Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Worst Opening Act Ever

Spending the lion’s share of my life in the music industry as afforded me the opportunity to see some amazing concerts. As a rock journalist and radio DJ, I was given literally hundreds of passes and free tix to shows.  As a promoter, agent, and manager, I got to see scores more. And I also purchased my fair share as a common punter wanting to see his fave new act. 

Great shows are not that hard to recall:  My first U2 experience in ’81 at the Park West nightclub in Chicago; the visual spectacle of Pink Floyd at Vanderbilt Univ. Stadium in the summer of ’94; the unexpected joy of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia on the Oops, Wrong Planet tour in ’77; Kansas previewing material to their classic Leftoverture in ’76 a month before its release; Phil Keaggy Band in a 3 hour tour-de-force in ‘82; Genesis with stunning light/laser effects on the Wind and Wuthering Tour in ‘77; Pearl Jam exploding on stage at MTSU in ’93; Andre Crouch turning conservative Wheaton College into a pulsating black gospel party in ‘73; The Dixie Dregs in incinerating 328 Performance Hall in ’95; The Police tearing up the legendary Aragon Ballroom in Chi-town in ’80;  Peter Gabriel’s stage wizardry at Joe Louis Arena in ’87; Springsteen’s with his reunited E-Street Band in Nashville in ’98; Midnight Oil scorching the Paramount in Denver in ’88; Monte Montgomery wowing a packed-to-the-rafters 12th and Porter Showroom during the NAMM show in 2000; and more to be savored.

As stupendous as all of those were, none, however, none can match the depths of unequivocal incompetence of the worst act I’ve ever seen. Before I get to them, let me take you down the Hall of Shame before reaching the Lowly of Lowlies.  Burned into my memory cells are The Godz in Rockford Armory in ‘78; Thunderpussy in Decatur in ‘73 (although they get kudos for one of the funniest monikers ever); The Chi-lites opening for blues master Roy Buchanan at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago (what was THAT promoter inhaling?!); Leon Patillo debuting his all girl back-up band in ’84 in Nashville (you could actually see his career ending before your eyes); Natural Gas; Tutu and the Pirates; Beaverteeth; Nick Gilder (what a panzy); T.J. Bear; Twister;  Faustas (arguably the worst heavy metal band of all time—I swear the singer had a rabid weasel lodged in his rectum); Roxx; Barooga; Skafish; 999; Krokus; Saint (Christian heavy metal at its absolute worst); W.A.S.P; Berlin; Duke Jupiter; Legs Diamond; Lust; The Dictators (featuring Handsome Dick Manitoba as the “charismatic” frontman); Krumbacher; and Autograph;  Then there was Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band; Bad Boy; P Boys; Country Boys; and The Boyzz—you can pretty much guarantee that if a group has “boy” somehow incorporated in their name, they will wreak (that even includes Christian lounge singer Dave Boyer).

Of course, there have been some real doozies playing on the Bud Lite  stage at Nashville Predators hockey games during between-period intermissions. The Stones cover band Jaggered Edge was particularly puke inducing, and I had to regularly choke back the bile whenever The Groove Addiction graced us with their clumsy exertions.  I wish I could also forget the plethora of female fronted bands that feel it obligatory to play “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” ("Oooh, I got a great idea for a hockey song!”). If I hear that one more time at a Preds game I will take them up on the offer with a rocket launcher from good ol’ Section 303.

But the band that scrapes even lower, that swirls repeatedly within a black hole of incompetence, whose musicianship is was so bereft of quality that even Satan and his minions would be challenged to embrace them was Felix Pappalardi’s Creation.  It is sad, really, that this is true, because I had the utmost respect for Felix as the producer of all of Cream’s amazing blues/rock albums in the late 60s, as well as being the bassist/producer for Mountain.  That band’s “Mississippi Queen” still sounds as vital and raucous today as when it was released in the early 70s.

However, for reasons known only to Felix, and perhaps to God, Mr. Papalardi assembled the most questionable entourage I’ve ever laid eyes and ears on in the mid 70’s, and dubbed it his “Creation.” I wouldn’t be the least surprised if it was the inspiration behind Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap. I don’t know the names of the other members of his band, nor do I even care to Google them.  Suffice it to say that any band that is chosen based on the following requirements is going to produce dubious results:

1)     Every member had to be of Asian decent (nothing against that people group—I would make the same assessment of a band chosen for other appearance reasons, like say an all organic Eskimo lineup, or paraplegic Pygmy players, or autistic Albanian albinos). Maybe Felix was ahead of his time, but, then again, I thought Japanese rock groups like Loudness and XYZ sucked with abondanza in the 80s as well.

2)     There had to be an equal number of women and men in the band.  Now I’m not sexist, but let’s face it, there just haven’t been many convincing female rock musicians.  Some fantastic singers to be sure, but actual players…uh…no.  If you doubt me, just think of the Runaways, Hole, Go Go’s, Rachel Rachel, The Donnas, Vixen, or The Bangles as reference points. The three women Felix chose couldn’t have performed their way out of a wet paper bag.

3)     There had to be two of every instrument. Now, in the 70s the phenomenon of double guitars came into vogue for harmonizing leads, and groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thin Lizzy truly pulled it off with aplomb.  There were even southern rock groups that had two drummers (Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, and The Outlaws come to mind).  I’m not sure what was actually accomplished with twice the rhythm—especially when they were often playing the same patterns--but at least it was fun during their drum duets.  But why in the name of all that is holy, would a band need two BAD keyboardists, and even more puzzlingly, two bassists? I still chuckle every time I think of it. 

I had never heard Felix Pappalardi’s Creation before the night they opened for the incomparable Gentle Giant at the Riviera Theater in Chicago in July of ’77.  After their “performance” I had no intention of EVER wanting to hear them again. Hence, I am not at liberty to neither recite song titles nor give a blow-by-blow account of the interplay between the members.  But only one word comes to mind when I reflect on what I heard that night: cacophony.  Webster’s defines it thus: “a disagreeable or discordant sound, full of dissonance.”

The fact that they were chosen to open the show for Gentle Giant only enflamed the problem.  You see, G.G. was arguably the most musically intense rock band ever assembled.  Each of the five members could play at least four instruments well.  It was not odd to see them switch with each other DURING a song.  Their compostitions were complex, yet rollicking. They sang amazingly layered harmonies under intriguing lyrics. Their showmanship was Pythonesque. And it was all pulled off impeccably.  As a result, their fan base was rabid, and opinionated to the nth degree.  Opening acts were often mercilessly booed off stage.

But even the 2,000 strong Giantites packed into that old vaudeville palace were stunned by the sheer ineptitude they were experiencing with Pappalardi’s ensemble.  As they ended their first song, there was some scattered applause and a smattering of boos—but mostly jaw-dropping amazement of how bad it sounded and looked. However, as the boorish onslaught continued, word somehow made its way around the hall, so that with the end of each heave-inducing number, the audience would simply sit in mocking silence.  No boos, No catcalls.  Not even the meagerest of “golf claps.”  I do recall after one particularly frightful offering--as Felix paused during the introduction of the next “tune”--someone with practiced skill in the art of fake flatulence let fly with the largest mouth fart one could imagine.  Even those of us in the balcony heard it.  And it was met with gales of laughter. After another selection someone bellowed “I’ll PAY you more if you’ll just stop!” You could tell the band was becoming increasingly aware of the bitter acrimony being exhibited.

It was so awkward, and the Giant fans were becoming bolder as they reveled in their unified derision. The audience became much more the show than what was on the proscenium. After forty minutes of enduring this torture, Felix finally announced “This will be our last song,” to which one fan bellowed “Thank bloody Christ for that!” Waves of derisive glee swept the hall. Upon finishing their magnum opus, the crowd rose to its feet in mock adulation, cheering their departure. 

Maybe Felix was feeling a bit uppity, or maybe he was even delusional, but he gathered his oriental sextet stage left, and they boldly marched back out towards the throng for what they must’ve felt was a well-earned encore. I’ve never seen anything like what ensued: as one, the entire audience yelled “NO!” and was pointing back to whence they came. Some were even throwing popcorn boxes, cups, wadded paper—I think I even saw a hush puppy shoe fly towards those addled artisans.

Realizing the error in his assessment, Felix and his buffoons immediately did an about face and marched back to the bowels of the Riviera. I would not be surprised if the band broke up right then and there. One thing’s for sure, they never appeared in Chicago again.  And no further albums were forthcoming.

Was it cruel?  Yes.  Was it deserved? To some degree, yes.  Was it hilarious?  Absolutely. Bands need to be prepared to take their lumps.  Just four years before, Gentle Giant, replete with their violins, vibes, glockenspiels, saxophones, trumpets, flutes, wooden recorders, olde English harmonies, and rock instrumentation, had their first U.S. tour opening for….Black Sabbath.  Talk about your baptism by fire!  But they survived it, learned from it, and became a better band in the long run. 

Creation, however, ended due to their trials...and never was “survival of the fittest” more apropos. I just wish I could rinse that malodorous melodious-less stench out of the recesses of my brain.   

Who was the worst opening act you ever endured?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Heaven on Earth

Ray Waddle of the Nashville Tennessean, gives voice to N.T. Wright’s theological interpretation about the Kingdom of Heaven as it should be…
An indispensable buzzword of this partisan moment is silo: Left or right, secular or religious, we sit in hardened rival silos of filtered information, snug, smug and untouched by new data, better arguments, or the voices of neighbors and other strangers.
The figure of Jesus suffers from this odd contemporary lack of a meeting of minds. Two siloed groups notably jostle for dominance. The skeptical wing says Jesus was merely a good man, if he existed at all. A conservative wing regards him as God’s Son who came from faraway heaven to take away our sins, then went back to heaven beyond the skies and will return harshly to judge the world.
But what if the point of Jesus was to tell people that God is in charge of the world right now and urges everyone to get to work to make this newly incorporated kingdom a success? What if Jesus came not to teach people how to get into distant heaven but to enact God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” as he said in the Lord’s Prayer?
N.T. Wright, a scholar-writer and a former Anglican bishop, is considered a leading British interpreter of Christian faith, a successor to C.S. Lewis. For years now, he has been thinking his way past the two entrenched stories about Jesus, re-reading Scripture, questioning some old stubborn misreadings. At stake is the rescue of the faith from hardened arteries and terminal boredom.
His latest book, Simply Jesus, takes up the theme: God’s new creation is breaking in, and Jesus embodies what God wants done. God installed Jesus to act on his behalf. Jesus forgave; he healed; he said love one another. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said.
Wright defines heaven
In this bleeding world, all that might sound like pious nonsense. But in Wright’s eyes, the evidence grows that God is in charge despite it all. Good is infiltrating. “Jesus has all kinds of projects up his sleeve,” Wright says.
The unpredicted emergence of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission wouldn’t have happened without faith in God, he argues. Neither would the Jubilee movement to reduce the debt of poor nations if churches hadn’t acted. A million neighborhood ministries that aid at-risk youngsters or older adults wouldn’t get done if believers didn’t care and God’s rule didn’t have a foothold.
From his Bible reading, Wright concludes God intends to be the world’s sovereign today, not a distant future hope. This is uncomfortable news to those who thought they could despairingly give up on human society and place their bets on the Second Coming. Think again, Wright says. Heaven isn’t what we assumed.
“People who still think that ‘heaven’ is a long way away, up in the sky, and that that’s where Jesus has gone, imagine that the second coming will be an event somewhat like the return of a space shuttle from its far-off orbit. Not so. Heaven is God’s space, God’s dimension of present reality.” Jesus’ return means heaven and earth will one day come together and be present and transparent to each other, Wright declares.
Earth and heaven have overlapped already at least once: in the life of Jesus. The task is to expand that overlapping terrain.
Wright imagines the real world when Jesus is running it: “The poor in spirit will be making the kingdom of heaven happen. The meek will be taking over the earth, so gently that the powerful won’t notice until it’s too late. The peacemakers will be putting the arms manufacturers out of business. Those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice will be analyzing government policy and legal rulings and speaking up on behalf of those at the bottom of the pile.”
This kingdom campaign beckons hearts and minds to venture out of their silos. Will skeptics be moved to see religion as a force for humane political reform and not a force of nay-saying and violence? Can rapture-ready believers behold this world as an arena for change and not a hopeless orb of iniquity to be blown to bits by divine wrath ASAP?
Such a cascade of miracles starts first with imagination. The Bible is still stirring dreams and rumors of a new heaven and even a new earth.
Columnist Ray Waddle, a former Tennessean religion editor, now lives in Connecticut. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Love Is Not the Only Thing

Another in my series of Mark Heard gems. This from his 1991 album, Second Hand.  He was truly one of the best I’ve ever been around.  You can hear the song on the Youtube link below.

Sun rises and we talk about the weather

Sun bleaches and we ponder it all

The fine line between the banker and the debtor

And what happens if the satellites fall

Too shy we are to come right out and say it

Too sly to let the other one know

Head full of this kaleidoscope of brain-freight

Heart full of something simple and slow
Love is not the only thing

It's the best thing

Love is never everything

But it's the best thing
Too tired to read another twenty pages

Too bored to see the anchorman's face

Too young to bear the burdens of the ages

Too old to keep an innocent pace

You see me like a prism sees a candle

I'm scattered into differing hues

Reality is happening at random

You're warming up the yellows and blues
Love is not the only thing

It's the best thing

Love is never everything

But it's the best thing
Let's go up on the roof beneath the neon

Pretend we're foreigners and drink the city in

Somewhere between the stairwell
and the starlight

I find myself holding your hand

Half-cousins to the angels and the demons

Half-brother to the fatherless sons

I lay awake and wonder at the reasons

One kiss and I am lost in your charms
Love is not the only thing

It's the best thing

Love is never everything

But it's the best thing
Written by Mark Heard
© 1991 Ideola Music/ASCAP

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I Get Letters

My book, Embracing the Gray: A Wing a Prayer, and A Doubter’s Resolve, has elicited a slew of letters and e-mails.  Here are excerpts of some that have come in…

The thing I appreciate most about you, Mark, is you're real and don't make apologies for calling things like they are, and thus this is a great read. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Embracing the Gray. Your life has certainly been an adventure and an inspiration. Thanks for sharing with the world. My son and daughter want to read it, too. Hey, I might even share it with my book club! 

You (your book, your words) make me laugh and cry. Chapter 21 “Checkers” made me cry  (touched my heart in many ways). Chapter 23 “Sleeping with Marc Wozniak” made me laugh (out loud, in the coffee shop…a little embarrassing). And Chapter 22 “Cold Cuts and Knifing Winds” as well as many other chapters tells me your name is Compassion (interesting that you work for an organization using your name).  I’ve got one more chapter left to read, but I don't want to read it, 'cause then it will be over and, well...I’ve enjoyed it so much, I don't want it to end. I hope you are working on a sequel.  F.T. 

Man, I feel I know you so much better since starting your book. You have my deep admiration for managing to maintain an active faith in a good God after everything you've been through. 

I recently purchased your book on Amazon and enjoyed it greatly. I lazily don't finish 2/3 of the books I start reading, but I couldn't put yours down. Thank you for sharing honestly and from your heart.

At this moment, while everyone else at church is studying, socializing and being in community, I'm sitting in an empty Sunday School room by myself because I'm not sure where or if I fit in. I'm reading your book and sobbing. Thank you for being in my life, for sharing your experiences and for making me feel I'm not alone. I picked it up yesterday (after finishing The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception) to read it and give you some encouragement. Now I know I was meant to read it for me. Thank you... 
Mark...again a great book! I really found many touch points of a shared journey with you. Cried a few times, laughed a few more times and laugh ‘til I cried from time to time. Good read. 

I appreciate your have so many great stories and I'm sure there are so many more! Can't wait to get back to the book! 

It was a pleasure reading your book! (I ordered it off Amazon myself the week it came out). Thanks for sharing your story through this book, it was a very honest interpretation of your journey of life and I'm actually going to send copies to a few people I know who I think would really identify with you and the issues you addressed. 

Your book is over-the -moon fantastic!! Just love the depth and scope of your life, Mark.  J.H.

I ate by myself at Vandalia's in DC tonight and spent the entire time (except when munching) reading your book. All the while, these guys at a table next to me were discussing the lack of need for God / religion because people inherently know the "Good" -- the whole thing was pretty surreal. I'm really enjoying the authenticity that shines through! 

You're like Forest Gump in the sense that you have been present with such interesting people in such interesting situations.

I DID finish it. Actually bought an extra copy or two and gave them to friends as well. Awesome read, man! I was reading it on an airplane - alternately laughing then crying. I'm sure the lady next to me thought I was a nut-job. I truly enjoyed it. Plan on re-reading it again later in the year. 

I've enjoyed many of the stories you've told in your book. I do hope it touches many lives, and I appreciate the level of soul-baring that you offer in its pages.
D.L .

Embracing the Gray gives me peace to be human, to be real and transparent with my Maker. Thank you for your raw, and sometimes, bloody verbiage - it is important to us all!

I benefitted from it.  It's a great book!  You have an engaging and elegant writing style.  I hope my young adult I just finished your book, Embracing The Gray, today and I wanted to tell you how much son will read the first half of the book (which I call your testimony) because you give such an honest accounting of God working in your life and he likes music so I think your music friendships might intrigue him.  You have a wonderful gift for writing and I was truly privileged to read your book.  Thanks!

It was both entertaining and encouraging. The concept of not being human enough really resonated with me. I know that I've been guilty of pretending to be a super Christian instead of just being a real human. The deep thinker in me loved the “Eternal Now” chapter as well. Thanks again for sharing!

Just finished your beautiful book. Thank you for writing it! Thanks for writing about your struggles and doubts, your questions and complaints. Thanks for sharing what most believers would only whisper to themselves. It's a beautiful book and I truly enjoyed it. I look forward to getting home and writing a review for Amazon.. Thanks again for a thought provoking and soul-searching book. Great job!!

I continue to be humbled by the response the book is generating.  If you have read it and wish to correspond with me, I always interact with any communiqu├ęs.   You can also read many reader reviews (97% are Five Stars) at:

Embracing the Gray is still available for a limited time as a 99 cent Kindle download at that same link, or as a free PDF download at my website (donations accepted):