Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Stone of Sisyphus---Chicago's Lost Album

It's been a quiet summer at The Little House in the Ghetto. The kids have finally stopped shooting off their excess Fourth of July fireworks, and hopefully the adults won't start shooting off their versions of cherry bombs, m-80's and Roman Candles i.e. Ak-47's Tec-9's and Glocks.

I really haven't posted much of anything to the Scribbler in about a month. Yeah, I posted the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, but that's just cutting and pasting. No brainpower expended doing that. As you teeming masses know, I rarely do politics, and the whole situation with the Steeler's ownership problems and Don Barden's travails getting the casino open on the North Side...well I have my views on all that, but I don't want to expend them here. Let's just say, while Barden has not exactly helped his cause by showing that he does not have the backing and the bucks that we originally thought he had, the other denizens of the North Side, namely the Pirates, Steelers, Science Center and the Riverlife Task Force have gotten their collective panties in a wad and have not exactly been welcoming the new neighbor with an apple pie and an invitation to the end of month neighborhood block party, but rather the equivalent of a dead cat in the mailbox. I don't have a major issue with the Science Center's complaints, but the Pirates really, really need to concentrate about putting a Major League baseball team on the field, not this astoundingly bad impersonation of a baseball team that they have foisted on the Pittsburgh sporting public for the last decade and a half. Stick to that, Bucco front office and not getting bent out of shape about traffic patterns. Considering their attendance this season, the crowds can get out of the North Side in record time these days.

No, I've decided that those things, while meriting some coverage on a blog that gives a damn, are not grist for the Scribbler's mill.

As those who know me can attest, my music tastes go all over the place, and one thing that I will admit to is that I am a big Chicago fan. This band has put its mark on rock and roll and pop music for over 40 years. The innovation of combining multiple styles of music such as rock, jazz, blues, and pop with an up-front horn section has been tried by a few bands but only mastered by one. In their 40 years, they have amassed record sales of over 120 million records, have had 20 Top Ten Singles, 12 Top ten albums, five of which went to #1, they are the only band to have hit albums in five, count'em, five decades. And provided the idiots that run the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame get their heads out of their asses, are a sure lock to be inducted into that "institution." Those who are fans of the band know that the history of Chicago can be broken down into at least two periods: From the band's formation in 1967 to the late '80's where the band's signature up-front horn section and it's collaborative style of mixing genres was most evident in songs like: "25 or 6 to 4"(which is not about drugs, as many think it is); "Wishing You were Here";"Saturday in the Park"; " If you Leave Me Now"; and "Baby, what a Big Surprise", and the so-called and in many cases, reviled "ballad period", when the band relied on songs written by outside songwriters and those songs had moved the horns from the front of the band to merely providing filler for syrupy sweet ballads about love lost, found, lost again and so on. This was all done to satisfy the record labels desire for bland, inoffensive pablum that did not challenge the listener's senses and insured that the label and the band would make lots of money. But as the Bible says: "What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world, and lose his soul?", the members of Chicago pondered the same dilemma: "When and why did we sacrifice our musical integrity on the altar of commerical success? " "Can we still make good music and still make a living doing so?"

So in late 1992, after Chicago 21 was a flop, the band decided to go back to their roots, and put out an album that put the horns back out front, that explored, bended, and manipulated different music genres just like back in the day. So the band, with producer Peter Wolf holed up in Simi Valley, CA in early 1993 and put out what was to be Chicago 22: Stone of Sisyphus. The story of Sisyphus stated that for his crimes, he would be forced to roll a huge rock up a hill and just before it got to the top, it would roll back down and he would have to repeat the task over and over for eternity. Chicago decided to adopt the title because they kinda felt like poor Sisyphus: always struggling to reach the top only to be thwarted once they got within sight of their goal. As the story goes, the band had completed the album and were totally energized to be getting back to what got them where they were. They pitched their album to the label execs at Warner Bros, who had their contract at the time, and the bean counters who were in charge basically poo-pooed the album dismissing it as "the worst Chicago album yet", and would not promote it. It wasn't pop mainstream enough, didn't have enough ballads, too experimental. The band was stunned. But both sides held their ground, refused to give in, and Chicago left the label, and put the album back in the vault. Number 22 was assgined to: Night and Day; Chicago's big band compilation that came out in 1995.

Since Stone of Sisyphus was put away, rumors had grown about a lost Chicago album. The band played a few of the songs in various live shows and a couple of the songs made it on country-specific releases. Bootleg copies started surfacing amongst hard-core Chicago fans. Once in a while the band would play coy and say that the album would be released, but then pull away. Well imagine my surprise when I was schlepping through the East Liberty Border's last Tuesday to see this new Chicago album I had never even heard about entitled Chicago 32: The Stone of Sisyphus. The album was released on June 17, 2008, fifteen years after it was recorded and from listening to it a few times, I can hear the old school Chicago in this collection. The album was recorded in 1993, and it shows. The keyboards sound like they are from that period. The horns are back where they should be--front and center. They have the cut and bite that was missing. There are ballads in this album like "Mah-Jong", and "Let's Take a Lifetime", and "Here With Me" but they aren't as cloying and sweet as previous songs. Experiementation is back on "Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed" where organist Bobby Lamm spits a little early '90's white boy rap over a chunky rhythm . It won't make people forget Tupac, but for a bunch of 45-50 year old rockers who specialized in blue-eyed soul, that's a big stretch for them. "Bigger Than Elvis" was bassist Jason Scheff's tribute to his father, Jerry who was best known for playing bass for Elvis Presley. The album has Jerry playing on "Bigger", but Jason didn't let his dad know what the song was about, the vocals were muted. The old man sobbed when he heard the finished song. "All the Years" marks a return to the political side of early Chicago with a sample of the crowd chant "The Whole World's Watching" from the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. "Plaid" takes a dig at Warner Bros, and corporate rock. I think it's safe to say that the ballad period of Chicago is over. They have their own record company now, and they can decide what they want to put out and what will sell. Now if we can just get the geniuses at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to reconsider...then again any institution that would include Madonna(a worthy talent, but not rock and roll), and Michael Jackson(another great talent, but NOT rock and roll) and bands that don't have nearly the body of work, the longevity, and the accolades of Chicago, probably does deserve to have them darken their threshold.