Thursday, August 11, 2022

The family paradox

The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our parents, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves in relation to them and wrestling with their at-times outsized influence on us. The artist Joe Schactman died in 2000 when his daughter Lilly Dancyger was 12. In her tough, affecting memoir Negative Space, Dancyger explores the pull that her father has on her in both his presence and absence. 

Many memoirs, especially contemporary ones, are variations on the K├╝nstlerroman, the story of how a writer comes into being. Dancyger has lived with art all of her life. Her father was a vagabond sculptor/painter, often using found objects such as tossed hardware, roadkill, and parts of bird corpses in his jarring, sometimes disturbing, work. He remained stubbornly outside of the East Village art scene of the 1980s and '90s. He was also a heroin addict, and left Dancyger's mother, an addict who cleaned up, when Dancyger was small. Dancyger maneuvers among these biographical data points, assembling meaning as she ping-pongs from one truth to the next. Early on she writes, "They say all the cells in your body regenerate every seven years. When I turned twenty, my father had been dead for eight—so if that theory is true, no cell in my body had ever been on the planet at the same time as him." She adds, "I'd changed, cell by cell, into a person he never knew." Charged by this startling realization, Dancyger feels compelled to learn the ways that that person unknown to her father might've been shaped by him.

Throughout Negative Space, Dancyger wrestles with paradox, that stubbornly human dilemma that marks most thoughtful and searching memoirs. "Once again," she observes near the middle of her book, "I was faced with the feeling that by living my life, I was abandoning my father, that each milestone I reached brought me further and further away from him." Written over many years, her book is an attempt to bridge that gap, yet, as countless writers have recognized before her, by writing the book she widens the gap between herself and her subject, that weird discovery that dawns at some point in the writing process: the further we're distanced from our family they clearer we might be able to see them.

Three paradoxes rule the book; call them the Paradox of Family. Dancyger's mother Heidi was sexually abused when she was young, a truth that she confessed to her daughter; she also admitted that her husband, Lilly's father, insisted on having sex with her even she was working through the traumas with her therapist. "I knew that my father adored my mother, thought she was unbelievably beautiful and constantly stopped to admire her. But I never realized there was such an ugly side to this admiration, that it was a sometimes violent, possessive love."

I strained to visualize that dark side, and I waited. I waited for something in me to shatter, for my memory of him to shift—I waited for my idealized, mythologized vision of my father to distort now that I knew about this selfish, coercive side of him. I felt like it should. But it didn’t.

Dancyger writes powerfully about that discomfiting fact that we can be both repelled by and forgiving of a loved one: echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous definition of intelligence, she admits that she somehow "could hold these two images in my mind at once: the brutish, demanding husband who compounded his young wife’s sexual trauma: and my father, endless source of art supplies and projects, who used to wink at me with conspiratorial glee after making references to inside jokes, even when we were alone." The two Joe's lived together in Dancyger's mind, obstinately so, "butting up against each other, contradicting each other, but neither erased the other. I could see more, could see deeper into the story, but the parts I remembered and cherished remained unchanged. Like the frame of the image expanded to show more around the edges, but what had always been at the center stayed the same."

Bound as much to her responsibilities as a writer as to her obligations as a daughter, Dancyger admits that  "Something in [her] mind" sheltered her memory of her father "by walling it off from this idea of him as an antagonist; [she] created a whole other version of him, like a separate character, distinct form the father I loved." We're talking about candid, brave writing here, and its requirements; as so many memoirs do, Negative Space ends up being a book as much about writing as it is about anything else. If Family is the great subject of contemporary American memoir, so is the journey of writing itself. 

Joe Schactman and Lilly Dancyger, San Fransisco, ca. 1996 (via Negative Space)

And that journey's usually fraught. Similar to Alison Bechdel's epiphany in Fun Home—that if her father had embraced his queerness as a young man rather than chosen the heteronormative route, she wouldn't exist—Dancyger recognizes the grim fact that had her father lived, she wouldn't be writing her book, and by extension, likely wouldn't have made the series of profound discoveries about herself and her mother that she does. "In a strange way," she writes, with a touch of regret, "I might not feel as close to him as I do now, his life and story and art such an urgent thread in my life. I hold the image of us together, artist-father and writer-daughter drinking coffee, talking craft and words and life, so tightly that I can almost see it like a photograph."

But it’s an image that would be impossible even if he'd lived—the version of me that I became without him could never have known him. They can only exist together here on these pages, and in my mind. I wonder sometimes what will happen when I’m finally done with this book, when I don't have this search to keep me connected to him anymore. I expect that I’ll mourn him all over again, in a whole new way.

Near the end of the book, Dancyger describes a moment when she's tasked in a writing workshop with making a list of her most crucial personal metaphors. She suddenly realized—"with an audible gasp that caused several writers to look up from their own lists"—that she'd become heir to her father's vast storehouse of images and symbols that had made up his art. "Of course they were mine too, not just to observe and read, but to play with, to make my own meaning out of. I didn't inherit the physical pieces of his artwork; I inherited the language in which his art was written, like I'd hoped to do all along." Chasing after her father’s story "into the core of my own grief, thinking of writing about him as a response to the call of his work" she recognized that she wasn’t simply "layering his imagery into my own creative experience, but building my own identity as an artist out of the pieces my father had left behind for me." The presence of her absent father is everywhere—she hangs his art, much of which is reproduced in the book, in her tiny apartments and interprets it, interviews his friends and art associates, reads his letters and diaries, breathes in the scents of his left-behind shirt as if it were life-giving—and turns out to have been instrumental in her her own creations, less a void filled with grief, though of course it's that too, than a kind of found puzzle piece that completed her own identity as an artist.

In his poem "Ars Poetica" the late Tom Andrews wrote that "the dead drag a grappling hook for the living." That's always seemed to me a graphically effective and powerful way to describe grief, that unwanted thing that seizes and takes you, usually against your will, to wherever it's headed and whatever it is you may or may not learn there. In the middle of her book, Dancyger ends a segment with a knock-out sentence, and an essential discovery: "I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies. Both of these things are true." Negative Space is a brave and clear-eyed story about the friction perpetually humming in the center of that conflict.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Transparencies, ctd.

While driving home to DeKalb from Geneva after a Kane County Cougars game—a 25-mile drive through small towns and farmland—I was struck by an unbidden moment where the past settled on top of the present like a transparency. We had the White Sox game on AM radio and as we headed west away from Chicagoland the reception cut in an out, that phenomenon itself a relic of sorts in the era of satellite radio. It was dark out but close enough to dusk that I could make out silhouettes of barns and farm buildings as we sped past and—in a confluence of the crackling radio, the mild summer night, and the rural abstract out the windows I was dropped into my family's Gran Torino station wagon as we drove west across Ohio in the summer of 1978. I felt that date because I was no longer listening to a White Sox/Rockies game, I was listening to a Cincinnati Reds on WLW in the midst of Pete Rose's epic hitting streak. I don't know what precise game we had tuned in that night—it was likely in mid- or-late July, and so near the end of the streak—but as I'd followed Rose's feats at home, in Maryland, I knew that the stakes were high, and higher still with each game. I listened with hyper attention and looked out the window as Rose took an at-bat or two, and eventually got his hit, the streak continuing impossibly, and I imagined Rose sprinting to first and rounding the bag as outlines of barns played on the passenger windows competing, or complementing, the tableau. The rest fades. We arrived at my grandparents' house, in Coldwater, Ohio, later that night. We stayed for a week or so. I played with my older siblings on train tracks and at the small public park. Rose's 44-game hitting streak ended on August 1. He went 0-for-4 against the Atlanta Braves.

The narrowing of that four-and-a-half decade gap of time to a few moments was nothing short of breathtaking, yet of course banal and common. I'm grimly aware that if I'd watched this scene in a movie—a man coming home from a ball game driving past cornfields and farms, listening to a game on the radio and magically brought back to a moment when he was a kid listening in the dark in the family car to an historic game of baseball—I might've rolled my eyes at the predictability, the sentimentality, and the Americana cliche of it all. I guess this is why we risk corn in storytelling, and why I'm trotting out yet another note on memory and nostalgia, my own dubious streak. Another of life's surprise gifts, which feel in short supply these days. And the Sox won, 2-1.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Any scene of childhood

This morning I was spending some time on Google Street View, cruising down some blocks of my adolescent neighborhood in Wheaton, Maryland, when I was struck again at the magic tricks that memory plays. There are the woods behind the long-gone Equitable Bank where my friends and I drank beer on Friday nights during the football games; across the street there's the parking lot next to that apartment where in my my parents' station wagon we forced down some wide-mouth Mickey's and chased them with fistfuls of barbecue chips, provisions for the accidental poor-man's donuts I laid down on the wet grass. Funny how much more vast the stage sets are when I replay these events, the woods larger, the trees taller, the parking lot dramatically lit, the donuts endlessly spiraling into endless laughter, the suburban corners everywhere shadowed with charged potential.

Nothing new here, no news. You know the story. If we weren't playing Springsteen in the car on our boom box, we were playing him in our heads, his songs—or whatever band or singer's songs scored your nights—soundtracking these minor shenanigans that grew epic in the retelling, soaring from verse to bridge to chorus as if they're our songs only. Those long nights of teenage rebellion and the testing of limits occurred last weekend, somewhere, and will again this weekend, somewhere else—and years from now when those actors return to those stages they'll be struck, too, by how small the sets are, how tacky the props, how underwhelming the lighting, each tasting their own unique bittersweetness.

For years I've taught George Orwell's "Such, Such Were The Joys," a torturous, dryly confessional essay about Orwell's years at the St. Cyprian prep school. Semester after semester I've watched my students grapple with the essay's ending, where Orwell imagines visiting the school after many years away, and where he lands on this inevitable discovery:

I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!

We debate the words invariably, terrible, and deterioration, and the students gamely attempt to locate themselves in the shoes of an older man (Orwell was in this thirties when he wrote the essay) who's reckoning with the vagaries of memory, not to mention trauma. The students are also, but under less weight, their futures ahead of them. Their collective brow furrows, their face turns solemn, but the recognition of Orwell's epiphany is, of course, beyond them. They'll have to wait a while before it rings true.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The way it goes

Had Johnny Thunders not died in New Orleans in 1991 at the too-young age of 38, he would've turned 70 yesterday. Occasioned by that sad realization, I heard the Heartbreakers' immortal "Born To Lose" on a loop in my head all day.

As thrilling as the song is, the opening ten seconds may top everything in it. What sounds like a false start is probably deliberate, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan evoking unhappiness, ugliness, and sourness all at once—a loser misfit wearing an itchy sweater that doesn't fit. Nolan clears the disenchantment enough to count in Walter Lure (guitar) and Billy Rath (bass), and the song roars into life, item #234,989,000 in rock and roll's Fun Songs about Sad Stuff file. Thunders's desperate vocal, both confessional and self-mocking, is answered by his signature lead lines, only here his guitar evokes demented fun house clowns. "The city is so cold," he complains,
And I'm so sold
That's why I know
Nothing to do
I've nothing to say
Only one thing that I want
It's the only way
Living in a jungle
It ain't so hard
Living in the city
It'll eat out, eat out your heart
That's why our hero is born to lose. Or is it born too loose? The band had it both ways on L.A.M.F.'s initial German release (the first of the album's multiple iterations), printing "loose" on the back cover and "lose" on the label:

Subsequent reissues have occasionally swapped the words' places, but more often than not "lose" appears on both sleeve and label, and some lyrics and fan sites winkingly split the difference as "Born To(o) Lo(o)se." I hear both words whenever I jam the tune, a sonic transparency laid one on top of the other—and that's perfect, it seems to me, the two words so close phonetically and, given the right unhappy context, so near in meaning, too, each evoking a hardscrabble existence on the margins where excess of sex and drugs—or simply the fact of being born into a body whose parts rattle around and threaten to fall apart—conspire only to numb or deaden, and to breed self-contempt and a grim understanding of one's place in the fucked-up cosmos. 

Even if you strip the song of Thunders's unhappy fate, I've always found "Born To Lose" very moving: it's a raucous, righteously-rocking ode to loserdom, an anti-anthem shorn of self-pity (though I acknowledge its seeds of the junkie romance that Thunders often traded in). The song's funny, in a louche, ironic street way, but also really affecting. The last line of the chorus slays me with its earnest major-minor melody lifting ever so slightly (in some mixes aided the third time around by Rath's extended-hand bass line in the previous bar), signaling to my ears both weary acceptance and resolute celebration. I'm born to lose. I'm born too loose. The night's young! I know: it's just a hook, but Thunders's intentions, whatever they were, don't necessarily affect what I and so many will forever hear in that infinite space between song and listener. That chorus is a perpetual motion machine between defeat and swagger. Could've been Thunders's epitath.

Long curious about the lose/loose dynamic, I've for decades apparently misheard Thunders's answer to the chorus's title phrase: I'd always thought that Thunders sang—bellowed—"I can't hear it!" when, if the vast majority of lyric sites are to be trusted, he's really exhorting his charging band with "I said hit it!" 

Which is, of course, the same thing. Play really loud, we'll wake up tomorrow.

Photo of Thunders by Beth Herzhaft via Beth Herzhaft Photography

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Hello, hi, Ty again

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Last night I attended my first show in three years. I was grateful to ride back in to town with Ty Segall, who's delivered for me so often in the past. 

Segall and his Freedom Band—Emmett Kelly on guitar, Mikal Cronin on bass and keyboards, Charles Moothart on drums, Ben Boye on keys—played Thalia Hall in Chicago, and it felt like a homecoming: every Segall show I've seen, acoustic or electric, produces the same trippy, friendly, ultimately ecstatic mood that builds and crescendos, Segall leading his band across a spectrum of sound and moods. Throughout the night a guy in front of me, tripping balls or maybe not, seemed to leave his body and ride Segall to the ceiling and back. Individual songs stood out: "My Lady's On Fire," "Orange-Colored Queens," an epic, moving "Sleeper," a stomping "Love Fuzz," among others. Yet a Segall show can also feel like one protracted song, the blend and wash of the arrangements unifying the at-times chaotically different parts. 

This was a night about sonic textures. Segall began the show solo, stage-left with his acoustic; after a few songs, so whisper-quiet in places that the back-bar conversation competed, he was joined by Kelly on another acoustic. The two faced off at opposite ends of the stage for a few more songs, producing a folky, gently rich prelude to the full band, who eventually emerged to let rip the middle, thickly-loud and groovy section of the show. Longtime mate Cronin and Boye produced on keyboards heavy layers of ambient psychedelia during and between numbers, some passages of which felt like songs in and of themselves. Kelly and Segall's tandem playing was vivid, divided as the guitarists were on opposite ends of the stage. Kelly's leads soared, yet were kept tethered to this world by Segall's hefty rhythm playing; Kelly obliged with his ballast to Segall's ascending solos. Symbolically centered, drummer Moothart kept everything grounded, a look of spacey but determined concentration on his face, his style moving from nimble free-jazz to four-on-the-floor stomp, sometimes in the same song. While his bandmates jammed, he tightened down the bolts. It took me a few songs to connect with last night's performance, but once I did I elevated and remained aloft. A good Segall full-band show gives the impression of lighting a Chinese sky lantern: you have to be patient while the heat fills the paper balloon, but once the density lowers and the lantern rises, the borne-up feeling is liberating. Now you're along for the ride.

Segall doesn't talk much—a "Hello," a "Thanks," and an endearingly awkward twirl-and-bow before his encore is all the stage presence he needs with a catalogue as vast and deep as his. His personality emerges from his performance. Segall seems most alive as he plays, strumming his acoustic or ear-splittingly mauling his electric. He often solos in a push-and-pull with feedback that you can practically see come lurching from his amp. When he takes the mic to sing, he does so through his thick curtain of blonde hair, his face and its mood completely obscured; when he solos, he's truly on stage, bathed in cones of purple or gold light. Segall's released so many albums and he tours so often that you can hit a show of his and, if you haven't listened to his latest two or three releases, you might not recognize much in the setlist. I haven't listened to his latest, Hello, Hi, a whole lot yet, but I know and love the lead single "Saturday," a highlight last night, one of those tunes that galvanized the crowd which, amoeba-like, moved imperceptibly closer to the stage. 

"I feel OK on Saturday," Segall sang, we all sang. I woke up today, a Saturday, with the song in my head, and I felt even better. To drink again in a crowded venue packed with lively strangers, to feel amplified noise in my chest: these are simple but sublime pleasures that have been denied me and millions of others for so long. I'm back finally, hesitantly, and hedging, and I'm grateful. I stood three-or-so deep from the stage as I like to do, which put me at the edge of a spontaneous poor-man's mosh pit which heated up now and again. One guy unintentionally kicked me hard on my shin before I shoved him back into the pit. This morning I woke up with a bruise I was very glad for.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sonic threads

    People say we're wasting our time
    They don't seem to understand
    'Cause when you're dancing all night long
    It gives you the feeling that you belong

So sang Paul Weller in 1977 on "Non-Stop Dancing" on the Jam's debut album In The City. The song had been inspired by the Northern Soul movement then churning up dance floors in venues in northern England. "By 1975, Northern Soul had spread south into a national phenomenon, and the charts were full of reissues of old classics and new cash-in groups like Wigan’s Ovation," John Reed wrote in his Weller biography, My Ever Changing Moods. "And it reached Woking and the teenage Paul Weller, who'd ride up to the Bisley Pavilion on his scooter," adding, "It made such an impact that he even wrote a song about the experience." According to scrapbook notes that drummer Rick Buckler kept during the Jam's early years, "Non-Stop Dancing" was demoed in May of 1976, which means that Weller wrote the song when he was around seventeen years-old. Remember being seventeen?

Pushing forty years-old two decades later, Weller would essentially rewrite the song as "Peacock Suit," the lead single off of Heavy Soul (1997), a swaggering tune defending the Mod sensibility that gripped him as a teenager and that would come to define his tastes into his adult years, an outlook that Weller would liken to a religion. "I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod," Weller said to television host Jonathan Ross in the early 1990s on the cusp of a solo career. "Peacock Suit" was another in a clutch of songs wherein Weller married his twin obsessions, style and music. Allegedly written in response to an article critical of Mod attire, the song can be seen as a sneeringly cocky double a-side to the joy and abandon of "Non-Stop Dancing," both tunes celebrating Mod movement and style—"clean living under difficult circumstances," as the Who's early manager Pete Meaden famously put it in the mid-1960s. "I'm Narcissus in a puddle / In shop windows I gloat," Weller exults in "Peacock Suit,"
Like a ball of fleece lining
In my camel skin coat

I don't need a ship to sail in stormy weather
I don't need you to ruffle the feathers of my Peacock Suit
Did you think I should?
Weller now might blanch at the desire to fit into a community so dear to his heart in "Non-Stop Dancing," yet a sturdy sonic thread runs from that song to "Peacock Suit." The opening riffs in each are cut from the same cloth, as it were (and both are borrowed from the Small Faces' driving "Grow Your Own") and though the pace in '77 is typically quicker than what Weller would take in '97, each song extolls the same thing: the joy of movement, out on the dance floor and out on the street, your image mirrored gleefully in your sweaty mates' faces or in a streak-free shop window. The singer in each song doesn't give a fuck about your review. The driving "Peacock Suit" is still a staple in Weller's set lists; it's a wonder he hasn't revived "Non-Stop Dancing" yet (or updated it in other ways, as he's done in the past with his songs.) Overlay "Non-Stop Dancing" onto the cool, "Day Tripper"/"Jumpin' Jack Flash"-styled vamp at the end of "Peacock Suit" and what do you hear? I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod. Depending on one's attitude toward Weller, the resemblances in the two tunes can suggest a songwriter who's recycling ideas, and shallow ones at that, a criticism long lobbed at Weller, who never shies away from acknowledging that he steals from the best, and often himself. I hear a groove of sentiment and sound that keeps arriving and keeps surprising, the way a sunny day can affect you at seventeen and at forty in the same blissy and overwhelming ways. 

left, 1977; right, 1997

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Acting flash

On balance I enjoyed watching Pistol. The music's so goddamned great it allowed me to more or less forgive the original sins of biopics: the inevitable inaccuracies, the obvious dialogue, the self-awareness of the characters, the insistence that History Is Being Made when we all know that history comes later in the reckoning, rarely in the present tense of things. But the actors gave it their all, the use of archival footage was very cool, the set designing was terrific, and the direction and editing kept things moving. I wasn't there at the time, and I accept the portrayal of the intense media attention—journalists knew they had a story; Malcolm McLaren made sure of that. But I bristled at the dialogue: "We're Punks!" "We hate long guitar solos!" The telegraphing in private conversations was often over the top.

Did I mention how great the music is? Every episode sent me back to Never Mind The Bollocks which honestly I hadn't pulled out and cranked for too long.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

It's in the tune in your head

To say that I'm on a Paul Weller kick isn't terribly accurate; I've been on a Paul Weller kick since I was sixteen-years old. But lately I have been paying more attention to his songs that I've known and liked for years but have been hearing in new ways.

Like much of Weller's solo material, "Brushed" (from 1997's Heavy Soul) is as much a groove as it is a song, yet this particular groove is galvanizing, intuitive, and purposeful. It's also wholly original. Shuffling three chords, Weller and his band—bassist Mark Nelson and longtime drummer Steve White—are forced to muscle their way through their own arrangement and mix, which churns and startles, layered with screeching, riffing guitars, backward tapes, stereo panning, and restless, excitable percussion. Heavy Soul's producer Brendan Lynch and producer/engineer/mixer Max Hayes are credited with providing "additional sounds"—an apt credit for a soundscape that's hard to pin down, as a vivid nightmare is upon waking. I hear a scream in the mix at one point.

A strangely angry song, "Brushed" is remarkable: at once uncomfortable and lived-in, both anxious and grateful. Weller's words aim to reproduce, or anyway to try and make sense of, what seems to have been an epiphany that the singer's experienced, the title word evoking a blink-and-it's-gone moment when the universe wobbles a bit, and something bright and penetrating shines through for a moment before it's gone. (The Japanese have a great word for this, satori, a sudden kick between the eyes.) The first verse lays out the flicker of insight:
It's in a stroke of a brush
It's in the wave of a hand
And a view so bright
It turns the world
And makes all right
Yet seems to say
Come what may
You will be what you will
The second verse alters the terms slightly:
With a brush stroke of fate
You will have to think again
If you touch by it all
Lucky to be brushed at all—
Weller sings that he must now "walk a crooked mile / In a worn out smile" that's been "found on the ground." At the word found there's a sinister and alarming chord change. "Somebody else threw" that smile "down," and it's up to the listener to pick it up. "Looks like that you're the next blessed in town," Weller growls, the irony thick. Given the roiling arrangement, where parts of the song quarrel with each other to find resolve, that blessing feels pretty damn mixed. (You'd be forgiven for thinking that the eternally-stylish Weller sings "best dressed in town," as "Brushed" sits near the great "Peacock Suit," a riff-of-a-song essentially defending Weller's wardrobe.)
In the third verse, Weller locates the inspiration in "a verse" and in "the tune in your head": a revelation that revolves the world, illuminates life, and "makes you see / All the love within / Is still yet to come out." Weller's singing about the gift of art, I think, but he could as well be singing about mind-bending psychedelics; either way, the brief experience that he's trying to wrestle into form and expression ("Like the word—as a bang!") has demanded that he think again, see fresh again, and, blown away, he's grateful for this gift.

Then why the turbulent mix that sounds like nothing less than the soundscape of a bewildered brain? This is what I've been obsessing over since sometime last week, when—I don't know why or, really, how—I heard the song as if for the first time. It might've because I was listening to the 45 I'd recently scored, and the vinyl, unsurprisingly, led me to deeper and warmer places than the 1's and 0's had allowed me for the last couple of decades I'd spent with the song. Whatever the reason, I was particularly struck by the groove and music and the "rough seas" mix this time around, how unruly their vibe is while scoring a song ostensibly about the welcome, unbidden gift of a vision, however vague and fleeting. I think it's because the song matches, or translates, Weller's frustrations in describing what he experienced; if the perception had come unto him peacefully, in tranquility, then he might've reached for his acoustic, but because its presence shook him up and astounded him, he turned to his band, cranked up the amps, and tried to blast his way toward clarity. Weller often second-guesses his lyrics: in a video promoting Heavy Soul, he said about "Brushed": "Don't know what to say about that, because I really like the actual sound of it, sonically it sounds brilliant, I think. But...lyrically, I don't know. I'm not so sure." Yet the arrangement insists on the truth: you may be the next blessed in town, but the grace will forever slip beyond full understanding. Enjoy the ride and its surprising turns.

"[Heavy Soul] feels like quite an angry album," Weller remarked to Paul Lester in Uncut a year after the album was released. "Quite bare and exposed. The idea was to try and do something even more removed from [Stanley Road], more rough and spontaneous." He added,
There was criticism that some of the songs were undeveloped. That was true. I wanted to write them as quickly as possible. I wouldn't say I could listen to it every day. It's a bit heavy going. It's quite uncompromising.
On "Brushed," Weller sings in a way that sounds as if he's indebted and at the same time resentful for his tongue-tied fate. Heavy on the soul, indeed.

"Brushed" is one of Weller's great songs, yet it's the full-band performance that brings it to life. Here's the group grooving it in1997.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Hoodoo Gurus carry on

Dave Faulkner's songs have always been there for me when I needed them. I vividly recall standing in a consignment store on Knox Road just off the University of Maryland campus in the fall of 1984 when I first heard "I Want You Back"—the top of my came off during the chorus; I'd been sent without realizing I'd needed the deliverance. Over the new few years, Hoodoo Gurus' songs soundtracked my agonizing relationship problems and my general twenty-something agita with incisiveness, "I Was The One" and "Bittersweet" in particular reaching me—and helping me—in my darkest moments. A decade later, in a different state, literally and figuratively, "If Only" from 1996's Blue Cave played on repeat as I wrestled with major life decisions and existential questions of self-worth. I sang it to myself for months like bible verse. (Of course Faulkner wrote songs that scored bliss, as well: "Something's Coming" from 1991's Kinky brings me right back to the heady days of the courtship of my wife. I see her walking toward me on my front porch, now, as I sing the opening bars to myself 30 years later.)

And last year came the balm of "Carry On," one of the songs that helped get me through the unhappy residue of the Covid lockdown and a pretty severe anxiety attack during which I came dangerously close to bottoming out. "Carry On," in its blend of shrugging vulnerability and cheery resolve, is a signature song on the new Gurus album Chariot of the Gods as it suggests to my ears a turn of sorts in Faulkner's songwriting. He's always been tuned to the cynicism, meanness, excesses, and two-facedness that pockmarks humanity, and he's sung about them with humor and wryness, but on the Gurus' recent albums that grim knowledge turned his smile to a sneer at times. He seemed to be taking a lot of stuff personally. 

There's a dark edge to some of Chariots of the Gods, too— "Answered Prayers" recounts harrowing emotional and mental abuse from the point of view of the abuser, and the audacious and moving title track is an anthropological lesson in the colonialist ravages visited upon Australia's aborigines (really!)—but that edge is softened by the album's buoyant and lively tone. The sadder songs ("Was I Supposed To Care?", "My Imaginary Friend") are balanced by the fun ones: "World Of Pain" is a hilarious account of a bender that ends in a bar fight, "Get Out Of Dodge" wrestles with the grossness of narrow-mindedness but in a rollicking, winking way, capped with a vintage Gurus chorus, and "(He Wants To) Hang With The Girls" is a rockin' and pointed celebration of living along the gender spectrum. Guitarist Brad Shepherd's "Equinox" is a beaut: a knocked-out paean to the wonders and surprises that the natural world can offer, in this case the titular earth/sun meeting which blew the songwriter's mind in 2021. "You never know what’s coming," he reminds us.

"Settle Down," though tinged with the melancholy image of falling leaves, warmly embraces a calming epiphany of personal rootedness. Faulkner's mentioned in several interviews that he's recently experienced a significant measure of personal growth, self-acceptance and comfort in his skin that'd been sorely lacking for decades. I hear that new-found vibe on just about every groove of this mature, optimistic album. "I am less patient with the idea of mincing my words," Faulkner said in March to Dan Condon and Caz Tran at Double J radio. "I had some things I wanted to get off my chest, so there was definitely a lot of purpose there. That kind of fired me up."

[Chariot of the Gods] doesn't feel like a jaded piece of work. It feels fresh to me. It's very alive. It feels like a reboot to me, I actually approached it that way in my mind.

Even when Faulkner pushes back against those who want to box him in—a career-long pet peeve of his—he reacts less acidly this time around. In "Don't Try To Save My Soul," his personal confidence is matched by the song's freeing gallop, and the overall vibe is: I won't be bothered anymore:

There is a place called happiness
They said, “Go seek it, boy.”
They didn’t tell me where to look
To find the real McCoy.
I stumbled ‘round for nigh on 40 years
To work out who I am,
Now I ain’t gonna change for anyone
‘Cause I don’t give a damn.
Such a hard-won contentment's reflected in the album's closer, too, the Lou Reed-esque, hilariously titled "Got To Get You Out Of My Life," Faulkner's strutting coolness so centered and assured. This album could be subtitled I Just Don't Care.

The album was conceived as a series of singles (as was the band's debut album nearly forty years ago) that were rolled out leisurely across 2020 and '21, which perhaps allowed Faulkner to focus more closely on his writing. The songs' arrangements are characteristically clean and tight, guitar-based, layered, but never fussy, and the band—rounded out by stalwart bassist Rick Grossman and new drummer Nik Rieth—is hitting on all cylinders, if a tad less loudly. (I attended a Gurus show at the old 9:30 Club in the mid-80s after which my ears rang for a week.) Shepherd hauls "I Come From Your Future" from his sack, a wah-wah-guitar stomp that hearkens back to "Mars Needs Guitars." The vinyl edition adds "Hung Out To Dry," a cool put-down that's impossible not to laugh along with in its mock sneer, plus two covers, a fun but superfluous "I Wanna Be Your Man" (man, that song's got legs; the Stones hauled it out the other night in Liverpool) and a jog through Dylan's "Obviously 5 Believers" from Blonde On Blonde, where Faulkner gets to imitate a mid-60s garage band imitating Zimmerman. Great stuff.

If the Gurus are indeed re-booted, after Faulkner's cheery pronouncement, then we can look forward to years more of affecting, smart, and powerful rock and roll. And here's hoping that the thrice-cancelled U.S. tour can be re-booted, as well. America needs guitars!

Band photo by Christopher Ferguson

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Buck Owens Guitar Method

I picked up this 45 a while back, and a seat finally opened up in class. If I'm gonna learn I might as well learn from the master!

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

"I'm so thankful"

I was gutted to hear that Reigning Sound is calling it a day. The band posted an announcement on their website today, reading, "Due to Covid-19 and several other logistical hurdles, we are announcing the cancellation of Reigning Sound’s upcoming July European tour."

We are also formally announcing the end of the group. It was my intention with A Little More Time to come full circle, reunite the original lineup of the band, and finish where we started. I thought we could support the album with some touring and go out on a high note, but Covid has proven to be a long-lasting concern and more difficult to navigate than anyone could have anticipated. Rather than compromise ourselves or our fans, I have decided this is the right time to dissolve the band.

We appreciate the fans who kept us inspired and motivated to make music for the last twenty years.

Thanks for your support. Be safe and be kind.

—Greg Cartwright, Reigning Sound

I loved Cartwright's songs—which I trust will still arrive—and the many bands he's led or played a supporting role in, but none more than Reigning Sound, which I consider one of the great American bands of the last couple of decades. Cartwright's songs were urgent, melodic, driving, sweet, cutting, always deeply felt. He sings the tradition of the three-chord rock and roll song like few do. 

In 2015 I wrote a 9,000-word essay on Cartwright that appears in my book Field Recordings from the InsideHere's the opening:

Thank you Greg and all of the terrific musicians in studios and onstage who helped bring his amazing songs to life.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Tales from pastel fields

In 1981, The Jam released the single "Absolute Beginners" backed with "Tales From The Riverbank." In the liner notes for the band's Dig The New Breed live album Paul Weller would describe 1981 as "an 'horrible year for songs!", yet he obviously cared enough about "Tales From The Riverbank" to have shepherded it through a few iterations, including an early charging version titled "We've Only Started" (first released in 1992 on the Extras compilation) and in a horn-driven arrangement issued as a fan-club flexidisc at the end of the year. Allegedly both he and his label Polydor regretted not choosing the song for the a-side of the single.

Seventeen years later, Weller would stroll those same riverbanks. In 1998, he issued Modern Classics, a best-of compilation of his solo work, including with it a new single, "A Brand New Start," an ironic title given its rearward-glancing b-side. "The Riverbank" is a curiosity: neither a remake nor a wholesale rewrite, it sounds like a spirit cousin to the original song, the new, affiliated title suggesting a relative once-removed. There are certainly family resemblances: "The Riverbank" emerges in a slow up-fade as does the '81 song; the moody and atmospheric arrangements, cast by trippy guitars, sitar, and feedback, are similar; the songs are only a couple seconds apart in length. So why did Weller revisit the tune? To redress the wrong of relegating a personal favorite to a b-side? Like many artists with long, sustained careers, he has been known to pick his old songs up off the floor and see if they still fit; he's performed onstage and recorded in the studio countless songs from his Jam, Style Council, and solo catalogues in differing arrangements and with competing intentions. (As I wrote about here, his 2018 live version of 1980's "Boy About Town" was revelatory.) Weller occasionally approached the same song from different angles during his eclectic Style Council years—the journey of "Headstart For Happiness" from acoustic version to big-band arrangement was especially audacious—but he rarely retitled a song of his, that gesture alone indicating that there's something distinct about "The Riverbank."

The differences between the '81 and '98 recordings are subtle: Bruce Foxton's memorable bass-line, the strong undertow in the original song, is gone in "The Riverbank" (though it's impossible for me not to hum it anyway when I listen); Weller's vocal a decade and-a-half down the line is more wistful, and gentler. In the last line of the opening verse the singer now wishes to spread in the listener's heart "joy and love" rather than simply "hope," and in the final line of the second verse Weller jettisons the "too many to the pound" lament about vanishing green spaces for the more expansive, and sentimental, "place of hope and of endless times." 

The chorus differs slightly, but intriguingly, the original's
True, it's a dream mixed with nostalgia
But it's a dream that I'll always hang on to, that I'll always run to
Won't you join me by the riverbank?
replaced with
The truest of dreams, I live and I wonder
But it's the scene that I'll always hang onto, that I'll always run to
Join me by the riverbank?
In the '81 version the singer acknowledges that the bittersweet sentiment he sings about is part dream, part nostalgia—that is, it's all lost. In the '98 version the tone's less rueful to my ears, as the dream is now "the truest" of visions, casting a spell and inspiring wonder. Coupled with Weller singing the title phrase in a gently ascending melody against the '81 version's descending melody, the mood in "The Riverbank" is suffused with gratitude. It's a warm invitation, now. Generous too is the bridge, which in the '81 version is spooky and positively Welleresque in its grumpiness: because life's "too cynical," we lose "our innocence," and "our very soul." Seventeen years later he sings:
A magical leaving when it's time to believe in
The magic between us, the magic of innocence
I might be hearing Measured for leaving in that first line—I can't find the lyrics anywhere—but the adult wisdom in the words that follow rings loud and clear. Weller was nearing the age of 40 when he wrote "The Riverbank," an already-long career and a personal life of ups and downs behind him, and maybe he was taking stock in the value of cynicism—the language of his twenties—and questioning its shelf life. Or maybe the further he gets away from childhood days spent in the countryside along quietly streaming rivers the more he cherishes the memory and no longer feels that he must apologize for its romanticism. It's time to believe.


Listen to "Tales From The Riverbank" and "The Riverbank" back to back and the impression is of waking from a vivid dream, the particulars of which are already fleeing from memory in the moments of rousing. That was wild, the dreamer thinks, it was the same song but it was also different somehow, and he chases its wind-blown remnants the rest of the long day.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

My latest for The Normal School

My latest for The Normal School is out today. In “A Groovy Way to Grab a Musical Bag that Turns On the Sounds of Today" I take a look at those Super Hits albums that I was obsessed with as a kid—and still am! Released on Pickwick Records in the early- and mid-1970s, they featured "King's Road," a group of anonymous studio session musicians that cut sometimes faithful, sometime pathetic, always earnest covers of contemporary hit songs. "Played and sung like the original hits!"

Here's the opening:

Rediscover Records, Elgin, Illinois. The voice to which I’m only half-listening sounds familiar, but something’s off, also. I look up blankly from the records I’m riffling through and realize that I’m hearing Elton John, one of his well-known hits from the early seventies, but I haven’t heard this version before. Is it a demo? An early take? A scratch vocal? Elton sounds pretty awful, as if he’s poorly imitating someone imitating him. That, or he has a cold. I ask the cashier what’s playing. She points to the album sleeve propped on the counter. 

Turns out that I’m half correct. It is Elton. And it isn’t. Elton John Rock Hits was released in 1975 near the tail end of the pianist-singer’s half-decade meteoric journey across the Top 40, but John was nowhere to be found in the studio when the album was concocted. The songs here, those that momentarily confounded me in the record store—“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,” “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” et al.—were performed by King’s Road, an anonymous group of session musicians and singers whose catalogue by the mid-70s was bulging. Between 1970 and 1975 they issued twenty-three albums, nearly all on the Pickwick label (their career would be finished by ‘76). King’s Road wasn’t a band so much as a hologram—a holoband, a hollow band—a one-dimensional image of a group whose sole purpose was to imitate, gamely if at times ineptly, the well-known hits of the day. King’s Road was a bad joke, a cut-rate impressionist. King’s Road was the best at being the worst.
You can read the rest—as well as my other Normal School music essays—here.