Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Scene dall'Italia

The arc of anticipating, having, and losing while traveling
Amy and I returned recently from an eleven-day visit to Italy. Given the country's abundance, its clash of epochs, its noisiness, its colorfulness (Rome's brown-grays, Sorrento's blue-yellows, Naples's exploding reds), and throngs of hustling, chattering people, writing about our visit feels kind of futile—I'm pressing my nose against an oversized painting and I expect myself to describe the whole thing. 

"It's not the destination that matters. It's the change of scene," Brian Eno says about traveling—that's all well and good, but the scene's enormous. Where to start? In fragments, maybe.



ROME: Raising a fist in solidarity at the statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno at Campo de' Fiori, who was burned alive for heresy. The monument was dedicated to him on the exact spot of his death, where he’s now staring down the Vatican, a badass martyr to freedom of thought. We also dug crossing the Tiber River and enjoyed quite possibly the best pizza of our lives at Forno Renella.... 

Visiting the Terrazza del Pincio, where in the summer of 1929 the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi strolled, and, inspired, later wrote "Terrazza al Pincio" ("From the avenues, running into the open space: / a bitter aroma of oleander. / Rome, immense, gradually darkens, / glazed with chimes")....

That morning we'd gotten up at five thirty to make our way via subway to the Vatican, neutral about visiting but for my long-standing desire to see the Sistine Chapel. It turns out the the tour was much longer than we'd expected, and, aghast at the monstrous excesses and endless halls of vanity, our soles (and souls) cranky, we found a surprising, bracing antidote later that afternoon in the Cerasi Chap76y8el, into which we'd ducked to see Caravagio's Conversion of Saint Paul and where we were struck by the dark, cadaverous, spooky interior, with its lurid momento mori art, underground tombs, and dangerous skull-and-crossbones iconography, a very public, rawer, and truer testament to the agonies of flesh and faith than the self-important, sealed-off Corporate Vatican, Inc. could ever be...

...“Mio nonno è nato qui": we rented a Fiat and drove two hours southeast of Sorento, up narrow roads and along the Gulf of Naples' high, steep cliffs, finally hitting a toll highway through what seemed a hundred tunnels to the small, hilly village of SANZA, where my paternal grandfather, Alessio, was born and raised and where he left at the age of sixteen, alone on a steamer ship, to sail to New York City to provide for his family. We cruised up the town's winding, conical hills surrounded by sprawling mountains, parked by modest monuments to Giussepe Garibaldi and Carlo Piscacane, two revolutionary patriots and free thinkers, picked some wild berries to send back to my dad, and planted our feet on the soil and inhaled the aromas of my grandfather's place of birth.

Yet despite the cheery deer statue welcoming us at the town center, we found the village vaguely unwelcoming. The day was blustery and gray. The craft beer bar we'd planned to visit was shuttered, we inadvertently drove up behind a drug deal going down between two cars in a narrow alley (Amy: "I don't think he's borrowing Mamma's cornstarch"), and, leaving the village, chanced upon a picturesque herd of sheep gamboling by the side of the road, only to be hurried along, and out of town, by the mordant face of the sheepherder who was decked out in military gear, whose glare said, Cosa stai guardando? Vai via!

And tilting, chaotic NAPLES: with its nightlife, noisy processions, wedding photographs in the jostling, jam-packed Spaccanapoli, tolling church bells, cats, dogs, restaurants, epic cab rides, hotel roof views of Vesuvius, gorgeous light....
Hit my socials if you want to see the photos. I posted (too) many.


At No Such Thing As Was I mostly write about music, finding my way in and out of my experiences via songs, and vice versa. Surprisingly, music did not factor in a big way during my visit. I shopped for records in Rome and Naples, allowed myself to drift along with the local and national music wafting through various stores, cocked an ear from the roof of our Naples hotel to a frightfully-howling hardcore band playing in a venue in a narrow alley somewhere below us near the sea, one morning nearly welled-up in pride at the Motown hits playing in the hotel's tea room. At some point during our stay I'd caught a burst of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" somewhere, and, prowling the streets on my own singing it to myself; I felt vaguely foolish. You should be humming some romantic Italian number, I thought as I strolled past thick, ancient buildings, rakishly-parked scooters, and crowded espresso bars, dangerously beautiful locals all around. Yet my inner jukebox malfunctioned. All I could come up with was "'O sole mio" which, naturally, within a block or two, evolved into Elvis's "It's Now Or Never," which I stupidly sang to myself all afternoon.

One musical moment stood out for me on this visit, yet it wasn't a song. In the middle of the trip  I remembered the mournful Doppler effect that Brian Wilson employed at the close of "Caroline, No," the last track on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. Wilson alleges that he has no idea what he was thinking when he tacked on the sounds of barking dogs and a passing train, but to my ears the gesture was a perfect, moving evocation of anticipating, having, and losing, that eternal triumvirate of the human condition (suffered no less by surfin' teenagers), and an ideal way to close a bittersweet, introspective album. Maybe the chaotic traffic swirling around me, the careening drivers and the insistent police and medical vehicles put me in mind of that moment. 

It struck me as an ideal metaphor for traveling. The present moments of visiting—the immersion into a different culture, the disorientation of a different language, the bewilderment of jet lag—feel cruelly brief; the anticipation of the visit and the bittersweetness of landing home again are much longer stretches. They feel that way, anyway. The days and weeks one spends in a foreign country concentrate down into a deep, rich absorption of time, a black hole of experience that's so intense in its newness and freshness, the equivalent of a cinematic cut from black and white to color. Its fleetingness only increases its intensity, especially in retrospect.

Here and gone. The Doppler effect occurs when sound waves move toward you, each successive crest of the wave moving closer at higher and higher frequencies, bunching together as a choppy sea; as the sound moves away, the crests grow wider, the frequencies reduce, the waves tame. When the sound arrives in front of you, or next to or behind you, you're in the present tense of sound, the immediacy of experience—and yet it's transient. The mournfulness comes in the stubborn hold that the present has on the past, it wants to stay, and we want to stay in the bliss of it, in Rome sipping an espresso, lingering after a meal, or gazing at the Gulf of Naples, still coming to terms not only with its sublimity but with our surprise at having stumbled onto the vista, emerging from narrow, down-leaning streets. We want to hang forever. Yet our check-out times and train departures are stubborn, too.

The approaching and departing train horn that Wilson added to the end of Pet Sounds is, in musical terms, a B♭7 trichord that alters to a G7. A song after all.
Somewhere over the Atlantic

Friday, May 12, 2023

My latest for The Normal School

In my latest for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine, I take a look at the early-70's RNR revival era, Dick Clark's ubiquitous face, and my personal connections to 20 YEARS OF ROCK N’ ROLL, a compilation album released fifty years ago Buddah Records.

A reminder that you can read my other Normal School music essays in full here!

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

We all turned on

With decades behind them, Hoodoo Gurus rock New York City. A local band opens.

DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I hadn't seen Hoodoo Gurus live since the early 1990s, and in truth the only thing absent on this U.S. tour—rescheduled twice because of Covid—was big hair. Everything else was vintage Gurus.

My moment of Zen was gifted during a four-song sequence in their fantastic show at a packed Webster Hall in New York City last Friday night. After opening with "(Let's All) Turn On" and "Answered Prayers," songs from their first (1984) and most recent (2022) albums, sandwiching the pop gem "Another World" in between, the band played "Out That Door," "Be My Guru," "Night Must Fall," and "The Right Time." I was struck, yet again, at the range in Dave Faulkner's powerful songs, the way he can move from a non-ironic power ballad and ironic rock and roll to a nakedly honest treatise on loss and a head-banging carpe diem anthem. That the Gurus never scored massive hits in this country is a tired lament, one countless artists and bands are deserving of hearing, but watching this band play songs from a nearly forty-year long career really brought home to me what a criminally underrated songwriter Faulkner really is, and how his great band—longtime pal guitarist and pal Brad Shepherd, bassist Rick Grossman, and drummer Nik Rieth (a new addition)—has kept up with him, riding his emotional dynamics with both elegance and grit.

I wrote last year about how renewing their latest album Chariot of the Gods felt, It's easy to trace a line though Faulkner's songs down the decades, as his best are sharply witty, without sacrificing empathy or a heartfelt appreciation for human foibles, and impatient with phoniness and hypocrisy, moving between bouncy, hooky pop and crunchy, riff-y rock and roll (with a lot of fun genre-mixing in between). Those four songs at Webster really hit me, in part because the issues Faulkner was singing about in "Out That Door" were urgently important to me in my twenties when the song came out, and I was struck at how absurdly moving the tune still is even though I happily resolved those pesky issues long ago—the magic trick of art and time, how a song can matter in different phases of one's life and in different ways, never sounding dated or merely nostalgic. "Night Must Fall," a brutally honest yet tender song abut mortality and loss, didn't slow things down in the set as much as add dimension. In between, the band roared through the riotous "Be My Guru," a statement-of-purpose originally released as a b-side in 1983:
We make no bones at all, we're making a dint
And in no time at all, your hearts we will win
It's a gift we offer you, our music
Be polite, accept it, don't refuse it
and the place was absolutely jumping, primed for "The Right Time," another clarion call to rock action that grinningly pushed its way out of the despair of "Night Must Fall." Quite an emotional journey, and one Faulkner's taken consistently since the early 1980s.

The Gurus play with style, confidence, and ear-ringing aplomb. Grossman and Rieth's rhythm playing is both bedrock and supple, and Faulkner's a charming frontman, ingratiating and a little devilish. The band members all wear a bit of the long road now, which is inevitable, and indeed they wear it well, and Faulner's still in great voice. Shepherd gives the impression of a hip tenured math professor the students still crush on, studying his guitar during his solos as if he's worrying out an equation. And though his smiles may be rare, he's clearly having the time of his life. He's always been Cool Personified in my book.

Dave Faulkner is writing songs these days that are as strong and memorable, and as meaningful, as any he's written, and the band is tight, together, and in great shape. Catch them if you can.


An area band, the Fleshtones, kicked things off with a brief, high-octane set—the only opening act the Gurus have on the tour, as Faulkner claims to have "worshiped" the band since he first heard them back in the late 1970s. They were a blast, and had a blast, as intent on crossing the silly "moat" in front of the stage separating them from the crowd as they were in playing their chords right or getting to their mics in time to sing. They all smiled a lot, and they've been around forever. Somebody ought to write a book about them.


Saturday, April 29, 2023

Trying to take this all in

In the still-extraordinary "Senses Working Overtime" XTC celebrates the sublime
In 1974, Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. One of the essays in it, "Seeing," astonishes me every time I read it. Essentially about the complacency of those who sacrifice the daily beauties of the world for more pragmatic concerns, "Seeing" is nearly too much with itself— it's so amazed with the world that it tugs at its own seams. As a young girl Dillard used to leave pennies around her neighborhood, giddy at the prospect of someone finding an unbidden gift, a reminder that the universe can surprise. As we grow, Dillard laments, we tend to lose sight, in both the literal and the figurative sense, of the world's astonishing wonders, its daily free gifts. In a particularly moving passage she recounts the knocked-out experiences of a group of previously blind individuals who'd been gifted with the return of their sight. The world became nearly overwhelming to them, and not always in a bad way. The world should overwhelm everyone, every day, Dillard feels.

Near the end of the essay she describes a moment while perched on a log bridge at sunset watching shiners (minnows) feed in the water. "Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! The sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn’t watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared: flash, like a sudden dazzle of the thinnest blade, a sparking over a dun and olive ground at chance intervals from every direction." Distracted by pale petals floating from under her feet, she blurred her vision "and gazed towards the brim of my hat"
and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.
When she sees in this rare manner, Dillard writes, she sees "truly," as a kind of a re-set. Yet she's quick to add that she can’t go out and consciously attempt to see this way. She'll lose her mind. "All I can do is try to gag the commentator, to hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing just as surely as a newspaper dangled before my eyes." The secret of true seeing, she reflects, "is the pearl of great price.... But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought."
The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.
On that afternoon Dillard was returned to her senses. What she was also doing in "Seeing" was glossing a song that she couldn't possibly have heard because it wouldn't be written and recorded for nearly a decade. 


"I thought, 'Well, everyone has five senses, what's great about that? Well, they're not just working, they're going crazy! They're working overtime! They're taking all of life in, and it's too much!' Because life is just too much. It's amazing, you know." That's Andy Partridge, talking to Todd Bernhardt about "Senses Working Overtime," a song from XTC's English Settlement released in 1982. Like "Seeing," this song lifts off the top of my head with each encounter I have with it, still, after forty years of listening. The song's in awe of the world and its ordinary extraordinariness. I'm in awe of the song.

Writing in his small flat above an empty Victorian shop in Swindon, trying to compose the next single for his band, Partridge had Manfred Mann's "5-4-3-2-1" knocking about in his head, loving the way that that song kicks into gear with an instantly catchy, singalong hook. "I thought, 'Okay, 5-4-3-2-1—I'll go 1-2-3-4-5!'"
So, I thought, "5-4-3-2-1 was like a count-down to something, 1-2-3-4-5 is like adding up—what is there five of?".... There are five senses! Right!
Partridge soon had his chorus—"these senses were just going to be going crazy at the fantasticness of the world"—and now he needed a verse. Fooling around on his guitar he landed on a graphic E-flat, the happy accident of having played an E chord wrong. To Partridge the tone sounded Medieval somehow, and he forged ahead, piecing chords together, "and I thought, 'Yeah, this sounds great, it's medieval, it's like pictures from illuminated manuscripts, tilling the soil, and wow, how hard life was in those days'." He envisioned "little figures tilling the land, and cutting hedgerows, and stuff," and hoped to describe "their woes, and their worries, and the things that they'd be singing about—or the things they'd be fantasizing about." He rescued an earlier, abandoned song for chords that helped him join "the moronic backwards Manfred Mann bit" with his Middle Age landscape of toiling workers. 

The Harvesters (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Partridge also wanted a very English vibe in the song (he tacked on the sound of crows at the end), as well as "plague-ridden backing vocals," what he described to his band and producer Hugh Padgham as the sound of suffering, "wretched land-people noises." ("It's the sort of thing you'd sing under your breath if you were trying to get your plow kick-started on a frosty morning!") At The Manor studio he also prevailed upon XTC drummer Terry Chambers to go a little Medieval himself; Chambers obliged by pulling out a rototom and "a reggae bass-drum thing," Partridge recalls, "an odd little mixture, the reggae one-drop drumming with his foot, combined with 13th-century England with his hand!" Partridge had his song. "And I came up with the words pretty quickly."

The impression at the start is that the song's waking up: a quietly plucked acoustic, a softly struck rototom. The work day begins with a thudding boom of a drum, Colin Moulding's fretless bass line wakes and stretches, getting the kinks out, and as the sun peeks over the horizon an insight arrives as the song's pulse quickens: "All the world is football-shaped / It's just for me to kick in space / And I can see, hear, smell, touch, taste". Trying to take this all in. Like "Seeing," "Senses Working Overtime" nearly comes open at the seams, so in awe of and humbled by the world that it can barely contain itself. 

And in fact, it can't. The bridge is essentially a new song that bursts out of what we've hearing, Partridge dryly singing of natural tragedies, bullying, a bus "skidding on black ice" before admitting that to him it's all "very, very beautiful." The wordless passage that follows is the sound of someone giddily in love with a world that's equally tragic and exquisite, alive in that world with gratitude, in awe of everything. By the time we return to the pre-chorus ("And all the world is football-shaped...") everything's gotten bigger, more dimensional. I love that Partridge wrote "Senses Working Overtime" under the influence of Manfred Mann "5-4-3-2-1," which was used as the theme song for Ready Steady Go, the U.K television show that aired on Friday nights, heralding the weekend and its onrushing of sensations and stimuli.

Partridge has written often about ordinary folk overwhelmed by emotions and deserving of our respect. Think "Love on a Farm Boy's Wages" from Mummur (1983), "The Loving" and the fantastic "Mayor of Simpleton" from Oranges & Lemons (1989), "Earn Enough For Us"  from Skylarking (1986), and the extraordinary "Rocket From A Bottle" from 1980's Black Sea ("I've been just explosive since you lit me / I've been up with the larks, I've been shooting off sparks / And I'm feeling in love"). But nowhere else does he capture so movingly what Dillard calls the "shivering daze" after one's struck by the world's bounty, its daily treasures that we so often ignore while getting dutifully from A to Z in a straight line. Meanwhile, the church bells softly chime.

Photo of XTC in 1982 by Allan Ballard

Thursday, April 20, 2023

From the floor to the mirror ball

Two songs by Paul Weller wonder on the majesty of sound and where it goes

Reading Paul Weller's new book Magic: A Journal of Song has sent me back to the man's deep catalogue. In conversation with U.K. journalist Dylan Jones, Weller recounts the origins and personal histories of dozens of his songs, from his earliest in the mid-1970s to a few from 2021's Fat Pop (Volume 1). Never overly chatty, Weller's true to form in Magic, though he is quite forthcoming in many places, as when he considers his myriad influences, acknowledges the emotional difficulties in breaking up the Jam in 1982, and talks about his decision to quit drinking in 2010, candid about the dire places his alcoholism had brought him and quietly grateful for the renewed energy and focus he's been gifted. 

I love hearing Weller talk about music and his long career as a songwriter and performer, especially when those conversations reveal unexpected links among his songs. In 2005 Weller released As Is Now, his eighth solo album, the lead single from which was "From The Floorboards Up," a rocking, grooving celebration of live music, a kind of New Century update of the Jam's "Start" in which Weller's knocked out by the pulsations onstage and writes an answer to that very noise. In the liner notes to his 2014 best-of compilation More Modern Classics, he discussed the song's origins: it's about "playing live to an audience where, on a good night, the power seems to come up from the ground through the stage, through the band and out into the audience where the energy hangs in the air. You can't see it but boy can you feel it." 

The song came quickly: "Whilst on tour in Glasgow, after a (brilliant) gig there I went back to the hotel and wrote 'Floorboards' in my room."
The next day me, [drummer] Steve White, [bass player] Damon [Minchella] and the great [guitarist] Steve Cradock rehearsed and demo'd it in a dressing room and then played it live a few nights later. That doesn't happen that often!"
"Once you have experienced that feeling," he added, "you have to go looking for it again the next night, and the next after that and so on. It becomes the benchmark you're always trying to reach or re-gain. But it's an elusive one and not one you can plan for. You can only hope you will find it again."
So powerful a drug it is but it's a purity of feeling unmatched and important in our lives. I'm hooked that's for sure but I never wish to explain any better than that. It’s a magical feeling of spontaneity and communion amongst people who would only be strangers in any other circumstance. I'm privileged to have known and felt that in my time.
Born out of amped up bliss and adrenaline, composed swiftly, "From The Floorboards Up" speaks for itself in its driving urgency—Weller's riffing guitar churning atop Michella and White's rhythm as Cradock's solo sends splintery sparks toward the ceiling—and a chorus that sings the story more powerfully than Weller can in his description ("When we sway, we sway as one")The song is all about sweat and movement, but it's in touch with something ephemeral, as well. "I've got a feeling and I know it's right," Weller insists in the song, before admitting that it "sings in the air and dances like candle light," is there and then gone, issuing as much "from the walls and chairs" as from the guitars and amplifiers: "They tell me of the things that have always been there / And all that is not will have to go back to dust."

"Where does [the music] go once we have finished? Weller asks in the liner notes. "Maybe it just stays there in the hall or club or theatre, soaking into the walls or seats like a spirit. I mean it has to go somewhere right."
Crowd at Paul Weller's 2018 gig at Brighton Centre, Brighton, England [filtered]

Fifteen years later, he found where that somewhere is.

In July of 2020, Weller released his fifteenth album On Sunset as the world was in lockdown. The first line of the remarkable opening track asks, "Mirror ball, when will you spin?" It was a question I and millions of other live music fans were asking.

"Mirror Ball" is an accidental answer song to "From The Floorboards Up." At seven-plus minutes, it's the musical antithesis of "Floorboard"'s Mod urgency, where everything's over in a couple of minutes, yet in its dreamy conjuring of atmospheric states and unseen currents it's in touch with the same sonic sensibilities. The titular ball's a literal thing, rotating and bestowing star light upon concertgoers' heads, yet it's also an image of the spiritual state that music, especially live music, can produce: "Light up the room and our lives begin / Till we no longer feel the cold / We're now embraced by the mirror ball." Electronic psychedelic-folk-soul, "Mirror Ball" was written, and performed, in praise of the ways we're "empowered in [the] wake" of the ball's rotation, in the radiance rained down on a blissed-out crowd, of the music that sets it all into motion. "The moon's a balloon," Weller croons, "and we'll go far." "Music is the most natural thing in the world," he remarked once. "When we go to a gig and we all like it and we share that experience, it's the same sense of communion as a sacred rite in Borneo or wherever it may be; it just gets dressed up different. Its good for the soul." 'Till everyone's a shining star.

Here, Weller's on acoustic and electric guitars, longtime pal Cradock's again on board (abetted by guitarist Steve Pilgrim), and bassist Andy Crofts and drummer Ben Gordelier supply the rhythm section—but the gentle "Mirror Ball" is really a keyboard-driven track. Weller layers a Rhodes electric piano, mellotron, Hammond organ, piano, and synths, aided by Charles Rees on another organ, Tom Vam Hell on another piano, and Crofts and Cradock on Moog synths. That's a pretty crowded room creating music that might've ending up sounding fussy, or cluttered, but Weller and co-producer Jan Stan Kybert (he manned the boards for "From The Floorboards Up," as well) keep the arrangement airy and spacious, the serene programmed drums, glockenspiel, and massed backing vocals adding layers of gossamer roominess. The song's ceiling feels limitless, and that's the point. 

At the two and-a-half minute mark, something remarkable occurs. After Weller sings, via a pretty melody, the lines "And in every brick I pass I see you / In every blade of grass I feel you / In everything," the song somehow disengages from itself, and begins to ascend toward that infinite ceiling where the mirror ball spins placidly. (Stephen Thomas Erlewine describes this moment as the song "fracturing into space.") We've entered a wholly new song at this point, or, rather, we're inside of the song as it moves upward and outward in widening sound waves, scoring the evening for everyone who's there in myriad ways.

When Weller was a teenager in the mid-1970s he'd board the train to London with a tape recorder under his arm. Alighting from the tube in the capital, he'd press record and aim the microphone at everything around him, taping the sounds of the streets and the people of his beloved city. Back home in his Woking bedroom, he'd listen lovingly, obsessively, to the tape of traffic noise, street chatter, all of the colorful sonic bustle, and revel in the essence of the city life that the sounds evoked. He seems to have attained something similar with this trippy, otherworldly middle section in "Mirror Ball," where what we're hearing seems to be nothing less than the impossible perspective of a music venue's floors, walls, and ceilings, what they hear and have heard—the interior life of a rock club, if you will. Only the sound of a muffled crowd cheering brings the song out of the spell that it's cast. To my ears it's among the most remarkable passages in Weller's cannon, and the move back into the proper song's warm, stately melody and restrained yet pulsing playing is really moving. Weller, his band, and his producer have somehow tuned in to other frequencies in "Mirror Ball," those pitched just beyond our ability to hear them, the ones left over after the songs finish, the band leaves the stage, the crowd departs, and the venue goes dark. I mean it has to go somewhere right?

"When the heart grieves over what it has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left," goes the old Sufi proverb. In these twinned songs Paul Weller possesses and than loses—that ancient story—but what's left behind is as magic, and as urgent and confounding, as what was once there. Plugged in, ears ringing, we'll chase it all again tomorrow night.

Top photo of Weller at The Vic in Chicago, Illinois, 2015 (by author); second photo via Brighton & Hove News

Friday, April 14, 2023

May I slash my wrists tonight?

Forty years on, the Style Council's "Come To Milton Keynes" still cuts

My interest in the Style Council has cooled considerably since the 1980s, when I followed them with near apostolic urgency. They remain very much a band of the era for me, living on as a graphic reminder of how much I was willing to forgive in the name of adoration. With the hindsight of several decades, I can appreciate Paul Weller's nervy commitment to his second band: they were as much a conceptual joke as an actual group, an observation Weller repeated often, especially during the band's waning days, but something I never really understood at the time. That felt like a cop-out, a shoulder-shrugging just kidding in the face of withering criticism. Now I see that the humor was yet another style that the Council wore.

But still. The ever changing attire, the mannered Continental poses, the willful embrace of eclectic, at times clashing musical styles and genres: much of the Council's modus operandi is frozen in time, colors fading like a Swatch wrist watch in a Salvation Army. Unique in many ways, the Style Council were also very much an '80s band, from their blend of primary-color sunniness and dour realism to the synthesizer beds and studio processing on their later records. Yet Weller is and remains a great songwriter, and many Council tunes, especially their singles, have stood the test of time: "Speak Like a Child," "Long Hot Summer," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Solid Bond In Your Heart," "You're The Best Thing," "Wall Come Tumbling Down" are all indelible records, each a winning blend of Weller's skeptical romanticism and his love for 60s-based pop and soul. His more politically charged songs—and there were too many of them by the end—tend to have withered on the vine, the predictable consequence of Weller's tendency in this era to stubbornly breed pointed, overly-earnest lyrics with whatever musical whim he was digging that week, with a self-conscious determination to remain stylistically varied and Socialistically inspired. A lot of it has not aged all that well. Few talk about the Red Wedge much anymore, let alone "Internationalists."

Weller has often said that he regretted letting the Council go on as long as he did. He's also remarked that he feels that the band's second album, Our Favourite Shop, released in 1985, is their best. I agree. To my ears it's their most cohesive album in vision and sound, though it contains one or two clunkers. ("The Stand Up Comics Instructions," anyone?) The poignant "Homebreakers" is a stark, evocative narrative of Thatcher-era desperation, and "All Gone Away," "The Lodgers (Or She Was Only a Shopkeeper's Daughter)," and "With Everything to Lose" each seamlessly weds musical fluency—the Council is an actual band on this album—with social-critical lyrics, as unlikely as it was that kids were going to dart about the U.K. singing along to Socialist doctrinaire with the same teen verve they did to Wham and Culture Club. Weller could still write a conventional love song (the wonderful "Luck"), but polished agit-prop ruled the day for him in the mid- and late-1980s, an era when he too often tread in shallow waters.


Milton Keynes lies fifty or so miles northwest of London, in Buckinghamshire, established in the mid-1960s as a prototypical "New Town" designed by the U.K. government as an answer to housing pressures in the capital. Conceived as a kind of suburban antidote to relentless city crowding, an ideal of post-war urban planning, Milton Keynes has, justifiably or not, long been derided by critics as "soulless," as a "non-place," a pre-ordained grid-facade lacking a richly organic history. Search online and you'll find posts such as "Why is Milton Keynes so weird?", and a subreddit devoted to answering the question, "Could someone explain to me why everybody seems to hate Milton Keynes?" 

A couple of years ago in the U.K. socialist magazine Tribune, Kieran Curran observed that Milton Keynes "stood out from its predecessors through its comparative lack of traditional municipal socialist elements," that the town was "fundamentally about the rising structure of feeling of 'aspiration'." Yet "from the late 1970s on, the town was also a testbed for Thatcher’s political project—a revanchist tearing-down of the post-WWII consensus, combined with a sentimental appeal to a nebulous, idealised nostalgia for a past that never was." Milton Keynes is often knocked for its U.S.-leaning style—one writer recently complained about the city's "un-British" and "vaguely American form of urbanism"—and the community seems destined to remain a target for those decrying its laboratory-like origins. 

In the mid-1980, a concerned Milton Keynes Development Corporation produced what has come to be known as the "Red Balloons" ad, a feel-good video aimed at promoting the city's civic warmth and, as Curran puts it, "the town’s youth, its community, and a profoundly rendered but profoundly nebulous 'hope'." Curran adds, "Yet when considered in relation to the era’s unfolding political upheaval, this focus-grouped bucolic narrative seems nakedly ideological."

Weller was allegedly watching, and in response wrote "Come To Milton Keynes," the title suggesting a tag-line on a tourist brochure. The premise could have gotten in the way here: reacting to what he sees as the town's tackiness and barely-disguised moral decay, Weller complicates a cheerful, sunny melody with clashing musical touches—swing band horn charts, cheap drum machine rhythms, a Technicolor orchestra with swirling harps, reverb-laden, circus-like keyboard washes—evoking a surface-level bliss nagged by something ugly underneath. Precisely because the arrangement is a melange of disagreeing, backward-looking musical styles, the song is not time- and date-stamped as decisively as other Council songs, and its satire, both in the lyrics and the arrangement, feels pretty pointed still.

"May I walk you home tonight on this fine and lovely night tonight?" Weller opens pleasantly, 

We'll walk past the luscious houses
through rolling lawns and lovely flowers,
our nice new town where the curtains are drawn,
where hope is started and dreams can be borne
Yet against the melody's affability we're soon "mad together in Community," where boys are begging for food on corners when they're not chasing heroin fixes or violence on the green. In the lilting bridge, Weller arrives at his insight:
In our paradise lost we'll be finding our sanity
In this paradise found we'll be losing our way for a brave new day
The line "May I slash my wrists tonight, this fine Conservative night?" is rendered especially nauseous given that Weller's singing in an ironically cheery, Ray Davies mode, the horns and strings dancing lightly behind the desperation. He's looking for a job, and arrives in town having "read the ad about the private schemes." He loved the idea, the buoyant red balloons and all they promised, but having lived there, alert to the dark ironies, now he's "not so Keyne." The last pun's a groaner, but Weller's been known to adhere to an idea he loves no matter how clunky it is. Or is the pun's obviousness meant to be funny, an in-joke, a facet of the Style Council's wry humor? 

"Come to Milton Keynes" was released as a single in England (it hit number 23 on the charts), the 7-inch sleeve featuring a color image from the album's cover shoot, the 12-inch (above) a dourly stylish black-and-white shot of two overcoats and hats hanging on a coat rack, more appropriate to the song's suburban skewering. Both releases featured ubiquitous liner notes by The Cappuccino Kid (the pen name for U.K. music journalist Paolo Hewitt) that echoed the song's complaints: we sour humans, rather than coming "together in sweat of all types, for fun, pleasure and toil,"
Instead, it seems,...have chosen to front on the goggle eye box, a wicked vision of children, balloons, sunshine eternal, wealth of the filthy kind, all manner of plastic crap, yanky cop shows and homes for their bombs, and aahh. . . contentment. All still more bullshit that masks the real picture of self-inflicted death, addiction, misery and mass consumering. American express? Fuck off, I'd rather walk!
Subtle stuff. I've never been to Milton Keynes, and for that matter I've no idea if Weller himself ever visited. A quick survey of the comments on the "Red Balloons" ad above reveals several residents gushing about their wonderful childhoods and adolescences they enjoyed there: 
Happy memories from when i was a kid growing up in Milton Keynes. Still love the place now. :) 
Milton Keynes is the best place i have ever lived, and if it was not for this place always providing me with all my opurtunities [sic] than i would never be what it is today. 
Great day of school-Bishop Parker RESPECT for posting this. 
long live red balloons! 
MK was so cool in th 80's
And the like. There are more than a few gripes about the town online, too, and we all know how nostalgia works. Whether Weller was fair or not in his take on Milton Keynes I can't comment on—I believe he received some flak from those in the city unpleased with his depiction. I only know that "Come To Milton Keynes" retains its wickedly satiric bite, and that there are plenty of targets around for a take on the values eroding behind a facade of municipal unity, on a Paradise found and lost, "where the sun never sets, and all is safe and sound."

The video that the Style Council produced for "Come To Milton Keynes" is a theatrical indictment of hucksterism, consumerism, American-style greed, vulgarity, and "all manner of plastic crap," Weller and Mick Talbot prancing about in tacky costumery. Great stuff. Dig the comments for more "debate" over city planning. 

Friday, April 7, 2023

Jetting into the past

Renewing memories of a town I left decades ago

I took this photo last weekend from the window of our 737, moments from landing at Reagan National Airport. The vast gray sky's appropriate, as it mirrored my cloudy memories of the Washington D.C. area and my ambivalence about having left so many years ago.

I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland and raised in Wheaton, ten or so miles from the D.C. line, a boundary I traversed countless times in my adolescence and throughout college, at the University of Maryland. I never lived in the District proper, but it's always felt like home. My wife and I visited the area last weekend to see my folks (they're in their 90s, and going strong) and my sibs and their children who are still in the area, and so that my wife could attend a baby shower for one of our nieces, who currently lives in Arizona but who was born and raised in Silver Spring. A homecoming of sorts for a bunch of us. 

I had little hope that this photo would turn out well—I snapped it through a bit of turbulence while holding my anxious wife's hand. I figured it'd be a wash. Yet gazing at it now I'm amazed at the clarity of what it brings back for me. Our plane was approaching heading southeast, shadowing the Pentagon while hurtling past the Reflecting Pool and the sprawling Mall; in this moment we're passing the south end of the White House grounds; the Tidal Basin's emerging from the right, the Capitol at the far end of The Mall. As the plane approached the landing strip it flew mere feet (or so it seemed) over Gravelly Point, the tiny peninsula jutting off of Virginia into the Potomac River, where when we were kids my parents would sometimes take us to watch the planes taking off from and landing at the then-National Airport. I recall packed lunches, an afternoon made of it. If I close my eyes, I can feel the alarming roar of the immense, down-angled jets just over our heads, filling my ears and my chest with sublime, nearly overwhelming power. An early experience in their humbling majesty of pure noise. Lay a transparency over this photo from, say, 1972 or '73, and I'm just out of frame, staring upward, mouth agape, hands shut tight against my ears, oblivious to the nascent, darkening national drama  six or so miles away as the Middle Jet Age thundered all around and through me.

At the end of the visit we drove back to Reagan for our flight and to return our car rental. We had some time so we were able to take my favorite drive in the Maryland/DC area, along Beach Road and Rock Creek Parkway, moving briskly along the green floor of the city. We passed below the stately Taft Bridge on upper Connecticut Avenue, by the National Zoo, modest horse tables, and gently rolling banks, ending at the Potomac while gliding alongside the Kennedy Center. Traffic may be a nightmare on the VA/MD/DC highways, but the city did right by Rock Creek Park. While in college, after shows or closing the bar in the city, I'd drive back to Wheaton in the early morning along this very path, sometimes worse for wear, the single-lane road twisting and turning in the dark alongside creek, cutting a swath through the District and into Maryland.


The photo also brings me back to the Bicentennial and the long day my family and some neighbor friends spent at The Mall. In 1976, only four and a half miles of the sprawling, neo-futurist Metro subway system were finished, and so from Wheaton my family were obliged to board a jam-packed bus on Georgia Avenue a block from our home for the hours-long, oppressively hot trip down to the Mall. All I remember of the blurred afternoon are endless traffic jams, the swarms of thousands, and the fireworks later that night. Yet the photo of my family marching up Arcola Avenue that morning on the way to the bus stop endures. That's me in the middle, "with piccolo fife," rocking a red-white-and-blue t-shirt and getting in the patriotic groove. Despite the analog gauze of the snapshot, that block looks pretty much the same now.

The internal soundtrack that this photo conjures? "Silly Love Songs," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," "A Fifth of Beethoven," "Dream Weaver," "If You Leave Me Now," "Convoy," "Island Girl," "Still the One," "Baby I Love Your Way," "Take the Money and Run," so many more, each evoking sunny afternoons inside of infinite summers, air-conditioned balm against the humidity outside, and bike rides through suburban woods where I conjured stories and fantasies, both light and dark, some of which came true.


Yesterday in my advanced creative nonfiction workshop we discussed a woman's draft in which she explored her obsession with 1980s music, how the songs from that era instill in her, absurdly, a nostalgia for a time when she wasn't alive. In fact, the music brings her back to long family drives between Illinois and Ohio when she was a child, her parents' CD collections soundtracking those trips and those years while also evoking a decade she knows only from those songs, yet a time in history she finds herself impossibly enamored of, and identifying with. In Magic: A Journal of Song, Paul Weller remarks that “The thing I have discovered is that music in its truest sense is beyond any trend or movement or category," adding, "I’m fascinated by that and the idea that it is, in the end, like folk music, people’s music." I might only add that music, though often time- and date-stamped, more often than not moves beyond the very era in which it's produced, allowing a young girl in the late '00s to hear A Flock Of Seagulls and feel both moved in the present and saturated by a past. Descending into Washington D.C. in the present, I also elevated through my past. Magic, indeed.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

The wonder of it all, baby

Wherever the song takes me, want to come along?

Few songs bring me back to my childhood as powerfully as Wings' "Listen To What The Man Said," released as a single in 1975. Such an effortless sounding song had to labor a bit, as it turns out: the tune would come alive when Paul McCartney played it on piano for others to hear, yet the ideal group take remained stubbornly elusive at Sea-Saint Recording Studio, in New Orleans. Eventually, with sweetening by Traffic guitarist Dave Mason and a sublime saxophone solo from L.A. Express' Tom Scott, the band perfected a bright, gently rocking arrangement, buoyant on its own cheery confidence. Pop sweetness has a long expiration date, but the band ended up using the first take, rightly sensing magic in the performance.

Here's what I feel about the song nearly half a century later:
If I stare too long as "Listen To What The Man Said" plays I might burn my retina.

Regular exposure to "Listen To What The Man Said" might cure someone of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Roy Carr and Tony Tyler once described the song as "High Pop." I hear "High Sun."
"Listen To What The Man Said" was a number one hit on Billboard and was all over the radio through the summer of '75. Jubilant, radiant, uplifting, the song's an irresistible blend of McCartney Active Ingredients: optimism in a hook-laden singalong, semi-obscure lyrics that sound great, maybe even profound, as a cheerful, addictive melody eddies them to and fro, indelible Linda-and-Laine backing vocals during an ecstatic chorus that feel like nothing less than stop-time footage of blooming flowers. McCartney and his band, rounded out with guitarist Jimmy McCulloch and drummer Joe English, produced a recording that is eternally warm to the touch, both song and weather. Prediction: a long, sunny afternoon.


I've been thinking lately about a metaphor in Robert Vivian's "Thoughts on the Meditative Essay," published in 2012. The "primary focus" of a personal essay, Vivian writes, "is not the self,"

though it uses the self and all that it has to give as a kind of booster rocket that, once the prose reaches certain insights, is jettisoned or spent, much like shuttles that are launched into outer space as we see those burning hoops fall back into the pearly clouds after they have done their proper work of achieving escape velocity.
A great image. I'm not a music journalist. I'm an essay writer who writes mostly about music, and my way into music is nearly always autobiographical. Hundreds of years ago Samuel Butler said that "every man's work is always a portrait of himself," and, yeah, that colors my writing about music. When I explore a song, an album, or a show, I usually keep my first-person POV front and center, threading the music through the fabric of my own experiences, and vice versa—however trivial or dramatic, mundane or confessional—either in the moments I'm listening or, more often, through the tangle of my past. Yet nearly every autobiographical writer must at some point answer the eternal question posed by the appealingly skeptical Joanna Polley, below, in her sister Sarah's probing documentary Stories We Tell. In her film, Sarah Polley investigates, among other things, mysteries and absences involving her mother's love life and the profound affects it might have had on Sarah herself.
Good question, Joanna. Otherwise asked: can you get past yourself, already? Every piece of writing begins in the dark inside a writer; hopefully they can bring something out into the light that moves them beyond the merely personal. I don't expect that a reader, friend or stranger, will take an interest in my life, yet I hope that they might care to stick around to see where a song might take me. I feel, perhaps too deeply, that being profoundly moved by a song is subject matter unto itself, and so I want to see how, when moved, I might move through a song as it soundtracks my days. 


Hearing "Listen To What The Man" on Washington D.C.'s WPGC and later on my older siblings' copy of Venus and Mars (we had the 45, too) was nearly overwhelmingly pleasurable when I was a kid, less a daily sugar rush than a sonic shot of Vitamin D in an air-conditioned rec room in the middle of the suburbs. The song featured on a ceaselessly reviving inner-soundtrack to my solitary walks and bike rides, allowance strolls, basketball shoot-a-rounds, lounging at Wheaton Public Pool with the light diamonding off off the water surface. Family trips: rides on Funland amusement park at Rehoboth Beach against the dark Atlantic, hanging out in front of a Ben Franklin on a hot afternoon in rural Coldwater, Ohio. Saturdays with This Week In Baseball, my sister dancing in the basement... "Listen To What The Man Said" informed it all, in the air above my head. I couldn't wait to hear the song again the moment it ended, that poignant, half-time orchestral coda beyond my ken yet no less intriguing for that.

I'm guessing that the lyrics had something to do with all of this, too, though for me at age nine the words were no different in weight than the rhymes in the children's books I'd read only a few years before. "My stuff is never ‘a comment from within'," McCartney said about the song in 1988 in his fan club magazine Club Sandwich.
Basically I’m saying: ‘Listen to the basic rules, don’t goof off too much.’ But if you say ‘The Man’, it can mean God, it can mean ‘Women, listen to your man’, it can mean so many things. Later I did a song with Michael Jackson called ‘The Man’ and again, it’s quite nice leaving things ambiguous: I’m sure for Michael, probably ‘The Man’ meant God.
More recently, in 2016, asked again about the song's lyrics, McCartney said,
There are many answers to ‘Who is the man?’ In one way, you could say the man would be as the expression—‘You’re the man!’ Another way to look at it is that every religion has a leader who they consider to be ‘the man’. And his teachings are generally very positive. I like the idea that I leave it to the people to decide who, in their minds, is the man…".
Such optimism surely cut through the song as I listened as a kid, made me feel as warmly embraced as the melodies and McCartney's honeyed vocal, the very sound of hopefulness. That I can't divorce the song from the era, from my childhood, is immaterial to me as I listen now, so firmly embedded in my bone marrow is the song's tablature. Yet (I guess) I must steel myself against the siren song of nostalgia, that sop that dresses up as insight and passes as an argument. 

There are a handful of songs that I listened to obsessively during the early months of the pandemic lockdown that I can barely listen to now because the rush of feeling, associations, and graphic memories overwhelms me. They are hot to the touch. The poet Adrienne Rich once described her early use of formalism as a "strategy—like asbestos gloves, it allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up bare-handed." I haven't yet located a pair of gloves resistant enough to the emotional turmoil those songs revive in me, and I can't approach writing about them yet lest I tumble into pure, wordless sensation. 

McCartney, long derided by his critics for treading in shallow waters, has a knack for arousing surprisingly deep emotional responses to his listeners. Dig the joyful bridge in "Waterspout," cut in 1977 during Wings' London Town sessions but unreleased—"Only love can get you at it / and in a minute you will find yourself swimmin' in it." Gooey stuff, and also a heady evocation of lucky-in-love that's hard to surpass and might even put a smile on a McCartney hater's mug. He's plugged in, Sir Paul, and still manages to mine affecting currents. 

Perhaps someone during the pandemic listened to "Slidin'," a gem from McCartney III written and recorded during the lockdown and released at the end of 2020, and was sent by the quasi-psychedelic chorus—
I'm sliding, gliding through the air
I can see my body through windows in my hair
I'm sliding, gliding through the air
—someone who needed to feel a slide and glide out of the oppressive lockdown, for whatever reason. The song entered their DNA, and in a half century it might be impossible to listen to without the pulls and pangs of the mythic summer of 2020,  but they don't care to sift the longing for objectivity, the nostalgia for critical thinking, they want to turn to the person next to them and talk about the wonder of it all.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

No Place I Would Rather Be

My book about Roger Angell's writing career is now out in paperback
It's currently 40 degrees and cloudy in Chicagoland, and there's a rumor that the baseball season starts in a few days. One certainty is that on April 1 University of Nebraska Press will release the paperback edition of No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing, for which I've written a new epilogue on the occasion of Roger's death last year at the age of 101.

If you're interested in the career of baseball's greatest writer who had an historic through line from Babe Ruth to Mike Trout, who wrote with a fiction writer's eye for detail and story, and who remained a besotted yet skeptical fan of the game in its ups and downs, I've got you covered.

From the epilogue:
If I was startled to hear of Roger’s death, it was because he’d been living his life so fully that the prospect of its ending had seemed remote, even as he lived beyond his hundredth year. Shortly after I heard the news I watched the Chicago White Sox host the Boston Red Sox. Boston’s starter, the veteran Rich Hill, pitched well but ran into some difficulties in the middle innings. The Chicago announcer commented that Hill looked unhappy on the mound, and I instantly wondered—as I have countless times—what Roger would’ve made of the now-aggrieved Hill’s countenance as he stared down potential trouble. It just as swiftly occurred to me, with a pang, that we’ll never again enjoy a new observation—a new sentence—from Roger. His immense observational and writing gifts aside, there doesn’t seem to be much room for long, languid, patient takes on baseball, where knowledge, amusement, curiosity, and skepticism blend, where the writing seems as boundless as the game itself. The great themes in Roger’s baseball writing—the desire for community and attachment, the capacity and value of caring, the vagaries of luck—are eternal, and transcended the game. Simply put, Roger elevated the game of baseball; no one before or since has written about it as attentively and as thoughtfully, and with such droll literary panache. He loved baseball. He was endlessly enthused by its joys and disappointed by its disappointments, finding a cherished place there. The long seasons will go on, but something irreplaceable is now gone.
You can order directly from Nebraska here, or hit the usual joints. Please spread the word!

Thursday, March 16, 2023


Crate digging, 45s, and the random ways that records are passed down
"The world is governed by chance," novelist Paul Auster once observed. "Randomness stalks us every day of our lives." This is true, and there's no more delicious proof of that than in a used record store when I'm elbow-deep in a box of records. where artists, bands, labels, genres, and decades collide in capricious ways. As pleasurable and sanity-saving as it is to peruse an alphabetized or otherwise well-organized bin of records, I most dig being able to hunker down on the floor with a flimsy box of records grouped, if via any principle at all, by chance, the bizarro equivalent of peripheral browsing in a brick-and-mortar library, only the Dewey Decimal's been replaced by the Chaotic Haphazard as I shuffle through and among scattered surprises, both of the upgrade and the never-seen-that-one-in-the-wild variety. This can certainly happen as I'm streaming online, alert to the revelations popping up in someone's playlist, but it doesn't compare to finding an obscure seven-inch treasure, forking over a buck or three, bringing it home, cleaning it, and spinning....

A couple of days ago I was hanging out at Record Wonderland in Roselle, Illinois, a regular stop for me. The owner Steve usually hauls out his latest 45s when I'm there. This time I noticed a through line among the stacks of records he'd boxed up: the name "Herm" scrawled across each label.

Herm it turns out, used to DJ high school dances in the Pittsburgh area in the 1960s and 1970s, and he recently moved to the Chicago area. Steve got wind of Herm's large and diverse collection, visited Herm, who's now in his seventies, at his home, and bought his entire collection outright. "He didn’t have a player when I visited him," Steve told me, "but when I asked him about the titles I didn’t recognize, he seemed to remember them pretty well and accurately tell me what genre they were." He added that Herm only wanted to sell the whole collection, not piece by piece. "I almost didn’t make an offer, but there were some rare garage stuff like The Sonics that I couldn’t resist." 

For a DJ, Herm kept his records in remarkable shape, the only "blemish" among the collection being his large, black-ink tags often inexplicably penned over the name of the record label, all assertively bearing the weight of his ownership. I generally don't mind writing on labels, unless they obscure more than they evoke—they're  catnip to my imagination, a scrawled first name or a random number that opens up all possibilities and narratives as to previous owners and the arbitrary lives of the records themselves. As for Herm, I'd just as soon know only a little. He "signed" his records in an attempt to ward off thieves who might want to walk home with a slab of vinyl or two: if you were a stranger, friend, or sibling, Herm could prove that you'd five-fingered a record from his collection. Stealer beware!

As for the happenstance—or the "Hermenstance," if you will—of my recent finds, to my delight 'ol Herm and I shared taste in a wide variety of music. I came away from the store with a handful of cool singles—a tiny percentage of what Steve's selling. It's fun to imagine that these were among the very 45s Herm brought with him to some Pittsburgh-area high school's all purpose room. Sounds that were alive in a teen club or an auditorium or a house party decades ago hundreds of miles away now reverberating in my house, echos across generations just above our heads. Soul to R&B to garage to pysch and back again—believe me, these random tunes provided enough of an energy boost to get and to keep a teen party going. And they will tonight, too (minus the teenagers).

So time travel back with me back to the late '60s, to a Friday or Saturday night in Pittsburgh or West View or Wilkinsburg PA. The night's getting started, Herm's hunched over his turntable. Get out on that dance floor!

Hang on, Herm's gotta flip this one over:

Saturday, March 11, 2023

"I wanna blow my mind"

The Brothers Three dropped an insane, one-off single in 1969
In 1968 the Isley Brothers—O'Kelly, Rudolph, and Ronald—left Motown Records for their own, revived, T-Neck label, eager to capitalize on the success of their 1966 hit "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" and to gain some measure of artistic control over their work. They scored big with their first release: "It's Your Thing" was a number one hit on Billboard's R&B Chart, and reached the number two spot on the Hot 100, selling nearly two million copies. The follow-up, "I Turned You On," also performed well. But their next release gave the fullest indication that the brothers were now firmly behind the wheel and steering the down some wild alleys.

In the liner notes on the back cover of the Isley Brothers' boldly-titled album It's Our Thing (1969), O'Kelly Isley proclaims, "We want to do our own thing on records. We feel that we have a sound and a thing that is new, and we want to do it all on our own."
When we were with Motown we learned an awful lot. Like things about production, arranging, and even more about writing. We always wrote songs, but when we went to Motown we stopped writing. I mean they have such great writers over there, why should we try and beat them?
Rudy added, "Groups like the Beatles and the Stones, they do what they want to. What they feel is important to them. Through a lot of their work entirely new aspects of music have opened up. These areas can accommodate that many more artists so it has a way of broadening the outlook of the music scene." Ronald breaks the news: "We have a group called The Brothers 3. They're what they call 'psychedelic soul,' and we expect great things from them."

Ed Ochs pulled aside the curtain in a small item in his "Soul Sauce" column in the June 7, 1969 issue of Billboard:
But I don't think anyone, casual Isley fans or die-hards, were quite ready for "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out." Recorded on January 3, 1969 at Town Sound Studios in Englewood, New Jersey, the tune's a sprawling, unruly, trippy statement-of-purpose, utterly of-its-era and yet movingly transcendent. Occupying both sides of the 45 (which I've edited together from my copy, below), "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," though mid-paced, is manic, nearly overheated, with excitable, out-of-tune horns, distorted, fuzz-laden guitar leads so sharp they could cut, power chords, dreamy backing vocals they feel imported from another, far more safe, song, and an unhinged lead vocal that threatens to take the whole thing down. The arrangement's brutally simple, and the brothers play loud—imagine Blue Cheer as the Isley's backing band. The raw guitars and bass move stubbornly among a few chords, so closely that they evoke a drone of sorts which powers the song forward like some giant figure taking purposeful, pounding strides, landing on the earth with righteous thuds. The image at the top of this piece is the picture sleeve of the French pressing of the single—whoever was in charge in the design department there felt those reverberations, also. Yet another contact high.

The lyrics match the music's primal directness:
I'm so tried of running this race
I'm so tired of doors slamming in my face

It ain't my dream, it ain't my game, it ain't my thing

I'm so tried of trying to be a millionaire
I don't seem to be getting anywhere

Just like the birds I wanna, I gotta be free
Free as the birds and the bees
Relax my mind, I wanna take my time
I wanna blow my mind
Are you ready for that? the singer asks near the end, directing the question to the Isleys' fans and anyone else who might be listening (and feel threatened). The complaints against capitalism and a miserly society are timeless, yet here they originate from specific cultural places, lousy ones at that: the Isley's are writing, singing, and performing as Black men looking for a hit with mainstream America while turning up the psychedelic faders to trippy levels, loudly proclaiming their rights to a new way of perceiving everything. They'd achieve sustained success and secure their considerable legacy in the following years, of course, but in the summer of '69, with loud reverberations of racist, socio-economic, and cultural shots fired in the air over their heads, felling some of their brothers and sisters, the Isley's were adrift, yet ready, and anxious, to course correct.

This song's pissed-off, the anger expressed directly and clearly in the lyrics finding an unruly spirit in the rocking performance; divorced of social context, the brothers morph into silhouettes. The horns and braying vocal feel inevitable, wildly expressive: how can you bitch about these things, and demand other things, without fearing the loss of control? In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin observed that “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” That the Isley's maintain control of this careening track is testament to their genius in the studio, of course, but also to their commitment to the song's demands for liberty: sometimes you gotta threaten to turn stuff over, make a thing teeter until it might collapse. The song is not not goofy and over the top, and I suppose that it might be easy to hear it as time- and date-stamped, as a vintage curio of late 1960s ether, wearing the fashions of the time. But that would miss the point: those dopey "la la la la la"'s in the background sound like ironic anti-fairy tales by the end of the record, the "trip" is a real one, and the lyrics are depressingly relevant more than half a century later. 

"Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" is so graphically expressive, pulsates with so much passion, nutty, dark humor, and bold, uncomplicated desires that it's a wonder the needle stays on the record when it spins. Play Loud.

The Isley Brothers in 1969 (detail from The Brothers: Isley album)