Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Michael Penn: March

A handful of years ago, Rickrolling became a thing.  The trick was, you’d send a blind link to someone, or post it on a web page, saying it was very cool and deserved a click.


And that would take you to a YouTube page, where a Rick Astley song would play. 


This is apparently what we accomplish with unlimited technology.


At any rate, rather than being cranky about it, I took it was a chance to revisit Rick Astley a bit, reviewing for pretty much no one his four US releases.  I also learned that he had apparently retired.  Because he was so rich he could afford to.


There’s a little envy there, I must admit.  It’s the rare job you can work for fifteen years and then retire rich.  Nice work if you can get it.


More recently, I found myself singing a Michael Penn song, and kind of wondering what happened to the guy.  I follow him on Facebook, and the last I’d heard of him he was sitting in a bedroom recording a one-take video with a couple of other people.  It was a new song, and I enjoyed it, and I was looking forward to seeing it released.


Only it hasn’t happened, and it’s been a couple of years now.


So I did what I always do when I’m wondering what’s up with Michael, which is to hit up his web site and see if he has anything new coming out.  Answer: No.


Still, now my brain stem had been tickled, so the next time I was headed out to my car, I grabbed my copy of his “Best Of” - Palms and Runes, Tarot and Tea: A Michael Penn Collection. 


A Collection is what best describes it, I suppose.  The man had exactly one top forty hit, back in 1989.  Everything else on the collection is… something else again. 


Oh, granted, he had a couple of hits on the Modern Rock chart, but I’m not sure who follows or pays attention to those.  Certainly not 13-year-olds.


But let me back up a year.


In 1988, I turned 12, and my parents gave me a certain amount to money to buy whatever I wanted.  The thing of it is, I remember very well not really wanting anything.  I loved to read, but wasting money on books I could read once at the library seemed like a waste.


There were larger ticket items I thought were kind of cool – kid video cameras, robots, that kind of thing, but those were in the $200 range and my parents weren’t offering me that much.  As kid needs go, they covered the cost of my clothing and food, and I had plenty of toys, many of which I was outgrowing at puberty began and the idea of “playing” with friends was slowly vanishing to the idea of “hanging out” with friends.


We visited a couple of stores.  I remember being in Toys R Us, looking at various expensive Lego sets, which were still sort of cool because there was a building component.


And then came the suggestion from my dad that I buy a stereo receiver.


My mom correctly noted at the time that this was wholly my dad’s idea.  We had a radio in my room, and for what little my brother and I listened to the radio, it was more than adequate.  And the problems of buying a receiver were many.  It meant that you also needed speakers (my dad had an old set sitting around) and something to play music that wasn’t from the radio (my dad had an extra cassette deck). 


And so, still not sure if I wanted to do it, I bought the receiver.


Of course, now that I had one, I felt compelled to use it.


As a kid, I had been mocked on occasion for not being knowledgeable in pop culture.  I didn’t have a radio in my room for most of my childhood, and my parents listened to tapes in their car.  So I rarely had my finger on the pulse of what music was new and/or cool.


In other words, music had to reach Michael Jackson or Madonna levels before I became aware of it.


Even now, I can sing all the hits from 1988.  But if I go back to 87 and 86 and 85, there are still gaps in my song knowledge.  These are number one hits I’m talking about. 


(As a side note, movies were often the same way.  If I went to an all-boy gathering, they’d frequently talk about the latest Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie, while I sat in silence.)


At any rate, I now had an expensive radio and nice speakers to hear music on, so I turned on the radio and started listening.


The big hitmakers that summer, and that year, were largely keyboard-y pop.  Whitney Houston.  Debbie Gibson.  Michael Jackson was putting out singles from the Bad album.  And in taking a peak at the number one songs that year, well, there’s Rick Astley again.


Granted, that’s also the year that Sweet Child O’ Mine hit the radio.  But that was more of an anomaly.


And then there was Poison, a rock group and their singular acoustic ballad, Every Rose Has It’s Thorn.


That was what qualified as “different” on the radio then.  At least to my memory.


Not much changed in 1989.  Michael Jackson gave way to Janet.  Milli Vanilli logged a couple of hits. 


And a little further down the chart was Michael Penn.


To this day, I’m not sure how he got a record deal, and I’m even less sure how he had a hit.  But I’m glad he did.


I wish I could remember how I first heard his first single, No Myth, which came out of nowhere.  It had a jangly acoustic guitar part, and lyrics that were actually somewhat poetic instead of schmaltz or straightforward “You are a bad person for not liking/loving me” call outs.


Listening to it today, it doesn’t sound like 1989.  I would have thought that maybe sounds like it belongs in 1979, or maybe 1969, but no.  The songs don’t date because they don’t seem to wander in from any particular era.


Granted, I suppose he has his influences, but his lyrics are less obtuse than, say, Bob Dylan, and his love songs (of which No Myth is one) lack the straightforwardness “I love you baby/I lost you baby” of a Dan Fogelberg story-song.


For example, what to make of “I’m between the poles and the equator/don’t send no private investigator/to find me please, ‘less he speaks Chinese/and can dance like Astaire overseas?”


To be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it then, and perhaps I know only a little more now.


But what Michael captured for me was a sense of longing.  As I said, I was leaving childhood behind.  The album came out in September of 1989, as I was finishing my middle school years and heading towards high school, which is when those first bizarre emotional stirrings start, context-free.  You know that girls are interesting, but you have only the vaguest sense of why.  You kind of want to go trick-or-treating one last time, but you know you’re too old.


You are experiencing nostalgia for a time that is still going on.


And that’s what Michael tapped into for me.  Songs like No Myth, and Innocent One, and Invisible made me feel, for a moment or two, that someone got it.  These were songs that showed me that at some point I would not be in these moments, but looking back at them.


And that bittersweet feeling would still be there, albeit in a slightly less painful way.


What else is great about the album?  Well, outside of the ballads that still slowly squeeze my chest as I listen to them, Michael seemed to go out of his way to create uptempo songs about oddball scenarios.  There’s Brave New World, which seems detail a series of post-apocalyptic interactions between confused and/or drugged and/or depressed people, with perhaps a little glimmer of hope for the future.


Then there’s Big House, which sounds like a sci-fi soundtrack ode to… knocking on a door of a house that kind of creeps you out.


As a kind, I sat and listened to it on repeat, and even today I can recite most of the words as the songs roll by.  There are no surprises.  It’s still wonderful, pretty, a little dark, and it reminds me not just of the me that was at the time, but of me at the time, thinking about me now. 


There’s a loop there.


I did leave off one probable influence in The Beatles, which I’m sure I’m right about because I’ve heard Penn cover them before.  I mention it now because I always thought of his second album as the Lennon album, with this one as the McCartney release.  Down and sad, but with happy glimmers of hope.


There’s a lot less hope on his second album.  But we’ll get to that.


March was released, then went out of print, then came back into print a few years later with most of the songs from his second album tacked on as bonus tracks.  I’m okay with that if it exposes the album to more people, but I liked the way the album ended originally.


Great then, and great now.

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