It was Joe Keebler, I think, who inspired me to become a music critic. I had influences, sure–chief among them Rick Johnson of Creem, Dick DeBartolo of Mad, and Richard Meltzer of everyplace–but Joe showed me the way.
You probably don’t know him. I didn’t really know him myself. He was two grades ahead of me in high school, just a brisk figure in the halls. But give him home-row and he was likely one of the greatest writers the school paper ever had.
The Whirlwind wasn’t known for its dynamic prose. ‘Cause its staff was just kids, few of whom went home every night, snapped on some Sting, and wrote ’til lights-out for fun. English was math, writing was torture. Students passed through to fulfill electives, their journalistic aspirations quelled by decent grades. Even worse, they were teenagers, voices and personalities still very much in flux.
So the paper suffered from a leaden, self-conscious tone. You could hear the classroom-taught inverted pyramid creaking painfully in the linguistic breeze. “There are now two beverage choices in our locker rooms,” a piece might yawn. “Students who are thirsty are now able to decide whether they want Coke or Pepsi for lunch or just as a before- or after-school drink.”
Joe, on the other hand–Joe had panache. Zing. He was an absolute pleasure to read. His flow was usually fenced by a shaded column to draw it out and quarantine it from the aching monotony. I think it was even called “Keebler’s Corner,” or something equally cute. The subject was always the same: music, usually the newest Skinny Puppy side he’d picked up downtown. (Audio Addict, represent!)
By this time I, a lowly sophomore, had devoured plenty of music magazines, always flipping first to the back for the reviews. I was sure this was something I’d like to do when I grew up. Because as far as I knew, music critics were old guys–like, my dad’s age. Guys who’d spent their lives leaning over grooves with pad and pencil to painstakingly trace every lick, toop, and zsss to a house address in Chicago, or wherever movements are born. They were flinty academic types filing from metropolitan bases to slick magazines and finally into the agog paws of dinky-town suburbanites like me. But here was Joe Keebler, this 17-, 18-year-old kid in my own universe, my own city, my own building, doing the exact same thing. “Eureka!” I belched. “I could do this now!”
Two years later, senior year, I did just that. I joined the Whirlwind staff, ostensibly as the, gag, photo editor, a job I despised and sucked at and happily passed to Shad Engkilterra, who was perfectly at ease splashing around the darkroom. “What are you going to do now?” asked my advisor. I fixed her with baby’s first steely gaze and stated matter-of-factly, “I’m going to be your critic.”
For my first “official” review, my advisor–Dena Minato; the woman did have a name–sent me to the Camelot at Heritage Mall, where the store manager was waiting for me. I already kinda knew her, since I spent the time I wasn’t in school or working thumbing through tapes, desperate to blow my check on sounds. So after school I made my way to my favorite place in the whole damn world and traded chit-chat with the manager. When I told her I wasn’t sure which album I wanted to check out, she smiled and led me toward the “B”s. “I’ve got just the thing,” she said as she slid a fortressed cassette from the racks. “Are you familiar at all with Bonham?”
“Sure,” I shrugged, “that’s John Bonham‘s kid‘s band.” Their first single, “Wait for You,” was then soaking up radio, and I’d caught its video once or twice on MTV. Theirs was a familiar sound, watered down. There’d been some controversy the previous year with an outfit called Kingdom Come, who’d been compared–and not at all favorably–to the long-dissolved Led Zeppelin, still the heavy-metal template for a second generation that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had made no bones about disowning.
But they couldn’t really do that to Bonham–its namesake, Jason, was kin, heir to the sticks of papa Bonzo, that kit-busting typhoon who’d been most instrumental in Zep’s earth-shuddering legend. Jason had assumed his father’s place when the band briefly reconvened at Atlantic Records‘ 40th anniversary bash in 1988. And here and now, in the fall of ’89, he’d lent his daunting name to a young quartet that could best be described as a workaday Zep clone versed in the soft-hard rock of its time. Its vocalist, the late Daniel MacMaster, wore Plant’s look and lungs like a brand new suit, from the tips of his holy-house yelps to the curled roots of his shaggy mane.
“This is the album,” she said, freeing the tape from its plastic bonds and handing it to me. “I think it’s going to be a big seller.”
“Cool,” I nodded as I reached for my wallet. She quickly raised her hand to stop me mid-cheek. “All taken care of,” she explained.
I smiled. This music-crit biz had some definite perks.
Anyway, that’s how The Disregard of Timekeeping became the first record I ever reviewed in print. There were other albums, better albums, like Rush‘s Presto and the Flamin’ Groovies‘ Groovies’ Greatest Grooves. But as Catherine O’Hara drolly noted in Best in Show, “You never forget your first.”
So what possessed me to return to something I examined 19 years ago? After all, it had no profound effect on me; I listened to it about four times and corralled my thoughts, then retired it into my permanent collection, never to be heard from again. My verdict: eh, OK. I distinctly recall comparing portions to Starship, not the highest praise. I also remember arguing with Danielle Budlong over the proper spelling of “psychedelic.” (She was right, by the way.)
Is this a wild nostalgic experiment, allowing me to indulge in long-form navel-gazing with a wistful twist? Well, yeah. I’ve recently been reconnecting with old classmates on Facebook, and that’s spurred me to contemplate memory, aging, and the communal experience of our formative years. Enough time has passed since graduation that there exists a curious disconnect between then and now, and it feels like everything I know I did actually happened to someone else. In a spiritual sense, that’s true: that’s a version of me that no longer walks the earth. I look different, sound different, and feel different in some very profound ways. But music and writing are two passions I share with my teenage self; on those we remain equal. So I became curious: What connection would I have at 36 to some of the tangible flavors of my youth?
Going in, I have a slight advantage over Cory 1.0. See, I know what happened to Bonham. It’s kind of disappointing, but not at all surprising. Despite that Camelot manager’s lofty predictions, The Disregard of Timekeeping was not a huge seller and made no discernible impact. It barely cracked the Top 40, and “Wait for You” stalled at #55. A second single, “Guilty,” was a dribble on the pulse. They lasted long enough to record another album, Mad Hatter, in 1992. It was even more conventional than its predecessor, a strategic miscue at a time when bands of its diluted-metal ilk were declared obsolete. Hatter was delivered stillborn; Bonham was quietly over.
So I come to Disregard with some sympathy. It was recorded by a very young band; its individual members were barely past 20. Jason Bonham, the drummer-leader with the notorious pedigree, was 23. Frontman Daniel MacMaster, the pipes and potential bedroom-wall icon, was just 21. They landed a major-label deal on the strength of Bonham’s famous last name. And with that name came certain expectations and a pressure to deliver. If they failed, they were pretty much fucked for life. (Poor MacMaster grindstoned post-Bonham in near-obscurity until his death earlier this year at the age of 39.) I can’t imagine being that young, my entire future contingent upon the reception of my first creative endeavor.
Relistening to the album, I find that, aside from “Wait for You,” I don’t remember these tracks too well, not even the riffs and hooks. But all that changes when the choruses hit. Then it’s “Of course: ‘Guilty.’ Ah, yes: ‘Holding on Forever.'” Bonham were OK with structures, they just didn’t know how to make them interesting.
Naturally, there are exceptions. “Wait For You” was the first single for a reason: it’s Timekeeping‘s strongest cut, probably because of its tremendous debt to Zeppelin. Nowhere else does MacMaster ape Plant’s tenor so shamelessly, cartwheeling over an Ian Hatton guitar figure flirting with “Kashmir’s” lower bow-strokes.
On the album proper it’s connected to the title track, an atmospheric instrumental that might have cozied with Pink Floyd‘s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, the spawn of “Dogs of War” and “Terminal Frost.” “Dreams” rises on a curious sound collage of a weary reveler stumbling home, cracking open a beer, and retiring for the night as a spectral piano lulls him into slumber. Sadly, his vision turns out to be your usual self-achievement positivity claptrap; the chorus, swear to God, is “Keep it up/I’m so high/Reach for the sky/Never give up.” There’s nothing wrong with cliche-riddled verses, but if you can’t match “Here I go again on my own/Going down the only road I’ve ever known/Like a drifter I was born to walk alone” (which, unlike “Dreams,” I don’t have to consult to confirm–Old Man Coverdale pounds ’em in forever), keep that limp dreck locked up.
On top of its banal pizza-box verbiage (which can almost be excused, given the composers’ youth), Timekeeping‘s most brutal failure is its ho-hum conventionality: This is a novice but talented band sweating through Intro to Melodic Theory, marrying textbook formulas to songs that, according to design, should be hits. Tasteful shred? Check. Ballads? Check. Not too many, though, right? Right. Hummable choruses? “I’m guilty, hmmm-hmmm, of your love”–check. Layered harmonies? Everywhere. Inspirational bromides? Present and accounted for.
Consequently, there was nothing to distinguish it from other profferings of the time (Slaughter, Warrant, etc.), and that’s death when your leader’s father was one of the craziest motherfuckers to ever rock ‘n’ roll, bashing for an ass-kicking combo that scorched the shit-beat plains and smoked the blues-rock idiom ’til it was too high to care. And what do you do with that legacy? Sputter out the same tedio-pabulum as every other acid-washed straw-head under the cheeseball big-top. That may be great for first-week sales, not so great for posterity. September 1989 was a lot of first weeks ago.
And don’t we know and feel it. My hair’s a little frostier now, thankfully lingering atop a head weighted with a shitload more memories. Timekeeping, along with multiple weeks of music, fits easily in a portable device so thin I can slip it down my pocket. I haven’t touched a cassette since the last century. That Camelot I called my second home closed ages ago, its real estate transformed into seasonal pop-up space. I don’t know where Joe Keebler is these days, but I hope he’s still writing. I know I am, and for that, I thank him.