The Music Blog: So This Junkie Walks Into a Church

So a Junkie walks into a church…

Oh look now he’s got jokes. I love jokes and this guy writing is pretty funny, hilarious even.

Well not hilarious but he is sort of funny.

Well there was that one time, but he wasn’t trying to be funny, there was just that fall down a mountain into that yellow jacket’s nest. Man did he jump. Anyway that was funny.

Okay so he is telling jokes and he is not funny, this isn’t going to end well.

Nope. No jokes. Guess again.

Ohhhhhh I get it. It’s one of those long drawn out stories that have nothing to do with music and then bam a very slight connection only this guy understands. Hah and he wonders why he only has 5.2 readers. He has gone wonky. I think his moniker might really be appropriate. He has had too many swords upside the head, too many Rolling Rocks. That is entirely possible.

I don’t have any stories, at least not those kinds. I always have something to say. Today’s topic is the incredibly ridiculous American fascination with lumping people into categories. It is the only way we seem to be able to process anything. Popular, not popular, winners, Mike, cute, Mike, Rock and Roll, Blues, Country, whatever. (Oh yea my real name is Mike, like you had to guess.) If anything new comes along the first thing we do is try and categorize it. It’s almost panic driven. Whew that was a close one, for a second there I didn’t think that would fit anywhere. Part of this fascination I believe is to ensure that we keep people in their places. You don’t want to be different and even when you are different you still fit in with this other group. I wanna be a Goth, but that’s going to set me apart but that’s okay because there are all my Goth friends and they will take care of me. Music is no different, maybe the worst off all.

If you know me, then you know that my favorite time in music history is the late 80’s, early 90’s up to mid 90’s. There isn’t really a Seattle band from that period I don’t just love and love a lot. I was young, it was my time. I was who they were playing all that music for and so maybe that is a big reason why. One of my greatest frustrations though is that everyone from Seattle got lumped into that category of Grunge and I am not even sure what Grunge is. Oh silly it’s any music from Seattle that came from that time period. Yea, no that’s not right. None of those bands sound anything remotely alike so how can they all be lumped into the same damn category. I guess it makes us feel comfortable. Is it that way everywhere, I wonder? Some categories make sense, when you mention arena rock there is an image in your head and you think about Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner even but there is a context in that those bands play a similar form of rock and roll. It’s the same with hair bands, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Poison the term conjures a certain style of music even though some of those bands did it better than others. Mention Grunge and you start with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains but none of those bands have any real similarities other than being from Seattle. It makes zero sense to me.

Now, in the broader context it’s worse. When the term alternative came out there was a little sense to it. It conveyed a certain independence, a bit of movement away from the norm because there still were other forms of rock and roll being played. So it was nice to have an alternative radio station. It made sense. And suddenly there was a place for bands like Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Concrete Blonde and all those Seattle bands to have their music played on radio without it being too mainstream or corporate.

Several years ago way before the recent stuff on Woodstock I saw a documentary on the 60’s. It was a 4 or 5 part series that ended with coverage of Woodstock. The 60’s obviously was an explosive time in American History and there was a lot of change a lot of rebellion a lot of counter culture. Woodstock symbolized the end of that decade and the end of the counter culture as a separate movement. With nuns walking around flashing the peace sign, the peace symbol everywhere and the anti-Vietnam war feelings it was quite obvious that the bigger American culture had simply assimilated the counter culture movement. It was no longer different or abnormal, it was part of the American psyche. Being born in 1963 I was 6 when Woodstock happened and entering school and over the next few years the use of expressions such as Peace as a greeting and Far Out Man became common and every day. Everything was back to normal, you know groovy.

By 1994 the bands that were being played on Alternative radio stations had also normalized. Suddenly bands like Collective Soul and Counting Crows were being counted as alternative music. Were they though? If all the bands are alternative is there really such a thing as alternative? Before you get pissed at me because I am bashing these 2 bands don’t, I love both of those bands and besides I am really going to make you angry now. For the last few years I have been amazed, stunned even at the reception that the Foo Fighters get. I have no doubt they will soon be elected into the hall of fame. Dave Grohl is called a genius. I find them and him to be the most overrated on the radio. I don’t get the fascination. When Jimi Hendrix died you didn’t hear how great the individual members of his band were, you didn’t hear them called geniuses. Being affiliated with genius or greatness doesn’t make you a genius and it doesn’t make you great. Dave Grohl was blessed to be in a band with a real genius a real artistic genius who changed the world. That doesn’t make Grohl a genius or the Foo Fighters great. Here is a secret, pretty much every Foo Fighters album is the same. They have not changed, they are not great. Dave Grohl is a wonderful human being. I like the Foo Fighters but they are what they are.

Hmmm are you lost yet? Okay settle down drink some tea or something you are all red faced over my Foo Fighter comments. Settle down soldier and put the knife down.

So this Junkie walks into a church.

Oh yea I remember.

You see no matter how we normalize music there will still be bands that just don’t fit into a nice little neat niche no matter how big a hammer we take to them. To me it’s why the term alternative becoming so normalized is a shame because there really are alternative bands.

In 1988 a band from Toronto Canada entered Trinity Church in Toronto to record their second album. No one had heard of this band as they were still making their way. There were three siblings, Michael, Peter and Margo and bassist Alan Anton. That album The Trinity Sessions would put the band on the map and make me a lifelong fan of the Cowboy Junkies. It is one of the most stunning albums I own. Margo Timmins has a unique vocal style. I have never heard anyone come close to sounding like her. It’s not contrived like so many vocalists today trying to sound unique. It’s her natural voice, hauntingly beautiful. If ever a band existed to fit the moniker the Cowboy Junkies would be that band. They fit in no niche. You can call them a folk rock band but that is actually a disservice. You can call them a country rock band yet it’s inaccurate. They obviously have country and folk influences but when I say folk I am talking about a folk music unique to the Appalachians. Yet they are not close to a bluegrass band. The Trinity Sessions starts with the song Mining For Gold, and all you hear is Margo Timmins’ voice haunting and you can feel for a moment the miner’s lament, what it is to be a miner. There are actually only a few original songs on the album, the rest are covers including in my opinion the greatest country song ever written I’m So Lonesome I could Cry and somehow the Junkies make this into something glorious. It isn’t country but you can also be sure that old Hank would not be upset at the interpretation. It’s a beautiful cover. So you think well okay they definitely have all that country background then they cover Sweet Jane, a cover of the Velvet Underground maybe the first real alternative band. It’s nothing really like the original. It’s amazing. The Trinity Sessions remains one of my favorite ever albums. It’s so unusual and so good a rare quality. The next Junkies album was titled The Caution Horses. I love Neil Young but one of the things I really love is that he has so many songs that are not necessarily well known that are just great. Those are my favorites. Powderfinger is one of those songs. Neil has the voice to sing that song. I am sure he has heard the Cowboy Junkies version. I am sure he loves it. Margo’s voice is such that she doesn’t let you down much. But if there is a song that is descriptive enough for the band that penned it, a song off the album Black Eyed Man might be it; Murder Tonight, In the Trailer Park. The title conjures certain images for me and it’s a warning maybe to never take anything too seriously. Maybe the best way to view bands is stop trying to put them into nice round holes even with a hammer.

Look I could go through all of the albums and pick my favorite songs but in the end I don’t think I have really accomplished anything. If this particular blog entry does anything it should tell you to beware those bands that are called great or genius or any other labels. You might think I get frustrated at the injustice of it all but I really don’t. I just enjoy the music playing. If you love the Foo Fighters fine it doesn’t bother me. Again I never said I hated them. Just be careful when throwing out labels about bands. The truth is The Foo Fighters have done the same album 4 or 5 times and just changed the words and the title and people lap it up like it’s the greatest thing ever because that’s what the industry wants you to think, that’s what they have taught you. It reminds me of walking in the mall once and all around me in all the stores there were all these Grunge outfits, flannels and layers and such all stylish and priced to make someone a fortune and people bought them. Meanwhile here is a band that continues to defy the easy niche, a band that hasn’t made a lineup change in 30 plus years. They just keep playing and recording the music they believe in and if you buy it great if you don’t, well it’s seriously your loss on a really original band with great vocals and great musicians. I mean seriously they have mandolins in their music how cool is that?

Some bands truly are amazing and truly are alternative.

So a Junkie walks into a church……magic

Mike out

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