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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

A restless wind inside a letter box (transcript)

Published November 4th, 2017

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Zipidee fucking doo dah, zipidee fucking aye my brothers and sisters. That’s how this one starts, with a jingle jangle curse word extravaganza. “Curse” word, that’s so funny. Words are funny. People are funny. Horribly offended by words. Only certain words. Swearing, good god, y’all! Step aside, Sal! Gangway! Watch it, bub! Back in the 70s George Carlin did his “seven dirty words” bit, and those words, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits, seem almost quaint now. Most of them, I’ve heard every one of them on my television in the past week or two, especially shit, piss and tits, which seem commonplace now. But I still have to label this podcast “explicit” or the iTunes gods will banish me. Well, fuck ’em.

Did you get an email from Gene Simmons? The tounge-y member KISS? I did. Well, I got an email from Gene that was sent to everyone on the Rhino Records mailing list. It went out on September 12th, I think, so this isn’t a recent thing, but it’s still pretty incredible. The email was inviting me to buy something called “THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE.” I’m not sure exactly what music is in this vault, Gene was kind of vague about that. He says, “I’ve created a 50-year time capsule (1966 to 2016) that serves as a soundtrack to my life, filled with songs I’ve written, but have never been released. 150 recordings featuring notable rock and roll artists and of course, my bandmates from KISS.” Well, okay!

When I was a teenager I loved KISS. I was the right age at the time they were getting started and I found them – 14 – and they were a perfect band for a 14 year old boy. Young boys like powerful, bombastic music because at that age we don’t really have any power in our lives yet. We’re still children, but we feel like we should be running shit. There, I’ve just summed up the psychological appeal of loud rock and roll to the past 3 or 4 generations of males. You’re welcome. Anyway, as much as I loved KISS, I can say without any reservation that Gene Simmons is not a great songwriter. No one in KISS was or is a great songwriter. They wrote rock songs about fucking and getting fucked up and driving around as fast as you can and fucking some more. Which is exactly what they were supposed to do, so I’m not finding fault with that.

I can’t listen to KISS music anymore, except maybe a song or two every few years, but even when I listened to KISS for several hours each day, I’m not sure I would have been interested in the 150 track soundtrack to Gene Simmons’ life. So I have to wonder who is interested in it now? I can’t tell you what any of the song titles on the 10 CDs are, because the elaborate website forgets to mention that minor detail. It does go into detail about the other junk in the vault though, including a Gene Simmons “businessman” action figure, really, a “massive” 12” x 12”, inch and a half thick cloth-bound embossed gold foil commemorative book featuring dozens of never-seen-before images of Simmons over his 50-year career, an “oversized” “In Gene We Trust” coin, and a mysterious one-of-a-kind, hand-selected original piece of memorabilia from Gene’s personal collection. Oh, and a signed golden ticket (that admits you to nothing), a T-Shirt, a download card and an “Are You Ready” laminate. Whatever that is. But the songs, no. No information on those.

I wouldn’t be talking about this if it was just another cash grab boxed set from a 70 year old rock star though. The vault is better than that. You see, if you buy the vault, Gene says he will personally hand deliver it to you. Kind of. For only two thousand American dollars. But wait, if you want to spend more, you can get the “Home Experience” or the “Producer Experience,” both of which are basically just some personal time with Gene – lucky you – and for the “Producer Experience,” supposedly a producer credit, though I’m not sure how they can promise that since the thing is already manufactured and packaged. The “Producer Experience” buys you an hour in a recording studio with Gene. Not recording, but listening to some of the tracks included on the vault CDs. How much does that hour with Gene, and of course the vault and all its riches, cost? A mere $25,000!

Still not enough for you? Do you need even more Gene, or to spend even more money? Then you want the “Home Experience,” which is described as, “Gene In Your Home! You and up to 25 guests will spend an intimate 2 hours with Gene.” If you buy that, just let me warn you, an “intimate” 2 hours with Gene could mean a lot of things, some of them maybe not to your liking. Just FYI. Now the vault itself is two grand – and I think we can all agree, a bargain at that price – and the “Producer Experience” is twenty five grand of course, but the “Home Experience” – well, that is $50,000. Yes, I said, fifty thousand dollars. A bit of bad news about that one though. The Vault “Home Experience” is only available in the contiguous United States. So if you live in Alaska or Hawaii, put away that checkbook, mister. Yes, I’m correctly assuming you are a guy.

You might think that the expensive special experiences are one of a kind deals, right? I mean Gene isn’t going to take the “Home Experience” to 30 people’s houses and hang out for two hours listening to records with them and 25 of their closest friends, is he? Well actually, he is. Or more accurately, if they could sell 30 of those he would, and if they could sell 50 he’d do it 50 times, but I have to think the odds of that are pretty slim. And their expectations for the “Producer Experience” are equally high, with two dozen dates scheduled in different cities around the world.

The mind boggles at this, it really does. I doubt we’ll ever know how many of these things he sells, but maybe one day the information will leak. I can’t believe that anyone — well, I know there are KISS fans who pay thousands of dollars to go on KISS cruises, which is just what it sounds like: you trapped on a boat for several days with Gene and Paul and whatever other two guys they’ve hired to play drums and guitar. But a regular cruise probably costs that much, I don’t know, so it probably isn’t like people are paying just to hang out with those guys. If you get to hang around with them. But $2,000 for a boxed set? Of songs that weren’t good enough for KISS records? Whoa, Nelly! Imagine how bad a song has to be to not make it on to a KISS record. Do they even still make records? I should have looked that up.

But maybe the best thing about “THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE” is that it comes in a fake safe. A 38 pound wooden box on wheels painted to look kind of like a cross between an Anvil road case and a safe, with a real safe tumbler and a big safe handle to turn. And when you open the door, a light comes on inside. Kind of like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. And this wooden fake safe/vault/Anvil case is the size of a mini-fridge, so you won’t be tucking “THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE” away under the stereo. It’s going to be sitting out in the open somewhere in your house, reminding you every day that you paid two grand – or twenty five or fifty grand – to listen to a bunch of outtakes and demos. Gene Simmons outtakes and demos. Ouch.

I shouldn’t make fun of Gene’s dinosaur box, since I have a lot of ridiculous records myself, including a huge boxed set of every known Mozart work. In a humble cardboard box, not a vault. But maybe the most ridiculous thing I have is something called, “Day by Day, The Complete ‘Get Back’ Sessions.” “Get Back” was the working title of the Beatles album that was eventually released as Let It Be. It was recorded in January of 1969, first for a couple of weeks at Twickenham film studios, on a cold empty soundstage, then another couple weeks or so at Apple Studios, in the basement of the Beatles office building on Saville Row in London.

If that sounds like a lot of recording time, it is. There are 38 2-CD volumes in the set – 76 CDs total – with, generally, four 16 minute tracks on each disc. That must have been how long the little reels of tape lasted in the Nagra recorders they used during filming. So what we’re talking about here is 81 hours of sound. A lot of music, and a lot of talking. If you’ve ever seen the Let It Be movie, it certainly feels like it’s 81 hours long. It’s a depressing, boring slog, as I remember it, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. Like decades. But these discs – I don’t know, maybe it’s because you can’t see the dark room they’re in, or the depressing lighting or whatever it was that made the movie just drag – but I don’t get any of that from the audio.

I will tell you right now that, maybe not surprisingly, I haven’t listened to all 81 hours of this. But you probably haven’t listened to any of it, so cut me some slack, baby. Eventually I probably will listen to all of it, but you can get a lot out of a little bit of it. Even if you just pick a disc and a track at random, there’s something there. You’re going to hear something that makes you go “wow,” or makes you laugh or something. The first disc I popped out at random to listen to was mostly conversation. 15 or 16 minutes of Paul and George talking about what they were working on there on that soundstage.

And that was filming what were supposed to be rehearsals what was supposed to be the first live Beatles concert since they retired from the road in 1966. There was a vague plan to make the film into a TV special, but somewhere along the line they decided that wasn’t going to happen and they started talking about releasing the film in movie theaters. Which they eventually did. Anyway, there’s a long conversation between Paul and George about the differences between 16mm and 35mm film, and even 70mm film, and Paul is going on about the fact that there’s some particular kind of 16mm film that lends itself well to being blown up to 35mm, and out of nowhere, John says, “Ektachrome 500. I have 4,000 tubes of it in me garden.”

It’s full of little gems like that, but I’ll tell you brothers and sisters, three big plastic boxes with 25 or 26 CDs in each is a bitch to listen to. I mean, it’s incredible that it exists, come on, but finding something you’re looking for and tracking down the disc, getting it out and into the player, then the next thing you want to hear is on a different disc – it’s not an afternoon of relaxing listening, this thing. Which is a funny thing to complain about, I guess, since if you put this on LPs – which I’m sure someone did in the 70s or 80s – it would be ten times more frustrating to make your way through it. Handling the CDs should be a picnic. But it’s not, really, and you’d have to be very determined to go through all the discs. Honestly, I had only listened to a handful of them. That is, until the Sony HAP entered my life.

I gushed about the Sony HAP S1/B in another episode of THIS IS NOT A TEST called, “Memoirs, overturned food carts and new stereo gear,” so if you want to know more about it, you can listen to that. But the HAP is a “high resolution audio player,” which is a fancy way of saying a box that stores and plays your music files. It stores and plays them in a very convenient and easy to manage way, and it connects to your stereo – no computer needed. They call it “high resolution” because you can store CD-quality files on there, and that’s what I do. But the magic part isn’t the storage of the files, that’s great and convenient, but the thing that really makes the HAP awesome is that it makes song titles searchable. So instead of looking through 30 CDs to find that one version of Small Axe that the Wailers recorded with Lee Perry, I just search for Small Axe on the tablet that connects to the HAP, and there are all 15 versions they recorded and which album they’re on, so I can find the Scratch version in about 4 seconds.

Well the HAP, aside from making anything in my entire music collection available to me in seconds, also, as a coincidental side-effect, made the Day by Day monster set…consumable. It made it easy to find things and skip around within the set, and it really has just freed the whole thing up. Made it available to me, and I’ve been taking advantage of that. Well it wasn’t available to me right off the bat because of how the HAP organizes the music files. It uses metadata, and the Get Back Sessions discs might have metadata on them, but my rips did not. The track names for each disc were track, 1, track 2, track 3 – you get the idea. 400 tracks all named track 1 through track 5. No way to find anything in there.

So I set off on the strange and grueling task of entering the song metadata for each track. There are listings here and there on the Internet of what’s on each track, and the box set has songs listed for each track, but as I started getting into it it quickly became apparent that the song listings were wildly incorrect. Since each track is 15 or 16 minutes, sometimes there would be multiple song titles per track, and whoever made these lists in the first place was a little bit nuts. If someone played, say 6 notes of “When The Saints Go Marching In” between other songs, they’d list those 6 notes as “When The Saints Go Marching In.” So there are a hundred songs listed that they didn’t really play. You know, unless you count a few notes or somebody singing one line of lyrics as playing the song.

So I decided that the only way to make the metadata useful was to go through all 300+ tracks one at a time to see which songs they really played. Without doing that the track listings are pretty useless, so there you go. I did that. I would listen and compare to the list that I had in a text file, fix the listing and set the metadata for the track. I didn’t just hit play and listen to the whole track, that would have taken a month, so I listened, skipped forward 30 seconds, listened, skipped forward. If it sounds ridiculous, oh, believe me, it was. It was beyond ridiculous. But I got a better feel for the whole set by doing that, and I now have, what I think is an accurate track listing. So when I search for, say, “Don’t Let Me Down,” I get a list of all 200 times they played that. Maybe it wasn’t 200 times, but it was a lot. And most of the songs you know from Let It Be, or the singles that came out around Let It Be, they played at least 50 times each, pretty much writing them as they went along.

Which is a fascinating thing, but also a tedious thing, especially when they spend a lot of time on a song you aren’t particularly fond of. You know, like playing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” for an hour and a half. But to hear the way they worked out the songs is really something, especially if you’ve ever played in a band, which I assume most people in America have. And the way Paul and John belittled and discounted George’s songs has been written about in a million places, but to actually hear them doing it is very strange. They will work on a Paul or John song for an hour straight, but rarely would they play through a George song more than a few times before someone would start singing a different song, or playing some oldie that they played when they were still a bar band.

And these are songs, the George songs, that would become famous on his “All Things Must Pass” record. They weren’t just throw away crap. But you can feel the dismissiveness in the room, and it’s crazy. But to be a rock star you have to have a big ego, and to be Paul or John of The Beatles – well, you can only imagine what kind of ego that requires. So maybe it’s not surprising that they still treated George like the young kid he was when they drafted him into the band, but they pissed away a lot of what could have been good Beatles songs by pushing his contributions to the side. It’s like they decided at some point that George and Ringo would get one song – maybe – on each album, and that was it. Which is exactly what they decided and exactly what they did. But it’s incredible to hear Beatle harmonies on a song like “All Things Must Pass.” A little glimpse of what could have been.

But what could have been was what was. Meaning what was meant to happen, happened. I don’t know that it was for the better. I’m pretty sure that with the exception of George, who finally was let loose to do all his songs, the Beatles were better as a band than they were as solo artists. John and Paul balanced each other, and when that balance was removed, they both recorded some things that maybe we didn’t need to hear. Or that could have been a lot better with some of the old balance. A long time ago I used to compare the original Wailers break up to the Beatles break up, but I don’t do that anymore because they are not the same. When Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer stopped playing together they went in three separate directions and over the next few years they recorded 8 or 10 or a dozen absolute Reggae album masterpieces. Timeless, classic things that equal, or surpass, what they did as the Wailers. The Beatles did not do that. You might argue with me about that, but they just didn’t. The proof is there in the grooves, mate. The balance was gone.

So what do The Beatles sound like when they’re just fucking around or jamming, as the kids say, or working out new songs? Well, they sound just like every band in every basement or garage on the face of the earth. Except, you know, they’re The Beatles. So when they sing, you go, “Oh! Those guys!” and the rather average sounding music sounds a lot better. I don’t know, it’s hard for me to be objective about their playing, because most of the songs they are working on are kind of ingrained in my psyche, mainly because I’ve been listening to them since I was 10 years old. Well, not continuously, but you know what I mean. So when I hear a sloppy version of “Don’t Let Me Down,” or “Two of Us,” I can’t separate it in my subconscious from the song on the record that I’ve known for 47 years.

I could lie and tell you I can separate them, but I can’t. So I’m probably not the best person to give you a review of this monster. But then again, to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the songs, this set would seem like cruel and unusual punishment. You have to be a fan to listen to it, you have to be a fan to even find it. It’s a bootleg, obviously, so it isn’t sitting on the shelf at Best Buy or your local high fidelity recording sales establishment. I guess what I’m saying is no one can ever have an objective view of Day by Day. Finding someone who could give you an objective view of would be like trying to find jurors when we finally put Trump on trial, and we’re looking for 12 people who have never heard of him or anything he’s done.

So I guess I’m not recommending that you hunt down and try to listen to “Day by Day, The Complete ‘Get Back’ Sessions,” since you wouldn’t do it anyway, because you’re not crazy. I’m just talking about my experience with it, for entertainment purposes. Ostensibly. But, you know, if you are interested in hearing it, now that it’s immortalized in my HAP, I have a copy here for sale at a very reasonable price. About an eight of what you’d pay for the cheapest version of “THE GENE SIMMONS VAULT EXPERIENCE.” If any version of that trainwreck can be called cheap. Okay, my copy of Day by Day is already on eBay, actually, so don’t ask me for it. It will be gone by the time you hear this. It’s already bid up over $200 and there are still four days left in the auction. That tells you that someone out there wants to hear this stuff. That there are at least a few people as insane as I am, or as you are, or as the 736 people who have heard the whole thing are.

But yeah, the HAP – man, it’s a miracle in a little box, and like I’ve said before, I know a lot of you have been using a computer-connected music player for years, but I haven’t, so it’s new to me, and I always gush about what’s new to me, no matter how ridiculous and clueless it might make me sound. So here we are. I just got back from Minnesota, where we spent a day at my friend John’s record store in White Bear Lake. It’s a tiny hole in the wall in a little shopping center, as they used to be called, in a little town and it’s pretty perfect. But he draws from a large supply, and he knows everything about every record, so it’s a good store.

He has something like three quarters of a million records stored at various locations around town, and the cream of the crop end up in the store or his online shop. And I guess you can make a living selling old records, and a few new records. I don’t think he has a copy of the Gene Simmons vault, but if he did, he’d give you a good price on it. G’wan now, get out of here.