On Death and Rebirth
And Changing to a Butterfly Jones

So I was going to start this column with a justification for its lateness and a giant rant against technology, both of which were precipitated by my computer dying on me. My two-year-old typewriter-with-a-TV has decided, all on its own, that the hard drive upon which I’ve placed everything I’ve written since 1999 (including every one of these columns) doesn’t actually exist. I can’t convince it otherwise. It’s probably something small and stupid, like a loose wire or a broken needle, but my Circuit City service contract only covers replacements. Hence, an all-new hard drive will be on its way to me in a day or two, I hope.

So yeah, I was going to start in about how everything breaks and dies just when you’ve become dependent on it. And then a real person died, and that sort of put things into perspective.

The biggest problem with being a comic book fan (which I am) is that no one’s ever heard of the art form’s best and brightest. Being the most famous and influential comic book artist is like being the world’s greatest tile grouter. In tile grouting circles, you’re a superstar. To the rest of the world, you’re kind of weird for thinking that tile grouting is a big deal.

All of which is a way of saying that when a great comic book artist, a true architect of the modern form, passes on, no one but the fans really notices. John Buscema was one of those, though – a true architect of the modern form. He worked with Stan Lee to bring Marvel Comics its heart and soul, especially on a title called Silver Surfer that was epic and small at the same time, mostly because of Buscema’s art. Every comic book artist who’s ever tried to depict the massive and world-spanning on a human scale has used Buscema as a guideline, and they’ll all tell you so.

I don’t want to eulogize the guy too much, because I didn’t know him. He did, however, have a lasting impact on my childhood, whether I knew it or not at the time. I also figured that since no major news organizations were going to memorialize him, I’d better say something before another superb artist passed into the ether without notice.

Rest in peace, John.

* * * * *

I’m playing catch-up this week with a brief review of an album I never got around to last year. I say ‘brief” because my lack of computer is forcing me to type this at the office, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do non-newspaper work for very long while my bosses are roaming about. By the time they read this, if they do, I hope it’ll be too late.

I first heard dada the same way most people did, I’m sure. I caught their novelty hit “Dizz Knee Land” on the radio in ’92 and laughed my throat raw. If you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘Dizz Knee Land” is a clever send-up of those Disney World commercials that ran in the early ’90s. (You know the ones: “Jeffrey Dahmer, you’ve just carved up three innocent people and ate them, what are you going to do next?” ‘I’m going to Disney World!”) “Dizz Knee Land” was full of anti-social behavior (“I just robbed a grocery store, I just flipped off President George, I’m going to Dizz Knee Land…”), but it broke the first rule of career longevity: never lead with a novelty song.

True to the rule, dada never had another hit. They did, however, produce four albums that ranged in quality from very good to superb, without another novelty tune in the bunch. Guitarist Michael Gurley in particular established himself as a singular talent, one of only a handful of modern guitarists with his own signature sound. You can always tell a Gurley tune from the guitar tone. Try saying that about the guy from Godsmack.

If any one thing characterized dada, it was their unwillingness to be pigeonholed. They tried everything, from three-chord jams to complex Beatlesque pop to haunting blues-influenced showcases. The trio (also including bassist Joie Calo and drummer Phil Leavitt) was always best, however, when they relied on nothing but their chemistry as a unit, stripping down to three instruments and a voice and somehow filling the room with a huge yet minimalist sound.

As you’ve probably gathered by the frequent use of past tense verbs in this column, dada broke up a while ago. Well-researched readers have probably also surmised that the CD I didn’t get to last year is the debut from Gurley’s new band, Butterfly Jones. This album has sold like wool sweaters to sheep, which is to say not very well, and that’s not unexpected, but unfortunate. Butterfly Jones’ Napalm Springs (love that title) is, at the very least, a better-than-average dada album, and ought to be doing better than it is.

Alas, the American public seems to be allergic to smart, well-constructed pop music, which is what Napalm Springs offers in spades. Gurley’s guitar tone remains enticingly original, and drummer Leavitt is in Butterfly Jones as well, so it’s almost a dada reunion. Instead of the minimalist approach his former band took, though, Gurley has widened the sound here without oversaturating it, making room for strings and horns and the sampled sounds of Soul Coughing keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni. It’s a mainstreaming move, to be sure, but it works well with the material.

And the material is almost entirely musically excellent. To name three, “Suicide Bridge” is another hit that will never be, “Blue Roses” is sweet and subtle, and “Alright” recasts Gurley’s lead guitar in a similar setting to “Dorina,” off of dada’s debut, and lets him loose. Throughout, Gurley’s voice floats atop these tunes, and even though Joie Calo isn’t around to harmonize with him, the result is pretty close to dada’s most melodic work.

The weak point here, as always with Gurley, is the lyrics. On Napalm Springs they jump from witty to wretched fairly often, a weakness that also marred the final dada album. “Wonder” is almost laughable, with its “where did we come from, where are we going to” pseudo-metaphysics. “When People Are Mean” also suffers from its kindergarten-level moralization: “When people are mean, when people are bad, it usually means that somewhere inside they are sad…”

But then Gurley whomps you with “The Systematic Dumbing Down of Terry Constance Jones,” a smirking depiction of pop culture marketing’s effect on the American female. This tune’s a serious prize, one of the several instances on Napalm Springs where the lyrics rise to the challenge of the music. Another is ‘It’s Cool Dude,” which could have been a throwaway and ends up surprisingly affecting.

Gurley is obviously fishing for a hit with this album, but he hasn’t watered himself down to attain chart status. He’s just sent his considerable songwriting skill into more acoustic and melodic waters. While Napalm Springs may not please every dada fan, especially those looking for more of their three-piece rock band sound, those who miss Michael Gurley’s voice and guitar would be well advised to seek it out. If you’ve never heard the man outside of “Dizz Knee Land” before, he’s created a good starting point here. Butterfly Jones is, in many ways, dada for the masses.

You lucky masses.

Next time, probably a round-up of several year-end hip-hop releases. After that, new stuff. Yaaaay!

See you in line Tuesday morning.