangerous waters on the West Coast. Every minute spent in that cage was spent looking for sharks. Giant, seal-eating, "the things movies are made about" sharks, no less.

After some whiskey and serious reflection, the best answer I can come up with is this.

From my earliest memories, my brain has been like a beehive full of trivial information. Song lyrics, work deadlines, movie quotes, the magna carta, the fact that Playboy’s Miss July 1977 didn't like selfish people… any and all of these things swirl through my head on a minute by minute basis. I'm the guy people call up at work and ask, "Who was it that ran against Clinton in 1996?" or "Who was the producer on Def Leppard's Pyromania album?" or "Who was the cinematographer on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?"

(the answers are Sen. Bob Dole, Robert "Mutt" Lange and Daniel Pearl, respectively)

And personally, I don't mind it. I've never wanted to stop it. It's like my head plays a constant game of referencing and cross-referencing the world as I experience it and that's something I revel in. However, every time I’ve had that feeling of "Everything is fine", it’s been in a situation where the beehive has stopped buzzing; when my attention and focus became laser sharp.

The one place where my brain never strays is underwater. It's such an alien environment that it demands my attention. When I'm down there, I have one job to do: enjoy a safe dive. That takes up so much of my concentration, that I tend to be at peace most when I'm beneath the surface. The pressures of deadlines, mortgage payments, school costs and everything else can't follow me down below sea level, where my focus is on my breathing, my gauges, the environment around me and my dive buddy. Many times, my stress can't even make it past the beach. I don't think about the meetings I have on Monday. I don't think about the negotiations I'm behind on at work. I don't think about how I'm going to find a way to surprise Karen for her birthday or how I’m going to juggle my schedule so Lily can get to piano class. It's like from the moment my feet hit the surf, I begin to achieve a Zen-like state of mind that I don't get anywhere else. For the length of my dive, all that exists is that moment, that place, and instead of a beehive in my head, I get a very calm, rational series of observations, choices and lists of options, none of which involve pop culture, politics or the preferences of 1970s Playmates.

The best dive I ever had was one that was for all intents and purposes, a wash out. I accompanied a friend who was teaching a student. The two of us went out and set the dive float. Then he went back to shore for his student. While I was there, the float pulled loose from the sandy bottom and I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon on the bottom, holding it in place while the two of them went off to do their underwater examinations.

I was alone except for the four purple sand dollars half buried in front of me.

I heard the clicking of dolphins. I heard the sound of my breathing and those breaths breaking the surface 20 feet above. I felt the push and pull of the tide and heard the waves pounding the shore 100 yards away. I heard the creaks of all manner of creatures climbing the reef nearby, and I'm pretty sure they heard me as I just lay there on the bottom and breathed.

I wasn't diving. I was 'being'… I was simply existing… and everything was going to be perfectly fine. It wasn't narcosis. I didn't feel euphoric. I was focused, but I was relaxed.

Being in that cage with Will, I felt the same way. It was cold as hell. The cage was rolling. The sharks were out there and my nerves were crackling, but it was okay. The beehive was quiet and there was no doubt within it that everything was fine.

I've never really thought about it before now, but for me, it's that time underwater, where my brain and I can be selfishly alone, that I cherish. I don’t get to dive as often as I'd like, but I have no doubt that when I do, it makes me a better father, husband and person. So yeah, Will’s right.

That’s way better than going to an actual therapist… sharks or no sharks.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 3: Pete Townshend - Psychoderelict

Pete Townshend, frustrated author or genius musician?  We asked that same question about Roger Waters but if anyone deserves that title, it’s actually Townshend.  He’s been part of the literary community for almost as long as he’s been a rock star.  He’s produced articles, short stories, plays and novels.  The only thing I can’t seem to find is Townshend writing a comic book but don’t put that past him.  He’s still very active.

For those who don’t know, Pete Townshend was(and occasionally still is) the main songwriter for The Who, a massively successful band that many consider third in line behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the contest for Greatest British Invasion Band of All-Time.
Townshend single-handedly brought the concept album into the rock and roll world when he penned The Who’s Tommy album.  It was the very first “rock opera”, telling a narrative story about a young blind, deaf and dumb boy who becomes a messianic figure thanks to his amazing pinball skills.  When you read it like that, it sounds stupid.  Actually, in reality it is kind of stupid but the music is fantastic and the album spawned a Broadway play and a hit movie. 

He repeated the magic with Quadrophenia, another concept album that tells the story of a young man in 1970’s Britain trying to find his purpose in life.  My point is, Townshend knows his way around a story and how to link scenes together musically in a way that appeals to music aficionados as well as casual fans.

Townshend has had the concept album bug for his entire career.  Aside from the two albums mentioned above, he also penned four more concept albums.  Two are noble failures, one is just forgettable and the other… well that’s what we’re here to talk about.  Let’s take a quick moment though to talk about those near misses first.
The most famous is probably Lifehouse, a science fiction themed effort that fell apart before it was completed.  In order to salvage things, Townshend cherry-picked the best songs and came up with what many consider The Who’s best album, Who’s Next.  That single disc spawned the songs “Baba O’Reilly”, “Bargain”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (the song whose ringing A-chord on Pete’s electric guitar literally pulled a ten-year-old Cary Christopher by the ear into the world of rock music).

The second failed but still great attempt at a concept album came in the late 1980’s.  The album was Townshend’s solo effort, White City.  The story was supposed to be semi-autobiographical about Townshend’s upbringing in the White City housing project but was also supposed to address themes about sexuality, gender, race and violence.  It proved too hard to pull off and the resulting album doesn’t hold together narratively.  However, once again the album is saved by great songs like “Give Blood”, “Face the Face” and “Second Hand Love”.  All three are highlights of Townshend’s solo career and the rest of the album is very good, even if the story doesn’t translate.
Here’s where the slide begins. 
In 1989, Townshend tried to adapt the children’s story, The Iron Man, into a concept album and musical play.  He recruited a great cast of singers including John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone as well as The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey.  He even used the opportunity to reunite The Who and launch their first tour in almost a decade.  Unfortunately, there is not one memorable song on the album, not even The Who’s contributions (a Townshend original called “Dig” and a cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire”).  The whole thing plays as background music and without good songs, the story itself falls flat. 

Still, while the album didn’t sell well, the reunion of The Who breathed new life into Townshend and for the next few years, the band toured off and on.  That one misstep didn’t deter fans from wanting new music, so in 1993, when Pete Townshend announced a new concept album called Psychoderelict, the music world took notice.

Psychoderelict tells the story of a reclusive washed up English rock star.   His manager conspires with a journalist to goad him into making an unwanted comeback.  On the surface it's not a bad concept except that the journalist poses as a 14-year-old girl who wants to make it in the music industry.  If the story had stopped there, I probably wouldn’t be writing about Psychoderelict, but unfortunately for all of us, Townshend decided to make this part of the story rather “icky”.  Our journalist  trades letters and pornographic photos with the aging star to inspire him to work again.  Remember, she’s posing as a 14-year-old girl. 


That’s not the legal age of consent even in Kentucky!

Ultimately, the plan works and our “hero” (who has now shown pedophilic tendencies and is incredibly hard to root for) writes the comeback album his business managers had hoped for.  Everything works out perfectly and no one was hurt.

But our aging, newly invigorated rocker is still a step away from “stranger with candy in a white van” territory.

Granted, you can tell by my tirade that the 14-year-old thing bothers me.  It should.  I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and the last thing I want is some 50-year-old creep sniffing around her.  Here’s where I tell you that the age thing wasn’t what killed the album.  

Psychoderelict (in its initial release version) is annoying as hell.  Townshend decided to actually record actors with dialogue in scenes that helped string together the story.  As a result, listening to the album is like listening to one long audio play with a bit more music than usual.  For music fans, it was a horrible listen.  Voices step on the intros and outros to every song.  It made it impossible for fans to dial up their favorite tune from the album without first hearing people talking over everything leading up to Townshend’s vocal. 

When sales of the album tanked, the studio rushed out a "non-dialogue" version but the damage was done.  Psychoderelict marks the last release of newly recorded solo material from Townshend, proving that a bad concept album can even bring down the best of them.

Adding to the ickiness of the story, almost ten years after the release of Psychoderelict, Townshend was caught up in the web of a UK sting on child pornography.  His name was dragged through the British press, even though he literally had nothing to do with child porn.  He had visited an adult porn site whose records had been used when rounding up perpetrators.   All charges were dropped when the investigation proved him completely innocent, but having this album in his catalog didn’t help things.

Unfortunately, I could not find a link to the entire Psychoderelict album with dialogue included.  It's as if the internet is trying to erase it from existence.  However, you can go on YouTube and find playlists with most of the songs, sans actors speaking.

One final note:  Pete Townshend, together with Roger Daltrey, put together a final album by The Who called Endless Wire.  While the album itself does not play as a concept album, this is Pete Townshend we’re talking about here.  I only mention it because after the album’s release and the subsequent  tour, he took the songs and reworked them… into a play.  It premiered at Vassar College in 2007.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Southern California Vol. 10 - Haunted Black Star Canyon

 Haunted canyons?  Seriously, Cary?  

Well, before you start giving me crap about this post, you should google Black Star Canyon.  You'll see that it's considered one of the most haunted places in Southern California.  A few paranormal shows have taken trips out at night to try to document activity.  In fact, it gets a whole five pages devoted to it in Greg Bishop, Joe Oesterle and Mike Marinaccci's Weird California (a personal favorite of mine).  

It also happens to be a beautiful hiking spot and is less than a half hour from my house.  Now, I'm going to just go ahead and say here that I've never experienced anything weird in Black Star Canyon myself, but I have two good friends who have.  I'll tell you their story in just a little bit, but first let's talk about why people think Black Star Canyon is haunted in the first place.

In the 1830's, the canyon was the site of an armed conflict between Native Americans and local trappers.  It was around this time that rumors of the canyon being haunted began.  In 1899, the canyon was the site of a murder that took the county by storm.  Three men got in a gunfight over a horse trade gone wrong.  When the shooting stopped, one man was dead and the other two turned themselves in.  Again, rumors swirled that the ghost of the dead man still traveled the canyon.  

There's also the story of a busload of children that went off the cliff on a steep canyon road, killing everyone inside.  Supposedly their ghosts also travel the canyon.  To make matters worse, there are some very real dangers in Black Star Canyon.

First, there are the "squatters".  Now, whether these people are really squatting or not is debatable, but there are multiple reports of people who live in a house near one section of the trail who love to chase off hikers by shooting shotguns over their heads and threatening them.  There's also the possibility that you'll run across a mountain lion.  In case you're thinking that's not a big deal, note that the sign above makes it a point to tell you that "your safety cannot be guaranteed".  They aren't joking.  In the last decade there has been at least one death of a mountain biker by a mountain lion who stalked and ambushed him on his morning ride.

The trail is also rife with "No Trespassing" signs since anything off the trail itself is private property. 

So why do people go?  Well, because of the waterfall.  It's one of the most beautiful in the area and while it's not very easily accessible (you'll have to climb over some boulders and cross some water) the destination is totally worth it.

Which brings us to my two friends.  I'm not going to use their names at all because they have no idea that I'm writing about this on my blog, but I'll say that I work with both of them.  They are avid hikers and on this particular day, they went with their families.  It was a weekend and early in the morning.  They parked and began walking the trail when one of them and his wife began hearing a strange crying sound.  They were ahead of the other friend and his family so they stopped and waited for them to catch up.  

When the whole group was together, they all listened for the sound and every single one of them heard it.  They described it to me as sounding like a woman or a young child crying, sobbing on the trail above them.  They called out to see if anyone was up there but no one answered.  Instead, the "crying" started again.  They called out one more time but then the sound stopped. The one who heard it first told me that the sound was so creepy, the hair on his arms was standing on end.

They waited a while longer, calling occasionally, and the sound never started again.  They decided to continue on to the falls.  The rest of the hike was uneventful and on the way back they asked other hikers they passed whether they had heard anything in that section of the trail.  No one had heard anything other than bird calls and normal forest sounds.

Now, neither of these men are prone to embellishing things.  Also, they both told me this story separately, without the other there to help them "remember".  Their descriptions were almost identical with one of them telling me, "It was seriously f__ing creepy."

What did they hear?  Who knows?  

It could have been an animal.  It could have been one of the "squatters" messing with them.  The bottom line though is it was an unsettling situation in one of the most notoriously eerie locations in Orange County.

Are you feeling like you want to do something weird also?  Well, you're in luck.  I've got a pretty creepy book out called The Wash. You can read it from the safety of your own home and not have to worry about squatters shooting at you.

Until next time, stay safe and stick to the trail.