Sunday, September 29, 2013

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why "Amplifier" is the Greatest Breakup Song Ever Written

Okay, I admit it.  I can fall madly, passionately in love at the drop of a hat.  Often, it only lasts a week or two.  But more often, it lasts a good, long time.  And not infrequently, it lasts forever.

Oh, I should probably mention - I’m talking about songs.

I suspect there are plenty of people out there who don’t understand how it’s possible to “fall in love” with a song.   (And to me, “fall in love” is exactly the right term.)  I’m thinking, or hoping anyway, there are almost as many who completely understand what I mean.

Sometimes, it’s love at first sight…er, I mean, listen.  I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, back in 1978.  I was in London, walking down the street with my friend Annie, who I know will be reading this blog.  She literally yanked me into a record shop as we walked by, screaming,  “Oh my God, you have GOT to hear this song!” as Kate's voice blared from their sound system.  I bought the album right then and there.  In 1992, Mike was channel surfing one night in our TV room, and stopped for maybe 10 seconds on MTV.  When he continued on his quest, I grabbed the remote out of his hand and said, “Go back!  What WAS that?”  It was “Lithium” by Nirvana.  I’ve chronicled my 1987 “meeting” with Game Theory’s “Erica’s Word” already (right here).  Two of these three are on that “forever” list.  I still like “Lithium” a lot, but for me, the best song Kurt Cobain ever wrote was (at the risk of sounding predictable, something I never like to be) “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  That one’s a keeper.

I don’t remember when I fell for “Amplifer,” so I assume it was a gradual thing.  Those are often the ones that stick.  And this one most assuredly stuck.

“Amplifier” is a song by the wonderful 1980’s North Carolina power pop band, the dB’s.  It first appeared on their second, and final, album for Albion Records, “Repercussion,” released in 1982.  After the video started to get a little play, the song was remixed and included on the band’s third (and arguably best) album, “Like This” on Bearsville Records, in 1984. 

Photo by ... me!
It was written by the brilliant Peter Holsapple.  Holsapple is best known for his work with the dB’s, but he’s also worked with the likes of R.E.M. and Hootie and the Blowfish, as a side musician.  While I’ve always liked his vocals, it’s his incredible talent as a songwriter that blows me away.  I could easily give you five good reasons why he’s a freaking genius.  But we’re gathered here today to discuss one song, and that song is “Amplifier.”   A song which, in my humble opinion, is the single greatest “breakup” song ever written.

Why is that, you ask?

1.   The First Line of the Song is a Killer – Literally!

“Danny went home and killed himself last night.”

Not exactly a romantic start for a pop song, is it?  But, remember, this is a breakup song.  And not just any “breakup song.”  It’s the breakup song to end all breakup songs.  And the songwriter isn’t just any songwriter.  Holsapple is known for his sardonic take on love and romance.  In another of his gems, a song called “Love is for Lovers,” also on “Like This,” he penned what, for me, could be the all time best line ever included in a “love song:”

“And if you’re happy, then you ought to stay there.
I’m not certain that I know the way there.”

So, just to be clear, Holsapple isn’t exactly a member of the “moon/June” school of lyricists.  If he was, I wouldn’t be writing this.

And let’s be honest.  That first line sure as hell gets your attention.

2.  The Video

When you’re a fan of obscure music, like I am, just the fact that a video exists for a song is pretty spectacular.  But, not only does “Amplifier” have a video attached to it, the video is absolutely terrific.  It’s dark, it’s funny, and it’s clever.  What more do you need?  Oh, and you’re in luck - it’s also available on YouTube!

The young man in the video, as you’ve probably guessed, isn’t Danny.  It’s Peter Holsapple.  And, as low budget videos go, this one is really well done.

3.  That Guitar Intro Rocks Like Crazy

Despite my obsessive love of truly great song lyrics, I’ve also always been a huge fan of the electric guitar.  Heck, in 1968, when my mother gave me some cash to buy clothes for my sophomore year, I came home with a skirt…and Jeff Beck’s new album, “Truth.”  When trying to defend my choice, I pointed out that the album came in a jacket, and jackets are clothing.  She didn’t buy it.

As I mentioned earlier, “Amplifier” appeared on two dB’s albums.  Other than the fuller and cleaner sound it has on “Like This,” the recording seems to be the same as what originally appeared on “Repercussion,” so, even though he isn’t credited on “Like This,” I will continue to assume the great guitar work is that of the wonderful Chris Stamey.  (If anyone knows differently, please share!)  Stamey and Holsapple started the dB’s together, and also put out a couple of other albums together, including the beautiful “Mavericks” in 1991.  I saw them do an acoustic set at Night Stage in Cambridge, MA in support of “Mavericks,” and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always considered Stamey to be an underrated guitarist, and for further proof, check out his 1987 album “It’s Alright.”  But, I digress.

My point is, that guitar intro is really good, and super catchy.  It reels you in right away.  And the fact that it’s so upbeat makes that first vocal line all the more surprising.

And I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

4.  There is a Clear Villain Here

Peter Holsapple might be cynical.  He might be sarcastic.  He might be a lot of things.  But one thing he isn’t is wishy-washy.  He was wronged, damn it, and he is not afraid to tell you about it, in cringe-worthy detail.  There is no doubt who the wronged party is in this song.  That beeyotch took everything he owned!   You have to love the lack of any pretense here.

5.  One of the Greatest Plays on Words in Pop Music History

I am a complete sucker for lyrical ambiguity, double-meanings, plays on words, whatever you want to call it.  The Kinks’ “Lola” is probably my all time favorite song, for God’s sake.  So for me, the payoff in “Amplifier” comes near the end, when Holsapple sings:

“She took it all, in one big haul,
She left his amplifier”

Or does he?  Couldn’t he just as easily be singing:

“She took it all,
In one big hall, she left his amplifier.”

Both meanings work, and, even though all of the on-line lyric sites seem to stick with “haul,” I have to think a songwriter as intelligent as Peter Holsapple knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote that line.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why I "Liked" Cruising

At the age of…um…”50-something” (with very little time left to keep saying that), I’d never been on a cruise.  My husband, Mike, had always wanted to try cruising.  Most of our friends have done cruises and loved them.  But I had always been left cold by the idea of roaming around in a boat full of old people playing shuffleboard, surrounded by corny entertainers and bad buffet food.  Not to even mention the fact that I didn’t relish catching Noro virus, or being stranded in the middle of the ocean when something went wrong.

Not that I generalize. God forbid.

But there I was one night last October, at a nice restaurant in the North End, with the better part of a bottle of wine gone, and feeling pretty good.  Our friends were up visiting from Vancouver (in fact they were just about to embark on a Canada/New England foliage cruise), and another cruising couple had also joined us for dinner.  The subject turned to cruising.  I was about to nod off, when suddenly, I realized they were talking about walking on glaciers, and seeing Iditarod huskies and…did I hear that right?  Drinking glacial water?   Suddenly, I remembered an extreme closeup photo my friend Leslie had emailed me during her last Alaskan cruise (she’s done two).

Okay.  It might have been the wine talking, but I did it.  I agreed to an Alaskan cruise the following year.  Before I could change my mind and weasel out of it, Mike booked our tickets that week.  (What can I say, he knows me well.)

We returned from our cruise last Monday evening.  A lot of things happened on the cruise.  Me deciding I hated cruising wasn’t one of them.  But, neither was me falling in love with it.  So, color me ambivalent. 

Allow me to elaborate.

1.   Almost Everything is Included in One Price.

While the price for an Alaskan cruise is not exactly bargain-basement, it is kind of nice that you pay one price, and that covers your cabin, all your food, and various entertainment and “educational” options.  I was amazed to learn, this even includes Room Service!  It doesn’t include booze (unless you pay extra), but we really aren’t huge drinkers, so that was fine with us.  You don’t even carry cash with you on the ship!

The downside of that, of course, is that you have to wonder whether it would be more favorable for someone like me, who doesn’t generally eat lunch while on vacation (a nice breakfast and nice dinner seem to be exactly right for me), and who would never order two appetizers or two desserts at dinner (which I found out was not only perfectly acceptable on the ship, but is not even all that unusual), to just pay-as-you-go.  I couldn’t quite shake the sneaking suspicion I was somehow subsidizing the folks with heartier appetites than mine.  (By the way, even without a “hearty” appetite, I managed to put on 8 pounds.  God only knows how much I would have put on had I not visited the fitness center every morning!)

2.  The Cabins Are…Small

We opted for something called “Concierge Class.”  For a slightly inflated price, we got robes (okay, I wore mine almost every day), canapés in the afternoon (not a big deal to me, but Mike seemed to enjoy that) and extra items added to the Room Service menu.  We had big plans for Room Service, envisioning breakfasts on our (miniscule) balcony every morning, looking out over the ocean.  Reality set in quickly when we realized it’s about 50 degrees in September along the Inside Passage.  Buffet, here we come.

But back to the cabin.  According to the internet, it was 175 square feet.  That is...really tiny!   What was funny at first turned into annoyance around midweek, when we got tired of trying to pass one another on our way to the bathroom.

To be fair, though, they pack a lot of storage space into that 175 square feet.  It amazed me that, not only did our two large suitcases fit underneath the bed, but we had plenty of shelves and drawers we didn’t even use.  And, believe me, I overpacked even more ridiculously than I usually do.
One of our towel animals

Our spacious cabin

3.  There Are Shows Every Night and Various Games Every Day

Yes, there are.  There was a juggler/comedian named Mike Price, who apparently was on “America’s Got Talent” (I watch the show, and don’t remember him at all).  He was hilarious, with very edgy comedy that was right up my alley.  He was also a really good juggler, if you like jugglers.  There was a “mentalist” who was less than impressive.  There was also an inane “Broadway” show, with numbers from “The Producers,” “Cabaret” and several other shows.  It was pretty God-awful.  (Despite having a poster from “Wicked” displayed in the lobby, there were no “Wicked” numbers to be found.  It was probably just as well.)

There was also an Eagles tribute show.  I wouldn’t attend an actual Eagles concert, so an Eagles tribute concert wasn’t going to do much for me.  Okay, I admit to being a music snob, with what I’ve always referred to as “music-critic tastes.”  Maybe we should just chalk this one up to my being on a different planet than most folks musically.

They had an art auction one day.  We didn’t stay for it, but we did have a look around at the art.  There were a few pieces by well known artists, but a lot of what I saw was just not good.

There was Bingo.  We played.  We didn’t win.  We had fun.

There was a casino.  I love casinos.  I visit Las Vegas on a somewhat regular basis.  I spent about an hour in this casino  The video poker pay schedules are unplayable.  And the machines are still coin-in.  (To you non-gamblers, that means they still take and dispense quarters.  That technology went the way of the dinosaur some time ago.)

We did win a Beatles trivia contest.  Which is a good thing, because if we hadn’t, my Beatles-fanatic husband might have gone overboard.  We got 14 out of 15 questions right.  And he argued vehemently about the 15th question, and is still irritated about it.  Don’t ask.

Sadly, there was no “Newlywed Game,” as we’d heard there might be.  We had planned on kicking major ass.

4.  There is Food Literally Everywhere

There’s a buffet.  There’s a pastry counter.  There’s a dining room.  There’s a spa café.  There’s a poolside hamburger grill.  There’s a “specialty restaurant.”  There’s a martini bar.  There are about 3-4 other lounges.  There’s the afore-mentioned room service.

Is the food awful?  No. (Remember, I gained 8 pounds!)  The buffet food is about par for the course for buffet food.  We had our breakfasts there.  There were Belgian waffles, and there was fruit and whipped cream.  That is always enough to make me happy at breakfast.  And the coffee wasn’t too terrible.  (Okay you caught me.  I’m also a coffee snob.  I have Kona delivered to me on a regular schedule from Hawaii.  Shoot me.)

The main dining room is actually pretty good.  Small menu, but I was always able to find something.  The desserts were always good.  Well, except for a controversy we encountered with a so-called “lava cake with caramelized bananas” which had no lava, and nothing caramelized.  But that would be a blog in and of itself.  Every dessert I had was pretty good.  Not great.  But pretty good.

We also tried the specialty restaurant one night.  For $45 per person, you can dine in a small room with a separate menu.  This was by far the best meal of the cruise.  The food was actually quite good.

5.  The Service is Nothing Short of Amazing

Okay, this is one area where I don’t think I can be ambivalent at all.  I mean, not even a little bit. 

The service, from the housekeepers (oops, sorry, “stateroom attendants”) to the wait staff at the various restaurants, to the clerks at the gift shops, was absolutely outstanding, always friendly, always helpful and always efficient.  It blew my mind.  I don’t remember ever being so impressed by a staff.  And I’m pretty tough to impress.  (As you’ve probably gathered!)

So, to summarize. 

Did I have fun?  Most definitely, yes.  A large part of my fun was had at the ports, where we cooked fresh Alaskan salmon on a fire pit, and took a helicopter to Mendenhall Glacier to visit a dogsled camp and ride in the dogsled.  And an even larger part of my fun was had spending time with our friends.  But for the purposes of this blog, I am speaking only about the ship itself, and leaving the destination (including one day when we spent hours watching in amazement as the ship made several 360-degree turns at Hubbard Glacier) and our cruise mates out of the equation.  But the ship was not the "retirement home on the sea" that I foolishly imagined it would be.  It was fun!  And I bet it would be even more fun if the temperature were above 55.

Am I now madly in love with the concept of “cruising,” and therefore absolutely dying to book another cruise as soon as possible?  No.  But, I know thousands of people are - and more power to them.  That’s just not me.  But, would I do it again?  Probably, depending on the destination, the price, etc.

And let me tell you something.  The helicopter and the dogsled ride?  Worth the price of admission.  But, that's another blog, for another day.