WHAT I MIGHT BE ABOUT TO GET UP TO….

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. The hardest part about blogging (for me at least) is deciding what to write about. I always have a few longing posts incubating. Some sit for months or even years before the mood to polish them off strikes.

But mostly, ideas come and go. Several times a day. Sometimes more. The hardest part is avoiding politics. I know I write about them here and there, especially the Age of Trump, but it’s not what I want this blog to be about. If I ever decide to go heavy on it, I’ll start another blog–probably called No Comfort here. That should put me at the top of the charts!

This week been more interesting than most, because I’ve become self-conscious about the process. Here I sit wondering whether I should write next about Cyndi Lauper (or just She’s So Unusual, or maybe Twelve Deadly Cyns, or just “Money Changes Everything,”) except I really need to get back to John Ford or Elvis and I’ve got that Handy Ten on Golden Age Westerns to finish off plus my favorite Various Artists box set (Philly Soul) and six or seven other topics to consider, when all of a sudden, just this morning (early, before the sun came up), I’m listening to the Byrds and thinking This, this is what I should be writing about, and then Vivien Leigh pops into my head and I ask myself how it’s possible I’ve been writing this blog for six-and-a-half years without ever attempting to do her justice (given that no one else has managed it, should’t I at least try)?

And, you know, the chances are at least fifty-fifty, the next thing I write about won’t be any of those things.

It probably won’t even be about the paradigm shift I see happening in the two major political parties which will either lead to a reversal of voting bases (like 1980) or priorities (like 1932) or the elimination of one or the other to be replaced by something new (like 1860).

It probably won’t even be my response to Terry Teachout’s long interview about the Band, where he opined, among other things, that their first two albums were the only “adult” music being made at the time (1968-70) in what I like to call Rock and Roll America.

Boy, will I have something to say about that some day….unless, by chance, all the “some days” become consumed by all those other things I’m sure I’ll have something say about…

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Spring 2018, Countdown)

10) The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

After decades, this finally opened up for me in the last six months, thanks to the dual mono/stereo format in which the band’s albums now seem to be routinely released. Usually, I don’t have any trouble deciding which I prefer (especially with the Beatles–monomonomono!), but this one I go back and forth on. I wouldn’t say I’ve been listening obsessively, like I’m in the freshman dorm circa 1967, but I’ve finally been forced to pay attention to the stretch between “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Day in the Life.” That’s what life is for, I suppose. To live, to learn and to find oneself wondering if hearing the same thing in both ears is better than hearing different things in different ears. By Jove, I think they’ve finally got me!

9) The Rascals Anthology: 1965-1972 (1992)

This has always been more my speed. No shame there. The Rascals’ best music is as essential as anything in life and they never stopped being great–not something one can say for many bands who made the journey from 1965 to 1972 and actually tried to keep up. Even as a big fan, I still remember being shocked at how much force this had when I first heard so much gathered in one place.

I’m not shocked anymore–but it still hits hard, all of it. Their great theme was Love, in all its variants–good, bad, personal, political, lost, found. A classic case of someone being so completely of their time they transcend it. and remind all who attend them now of how much was lost when their time passed.

6-8) War All Day Music, The World is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word (1971, 1972, 1973)

No one has ever produced a greater trifecta. That these three albums, among the most radical ever made, went gold or platinum (The World is a Ghetto was the best-selling album of 1973) is still astonishing, as is the fact that singles as potent as “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “The World is a Ghetto” were even more powerful as isolated extended album cuts–and mind-bending in the context of their respective LPs. From this distance, there really isn’t any way to process the existence of such music, let alone the idea/reality that it once topped the charts. No music has ever been quite so successful in reaching from the last dead end street all the way to the sky–and you can’t feel the full effect unless you listen to all three at once. I promise…

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

As what I’m starting to hear as the most radical album ever released, this makes a nice followup to War at their peak. Astounding on so many levels, my favorite being that Lauper was the only singer who, as a singer, had a truly Punk ethos–she held nothing back, took more vocal risks than anyone since the fifties, more emotional risks than anyone since Janis Joplin, and meant to top the charts with it…which, oh by the way, she did.

Not the *&%$in’ British charts either.

More coming…eventually…I promise.

4) The Four Tops Anthology: 50th Anniversary (2004)

The first disc is devoted to the dark side of love and need. The titles tell most of the story: “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “7-Rooms of Gloom,” “Ask the Lonely,” “You Keep Running Away.”

But even when the words carry a hint of optimism–“Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Something About You,” even “I Can’t Help Myself”–Levi Stubbs’ voice and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s arrangements fill in the blanks. This man will never know happiness!

Second disc is good solid post-sixties soul music that starts near-great (like maybe he could be happy) and ends fair-to-middlin’-with-little-distinction (sort of sub-Luther Vandross), though “Catfish” is a hidden gem….an update of the Coasters, with whom the pre-fame Tops had competed in the fifties and as far from their persona as it was possible to get.

3)  The Stylistics The Stylistics (1971)

Speaking of post -sxties soul music, this is coming from the inspired angle. One of the great debut albums, from the era when Thom Bell could do no wrong, and it never quits. Odd, though, that the absolute killer was the only song Bell and Linda Creed didn’t write–and just possibly his greatest production. If there could be such a thing.

Also, just possibly Russell Thompkins Jr.’s greatest ever vocal.

If there could be such a thing.

2) Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1989)

It would be hard to overstate how hard “Buffalo Stance” hit the radio in the wasteland of the late eighties. It has lost nothing. It’s one of those records like “Eve of Destruction” which no one but a genius could ever follow up.**

Neneh didn’t turn out to be a genius and that was pretty apparent listening to Raw Like Sushi even then. She was, however, a talented hip-hopper, speaking from a street tough stance that the mainstream hadn’t seen much of at the time. These days, even in the wake of Mary J. Blige and a few others who could claim genius status, this still sounds fresh…and even Mary J. has never laid “Buffalo Stance” in the shade. Because nobody has and nobody could.

1)  Al Green Green is Blues (1969)

Al Green was always a genius. It was only with his next album (his third) that the world started to take notice, but all the elements were in place here: the Hi rhythm section, Willie Mitchell’s sure touch in the production booth, the startling taste in covers (here jumping from “Get Back” to “Summertime” at the close–Beatles to Gershwin in a bandbox Memphis studio with a bunch of little-knowns and unknowns in the late sixties, with psychedelia blooming all around. Nobody had done anything like that since, well that guy who walked into a bandbox Memphis studio in the mid-fifties. Of whom, as I’ve noted before, Green was the greatest descendant….and, as it turned out, Rock and Roll America’s last great hope.

**The Turtles turned down “Eve of Destruction” because they thought it would be a huge, career-suffocating hit and turn them into one-hit wonders. Mary Weiss has stated that she felt the same about “Leader of the Pack” and was reluctant to record it for that reason. They both made the right choice. If Neneh felt the same about “Buffalo Stance,” she did too. Comes to that, so did Barry McGuire, who took “Eve of Destruction” to number one as an Old Testament warning LBJ and Robert McNamara failed to heed at their–and our–extreme peril.

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume Four: The Eighties)

Ross MacDonald once had Lew Archer say that as a man gets older, the women he’s interested in should get older too. For what it’s worth, the women in this little survey–the women of my own generation or the one right before it–have remained the women I’m interested in. Purely spiritually of course.

The early eighties, especially, were a breakout period for women in rock and roll that was unlike anything seen since the early-mid sixties. I’m sure the fact that music has been steadily shoved back to the sidelines in the generations since, assuring that such things happen no more, is purely coincidental.

I mention all this because it turned out well over half the records in this last installment were made by the women I’ve grown older with. Beyond that, I’ll let any obvious themes emerge on their own. This was fun.

Blue Angel (1980)

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The lead singer was a superstar in waiting. As one of rock’s last visionaries, she was ready here, her vocal style fully formed. The world would catch up a few years later. Through some combination of experience and nature Cyndi Lauper was already able to sing, “I’ll take it like a man,” and make the mighty Gene Pitney sound like a four-year-old, which, believe me, he wasn’t.

Pick to Click: “I’m Gonna Be Strong” (Television performance. Later on, she recorded another version for her first greatest hits package which actually got past this…but she’s the only one who could have.)

Warren Zevon Stand In the Fire (1980)

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Zevon rarely caught the reckless abandon of his lyrics in the studio. He captured it in spades here and sustained it for an album-long assault. He sounded like nothing so much as man who was raging against the dying of the light, like he already knew the ripped-and-torn seventies would be the last decade anyone ever missed.

Well, anyone who wasn’t part of the conspiracy anyway.

Pick to Click: “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” (alternate live take)

REO Speedwagon Hi Infidelity (1980)

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Everything anyone would ever need to know about the eighties in a sleazy album cover, a catchy title and a single genius line. The rest sounds real good to me, but, really, who cares what the rest sounds like?

Pick to Click: “Take It On the Run” (For those who may have forgotten, that’s the one that begins “Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from a friend who/Heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.” Welcome to Hell.)

Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (1980) and Imitation Life (1981)

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At the time, pretty much everything written about Lane (L.A. born show-biz kid who became the leader of a Boston based punk band which ended up sounding fashionably New Wave on their albums) mentioned that she was an Evangelical or “born again” Christian. I only mention it here because nobody seemed to ever draw the logical conclusion about the black hole in her voice. Weird how the illuminati tend to forget (or is it ignore?) that a belief in God contains an inherent belief in the Devil.

Strictly on the formal side, there is an awful lot of what the Go-Go’s and, especially, the Bangles, got up to directly after.

If you want to know how good they had to be to make it, you could start by considering how good she had to be to not quite make it.

Picks to Click: “When Things Go Wrong” (Robin Lane…live) and “Send Me an Angel” (Imitation Life, sorry, couldn’t find “Pretty Mala”)

Rachel Sweet …And Then He Kissed Me (1981)

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Her major label debut and there’s some gloss on the basic concept, but she cut through it effortlessly. The commercial push was behind a duet with Rex Smith on the indestructible “Everlasting Love” which scraped the Top 40 and generated one of the great Devil’s Island videos.

But some idiot or other failed to see the potential in her greatest vocal and it was left for Pat Benetar to scoop and score with a just-fine version that wasn’t half as good. Two years later Sweet was out of the music business, yet another might-have-been. This was the best of her.

Pick to Click: “Shadows of the Night”

The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (1981)

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On their way to cracking the code that had kept every female band from the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to the Runaways safely on the fringes, they made the rest of the New Wave bands sound like they weren’t trying. That was no particular shame on the New Wave, because the dirty little secret was that they made pretty much every pre-New Wave band sound like they weren’t trying either.

This took nine months to climb to number one on the Billboard Album Chart, at which point the general word was that we could expect a wave of highly successful all female bands.

Still waiting for that.

Pick to Click: “Can’t Stop the World”

Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

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Hence the flood. One of a wave of mega-million sellers that made up rock and roll’s last gasp as a force that defined something more than itself. All of the others (Thriller, Born In the U.S.A., Purple Rain, Eliminator, Scarecrow, 1984, et al) were by well established acts who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since.

Every one of them sure sounded like the present in 1984 and that’s exactly what they sound like now.

1984.

Despite a production style that’s as dated as any, Lauper still sounds like she’s singing about a future in which she would be the only one left standing. The future that is now.

It’s 2015 and there are individual cuts here and there on those other albums that sound great. This is the only one I still listen to at all…and I listen to it obsessively.

Pick to Click: “Money Changes Everything” (The album’s fifth hit single and probably the most radical recording to ever hit the Top 40 even before you take into consideration when it was released.)

The Bangles All Over the Place (1984)

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Honestly, I thought they sounded a little cold around the heart at the time. I was wrong. They were just coolly taking the world’s measure. As perfect a folk rock record as anyone’s ever made, up to and including Dylan and the Byrds.

Now, if only folk rock had still been a thing…

Pick to Click: “Silent Treatment”

Los Lobos How Will the Wolf Survive (1984)

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I mean, the rest of their career, at least as much as I’ve been able to keep up, suggests they’re archivists on some level, but this sounded like a deep well from the gut to me in its day and I’ve never stopped drinking from it. I forget it for a while, sure. But every time I pick it back up it sounds new again. I don’t need all my fingers and toes to count the albums I can say the same for. The album Donald Trump’s Republican rivals would be playing at every campaign stop if they had any brains (and, no, I have no idea if we should be glad that they don’t…I’m a pox on all their houses sort from way back).

Pick to Click: “Our Last Night” (live from 1987)

Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

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Revolt that had no chance whatsoever of coming into style. I bought it nearly thirty years ago and listened to it once, transfixed. I swear I’ll listen to it again some day. When I’m old enough to fully accept that it either is or isn’t what I hope it is.

Pick to Click? Er, no.

The Go-Go’s Talk Show (1984)

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Revolt going out of style. Those ugly, blocked lines separating them were more real than symbolic. They saved my life and then broke up. Can’t forgive, can’t forget. May write about it some day. Stay tuned.

Pick to Click: “Beneath the Blue Sky”

Todd Rundgren A Cappella (1985)

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A weird and compelling amalgamation of Brian Wilson’s brain, circa 1966, transmuted through Thom Bell’s melodic sensibility, circa 1973, and Daryl Hall’s larynx, circa 1977. Or something like that. This album could be an appropriate soundtrack for a teleconference on euthanasia, a street revolution, or a CIA sponsored convention on “Torture in the Third World, Effective or No?” Honestly, I don’t listen to it very often. But when I do, my mind ranges very far afield and I invariably end up with a slow, dreamy smile on my face which I’m convinced enhances my enigmatic appeal immensely.

Pick to Click: “Mighty Love” (unfathomable)

Katrina and the Waves (1985)

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I think it’s pretty obvious by now I like Power Pop a little more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does. This isn’t one of those acts who are worthy of Hall consideration, of course, but it just goes to show how thin the line is, because it’s easy to imagine this perfect little album being a springboard to a lot more than one hit single. It’s also easy to imagine it never being even that. Mysteries of life I guess.

Pick to Click: “Going Down to LIverpool”

Cyndi Lauper True Colors (1986)

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Backlash was inevitable. She was too…something. The nasty comments about her audacity in covering the by-then sainted and martyred Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” obscured what she did with it, which was explode it from the inside, cast it into the future (This future, did I mention? The one where the wars never actually end? The one only the visionaries could see?) and segue it into “Iko, Iko.” That’s supposed to be what albums are for, especially if it sells seven million worldwide and all. Instead she got endless grief and a broken career which is now often deemed that of a mild underachiever because she only sold fifty million records.

Pick to Click: “Change of Heart”

Terence Trent D’Arby Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)

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Sweep and scope like nobody’s business. Star in the making. Took a few years off. Made another album. Walked away. Never walked back. Maybe said all he had to say. Sure sign things were falling apart. Guy like this having no more to say.

Pick to Click: “If You Let Me Stay”

House of Schock (1988)

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Oh, I guess what I said here (with links worth pursuing).

Other Pick to Click: “Love In Return”

Neneh Cherry Raw Like Sushi (1988)

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There was a moment there when it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t be a major star. It didn’t happen, but this was a hip hop apotheosis and Madonna supposedly spent a whole lot of time obsessively breaking down a certain single…May as well close the eighties, and the series, with that particular mystery dance.

Pick to Click: “Buffalo Stance”

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Ninth Maxim)

I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:

NO SYMPATHY FOR THE MURDERER.

No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…

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to this…

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And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this: