A Good Time Victory Lap

Here they come and they are not monkeying around

Fifty years (!) past the original wave of Monkeemania comes a new album from 1966’s made-for-TV pop group the Monkees. Having slowly gained more and more credibility with the passage of time and excellent touring work, the surviving members of the group (Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork) and custodians of the brand are marking this milestone anniversary with an onslaught of Monkee product. While reissues of the TV show and classic back catalog of albums are a no-brainer, there was genuine risk involved in putting together a new studio album. Past attempts at doing this (1987’s Pool It! and 1996’s Justus) have produced greatly mixed results. Considering how most people engage with vintage acts today, there really is no need to even do so. It is much easier for an act like the Monkees to simply trot out their old hits, of which there are many. The only reason to produce a new record would be to add to an already significant legacy, which in the case of the Monkees is a pretty Herculean task.

Thankfully, the brain trust at Rhino Records including John Hughes, Mark Pinkus and the ever-reliable archivist Andrew Sandoval came up with the perfect strategy: go back to the Brill Building formula of the early records while aiming for the high-water mark of 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. This involved digging up unfinished recordings from the group’s heyday along with enlisting a new crop of tunesmiths simpatico with the Monkees’ aesthetic. Another key decision was paring the surviving members with Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne as their producer. His sensibilities along with his multi-instrumental and songwriting talent prove to be a perfect fit for gently guiding the Monkees into 2016. Each member of the Monkees also contributes strong original material (and instrumental support) to Good Times!

 So the big question here is did they pull it off? As a longtime follower of the group (being a child of the ‘70s re-runs of the show) and more than familiar with all of the larger-than-life, bizarre twists and turns in their history together, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Good Times! is far better than could reasonably be expected and a true gift to fans. Perfectly conceived and beautifully executed, it arrives as an effervescent time capsule of the ‘60s and more than achieves its lofty goal of standing tall with their best work.

The album opens with the title track “Good Times,” salvaged from a surviving demo by the late songwriter Harry Nilsson who posthumously gets to sing along with old friend Micky Dolenz (much like the Beatles created “Free as a Bird,” but done here with a more seamless vocal mix). It’s a rollicking start, reminiscent of a Ray Charles R&B groove and a nice showcase for both singers. In fact, Dolenz sounds great throughout the entire record, whether singing lead as he does on most tracks or providing some of his signature harmony parts. Though his voice has a slightly more mature timbre to it, his range is still incredibly strong and he sounds vibrant (and youthful) on tracks like Andy Partridge’s “You Bring the Summer” and the stomping “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)”. With Davy Jones now gone, Dolenz lives on as the voice of the Monkees.

Speaking of Davy Jones, he is thoughtfully (and effectively) included on Good Times! in the form of a vintage recording of Neil Diamond’s “Love to Love”. Tastefully completed, the song is Jones through and through, providing the requisite corny (but welcome) love song that was his stock-in-trade on all Monkees albums. It’s a real treat hearing his boyish vocals once again. Peter Tork, the group’s soul and multi-instrumentalist is also perfectly showcased on this album. On both “Little Girl” (originally written by Tork as a song for Davy) and Goffin & King original “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” his voice sounds the best it ever has, warm and supple. His banjo prowess also makes a few key appearances as well.

This brings us to the wild card of any Monkees reunion: the appearance of Michael Nesmith. The once-ornery Texan has always hovered as a big question mark over any attempts to re-kindle the brand since they originally disbanded in 1970. Having made significant contributions to music since going solo and well worthy of inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his own, never mind as being a member of the Monkees (his genre-defining work with the First National Band and coming up with the concept that would later morph into MTV), Nez has always had a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to any reunion projects. He did spearhead the spiritual follow-up to Headquarters, 1996’s Justus, but has kept his touring participation minimal. That said, any serious attempt at a new Monkees record needed his voice in the mix. His Monkees songs have always been among their best, providing the deep cuts in the catalog that bear repeated listening. On Good Times!, Nesmith again provides the gravitas: “Me & Magdalena” is easily one of the best things the Monkees have ever recorded. Written by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, the song is wistful, breezy and bittersweet with the classic Mike and Micky vocal harmonies front and center. The Noel Gallagher/Paul Weller-penned “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” is Head-trippy, with Mike’s spacey vocals sounding straight out of ’67/’68. Nesmith also contributes “I Know What I Know,” a plaintive piano ballad that is a real departure from the rest of the material here (as well as their entire canon). The song starts off quite naked and gives way to fuller orchestration. It’s unlike anything in the Monkees discography and makes for an effective penultimate track on the album.

Everyone involved in this project deserves major kudos. There is a lot of heart and soul behind Good Times! and if it proves to be the group’s swan song on record, it is a more-than-worthy one. Faithfully retro without being kitschy, it covers the group’s entire trajectory, from the innocence of the first two albums and the psychedelia of the middle period, straight through to the roots sound of the Nesmith-led late ’60s work. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. As promised, you’ll have a good time.

 

P.S. The iTunes version of Good Times! includes two bonus tracks that are equally notable: Zach Rogue’s “Terrifying” is worthy of inclusion on the album proper and the melody and harmonies of “Me & Magdalena” work nearly as well in the up-tempo second version. Worth seeking out.

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Reign of Disdain

He looks like a million dollars, is a three-time WWE World Heavyweight Champion with only three-and-a-half years on the main roster, and is poised to be a main eventer for as long as he remains healthy. So what the hell is the problem with Roman Reigns and why is the so-called “WWE Universe” so openly hostile towards him? I mean, this guy is getting some of the greatest heel heat since John Cena. The problem is, again like Cena, he’s another polarizing babyface (good guy in pro-wrestling parlance). It’s all pretty simple really and could’ve easily been avoided by anyone who is even halfway familiar with Wrestling 101, which excludes most of the current WWE writing staff.

Roman Reigns has been very poorly served by WWE booking (basically, those in charge of charting the pre-scripted course all WWE talent follow). This comes from the top down, so ultimately it falls on owner Vince McMahon’s lap. It has nothing to do with Roman Reigns, who is a much better athlete and performer than he needs to be and is still a young talent learning the game. Reigns could easily coast on his looks and size much like Kevin Nash did for his entire career, but Reigns has much more heart for the business than that. The real shame is that Reigns, originally a cool villain, was organically gaining traction with the fans before Vince decided Roman was “THE guy” and proceeded to force him down the everyone’s throat as a fan-favorite waaay ahead of schedule. Now Reigns gets the same dueling chants that follow Cena to this day: woman and children love him; men and smart marks (knowledgeable fans), not so much.

Reigns made his main roster debut in November 2012 as part of a super-cool heel group of young talent called The Shield. Decked out in S.W.A.T. gear, it was a great gimmick and the right balance of talent with Dean Ambrose as the brains and mouthpiece, Seth Rollins as the Shawn Michaels-like wunderkind worker, and Reigns as the silent, but deadly muscle. All three were genuinely over with the WWE audience and could’ve ridden the wave of this gimmick (and merchandise sales) for at least another two-to-three more years than they did. Instead, they were disbanded in June 2014 to allow for each member to become an individual star, with a top spot specially earmarked for Reigns. He had the right size, the right hair, and the right pedigree (being part of the same Anoa’i dynasty that produced Yokozuna, Rikishi and, in a roundabout way, The Rock). His key weakness, not being particularly dynamic on the microphone, was actually a plus while part of The Shield, creating an aura of mystery around him. So there was no way this could not work, right??

Wrong. It was too clear and simple for the WWE not to mess up. They turned Dean Ambrose into the second coming of Brian Pillman, gave Rollins the heel spot, and tried making Roman the fan favorite. What happened? Ambrose gets over with his goofy shtick, Rollins gets over with his unbelievable athleticism, and Reigns gets rejected by the majority of fans who see through the backstage machinations and pandering. Had Reigns been allowed to remain a villain for at least another year or two, and been aligned with a brilliant mouthpiece like Paul Heyman while building up a great highlight reel as the company’s top bad guy, fans would’ve naturally clamored for him to emerge as a hero down the line, as they have for all great company heels dating back to “Superstar” Billy Graham. Heyman managing both Reigns and Brock Lesnar (another heavyweight superstar weak on the mic, but nonetheless super-over due to intelligent booking) could’ve been epic, filled with great teases until the time was right to present Reigns vs. Lesnar as the climax of a long-term, well-thought-out storyline – and finally the beginning of Roman’s face turn.

All of that aside, the truth is that whether fans like it or not Reigns is still money. As the company learned with Cena, the polarized audience reaction still translates into cash. The kids who snatch up the t-shirts and dolls are with Roman. And the “smart” fans continue to buy tickets to root against him. As in any form of entertainment, the worst reaction is no reaction. Passionate dislike can be unbelievably profitable, just ask Floyd “Money” Mayweather. But it’s also a bit jarring when it is obviously not the kind of reaction the WWE or Reigns had in mind. In the long run, the brand name supersedes the individual stars of the WWE anyway. As CM Punk once said in his infamous “pipe bomb” promo, the wheel keeps spinning regardless.

So where do Reigns and the WWE go from here? He is undoubtedly a star and we seem to be stuck with him in this current role for quite a while (WWE can be quite obstinate that way). Right now, he is embroiled in the early stages of a feud with A.J. Styles, probably the best possible opponent for him, both athletically and storyline wise, until Seth Rollins returns from his untimely injury. So far, both Reigns and Styles are “good guys,” but the seeds have been planted for several interesting possibilities. As we saw in their match at Payback last weekend in Chicago, Reigns was nearly booed out of the building in his first title defense as champ, while Styles definitely ascended to the next level as a believable main eventer. The match itself, while almost comically overbooked, succeeded in sustaining fan interest in their feud. But now a clear-cut villain must emerge in order to take this rivalry to the next level. Will it be A.J. Styles and his New Japan posse the Bullet Club or will WWE go with an Attitude-era swerve and give us an unexpected, dramatically-effective heel turn from Roman Reigns? Though I wouldn’t bet on the latter, only time will tell.

My Super-Deluxe Top 10 Music List…Volume 1

A fellow music-lover recently asked me via Facebook to compile a Top 12 list of most influential albums in my life. The rules were simple: do not overthink the process or take too much time. Of course, I did neither. While I did spare him my endless annotations and explanations for each choice, I definitely overthought the whole thing. My basic list was simple enough to put together. Each was a clear enough milestone in my life and musical education. But a funny thing happens when you put together lists like this for public view, especially as a self-professed music historian: a bit of self-consciousness enters the fray. Each of the artists I chose has such a diverse, wide-spanning catalog of music I love. How do I best represent that? Do I go with the albums that helped me discover each artist (and thus, the most personally influential)? Do I go with the cooler entries in the catalog to show off my insight and “superior” taste? Or do I simply go with what I believe to be the best albums made by each?

The critic in me finds these distinctions interesting.  Most Influential Albums is a very personal list tied to specific life experiences and might not always have the same resonance for others. Coolest Albums is a list I’d put together for inside and hardcore fans. And Best Albums is a list of the records I’d throw in a time capsule for posterity. The choices were pretty tough. Categorization of any kind is often hazy.  I honestly believe that if you ask most people to compile a Top 10 list of anything, there would be a substantial difference in the response depending on the intended audience. I’m certain that writers for Rolling Stone or Mojo often put together contrarian lists filled with underground obscurities just to be hipper-than-thou. My list is filled with artists firmly planted in the mainstream (no Velvet Underground or Big Star anywhere to be found, though I respect each). I make no apologies for that. While I love many undiscovered artists, a large part of being truly impactful as a musician is world domination, which is how I was exposed to most of them in the first place. For this blog entry, I have put together a Top 10 Most Influential Albums list identical to the one I sent my friend, but have also included the highly nebulous “coolest” and “best” albums by each artist as well (there is occasional overlap for each act represented). Again, keep in mind that this list represents most personally influential, not most influential of all time.  I’m still waiting for “all time” to come and go so I can put that list together. Might be a while.

My Top 10 Most Influential Albums (in order of release date)

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1. The Monkees by The Monkees

This is the first album I ever owned, passed down from relatives, and set the template for much of what I still look for in music: well-crafted melodies, sunny pop harmonies, and concise songwriting all delivered in tasteful analogue production. The early Monkees albums were the product of a Tin Pan Alley mindset. Later albums (from Headquarters on) only benefitted from the Monkees asserting their independence and taking more control of the music. Probably the coolest album they ever did was the soundtrack to their totally freeform movie Head. It has a loose cut-and-paste quality much like the film itself and was well ahead of its time. But without a doubt, their best album is 1967’s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., a combination of the Brill Building approach (the use of professional outside songwriters) and the greater hands-on musical involvement of Headquarters. They were a misunderstood pop phenomenon from the very beginning. Thankfully, time and hindsight have placed them in a better light.

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2. Abbey Road – The Beatles

I’ve been a Beatles fan since early childhood. There are pictures of me at 3 years old listening to the White Album on headphones. What can I say, I’ve always had excellent taste in music. Abbey Road is the first album I actually went out and bought as a pre-teen and is still my favorite Beatles album.  You can’t go wrong with any Beatle record, but something about Abbey Road hooked me early. It has pretty much everything that made them great: catchy songs, great vocals, tight ensemble playing, and clever production. Abbey Road has the advantage of maturity and Ringo’s one and only drum solo on record. There is whimsy, silliness, joy and deep heartache on this record. Perhaps the greatest swan song ever committed to vinyl. If you’re looking for the coolest Beatle records, the common choices are Revolver or The Beatles (aka the White Album). In my opinion, their best records are A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and my desert island choice Abbey Road.

 

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3. The Wall – Pink Floyd

I casually discovered Pink Floyd on classic rock radio as a teenager, but never put together the vast catalog of great songs until a neighbor threw a Saturday afternoon yard sale where I picked up Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Final Cut on vinyl. The former two already had legendary reputations, so I bought them to satiate my curiosity and was blown away. At their peak (the ‘70s run from Meddle to The Wall) Pink Floyd were as great as any band that’s ever existed, each album loaded with classic songs on par with the Beatles. I was 16 when I first heard The Wall all the way through and it was the perfect soundtrack to that angst-ridden period of my life. The music had space and beauty to it, but it was Roger Waters’ lyric-writing that took me on the deepest ride. In terms of cool Pink Floyd albums, hipster types might opt for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, if for no other reason than to pretend that they know who Syd Barrett is. Musos might opt for Animals or Meddle. I love all of their work and they’ve since become one of the seminal bands of my life, so choosing their best is tough. It’s a toss-up between The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon, with Dark Side getting a slight nod due to a tighter narrative (a single disc versus the four sides of The Wall) and greater cohesion.

 

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4. In Through the Out Door – Led Zeppelin

Zep purists would find this choice abominable. It’s not my fault that this, not Led Zeppelin IV, was the first Zeppelin album I was exposed to. With punk and New Wave having shaken up the music industry at the time, the mighty Zep now represented the old guard and were the target of snotty derision (along with other ‘70s institutions like Floyd and Yes). They responded by incorporating new sonic textures onto their heavy blues and hard rock palette. Synth-heavy and a bit proggier than anything in their prior catalog, this album still rocked. Some have noted that it’s the album where bassist John Paul Jones got to shine most, relying heavily on his keyboard arrangements and production ideas. To my ears, it has the same epic, symphonic scope as Abbey Road. I still rate it highly and listen to it more often than the others. If I had to choose their coolest record, I’d have to go with Led Zeppelin I. If you take that and III, you have everything they ever were distilled to its very essence: a heavy new form of blues on one hand and beautiful English folk textures on the other. And if I had to choose the best album by Led Zeppelin, first I would cry at having to make such a cruel decision and then I would put on the man pants and go with Physical Graffiti, probably the greatest and most listenable double-album in the history of rock and roll.

 

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5. Synchronicity – The Police

The biggest and best band on earth in 1983. This album was omnipresent and the single “Every Breath You Take” was inescapable. The band’s good fortune was having the release of Synchronicity dovetail perfectly with the explosion of MTV. As a then 14 year-old, the ballad “Every Breath You Take” did not set me on fire (the sinister stalker subtext flew completely over my head at the time), but the industrial aggression of “Synchronicity II” certainly did. The Synchronicity tour was my first concert experience and as far as concert initiations go, it’s hard to top this band at the peak of its powers on what looked to be their final tour until 2007’s highly-successful reunion. As with Zep, Floyd, and the Beatles, I soon snatched up everything else in their back catalog. Looking back, the coolest Police album is probably the first, Outlandos d’Amour. It has the spiky pseudo-punk energy and passion. Their best is Regatta de Blanc, where all the elements came together to create their classic, signature sound. It has the best balance of energy between all three members before Sting grew too domineering.

 

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6. So – Peter Gabriel

By the mid ‘80s, Peter Gabriel had managed to make a successful transition from prog god in Genesis to edgy and credible  solo star. Beneath the genial, photogenic façade was a slightly twisted mind (just revisit the video for “Shock the Monkey”). After releasing several solid solo albums and signature singles (“Solsbury Hill,” “Games without Frontiers”), So was the album that finally made him a superstar. For the time, the production was state-of-the-art with a polish that gleamed brighter than a new Ferrari. This was adult pop that would set the tone for many grown-up artists, including the solo work of Sting and Don Henley. Overall it has aged pretty well too, with many of its biggest hits still staples of classic rock and pop radio such as “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “That Voice Again” and “Red Rain”. Still, his coolest and best album is Peter Gabriel 3, aka “Melt”. It’s not as polished and for that particular set of songs, that’s a plus. The album has space to breathe. It pulses along with menace and ultimately, in album-closer “Biko,” catharsis.

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7. Nevermind – Nirvana

The perfect marriage between the energy of punk and Beatlesque pop hooks. This was Cobain’s musical ethos in a nutshell, polished to a perfect diamond. He would later grow self-conscious about the slick production work and rebel with the low-fi In Utero, but in reality Cobain’s songwriting and Nirvana’s raw power were never better showcased than on Nevermind. The album still plays like a greatest hits compilation (“Smells like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come as You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” etc.), though its culture-shifting success would ultimately have very dark ramifications. Nirvana’s coolest album is Bleach and their best is Nevermind, non-punk production and all.

 

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8. Achtung Baby – U2

A Sgt. Pepper –sized reinvention by the world’s most popular band at the time. U2 hit a slump with critics and some fans with the overly-earnest Rattle and Hum project (following the mega-triumph of The Joshua Tree in 1987). Achtung Baby finds them on the verge of a breakup, with the tidal wave of grunge firmly approaching. The album sessions were turning into a Let it Be nightmare until Edge came up with the signature riff of “One,” which gave them the courage to soldier on. From album opener “Zoo Station” to funereal denouement “Love Is Blindness,” Achtung Baby soars along with great power and genuine risk-taking. They laid everything on the table and came up aces. Their coolest record is Boy, brimming with idealism, punk-influenced song structure, Edge’s echo-laden chime and Bono’s then pubescent-sounding voice. Their best is a toss-up between Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree.

 

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9. The Eminem Show – Eminem

Following the post-grunge fallout of the music industry in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, where everything devolved to teen pop, Disney starlets and American Idol, pop-culture was devoid of the all-important lightening rod rebel figure. Out of this apathetic scene emerged a young white rapper so gifted with words and cursed with anger that the world couldn’t help but take notice. Like most everyone in rock and pop music, he benefitted greatly from cleverly appropriating an African-American art form. But he did so with reverence for the bedrock. I would put Eminem’s first three albums up against anything in the classic rock, pop, or R&B canon for sheer creativity. For me, his personal peak was The Eminem Show before substance abuse temporarily derailed his focus and talent (he would powerfully rebound with 2010’s Recovery). His coolest album is The Slim Shady LP. His best is The Eminem Show, though he will probably be most remembered for The Marshall Mathers LP.

 

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10. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Rodrigo y Gabriela

As someone weaned on rock guitar, I’ve also always loved nylon-string playing, whether it be classical, flamenco, etc. Rodrigo y Gabriela are the perfect synthesis of both styles, having started as metalheads in their native Mexico before evolving into a fierce, brilliantly synchronized nylon-string duo while busking in the streets of Ireland. Rodrigo y Gabriela captures them at an early peak, with fiery, passionate and sexy playing throughout (the male/female energy exchange is subtle, but powerful), as well as classic covers of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion”. The concept behind their brand was too ingenious not to work. Rodrigo y Gabriela is their coolest record as well. Their best is probably 11:11, though 9 Dead Alive is not too far behind.

 

Bonus Cuts:

Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails: This looked to be the natural heir to grunge – hook-filled songwriting couched in Industrial music soundscapes and revitalized synth and drum programming.

What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? – Oasis: Shamelessly “borrowing” from the Beatles, Stones, the Who, etc., these cheeky Manchester brothers still had a genuine sibling swagger all their own. And it felt damn good to hear these familiar sounds again in the mid ‘90s.

Lonerism – Tame Impala: For someone constantly bemoaning the state of today’s music scene, discovering this album was a godsend, like coming back full-circle to something you love. Essentially a one-man band on record, Kevin Parker channels the psychedelic ‘60s, plays bass like McCartney and sings like Revolver-era Lennon, all while sounding fresh and relevant (e.g. “Elephant”). Catnip to these ears.

 

My thanks to Andy Pulliam for the initial inspiration for this piece.

2 Prince: Eye Remember U

I’m not a woman, I’m not a man

I am something that you’ll never understand

– Prince

It still seems surreal. Like the passing of Michael Jackson before him, it’s the unexpectedness of Prince’s death that still feels so gutting. With his magical and mysterious aura, Prince actually seemed immortal. He was 57 years old at the time of his death, yet looked like he’d barely aged a day from the cover of his debut album For You (especially having come full circle with the same full, soulful Afro). Tons has already been written, said, and speculated about this regal genius and with a life shrouded in privacy much more will follow, but I just wanted to share some of my own favorite memories of Prince and what he’s meant to me throughout my life. I’ll leave the canonization and gossip to others.

Prince is definitely one of those rare entertainers you grew with. He wasn’t just an artifact of your teenage fandom. His was a talent of such depth that he easily stood up to more sophisticated scrutiny as you got older. There was a lot behind the curtain. There still is. But none of that mattered in 1983 when I was first exposed to Prince via this new cable channel called MTV. This was the beginning of the golden age of music videos and MTV, a 24-hour music channel, was a godsend to teenage music fans like me. While waiting for my fix of Police videos, I was exposed to this funky alien from another dimension in the form of the video for “1999” (the title track from his 1982 album). The song was undeniably catchy, using then-modern synth and drum machine sounds in a kind of minimalist-funk approach, but the video itself challenged my limited 14-year-old perspective. Contradiction ran rampant in Prince World. He had both a hyper-macho African-American swagger as well as a feminine sensuality in his face and stage movements. He had a showman’s aim-to-please extroversion as well as a dark, slightly menacing energy. As a performer, you could not take your eyes off of him.

Basically, the “1999” video exposed me to modern soul music. As a teen, I loved rock and pop, but this had an unmistakably urban edge. Even the Jackson 5, who I loved as a kid and were grounded in many of the same influences as Prince, were more of a pop phenomenon. Prince’s back-up band (a stage necessity, though he was known to play all instruments on his records) was mixed both racially and gender-wise. The two females stationed at the keyboards swayed together VERY closely and suggestively, feeding right into newly discovered teenage fantasies. And the lyrics, while seemingly a straight-up party anthem, also had a doomsday aspect that did not fly over my head. All of my sensibilities and biases were shaken for life and I don’t think I ever turned the dial whenever “1999” was re-played, which was countless times back in ’83.

This was soon followed by the equally popular “Little Red Corvette,” another performance-based video that showcased Prince the kick-ass dancer who could do the splits even better than James Brown. In an age of colorful New Wave performers on the air like A Flock of Seagulls and The Eurythmics, Prince still stood out from the pack. He already had great critical buzz and was on the cusp of something big. That came in the summer of 1984 with the release of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack. The lead single “When Doves Cry” was all over the radio and was so different from anything else at the time. The opening guitar line was sexy and serpentine, and revealed more of the Hendrix influence, while the rest of the song was stripped bare: again, minimal synth and drum patterns, with multi-layered vocals carrying the rest. No bass anywhere to be found, which was said to be the mark of death on an urban record. Prince knew better. It was everywhere that year and the movie was a genuine pop culture touchstone for a generation. I didn’t get to see it in theaters, but I did on home video soon after and all of my initial impressions of Prince were only amplified.

In my opinion, Purple Rain is still one of only three movies built around a musical act that completely works (the other two being A Hard Day’s Night and 8 Mile).  And the soundtrack! This was the first Prince record I owned on vinyl. From start-to-finish, Purple Rain was pop perfection. Not one weak track to be found anywhere. Just look at a partial list: “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me with U,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Purple Rain” etc. Even the deeper album cuts are legendary, such as the haunting “The Beautiful Ones” (one of Prince’s greatest vocal performances on record) and “Darling Nikki” which caught the attention of Tipper Gore and eventually led to the use of “Parental Advisory” stickers on album covers, a marketing gift to all hip-hop artists to follow. There were five official singles, though every song is well-known thanks to the quality of the music as well as the accompanying visuals in the movie.  The project as a whole remains his defining moment – it’s the Prince we all remember.

Considering what a successful and long run Purple Rain had on the charts, the next album came out quickly after in the spring of 1985. As with anyone trying to follow-up a world-beating smash (the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper or Nirvana with Nevermind), reaction was mixed. I remember being a bit nonplussed with the “Raspberry Beret” single and video (everything was a musical and visual event in the ‘80s). Though a big and enduring hit song, it seemed slight to me then and it looked like he was paying homage to the psychedelia of Pepper with the visuals and his slightly mop-toppish new hairdo. Around the World in a Day did have some quality songs like “Pop Life” and “America,” but none with the same potency as anything on Purple Rain for me. I skipped it.

I did buy 1986’s Parade, the soundtrack to his next film Under the Cherry Moon. The first single “Kiss” again had the spark of simplicity and the lush second single “Mountains” hooked me in. But it was 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times that became his artistic high-water mark. His first double-album since “1999,” it was Prince as all-out musical mad scientist, using every trick up his sleeve and somehow digging even deeper. Sprawling, ambitious, avant-garde and strange, it remains the Prince album of choice for the hipper fan. Conventional wisdom would’ve said to wait a while before following up this masterpiece, but Prince’s musical output has been a constant torrent throughout his life and he would pretty much release an album a year for the rest of his career.

The cover for 1988’s LoveSexy was asking a lot of a young, straight male fan to accept much less buy, featuring a strategically nude Prince posing as Michelangelo subject or something. The first single “Alphabet St.” was also an odd first listen, though I now think it’s one of his better ones with another minimal, but super-funky arrangement. The video was also minimalist pop-art and stood out from the increasingly high-budget and high-concept videos circulating at the time.

In 1989, he got the nod from parent company Warner Bros. to do the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman. Both the soundtrack and movie were very odd and experimental for being such mainstream releases. Prince got to channel more alter-egos, and there were still cool new songs like “Electric Chair” and one of his best ballads in “Scandalous!”.  This would end his ‘80s run of music, an incredible output by any standard. It would also spell the end of the great vinyl era, with CD’s becoming the more dominant (but much less fun) format for music releases. Music-listening would never again be the immersive, all-consuming experience it had once been for me, though I would remain a Prince fan for life.

I bought the Diamonds and Pearls album in 1991 (one of the cooler covers of the CD age), as I enjoyed Prince’s return to accessible pop songcraft. The title track, “Cream,” “Thunder,” “Gett Off,” “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” and “Live 4 Love” all worked for me. He made some great TV appearances, including a memorable turn on the Arsenio Hall Show. But it was with 1992’s concept-heavy Love Symbol Album and accompanying ’93 tour, 10 years after I first caught him on MTV, where I finally got to see Prince live.  Thankfully it was during a brief window of his career in between playing large arenas where he was performing in more intimate venues. So it was at the Chicago Theatre where I experienced Prince live and it was ridiculous how good he was. There’s just something about our best musicians and artists – they are actually even better than you think and you don’t fully realize this until you see them play live. Without fail, all the best are even more impressive in a concert setting. Prince was even more so. It was everything he did best, rolled up into one overwhelming (and humbling if you are an aspiring musician) experience: the vocal acrobatics of Little Richard, the moves and band leadership of James Brown, the psychedelic guitar-playing of Jimi Hendrix, all filtered through his own unique genius. I sat up front and center on the first balcony with a clear view of all the proceedings and it was unparalleled. I happened to bring my younger brother along who was around the same age that year as I was when I first discovered Prince in 1983 and he loved it just as much as I did.

The rest of the ‘90s and early 2000’s spelled a slight decline from the artistic and commercial apex of the ‘80s, but that’s a natural trajectory for any commercial artist. If you’re lucky, you hit a genius peak, but it’s never sustainable no matter who you are. Talent is, but not optimum genius. Part of his weakened output seemed due to his increasingly bitter battle with Warner Bros., apparently over royalties and publishing. It split his focus. Another part could have been the tragic death of his only child Boy Gregory, lost to Pfeiffer Syndrome a mere week after birth. There seemed to be a dark cloud hovering over his work and it wasn’t until 2004 when the magic finally returned. First was his killer Grammy Award appearance with Beyoncé which is still part of his highlight reel. This was followed by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where he participated in a tribute to deceased fellow inductee George Harrison. Led by Tom Petty on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Prince took center stage three-and-a-half minutes in and owned the entire night. Once a gifted young prodigy, he now had the aura of a master as he took the lead on a guitar solo originally made famous by Eric Clapton, making both the solo and song his very own. With his profile the highest it had been since his Purple Rain heyday, he returned to playing large-scale arenas once again. Unfortunately I missed him on this tour, something I still deeply regret, but I do have a video bootleg of his Staples Center appearance in Los Angeles and he was as dynamic and versatile as he’d ever been. The musicianship was still off the charts, as the world-at-large would see in 2007 when he headlined the Super Bowl halftime show.

Prince’s Super Bowl appearance has now become one of his defining moments as a live performer. If you’ve ever watched any footage of Prince live, you know this was someone who never faltered or hit a bum note, something that used to amaze even the super-demanding jazz legend Miles Davis. He always delivered in a live setting and this would be no exception. Benefiting greatly from the NFL’s production budget (the show was beautifully shot and staged), Prince came up with a set that delivered signature hits, but also unexpected musical surprises. He threw in Dylan via Hendrix with a short cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” Creedence via Ike and Tina with “Proud Mary,” and a reciprocal cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” (they had covered his own “Darling Nikki,” apparently to significant approval), all while showcasing his greatly underrated guitar-playing. The theatricality of the performance was only heightened by the heavy downpour of rain throughout his set. By the time he got to “Purple Rain,” all of the elements came together to create one of those magical TV moments like Michael Jackson on Motown 25 or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched the show in amazement, proud to still be a Prince fan.

For the rest of his career, Prince would remain as hardworking and prolific as ever. He’d drop out of the spotlight for a bit, but always knew how to make his presence known whenever he had something new to promote. While newer albums continued to be patchy, there were always cool little surprises like “Black Sweat,” a great throwback to his early-‘80s work (the video was stylish and hot too) or “Guitar” from 2007. He made many great live appearances on TV, notably on SNL and his concerts remained the best way to experience his inexhaustible talent right up to his final Piano & a Microphone tour this year. While reportedly struggling with some yet-unknown demons, the final live footage we have of Prince floating around the internet shows him alone at the piano playing an intimate and poignant version of “Purple Rain,” the fortunate audience in attendance blissfully singing along, totally unaware that this would be his final performance ever. It serves as a heartbreaking memorial.

Later this evening, my dearly beloved and I will gather here today to celebrate this still-enigmatic superstar and legend by doing something I didn’t get the chance to as a teen: catching a theatrical screening of Purple Rain. It will be a very bittersweet, full-circle moment for me. While Prince the human being was not immortal after all, his creative output certainly is. He has left us a treasure trove of material to sift through, cherish, and pass along to successive generations. There is also a more private legacy of great philanthropic work that will improve the quality of life for many underprivileged children. He cared greatly throughout his life about equality, spirituality, and love. Music just happened to be the most natural vehicle to express his ideas with. Regardless of what emerges as the cause of his sudden departure from this earth, his personal and creative journey here showed us endless new possibilities and elevated all of humanity a notch in our slow upward climb towards nirvana. He only wanted to see us laughing in the purple rain.

Gilmour Shines On at United Center

So I am sitting down to write this a few days after David Gilmour’s final show in Chicago, following a weeklong stint that included one show at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre sandwiched by two larger-scale shows at the United Center. The U.S. tour, his first in 10 years, is a fairly exclusive affair encompassing only three cities (L.A., Chicago, and New York) before heading back to Europe. And at 70 years old, there’s no telling when or even if he’ll be back. Other than the early Floyd years, Gilmour has never been much of a road warrior. Since taking the helm of Pink Floyd in 1986 following the legal departure of founding member Roger Waters, he’s manned exactly two (albeit massive) world tours under the Floyd banner, the first from 1987-1990 and the second in 1994. He’s done very limited U.S. touring on his own, the last time in support of 2006’s On An Island – a show I was foolish enough to miss, despite being a full-on Floyd freak (if you know the band as Sigma 6, the Architectural Abdabs and the Meggadeaths, you are far beyond the realm of casual fan). So to say that I was grateful to get one more opportunity to see one of my favorite musicians of all time (and favorite guitarist bar none) is an understatement.

In a way, the delayed gratification worked in my favor. Gilmour is currently touring in support of 2015’s Rattle That Lock, a much stronger solo album than his last in my opinion, which makes the introduction of new material in a show heavy on classic rock standards much more palatable. Newer songs like the Leonard Cohen-influenced “Faces of Stone” and “In Any Tongue” held their own much better than the On An Island material last time around. The overall setlist was stronger than 2006 as well, with a brisker pacing of the solo and Floyd material. While no longer doing the epic “Echoes” (most likely due to the loss of close musical partner Richard Wright in 2008, whose sonic signature is all over that song), we got the reappearance of “Us and Them,” the stinging blues of “What Do You Want from Me,” the thundering “Sorrow,” and Wall classic “Run Like Hell”.  He also brought back Mr. Screen, the Vari-Lite-rigged circular projection surface made famous on all of the classic Floyd tours of the ‘70s and ‘80s (but missing in 2006’s solo outing). The venues are bigger this time around as well, with more arenas than theaters playing host and this is music custom-made for large, panoramic spaces.

The pre-show itself was the first sonic treat of the evening for Floyd obsessives, as familiar sound effects pulsed through the P.A. (a plane flying overhead, helicopter sounds, the backwards-guitar seagull wails from “Echoes” and spoken-word snippets from Dark Side of the Moon to name a few).  This provided the first clue as to the first-rate sound engineering that would take place all evening, the best concert sound I’ve heard since, ironically enough, Roger Waters’s solo version of The Wall a few years back. Pink Floyd’s concert sound is just as legendary in the industry as their visual effects, and Friday’s show at United was all-enveloping. You felt the music deep in your bones; it was that loud, dynamic, and three-dimensional.

The show itself opened proper with the instrumental “5 AM” off the new album, Gilmour’s signature elegiac guitar tone instantly recognizable as it cut through the gentle, cinematic backing. One note in and the audience instantly erupted in rapture and would pretty much remain that way throughout the entire performance (to the point where Gilmour himself would make reference to the crowd’s enthusiasm several times during the evening). This understated opening soon gave way to the bouncy “Rattle That Lock,” inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. Along with “Today,” the song’s production harkened back to a late-‘80s funk-lite feel. The sound was punchy and huge, with Gilmour’s strong vocals cutting through the mix. He sounded confident and in command from the start. The rest of the first set breezed by in a near-perfect blend of new and old: “Faces of Stone” led to a surprisingly early appearance of “Wish You Were Here,” a ballsy gambit that actually worked. The lush harmonies of the Wright tribute “A Boat Lies Waiting” (especially fitting with Wright’s daughter, son, and grandson in attendance) sounded enormous and rich, shimmering like the surface of a lake. This was followed by the ultra-serene “The Blue,” which obviously didn’t have the intended effect on the two “gentlemen” sitting near me who nearly broke out in a fight. Grown men. At a David Gilmour concert. Perhaps someone wasn’t sharing the herbal “enhancements” that substituted for oxygen at this show? Who knows, but the foolhardy twosome nearly got themselves bounced by a whole phalanx of United Center security. Ah, good times…

After a one-two punch of “Money” and “Us and Them,” the first set closed with the foreboding “High Hopes” off 1994’s The Division Bell. Accompanied by iconic Storm Thorgerson video, Gilmour played both nylon guitar and pedal steel with exquisite taste and ease. The band then took a fifteen minute intermission before resuming the show with the Syd Barrett-era “Astronomy Domine,” the psychedelic lighting and projections harkening back to 1967’s London underground. The nod to Floyd-founder Barrett continued with classic requiem “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” the introductory guitar figure generating some of the biggest cheers of the night. This classic Floyd staple and Gilmour showcase was played alongside more vintage Thorgerson footage. After watching it on the Pulse video and DVD for so many years, it was a real treat to see this footage projected live. It has aged beautifully. Other highlights of the second set included the pastoral “Fat Old Sun,” the aforementioned “Sorrow” and the visual/sonic attack of “Run Like Hell”. Whether comforting or menacing, Gilmour’s guitar tone was impeccable throughout. All of the signature hallmarks were there in abundance: the refined bends, sustained and delayed notes, all gleaming like liquid glass.

The show closed with an encore of “Time,” “Breathe (Reprise),” and of course “Comfortably Numb”.  After playing this song and all-time classic guitar solo so many times, one could forgive Gilmour for struggling to find the requisite power and feeling anymore, yet he delivered. Perhaps it was the energy of the crowd at United Center spurring him on, but it felt as sublime and transcendent as you would hope for, the vivid lasershow a mere backdrop for the real magic happening onstage. Credit must be given to his backing band and singers, many of whom are veterans of previous Floyd and solo tours. They injected fresh life into these classic warhorses, custodians of some of the most beloved staples in rock history. It also helps that Gilmour now tours at his own pace and terms. Financially, he’s never had to tour again past the ’87-’90 trek, but like McCartney he does so because pure musicianship courses through his veins. He can now cherry pick his live appearances and it shows. This is not a working musician slogging it out on a 100 + date tour. This is a relaxed veteran at peace with himself and his legacy. His current state-of-grace is a blessing to his audience and if this turns out to be a final victory lap, it will be a more than worthy one.

 

SET LIST:

First half: 5am, Rattle That Lock, Faces Of Stone, Wish You Were Here, What Do You Want From Me, A Boat Lies Waiting, The Blue, Money, Us And Them, In Any Tongue, High Hopes.

Second half: Astronomy Domine, Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Fat Old Sun, Coming Back To Life, On An Island, The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Today, Sorrow, Run Like Hell.

Encore: Time/Breathe(rep), Comfortably Numb

Behind The Wall – Pink Floyd’s masterwork revisited

If social media is any indication, every day seems to mark a new anniversary in rock history, with most being transparent PR ploys used to trump up sales of overhyped re-issues or to generate online and media buzz. However, in terms of true milestone moments in rock history, few top the release of Pink Floyd’s masterwork The Wall. Coming on the tail end of a remarkable run of albums in the ‘70s that stand with any in the classic rock canon (Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals), The Wall was a significant turning point for both Pink Floyd’s unparalleled career and high-stakes arena rock. It ended up destroying the former and re-inventing the latter.

By 1979, Pink Floyd had become an institution. Long removed from their Syd Barrett-led psychedelic blues incarnation (but not from the specter of Syd’s ghost), the band had long since hit pay dirt with 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon. Having reached its well-deserved place as one of the best-selling albums of all time, Dark Side marked the last time the “classic line-up” (conceptual mastermind Roger Waters on bass, David Gilmour on vocals/guitar, the late Richard Wright on keys, and Nick Mason on drums) would work as a peacefully collaborative unit.  Having taken control of the lyric-writing and grand concepts, and still haunted by the death of his father during World War II as well as Barrett’s schizophrenic breakdown, Roger Waters would turn the Pink Floyd machine into a vehicle for his increasingly nihilistic, yet oddly humane worldview.

The writing of the album was sparked by a well-documented moment in the band’s history. Growing increasingly bitter over the impersonal atmosphere at most stadium shows, Waters’ bile reached a boiling point during 1977’s In the Flesh tour (in support of the Orwellian Animals).  During the final performance of the tour at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, irked by the inebriated and obnoxious crowd (audience members were reportedly blowing off fireworks throughout the performance), Waters zeroed in on one unlucky teen, lured him closer to the stage, and spat in his face.  The incident, combined with Waters’ desire to erect a wall between the band and the audience, would go on to influence the creation of Pink Floyd’s next magnum opus.

Thirty years after its release, The Wall still stands as Waters’ definitive statement. Arguably the best lyricist in the history of rock, Waters encapsulated themes he’d been developing since “Corporal Clegg” from A Saucerful of Secrets – the futility of war, madness, alienation, and the potential of human agency – into a harrowing concept that illuminates the downward spiral humans potentially face when closed off from genuine connection with others (decades before Nine Inch Nails would steal the concept outright to lesser effect). The narrative was personal, an amalgamation of his and Barrett’s lives: the protagonist Pink suffers the loss of his father to war, grows up with an overbearing mother, is victimized by the British school system, becomes a drug-addled rock star, is trapped in a faithless marriage, and becomes increasingly alienated behind his metaphorical wall with each incident in his unhappy life serving as yet another “brick” separating him from his humanity.

By the end of side 2 (in the original vinyl release), Pink has tried committing suicide (“Goodbye Cruel World”), survives in a drug-fueled dream state and by the third side of the then-double album, the story starts flashing back to his father’s military experiences (“Vera,” “Bring the Boys Back Home”), before even darker turns where the protagonist imagines himself as a Nazi-like hate monger and is ultimately put on “trial” for all his crimes against humanity. The wall comes crumbling down, but not without an eerie denouement that hints at a perpetual cycle of misery (the final words of the album, a very faint “Isn’t this where…” begin a sentence completed at the very beginning of the album – “…we came in?”). All in all, a heartwarming way to spend a quiet Saturday night.

All joking aside (even Waters himself has talked about inserting some much-needed laughs in his long-gestating Broadway adaptation), The Wall has a bit of a one-sided reputation as unrelentingly bleak.  One of the things often overlooked in casual observations about the Floyd is the near-perfect balance between the dark, challenging lyrical themes and the chilling, yet uplifting beauty of the music. And this is where David Gilmour shines. His impeccable, elegiac guitar tone and airy, pastoral vocals are an indispensable part of the Floyd package (Don’t think so? Give any of Waters’ solo albums a spin). As with Dark Side, the songs are not Pink Floyd without his masterful touch on guitar, particularly on “Comfortably Numb”.  Very few guitar solos match the emotional depth and power of Gilmour’s playing throughout this song. While Gilmour could easily be “outplayed” by any number of ‘80s metal shred-heads, his tone, touch, and feel outclass nearly every player in existence. He is in the vanguard.  Elsewhere on the album, his guitar playing and haunting vocal delivery (“The Thin Ice,” “Goodbye Blue Sky,” “Hey You” etc.) offer a much-needed counterpoint to Waters’ histrionic “singing,” lending The Wall its only rays of light and turning it into as much a showcase for his talent as for Waters’ (a fact that would serve him well when he assumed leadership of the band in the late ‘80s).

Of course, Waters’ overpowering vision and increasingly autocratic treatment of the band ultimately tore the group apart. Richard Wright, an unassuming, but highly underrated part of the Floyd magic, was ousted for not contributing enough to the Wall sessions. The tour, a milestone in the history of rock theatre (laying the groundwork for subsequent over-the-top spectacles by the Stones and U2), would be the last time the key foursome would play together until their miraculous turn at 2005’s Live 8.  In blatant defiance of Waters’ anti-stadium sentiments, Gilmour, Mason, and a re-instated Wright would tour the world’s largest venues throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a reconstituted Floyd. Waters would continue to follow his thematic obsessions to lesser commercial success without the Floyd banner under which to hang his work. He would eventually find success as a touring act starting in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s. Both he and Gilmour, relying heavily on Floyd’s golden ‘70s period, continue to play to sold out crowds whenever they venture out on the road (with Waters going so far as to tour The Wall to enormous success from 2010-2013 including shows in, you guessed it, massive stadiums).

With the passing of Richard Wright in 2008, any hope long-suffering fans had of a full-fledged Pink Floyd reunion passed as well. Having exceeded all expectations with the Live 8 performance, there was reason to be hopeful, but the bad blood born during the recording of The Wall clearly had not dissipated in the ensuing years. While Waters was surprisingly open to reconciliation, for Gilmour the moment had long since passed and in all likelihood, the infamously fractious duo will never work together again. But they leave behind a body of work surpassed, arguably, only by The Beatles (coincidentally, another larger-than-life and ultimately self-destructive English quartet). If you discount faux-Floyd efforts like The Final Cut, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and The Division Bell, it’s a highly satisfying legacy with a definite beginning, middle, and end.  While Waters subtitled 1983’s The Final Cut “A Requiem for the Post-War Dream,” The Wall itself was a requiem for Pink Floyd. Thirty years on, its incisive and fiery brilliance (as well as political commentary) is as relevant and necessary as ever.

Sly Mythology

For public figures firmly entrenched in the collective pop culture psyche, time can be both enemy and friend. With a career of any meaningful duration, it is inevitable to see celebrity stock rise and fall according to the capricious winds of change. To paraphrase an astute observation by songwriter Jackson Browne, to be extremely popular in one era is to pretty much guarantee you will be extremely unpopular in another. The real trick of attaining “legend” cred these days is to ride out all the highs and lows, failures, successes, and in-betweens long enough to be knighted for sheer persistence. Forget about dying young and leaving a pretty corpse, survival is the new cool. Perhaps no one parading around in the current movie awards season embodies this cycle better than classic underdog Sylvester Stallone.

Sylvester Stallone is someone who has been famous for so long both as an icon and caricature, that he’s become far too easy to pigeonhole through the years. While currently riding an evergreen winning streak (including Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice awards) most likely leading to his first acting Oscar for 2015’s Creed, it’s easy to forget that Stallone’s been a target of idolization and ridicule for nearly his entire run as a star. He’s also been unjustly underrated as an actor for many performances sandwiched between his two Academy Award nominations (for the first Rocky and Creed respectively). This has been partly his own doing. While creating two of the most iconic film characters of all time in Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, he’s also made plenty of confounding choices, often going with bankable, cheesy action fare or ill-fitting comedies over character-driven material. After literally creating his own winning ticket with 1976’s Rocky, Stallone could have easily carved out a career as a fascinating character-actor. With his unique look and voice (both due to a botched forceps delivery at birth) as well as his emotionally-driven screenwriting, he could have immediately followed up on the promise of that first Best Actor nomination. And for a while he tried, but considering the blessing-turned-typecasting albatross of the Rocky character, as well as years of struggle as an unknown, it is easy to see why he followed the path he did.

The reason the Rocky franchise has been so profitable for Stallone along with being his most relatable work is simple: it is Stallone’s life story re-configured and mythologized in the form of a lovable underdog pugilist. Stallone was probably the ultimate underdog struggling actor in the early ‘70s. Teased as a child for his looks and first name, Stallone was a shy, scrawny and insecure figure who grew up idolizing strong matinee idols such as bodybuilder-turned-leading man Steve Reeves in 1958’s Hercules. While dreaming of one day being a physically strong cinematic hero himself, the road to glory was the classic mythological test of character and desire. In fact, his first “starring” role was taken out of sheer necessity, having been evicted from his apartment and finding himself homeless. The 1970 feature film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (later renamed The Italian Stallion to capitalize on the success of Rocky) was a soft-core adult movie. Stallone made $200 for two day’s work. He also starred in the erotic off-Broadway play Score in late 1971.

The rest of Stallone’s early film roles did nothing to elevate his profile or bank statement. There are uncredited roles in Woody Allen’s Bananas as a subway thug and in Klute as a background dancer in a nightclub. He played a supporting role in Roger Corman’s cult classic (as all Corman films are) Death Race 2000. More promising was a leading role opposite a pre-Happy Days Henry Winkler in The Lords of Flatbush where there were flashes of the street-tough yet vulnerable emotional combination he would later perfect in Rocky.

The story behind Rocky has now become Hollywood folklore and an inspiration to many including Matt Damon who recently acknowledged Stallone’s then-gamble as a template for the success of Goodwill Hunting. Realizing he was being typecast as a hooligan with no hope of breaking through the glass ceiling, Stallone decided to write his own vehicle inspired not only by his own professional and personal struggles, but also by the 1975 Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner boxing match in which the underdog Wepner surprised everyone by lasting 15 rounds with the legendary Ali. Stallone was so moved by the performance and underdog story that he came home and wrote Rocky in three days. He then attempted to sell the script to multiple studios with the intention of starring in the movie himself. Nearly destitute and with a pregnant wife at home, Stallone was offered $350,000 to relinquish the script for either Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds to star in. Remarkably, and in true Rocky spirit, he turned down the offer and held out for producers willing to let him play the lead role. He found them in Hollywood vets Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who were so enamored with the screenplay that they ceded to Stallone’s stipulations. The gamble paid off for all involved, as Rocky became a massive, worldwide hit and would garner ten Academy Award nominations including Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Stallone. The film eventually won for Best Picture of 1976, a year loaded with top-shelf competition such as Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men.

The first Rocky worked because of the authenticity of the source material, the excellent ensemble chemistry, and the particular poignancy Stallone brought to the role of Rocky Balboa. As with all of his best work, Stallone brings a unique pathos to his lead male characters. As hinted at in The Lords of Flatbush, beneath the burly exterior and inarticulate speech patterns, there is a hard-knock sensitivity and naïve idealism in his most effective performances. Especially prominent in the vehicles he’s written for himself, Stallone draws from classic themes straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces; archetypes and myths firmly embedded in the collective consciousness. Self-empowerment and overcoming challenges have been consistent messages in his work, just as his own self-actualization connected with millions of people worldwide.

In the aftermath of newfound success, Stallone would once again find himself typecast, this time by the viewing public. Having created an iconic and instantly identifiable movie character, it would prove a mixed blessing and difficult to escape from. He directed for the first time (1978’s Paradise Alley) and would star as a James Hoffa-type character in the labor union drama F.I.S.T.  But the lure of a Rocky sequel proved, as it would throughout his entire career, too powerful and lucrative to resist. He closed out the ‘70s writing, directing, and starring in Rocky II, again to huge box office success.

The ‘80s saw Stallone’s unique run of highs and lows continue. It began with 1981’s gritty Serpico-styled cop thriller Nighthawks in which Stallone donned a beard, further trying to distance himself from his most famous onscreen persona. This was followed by 1982’s winning combination blow of Rocky III and the introduction of his second-most famous screen persona John Rambo in First Blood. Like the first Rocky, First Blood was a credible and emotional character study that soon gave way to cartoonish sequels that ranged from highly entertaining to insipid. It told the simple story of a Vietnam veteran returning from war to an equally hostile and bitter reality at home. As equally monosyllabic yet likable as Rocky Balboa, Stallone’s performance as John Rambo was a deserved hit with audiences and would soon earn him praise from film critic Roger Ebert as the best physical actor in the world (a unique, yet fitting stamp). After a disastrous detour playing a New York cab driver-turned-country singer opposite Dolly Parton in 1984’s Rhinestone, he hit a box-office career peak in 1985 with another franchise double-play of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. Both movies redefined the action and sports movie genres for the remainder of the decade, leaning towards hyper-macho, comic book violence and antagonists worthy of the then-WWF. Just as fitting for a decade where the bodybuilding subculture finally went mainstream, Stallone morphed into a fitness icon almost unrecognizable from the slightly doughy, yet more relatable figure he cut in the ‘70s.

The rest of the 1980’s saw diminishing returns. While firmly established as the biggest star and highest-paid actor at the time, his films descended into entertaining camp. From the near franchise-launcher Cobra to Tango and Cash, his ‘80s oeuvre, nearly all of which were personal vehicles he had written, are definitely of their time and have dated poorly. Films like Rocky and First Blood, while also looking of their time, have character portraits and themes that lend them a timeless quality. Over the Top certainly does not.

The ‘90s got off to a bad start for Stallone with Rocky V, universally viewed (writer and star included) as the worst entry in the Rocky series. It proved to be a bad omen. He followed that up with back-to-back comedic misfires Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Stallone was taking chances and trying to break out of the action star rut he’d been in, and he can be genuinely funny both on the talk-show circuit and in portion-controlled moments onscreen, but it was not what audiences wanted to see. As long as he looked like a buff action star and was camping it up in films like Demolition Man and Judge Dredd, it was hard to accept him otherwise. While movies like 1993’s Cliffhanger kept him alive as a viable box-office attraction (especially internationally), he’d long since relegated himself to a kind of action-star purgatory, which is why 1997’s independent drama Cop Land came as such a welcome surprise.

One of Stallone’s greatest gifts as an actor is his physical commitment to his roles. Whether playing a boxer, military veteran, or mountain climber, he brings an athlete’s intensity and focus to the onscreen heroics. His training and on-set involvement are peerless and pretty much set the standard every leading male, whether in action or comic-book movies, follows to this day. Every time a Henry Cavill or a Chris Hemsworth bulks up to convincingly play a larger-than-life character, the lineage can be traced back to Stallone. And while not the first to drastically transform for a film role, the most famous example being Robert DeNiro’s game-changing work in Raging Bull, Stallone’s (albeit chemically-aided) body mutations through the Rocky and Rambo movies set a new standard in Hollywood. It also further chained Stallone to action spectacles which, especially in the ‘90s, left little room for character nuance. Sensing this himself, Stallone took his first interesting actorly risk since the mid ‘70s for Cop Land by packing on the pounds and completely de-glamming to play the partially deaf sheriff of a small New Jersey town run by corrupt New York City police. Surrounded by the best ensemble he’d worked with since the first Rocky, including Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, and Ray Liotta, Stallone was once again human and vulnerable, looking very much like the actor he would’ve been had fate, dollar signs, and public expectations been circumvented.

Cop Land could’ve been the start of a career renaissance for Stallone, but oddly the next 9 years would prove to be a veritable wasteland. Whether by choice or circumstance, he once again returned to action and populace pieces, none of which would register with the viewing public. There was an unnecessary remake of Get Carter in 2000 followed by another self-penned vehicle Driven in 2001. The rest were even more forgettable with titles such as D-Tox and Avenging Angelo that only writers doing research on Stallone’s career will have any lingering familiarity with. Then came the announcement that was met with rolling eyes and snide comments everywhere: Stallone would once again reprise his most famous role as Rocky Balboa. Even loyal fans thought it was a bad idea, Stallone inching near 60 then and far removed from his doe-eyed prime. It smacked of desperation and sounded like a recipe for disaster, even more so than the ill-conceived Rocky V.

Shockingly, Stallone had the last laugh. Much like Rocky rising from a ten count, Stallone proved to have quite a bit left in the tank. Once again taking the helm as writer and director, he turned 2006’s Rocky Balboa into a modest triumph. By playing Rocky in an age-appropriate manner rather than the superhero he had morphed into, Stallone brought back the poetry and charm of the ’76 original. It was a genuine full-circle victory, connecting with both fans and critics, and was the surprise hit film of the year. Nearly as impressive was the resurrection of his other alter-ego in 2008’s Rambo, another unexpected hit. For longtime fans of both franchises, these purported final chapters served as fitting finales. More importantly for Stallone, it resuscitated his box-office clout and would pave the way for his greatest triumph yet to come.

Energized by these recent successes, Stallone created his third major franchise with the campy ‘90s-action throwback The Expendables. Surrounded by nearly every former action star of the ‘80s and ‘90s Stallone was clearly having fun, once again showcasing a style, sensibility, and maleness that had long since grown obsolete. It was a mostly old-school boys club, tongue planted firmly in cheek, and successful enough to warrant ongoing sequels. In a similar vein was 2013’s Escape Plan co-starring Stallone’s greatest professional rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, followed in the same year by the embarrassing Grudge Match with Cop Land co-star Robert DeNiro. Amidst the upswing in his professional life, Stallone was struck by personal tragedy in 2012 when his eldest son Sage was found dead from a heart attack at age 36. Six weeks later, his half-sister Toni Ann Filiti died of lung cancer. Fortified by life experience and a nourishing home life with third wife Jennifer Flavin and their three daughters, Stallone kept moving forward.

Having come back so many times when most critics had written him off, Stallone reached a point in his career where there was seemingly nothing left to prove and no dragons left to slay. While never receiving much acknowledgment for his work since the first Rocky, Stallone had attained something even more rarified and potent in the industry: he’d become a sort of bulletproof icon; someone who, no matter how many failures, missed opportunities, scandals, or outright foolish choices, would always be beloved as a star of the highest order; myth and mythmaker having somehow blended into a seamless whole. While there were rumblings about yet another Rambo, and his decades-old dream project about Edgar Allen Poe continued to languish in his desk drawer, there didn’t seem to be any new, genuinely artistic roads left to travel.

With the Rocky series having been brought to a satisfying conclusion, Stallone had apparently closed the door to any future sequels. He had been approached by talented up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station fame and a lifelong fan of the Rocky series) about possibly continuing the saga, this time focusing on the son of legendary Rocky opponent Apollo Creed, with the idea that Stallone would reprise Rocky as a mentor figure much like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey in the original. Stallone was not interested and it took years of persistence on Coogler’s part to gain the trust needed to make it happen. The result was 2015’s Creed, another surprise box-office hit. Even more surprising, Creed was a massive success with critics, particularly for Stallone’s performance. Having already laid the groundwork years earlier with his world-weary take in Rocky Balboa, Stallone brought the same gravitas to Creed, bravely playing the once-superhuman warrior staring down his greatest opponent: mortality. Once again, as with the original Rocky, there was artistry at work: Coogler’s retro, but forward-moving touch, co-star Michael B. Jordan’s complex and conflicted young lion, and the unmistakable weight, charm, and legitimacy of Stallone’s committed presence. For a career that has spanned decades and generations, it was a true crowning moment.

At 69 years of age and with many indelible onscreen moments on his resume, Stallone stands poised to finally receive his first acting Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Creed. It is a remarkable Rocky moment come to life, one that would strain credibility if written out as fiction. Though clearly the hands-down (and sentimental) favorite to win, this is one case where the nomination alone is truly a victory in itself. If by yet another dramatic twist-of-fate Stallone were to come home empty-handed the night of February 28th, it would be perhaps an even more faithful nod to the underdog mythology of Rocky Balboa – a self-made, talented, yet flawed contender who personified the virtue of persistence and the glory to be found in hard-fought defeat. Sylvester Stallone has gone his own personal distance, bruised and humbled, but also refined by time. Having finally fulfilled the promise of the young “Italian Stallion,” Stallone stands on the crest of a fascinating third act, a testament to the folkloric inspiration and immortality of cinema.