Rich Wilhelm

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New Year’s Thoughts Recorded During My First Listen to a Vinyl Copy of David Bowie’s “Blackstar”

In David Bowie, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2016 at 2:25 pm



Tall Father Christmas was honored to take a few spins on David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album. Santa is happy that Rich’s mom gave him this super cool piece of vinyl for Christmas.


I will admit it: David Bowie’s album, Blackstar, is the only record made in 2016 that I have truly delved into and listened to in depth. Not to go blaming the year 2016 itself — though,  why not? 2016 is being blamed for all kinds of things.– but, for a variety of reasons, this was not a year in which I sought out new music and listened to it often and deeply enough to get a handle on it.

As someone who loves music, and likes to keep up with it, I wish I had been more diligent. As it happens, I’m making up for it now, diving into amazing albums by artists ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Sturgill Simpson to Loretta Lynn to Solange to Leonard Cohen to Drive By Truckers. And, yes, of course I will give Lemonade a listen. Maybe I’ll write about those albums someday, but for now, I want to focus on Blackstar.

It was my intention to go out and get Blackstar (on CD. I’m still a little backward.) the day it was released, January 8–Bowie’s 69th birthday. That didn’t happen, nor did it happen over the next two days. Then, Bowie was gone.

Even just hours after the awful news of Bowie’s passing had hit, it was becoming difficult to find copies of Blackstar in stores, but I drove up to Plymouth Meeting Mall during my lunch break and found it at the FYE store. I began listening to it on my way back to the office and I’ve been listening consistently to it ever since.

It is important for me to note this: Bowie could be alive and well right now — and don’t we all wish he was? — and I would still consider Blackstar to be a major piece of work. Of course, the circumstances of the album’s creation and release lend a deeper resonance to the songs, but now that Bowie can no longer speak for the merits of Blackstar, the album easily speaks for itself.

Despite that, I think Blackstar might have become an intimidating listen for some people because it was labeled Bowie’s “death” album the moment Bowie died, and once something becomes a death album, some listeners might step away from it.

The truth is, Blackstar is dark and eerie in places. But it also crackles with dark humor at times and the music is spectacularly played by Donny McCaslin and members of his avant jazz group. Bowie’s voice is magnificent, he contributed some nice guitar playing, and his lyrics are as odd and cryptic as ever.

In short, Blackstar is Grammy Album of the Year material and ought to have been a shoo-in for a posthumous nomination. It would have been the most deserved posthumous Grammy award ever, and yet the folks who decide these things felt that Justin Bieber’s latest album needed an Album of the Year nod more that Blackstar did.

Whatever, Grammy people, whatever. And I say this as a guy who doesn’t even have any serious issues with the Biebs or his music.

Can’t let the Grammy’s lack of foresight derail my train of thought though. The seven songs on Blackstar, from the sprawling –and, yes, eerie — title track to the oddly uplifting closing song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are well worth hearing here and now and, I think will be well worth hearing 50 years from now. If you’ve heard Blackstar, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, I agree with Bowie: I can’t give everything away about Blackstar. You ought to give it a spin.

I have a feeling that Bowie would have preferred that people simply pay attention to the music on Blackstar, rather than the circumstances under which it was recorded, and I get that. But, particularly on the last day of what many people consider to have been a crummy year, it is worth noting that, when faced with the ultimate deadline, David Bowie got down to the business of being David Bowie.

Of course, that meant writing and recording Blackstar, as well as a musical called Lazarus. I’m sure it meant taking early morning walks through his beloved adopted hometown, New York City, at least when he felt up to it. And, of course, spending time with his wife and daughter. Bowie seemingly spent his final year fully being David Bowie. With Blackstar, we have all benefitted from the fullness of Bowie’s final year, but most of all, I hope Bowie shuffled away knowing he’d made the best use of his time that he could have.

And I’d suggest that could be our challenge for the coming year, and the years to follow. While we all hope to not receive the dire diagnosis Bowie did, each of us will face struggles in 2017. And it’s no secrete that many of us here in the United States are not happy with the incoming presidential administration and are trying to work out our best response to that situation. But if each us reached deep into ourselves and attempted to live the best versions of ourselves, if we each tapped into whatever mysterious force David Bowie accessed during the final year of his life, maybe 2017 won’t be so bad after all.

Happy New Year, people. Let’s do something with 2017. And, thank you David.




HooplaThon Day Three: “A Curious Study in Failure”

In 1985, music, Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on September 14, 2016 at 2:15 am

HooplaThon Day 3 HooplaMeter: Check it out, I am officially knee deep in the hoopla.

Sitting in a staff meeting at work this morning, my friend Chris Davis noted that a certain situation was “a curious study in failure.” My hand dropped to the table with more force than I meant it to and I stared at Chris in wonder. Without meaning to, Chris had perfectly described Starship’s  Knee Deep in the Hoopla album, in which I’ve been immersing myself.

Before I get to that phrase, “curious study in failure,” I’d like to suggest that, if you’re tired of me yammering on about Starship, you should check out Chris’ Vault of Thoughts blog. Chris has indeed filled his blog with many intriguing thoughts and ideas, none of which have anything to do with Starship.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was certainly not a commercial failure. Propelled by “We Built This City” and “Sara,” the album was a big hit and went a long way toward establishing the new Starship brand. Critically though, it was a different story.

At least, I think it was. Retroactively, everyone has been dissing “We Built This City,” and, by extension the album that spawned it, for decades. But I haven’t delved deep enough into the original reviews to determine if critics and the listening public hated it then as much as critics and the listening public seem to hate it now.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I do not remember having a visceral reaction, pro or con, to the first time I heard “We Built This City.” I don’t even explicitly remember the first time I heard the song. It just seems to have shown up one day and I sort of accepted it for what it was and moved with my life.

There is more to say, other Knee Deep threads to eventually tie together as my HooplaThon continues for now. But for now, I’ll just leave you this photo of the original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” This will prove conclusively that I was a member of Starship, at least until Grace Slick kicked me out:


The original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” I was indeed a member of the band, and played a theremin solo on this song. But then, Grace Slick got mad at me when I asked her to remind me what dormouse said. She threw me out of the band and wiped my theremin solo.

Don’t forget: the HooplaThon is sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!




The Best Song I Heard in 2014

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2014 at 10:21 pm


The best song I heard in 2014 was “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “Dock of the Bay” is the best song I have heard every year since the first time I spun my hand-me-down 45 r.p.m. Volt single of the song on my toy record player, way back around 1970.

The best new song I heard in 2014? There is only one clear winner in that category.

“Dashboard” by Cliff Hillis.

Shown just below is the video for “Dashboard,” directed by the great Rob Waters of W Films. Watch the video and then keep it in your mind as you read what I have to say about the song. And, yes, my wife Donna and I are among the cast in the video.

There are several reasons for my love of “Dashboard,” the primary of which is this: “Dashboard” is an exquisitely crafted song, poppy but with moody undercurrents. Cliff co-wrote “Dashboard” with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Scot Sax, who I also happen to know. But, again, I’d enjoy Scot’s music even if I didn’t know him. Having listened to both Cliff and Scot’s songs over the last few years, I feel qualified to say that “Dashboard” is an immensely satisfying collaboration between the two songwriters. It’s a Hillis song, for sure, but then there are lyrical and musical moments that remind me a bit of Scot’s work. I just get a sense that there was some serious creative activity going on between Cliff and Scot on “Dashboard” and it shows.

Next, I think “Dashboard” is a beautifully played song thanks to Cliff (guitar, piano, ebow bass, vocals) and his Forward Thinkers bandmates Greg Maragos (bass, piano, keys) and Pat Berkery (drums). Opening with insistent guitar strumming and the lyrics, “Put your feet up on the dashboard, I don’t mind…” the song/story gradually unfolds, telling the story of two people driving somewhere, beginning a journey. It could just be a vacation, but the piano coda that closes the song seems to indicate, without words, that the journey on which these two people are embarking is going to be a transformative experience.

So there you have it: a well-written, well-played, well-sung song that I have been fortunate enough to see Cliff perform, with varying degrees of accompaniment, several times this year. All of this is more than enough for me to confer “Best New Song I Heard in 2014” on Cliff Hillis’ “Dashboard.”

Those are the clear, logical, linear reasons why I love “Dashboard.” But there’s more.

As 2014 progressed, each time I listened to “Dashboard” I felt like the song was nagging at me a little bit, as if it was daring me to a recall a “Dashboard” moment that existed in my own life. Finally, as I was driving through Valley Forge National Historical Park one autumn afternoon, it hit me. My “Dashboard” moment.

When you listen to “Dashboard,” it’s easy to imagine that what transpires is happening between just two people. Probably, though not necessarily, two romantically involved people. Driving on the open road, with no one else in the car. That’s not exactly how my “Dashboard” moment went down, but it was a “Dashboard” moment just the same.

It was August 2005. We were about 36 hours away from a family vacation to Maine. Late on a Thursday evening, the sudden and unpleasant appearance of water in our basement threatened that vacation, which was desperately needed by everyone in our family.

After a frantic Thursday-night-into-Friday-morning and an equally crazy day at work, I arrived home to the constant whirring of several dehumidifiers going about their business downstairs. Despite this, we determined that the vacation was a viable thing that needed to happen and late on that Friday night we got the hell out of Phoenixville. Driving up the ramp to the Pennsylvania Turnpike seemed like a sweet escape from our soggy, noisy house.

Once we hit New Jersey, it rained the entire ride up the NJ Turnpike, as we made the occasional stop at NJ Turnpike rest stop–the stops named for Woodrow Wilson and Joyce Kilmer!–in a futile search for decent coffee. We had told our older son Jimmy that we’d see the Empire State Building as we drove through New York but he and our younger son, Chris, were long asleep by the time we approached Manhattan. It was just as well that they were sleeping–in the rainy weather, there wasn’t much of a view.

For reasons that I don’t entirely remember, I decided that the George Washington Bridge, rather than the Tappan Zee, would be our gateway to New England. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge on this planet, with traffic patterns that may or may not have been altered by politicians in recent years.

The GW was certainly busy that Friday night–which had by this point turned to very early Saturday morning–in 2005. The approach to the tolls was jammed and we were stuck in the thick of it. Eventually, we got through and made our way onto the busiest bridge in the world.

That’s when it happened. My “Dashboard” event, eight years before Cliff and Scot wrote the song that would retroactively bring the moment back to me.

Crossing the GW that night, ever so slowly, could have been an unbearably miserable experience. Having either kid be awake during that hour would have been tortuous for every one of us, but Jimmy and Chris snoozed happily during the entire crossing. Finally heading out of New Jersey, Donna and I probably relaxed a little bit, knowing that the vacation that almost didn’t happen was now going to happen. We listened to music quietly and maybe we talked (“We can talk but if not then that’s just fine”-Hillis/Sax).

No one put their feet up on the dashboard. But I’ve never forgotten that quiet time that Donna and I spent together stuck on the busiest bridge in the world with the hope that the boys stayed asleep. Which they did.

It was our “Dashboard” moment and when it plays now as a movie in my mind, the final scene pulls back from Donna and me, quietly smiling at each other, and the sleeping boys in our car to reveal the hundreds of slowly moving cars surrounding us on the George Washington Bridge, as that insistent piano coda plays over the fade to black.

Visit Cliff’s website. Go on, now!

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion, Philosophy/Creativity on September 25, 2014 at 6:30 am

I have been thinking about, and listening to, Chic’s 1979 hit song, “Good Times” quite a bit recently. I think it is the most present-tense song ever. Let me explain.

For those of you who were there, you might remember that 1979 wasn’t necessarily a great year. Jimmy Carter was president and his popularity was plummeting. There were enormous problems, including a major hostage crisis, in the Middle East. An energy crisis in the United States. I could go on. And on. It is quite likely that many people do not look upon 1979 fondly.

On top of all of that, you had disco music, riding high for what would be its final year of chart supremacy. For some, the continued success of disco music represented the worst that 1979 had to offer, musically or otherwise.

Not me, though. I liked disco. Liked it then. Like it now.

Chic was perhaps the most successful of the disco bands, though their music quite transcended the genre-even if it would take decades for many of us to figure that out. Coming off a huge hit single in 1978’s “Le Freak,” Chic released its album Risque early in the summer of ’79. Risque contained the epic “Good Times,” which was an immediate monster hit.

There is so much to love, musically, about “Good Times.” The song opens with one second of the most gargantuan musical chord you’ll ever hear on an organ, before the trio of Chic musicians-guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson–set the song up with their scientifically precise yet funky interaction. A pianist, whether it be one of the Chic guys or another musician, provides musical accents before singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin enter the picture, along with a string section, to declare:

“Good. Times. These. Are. The. Good. Times. Leave. Your. Cares. Behind. These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

The excessive punctuation is intentional because the singers make it clear that each of those opening 16 words has equal weight.

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

Musically that’s the song. Of course the killer bass line by Edwards would inspire two huge hits within a year: Queen’s dynamic disco rock mash-up “Another One Bites the Dust,” and Sugarhill Gang’s pioneering “Rapper’s Delight.” When the instrumental breakdown of the extended version of “Good Times” hits, you’ll feel that bass, for sure.

Back in 1979, this deceptively simple set of musical elements may have seemed like yet another here-and-gone disco tune, but there is so much more going on in “Good Times.” The song could be seen to reflect the cocaine-and-Halston culture of 1979 disco New York, as seen and heard at disco club Studio 54. That would be ironic since the members of Chic were not recognized, and apparently denied access to that hallowed hot spot after their earliest success, an incident that provided the songwriting inspiration for “Le Freak.”

“Good Times” isn’t about Studio 54 at all. It isn’t even about 1979. Or Chic. More than any other song swirling around my jukebox of a brain, “Good Times” is about living in this moment. Because these. are. the. good. times.

Chic was well aware that 1979 was not necessarily the year of “Good Times” when they wrote this song. This is apparently why lyrical snippets of Great Depression era songs, such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” creep into the words of “Good Times.” For all the implicit irony though, and the lines about clams on the half shell and roller skates, the message of the song burns through the sleek arrangement and sly vocals: the present tense, the right now, is what you’ve got and it’s the only thing you can really be assured you have. What are you going to do about it?

There is deep irony in “Good Times,” in approximately the same way that there is deep irony in the theme song to the hit 1970s series, “Good Times.” Ain’t we lucky we got ’em, good times?

Some people might think of Chic’s “Good Times” as bearing the same message as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” But where that song says, “Celebrate good times,” Chic is saying “THESE are the good times.” There is a difference.

Of course, I didn’t think about “Good Times” this deeply when I first heard it pumping out of a radio at my Aunt Mary Jo’s house, where we were living between-houses in the summer of ’79. I heard it then, I guess, as one of many great pop tunes happening at a time when I was listening to the radio much more than I have at most other periods of my life. I was a kid then.

Thirty-five years have passed and clearly I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a middle-aged man, edging ever closer to 50. My hair is more gray than any other shade these days. I’ve got responsibilities, large and small, weighing me down and in 2014 I am being constantly being pummeled by bad news, both nationally and internationally. In addition to all of this, as I write this, it is 2:28 on a Thursday morning and I am currently in my eighth or ninth day of an insomnia jag that has me up when I should be down and vice versa. None of this makes me in any way unique–so many of us could be forgiven if we look inward and outward these days and say “These are the not-so-good times.” But then along comes Chic, sounding timeless and noting, “These. Are. The. Good Times.”

And dammit, Chic is right. Chic was right when they wrote the song and I’m sure that Nile Rodgers–the lone survivor of the Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson trio, as well as being a cancer survivor–knows for damn sure that Chic is right today.

Chic is challenging me and anyone else who cares to listen:

“These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

I know Chic is right. It’s up to me to figure out what to do about it.


In Music/Opinion on April 13, 2013 at 5:13 am

On April 12, 1983–30 years ago yesterday, as I sit typing these words–a relatively unknown band from Athens, Georgia released their full-length debut LP. The band was R.E.M.; the album was Murmur.

I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I am sure I was too busy preparing for my high school senior prom later that week to notice the quiet arrival of Murmur.

Within a few months, though, I took notice. In August of that year, I saw R.E.M., opening for the Police at JFK Stadium. Actually, opening for the opening acts for the Police: Madness and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts.

I don’t remember whether I bought Murmur before that concert, in anticipation of the show, or afterwards. Either way, Murmur wasn’t an album that immediately opened itself up to me. I loved the opening song, “Radio Free Europe,” immediately, but I have to admit the rest of the album seemed to be a “grower.” Gradually, Murmur revealed certain of its mysteries to me.

Thirty years later, I still can’t say with certainty that I have completely cracked Murmur‘s code. But I also can’t say with certainty that there is any album I love more than Murmur.

It would probably be an overstatement to say that Murmur changed my life. However, in terms of musical and cultural influence, Murmur is huge.

Murmur didn’t merely make me a lifelong R.E.M. fan. Murmur led me forward to bands like the Replacements, the dBs, the Three O’Clock, the Minutemen and so many more. Murmur also led me backward to bands like the Byrds and the Velvet Underground and so many more.

Murmur is simply a cornerstone of my musical life.

I am not even listening to Murmur as I write this. I don’t need to. I’m listening to a new album, New Lion Terraces by Corin Ashley. I just saw Corin perform tonight. I loved his songs, took a chance on his album, and love it as well.

I think R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck would be pleased that I was trying something new, and not listening to Murmur as I wrote about it.

Perhaps Murmur did not change my life. But my life has been enhanced and beguiled by Murmur ever since 1983. And for that, and for all that has led to, I thank BerryBuckMillsStipe.

In Defense of Brad and LL

In Music/Opinion on April 12, 2013 at 3:56 am

So, what about that Brad Paisley/LL Cool J song?

In the event that you missed it, Brad and LL are kicking up some controversy this week over a song called “Accidental Racist,” that appears on Paisley’s new album, Wheelhouse. Beginning with a scenario in which a barista at Starbucks takes offense at the Confederate flag on a customer’s Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, the song moves on to become a conversation between Paisley and LL Cool J on racial relations as they existed throughout the history of the United States, right up to the present day.

I listened to “Accidental Racist” once, on YouTube. I tried to find again just now, but the song has become harder to find. I don’t know whether this is because it has been removed as much as possible from the Internet or whether it’s just buried under all of the “Accidental Racist” reaction videos that have appeared this week. My initial take on “Accidental Racist” was that, while the subject matter is daring, the song itself is clunky, awkward and bound to annoy and/or offend many people, of all races, who hear it.

Maybe that’s the point. After all, isn’t the “Conversation on Race” that we frequently hear about often clunky, awkward and bound to annoy and/or offend many people, of all races, who hear it?

Actually, I don’t think Brad Paisley and LL Cool J intentionally set out to write and record a bad song. But maybe sometimes a bad song with good intentions is better than a good song with good intentions, if it takes that Conversation on Race in a new direction.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I do know some things. I have loved Brad Paisley’s work practically from the beginning of his recording career and I think he is an enormously talented songwriter who has proven his ability to tackle big topics in song. If you haven’t heard it, check out Paisley’s song “Welcome to the Future,” which begins with Paisley as a kid, wishing he could have a TV in his car, and culminates in a celebration of President Obama’s election (without, it should be noted, tipping Paisley’s hand as to who he actually voted for in the election). It is an ambitious and brilliantly constructed song, which at the same time doesn’t seem like the lyrical overreach that “Accidental Racist” might be.

In addition, I was listening to LL Cool J years before anyone had even heard the names “Tupac” and “Biggie.” So, bottom line for me is, I like these two guys and I appreciate them going out on a limb like this, even if they fall on their faces with “Accidental Racist.” Teaming up for this was, in some ways, a brave and crazy thing to do and I’ve got to give them credit, even if “Accidental Racist” isn’t necessarily one of my favorite songs on Wheelhouse.

As it happens, I know there was a time when I was the “Accidental Racist.” I hadn’t thought about this for years, until this week, but when I moved into my first college dorm room at Temple University 30 years ago, one of the things I brought from home was a small Confederate flag that I sat in my Chichester Class of ’83 beer stein that also held a Bert (from Sesame Street) plush toy that wore a small metal pin that proclaimed “Eat McShit and Die.”

None of these objects had any real connection to each other (other than my attempt at being surreal, maybe?), but I guess the question is what was I doing with the Confederate flag? It was a souvenir from my first trip through Tennessee the year before and it coincided with my interest in Civil War history. And that’s it, by which I mean that was my complete connection to the flag. No one ever mentioned the flag to me and I’m not sure how I would have reacted if someone did. Maybe if someone had expressed offense to me about it, a clunky, awkward and potentially offensive dialogue would have started. Maybe something good would have come from the dialogue. Who knows?

What I do know, or at least think I know, is that maybe the upper case Conversation on Race or Dialogue on Race that is supposedly happening isn’t nearly as important as all of the millions of lower case conversations that each of us can potentially engage in everyday. Maybe if each of us can strive to better those dialogues with the diverse people we meet, then the upper case Conversation might improve a little bit.

A word of advice though: spewing anonymous, snarky, ill-informed opinions that reveal nothing more than your own set of prejudices and insecurities does nothing to advance any conversation, lower or upper case.

So to Brad and LL: “Accidental Racist” may not be either of your finer moments, but I salute you both for your unabashed craziness in letting such an awkward and clumsy statement exist to reflect all of our own awkwardness and clumsiness. Because, whether we like it or not, many of us are just as clumsy and awkward as Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

Children's book author, ghostwriter, content creator, editor.

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