Thursday, February 2, 2023

Following the sound

Commercial irrelevance doesn't always end the life of a song

Damnation of Adam Blessing was a mystery to me when I picked up their 1970 single "Back To The River" a couple of months ago, yet another band that had yet to materialize from out of my blind spot. I subsequently learned that they were Big In Cleveland in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and poised to break out nationally on the the strength of three solid albums with United Artists and coast-to-coast tours on bills with, variously, the Faces, Grand Funk, Derek & The Dominos, Alice Cooper, the MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Leon Russell, and other high-profile bands. Then their story stalled and took an all-too-common turn: Damnation of Adam Blessing were fated to be yet another band with a loaded arsenal that ended up shooting blanks commercially. (Guitarist Jim Quinn tells the band's story—including where they got that fantastic name—here. Their albums have been reissued a couple of times.) 

Such market oblivion is all the more remarkable given "Back To The River" which, had the planets aligned, might've become a smash hit, a radio and compilation staple for decades, destined to be rediscovered in Mom and Dad's record or CD collection by later generations of kids. In the event, the single hung around for a while on the charts, appearing in Billboard first as a hopeful "Regional Breakout," and then in a struggle to get its head above the Hot 100, peaking at 106.

An old story: such fortune requires that you redefine what success means. "Back To The River" has been coursing through my brain and heart since my first spin, and has been in high-rotation in my internal Top 40. I'm astonished that this song didn't break big, but then such shock is childish and naive (and boring, too). No one can fully quantify why one band sold records and another didn't, why one indelible melody sticks and another doesn't. And the one-hit wonder is a mystery unto itself. Billboard tells only one story (and a suspect one at that); the final and most important narrative tells the tale of who's listening to a song now, maybe decades after it vanished, moved beyond words as they sit in their home or are out on a walk, the song having buzzed in the air above all of our heads without us really noticing until it lands in a thrift store, a used record bin, Discogs, YouTube. Then the top of someone else's head comes off, and the story's picked up again.

~~

"Back To The River" is credited to the five members of the band. It begins as a mid-paced, Credence-like march, drummer Bill Schwark and bassist Ray Benich interlocking fluidly as either Jim Quinn or Bob Kalamasz bathes the groove with wah-wah guitar washes, the mood in the opening twenty seconds buoyant and curious, aloft on churning, alert rhythms. Then Adam Blessing—aka Bill Constable—arrives to sing. His voice is immediately likable, and placeable: it's the sound from a million hit records, from old late-night TV commercials hawking Time Life compilations of Vietnam-era songs. If a voice can be good-looking, Constable's is. Assured yet unguarded, the vocal says that this song will be heard. Just try turning it off after the first line—Yes I knew it was wrong when I came here. The singer's addressing his words to someone—there's a "you" other than the listener—but ultimately this song is about a turning away toward that river, back to the river, actually. 
There was love, there was hope, there was me somewhere
And I had to try to see
So I walked through the miles of the hate and the war
'Till I almost lost my dream
The river is where his home is, and where he can be free. The clich├ęs are just around the bend, of course: getting back to nature, the liberty promised there, the timelessness of currents and rural life. But the band risks the  triteness, or trusts the profundity of it all through the haze, and the melody that gets Constable there is simple, three or four notes, tops, and he rides it like a straight, familiar line to truths that exist before platitudes ruin them. Anyway, fuck banality says the chorus, which kicks the song in the ass with a bolting bass line, waves of crashing cymbals, righteous power chords, and stirring harmonies, sounding a bit like the MC5 might have at the exhausted end of a weed-heavy rehearsal. "Now I'm going home!" bellows someone, and it's both a declaration and a thrilling invitation. 

The second verse resumes the wandering, the dark an illusion where the singer could feel but not touch:
So I looked for a line in your dark world
Like a blind man follows sound
But the world ain't round and there is no sound...

The third verse entwines two melodies, braiding the first verse with new lines denouncing hate and announcing a long walk ahead, dryly confident, or anyway hopeful, in the face of setbacks. "Back To The River" can be read as an anti-Vietnam War song (Quinn and other band members were drafted and served in South Asia). The lyrics, from one angle, support that—the dissent and desire are tangible, yet the imagery in those lyrics, many phrases of which could've been said, or sung, by anyone in history standing along or ambling toward a river, and the gently-ascending verse melodies crashing against the onslaught of the chorus feel larger than a time- and date-stamped protest. I'd love to hear a band take on this song now; the right singer with the right band on the right night would step right into Constable's roving silhouette and find that they fit, the date on their birth certificate immaterial. 

"Back To The River" is a pop song that is of its era, and a pop song that transcends its era. It's the kind of paradox that I love to turn up. Which is in part why I haven't shaken the song, and hope never to. 

~~



Photo of Damnation of Adam Blessing by George Shuba

Thursday, January 26, 2023

New Places

In 1966 The Chicago Loop dragged the heartbreak song to a strange joint

"What you have to say—though ultimately all-important—in most cases will not be news. How you say it just might be." This wise observation comes from Charles Wright, who was thinking about form, as he often did. He was considering poetry, yet I've always found that his argument's applicable nearly everywhere where form meets content—which is, well, everywhere. Take heartbreak songs, for example. In the mid 1960s, conventional pop music forms were under direct assault—just glance at the Top 40 chart in any Billboard of the era and you'll see (and hear) songs rolling back the horizons, demanding to know what the pop song can do, not what it can't do. By the mid-60s songs about broken hearts had been composed in nearly every form and style, and in certainly every genre, yet they were still being challenged, reshaped by new, onrushing approaches to songwriting.

I picked up a 45 by The Chicago Loop last month. I confess I knew very little about the band. Helpfully, back in 2010 ace Chicago music archeologist Plastic Crimewave, aka Steven Krakow, filled in some of the blanks. The a-side "(When She Wants Good Lovin') My Baby Comes to Me" was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for the Coasters, who released it as a single in 1957. A tumultuous decade later, the Chicago Loop recorded a version for their debut single on DynoVoice, featuring in the studio guitarist extraordinaire Mike Bloomfield, keyboardist Barry Goldberg and three members of the rhythm section that backed Mitch Ryder on tour after he split the Detroit Wheels. The record was produced by Bob Crewe, the man behind the Four Seasons. 

Billboard was certainly enthusiastic. In a note in the October 8, 1966 "Pop Spotlights" column, riches and a Top 20 landing were forecast for the single:
In the event, the single made the Top 40, peaking at number 37. I dig the tune—it's an upbeat, excitable performance, the band swings and Bloomfield's licks are dynamite, but it's a little straight for my taste. I eagerly headed over to the b-side, where the freaks are usually hanging out. 

"This Must Be The Place" was co-written by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, a songwriting duo who'd been banging around the industry for a while with some success. By the middle of the decade they'd became interested in composing songs for movie soundtracks, and would strike gold the next decade landing hits on the soundtracks to the mega-smash disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure ("The Morning After") and The Towering Inferno ("We May Never Love Like This Again.") (Talk about of the era!) For "This Must Be The Place," Crew stepped aside, allowing Kasha to arrange and produce a nutty soundscape. Blending exotic horn and keyboard arrangements, an hallucinatory, feverish lyric, and some outlandish sonic details, they create nothing short of a demented carnival inside of a dreamlike interior.

The story itself is as old as dirt: the singer's got a broken heart. In his misery he staggers from home to find some relief and enters...a bar? Its unclear. The crazed Klezmer-like horns and loopy sound effects create a careening yet inviting atmosphere; it feels like the joint's upside down and you can see without seeing mad smiles on faces in the shadowy corners, but a place this insane might be just what he needs to erase his pain. "I thought of you with someone new" he confesses, "and then the pain began to hit. I needed somewhere I could hide and I knew that this was it." 

He's come for the promised cure, but his shudder's made clear in the song's opening bars. Swiftly the place devolves into mania: 
Saw a man all dressed in black and I fell back with surprise
I saw a girl reading old love letters and I saw tears in her eyes
The window shades were drawn to keep away a ray of sun
And a little man closed the door behind me in case I tried to run
He steels himself, but look: everyone here is "high in space, ‘cause they each had a different scene," and the music gets more and more bonkers as his head spins. When he muttered “Hello” at the door he didn't realize that he "broke an old routine"—a killer line evoking the convention-smashing headiness of the era. 

By the third verse he's openly weeping, and he cries all night, and into the next day. His tears bring some relief, though he's trapped inside the place for a week—and who knows what goes on in the verses that weren't written. On the seventh day he's allowed, or anyway he manages, to crawl out "from this burden." But succor is tough to find:
I fell on my cloud of memories and I headed for the door
To face the world of strangers and get knocked around once more
Great stuff. And a weird, weird song, equal parts amusing and scary—childlike, in the way that the innocent world can turn sinister without warning. (The lyrics are vivid enough that even an acoustic solo reading of the song would raise hair.) Lead singer Bob Slawson hits the perfect balance between drama and melodrama in his vocals, and I can virtually see the storyboard that Hirschhorn and Kasha presented the band in the studio, where their swirling, carnivalesque freakout blazed in glory. 

~~

As for The Chicago Loop, they would release three more singles ("Can't Find The Words" and "Richard Corey" in 1967, and "Technicolor Thursday" in '68) before vanishing. In a 1968 Billboard piece, Fred Kirby reported on the "new" Chicago Loop—they'd lost and gained musicians, and Slawson was the only original member—and though he was knocked out by their act at a two-week engagement at Arthur's discotheque and at Cafe Au Go Go in Manhattan, stage dynamism wasn't enough to keep the band firing. They left behind a small marvel with "This Must Be The Place," an ancient story told in a startling way—the very stuff of a pop era where surface artifice and radically explored interior spaces created new and vanguard art. Broken hearts were never the same.

The Chicago Loop


Photo by The Chicago Loop via Discogs

Friday, January 20, 2023

In praise of the derivative

If it moves ya, who cares about the source?
The Kaisers
Way back in the 16th century, humans recognized that which is "taken or having proceeded from another or others" as "secondary." And they duly named it. Derivative behavior is as old as dirt. I'm not sure when the negative connotations arrived, but "secondary" pretty much says it all.

If you're in the Rock as Art camp (I have annually-updated but provisional membership), then music should evolve, challenge, surprise musicians as well as listeners, forge new ground, destroy the past. Songs and albums should build upon on the last songs and albums, horizons should expand. Countless artists and bands have burned to the ground following the dreaded sophomore slump, their well dry, while countless others have lobbed toward Billboard a track conspicuously similar-sounding to their previous big hit, hoping that no one would notice—or rather, that everyone would notice, and open their wallets for another round.

I'm here to praise the derivative. Years ago, I caught the Kaisers at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, Illinois. I can't remember now where I'd heard of them, but I went expecting precisely what the band delivered: a note-for-note, gear-for-gear, pointy boot-for-pointy boot recreation of early 1960s Beat music. And, man, was it a blast. The Kaisers were fun, funny, and absurdly tight, and their stage patter delivered in thick Scottish accents only added to the vintage Northern verisimilitude. They'd stop mid-song and strike a spy-action-movie pose, holding their glinting vintage guitars like guns. Their cover tunes mined an appropriate blend of the well-known and the obscure, and their originals were catchy, utterly unoriginal. I had a great, beery time. If you never caught the Kaisers in person, here are couple clips to give you a feel, one from a 1993 Scottish television appearance and the other from a 1995 gig in Manchester.

Joyce Carol Oates said that outstanding writing "is not place- or time-bound," that it "survives the occasion of its original composition." This is true also of ground-breaking music that breaks molds, or creates ones that hadn't yet been made. But some songs have nervy ways of slipping free from imposed ways of defining their value, and they're among my favorites. Some time after the Kaisers show I picked up their 1995 album Beat It Up!, recorded in glorious mono by the inimitable Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios in London. Amidst a few ace ace covers ("Leave My Kitten Alone," "Let's Stomp") are some rip-roaring originals, including "She's Gonna Two Time," written by guitarist Matt Armstrong. One can easily listen to this tune and imagine a a 1963 or '64 U.K. band bashing it out, but I find it hard to do that only because I'm catching up to the song every time I play it and have little time to access, let alone frowningly care about, appropriation. The interplay between the sharp, ringing lead and chunky rhythm guitars, the open hi-hat—a sonic equivalent of a toothy grin—, the blissy manner in which the guitarist threads his way through the words in the bridge, the hoarse harmonies, the forward momentum of the whole damn thing, over in two and a half minutes, create such a joyous sound and movement that the song transcends its obvious influences. The only tradition it belongs to is "Songs, great."

Sure, the singer sounds a lot like early Lennon—so did Buddy Randall of the Knickerbockers in their sublime '65 hit "Lies," and we're still cranking that one. Sure, the mono production consciously evokes the four-track limitations of early '60s technology, and the arrangement screams late-night Hamburg. Like Sire-era Flamin Groovies, Utopia's smart, playful Beatles homage Deface The Music, and early Spongetones, the influences in "She's Gonna Two Time" arrive at your door decked out in the proper period look and gear, but are really here just to throw a party, at the end of which everything—and everyone—is so blurry from the fun and good times that "revivalism," "retro," and any slurred phrase beginning with "Neo" are beside the point. Pull wide and the only thing that matters is the fun, not how we got there. If we can listen to "She's Gonna Two Time" a hundred years from now, we're likely going to get off on the delight, not do the math to determine degrees of separation from Beatlemania.

Anyway, what I'm really here to praise is joy, wherever the hell you find it. Turn it up.

The Kaisers, "She's Gonna Two Time," Beat It Up! (1995)



Photo of The Kaisers by Masao Nakagami via flickr

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Sounds of shapes of things

Rest in Peace, Jeff Beck
It's unfortunate that the occasion of an artist's death often encourages us to revisit their work. It's also a gift. I pulled out some Yardbirds last night following the news of Jeff Beck's untimely death and, listening to "Shapes Of Things," it felt as if a blurry transparency had been lifted, and I was hearing the song new again. Which is appropriate, and the best tribute to Beck, really, whose futuristic, mind-bending playing during his twenty months with the Yardbirds was as new as new got even in the heady, dynamic world of mid-60s pop music, where startling sounds arrived and horizons rolled back at astonishing speed. 

"Shapes Of Things" was recorded in two sessions in late 1965 (at Chess Recording Studios in Chicago) and early 1966 (at Columbia Recording Studios in Hollywood) and released as a single in February of '66. It's difficult to re-hear a song I grew up with on "classic rock" radio and had hawked at me endlessly late at night on TV commercials. Yet Beck's death opened a door that I hadn't been aware of in a long time—going through, I found myself in the middle of the song's strangeness and thrills, a sound that at the time must've felt like an arrival from another world. It still does. Beck and guitarist Chris Dreja's playing shade the verses in a quasi-menacing, dark layers of distortion, power chords that glower behind Relf's politically-charged lyrics, set against the martial rhythm sections like a howling protester at an anti-war rally. (Samwell-Smith: "I just lifted part of a Dave Brubeck fugue to a marching beat.") The band locks in and kicks in at the raw, exciting chorus, one of the first passages in a rock and roll song I remember loving as a kid, and also being a little scared of with its anthemic power. 

Credited to drummer Jim McCarty, singer Keith Relf, and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, the song's authorship ignores Beck, but everyone knows that his contributions were crucial. That chorus devolves as the famous solo, where for thirty seconds Beck takes down the song, and his band, in a maelstrom of controlled feedback inside of a quasi-raga lead, McCarty and Samwell-Smith galloping to keep up with the new sound—a new song, really. Over in half a minute, the solo changes everything—the song itself, and also Billboard, the rest of the year if not the decade, and the interior lives of anyone listening who dares to let the song take them on its journey. Beck recalled in Alan Di Perna's Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits that "there was mass hysteria in the studio when I did that solo. They weren't expecting it and it was just some weird mist coming from the East out of an amp," adding that "[producer] Giorgio [Gomelsky] was freaking out and dancing about like some tribal witch doctor." If Beck had retired or otherwise vanished after his brief tenure in the Yardbirds, his reputation would still be secure for that half minute of playing. 

A great title—of a novel, a poem, a rock and roll song—always grows on a second glance: "Shapes Of Things" are what Relf, disgusted, sees metamorphosing in Vietnam, in a green world under assault, in his reeling perceptive mind; shapes are also what Beck conjures in his solo, best described as outlines or silhouettes of something vanguard and unheralded, frightening because they're unbidden and because they have something to say we may not want to hear. Whatever images you conjure during the stark, stuttering ending are the right ones. Songs can alter things for good. 

Of course, today, the words in the chorus:

Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
ring true in a different, sadder way, there being no more tomorrows for Beck, and utterly changed and grieving tomorrows for his friends and loved ones.

~~

"The right time to record is when you're not quite ahead of yourself." That's Beck. This morning I find that observation profoundly moving, as it glosses his playing in a brilliant and helpful way, the mind not yet caught up with what the spirit, through hands and fingers, can do, will do. Rest in peace Jeff Beck, a guitar visionary.


Bottom photo via Getty

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The promised land callin'

RJ Smith's bold new Chuck Berry biography is now the standard-bearer
"But finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality." 

So wrote James Baldwin in 1955, in “Autobiographical Notes," adding, in parentheses, "Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for."

~~

Chuck Berry was iconoclastic, preternaturally gifted, and fiercely driven. So large, he feels, six years after his death, like a fictional character. "The Originator," some figure from mythology.

The writer RJ Smith, then, faced quite a task. How to bring alive someone who to the average reader is more likeness than man? A doubled task: he's telling the story of a man in a time and for a culture that's growing impatient with the grossness behind the artist. Chuck Berry was an asshole, particularly in his final decades. Well-documented and well-known incidents and accusations abound of deplorable behavior set against the great music. It helps that Smith has great affection for his subject, warts and all. Faced with the task of presenting a dimensional Berry, Smith wisely avoids a hagiographic, defensive airbrushing of Berry's character, as well as a pious condemnation of it. Simply: Smith reports, from a distance, wryly dramatizing Berry as a gifted, flawed, nonetheless engrossing character, the kind of person we find compelling in a novel or in a prestige drama. 

In some ways Chuck Berry: An American Life is a difficult book to review. While writing I feel as if I'm recreating a lively conversation I had with someone on a long night, affectionately recalling the talking points the next morning, still smiling at his bright, witty turns of phrase. Smith's writing ebbs and flows on currents of talk, moving from insight to insight, sometimes surprisingly, the connections implied rather than stated. By the end, Chuck Berry is a necessary, powerful, often moving look at an important American artist, and is clearly now the standard bearer of Berry biographies.

Smith
Chuck Berry is a story about music and race, form indivisible from content. It could not have been about anything else. As with many biographies about (and autobiographies from) wildly successful artists, the tension produced in the opening chapters, where the subjects struggle to identify themselves and to be identified, moving hungrily from one long-odds shot to the next, slackens in the final third, as the subjects' risks are often smaller, less charged, and usually less interesting. Yet the essential struggle for Berry—that of living a life of liberty on his own terms as a Black man—never goes away, it only softens at the edges, mutates into something arguably less offensive as the fame and the money arrive. 

Berry never stopped working. In this supremely well-researched book, Smith recounts gig after gig spanning the globe, well into Berry's late years, a careerist drive in part planted by his hard-working father, and in part native to Berry anyway. He felt that he had many things to prove to many people, to his numerous backing bands, his label, his fans, women. He never ceased enacting out those demands, and Smith follows these impulses from Berry's adolescence through his fame, foregrounding Berry's motivations against a background of strife, from segregation and Jim Crow to Black Lives Matter. Berry's struggles to define himself, at times arrogantly, against popular culture even as he was embraced by that culture is the book's true subject.

The songs and the recording sessions are, of course, also here, nearly always explored as reactions on Berry's part to the complex world around him, a world to which he wanted—demanded—full access. Hence his famous songs about moving, going, and arriving on the singer's own terms, half grinning as he plays. Smith's takes on the cultural importance of a Black man driving, and being seen in, a Cadillac are informed and powerful, and add dimension to Berry's songs the way great criticism should. To Berry, the long road offers much and promises little to a Black person who dares to steer his own car forward. 

~~

Three passages about three seminal Berry tunes—"Let It Rock," "Promised Land," and "Rock and Roll Music"—illustrate Smith's intelligent and sensitive takes on Berry's music, on its daringness and uniqueness, clear and profound thinking that is characteristic of the book:

From the start, "Promised Land" feels tossed off, musically and lyrically, and that’s a big part of its power. It arrives like another Chuck Berry road song and rings with artless sincerity, a friendly character eager to tell his story. It could be a superior version of “Route 66,” a road trip full of place names and featuring one fresh plot device—a mob in the rearview mirror.
 ...

“Let It Rock"... [is] rock & roll if anything is, not to mention A People’s History of the United States with [pianist] Johnnie Johnson accompaniment.
 ...

A funny thing happens in the last verse of "Rock and Roll Music.” Berry sings, “It's way too early for the congo, so keep a rockin’ that piano.” What’s that about? He probably means to say too early for a conga. That dance step fits with the mambo and tango he’s mentioned, and it's too early to go dancing because it’s not night yet. But Chuck Berry doesn’t make many mistakes with his words, and if he chose to say congo instead of conga, it has meaning.

Smith goes on to mention "the place called Congo Square, which Berry might even have seen when he traveled through New Orleans the year before and again about a month before he recorded 'Rock and Roll Music'," observing that "the conga drum was played there, in the one space in New Orleans where enslaved people could play drums on Sunday."

The conga that comes from the Congo. A oneness, then, among the sound and place. All of which underscores how “Rock and Roll Music” steers the music forward and backward in time. This will be something you will want to be a part of, he begins by cheering. Then he says: this backbeat is ancient, and lived long before Elvis Presley.

I hear Berry take on discrimination in "It's My Own Business," his drolly-sung single from 1965 (it also appeared on his album Fresh Berry's). By this point Berry was revered not only by his normal faithful but by fans with names like Lennon, Dylan, and Jagger. He was worldwide-present. And yet: "I am tired of you telling me what I ought to do / Stickin' your nose in my business and it don't concern you." And that's the opening line. The rest of the lyric reads as thinly veiled autobiography, especially after Smith's book. Just beyond the rim of the spinning 45 are the white supremacist know-it-alls ("Seems like the ones that want to tell you / They don't ever know as much as you"), the cultural snobs ("If I go buy a Cadillac convertible coupe / And all I got at home to eat is just onion soup / It's my own business"), the pious ("After workin' on my job and then drawin' my pay / If I want to go out and have a ball and throw it all away / It's my own business"). And authority at large: because the singer's "not a juvenile," he can "go out at my own free will,"
'Cause I don't wait until tomorrow
To do something I could do today

For Berry, authority at large came in one color.

~~ 

I'm not suggesting here that Smith sacrifices the ecstasy of Berry's music for cultural analysis. The songs are here, their magic and their thrills evoked. Smith has great ears, a fan's set of ears, and he gets, and gets at, the shifting dynamics of song-making, the transparencies that musicians in the same room lay on top of what each other's playing, the semi-nods to all around acknowledging that what they've got going is good, maybe even new. Smith's especially well-tuned to pianist Johnnie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon, drummer Ebby Hardy, and the other musicians crucial to Berry's early and ascendent sound. (Happily, Smith keeps the long overdue Johnnie Johnson revival going with this book. His writing about him is warm and respectful.) His portrait of Berry is of an artist who forged new paths and followed those paths into a life imagined but not articulated by the millions of fans who, delighted to be there, followed their hero up those trails. He got there via rock and roll. Here's Smith on the early stirrings:

Extraordinary to think of the voodoo that happened when folks heard an electric guitar with their feet for the first time, flooding their spines, connecting them to every other spine in the barn. Extraordinary, as well, to think about a human strong enough to invoke that state again and again, hundreds of times a year. It was a form of play from the start, your hands opening up spaces that radiated a shocking form of love, of wildness, lawlessness within community. It was better than work, harder than work. Not work.

Great stuff. His account of Berry showing up unannounced at Circle Jerks gig to play is perhaps my favorite passage in the book, a moving illustration of the profound generational influence Berry had (and has) and of Berry's eternal love for plugging in and playing the guitar onstage, not to mention getting off on screwing around with whatever band had the courage to back him. The unlikely Circle Jerks had no choice that night at the Mississippi Nights club, and their punk energy and plucky attitude floored Berry, improbably, who made it known to the band, in his style, that they were one of the best he'd ever witnessed. He didn't need to say that to them.
~~

But what of the Mann Act, the years in prison, the "toilet sex" tapes, the decades of infidelities, the unauthorized photos of sexual debauchery, much of it mean-spirited on Berry's part? Smith reports it all, does not defend any of it, adds the material to Berry's outsized strangeness and stubbornness. He documents the protests at Berry's funeral. Leaning in at the margins is the feeling that, whatever Berry's compulsions, sexism, and nastiness, his life was simply tougher to live out than others', a burden less to do with the intrusions of fame than with the daily, deadening drumbeat of racism, which from the onset put Berry at odds with living the kind of liberal, indulgent life that it was his desire—his choice—to live. "Racism and sexual freedom fused," Smith observes of Berry, "moving with him wherever he played." There's no forgiveness on Smith's part for what Berry delicately called his "peccadilloes," but then I don't think that Smith feels his biography is the place for pardoning anyway. "What we have is more interesting," he writes near the end. 
A choice of threading through the details of his life or working around them completely—your call!—and simply hearing him. To pull the joy and poetry out of the music he created and have it take us where it wants to go—not where he went. To live our lives with it, and not live his life. That's a lot.
James Baldwin also wrote, "This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of this disorder of life that order which is art." Berry's fierce focus was on his bottom-line, his guaranteed pre-show bags of cash, on not asking permission to take what he wanted, what he knew was his, what his art gave him. His American life. Berry smoothed the sharp edges of disorder, the unruly elbows it threw, into promises of movement and purpose for as overwhelmingly white audience for whom the roads were always far more hospitable. "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening," he told an interviewer. Yet, always there—noxiously in his early life, implied in some of the songs, veiled but not vanquished by his fame and fortune—was racism. 

At one point Smith describes Berry as "Rock 'n’ roll’s Black best friend," a pretty brilliant summation of the place Berry found himself as other white artists cashed in on his material. "The Beatles and Stones placed his songs with young listeners and then poured out their gratitude in interviews," Smith writes. "How did it it feel, he would be asked over and over in the years to come, to have the Beatles play your songs? There was an expectation from white interviewers that he would be publicly grateful for the acknowledgement. He had worked for years to distinguish himself against all others and perhaps now it was starting to seem that he had lost the distinction, that he was a barely seen content producer enabling others to express themselves." 

Chuck Berry outlived rock & roll, Smith argues, and he now seems "less like a rocker and more than ever simply a representative American artist. He had a vision of a country that did not exist, and he willed it into life. A place where anybody might want to live."

His reward? "A day pass and a warning that it was best he not hang around after sundown."


Photo of Smith by Madeleine Burman-Smith / Courtesy of Hachette; bottom photo of Berry via Globe Photos/Zuma

Saturday, December 31, 2022

Having fun onstage with Lydia

Down at the Rock and Roll Club #34
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I was happy to round out the year with Lydia Loveless and her band in a loose, intimate show at Golden Dagger, a tiny box of a venue in Chicago. I hadn't seen Loveless for years, and was pleased to watch her play, and goof around, with the same fellas from last time, guitarist and keyboard players Jay Gasper and Todd May and drummer George Hondroulis, along with bassist Mark E Commerce. In addition to their rhythm section, the band fit three guitarists—well, four, if you count Gasper's twelve-string—on a postage stamp-sized "stage" winkingly cordoned off with a toy-size velvet rope. Wedge in two keyboards and it was a tight fit under the lights. The old pals hit a warm groove from the opening number,  and Loveless made the small space her own. The joint was sold-out (she's playing there again tonight) and the crowd was attentive and grateful, singing her songs right back to her. The woman behind me had flown in from Brooklyn for the show.

Loveless played several songs from her most recent album, 2020's Daughter ("Love Is Not Enough" killed) as well as a handful from Real (2016) and Somewhere Else (2014). She introduced "Daughter," an emotionally complex and personal song, as being about reproductive rights, and "Sex and Money," a new song, as about "being poor and thinking about sex a lot." (So too was the band, apparently; the evening abounded with innocently smutty jokes. Life on the road.) Later she remarked of another new song: "it's about health care," then stopped, screwed up her face and chuckled, and said, "and it's about breaking up with someone," adding, "All my songs are about breaking up with someone, and then worrying about health care." It was funny—it got a laugh—but it's also genuinely true, as she writes songs that navigate the complicated politics of a woman's body, from desire and surrender to autonomy and self-reliance. "Fuck this country," she was heard to mutter at one point.

Loveless wore a spangly top, black pants, and sparkly boots. A couple of days ago she cut her hair to somewhere between a pixie and a crew cut, which makes her seem even more diminutive, and even more arresting as she belted out her songs. Her terrific band plays with loose-limbed, frayed-at-the-edges comfort, Gasper the class clown in a Metro hoodie, cracking jokes, leaning into Loveless to grinningly mock a melody hook, bandana-wearing May with an air of distraction, absorbed with his beat-up Fender, at a few points crouching on the stage to play a small keyboard. He seemed fascinated with it all. 

The band orbits Loveless, who was equal parts flip and self-deprecating. At the close of the opening number, she stepped back and tripped/stumbled, mouthed "Oh shit!", and laughed merrily—this set the mood for a band that plays serious songs about romance and messiness without ever taking themselves too seriously. Despite Loveless's trademark poignant songs, material devoted to love and loss, the night was fun, and also funny, the musicians goofing around between (and during) songs, suggesting there's a thin line between life in the van and life onstage with this group. During several songs her tour manager Michelle Sullivan hopped onstage to sing back-up (and groove and wave a plastic flower), following one song taking drink orders for the band; "waitress, tour manager, whatever," she muttered to me as she smilingly headed to the bar. 

Loveless's records are great; onstage, her personality, which is often channeled through personae in her songs, emerges, and she's a blast. Midway through the show someone behind me yelled for her nervy 2011 ditty "Steve Earle," but she flatly refused. "I'll never play that song again," before adding, "Don't video this 'cause he might see on the internet and I'd feel bad." Her blend of vulnerability and no-shits-to-give is very appealing. I once wrote about her voice: "Her twang usually arrives snapping off the end of a line, as a kiss-off or a heartbreak, sassy or vulnerable, depending on the mood." She's lost a bit of that twang on her newer material, which is more polished than her her noisier, rawer Bloodshot stuff, but that shifting mood remains, and the hard edges return onstage. Walking a line, she delivers moving and lasting songs. Highlights included "Poor Boy," "Real," an affecting "Wringer" during a brief solo set, "Summer Lover," which she announced she'd written for a songwriting workshop she teaches as an attempt to produce "a sweet love song," and "Bilbao," which, half-lamenting, she remarked is about the breakup of her marriage and yet's a song that everyone wants her to play "at weddings and shit." Such are the dimensions her songs assume, inside of which she, despite her casual air onstage, loses herself, and reemerges often visibly moved.

Her humor's as earnest as her songs are thoughtful. She ended one long tune by opening her eyes, stepping to the mic, and then, gathering herself in a very Loveless guise of humor and melancholy, said "Intensity! Whoo!" Then she smiled and apologized.




Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Loud at any volume

How the Dave Clark Five went BOOM in the studio
I'm always astounded at how booming Dave Clark Five songs are, especially their early tracks, especially on their 45s. Hell, even their ballads were loud. I pulled out "Glad All Over" the other night, but, as great as that song is, I was struck this time around by the flip side, which I hand't cranked in a while. "I Know You" makes a lot of noise in its detonated two minutes. 

The "Tottenham Sound" was made for the 45, a format that, in short, is hospitable to volume with its wider grooves and faster rotation. As explained at the essential Classic 45 site, in 1948 RCA engineers via a "precise optimization procedure" determined the speed at which a seven-inch single rotates, "given vinyl groove dimensions and certain assumptions about bandwidth and tolerable distortion." Their figures revealed that "the optimum use of a disc record of constant rotational speed occurs when the innermost recorded diameter is half the outermost recorded diameter." This is why a 7-inch single has a label that's 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Genius! The 33-1/3 12-inch album format, developed later by Columbia Records, "was a compromise that attempted to fit more music on a single disc, accepting the [sound] limitations." In order to cram singles and tossed-off tracks onto an LP, "a wide dynamic range or amplitude have to be reduced in level, otherwise they can damage adjacent channel grooves."

In the case of 45s, the cutting engineer has more available surface area and a greater rotation speed to play with, since he only has one track to worry per side. The higher rotation speed of 45 RPM allows for a wider frequency response, and the larger available surface area allows for less compression of any signals with a wide amplitude. Bass is an example of a wide amplitude signal that sounds better on 45. Overtones and high treble are also better.

45s literally move faster than LPs, thus more can be squeezed into the grooves. Essentially: "More bumps and grooves created in pressing a 45 means better audio quality." And BOOM goes the Dave Clark Five—not to mention most those great-sounding records exploding from transistor radios in the 1960s. The sheer wallop of "I Know You" is extraordinary, from the rumbling low end through the aggressive mid-range and chiming high end. Guitarist Lenny Davidson's kicks things off with a snarling, dirty riff that wraps around the song, barely containing the grinning mayhem of Clark's pounding drumming and Rick Huxley's bass, which positively throbs (especially through headphones), and the toweringly stacked vocals. The song's so loud—so heavy—that the change at the bridge threatens to topple over the whole thing. Good thing it's over in only a hundred and twenty seconds. 

~~

The Dave Clark Five benefitted mightily from the staff with whom they worked at Lansdowne Studios, in London, where they demoed and recorded their key early material. "Built in 1958 by producer Dennis Preston and engineers Joe Meek and Adrian Kerridge, the studio was housed in Lansdowne House, a former artist apartment complex constructed in 1904 in the Holland Park section of London," Matt Hurwtiz wrote at Mix. Kerridge had helped the legendary Meek build the studio in the late-50s. I was unaware of the Five/Meek connection, and it makes perfect sense: Meek was obsessed with the possibilities of studio recording and sound engineering, and Kerridge carried the torch. (Don't look now, but the studio that was rough enough for the Dave Clark Five and the Sex Pistols is now a high-end triplex apartment. Alas.)

Clark loved Kerridge, thought he was "brilliant" and "a master," and especially dug that Kerridge, after Meek, strove to capture a live sound at Lansdowne. Dave Clark Five shows were legendary in their stomping mania and energy transference between band and crowd, and Clark and his band were eager to in the studio to replicate, or at least catch the vibe of, their shows. "We were basically a live band," Clark said. "So I believed we should try to get a live sound.” Hurwitz relates a great detail: "Key to the experience of a Dave Clark Five show at the Tottenham [Royal, a concert venue) was a bit of audience participation, typically involving a Clark drum break, getting the audience stomping their feet in time to his playing."
“I’d actually pay somebody five pounds to go switch all the lights on and off in the ballroom, in time with the stomps,” he says. “That’s what gave Mike and I the idea for ‘Glad All Over,’” whose chorus features a can’t-help-yourself “bomp-bomp” chorus.
Another advantage to working at Lansdowne was the band and Kerridge's ability to push everything into the red, needles aquiver as the band stomped and roared. Because Clark independently produced his recordings and leased the masters to labels, his band weren't beholden to a particular studio's rules and regulations common to the industry. (Think of George Martin and Norman Smith's early reluctance to get loud at Abbey Road.) “We took it to the limit,” Clark acknowledged. “And if we hadn’t been independent, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. But I just felt you needed to re-create that excitement that you got when you were playing live.” Another great detail that Hurwitz shares is Clark's alertness to his band going slack over multiple recording takes. “We’d never go more than three takes on a song,” Clark says. “I always believed that if you went through any more than that, it becomes automatic. If we went through three takes and didn’t get it, we would just stop and go down to the pub for a beer, and then come back and try it again.”

That bonkers reverb so familiar on the early Five recordings was attained via two chambers at Lansdowne: "a true reverb chamber, designed and built by Meek and Kerridge, used most typically, and another, which took advantage of the old brick building’s tall stairwell, with mics at each end."
“We usually used the reverb chamber, but we would occasionally use the stairwell version, for special effect,” Kerridge explains.

“It had a great sound,” Clark notes, “but if a resident came down the stairs while you were using it, you had to start all over.” Adds Kerridge, “It would upset the residents when we’d use it. They used to get angry.”
All of this—needles in the red, a lager-loosened band, pissed-off neighbors—amounted to some great and eternal rock and roll. Go ahead and crank this upload of my ancient and lovingly-worn 45. You don't really have a choice. It'll be loud at any volume.


Photograph of The Dave Clark Five in Lansdowne Studios via PBS; live photograph by Raymond J. Lustig Jr. via Milwaukee Journal 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Thursday, December 15, 2022

When the world is wrong

The Free released only one single, and what a marvel it was
I'd been watching the Free's "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" 45 in an eBay auction; I lost out, but was able to grab a copy (for less than what I would've paid in auction) via Discogs. Either way, its arrival feels fated. Occasionally a song makes contact through the ether and rearranges things.

The Free's scant history has been unearthed by the usual intrepid sleuths; the folks at Garage Hangover and Kossoff1963 tell the story here and here, respectively. In short, the Free were short-lived. Detroit-based, the band included guitarist Joe Memmer and singer Dave Gilbert, who together wrote "Decision For Lost Soul Blue." Area radio DJ Tom Shannon owned and operated Marquee Records with Nick Ameno and Carl Cisco, the latter of whom also managed Shannon and earned a production credit on the single, which was cut at Tera Shirma Studios. Released at the end of 1968, "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" enjoyed regional success, including a three-week stand as the “Pick of the Week” on CKLW. The major label Atco took interest in the local buzz, and in March of 1969 this good thing happened:

Alas, despite the national distribution push from Atlantic, a Billboard mention, and a title change, the single vanished from the charts soon after, enduring the all-too-common fate of glorious misses: a future of used record stores, thrift shops, online marketplaces, shuffling among hands of avid collectors, and  appearances on obscure compilation albums, including Psychotic Moose And The Soul Searchers and Sklash—Rare Tracks From The Psychedelic Aera, both ‎in 1982, and, more recently, Garage Daze: American Garage Rock from the 1960's ‎in 2017. The Free split up within twelve months of releasing the single, their only record. Within a couple of years, Memmer and Gilbert were working together again in Shadow; Memmer has gone on to play and tour with several groups, while Gilbert, who died in 2001, at one point toured with Ted Nugent and later joined New Order with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s drummer Dennis Thompson. He also sang with the Rockets.

What an astonishing single the Free left behind. Before the song begins, the title declaims. The tune's a soundtrack to a resolution of sorts, music to decide by. Who's Blue? (And did they at an earlier junction mean Blues?) It was the era of lost souls, Summer of Love realists, early acid casualties. The opening ten seconds give the impression of things elevating, and it sounds as if we're escaping something, tom drum to rhythm and wah-wah guitars, eighth notes propelling things upward. Then the singer arrives, and the litany of complaints, or heavy-lidded observations: the generation's wrong, he's sittin' home wonderin', people are turning their backs on each other, doctor can you help? The chorus is sung in  drone, and things are laid out starkly:
This is wrong, that is wrong
What do you do when the world's wrong?
The second verse is less articulate—a shrugging anti-answer maybeeeeee is stretched out over three bars, answered by its anguished cousin don't ever know a few long bars later—but doom's still in the air. Everything feels a little more complicated, things churn. The chorus returns, and feels more dimensional now, but the answer to "What do you do?" feels further away than ever.

Something remarkable happens next. At the 1:40 mark a shriek tears at the fabric of the song, and nothing short of a different song begins. The rhythm section begin an aggressive, four-on-the-floor drone-march while for just over a minute the guitarists—one screeching in fuzz, the other answering in wah-wah, both languages foreign to the singer but native to the song—drag the song into a darker place. On some listens it gives the impression of a randomly plotted acid trip—many songs of the era attempted to sonically reproduce such a thing—, on other listens it feels as if two things inhuman have landed onto and into the song, electrified and amplified, arguing. Nothing's solved. But it sounds great loud. Viva Detroit.

The third verse repeats the laments of the first, and to my ears the final chorus somehow sounds prettier, even though the song's disgusted with the world, and jaded in the face of the thin promises offered by culture, friends, drugs. But the melody's nice, and that's something, if not an answer.

~~

"Decision For Lost Blue" was not a hit, did not unite millions of listeners and take its place in the open-air festival culture. It was not used numbingly often on soundtracks of films twenty years later "set in the Sixties." That was the Free's bad luck. It's my great luck. Because the song was not embalmed with the others of the era that are hauled out as Classic Rock, Oldies, Nuggets—you know them, are already humming them, I don't need to mention them—the song feels, is, fresh to my ears, and is in a very real and accurate sense undated. I've only recently discovered it. I don't have to blow off decades of tiresome, sentimental bullshit about the decade, didn't have to endure an actress in a flower power costume selling it to me on a Time-Life commercial, suffer its misuse in car or medication ads, or watch as an eleventh-generation Free Featuring One Original Member hauls out the song on tour. (Though that might've been nice for him.)

I watch the single spinning on my turntable in real time, turn up the volume, close my eyes and am timeless, out of time, with the song's eternal question: what to do when the world is wrong? Of the era, indeed.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

On Tommy Keene

My latest for The Normal School
Tommy Keene left us five years ago. In my latest for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine I wrote at length about his career, music, and the beautiful melancholy I hear threading through so many of his songs.

(You can read my other Normal School music essays here.)

Photo (detail) by Chris Rady

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Sincerely, your beloved son...

One of Chuck Berry's greatest car songs took the form of a letter to Dad
Berry and muse, in repose in 2011. Photo by Danny Clinch.
Chuck Berry released "Dear Dad" on March 15, 1965, his 38th single for Chess. It cracked the Top 100, idling at the 95 spot for a month. It's always been one of my favorite Berry tunes, a post-peak gem that tells a witty story with a great punch line while rocking slyly. Berry recorded the tune on December 16, 1964 at the Ter-Mar Recording Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, with a band led by the guitarist Jules Blattner, who Berry knew from seeing him play in the St. Louis area. With Blattner, bassist William L. Bixler, and drummer Howard Jones backing Berry, the performance motorvates along nicely, Jones's chugging backbeat especially propulsive as Berry plays a groovy and grooving syncopated car-horn riff in the verses (there is no chorus); somehow the thing both rocks and teeters. (I recently scored a copy of the 45, posted below, and the mono mix puts the anemic stereo mix to shame. Berry and the band also cut the loose-limbed "I Want To Be Your Driver" at these sessions, both tunes appearing on Chuck Berry in London in 1965.) 

In the tradition of the epistolary, Berry writes from the perspective of Henry Ford's son, who's desperate for a new car but who's afraid to ask for one, Berry merging the idiosyncratic with the universal, his super power. (He also knew that the family dynamic is one of the great issues in American art, the rock and roll 45 no less.) The premise alone—that even Ford's son is relegated to driving a piece of shit like every other teenager in America who can't afford a better car—is hilarious and fresh. Junior knows that if he's going to approach the old man, then his argument better be tight. He respectfully placates Dad at first ("don't be mad") and then in a long anxious breath lays out the dire mechanical issues, with one hilarious image-phrase after another: I might as well be walking; if I ain't going downhill I'm out of luck; if I push to 50 this here Ford will nosedive; cars whizzing past me look like I'm backing up. Fantastic. The whole argument's over in under two minutes. We never get Pop's return letter.

Berry was infamous taskmaster to his pickup bands, who were often treated churlishly, yet it's virtually impossible to hear this and not imagine grins on all of the musicians' faces as they rev tup. It's an essentially perfectly written rock and roll song; though the band sounds a tad underrehearsed, and the sloppy-even-for-1960s-Berry guitar solos feel a bit tossed off, to my ears the off-the-cuff performance conjures the car itself coming apart at the seams. (Like many rock and roll fans of my generation, I was introduced to the song via Dave Edmunds, who released a version on D.E 7th in 1982. His take is respectful, yet just as wittily rocking: he adds some period reverb and tidies up Berry's solos, offering one of them to pianist Geraint Watkins, whose winking glissando in the third verse mimics the Ford's "nose dive.")

~~

Casting around for some diversions as I recover from Covid, I got the idea of transposing the song's lyrics as a hand-written letter. Unsurprisingly, the translation from lyrics sheet to scrawled note was effortless, Berry's vernacular perfectly capturing that cracking voice of an average teenager sweating out a letter to a parent asking for something they know they probably won't get. Read it aloud without the song—it works and sounds like a letter, too, so tuned was Berry's ear to the music in everyday speech. Berry's genius was so distinctive and dimensional as to seem epic, larger-than-life, when really what he did—superbly, poignantly, hilariously, and seemingly casually—was to capture that male adolescent perennially poised between stuck-at-home and bound-for-the-road, as American, as universal, really, as anything there is. As Berry himself once said, "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening."


Friday, November 25, 2022

Johnny Thunder, doin' his thing

"At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point." That's John Peel, who knew a good rock and roll song when he heard it. He obviously knew something about the mysteries inside of one, also. Lately I've been marveling at Johnny Thunder's storming version of Tommy James and The Shondells' "I'm Alive." I'm not choosing sides here—each version's killer in its own way—yet the differences between the two are stark. One's an earnest, feel-good anthem, the other's nothing less than a conflagration. 

By the end of the 1960s, Thunder (real name Gil Hamilton) had released over twenty singles; his biggest hit was "Loop De Loop," which reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. None of his succeeding sides were nearly as successful. He moved on from Diamond Records to Calla Records where he teamed up with producer Teddy Vann to cut "I'm Alive" in 1968, released before James' version (which would appear as the b-side to "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and on side two of Crimson and Clover). Billboard mentions "I'm Alive" in the March 15, 1969 issue, where it placed the single in its "Top 60 Spotlight," the place where 45s "predicted to reach the top 60 of the HOT 100 chart" gathered, hopeful. James is credited as Arranger and provider of "Musical Concept," but his considerable commercial fairy dust couldn't propel "I'm Alive" to the top of the charts, or even near it. (A month later, Ed Ochs, in his "Soul Sauce" column in the April 19th Billboard, singles out Thunder, "moving with his first Calla release," and then notes that the singer "is up for the lead in a film, Two-Sided Triangle." To my knowledge, that movie never materialized.) 

Perhaps Thunder's "I'm Alive" was just too hot for the Hot 100. His version is pitched slightly higher than James', and so moves a bit more urgently. Whether this was intentional or a mistake in the mastering process is beside the point. And how is that the fuzz guitar snarls more menacingly in his version? Singing boldly in front of the Shondells' backing track, Thunder makes the song his on his own profoundly moving terms. Trading on his gospel church singing experience as an adolescent raised in central Florida, he transforms the original into a fierce and deeply felt declaration of pride and self-worth, belting out the words as if he himself had written them. Listen to the way he bites off the end of the title phrase in the opening line: he's hear to exclaim, and to prove something, the emotional source as much righteous anger as it is gratitude. James and co-writer Peter Lucia, the Shondells' drummer, were aware of strong new currents in the charged air, singing wisely, if naively, that long hair and racial differences ("I'm red and yellow and black and tan, I'm a man") were merely a distraction. Yet a black man singing these words in 1968 fundamentally changes those words, adds dimension to what in James' voice sound like bromides, however keen and well-intentioned.

~~
Thunder delivered two seismic changes to "I'm Alive." In a ten-bar middle, he strides to the mic and fills a voiceless passage with a heavy-funk call-and-a-response riding Mike Vale's syncopated bass. Building in intensity, with sensuous moans, growls, and guttural affirmations, the passage leads to an explosion of release with the phrase "I'm a man"—a nearly-unhinged statement of purpose more electrifying than anything he'd sung even a minute before. 

In the Shondells version, James, a devotee of hooks and a songwriter and fascinated with the ear-bending possibilities of pop radio, halts things at the two minute mark, allowing for several daring seconds of radio silence before the band reenters. But this vocal arrangement was far too timid for Thunder, who's got work to do and things to say. What he sings, in a duet with himself—who else would understand things better?—
I'm no stone—I'm alive
And I'm no rock—I'm alive
No piece of metal, y'all
simply and powerfully reduces the song's argument to fundamentals, a simple, clear, and affecting cry for the recognized humanity of the singer, of anyone oppressed. This wasn't theatrical showiness. Various events during the tumultuous months that followed the release of "I'm Alive" offer context: on April 19th, Afro-American Society (AAS) members occupied Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University, protesting judicial unfairness and curriculum injustices during a fraught, potentially violent Parents Weekend; on June 28th, 1969, the groundbreaking Stonewall Riots began in Greenwich Village; on October 29, 1969 the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of every remaining segregated Southern school. Battles for dignity and basic human rights were sounding loudly. Thunder, his voice inadvertently soundtracking burned-out cities and passionate dissent, joined the chorus, muscling "I'm Alive" into one of the most mighty and rocking anthems of the era, detonating a social message the fuse of which lay in James and Purcia's original.

~~

Bob Dylan recently released The Philosophy of Modern Song, his quirky and personal take on the multitude of stories told in songs. I wish that he'd recalled "I'm Alive" when he was writing the book. In an interview in the November 29, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, he was asked by editor Jann Wenner if there was anything in current rock and roll that struck him as good.

"Yeah," Dylan drawled. "I heard a record by Johnny Thunder. It's called 'I'm Alive'."
Never heard it either, huh? Well, I can't believe it. Everyone I've talked to, I've asked them if they've heard that record.

Is it on the radio right now?

I don't know. I heard it on the radio a month ago, two months ago . . . three months ago. It was one of the most powerful records I've ever heard. It's called "I'm Alive." By Johnny Thunder. Well, it was that sentiment, truly expressed. That's the most I can say . . . if you heard the record, you'd know what I mean.
I know what he means. I hear it new every time I play one of my most cherished 45s.
Johnny Thunder, Tommy James and The Shondells, ca. 1969