Monday, April 29, 2013


This is a repost from my original internet(s) newsletter Fred. It's about the band Tool. I wrote this in 2001. I know it's embarrassing to like Tool. But like Fleetwood Mac, they are a guilty pleasure. I know I should write about all the new cool stuff that's coming out these days (new album from Boards of Canada!) but honestly I'm feeling so fucked that I can barely have an original thought about anything these days. But anyway, here it is, in all it's original 2001-era vintage glory. Behold: my fan letter to Tool:

So someone I know encouraged me to write about the band Tool. I had some trepidations.
Well, for a start, it is embarrassing to admit to the general public that you like a band like Tool, especially at my age. This is because Tool plays a kind of music that might be loosely termed "metal" although reviewers of recent have been using such creative phrases (I hate rock music critics for this) like "industrial crypto metal" or better yet "art-damage-metal." Tool is essentially considered adolescent music -- for teen males with an overload of testosterone. Once we move into our late twenties and early thirties, we want something a little more sophisticate

d. The second reason I was trepidating [sic] was that Tool is very difficult to describe for me, because they embody many of the things I hate about rock music and many of things I love about rock music, often in the same song at the same time. They're not very punk rock (aesthetically speaking). Yet they're weirdly punk rock. 

Which brings me to one thing about rock (and pop) music in general: the age issue. Why is it not appropriate to listen to a certain type of music past a certain age? This, I admit, is not a very original question, but it's been bothering me of recent as my hair turns grey and I get bald and fat. It's been bothering me because I don't want to give up something I truly love just because it's socially frowned upon. But I guess you could counter that I've been frozen in time, and I remain an adolescent male inside my aging body, unable to give up my (quite genuine) fantasy to pick up a guitar and ROCK OUT on stage. Yet, there is something odd about old people singing young people's music. The lead singer of Tool just turned 37. I'm sure he invests a lot into his vocation. I'm sure it means a lot to him. But what does it mean to him when his words, which probably relate to his existence as a 37 year old rich white male in the United States, appeal for the most part to 18 year old rich white males in the United States? This is not a new problem. I mean everybody from Keith Richards to Madonna to David Bowie to James Brown faces that conundrum. The problem of relevance. We aim to please the young folks. This is always rock music's goal. And this is its failing too, I suppose. 

So, Tool. Well, there's one thing I can say about Tool. 

They fucking rock. 

I don't mean they rock in the way Nirvana or (early) Aerosmith or the MC5 rocked. They rock with a capital "R." Think of the Who playing in 1976 (not 1970 when they were punk) at Wembley Stadium or Led Zeppelin on their Physical Graffiti tour in 1975 at Shea Stadium. These four guys in Tool go out on stage, they stand miles apart from each other and they blast out regimented music with martial beats. They are there to ROCK and nothing else. They're not fucking around. They are not kidding. They are not having fun. They are serious as shit. They are there to ROCK. In that sense (and many other senses), Tool is a quintessential '70s band -- they have the mystique of Led Zeppelin, the gloom and doom of Black Sabbath, the balls of the Who, and they project sheer power and grace beyond anything you have witnessed in your life. 

They do differ in one sense from the '70s archetype: they are explicitly anti-macho, and don't play up to any of the stereotypes of metal or rap-metal. The singer often wears drag on stage (really ugly drag), and none of their songs are about hot chicks or anything like that. 

I've seen them three times in concert. Each time, I felt that a huge tank, the size of a giant elephant, was approaching, slumbering forward, pushing ahead to run right over me. They stretched that moment, the moment before impact of the elephant's foot with my head -- into two hours. It was like being in a train wreck while it was happening, except all you heard was the sound of the train wreck, and you'd lost your sight. 

Tool's best album is an album called Ænima. They dabble in all sorts of high-falutin' concepts (you know, the usual male college student fare like C. G. Jung and other insufferable fools), but there is also something genuinely sophisticated and smart about their dabbling on this album. The lyrics are never pretentious (at least on Ænima). THey are perhaps vitriolic, but here's what is most odd -- there is always an underlying sadness. This is what puts them above the pack. They inhabit this absolutely odd place between anger and sadness. If you think for one second that gosh, this dude is a little pissed off, next moment he's about to make you cry. It's also not the kind of grating sad drivel that Morrissey or Robert Smith used to dole out -- it is not about self-flagellating sadness. It is the sadness of ETHER in our lives, the background. As far as the music, it's mostly regimented as I said. A few odd time signatures here and there. But what is most striking is that they take the most bonehead of metal riffs and then turn them into gorgeous music. This is something Led Zeppelin would also do in their best moments. But what takes the album Ænima to another level is the near absence of riffs. Most of it is just sets of random notes strung together, repeated over and over until you recognize some semblance of a pattern.

I could write about each song on Ænima at length (for each song is brilliant), but I'll pick two. The last song on Ænima is called "Third Eye" and is about 13 minutes long. The first oh 800 times I heard it, it just sounded like a morass, a mess, a mudbath of weird noises and sounds and burps and bleeps during which nothing much happens. I guess nothing really culminated -- which is what I wanted from all good 13 minute songs. Or at least nothing seemed to culminate. It was just these weird angular movements without any discernible groove, the aural equivalent of some really way out post-modern dance troupe doing their shtick. Of course, over time, it began to make sense. And after about five years of listening (I swear to God, five years) to the song, I finally discovered that it did indeed culminate. For about the first 12 minutes of the song, the band never shift from their modus operandi which is never to provide relief, never to hit any note that might give breathing room. But then in the thirteenth and final minute, the band lock together in this amazing groove, the guitarist suddenly begins PLAYING as opposed to whatever he had been doing the past 12 minutes -- and it is fucking gorgeous. They soar, they fly, you now understand what the whole song was about, you just know, you don't care, you are there, with the guitar, with the noise, with the infinite, as you lock into their groove. But it required twelve minutes of morass to get there. It all ends suddenly as the band come back into their angular coda, as the singer yells, no screams the phrase "Prying Open My Third Eye" repeatedly (about ten times) until you are numb. The album ends. And you remain numb. What the hey was that about?

The second song I'll mention is one with the least sophisticated (or abstract) lyrics. It's downright stupid in its simplicity. The title track (actually spelled "Ænema") is ostensibly about flushing the city of Los Angeles down the toilet. Over a fast waltz-beat, sort of like riding a horse at trot, the singer of Tool gently lists the things that must be on your mind as you're living and dying in LA:

Fret for your figure and
Fret for your latte and
Fret for your hairpiece and
Fret for your lawsuit and
Fret for your prozac and
Fret for your pilot and
Fret for your contract and
Fret for your car.

Later, he adds, again quite gently: 

One great big festering neon distraction
I've a suggestion to keep you all occupied

Learn to swim.

His wish is for California to fall into the sea. But the best is yet to come, especially for all you Tom Cruise fans. By now, he's getting really angry, and bitterly spitting his words into the mike as the guitars reach a crescendo over that self-same waltz-like beat that began the song:

Fuck L. Ron Hubbard and
Fuck all his clones.
Fuck all those gun-toting
Hip gangster wannabes.

Learn to swim.

Fuck retro anything.
Fuck your tattoos.
Fuck all you junkies and
Fuck your short memory.

Learn to swim.

Fuck smiley glad-hands
With hidden agendas.
Fuck these dysfunctional,
Insecure actresses.

Learn to swim.

And then. the most unexpected thing happens. The entire band hits a minor chord, and the bass and the guitar descend on this beautiful melody that reaches deep down into the most gut-wrenching melancholia. The singer changes his tone. And you hear his voice, and it's no longer angry, in fact, it's a little pleading, a little sad, a little drowned out and exhausted:

Cuz I'm praying for rain
And I'm praying for tidal waves
I wanna see the ground give way.
I wanna watch it all go down.

The band accompanies him down...down...on this minor chord sequence as the guitar with an echo soars in the background, reminding us that we are in fact listening to real people with real lives. This is the moment where it all connects in great music. These people are no longer abstract. It's you and me, baby:

Mom please flush it all away.
I wanna watch it go right in and down.
I wanna watch it go right in.
Watch you flush it all away.

Time to bring it down again.
Don't just call me pessimist.
Try and read between the lines.

I can't imagine why you wouldn't
Welcome any change, my friend.

And then his rage rises to the top again. He's back in your face:

I wanna see it all come down.
suck it down.
flush it down.

The band ends on a single note, all together. Not in a crash, but as if they had all turned off their amplifiers at the exact same time. Then there is dead silence. So that's Tool. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I was a few months short of nine years old when I first heard music that felt really important to me. Like it could make me really happy. Or at least that music could connect me to some place of happiness or accentuate it. The first song I heard that was like that was Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom." Since then, I've grown up and listened to lots of "important music." But recently, I've been coming back to the songs that meant a lot to me from the age of 9 to about 12. Before I got all "serious." Many of those songs are rather silly, but even more of them still stand up today as music that is about the simple joys of melody and beats.

Here below are three songs. The first two are songs from that magic period, when I was a completely happy boy with not a care in the world. They are such lovely pieces of music.

The first one is by Slade is called "Merry Christmas." I'm not a terribly big fan of Christmas (the holiday). In fact, I don't even celebrate it. But this is the best song ever written about a holiday. It takes me back to being nine in my parents' house in Manchester, running around, chasing after Lipi, and watching "Swap Shop" on Saturday morning. I can smell the fish and chips in the afternoon.

The second one is a song called "Runaway Love" from a band called Natural Mystics. Such a lovely lead guitar solo at 1:40. Completely brilliant. I had this song on a cassette which I wore out, wishing that one day I would love a girl this much.

The third is a song from my "serious" period. This is Tool doing "Aenema." It's pretty much the only thing I can listen to now. The only song that makes any sense to me right now. How things change.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More

That's the evocative title of a recent, well-known book on Soviet history. Which I haven't read. But probably should.

What a fucking last couple of weeks. And continuing.

Back to grading and listening to Tool.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert 1942-2013

He wrote:

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.