Happy Birthmark!

There aren’t too many artists that influenced and affected me quite like Adrian Belew. He had a four album run from 1989 to 1994 that pretty much defined for me what it is to be a songwriter. With those records, Mr. Music Head, Young Lions, Inner Revolution, and Here, I’d felt that I had my own Beatles or Kinks. Of course I had the Beatles and Kinks, but Belew was in my universe, creating at that moment. He was making pure power pop bliss with a flair for the experimental. When I was 17 I was merely interested in the pop aspect of Belew’s playing. I wasn’t even considering the groundbreaking guitar work he was doing(both as a solo artist and with King Crimson), or the pioneering studio work he had already done by then with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and the Talking Heads(just to name a few.)

I was enamored with Mr. Belew so much that in 1995 I actually sent a typed(yes, with an electric typewriter kids) letter to Adrian Belew’s management company Umbrella Management in Cincinnati, OH. I told them of how much Adrian Belew’s music had affected me and influenced me in my fledgling songwriting adventures. I hem hawed around until I got the courage to ask if they would be willing to check out a tape of some songs I’d recorded on my 4-track. I got a letter back from them a couple weeks later saying they would share my letter with Mr. Belew, and that they would be honored to check out my tape. “We’ll give it both ears” is what Mr. Stan Hertzman responded with. Of course I talked myself out of the whole thing, but it was nice to actually hear from a human.

Now at 43 I’ve gone back and dug into all that studio work. I think what he did with the Talking Heads was some of the most important stuff put to tape. I really do. Remain In Light is this anomaly in pop music. A totally out there, experimental approach to making music that redefined what you could do in the studio. Belew’s work on that album and the tour that followed still blows my mind. His later work as a solo artist was heavily influenced by David Byrne, Brian Eno, and David Bowie; but it was also influenced by Lennon and McCartney and Ray Davies. The latter influences are what hit me first, but the former are what I think have made Adrian Belew an artist of the highest order.

Inner Revolution was the record that turned me inside out, and Young Lions was my first experience with Belew. But Mr. Music Head was a revelatory moment for me. With just one song, it felt like that album knocked my head open to allow the world to soak in. And it all seemingly started with Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.

It was December of 1990 and one of my good friends and I met up with a few other friends from school at the Lake Theater and saw Jacob’s Ladder. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a dark and disturbing film about a guy that feels he’s losing his grip on reality. He thinks he’s seeing demons and dark conspiracies surrounding him and trying to take his life. It’s one of those movies that seems like one thing and at the end it’s something completely different. Honestly, it moved me. It was one of the first films I saw that had me thinking about it for hours afterwards. We all went and got fries and drinks afterwards and my good friend and I were attempting to explain what happened to our other friends. I won’t get into the details of the film. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Tim Robbins, Danny Aiello, and Elizabeth Pena were all amazing in it. Bruce Joel Rubin wrote a film both haunting, disturbing, and heartbreaking. See it.

Anyways, so after we got back to my friend’s house we’re still contemplating the movie when he gives me a cassette. It was Adrian Belew’s Mr. Music Head. He found a used copy and told me happy birthday. This is the friend that got me into Belew. He’d bought Young Lions earlier in the year and after a summer of constant listening I was hooked. Mr. Music Head was the album that preceded Young Lions and I was excited to hear it. As we discussed the film, the tape played and impressed me at every turn.

“Oh Daddy” was a top ten hit. It was a song Belew recorded with his 12 year old daughter(who sang.) It’s a sweet tune about a little girl asking her dad if he’d finally made the big time. “House Of Cards” shows Belew’s knack for writing spot-on pop songs while still being experimental and adventurous. “One Of Those Days” sounds like a lost Harry Nilsson track with its upbeat shuffle and piano melody. Belew talks about summertime picnics and barbecues all the while referencing God going back to sleep for a while longer behind the sun(referencing Daoism I believe.) “Bad Days” is another incredible piano led pop track, more melanchoy. A song about a troubled relationship that might’ve been about Belew and his first wife. “Motor Bungalow”, “Bumpity Bump”, and “Bird In A Box” all were these jangly pop songs that impressed a couple of 17-year old dorks. Then we came to “1967”. That song stopped us both in mid conversation. It was this acoustic-driven number that sounded like Lennon/McCartney turned inside out to reveal the inner workings of genius. It was just as much an impressionistic work of art as it was a harmonious pop song. There are moments of pure beauty and of this existential drifting where you feel as if you stumbled into someone’s dark psyche. Each time the song twists and turns into these wormholes of psychic dread Belew pulls us out with power pop harmonies and his jaunty acoustic guitar. From the first line(“Last night/I took a walk into the back of my mind/Through the trash and the warning signs”) to the last (“If you’ll excuse me I should say goodbye/I gotta go now”) I was floored. Me talking about it doesn’t do it justice.

Loose tooth three of a perfect paradiced onions cheese
And beans from another planeteri gargoyle change
Every two thousand smiled at
Linda Evans called again singing happy birthmark

Over the years Adrian Belew has remained a constant in my musical wanderings. He’s always been a significant influence and inspiration. As I got older I started going back to his studio work and my mind was blown yet again by his work on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. But I’ve never strayed too far away from those four albums that started it all for me. I recently acquired a promotional copy of Mr. Music Head for the low, low price of $5.50. The sleeve is beat up a little, but the album is clean. I spun it this past Friday night and it was like reliving that Friday night in 1990 all over again. This time though, I had the pleasure of sharing it with my 12 year old son. In two weeks I’ll be taking him to his first rock concert. We’ll be seeing Adrian Belew on September 8th.

God had his great snooze
And through the trees a sleepy breeze blew
It was one of those days


16 thoughts on “Happy Birthmark!

  1. Amazing. I’ll be honest, I’m not familiar enough with his work, but having a gander at his Wikipedia is quite something! I hope the gig is very awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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