Sunday, March 26, 2023

No Place I Would Rather Be

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

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

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

Thursday, March 16, 2023


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2023

"I wanna blow my mind"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2023

That's what everybody else does

The Leaves' 1965 single "Too Many People" howls as powerfully as ever
There's a short list of songs that have never lost their urgency for me. Near the top is "Too Many People" written by Bill Rinehart and Jim Pons, released as the Leaves' debut single on Mira in July of 1965. (It was reissued a year later, and rerecorded for their first album.) Though the band is best known for their trippy streak through "Hey Joe," a song later recorded by Jimi Hendrix, they occupy a permanent place in my heart for the disdainful, cocksure, extremely rocking "Too Many People."

Drop the needle: the song sounds pissed off about something right from the start, the complaint issuing from a bent harmonica phrase played by John Beck. The full band—Pons on bass, Rinehart on lead guitar, Robert Lee Reiner on rhythm, Tom Ray on drums; Beck adds tambourine—arrives impatiently moments later. The opening bars feel uncomfortable, too, an angry, churning blend of loud guitars playing rudimentary, obsessive A and G chords, Ray's stubborn snare emphasizing the backbeat, Beck's aggressive tambourine winding through it all. Five bars in, a cool, heavy-lidded gang vocal enters repeating the title phrase, stretching the last over two-plus bars, the deep sigh of an offended adolescent. If the band had decided to sing only the title phrase, turning the song into a quasi-instrumental, its loud complaints would still be well-taken, so tightly wound up is the arrangement, the sound of someone outgrowing their hand-me-downs, busting at the seams.

Then Pons sings—demands, really—the first line:
Too many people are trying to change me
Too many people are looking to rearrange me
and the grievances come into sharp focus, the sullen, teen-in-a-bedroom title phrase morphing into genuine outrage with a complex world—at chafing limitations, expectations, the plummeting ceiling of possibilities that a young person faces. Like an escapee, the song insistently darts forward—from the opening harmonica scowl to the churning rhythms to the sung title phrases to the pointed vocal—reaching its peak in the intense 12-bar middle, where Pons climbs onto his poor-man's soapbox and snarls an anti-litany. "But the last thing I'll ever do to prove that I'm a man like you," he promises, as Rinehart goads him on the guitar,
is to work from nine to five trying to keep myself alive
and have to listen everyday to everybody's jive
and concentrate my time on simply trying to make a dime
and agitate my mind on trying to make our values rhyme
At the menacing chord change to D ("But the last thing..."), the song stands up straight and balls its fists, serious now, Pons singing as if the words were coming to him at the moment, so rawly authentic is the performance. The passage is incendiary, demanding to be heard, impossible to ignore. And now the agitated arrangement, the indignant guitars, Beck's excitable tambourine make sense: the song was waiting for Pons to translate a voiceless, angry mood into something vivid and precise, and nameable. "Protest songs" were in the air—and his vocal is among the greatest and most evocative of the era, a hair-raising, pulse-quickening howl from suburban Los Angeles. The fangs still show nearly sixty years down the line.

Second verse, same as the first: too many things, the oppressions mounting, stuff he's got to do—fill in the blanks here with draft board, work, school, hair cut, church, fate, whatever's plaguing you today—, the bags he's gotta run through pushing him to the edge. And the last thing he'll ever do, he promises again, is worry ("because that's what everybody else does") or wear a suit and tie, "when I'd rather sit and die." There are implied exclamation points at the end of every phrase Pons barks. A frantic 12-string guitar solo leads to the inevitable vision of people doubling and tripling as the song fades.
The Leaves in 1966
John Beck's on the floor; Jim Pons is above him; clockwise from Pons: Tom RayBobby Arlin (who replaced Rinehart); Robert Lee Reiner
Adolescent stuff, yeah, and no less poignant and eternal for that. Pons's utter conviction lifts the song from teen angst to something meaner, more grown-up, threatening, even. Bobbie Ann Mason has said that "Rock and roll is about desire, about wanting something better," adding, "My understanding of the rock and roll dream is that a kid in an isolated place or a small town or an underprivileged world could transcend it somehow." The kid raising a voice and taking a stand in "Too Many People" is a silhouette, and we all fit into the outline at some time or another during our lives, the frustrations taking different sizes and weights over time but originating in the same lousy place.

There are a handful of rock and roll songs that I'd run through a wall for—Johnny Thunder's "I'm Alive," Rod Stewart's "(I Know) I'm Losing You," the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get," the Ramones' "I Just Want To Have Something To Do," Charlie Pickett and the Eggs' live version of the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action." Countless spins later, I find "Too Many People" as impossibly exciting and profoundly moving as I did the first time I heard it, decades ago on the essential Rhino Nuggets compilation. Unruly vibes were moving in a million directions at once in '65. James Osterberg was in Ann Arbor, Michigan drumming and cussing in the Iguanas when "Too Many People" was unleashed, a couple years away from assembling from used auto parts the Psychedelic Stooges with Dave Alexander and the Asheton brothers. The line from sunny LA to gray Detroit is ragged, the line is there.


And dig the Leaves on local TV in 1966. Even miming the tune they threaten to bring the house down, grins, guffaws and all.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tales under lights

At the front of the stage Margo Price brings plenty of backstory
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—Since her debut album Midwest Farmer's Daughter appeared in 2016, Margo Price has perfected an appealing blend of twang, Americana, and pop. Don't be fooled by the smooth sound of her last two records, That's How Rumors Get Started (2020) and Strays (2023): beneath the tastefully restrained playing and commercial sheen there's a stubborn knot of emotional complications. That's what I find appealing in Price's songs: that blend of tunefulness, tradition, and personal and social messes.

I caught Price and her great band Tuesday night at The Vic in Chicago, a stop on her Till The Wheels Drop Off tour, and they delivered a well-paced set spanning Price's four albums. Highlights included the slow-burn opener "Been to the Mountain," with its "Gloria"-like momentum, the R&B thump of "Four Years of Chances," "County Road," where the Springsteen tone and evocations gained dimension in the venue, and the sexy and cannabis-punning "Light Me Up." Wille Nelson songs featured prominently over the PA before Price and her band hit the stage, and in interviews and on her more recent albums she's been happily open about influences that throw elbows at safe, traditional country music: she reveres the late great John Prine, directly addresses Tom Petty in one tune (the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell has played with Price onstage and in the studio), and she channels Stevie Nicks on "That's How Rumors Get Started," a complexly arranged, emotionally rich song that played really well.

Price's Nashville-based band is superb. She's backed by Jamie Davies and Alex Munoz on guitars, Kevin Black on bass, Dillon Napier on drums, Micah Hulscher on keyboards, and her husband and songwriting partner Jeremy Ivey on guitars. They've been playing and recording together for years now, and at this point in the tour they're locked-in yet open to surprises inside of any song, especially the ones they pull apart and elongate, allow to take shape, bar by bar. Judging by Setlist, the songs' sequencing is fairly standard on the tour, yet the musicians are seasoned, and leavened with the joys of playing together in such a way that most of the numbers in the show felt as they could hardily withstand a surprising curve or two. (I wished that they were more of them.) I was especially taken with Davies, who for most of the evening stood stage right playing a Gibson SG, a choice that surprised me given the lightness of sound on Price's newer material but which I gladly welcomed. Davies's playing benefited on this night from a particularly fabulous sound at The Vic—the folks at the boards deserved our applause, too—and was fluid, loose, but also strikingly, yet still melodically, harsh, and loudly thick. He added muscle and flash. Late in the set he played a mournful slide on a couple of songs; when he switched instruments and left his guitar slide behind, his evocative twang still hung in the air, coloring everything that followed. 
Price's choice of covers was striking. After the rousing statement-of-purpose "Radio" from Strays, Price leapt behind a second drum kit as her band strutted through Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" (Black's grin while grooving the bass line is indelible) and she ended the night with an ecstatic take on Paul McCartney's "Let Me Roll It," a tune tailor-made for her to find some winking, playful joy inside of. (She's also played Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" and Sleater-Kinney's "Turn It On" during this tour.) Early in the set, led by Napier 's expressive snare march, the band hauled out Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," a choice that might surprise an onlooker who assumes Price's only debt is to Nashville. In the band's hands the song built menacingly in its still-startling way, moving the show into something more dimensional and fuller of possibilities than it had been. Clearly grooving with the vibe and the crowd's knowing participation, Price chose to have fun with the song, the flip side to her darker and more complex stuff (and a like-spirited theme song of sorts to the Women In Weed info booth at the front of the venue).


I recently read Price's memoir Maybe We'll Make It and was startled to learn that in the early aughts, before she split for Music Row, Price was a student at Northern Illinois University, where I teach. (She was born and raised in a small farm town in Illinois.) She briefly studied Communications, right down the hall from the English Department, yet I don’t remember ever having her as a student. Judging from her candid memories about her time in DeKalb she probably wouldn’t have made it to class all that often. Price is unsparingly honest in Maybe We'll Make It, which was published by Texas last year on the eve of Strays. She writes about her fitful adolescence, alcohol abuse, a brief prison stint, years of brutal hangovers, and the tragedy of losing an infant son (the twin survived; she also has a young daughter). Her courtship with and marriage to Ivey are narrated in all of its glory, though the seams show: there are doubts, infidelities, some meanness, epic money problems, long, shitty nights given to menial jobs, drinking and drugging, graphic career disappointments. Price and Ivey separated briefly; she carried on an affair with a fellow local musician in broad daylight. She ultimately quits her corrosive drinking. She smokes grass and trips on shrooms with the zeal of an evangelist. 

It's all in the memoir, which is heavily narrative—she's got a van full of great stories to tell—complemented by insightful moments of self-reflection. But not too many. Price keeps her lens focussed on her carefully-crafted if reckless trajectory from small-town Midwestern girl and struggling, alcoholic Nashville-transplant to a California-sober mother of two and Jack White-blessed Next Big Thing singing and recording at the Grand Ole Opry.

So as Price and Ivey hit the stage at The Vic, they are already larger-than-life characters from a book. If fans have read Maybe We'll Make It, what expectations or biases, or desires, do they bring with them and willfully or unconsciously project onto the stage? Price's and Ivey's glances at each other, the intimate asides, and the few moments of playing face-to-face are rich with backstory, and everyone in the room—and it was a packed room in Chicago—knows it, knows them in close-up, the stage lights paradoxically highlighting and obscuring the couple's personal dramas. "We were writing about cheating on each other for a long time before I ever admitted it out loud," Price confessed in her memoir.

It's a striking tableau, another level of story that settles on the stage like a transparency. During the show Ivey rocked a Neil Young look with bandana-festooned hat, and he looked tired, though that might've been exaggerated by his hound dog face and large, soulful eyes. He didn't do much on stage besides play guitar, and an occasional poorly-mic'd harmonica, and slyly grin once or three times as Price, ever the performer, danced onstage in stiletto-heeled sandals and a blue Nudie suit, and later a pink, fringed unitard, working the stage and the crowd tirelessly. 
If road burn is creeping into the band, Price herself didn't betray it for a moment. I guess the B-12 IV drips the group received a couple of weeks back and which she celebrated on Instagram are doing their Rock Star thing. Price seems on the cusp of making it big, which of course means something different now in the ever-shifting currents of popular music than it did when Price was growing up. (She turns forty this year.) At the Vic several official photographers worked the pit during the opening numbers; whether they were employed by Price or the venue was unclear, but it had the trappings of Next Level Success. I can't predict the number of albums Price will sell or the size of her future crowds. She self-promotes heavily—and confessionally—on social media, and makes clear in her memoir that a hungry, fiercely committed drive for success is as embedded in her DNA as any other trait. I'm hopeful that she songs she will write, on her own and with her husband, will continue to mine soil for the stubborn weeds and choking rocks as well as the blooms and the sweet scents. That's where she lives, and loves.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Dancing in the street?

"It started just a little bit north of Detroit," but for The Fabulous Pack it stayed there 

Sometimes, a backing group can become this year's model. The Fabulous Pack were left behind in Flint, Michigan when their lead singer, songwriter, and megalomaniac visionary Terry Knight departed for New York City and a production and solo career. Terry Knight and The Pack were thus abbreviated to The Pack, and then in a last-ditch bid for excitement, to the Fabulous Pack. Their first single, a cover of "Harlem Shuffle," was enthusiastically hailed in the June 3, 1967 Billboard as a "wild, wailing rock number" that was "loaded with teen appeal."

Alas, the single didn't ignite the charts, so to bolster their commercial potential for their follow-up, the Fab Pack enlisted the writing services of local luminary Dick Wagner (soon to form The Frost, which in 1970 would issue one of my favorite criminally-obscure songs of the era, "Fifteen Hundred Miles (Through the Eye of a Beatle)"). For the Fab Pack, Wagner penned a tune optimistically aligned with a venerable local institution: the automobile industry. In the late 1960s, Pontiac was heavily promoting the catch phrase "wide tracking," alluding to the extra five-inch width of its cars, the better to balance the vehicle on the road. According to Gary Johnson in Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, Wagner wrote "Wide Trackin'" in the hopes of landing it in Pontiac car commercial, a coup that would guarantee instant Midwestern cachet and ramp up the chances for national distribution for the single and higher visibility for the band; other sources suggest that the song was simply inspired by the ad campaign. Either way, the Fab Pack certainly hoped that the single would cruise up the charts, screeching to a halt at the top. Billboard was again hopeful, predicting in September that "Wide Trackin'" would land in the Top 100.

In 1967 even square songs could groove a little bit. Though releasing a "dance craze" single was more than a bit passé in the Summer of Love, the Fab Pack give it their hopeful best. If you vaguely recognize the singer's voice, you'll be forgiven if you had to add a little more hair and strip off his shirt for him to come into clearer focus. That is indeed Mark Farner inviting you to dance the Wide Track. After the Fab Pack's implosion following the commercial thud of their third and final single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," Farner and drummer Don Brewer enlisted bassist Mel Schacher from ? and The Mysterians and formed Grand Funk Railroad, to be railroaded—that is, managed—by a returning Terry Knight. 

All joking aside about the competent drum work of Don Brewer, "Wide Trackin'" kicks off with a nice groove, guitarist Curt Johnson laying down a fuzz line on top, then settling into a syncopation with organist Bobby Caldwell and later some mildly propulsive horns. Instantly danceable, if overly cordial. The harmony in the title phrase is bright and terrific, but the lyrics are standard issue for a dance record hoping to be in vogue "from New York to L.A.", with a few Motor City tweaks: the dance is "custom-made for every boy and girl," you'll find yourself "dancing in the street." Farner drops a cool, minor-shaded "yea-ah" at the end of each chorus, but the diminishing returns of the desperate "dance, dance, dance!" command prove too much for this politely-played and -produced record to overcome. Producer Jerry Tuttle and engineer Wayne Moss fail to open the throttle on this one.

In An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad, Billy James notes that the picture sleeve for "Wide Trackin'" (above) shows the band gamely playing while standing on Wide Track Boulevard in downtown Pontiac, Michigan, clearly an attempt to align the song with the automobile manufacturer. One has to stretch to see a connection between Wagner's lyrics and mild tune and the Pontiac "wide track" ad campaign, as chassis width doesn't exactly scream, Hey kids, get up and dance! In the event, Pontiac, still hopeful to attract a young and sporty demographic, went with commercials like this one:

"Let's you and me go wide tracking, near and far!" I don't see how that jolly invitation is any improvement over Wagner's. Pontiac preferred this robot spokesman, the very essence of anti-fun, over The Fabulous Pack's call to the dance floor? Don't trust anyone over 30, man. 

"Wide Trackin'"'s ultimate obscurity only deepens its melancholy for me. Against the cheery teen-dance beat is the failure of the song to gain any traction, with Pontiac or with record or auto buyers. "The beat is spreading farther every day," Farner warbles, barely believing the line himself. The Fabulous Pack and Lucky Eleven can't be knocked for trying to make some coin, for hoping to round the bend with the help of a mega corporation. Dance, dance, dance.

Burned by The Fabulous Pack's failed attempt to court the automobile industry, Grand Funk would opt to shill for groupies instead.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Can I borrow some?

In his demos, Billie Joe Armstrong moves from personal to private and back again
Demo recordings often feel and sound like back-of-the-book footnotes or discarded film on the editing room floor. Although they're sometimes revealing, I usually don't find them very fun to listen to. Many fans like demos, as the recordings allow a glimpse into an intimate process begun as a private experience, some "I'm in the room with 'em!" action. They can range from slivers of song to fully-realized constructions. Pete Townshend, whose backlog of home demo recordings nearly rivaled in size the Who's officially released cannon, often produced demos so complete that all his band had to do was show up.

But occasionally demos can storyboard the artistic process. In the early 1990s I bought a Beatles bootleg that gathered all of the available fragments of John Lennon's home demo tapes for "Strawberry Fields Forever." His early, fumbling scraps on acoustic guitar with hesitant vocals gave the impression of a pre-song in a dark tunnel. "Piecing the song together...[Lennon] seems to have lost and rediscovered his artistic voice," Ian MacDonald wrote in Revolution in the Head, "passing through an interim phase of creative inarticulacy reflected in the halting, childlike quality of his lyric...moving uncertainly through thoughts and tones like a momentarily blinded man feeling for something familiar." I listened obsessively, and afterward played the Beatles' final, released version, the band's two studio recordings stitched together, staring out the window of our fourteen-sided home in the outskirts of Athens, Ohio as the song coalesced over a long afternoon. Contact high, indeed.


Billie Joe Armstrong is a classicist songwriter. He's tied to tradition even as his and his band's approach is, or was, to buck tradition in gnarly punk rock fashion. Green Day roared up the charts and into arenas with short-fast, often angry songs, but the tunes were usually pretty traditional (though not temperamentally or politically conservative)—rock and roll disguised as punk. Check Armstrong's record collection: there's as much mid-60s AM radio and late-70s power pop as there are Replacements and Hüsker Dü, to name only two of his chief influences who were also loud pop bands at heart. His favorite musician? Joey Ramone, who worshipped the Who and the Ronettes equally. Armstrong's pop-punk songs never stray into the avant-garde, and so there are bound to be fewer discoveries unearthed in his demos than in those of other artists more inclined toward shoot-in-the-dark experimentation. I'm sure that Armstrong often surprises himself as he composes his songs, but as a formalist his revelations arrive in a controlled environment.

The new Nimrod boxset is a blast, containing the original album, some demos, including takes on Elvis Costello's "Allison" and the Ramones' "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and a stomping, warts-and-all live set recorded at The Electric Factory in '97. The sprawling Nimrod was, as it turns out, a fairly experimental album for Green Day, as they stretched out a bit genre-wise. There's some folk, some ska punk, some surf, the string-laden ballad "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)." "This is a record we've been thinking about for the past six years," Armstrong reamarked at the time of the album's release, adding, "The record's about vulnerability in a lot of ways—throwing yourself out there."

Among the demos, I was immediately drawn to "Black Eyeliner." Recorded solo by Armstrong on electric guitar with a bit of reverb and an overdubbed, scratchily yearning EBow, the song mines sexual territory, gender-blending cut with desperation. A boy asks a girl if he can borrow her eyeliner, "To make my eyes look just like yours." He hopes the gesture will be reciprocal, so that later, if she'll deign to kiss him again,

Can I apply your black eyeliner one more time
to make your eyes look just like mine?

He's half asleep and half awake ("sleepwalking eyes open wide") and—and where are they? Her bedroom? A bathroom at a club? A street?—hopeful, I guess, that if she says yes he'll awaken to something fuller. The phrase "bloodshot deadbeat" hovers in the air above the two of them, but we don't know who it describes. Yet mascara's running down her face, "leaving traces of mistakes." Again: her mistakes, or his? Either way, the vagueness feels emotionally true to me, those hoped-for moments between a couple, exhausted pleas at midnight, defenses down. Armstrong's performance of all of this is aggressively unguarded, his voice catching the pitch of vulnerability and fear even as he strums like mad. I like the song a lot. It ended up on the floor.

Three years later, there it is again. Now the desperation's inside of something quite different. I wrote about "Church On Sunday," from Green Day's Warning album, a decade ago, and the song still matters. A plea for compromise from the singer to his partner, long assumed to be Armstrong and his wife Adrienne Nesser, the song imports the bleeding mascara, sleeplessness, and mistakes from "Black Eyeliner," but, more mature now, it names things, too. The mistakes belong to the singer, who's probably also the deadbeat: her makeup's running now because of him. The problem? He's a liar from whom the word trust is a profanity, though he swears to tell the truth to her from now on. He'll earn her respect, too, if she can muster some faith in him, and he'll do that by promising to go to church with her and their family—if she'll go out with him on Friday night.

All compromises are two-headed beasts. This one's a battle between weekend excesses and Sunday redemptions. Sounds like life to me. "Church On Sunday" is one of Green Day's unheralded pre-American Idiot songs. Mike Dirnt and Tré Cool play their parts, grinningly amping up the urgency, and the overall feeling is exalted. Armstrong trusted his songwriting instincts in resurrecting and then deconstructing "Black Eyeliner," fashioning part of its lyric as a pre-chorus in "Church On Sunday." (Perhaps in the back of his mind he heard Ray Davies: "If after two weeks you still can’t write your middle-eight, the best course of action is to see a psychiatrist." In the event, Armstrong would use "Black Eyeliner"'s changes and melody eighteen years later in "Kill Your Friends," a tune for his side band the Longshot. It seems that he couldn't shake the song.) What's fascinating is how the intimacies shift between the demo and "Church On Sunday." It's fun to imagine that the kids in "Black Eyeliner" are the grown-ups in "Church On Sunday." They were really just playing makeup the first time around. Things felt compelling and intense, sure, but no one was around to tell them just how intense things would get in the future: marriage, family, lies, trusts broken, healing forged. 


Here's Pete Townshend, one of Armstrong's heroes, in a recent interview in Guitar Tricks Insider: "I don't feel the need to celebrate adolescence anymore. I'm starting to get bored with writing about it. It's starting to become a semi-middle aged attitude." He continued, 
I don't feel at all ill at ease with where I am. I don't feel I'm suffering from maturity. I'm quoting myself there. I said that in an interview with Melody Maker—the best thing I ever said—that somebody suffers from maturity. A lot of people walk around acting like adults. It's got nothing to do with morality or dignity. I mean you can be free or you can act stupidly, but you can still be dignified. Sometimes you can still be within the law.
Armstrong gets it. In "Black Eyeliner," the singer wants to get closer emotionally to his partner by looking the same as her, two like-spirited outsiders clasping hands and snarling at the world in their DIY makeup. In "Church On Sunday," all he sees is just how impossibly far he is from her now. All grown up.

"Black Eyeliner" ca. 1997, demos, Nimrod box set (2023)

"Church On Sunday," Warning (2000)

Photo of Armstrong via Pinterest

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Following the sound

Commercial irrelevance doesn't always end the life of a songDamnation 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 clichés 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.

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