Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

The Songs of Rocktober 10 to 1

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Oh fuck yes, boys and girls. Today is the day of the bestest ‘Fest. Let us not delay, then, in getting to the ten most kickass songs of this most kickass month of Rocktober.

10. Dead Kennedys – “California Uber Alles” – If there’s only one person the Dead Kennedys didn’t like in the 1980s, that person was probably California governor Jerry Brown (or maybe Twinkie defense asshole Dan White). If there’s two people they didn’t like, they were Jerry Brown and everybody. Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is probably one of the best American punk albums ever, and “California Uber Alles” is especially awesome for imagining a new-age fascist America headed up by Jerry Brown and patrolled by the Suede-Denim Secret Police. Better lock up your uncool niece.

9. Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” – The Queens of the Stone Age fooled the radio into playing songs from Songs for the Deaf and the world was all the better for it. Still one of the heaviest songs (of the not-sucky variety; I’ll allow that Metallica might have a heavier sound, but I don’t find the sound of heavy turds pleasant) to creep onto the FM dial, “No One Knows” features some of Dave Grohl’s best drumming, recorded just as he lost his battle with lameness and slipped forever out of the Land of Awesome. It also features typical (meaning “badass”) QOTSA guitars and Josh Homme talk about how we get these rules to follow and pills to swallow and all that good stuff.

8. Elvis Costello – “Radio, Radio” – To prove he was not fucking around when he sang “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me” on “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello stopped the Attractions mid-performance on Saturday Night Live (I think they were doing “Less Than Zero”) and counted them into this song, thus guaranteeing that Lorne Michaels would pitch a fit and ban Elvis from the show. This did not stop Michaels from later saying that Costello’s performance was this iconic event for SNL. That’s because Lorne Michaels is a giant douche. “Radio, Radio,” however, is a prescient song, written in the late 70s about how shitty radio was in general, with some allusions to crazy right-wing talk radio thrown in for good measure. There was a time, apparently, when Elvis Costello knew fucking everything.

7. The Clash – “White Riot” – You gotta love Joe Strummer watching black people riot in the U.K. in 1977 and thinking, “Why don’t white people do that? What’s wrong with us?” “White Riot” is Strummer’s attempt to get the Caucasians in the mood to bust shit up. It ultimately failed, of course, but his efforts did result in two of the finest minutes in punk history.  And who doesn’t want a riot of their own?

6. The Hold Steady – “Constructive Summer” – While I’m spreading the Strummer love here, I might as well point out that “Constructive Summer,” by the Hold Steady, is as passionate and fitting a tribute to the man as you could want. Over positively (see what I did there?) pounding drums, Franz Nicolay’s persistent rock piano, and Tad Kubler’s cranked guitar, Craig Finn orders us to “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer.” Why should we do that, Craig? “I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher.” You know, Craig Finn, you might be on to something there.

5. The Stooges – “Search and Destroy” – Raw Power is one of the all-time greatest rock albums ever recorded and “Search and Destroy” is the track that gets that particular party started with a bang (or whatever sound napalm makes). Back in 1973, there were no Sex Pistols and no Clash, but the punk spirit was living large in the person of Iggy Pop (a.k.a. Iggy Stooge at that time) and his band of miscreants. Iggy was (and still is) actually a pretty good singer and he employs full-on vocal pyrotechnics, singing “Somebody save my soul/ baby, penetrate my mind.” That’s a dude asking you to mindfuck him and when Iggy asks, you answer.

4. The Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” – I will argue with you or anybody that “Blitzkrieg Bop” is the best Side 1, Song 1 of all time. This was the song that launched The Ramones and, well, the Ramones. They were a band that didn’t have time to write multiple verses, but they did have time to get everyone pulsating to the backbeat. This would be a good lead-off track for your Rocktoberfest play list, what with the tight drum beat and Joey Ramone shouting “Hey/ Ho/ Let’s go” (or, ” ‘ey/ ‘o,” as he sings it). So let’s go, dammit.

3. Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died” – Jim Carroll just died a few weeks ago, so if you’re ‘Festing to this song, pour one out for the man. Catholic Boy was a magnificent album and its best moment came with “People Who Died” which is exactly what it sounds like: a list of Jim Carroll’s friends who have shuffled loose this mortal coil. That could be morbid business, but the song is upbeat and insistent. Carroll’s buds employed myriad methods for exiting the land of the living, so you’ll never get bored: one guy overdoses on Drano (how much Drano constitutes an overdose? I’m guessing very little), one guy gets leukemia at age 14 (and looks like 65 when he dies), and someone jumps in front of  a train. Apparently, this song became a big hit after John Lennon was shot because it helped people deal with that numbing fact. That might sound kinda fucked up, but there’s catharsis in the irreverent humor of the song. I listened to it about a hundred times on the day Jim Carroll died. He was apparently just sitting at his desk writing. If I’m ever in a band again, I’m gonna rework this tune to include Jim Carroll, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone, and all the other awesome dead musicians. Who’s with me?

2. The Pixies – “Debaser” – Inspired by Luis Bunuel’s fucked up 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, (the bit in “Debaser” about slicing up eyeballs? They slice up a cow’s eye in this movie. I want you to know) “Debaser” is the best Pixies song. Period. (You don’t really think “Where is My Mind?” is their best song, do you? Why? Because it was in Fight Club?). Frank Black tears into the verse, exclaiming, “Got me a movie, I want you to know.” And certainly no Frenchman could declare “I am un” anything as assertively as Black declares “I am un/ chien!/ andalusia!” (Of course, the French dude would know to say “Je suis un” whatever, but I’ll let Black Francis slide on this one.) This is another breaking shit, bouncing around the room kind of song and I will never, ever (ever!) get tired of it. In fact, I’m gonna listen to it again right now.

1. The Clash – “Death or Glory” – If aliens landed here on Earth and pointed their lasers at my face, demanding to know, in four minutes or less, what rock ‘n’ roll was (we’re talking quintessence here – Platonic ideal shit), I’d play them “Death or Glory” by the Clash. This song has it all: an awesome guitar part, melodic bass lines, Topper Headon’s brilliantly textured drums, and some of Joe Strummer’s finest lyrics. The second verse is particularly instructive: “Every gimmick-hungry yob/ digging gold from rock ‘n’ roll/ grabs the mic to tell us/ he’ll die before he’s sold/ but I believe in this/ and it’s been tested by research/ he who fucks nuns/ will later join the church.” Nothing rocks like this song rocks. Nothing.

That’s it. Get out there and rock, revelers. Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer! And another toast to St. Jim Carroll and one to St. Joey Ramone. While you’re at it, raise a toast to Jello Biafra and Karen O. and every other awesome musician who is gracing your Rocktoberfest play list. And remember the wisdom of Mr. James Murphy: “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision for another five years of life.”

To sum up: These songs kick ass. These songs kick slightly more ass. These songs kick still more ass. These songs songs kick more ass than that. These songs kick ass and Henry Rollins is awesome. These songs kick ass but are just a minor threat. These songs kick ass and have pianos filled with flames. These songs, much like the Flaming Lips, kick ass. And Tom Waits is awesome.

10 Best Cover Songs Ever

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I just saw this the other day. It’s AOL’s list of the ten best cover songs ever. As you might expect, a company that knows fuckall about providing good internet service to people also knows fuckall about good music. First off, the Guns ‘n’ Roses cover of  “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is a bloated, overwrought mess. I’ll take Bob Dylan’s original version over that douche-fest any day. I would point out how shitty Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page” is but that would be a case where a shitty band took a shitty singer’s shitty song and made it, somehow, shittier. Shit. Nonetheless, Shitallica’s cover made AOL’s list.

But I didn’t come here merely to bury AOL’s list (nor did I come here to say “shit” five times in one sentence) – after reading it, I’ve decided to propose a tasty alternative. Granted, the bar is pretty fucking low here, but, without further ado: here’s the Bollocks! List of the 10 Best Covers Ever.

10) Sonic Youth, “Within You, Without You”- this is a bonus track on the Deluxe Edition of Daydream Nation, and it’s really awesome. It manages to out-weird the original, while maintaining a distinctly Sonic Youth-y flavor to it. Meaning, if you hate Sonic Youth, you’ll hate this song. But I love Sonic Youth, so make your own goddamned list.

9) The Clash, “I Fought the Law” – Everyone thinks that the Bobby Fuller Four did this song originally – it was actually originally done by Sonny Curtis, but made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four. If you have the U.S. release of the first Clash record, you have a version of this song that is far more awesome than all other versions of this song, largely because The Clash cranked it up to the rowdy song it should have been.

8) Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” – Hendrix’s cover of this Bob Dylan tune is so definitive that a lot of people think Jimi wrote it. He might as well have.  In fact, let’s pass a law: we’ll call it Jimi’s Law (people like laws named after people) and it will be a simple law. Basically, it will make it illegal for anyone besides Jimi Hendrix to cover “All Along the Watchtower.” This is largely because the Dave Matthews Band’s version of this song is embarrassingly awful and I want a legal precedent to lock them up if they ever play it again.

7) R.E.M., “Pale Blue Eyes” – R.E.M. got their start covering the Velvet Underground and two VU covers show up on R.E.M.’s awesome odds-‘n’-sods collection Dead Letter Office (“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Femme Fatale”; both are awesome). Their version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is pitch-perfect, and about a quarter the length of the original. Peter Buck is an underrated guitarist and he does a lot with the minimal chord structure of this gorgeous song. A good tune for fans of The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., both bands, and/or awesome music.

6) Nirvana, “The Man Who Sold the World” – Nirvana was really fucking good at covers. I mean really good. They did wonders for The Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun” and “Molly’s Lips” (if you haven’t listened to the Vaselines, though, you totally should) but perhaps their best moment came on MTV Unplugged of all things. Their rendition of this early Bowie tune actually makes it hard for me to listen to the original and you’re not apt to find many bigger fans of 70s Bowie than yours truly.

5) Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen is a case, in my opinion, of a guy who writes great songs and doesn’t perform them as well as other people do. The original version of “Hallelujah” is actually pretty cheesy. Jeff Buckley’s version, found on his stellar Grace album, is truly incredible. Buckley sounds as haunted as a person ought to be when they sing, “Maybe there’s a God above/ but all I ever learned from love/ is how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya”. I know this song has been covered a lot, too, but every other version of this song can go fuck itself. Buckley owned it and still owns it.

4) Patti Smith, “Gloria” – Okay, okay, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a cover. Patti Smith borrowed a lot from Van Morrison’s original but upped the awesome considerably by starting the song off with “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine” and from their she took a revered classic and treated it like she just didn’t give a fuck about it. This song is fully 30% of why Horses is an essential album.

3) Johnny Cash, “I See A Darkness” – Everyone has a giant boner for Cash’s version of “Hurt”, but I much prefer the Nine Inch Nails original. The Man in Black did much better with the lesser-known (but absolutely essential) cover of Bonnie Prince Billy’s “I See A Darkness”. Featuring BPB on backing vocals, Cash plays this song like its pouring out of him. It’s one of his most beautiful performances ever and people really need to stop sucking off his “Hurt” cover and just listen to this one. Seriously. Do it now.

2) Tom Waits, “The Return of Jackie and Judy” – This cut originally appeared on We’re a Happy Family, which was a fuck-awful Ramones tribute album. Seriously bad. For example, it featured Rob Zombie ass-raping “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Fortunately, because Tom Waits is unbearably awesome, you can find this tune on his Orphans album which is 3 disc of Waitsy goodness. His rendition of  “The Return of Jackie and Judy” is one of the most old-school, sloppy, broken-ass punk tunes I’ve ever heard. The guitars chug along while Tom’s son Casey beats the shit out of the drums. Waits’s vocals are at their shrieking best here as well. This is everything a cover should be – an artist paying homage, but also making the song their own. Tom Waits takes this Ramones tune and puts his own stubbly stamp on it in a way that only he can.

1) Joe Strummer, “Redemption Song” – First off, it takes balls for a white guy to cover this particular Bob Marley song. And a lot of white guys do (Chris Cornell has, and he should be jailed for it), but nobody – regardless of race, color, or creed – has done more with this song than the late, great Joe Strummer. Strummer shifts the accent of the chorus to the phrase, “These songs of freedom” and just nails the whole thing. Strummer got this cover so right that it’s not only a great cover, it’s one of the best songs ever recorded, beating the original in a landslide. Like Tom Waits’s Ramones cover, Strummer shows us how to cover a song and gives a compelling reason why he should have been given an official license to Play Whatever the Fuck He Wanted. His “Redemption Song” isn’t just a tribute, it’s a revelation. And I bet you those dipshits at AOL don’t even know it exists.

Honorable mentions should go to Boston’s Frank Smith for their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” and also to The White Stripes for “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.”And Yo La Tengo’s version of “Little Honda.”

Also, a few of the worst covers ever: Sheryl Crow’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” makes me miss the original, which I never really cared for. But her version is maddeningly saccharine. I’d also like to raise a big middle finger to Uncle Kracker’s cover of Lynard Skynard’s “Simple Man.” I’m not a huge Skynard fan, but Kracker murdered that tune. Oh, and pretty much every cover Smash Mouth ever did. Fuck Smash Mouth.