Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing about music

I love discovering the where-else that a song that's taken me somewhere might take me as I think and write about it, yet something essential's lost in the process. I like to explore the mystery of music, how an arrangement of notes and chords and words played by strangers sometimes half the world away from me and decades ago can come to mean so much to me personally, now, how that meaning, though urgently felt, is often difficult to describe, existing in a kind of pre-language bliss. I guess I'm as interested in the atmosphere a song creates, and is created in, as much as I am in the nuts-and-bolts of composing and playing. How Al Jackson strikes his snare in such a way to evoke both power and tenderness; how a three-chord rock and roll song banged out by kids in a basement or garage might reach emotional depths that the most dimensional literature does; how close-harmonies can drop me to my knees and make me cry, but only from some vocal pairings, not others...all of this amazes and so deeply interests me, and as a writer I try and make sense of it, failing often (to my ears, anyway).

In "To Fashion a Text" Annie Dillard says, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them." This is true, and this is melancholy. Once I've explored a song or an album or a performance that I love, especially one that I've loved for many years—and, like any memory, have played and replayed and thus shaped and re-shaped in my head for all of those years—the mystery is replaced with the attempt to understand. The irrational with the rational, I guess, sound with sense, or ineffability with comprehension, the unknown with known. Loving a song for decades means giving over to myth it creates, and writing about that song debunks the myth. Sometimes as a music writer I feel what folks must've felt when science explained lightning.

When I write about music, I open a window and something powerful and unnameable escapes the room for good. Why bother, then? Hang on, I've got to flip the record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Just like a Human Being

EC and the Attractions, 1978
If had to choose one song that fulfills the promises that rock and roll makes, it'd be "Lipstick Vogue," the ferocious track Elvis Costello cut with the Attractions in late 1977/early 1978 at Acton Studios, in London. Written in a flurry, the song's rhythm was inspired by Costello's rides on the Metropolitan London Underground as those journeys dovetailed with the propulsive Byrds track "I See You," from Fifth Dimension (1966). Lay the rocking to-and-fro of a tube ride over Jim McGuinn and David Crosby's raga-inflected soundscape and you have the taut sinew of "Lipstick Vogue." Costello later said, "I didn't mention this bit to [Attractions drummer] Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work," adding, "I stand by every word."

"Lipstick Vogue" is a remarkable performance. Thomas's driving drums, a snare-and-tom attack that ebbs and flows throughout—a pulse that quickens and slows and quickens—, Bruce Thomas's high-end worrying on bass, and Steve Nieve's paranoid organ lines amp the energy and anxiety levels of the song, and sound like nothing less than the inside of your body the moment when you're angry, resentful, proud, and vindictive, your heart racing and blood pounding. (How'd the band get a mic inside me?) The song's subject is Costelloian: a hot-temper persona rails against someone who's self- and surface-obsessed, mean, teasing, and dismissive, unable or unwilling to see the heart and depth of the man she's throwing away. The chorus suggests that the singer sees something more in her than she does, that she's more than just a prevailing fashion or style; that she can't or won't see this fill him with spite. That old story. The song features one of Costello's most biting opening verses, spat out in Elvis's signature early-career style:
Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
and other lines that have become iconic:
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them

You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
But it's the Attractions' performance that elevates and adds dimension to the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As in all great rock and roll, it feels as the musicians have to catch up to the song though they're the ones playing it, creating yet chasing after something that in its eight-note urgency, blend of loud and quiet passages (the vitriolic verses and chorus, the take-a-deep-breath middle), and hurtling, forward momentum embodies what the lyrics alone can't fully. I love a song that sounds at the end as if the band was amazed at where their playing took them.

What does rock and roll promise? That a song you can never quite catch up to can say everything you're feeling in a moment of passion.

Look at this kicking garage band, from a June 21, 1978 show for Rockpalast at WDR Studio L, in Cologne, West Germany. Incendiary:

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Worth Remembering

At its best, Roger Ebert's writing was a moving blend of observation and insight. Ebert's tone was marvelous, and inspiring: he wrote accessibly about complex issues in a casual, uncluttered style that never sacrificed depth for clarity. I strive in my own writing for that mix, and fail far more often than Ebert succeeded weekly—and, later, regularly, when he turned to blogging near the end of his life. His late essays are fantastic, and are likely to be considered among the best of our age.

I'm finally getting around to reading his memoir Life Itself, published in 2011 two years before his death, a largely chronological, detail-heavy reminiscence. (I have yet to see the film.) If it in places gets bogged down by Ebert's amazing and generous memory, and threatens to go under the stream of events and the men and women he met in his amazing life, the passages where Ebert takes a wide-angle lens on larger subjects—such as as his adolescence in downstate Illinois, alcoholism, world traveling, illness, spirituality, and endless coincidences and charmed moments of serendipity—glow with humane, universal discoveries. His writing about movies is, of course, terrific. Two graphs in particular exhibit that Ebertian knack for chasing a larger subject in a narrow one, for writing generously about the democratic love for popular art, even crappy popular art, and for pleasure as an argument for itself (to paraphrase another great critic, Emily Nussbaum). Writing about his film reviewing career, which fell into his lap (he was planning on being an op-ed writer and then a novelist), Ebert acknowledges that "There is something unnatural about just...going to the movies."
Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. “Get a life,” they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as i they've gotten everybody else's. [Gene] Siskel described his job as "covering the national dream, beat," because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
A bit earlier, he quotes something that the film critic Pauline Kael said to him about her reviewing process, a line that was very influential to Ebert: "I go into a movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me." This is a wonderful sentiment and critical approach, putting aside agenda and bias and trusting that your response to something might have a representative quality to it, one as applicable to the viewing of great works of art as to the next Adam Sandler film. I miss reading Ebert every week describing what happened to himself in the dark.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream...The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
    —Lou Reed

I think Lou Reed is a creep.
   —The Dictators, "Two Tub Man," Go Girl Crazy

Ezra Furman's 33 1/3 book on Reed's Transformer moves among many impulses. Furman's respectful, adoring, obsessive, overly forgiving, overly harsh, indulgent, embarrassed, knowledgeable, joyous, stubborn, and skeptical in his take on Reed's iconic second album, careful not to absolve Reed of his racism and sexism as he extols his brave, idiosyncratic navigation of his queer identity. It's a great read, equal parts autobiographical and critical, doing what the nervier books in the Series do: risking reverence and personal crushing at the expense of objectivity, and loving the friction that comes when those fanly impulses rub up among each other. (Deeply personal, the book's likely to be embraced by many, and dismissed by some.) Furman, a songwriter and musician, is at his best when he talks about the tensions in Reed's gestures. Is he gay? Queer? Straight? Or does he ignore labels and try to live among them? And is he sincere or bullshitting, anyway? The album's "gay-themed songs are hiding in plain sight," Furman writes. "Many listeners were amazed that the line 'even when she was giving head' was not censored on UK radio stations; the censors were, reportedly, not familiar with the term."
But listening forty-odd years later, with the shock value of sexual songs considerably if not totally dulled, the non-explicit lyrics are where the real intrigue lies. These songs fascinate, not for the excess and over-the-top deviance that was associated with Lou Reed in the sixties, but rather for their understatement, their partially submerged aggression, and the damaged personality they both mask and expose.

Monday, April 30, 2018


I've been playing this ultra obscure '66 Texan flip-side really loud these days. I discovered it years ago on the inestimable Back From The Grave series (God bless Tim Warren), and info on this blog filled in the blanks. I love the loner details in the verses—one mouth to feed, sleep all day up all night, no pals but lots of gals. And does he answer his phone or not? It's hard to decipher his punk mumbling.

I especially love the strange middle—1:09 to 1:45—where Denny Murphy shouts and yelps and graphically dramatizes the self-conscious plight of the born loser:
People, they just don't understand
They see me comin', they shake their heads
They say,"Look at him, he's a born loser
Well, alright. Were it not for the 12-bar changes under-girding this garage playlet of social dislocation, Murphy sounds just like another misfit 1,100 miles north, who'll be similarly yowling his outsider pain and glory a few years later. It's highly unlikely that James Osterberg heard this regional single—it was pressed in only 500 copies—but there was something in the air, alright.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ah, Weekend...

'Cause when that yellow moon's on the wane... 

...bye bye, tomorrow... 

...back to somethin' that I'd lost somewhere, somehow along the way.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Move to It

I love this weird, abstractly affecting quote by Keith Richards, from Terry Southern's "Riding the Lapping Tongue" from 1972:
I usually do it with the idea of its being moved to.

Photo of Richards in New York City in 1972 by Bob Gruen, via Morrison Hotel.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Turn it Down, Turn it Up: Roberta Cruger on Creem

In Evelyn McDonnell's and Ann Powers's anthology Rock She Wrote, Roberta Cruger describes the heady days of early Creem Magazine, where she was a media editor. Detroit, early 1970s: "Our lives had been changed by music, maybe saved," she writes.
Inspired by such Dylan lyrics as “the vandals took the handles” or knocked out by Hendrix, Zeppelin,‘Howlin’ Wolf . . . the list is endless. It expressed our youthful ideals and our subsequent anger at not reaching them. We distinctly felt a necessary part of a chapter in history, as if we were making a difference by challenging the status quo. Something important was occurring and a revolution was at stake. Like the future’s bigger brother, we were willing to take our parents’ and society’s licks so the world would be a better place. “Turn it down” made us increase the volume. Humor was our safety valve—it helped give us perspective, relieved the tension. Creem tapped into this situation, connecting the dotted lines, trying to make sense of it and find our place in it all.

There was a sense that we felt fortunate to contribute to this legacy, an excitement akin to Liverpool, Memphis, a Seattle of the seventies, or any burgeoning center of talent. The synergy of ideas spawned in this fertile environment was a product of the uniquely displaced times. Fearful of the creative charge dissipating, avoiding the flaccid was paramount. Subject to heavy neurotic tendencies and fueled by adverse conditions, we were free to be raw and unchecked. The inmates were running the asylum—immature, to be sure, but writing was an outlet that kept us from self-destructing.
A bit later, she describes Creem's Lester Bangs's manic methodology, of a piece with so many other descriptions of the brilliant, complex writer:
He’d sit bobbing his head to Velvet Underground or Black Oak Arkansas or hollering along to James Brown for inspiration. His cockapoo puppy danced in circles for attention in front of him. Earphones spared the household during these weekends. We’d walk by, ignoring him, convinced he wasn’t from the same planet. By Monday morning, the den, where he’d camp next to a stereo, smelled of his ripe oxidation. The wall was lined with empty pints of Rebel Yell. He’d finally pass out with some megatreatise strewn about him, drummed out in an overnight spurt that magically linked the above acts into a cohesive concept. He blinded everyone with his prolific pieces that defied editing. He just couldn’t stop himself, in a number of ways.
Earlier, she recalls that when Bangs first showed up at the Creem offices, he'd arrived "like a lost cartoon character, his suitcase really wrapped in rope and wearing a wide goofy grin."

God, said Mies van der Rohe, is in the details.


Here is Scott Crawford's Kickstarter page for Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine, a documentary in the works.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Baseball in Sunshine!

Yesterday I took in my first baseball game of the year—an aluminum bat affair in DeKalb, Illinois. My Huskies were taking on the RedHawks of Miami of Ohio, and I sat in the welcome sun right behind home plate. The afternoon was especially glorious after (?) the brutal winter that has settled gloomily over northern Illinois like penance, and the crowd, more than four hundred of them, were grateful, lively, and loud, helped in decibel level by the visiting NIU football and women's basketball teams who, with their coaching staff, filled one side of the bleachers and yelled and screamed in support. It was a blast. Football head coach Rod Carey eventually moved down to the front row to sit with his peers and family and to let his players have a good time without Dad around. He had to wipe away many a smile and smirk as his charges laid into the opposing team with a little coarseness and a lot of goodhearted ribbing. Families were in attendance, little kids were running around, the sun was high: a tonic.

I enjoyed popcorn, a beer, and the pleasing sight of young kids playing baseball with earnestness, skill, and enthusiasm. I had to leave after the fifth, by which time the Huskies were in control —behind Senior Brad Wood's two-run double down the right field line, part of a loud four-run fourth inning that also included two Huskies getting plonked by pitches with the bases juiced. Miami's crestfallen Spencer Mraz suddenly looked like one of my students out there on the mound.

Huskies won, 5-2, improving their MAC record to 3-9. Hey it's early, kind of.

And remember:

Monday, April 16, 2018

Wherever relief can be found

Robert Gordon's new book Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music's Hometown is wonderful. In it, Gordon gathers his many magazine pieces over the years, and in a pleasingly noisy kaleidoscope captures the warmth, freakiness, and unique history of Bluff City and its music-making  denizens, from Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Alex Chilton to Tav Falco, the Fieldstones, and Bobby "Blue" Bland, and many more in between. Gordon writes with humor, great respect, and honesty about his city's unfortunate cultural divides, its hidden gems, its juke joints and dive bars and picnics, and its hard-earned humanity. So many of the places Gordon writes about are long gone, as are many of the people he profiles, but his writing is so detail-rich and narratively engaging that the city and its outskirts feel palpably present, page after page. I half-expected my clothes to smell smoky after reading about some of the dimly-lit bars and joints Gordon has obsessively, affectionately haunted over the years, and that he brings to life in his pieces.
Great stuff, the book is nearly worth it for the searching and self-interrogative preface alone, where Gordon writes about the siren-call and the difficulties of freelancing and of the ways his comfortable suburban upbringing both insulated and prepared him for his life's work, and where he lands on a gorgeous definition of the blues, and by extension, of his own aesthetic:
Blues is the mind's escape from the body's obligation. Blues amplifies the relief whenever and wherever relief can be found. The scarcity of that respite makes it ecstatic.

Saturday, April 14, 2018


I've been listening to Lyres recently, and pulled out 1988's A Promise Is A Promise today. I was struck by a shaming memory but also a feeling of loss. Many have written about and lamented the diminution in scale of album artwork since the CD era, a shrinkage doubled down, as it were, in the MP3/streaming era. Jeff Connolly's dubious artwork—a mean-spirited fifteen-act storyboard of rock and roll touring excess and sexism—was featured in full narrative glory on the cover of A Promise Is A Promise, and I won't soon forget the look of disgust on my girlfriend's face as we sat together in the Washington DC Metro after I'd bought the album. My face hot, I probably defended the cover with defensive, twenty-something irony; now I roll my eyes at it in embarrassment. I wish I'd bought it on CD or squinted at the cover on my phone. A hell of a lot less implicating.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Sonic Bliss: Ty Segall at The Vic

Ty flying high.
A little-known story: sometime in late 1973 or early 1974, Marc Bolan heard a rumor that the Beatles had wanted to record Revolver in Memphis, Tennessee, but logistics and other issues had made that impossible. Intrigued, Bolan took it upon himself to record his own version of Revolver in Memphis, with area musicians, at Muscle Shoals Studio. A tussle with his management and his label buried those tapes, which somehow—no one's sure how, exactly—ended up in the late 70s in the hands of a New York City dee jay, a funk devotee with a Move/E.L.O. obsession and stack of cherished prog rock records that he kept quiet about. Perennially stoned, he remixed those tapes, playing amateur sax on a couple tracks and bringing in a fuller horn section for others, playing Black Sabbath records on down times for inspiration. Those tapes languished in his apartment for decades, heard by a few friends, and had assumed Holy Grail status among Bolan fans. Only recently have they been discovered....

Well, none of that happened. But on June 8, 1987, Ty Segall was born, and he grew up to make Freedom's Goblin, a close sonic approximation of the imagined history above. Last night at The Vic in Chicago, Segall bust open his recent clutch of songs (there are many) in a riveting set, part low-fuse, part explosive. I'd seen Segall a few years back perform a terrific solo acoustic set at Empty Bottle, and I was amped to see him in front of a loud, electric band. Segall lives in the narrow place between major and minor keys, but his songs turn that small place into an wide vista. His growls, falsettos, and nasal singing are in service to stoner dirges, garage stomps, and surprisingly gorgeous melodies, sometimes all in the same song. ("Rain," from the new album, navigates these intervals especially wonderfully.) His Freedom Band—Emmett Kelly on second rhythm/lead guitar, Charles Moothart on drums, Mikal Cronin on bass, and Ben Boye on keyboards—were loud and on-point, yet finessed, and loose enough to relax some songs into jams, Segall and Kelly trading licks and harmonizing leads as Boye laid thick textures on top. Boye looked like a kid watching a magic trick, entranced and smile-struck, and that blissy countenance was repeated among fans in the packed venue. With his messianic hair and beatific face, Segall has something of the magic touch about him right now, and I half expected to see him on the street afterward playing for a crowd of knocked-out disciples, leading with vision. He was laconic throughout—he muttered thank you a half hour into his set, and asked for a hand for the horn section, but that was about all he said, letting his fluid guitar playing and weighty, vibe-channeling stage presence do all the speaking for him.


Driving into the city for the show, I listened to Freedom's Goblin, sent again by the rich variety of songs, rockers to ballads to jams, all held together by Segall's considerable chops and his sonic curiosity—you can almost see his concentration when you listen. The album ends with a heartbreaking, transcendent version of "Sleeper" (the title track to Segall's 2013 album) buried in "And, Goodnight," a twelve-minute mid-paced, Television-like, twin-guitar jam, and as I headed down into Lower Wacker Drive, the guitars reached a crescendo as I made a hard right turn down and onto the city's floor. "And, Goodnight" is the perfect song to listen to in the shadows and gentle turns of Lower Wacker, a favorite drive of mine as I emerge at the end with glistening Lake Michigan at my feet. The song ended just as I turned onto Lake Shore Drive, and it's not an overstatement to say that I was altered a bit after the grandeur of that song, a vibe I managed to keep alive while on the freezing streets in an a bar or two preceding the show, a warmth Segall and his band stoked over the course of a wonderful night.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

"We are Four New Fevers"

A very interesting video popped up on YouTube recently, footage of an infamous Fleshtones tour of Italy in 1987 from which Peter Zaremba was notably absent. (Read all about the dysfunction and subsequent fallout in Sweat.) Reduced to a four-piece, the Fleshtones cancelled some gigs and gamely played others (Zaremba finally showed up for a show in Greece with Hoodoo Gurus and the Dream Syndicate.) Here, Streng, an unwitting front man, leads the band—Bill Milhizer, Gordon Spaeth, and Robert Burke Warren—through "Legend of A Wheelman," "Southern Twitch," "Way Down South," "Mean Ole Lonesome Train," "The Dreg/Hexbreaker," and "Return of the Leather Kings"; Warren sings lead on his track, "I Can't Do Without You." These odd "Fleshtones shows" were essentially Full Time Men gigs, Streng's side band with Milhizer, Warren, Spaeth, and guest musicians. They'd record a full length album Your Face My Fist, in January of 1988.

A bright side to all of this discord: the Fleshtones would later perform a make-up show in Italy at a beach near Rome. At the conclusion of the gig, Peter and Bill jumped into the ocean and swam away as the rest of the band was finishing Jody Reynolds’ “Endless Sleep,” a tune about a guy who saves his girlfriend from drowning. “They had set the stage up on the beach,” Peter remembers. “By the time we were playing, the tide had come up and there was water coming up under the stage. We were expecting to get electrocuted any second. It seemed like the only appropriate way to end a show like that was to swim away.” Peter and Bill, tom-drum in hand, ended up somewhere down the beach. “There was another party going on in an establishment on the beach,” Bill laughs. “So we walked in there soaking wet because we didn’t want to come back to the Fleshtones-show area just yet. That would blow the exit!”

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