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Feb. 21 2010 — 9:22 pm | 163 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Remembering Doug Fieger, the power-pop maestro who had the Knack

Cover of "Get the Knack"

Of all the rock critics working, I think my former Chicago Tribune colleague Greg Kot best defined the struggle of the music critic: to walk that fine line between being a judge and a fan. Music is an art, so you can’t get too clinical about it; a critic has to find herself emotionally invested at some level, or why write? Yet a critic can’t be too much the fan, or else risk going too far in the direction of cheerleader.

I try to walk that balance. But in a few cases, the musical heroes of my childhood cause me to break that rule. When I do, it’s because they so changed the course of my life that I admit, straight out, that my vision remains skewed. And with the Knack’s Doug Fieger (second from left on the album cover), I stand accused of bias. Willfully, joyfully and unabashedly accused.

This past summer, thanks to Sharona Alperin (yes, of “My Sharona” fame), Fieger and I were introduced and he sat for me for an extensive interview, even though the brain cancer that claimed him on Feb. 14 was giving him one hell of a tough day. Still, he seemed ever optimistic, and Strat-through-a-Vox sharp, quoting Shakespeare at one point, and mounting a well-reasoned argument against the music critics of old who misunderstood the Knack. It may be the last extensive interview he gave. I don’t know.

In 1979, when “Get the Knack” stormed to the top of the music charts, the Knack were accused of being Beatles rip-off artists, of making prefabricated pop. What the critics didn’t know, and what Fieger strove to make clear to me, was how the band worked ceaselessly, playing close to 200 shows of the material that would become “Get the Knack” before a note was ever committed to tape.

Singing and playing the whole album in the studio—yes, live—The Knack recorded their debut in a few short weeks. “My Sharona” was mixed in 15 minutes. Yes, 15 minutes. Certain producers today spend 15 hours trying to get the perfect kick drum sound. Compare today’s Pro Tooled, airbrushed pop to the Knack’s first effort, made by four musicians rehearsed to the point of airtight precision. I’d argue in that respect, the recording technique behind “Get the Knack” had more in common with any early Ramones album than, say, something prefab.

Yes, the Knack sang about adolescent crushes and sticky-sweet stuff. But as Fieger also explained to me, the songs came from an almost singular source: his deep infatuation with Alperin. Sharona, a teenager at the time, became his muse, and thus inspired almost every song on the record. Fieger was in his 20s at the time, and fell in love hard and fast. He described their love-lust as burning like a bright flame, one he sensed could not last. Lucky for us it still left a luminous vapor trail in the rock and roll firmament.

When the follow-up album “But the Little Girls Understand” was released, you could well have titled it “But the Critics Don’t Understand.” Rock’s intelligentsia pounced again, saying the Knack had now copied themselves. But how could that be? It was recorded at the same time as “Get the Knack,” with the band intending to release a double-album debut, which would’ve been a first for a pop-rock band. Capitol vetoed the idea, and Fieger’s clever stab at history bit the dust.

After doing the interview, I emailed with Doug, prayed for him and tried as best as I could to cheer him up. I let him know in no uncertain terms what a difference he made during my adolescent years, when songs from his first two albums routinely peppered the set list of my high school band. When we talked he seemed tired, but unbowed; he’d made it much longer with the cancer than others in his condition. He even confided to me about coming back and touring again in 2010. And like a dork, I asked him how much he’d charge me to record in his home studio.

Now he’s gone, fled to the music of the spheres. I feel the loss, but also the joy of knowing that “Get the Knack” is there for me to cue up anytime I need to hear it. If you don’t have the disc, go buy it. It’s a power-pop masterpiece, every song a winner. And because it was recorded live—with Fieger singing all his lead vocals in the studio as he slammed down his rhythm guitar tracks—it sounds as fresh in 2010 as it did in 1979.

In my next blog, I will run interview material with Fieger, some of which I promised to keep confidential until the appropriate time. As for being a Knack fan, I make no apologies. It’s one of the perks of being a musician-blogger-freestyle writer in the 21st Century. You can wear your heart on your sleeve from time to time, and not worry about some editor’s errant red pen crushing a hole through it.

Feb. 1 2010 — 10:51 pm | 359 views | 0 recommendations | 8 comments

Grammy debriefing: Whiny music stars say the darndest things

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam 2008

Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who has somehow managed to lose battles against Ticketmaster AND common sense regarding the Grammys.

My fine friends at AOL’s Spinner.com posted a great piece that gave me a few laughs, and pause: reactions from major music figures about the irrelevance of the Grammy awards.

But major musicians complaining about the Grammys smacks to me of rich bankers whining about the horrors of the capital gains tax. A word to the not-so-wise: Try visiting clubland in Chicago, where thousands of struggling musicians work long hours for thankless pay. Those punters would kill to even be considered for a Grammy, let alone have one on the mantle.

It’s a luxury to dwell in gloom, and you’ve got to be deliciously ignorant of where you come from to be a star who complains about the Grammys. Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga attracting all that attention? No duh. It’s the Grammys, not the “artistically viable and socially relevant” awards.

I took some select quotes from the Spinner item, and decided to affix the proper relies to them: the ones these stars deserve to hear, but are probably too deaf to register from all those fans screaming, amps blaring, and ignorant thoughts raging in their heads.

“We just came to relax. We just wanted to watch the show. I don’t know what this [award] is. I don’t think this means anything.”Eddie Vedder, biting the hand that awards him during Pearl Jam‘s acceptance speech in 1996 for Best Hard Rock Performance

Reply to Vedder: “If it doesn’t mean anything, stay home. Why go? And what the hell was that treacly, cringe-worthy cover of ‘Last Kiss’ all about?”

“You think I give a damn about a Grammy?”Eminem, as heard on 2000’s ‘The Real Slim Shady,’ which went on to win Best Rap Solo Performance the following year

Reply to Eminiem: “That’s GRAMMAR, Marshall. G-R-A-M-M-A-R. It’s obvious to me that you use four letter words as a crutch for your limited vocabulary. Take some advice from an English major, and I’ll phrase this in your vernacular, so you can understand it: Try reading a f@#*ing thesaurus.”

“A 50-year-old white man shouldn’t decide whether we are relevant or not.”Pete Wentz, writing online after Fall Out Boy were overlooked for an award in 2008 (they also lost Best New Artist to John Legend in 2006)

Reply to Wentz: “Gawd, I love a pop-punk kid who obviously knows his music history. My guess is that Johnny Rotten is in his 50s. Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, if they were alive, would be in their 50s, too. Wonder how they would vote on your music if they had the chance.”

“The Grammys don’t respect country.”Toby Keith, nominated for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 2006, going public with his opinion in 2010

Reply to Keith: “These days, country doesn’t respect country. Calling calculated pop music with a twang and the obligatory fiddle solo ‘country’ is like spraying vitamins on a Twinkie and calling it health food. How much airplay would a new Johnny Cash or Bob Wills record get on a country station today? None. And you know why? Because they’re to busy hawking slick records by, uhm, the likes of Toby Keith.”

“Does it really matter to us? No. Absolutely not.”Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert, on the group’s 2010 Best New Artist nomination

Reply to Aubert: “But you will accept any future Grammys if you get them. Right? In which case, you’d be just as disingenuous and two-faced as your average cigar-chomping record company mogul.”

“I don’t think they acknowledge hip-hop for being the true art form that it is.”Fat Joe, irked to find out on the red carpet that the award for Best Rap Album of 1999, which was won by him and partner Big Pun, was to be given off-camera

Reply to Fat Joe: “I know what you mean, Fat guy. Our culture really does need to do much more to celebrate misogyny towards women, violence towards police, gang culture, the pursuit of cash at all costs, and the glory of drug pushers. That’s the kind of redemptive art I think we can all get behind.”

Jan. 13 2010 — 5:17 pm | 63 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

A new direction for Lou/Slant: In 2010, it’s all about the music

The author's 2007 solo album, released to glowing reviews in various publications. (But not here. Promise.)

The author's 2007 solo album, released to glowing reviews in various publications. (But not here. Promise.)

In the last months of 2009, I sensed that I wanted to change my blogging activity at True/Slant to bring my writing into more perfect alignment with my passions, my expertise and the responses I got from readers. The decision wasn’t hard: Sometime in October I decided I wanted to write about popular music, but in a way that you never (or seldom) see at the nation’s major newspapers, music magazines and Web sites.

And so, I bring you the first installment of my music column here on True/Slant, which will expand and expound on the work I do as the lead music critic at Christian Century magazine. And while various aspects of my life demand more time of me these days, I begin this venture with high hopes, and a promise that when I write, you can expect the following:

1) No sacred cows. Some critics and publications have such blind allegiance to bands and artists they can’t write a bad word about them. Not me, not here, not ever. For example: While I love The Beatles more than any other band, I’d argue that an honest appraisal of their work would find flaws with almost all their albums. Except “Revolver,” which I played for my son while he was in the womb.

2) Zippy style. Some of the same critics who gush about the likes of the more colorful ’70s critics write in pretty flat prose. “Writing about music IS like dancing about architecture”–except when the writing has music in it. I’ll do my best to make my prose sing.

3) No hipper-than-thou bullshit. Doug Feiger of the Knack complained to me in a recent interview about how rock critics in 1979, infatuated with punk, did in his group as a Beatles knockoff band. What Feiger points out is that the Knack became a target for critics as soon as they sold records and became successful. I couldn’t agree more. The Knack’s debut album holds up amazingly well because it was recorded live in the studio, with minimal overdubs, after the band did more that 180 shows honing the material. I want to judge music on its merits, not its sales. By the way, this works in reverse: I too often see critics “inflate” an appraisal of a band because they play death-metal-free-jaz-improv-proto-punk-mash-up … oh, you’re not cool enough to get it, anyway. And neither am I.

4) No low blows. They probably giggled all the way to PR bonanza, but the kiddos at Pitchfork went way too far when they posted a video clip of a monkey peeing in its mouth as their review for an album they didn’t like. I don’t do unethical criticism here. No stunts, no pranks, no smear campaigns. Unless, of course, it’s one of my old band demos. (Just DARE me to post one.)

5) Metacriticism. Every once in a while it’s fun to review the critics: What are they writing and do they actually know what they’re talking about? As probably the only music critic in the country who can mic a studio drum kit and pick out a Vox AC-30 amp from a Marshall JCM 800 just by listening to a guitar track, I have the chops to hold the critics up to course correction when needed–and praise when merited. Hell, I make mistakes myself, too, so I’ll do my best to make it all fair.

6) Cool Q&As. When I talk to a musician who has something significant, funny or poignant to say, I’ll post it here.

That’s the set list, then. If there’s anything you wan me to cover, look at or write about, send me an email at feedbacker@aol.com. But please, no unsolicited demos.

Unless you want me to rip off your songs, of course.

Dec. 31 2009 — 6:02 pm | 42 views | 1 recommendations | 0 comments

A New Year’s Journalism Wish: Don’t let Editor & Publisher die

E&PThe year 2009 was bad enough for print journalism; a long-time colleague of mine who just took a New York Times buyout counts 40,000 journalism jobs lost and 143 newspapers biting the dust.

Through all the turmoil and hand-wringing, Editor & Publisher stood unique among industry trade magazines. While most trades, say those covering the oil industry or music, tend to cheer lead and act as apologists for the Industry Elite, E&P wasn’t afraid to call newspaper brass boneheads when appropriate. When the press bought George W. Bush’s disinformation about Iraq and Weapons of Mass Deception hook line and sinker, E&P took the minority, unpopular view that newspapers everywhere had left their collective critical thinking skills at the door. Ultimately, E&P was right.

It was also right back in the mid-1990s when it warned newspaper owners to embrace the Internet, or else perish. Like those in the music industry and other media, journalism executives instead chose to fight/ignore the changes tooth and nail. And now, everyone’s paying the price for not listening.

So why has E&P reached the end of the line? As my story on AOL’s WalletPop explains, you can blame it on corporate ownership. The Neilsen Co. sold a batch of its trade publications at the beginning of the month, including Adweek and Billboard. But for some reason, E&P wasn’t part of the package transferring to the new owners, and now it must find new backers or go out of business. This baffles many observers, since E&P look poised to finish 2010 with a profit.

Now, it will be lucky to even start 2010. Its last issue has been put to bed, and this week marks the last under Neilsen’s banner–though not necessarily the end of the line. All the attention to this story–thanks in large part to all those journalist fans E&P has gained over the years–have made the potential demise of this scrappy publication a cause celebre.

As well they should. For 125 years, E&P has served as the bible and unflagging conscience of the Fourth Estate. Right up until the end, Editor Greg Mitchell and his staff have been pointing out that print media conglomerates such as Gannett and McClatchey, for all the hand-wringing they’ve done, are making a profit, thank you very much.

What can you and I do? If I had a big enough cash advance limit on my Master Card, I’d buy E&P myself.

But in the meantime, I’ll be visiting the temporary gathering spot for the E&P posse, “E&P in Exile.” I suggest you do, too. It would be a great start to 2010 if we could say that we did something to keep Editor & Publisher in business.

Dec. 17 2009 — 10:59 am | 35 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

To my Chicago Reader comrades: News you can use on new publisher Jim Warren

Jim Warren, the Reader's new publisher, is a class act.

Jim Warren, the Reader's new publisher, is a class act.

Just as there is news that goes on behind the news, certain crucial aspects of newsies’ lives don’t often get reported … because they concern the flesh-and-blood person behind the job title. And so, I learned something very important about your new publisher, Jim Warren, after my mother passed away two years ago.

Warren was a very busy guy in his old Tribune post running the Features department. But once I returned from from saying goodbye to Mom, Jim sought me out. He came up to me–this after I took two weeks off–and said: “Lou, I’m very sorry. And if you need some more time off, go home. Take as long as you need. And let me know if you need anything. OK?”


Here’s the deal, Reader folks: Jim Warren is a class act. When the Tribune unceremoniously let him go, about the same time Editor Ann Marie Lipinski left, it marked the end of an era where people in the highest echelons Tribune management went to the mat to defend their people and the news values of the paper. While I refuse to say anything about the Poobahs That Be at the paper today, I will say this: Jim Warren cared about his people deeply. And you will see how he’ll care about you.

When the late features writer and comedy beat kingpin Allan Johnson got hospitalized, Jim became a constant fixture in the waiting room, his presence meaning the world to Johnson’s nearest and dearest. People like me assumed that they must’ve been the closest of friends. But I was shocked to find later that the two knew each other more as acquaintances. This is vintage Warren: Showing his colors when it matters most. He updated us every day with news on Alan’s status, until we got the heartbreaking news, which Jim summed up thus: “Allan didn’t make it.”

Now, let this be said. Jim and I had plenty of disagreements about what makes for good feature coverage–as is proper in a newsroom where debate sometimes gets stifled. And I was no big fan of his ethics policy that prohibited reviewers like me from using free “plus one” tickets to bring our spouses to concerts and plays. In fact, I fought him tooth and nail on this, stressing that even the New York Times had no such policy at the time.

Yet in the final analysis, now that I’ve been removed from the Tribune for more than six months, I can see what made Jim Warren so special: his human touch. In the months ahead, you may disagree with Jim’s approach at times; I’m sure you will. You may find him at times aloof and hard to pin down for one-on-one time. I know I did on occasion.

But on that most important score of caring deeply and humanely for those under his wing, Jim Warren remains unrivaled in my book. I saw ample evidence of this at his Tribune going-away party at the Billy Goat. The place was packed and veteran after veteran stepped forward, many of them in tears, telling basically the same Jim Warren story: “The chips were down, I was in big personal trouble, and Jim was there.” (In one case, I think he brought chocolate chip cookies to the emergency room.)

Best of the best to you Jim. (And in case you’re wondering if this is slick my pitch to freelance for you, rest assured I’m more than busy enough these days, working on two books and two albums as a producer.)

The folks at the Tribune know damn well what they’re missing with you gone.

And the folks at the Reader have no idea how lucky they are.

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    About Me

    I am a former features staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, laid off in late April 2009 even as I was doing my blog called--get this--"The Recession Diaries." I am still the lead popular music critic for Christian Century magazine, a Loyola University Chicago journalism professor, an author, a lover of thin-crust pizza and chocolate truffles. I reside in Chicago and in various states of mania, puzzlement and enlightenment. It's easier for me to explain Meaning of Life than 101 years without a Cubs World Series win.

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