BAKER STREET

by Eric J Baker

If you’re like me – and you might be if you are the kind of person who reads Pure Film Creative – you have eclectic tastes in arts and entertainment that aren’t dictated by trends or popularity contests. Therefore, I am not going to say this: The Smoking Popes are the best band you never heard of.

The only scandal involving these Popes is that they aren’t more famous.

Never mind the irony of me saying you’ve never heard of something I already mentioned in the same sentence. I would not be so presumptuous as to write such a thing, because I resent articles with titles like “The Ten Best Movies You Have Never Seen” when I’ve actually seen most of them, and so on. I’m just going to say: The Smoking Popes are the best band that you are statistically unlikely to have encountered prior to reading this story, unless you forgot you own the Clueless soundtrack.

In case you’re in the 51% or greater crowd that is unfamiliar, The Smoking Popes are simply pure rock and roll stripped of all bullshit. No calculations, no special effects, no contrivances. They are about The Songs and only The Songs. The quote, “All I have is three chords and the truth,” has been attributed to a bunch of people, from Hank Williams to Bono, and it would be a pretentious thing to say for someone who goes on tour with 50-foot-tall hi-def video screens and a crew of 80. No, I don’t think anyone has the truth, but The Smoking Popes sure have three chords and some heartfelt honesty.

The Chicago-based quartet consists of three brothers, Josh, Matt, and Eli Caterer – and a revolving fourth member – whose 1995 major-label debut, Born to Quit, is an album I’d gladly sponsor in a Pepsi challenge of unheralded masterpieces. It’s a short, sweet collection of punk-tinged rockers that is brilliant in its simplicity. This track, Rubella, is the only song Capitol Records bothered to make a video for:

If there’s one entity that hates music, musicians, and music fans with every last molecule of its being, it’s a major-label record company. These companies used to sign hundreds of artists at a time to lifelong, exclusive contracts and then simply throw all of them at the wall to see what would stick without spending a dime to promote any of them. They would then make the artists themselves pay back the expense of a recording that didn’t sell, leaving them in poverty yet contract-bound for the next decade. Believe me; I’ve seen it happen to friends.

After the Smoking Popes’ album wasn’t an instant blockbuster, Capitol Records did even less for the follow up, Destination Failure (the promotional copy I got from Capitol didn’t even include a jewel case or artwork). Soon it all fell apart and the band dissolved, leaving those lucky music fans who’d heard them to lament what could have been. Meanwhile, lead singer and songwriter Josh Caterer went on a spiritual journey, as one often does following a career implosion, and emerged as a born-again Christian.  

Pope Josh I, bathed in the golden light of rock and roll.

If there’s one sure-fire way to go from being cool to being an irritating asshat, it’s becoming a born-again Christian. So when the Smoking Popes reformed about six years ago, I was like Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith: NOOOOOOO!!! And before the resultant album, Stay Down, was released in 2008, I thought, “This is going to suck like pansy Christian pop always sucks, at the same time trashing the band’s legacy.” And, sure enough, I was dead-freaking wrong.

The music was a bit mellower (and age-appropriate for the players), but their sound still featured the same raw, rocking power chords stirred with melancholy melodies, along with a newer, wiser, world-weary bent to the lyrics. And, what do you know, not a “Jesus” to be heard anywhere. I should have known Josh Caterer was too cool to act like a godbot.

Nimble-fingered Eddie Van Halen, a smoking non-pope.

The Smoking Popes have put out a mix of studio, compilation, and rerelease albums since, any of which are worth picking up, and you can even see them live on their epic three-city tour next month – provided you live in Ohio or Illinois, where the shows are taking place. Or you can be one of millions who will see the reunited Van Halen this winter in a tour featuring two guys who hate each other with a passion, singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, faking nice for the opportunity to rake in mountains of cash.

Note: My lawyer says that the view expressed above does not reflect my opinion or that of Pure Film Creative.

Anyway, it’s a brilliant business move to tour in the winter when the competition is light. Instead of being yet another reunion tour in a summer laden with similar events, Van Halen is the arena-rock ticket to get right now. I won’t be there because I can’t stand them, but I’m sure someone else will gladly take my place.

My not liking Van Halen has everything to do with my hang-ups and nothing to do with the artist, by the way. Eddie Van Halen is a brilliant musician who changed rock guitar as much as Chuck Berry or Jimi Hendrix did before him. David Lee Roth may be grating when you’re sitting next to him in a room, but he is a great showman (let’s hope he has ditched the ass-less pants, though). And drummer Alex Van Halen is one of the most underrated timekeepers in rock, overshadowed by his legendary brother.

I’d like Van Halen better if this bass guitar never existed.

What I can’t stand about them is their image. As Jeffrey Dahmer once famously said, “Image is everything,” and Van Halen’s image is that of cheesy, frat boy party band. The fist pump, accompanied by “Wooooooooo!” while holding a plastic cup of beer in the other hand, was probably invented at a Van Halen concert. That former VH bassist Michael Anthony had a guitar custom-made to look like a bottle of Jack Daniels does not help to dispel this notion, nor do the band’s corny videos full of mugging and posing.

Ah, but much like my assumption that all born-again Christians are annoying (despite that I know and get along fine with many of them), my perception of Van Halen fans as dumb jocks is based on my own confirmation bias. That is, I’ve known dumb frat boys who were Van Halen fans, which I expected to be the case beforehand. But I’ve also known other dumb jocks who were into country western, ‘70s disco, rap, and metal. And I know plenty of Van Halen listeners who are not dumb jocks. In other words, liking Van Halen and being a dumb jock has no correlation outside my own imagination.   

So, what started out a write-up encouraging you give The Smoking Popes a spin, if you haven’t already, seems to have turned into a journey of self-discovery for me. Is it possible that I’ve learned to put aside my biases, judge each moment and every event on its own merits and circumstances, and enter into new experiences with a truly open mind?

Nah.

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen don’t hate each other anymore. Allegedly.

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Actress Vilayna LaSalle has earned the coveted spot of This Week’s Brunette. She appeared in Remember the Spartans and some show I never heard of called Now That’s Sketchy. Damn, Hollywood, look at this woman’s face. She needs to be in more movies. Git ‘er done.