Rich Wilhelm

Posts Tagged ‘1980s music’

HooplaThon Day 4: Starship Versus a Nap. Starship Wins!

In 1985, memoir, Music/Memory on September 15, 2016 at 1:06 am
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HooplaThon Day 4 HooplaMeter: The Hoopla is beginning to feel like quicksand.

Back on Day 1 of this adventure, I noted that one of the reasons I was launching this Starship enterprise was to battle back my recent instinct to take an early evening nap, from which I subsequently wake up at midnight and can’t get back to sleep.

Tonight is one of those nights. The sleepy siren songs are calling me, and yet Starship is calling me louder, telling me that you can’t build a city on rock’n’roll–or any other foundation really–if you’re sound asleep before your 14-year-old kid is, and then wide away in the wee small hours. So here I am, freestyling it. That’s right–it’s straight from my brain to the keyboard tonight.

The thing about Starship and “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla, is that there really is so much to say about it all. It’s all about what constitutes bad music, what good versus bad taste is, what the ’80s were like and how bands that started in the ’60s coped with being middle-aged rock stars in the era of Prince, Madonna and Michael.

It’s about synthesizers and power ballads; selling out and buying in; the meaning of “hoopla” then and now; ironic listening. It’s about Marconi and mambas.

So, OK, let’s start with those mambas. You’d think Marconi would be playing a “mambo,” but it sure as hell sounds like Mickey and Grace are singing “mamba.”

Thanks to my dad, I know a thing or two about mambas. I know that there are green mambas and there are black mambas.

And, again, all thanks to Dad, I know that the black mamba is the most poisonous snake on earth. Even more poisonous than the cobra.

This is the kind of information Dad was prepared to offer anytime, anywhere. I think he would most often talk about mambas when we were walking through the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo, but I have a feeling that there were random moments throughout my childhood when Dad would discourse on the awesome, overwhelmingly venomous, way-more-deadly-than-the-cobra great black mamba.

So, oddly, when I hear “We Built This City,” I think of Dad. I have no idea what Dad thought of the song but I can almost hear him exclaim, “What the hell is Marconi messing with a mamba for? Doesn’t he know how freakin’ deadly they are?”

I’ve been thinking about Dad this week anyway. I always do when I drive his Jeep, which I’ve been doing this week. The radio/CD play doesn’t work–even when Dad was with us, he claimed the CD player only worked when the temperature was plus or minus two degrees of some number. When it did work, the only CD he listened to in the Jeep was Led Zeppelin Live at the BBC. And maybe the Ry Cooder film music compilation. But definitely not Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Anyway, I’ll listen to my portable CD player sometimes in the Jeep, but there are times when the silent commute is nice. Contemplative. Except this week, all I can contemplate is Starship. “We Built This City.” Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

I’m working on theories about all this. “Looking for clues,” as the late, great Robert Palmer once noted, though I doubt that Starship was among his concerns.

There is some kind of unifying theory that explains “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And one of these nights, during this HooplaThon, I’m going to crack that code. It’s not looking good for me revealing any of my revelations tonight, but soon. It’s all going to happen. Nothing’s going to stop me now. Because I’m layin’ it on the line and it’s not over ’til it’s over. But for tonight, it’s over.

As always, I’d like to thank my sponsor for the HooplaThon, Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

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HooplaThon Day 2: Starship and the “Art of Listening Ironically”

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory, pop music on September 13, 2016 at 2:56 am
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HooplaThon HooplaMeter Day 2: Ankle Deep in Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Program Note: In yesterday’s initial HooplaThon entry, I noted that I’d be listening to Knee Deep in the Hoopla and writing about it for 31 days in a row. Clearly, I was delusional. After a good night’s sleep, I have realized the insanity. I’m now not going to promise any number of entries so you can clear those early October evenings you were reserving to read HooplaThon entries. We’ll just play this all by ear.

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Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released on September 10, 1985. It was the first album by just plain Starship after longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship member Paul Kanter jumped ship and took the Jefferson with him.

Starship took the opportunity of a name change to reevaluate and update their sound for the mid-1980s. With a modern-minded producer named Peter Wolf–very clearly not the J.Geils Band singer–at the producer’s desk, Starship ceded most of the heavy songwriting work to outsiders and relied on Wolf to overlay the resulting songs with a slick synthesized veneer that was clearly meant to appeal to ’80s kids with a yen for technopop. Like me.

Of course, by the time September 1985 rolled around, a lot of us new wavers had passed through our initial synthpop rush and moved onto other things. Things that were a little more organic (R.E.M.) or rocked in a more traditional, if shambolic way (Replacements) or were less concerned with the state of their hair than the guys in A Flock of Seagulls. Though, of course, everyone was concerned with the state of their hair in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong though. Even in ’85, I continued to like artists who creatively incorporated electronics into their music. But artists like Eurythmics and Thomas Dolby had a knack for using synthesizers in intriguing ways, as something more than aural window dressing. Knee Deep in the Hoopla, on the other hand, is all about the electronic window dressing. Even when Marconi is playing the mamba, it’s an electronic mamba.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the initial release of Knee Deep in the Hoopla had absolutely no effect on me at all. I do not remember having any reaction at all to the huge breakout hit, “We Built This City” or the equally popular follow-up, “Sara.” What’s weird about this, is that Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released at the perfect time for me, as I was just about to fully submit to the fine art of listening to music ironically. Or, more appropriately, “listening ironically,” because when you’re going ironic, you do everything in quotation marks. Or more, appropriately “do everything.” But you get the point. Actually, you “get the point,” right?

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released just days after I moved into the second floor of Johnson Hall for my third year of college at Temple University. As record store workers worldwide were stocking copies of Starship’s new album, I was getting to know Rick and Greg, two of my new floor mates, and good friends of mine to this day.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla could have been a huge talking point for the three of us, as we bonded early over music. Once we located each others’ senses of humor, we particularly bonded over the idea of listening to music ironically. That is, picking out a band or album that we might not actually be all that into and TOTALLY EFFIN’ ROCKIN’ OUT to said band or album.

In other words, “totally effin’ rockin’ out” in quotation marks.

We never explicitly said to each other, “Hey, let’s listen to music ironically.” It just happened.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla would have been a perfect “ironic listen” for us. And yet it wasn’t to be, because another band, a band whose name I am not going to reveal in this entry, loomed large, very large, in our ironic listening.

More on ironic rocking as I sink ever deeper into the Hoopla tomorrow night.

This HooplaThon is being sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

 

 

Going Down to Alphabet Street: A Few Princely Thoughts

In 1980s, concerts, music, Music/Memory, Prince on April 24, 2016 at 12:42 pm

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My 18-year-old son, Jimmy, is an ’80’s skeptic. He simply doesn’t believe that the 1980s could have possibly been as great as many of us who lived through it say it was. In short, Jim doesn’t feel that the ’80s were “all that.”

I encourage this kind of thinking, probably because I remember what it was like, in the ’80s, to hear boomers endlessly crow about how the ’60s were so much better than the ’80s. Plus, it’s nice to have warm fuzzy memories of one’s youth, but nostalgia-mongering can close you down to whatever could be going on in your life right now.

So, when Jim disses the decade of Phil Collins, Alf and Hands Across America, I give him a pass to do so. But I will be adamant about one thing:

From a musical/cultural/wow-he’s-just-mindblowing standpoint, Prince was the greatest thing to come out of the ’80s. Or pretty much any decade you care to mention.

It’s hard for me to remember when I was first aware of Prince, though I’m thinking it was during the chart run of his breakthrough album, 1999 — though during the years 1980-1988, practically every album Prince made qualified as some kind of breakthrough. I do remember walking down Market Street in Center City Philadelphia, as a senior in high school. It was one of my first solo trips into the city and I heard Prince’s “Delirious”– has a song every so thoroughly lived up to the promise of its title? — spilling out of one of the downtown record stores I’d come to frequent in college. Hearing it at that moment wasn’t necessarily a huge moment in my life, but it’s also a moment that I never forgot, because it felt like walking by that store at that moment, hearing that song, was the absolute coolest thing I could be doing that day. And it was.

Of course, Purple Rain exploded all over the place in 1984. As far as I can remember, I’ve only ever seen the complete movie once, but it was a memorable experience  — at a drive-in just over the border in Delaware, with three or four friends. Purple Rain was shown that night along with Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact. A double feature for the ages.

I was very fortunate to be sitting in the mega-nosebleed seats at Philadelphia’s Spectrum on a Friday night when Prince and the Revolution, with opening act Sheila E, brought the Purple Rain tour to town. I am pretty certain that I was about as far away from the man and his band as I could possibly be but the concert was electrifying, as I noted in the November 29, 1984 edition of the Temple University News:

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Here’s what I wrote about the Purple Rain album in the review:

The Purple Rain album, which defies simple classifications like “rock” and “soul,” will probably become one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years.

20? Try 40. 60. Oh, hell college-age Rich, just call Purple Rain one of the most influential albums ever. It’ll sound like a huge overstatement, but you’ll be proven right.

What is truly amazing is that I saw Prince again in 1988, touring behind his infamous, and unreleased, Black Album, as well as the officially released Lovesexy album. The Purple Rain hype had long passed, but the ’88 concert was even better than the ’84 show, with Prince in full command of his immense musical powers that night. From a purely musical standpoint, it was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen.

I’ve tried to keep up with Prince’s musical journey but since the mid-’90s, the man has made it easy, releasing floods of new music and daring you to follow along with him. The albums weren’t always great but the genius would show up when you’d least expect it, if you were patient. A well-informed box set covering the best of Prince’s post-1995 work would be a really good thing. But then, with hundreds of hours of music locked away in the vaults of Prince’s Paisley Park, we all need to accept the fact that there’s always going to be Prince music that we will never hear.

A final note. I saw a meme floating around Facebook the other day. It read “151,600 people die each day and no one bats an eye. Prince dies and everyone freakin’ loses their minds.”

I think this is a flawed meme. First of all,  I’m fairly certain that the friends and family of many of those 151,600 people were certainly affected by the passing of their loved one. Second, I’m not sure everyone was freakin’ losing their minds, though maybe some fans were going a little crazy, trying to get through this thing called Prince’s death. Finally, the text of the meme was accompanied by a photo of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s tragic passing was certainly greeted with much public mourning as well, so I’m not sure if that photo choice was meant to be ironic or not.

As it happens, of the 151,600 people who died on April 21, 2016, the one whose name I knew was Prince. If marking Prince’s passing and acknowledging how his work touched me means I’m freakin’ losing my mind, so be it.

 

Two of a Kind? R.E.M. Meets Talking Heads!

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory on June 10, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Can’t get there from here? That’s because you’re on a road to nowhere!

Thirty years ago today–June 10, 1985–I walked into a record store. I am not absolutely certain, but I think it was the Sounds of Market near 13th and Chestnut, in Center City Philadelphia. Don’t look for it now; it’s long gone.

I walked out of that store with two albums, both just released that day: Little Creatures by Talking Heads and Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. I caught the train and bus home and soon after that, I taped the albums back to back on a cassette tape. I proceeded to spend the summer of 1985 riding buses and trains from deep in Delaware County to the heart of North Philadelphia, listening to that tape on a constant loop.

Little Creatures and Fables of the Reconstruction–or if you prefer, Reconstruction of the Fables (which I don’t)–did not change my life in any major way. But, as the primary soundtrack to the summer of my 20th birthday, both records certainly secured a place in my heart, brain and soul. Three decades later, R.E.M.’s third full-length studio album and Talking Heads’ sixth continue to inspire and beguile me.

Here is what I wrote in my journal on 6/17/85, after I’d had a week to listen to both albums:

The brand new albums by Talking Heads and R.E.M. are both fantastic records. The Heads album seems like a culmination of everything the band has ever done. It has the minimalist new wave approach of the early albums, but many of the songs have retained the funk elements of Speaking in Tongues.

The name of the LP is Little Creatures, an excellent title since at least two of the songs are about children. One of them, “Creatures of Love,” is a country song, which is a real departure for the band.

Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s follow-up to Reckoning, is a stunning moody album. It’s similar to the Murmur album in that the sound of the music and the mood it generates is more important than song titles or the lyrics. Fables sounds like it contains a lot of desperation and loneliness.

R.E.M and Talking Heads were already among my musical favorites the day of their dual release, but these two records solidified my love of both bands. I remember how much I loved sinking into the dark and murky atmosphere on Fables–five years later, I’d have the same experience watching the first episode of Twin Peaks. Some fans and critics might have considered it a “grower”–an album you gradually appreciate over many listens–but I completely surrendered to the sound and feel of the album almost immediately. Seeing R.E.M. live later that summer, performing a concert as moody and dark as the album itself, was all I needed: after that, R.E.M. ascended to #1 on my favorite band list and has yet to relinquish that spot, even though the band has retired.

As for Little Creatures, it proved to be more a grower for me than Fables, but perhaps only because the deceptively simple pop songs with rootsy influences threw me for a loop after the funk-influenced sound of their previous two Talking Heads albums. But I grew to love Little Creatures. No other artist captured the way I was starting to look at life as David Byrne did on this record. The simple but odd storytelling, matched with Byrne’s detached irony, seemed like a great way to describe the world as I was seeing it. I still think so, though I gave up irony as a lifestyle choice many years ago.

It’s no wonder that I named my college newspaper column, “Road to Nowhere,” after the final track on Little Creatures. At least one friend asked me why I’d name my column after a song that was so obviously about death. I replied at the time that to me the song, and thus my column, was all about the journey without a destination, etc. Thirty years down the line, I’m thinking that, yeah, “Road to Nowhere” is pretty clearly about death. Of course, since I am now a cemetery tour guide, I guess I’m OK with however the song is interpreted.

I am not into nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, though this column may indicate otherwise. However, I think we all have cultural moments–albums, movies, books, etc.–that stay fresh for us. We return to these when we need to, maybe sometimes as a form of spiritual renewal. I have spent much of today listening to Fables and Little Creatures, but I have also been very much in the moment of my life right now and both albums were a snug fit for that right now. In fact, I even had a new audio/visual juxtaposition: driving down 15th Street from Girard Avenue in Philadelphia this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite buildings, the magnificent Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street, as I was hearing “Can’t Get There From Here” from Fables. This was a new combination and I very much enjoyed it. It got some neurons fired up in my brain and that’s a good thing.

So, thanks Chris, Tina, Jerry and David for Little Creatures. And thanks BerryBuckMillsStipe for Fables of the Reconstruction. You created the music for my summer of 1985. And every season since.

I Partied With The Fixx

In concerts, Music/Memory on November 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

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The original version of the following expose into the rock’n’roll lifestyle as seen in action during a post-concert meet’n’greet by The Fixx appeared in my college newspaper, Temple News, in the autumn of 1987, just after the events in question occurred. Then I added a bit of grown-up perspective to make it the 27th entry on my blog on Sept. 29, 2000. I used to get the occasional email from someone doing a search on “Pulsations,” the name of the nightclub where the Fixx played that night, but that hasn’t happened for awhile.

Just a few years ago, I further updated it for the previous incarnation of my Dichotomy of the Dog blog. And now, thanks to a recent conversation with my good friend Tom Kvech (a former Pulsations employee) at our 30th high school reunion, I again turn my attention to the night that I partied with the Fixx, with further minor updates.

I do not have any further grown-up perspective to add at this point.

On October 2, 1987 I partied with the Fixx.

It happened at a nightclub called Pulsations in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. At this point, you need to know two things:

1. The Fixx was a “new wave” pop band that hit it big in the early 1980s with hit songs like “Red Skies,” “Deeper and Deeper,” and “Saved By Zero.” The Fixx was sort of the missing link between the Police and Duran Duran. Their vaguely philosophical lyrics (a couple of their other songs were called, “Are We Ourselves?” and “Less Cities, More Moving People”) were brainier than Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon singing about “Girls on Film,” but not quite as pointy-headed (or as catchy) as Sting wailing about Jungian psychology in the Police’s “Synchronicity.” By 1987, the Fixx’s biggest charting hit, “One Thing Leads to Another,” was already four years behind them.

2. Pulsations began life as a Longhorn Steakhouse. In the early ‘80s, it was reborn as a glitzy discotheque several years after disco had been declared dead. The night Pulsations opened, a lighting fixture suspended from the ceiling fell on a patron’s head, killing her (I wish I was joking about that, but unfortunately, it’s true). This tragedy seemed to foretell the future of the ill-fated Pulsations. It was reinvented a few years later as a new wave nightclub, not long after new wave bit the dust. Pulsations was always a few years behind the times.

And now, on with my story…

I was the entertainment editor at the Temple News when the postcard arrived at the office. “Pulsations Cordially Invites You to Join The Fixx for a Post-Concert Party.” The concert and subsequent party was scheduled for October 2, 1987. The dress code, according to the postcard: “Dare To Be Different!”

Now, as the entertainment editor, I could have passed this little gem of an invitation on to anyone else on the newspaper staff, but I decided this was an assignment I had to take on myself. The invitation was for me and a guest, and it seems to me now that I could have waved an invitation to party with the Fixx in front of practically any woman in school and gotten an instant “yes!” out of them. In fact, with an opportunity to actually meet the Fixx, I probably could have gotten lucky, or at least luckier than I had been up to that point in my life. As the Fixx themselves said, “One thing leads to another…”

Curiously, though, I journeyed to Pulsations alone on October 2, 1987. History does not record why I didn’t try to make a date out of it.

The concert itself was fairly nondescript, or as I said in my review, “The Fixx just aren’t much fun live.” We ran a photo of the band with the review. Being smart-allecky college journalists, the caption we put under the photo read, “Party! At Pulsations! With Rich Wilhelm! We’re there dude.” I don’t think the caption was my idea, but even today I laugh when I look at it.

In a way, though, the concert itself didn’t matter. The whole point of the evening was to party with the Fixx after the show. Soon after the last note was played I flashed my special invitation in front of what I’m sure was a burly security guard (actually, I don’t remember) and found myself in a darkened private room, eating ham and cheese sandwiches on very small rolls and hanging out with record industry folks and fellow press people, all of us anxiously awaiting the arrival of the guys in the band. It was just like a new wave This Is Spinal Tap, except this time it was real.

The room had fluorescent lighting that highlighted the paintings of stained glass windows on the walls. These paintings looked just like the kind of windows you’d see in church except that they featured cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam and Pink Panther, rather than pictures of saints or scenes from the life of Christ.

A balcony off this exclusive room provided a great view of the various lighting fixtures and the spaceship that were suspended from the ceiling above the main dance floor. All the unfortunate partiers who weren’t allowed to hang out with the Fixx were getting down and getting funky (in that uptight 1980s way, of course) to the sounds of a popular disc jockey who was broadcasting his radio show live from the Pulsations dance floor.

Of course, the very private and wonderful post-concert party I was attending didn’t kick into high gear until the band arrived. The guys in the Fixx didn’t actually look too much like rock stars. In fact, after the band members had dispersed throughout the room, the only two I recognized were vocalist Cy Curnin and guitarist Jamie West-Oram.

It was all very exciting though. Cameras flashed and public relations people introduced themselves to the band members. “Hi. The name’s Joe. MCA Records. Right, we met in Chattanooga.”

Meanwhile, I had run into a guy named Peter, who was the managing editor of the newspaper on another one of Temple’s campuses. Eventually, Pete and I decided to try to ask Cy Curnin a few questions. As Pete began to interview Cy, who appeared to have a bit of a cold, I heard a woman next to me say to her friend, “I will talk to him, as soon as I get these two guys away from him.” By the way she said “guys,” I knew that if she had still been in high school she would have substituted the word “fags.”

The moment this groupie wannabe saw an opening, she interrupted Pete and said, “Cy, have you seen the Tower Records here?” I didn’t really ponder this question at the time, but with the wisdom that comes from many additional years of life, I now think that was a completely lame opening line with which to get Cy’s attention. In any event, Curnin spent the rest of the night politely nodding to everything Ms. Groupie said, and probably wishing he could just get back to his hotel room or tour bus and blow his nose.

Anyway, after being banished from Cy, I wandered over to Jamie West-Oram. Not knowing what else to say, I blurted out that I enjoyed his work on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer and Break Every Rule albums. He just nodded and said, “Yeah, well, it pays the milkman.” Then West-Oram autographed my special invitation, as I stood there wondering whether I should have mentioned how much I love the Fixx rather than his session work with Tina Turner. Oh, well. There I go, offending another famous rock guitarist.

The party broke up soon after that, but Jamie West-Oram’s words haunted me forever. OK, so they didn’t haunt me forever but I did think about them for about a week. “Yeah, well, it pays the milkman.” It made me realize that rocking and rolling isn’t always as glamorous Bon Jovi made it out to be. For guys like the Fixx, rock’n’roll was just a job. It was a good job, but sometimes it sucked as much as anyone else’s.

And here we are, 26 years later.

Believe it or not, the Fixx still exist. They still have a legion of hardcore fans who call themselves fixxtures. The Fixx’s latest album, Beautiful Friction, was released in 2012. Hopefully it is helping to pay Jamie West-Oram’s milkman, since Tina Turner has retired.

I visited Pulsations one more time, to review a concert by another new wave pop band, Human League (headline: “Humans Pulsate at Suburban Nightclub.”) Right before it closed forever in the mid-1990s, Pulsations’ owners were trying to turn it into a “gentlemen’s club,” but the Glen Mills community wouldn’t allow it. Eventually, the place simply shut down and is now gone. An assisted living facility now exists on the site of the legendary Pulsations.

And me? I’m just sitting here, daydreaming about the night I partied with the Fixx.

BerryBuckMillsStipe

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.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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