Fly High, Cal

16Mar08

While shopping for computer parts down on College Street a few months ago, I found myself desperately confused and turned around in search of a salesman. “Hey, Pete,” said the first one I saw. I briefly stared at him, pondering my sudden and inexplicable fame among College Street computer salesmen. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” he said after a moment. “It’s Cal.” My eyes fell upon his nametag. Cal, it read. Cal was in my high-school art class about 15 years ago, and I’d have recognized him in an instant, except for the fifty extra pounds, the beard, and the face tattoo.

I spent the rest of the conversation conspicuously pretending not to notice the face tattoo. In retrospect, I’d wish I’d played it cool and pretended like he’d always had it. “Oh, I should have recognized you immediately from the face tattoo,” I should have said. “But, hey — didn’t you get contact lenses? Looking good, man.”

Cal’s main distinguishing characteristic before the face tattoo — because once you get one of those, it pretty much automatically becomes your main distinguishing characteristic — was that he was the biggest fan of White Lion that I knew. I don’t mean to sell him short; in fact, Cal was probably the most talented student in that art class, for one thing. It’s just that for most people, “the biggest fan of White Lion that I know” would usually refer to some guy who heard their one hit power ballad, “When the Children Cry,” and didn’t mind it very much.

That said, I was listening to Saigon Kick around that time and in fact I still do like the band and think it really never got its due as a sort of east-coast, more metallic Jane’s Addiction, while most people barely remember it for its one hit power ballad, “Love Is On the Way,” if they remember it at all. Also, Enuff Z’Nuff had a minor hit with the ballad “Fly High Michelle,” but owes its current obscurity to its shockingly bad mismarketing as a hair-metal band when it was really a pretty decent power-pop band in the tradition of Cheap Trick and Badfinger. So, now I’m wondering if maybe there’s something about White Lion that I’ve been missing all this time. Maybe it’s worth a good listen, just to make sure.

After all, the dustbin of pop music’s history is full of bands who got unfairly pigeonholed when they scored a big hit with a power ballad, but who actually rocked pretty hard once you bought the album. Hitting big with a power ballad seems like a mixed blessing: It’s nice to hang that gold record on your wall, but is it worth being written off as a bunch of sissies by real rock fans and will the sissies who buy your album only to be alarmed by the rock surrounding the token mushy track buy your next album? Evidently the tactic was worth it, at least in the short term, because a lot of bands undertook to record the perfect power ballad. Maybe the power ballad was meant as a deliberate artistic statement, but just as likely it was a cynical attempt to score a hit on the part of the band or on the part of record company execs looking to hear something that sounded like a single. It was essentially dishonest, but it worked, which is why so many bands did it and got unfairly pigeonholed as rocking less hard than they did. In fact, there are bands chiefly notable for being entirely misrepresented by their power ballads; arguably, Extreme is at least as well known for how unrepresentative its biggest hit, “More Than Words,” is of its oeuvre than it is for the song itself.

So, then, if practically every band with a power ballad in fact sounded entirely different than one would expect, one should expect exactly that. In other words, if they sounded like sissies, they probably rocked hard. However, since this is so plainly evident, if a band known chiefly for its power ballad failed to hit big, maybe the excuse that it was unfairly pigeonholed is taken away. Maybe it’s for another reason, such as just not being that good in the first place, in which case maybe I shouldn’t bother checking out White Lion and maybe I should rethink my opinion on Saigon Kick. (“One Step Closer,” the opener to the band’s third album, Water, is suspiciously derivative of Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song,” for instance.)

“You keep saying stuff like this to me like I should know what you’re talking about,” said my girlfriend when I mentioned all this to her. These are the times I should probably get Chuck Klosterman’s phone number and talk to him, I decided. After all, what does my girlfriend know about this kind of thing? She listens to Maroon 5, and they sound like a bunch of sissies to me. Of course, that just probably means they secretly rock hard, though I’d feel a little more persuaded if Adam Levine could just get a face tattoo or something.



6 Responses to “Fly High, Cal”

  1. How many of these power balladeers went on to be big in Japan though? Hopefully some of them at least some props for their rocking out in Osaka.

    Where does a ballad end and a power ballad begin? Would the greatest hits of Chicago and Air Supply count as power ballads? I used to think of them as power ballads.

    For my money the definitive power ballad of my youth is Matthew Good Band’s “Apparitions”. Remember how before that, they used to alternative-rock out, but then how after “Apparitions” every single was a power ballad? I didn’t care for that; it reeked of phoniness. (I also didn’t care much for their hometown brand of alternative rock.) But I liked “Apparitions”.

  2. 2 Peter Lynn

    I think you’re right about the greatest hits of Chicago and Air Supply. However, I submit that the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” is an even more egregious case of selling out than “Apparitions”, and let’s not forget Aerosmith’s “Cryin'”/”Crazy”/”Amazing” soundalike troika.

  3. 3 Marlene

    When you talk about 80’s power ballads I actually know what you’re talking about for a change. I’ve always said that the power ballads were the best love songs. Who didn’t want to dance with their secret crush to “November Rain”? It was so intense, not to mention long enough so that you could get passed the racing heart side effect of dancing with your crush and actually enjoy the dance. It also worked out perfectly for me once at the part where it sounds like it’s over, but then Slash comes in with his big solo. I was dancing with a creepy guy and he thought it was over so I took off really fast.

    “Last Train” by Cinderella was one of my favourites too. I don’t think I remember anything else by them.

  4. 4 Matt

    First of all, I totally know who Cal is. I recognized him immediately from your description of him. I guess there aren’t that many computer salesmen on College with facial tattoos.

    Second of all, have you read “Let’s Talk About Love” by Carl Wilson? You’d love this book.

  5. 5 Matt

    Also, I once read on Wikipedia that Adam Levine was the son of terrorists. But since that’s not listed anymore, it was probably a bunch of crap.

  6. I don’t know who cal is. but your post is useful 🙂


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