Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Electric Sound of the City

This brief passage from early in Ed Ward's terrific, ambitious, and fact-driven The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One 1920-1963 captures the excitement of Muddy Waters's band's plugged-in vibe, a sound that jolted a city and gazed at the future:
By [the late 1940s], the Muddy Waters-Jimmy Rogers-Baby Face Foster band had added another artist: Marion Walter Jacobs, whom Rogers knew from Mississippi as “a little squirrel-faced kid” who played harmonica. After being blasted out of bed one morning by the sound of a harmonica player performing at he Maxwell Street Market near his house, Rogers headed down there to find the kid, now an adult, playing like crazy, and took him over to meet Muddy. In no time, the band found a home at the Club Zanzibar, at Ashland and Thirteenth, just around the corner from Muddy’s home, where they started playing blues with a power and authority that was brand new. Some of it was the volume from those electric instruments (and Little Wa1ter’s using a microphone to amplify his harmonica), and some of it was the down-home sound, including that of the slide guitar that Muddy transformed with electricity, that reminded homesick immigrants of life in the South—but with the electric sound of the city. Nobody else in Chicago was doing this, and other musicians would come to gape.
Here's Muddy on guitar with Big Crawford on bass in '48, not full-band electric, but electrifying nonetheless:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Field Recordings at Literary Hub

The nice folks over at Literary Hub are running the title essay of Field Recordings from the Inside, along with a Spotify playlist that I've created especially for the book, highlighting many songs, from the well-known to the obscure, that I write about in the book. Read along as 10cc, Reigning Sound, Ishman Bracey, X, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dave Brubeck, Foreigner, the Monkees, the Detroit Cobras, Hank Williams, Sam & Dave, the Clash, Drive-By Truckers, Captain & Tennille, Southern Culture On The Skids, Paul Stanley, Terry Jacks, and many more serenade ya.

Here are the essay's opening graphs:
My younger brother had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds. We’d be listening to a 45 or an LP, and if I moved the RPM knob one way or the other and the song lurched into nasal, pinched hysteria or growled down to a menacing dirge, Paul would cover his ears, his eyes flashing. Sometimes he’d dash from the room; sometimes he’d cry. I can’t claim largesse these many decades later, manfully acknowledging that I soothed my younger brother in his distress—once in a while I’d torture him, quickly switching a record to the wrong speed to see his (predictable) reaction. Older-Sibling Job Description, maybe, but an unkind responsibility not without its trails of remorse. Inside of me: that a record could be insidious, that music has an interior darkness I didn’t know about. Look what it can do.
In the spring and summer of 1975, “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc was in regular rotation in the Top 40, reigning for two weeks at number one on the U.K. charts and peaking at number two on Billboard. Composed by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the song is famous for its haunting tones and otherworldly choral effect, studio-created by massing more than 250 vocal harmonies, a mammoth, labor-intensive undertaking in the era before digital sampling. Band members Stewart, Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme each sang a single note in unison that was then mixed, dubbed, and re-dubbed across sixteen tracks, looped, then played in a heartbreaking descending-then-ascending melody via keyboards and faders. An airy construction, the song begins in medias res, the instrumentation spare throughout: a Fender organ in the left channel mutters softly, a bass drum thumps quietly in the center, a strummed acoustic guitar whispers in the right. The effect might be the closest a pop song has ever gotten to reproducing a dream, the loose ends of experience beyond language. “I’m Not in Love” is less a tune than a field recording from the inside of your body, your heart chambers’ vérité.
Turn it up.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

click-clack pop-BOOM

Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.” - See more at:
In his obituary of legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield, Jon Caramanica quotes a memorable passage from a feature that originally ran in 2015 in Isthmus, an online magazine produced in Madison, Wisconsin, where Stubblefield lived for many years and where he died, yesterday, at the age of 73. "Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn.," Bob Jacobson writes,
where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air— pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM—hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks—click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.”
What a fantastic, endlessly evocative image of Americana this is: a kid next to an open window, playing with and up against concrete, gray, and steel elements all around him—factories coughing, trains barreling by—all of the ugly noise coming back at him, bigger now, off of some eternal mountainside as the he loses himself in the din, intuits rhythm, syncopates, creates something new and funky. It sounds like an origin story too good to be true.

Some of Stubblefield's finest work is on display in the impossibly funky "I Got the Feeling," recorded in January of 1968 at Vox Studios in Los Angeles, and released as a James Brown single in April:

Stubblefield grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he taught himself how to play the drums by absorbing the percussive industrial sounds that surrounded him. “I had no training at all. I just taught myself how to play and how to feel,” says Stubblefield. “There was a factory there that puffed out air — pop-BOOM, pop-BOOM — hit the mountains and came back as an echo,” says Stubblefield. “And train tracks — click-clack, click-clack. I listened to all that for six years, playing my drums against it.” - See more at:

Here's the master more recently, playing and holding forth:

Saturday, February 18, 2017

This Grand Show

A few of Richard Renaldi's terrific photographs from his exhibition This Grand Show at Benrubi Gallery in New York City, from Spring 2014. Renaldi captures that dissolving line between heralded arrival and slow departure, amusement and abandonment, as human and heartbreaking, and as stubborn, an intersection as there is. Grand show, indeed.
ChallengeR, Hawi, Hawaii, 2007
Igloo, Homer, Alaska, 2008
Maxime, Cairo, Illinois, 2008
Sumatra, Montana, 2009

Galaxy 8122, Los Angeles, California, 2005
Dodge, Miami, Florida, 2011

Friday, February 17, 2017

More on "The Performanest Man"

Lately I've been reading everything I can about, and listening to every recording of, the wild Mississippi blues singer, guitarist and performer extraordinaire Guitar Slim, born Eddie Jones, who I wrote about a little while ago here. In addition to Randy McNutt's Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll, Tom Aswell's terrific Louisiana Rocks! The True Genesis of Rock & Roll is a solid source of information on Slim, who was born in 1926 and died in 1959, and whose tragic life story is as cloudy and full of early holes as it is dynamically interesting. Slim's recording career was brief—stops at the Imperial, Bullet, Specialty, and Atco labels; Specialty, via Fantasy, released the indispensable Sufferin' Mind compilation in 1991—and though the influence of his recordings has been palpable, his true legend issued from the stage, which he commanded, and left behind in smoke and rubble in his inimitable style.

Slim, who's dye his hair and shoes to match his varied and colorful suits, was a rock and roller at heart—tyranny of taxonomy aside, what I mean is that he recognized intuitively that vital performing isn't relegated to a stage: he entered clubs playing a guitar, left the club playing a guitar while on the shoulders of his valet, and sometimes even drove away from a venue still playing the guitar. He understood that spectacle, grins, and a self-assured, grinning exuberance is as essential to making and delivering music as the capo he called his "choker" and getting the levels right in a studio (a technical nicety he usually ignored, God bless him). Years before Jerry Lee Lewis and later-day rock and roll bands like the Fleshtones, and decades before wireless guitars, the long-snake-guitar-chord trailing Slim regularly broke down the wall between performer and audience member, a thrilling and memorable gesture that seemed to be native to him, and which sent his audience into delirium, and his co-performers into envy, and then resignation. Slim performed ably off the stage to, if in an often vexed and reckless manner: at the end of his bfief life his body was weakened by years of alcohol abuse, and he left behind a string of common-law wives, and children. But, man, how I wish I could've seen him play.


To get a flavor of the Slim, onstage, in the studio, and in hotel bacchanal, here are some observations and memories from a few guys who were close to the fun. From Aswell's book:
Taking the name Guitar Slim, he began experimenting in distorted overtones a full decade before Jimi Hendrix. Wearing his loud suits and flaunting his dyed shoes and hair, he would come onto the stage with more than three hundred feet of microphone wire connected to his guitar. Invariably, at some point in his performances, he would climb onto shoulders, and the two would walk through the crowd, out the front doors, and across the street, never missing a beat. Motorists would often come to a complete stop to gawk at the wildly dressed black man sitting on his valet’s shoulders and playing a guitar. Inside, the band would occasionally incur Slim’s wrath by unplugging his guitar from the amp and playing a completely different number as a prank while he was outside.

New Orleans songwriter-pianist Al Reed said Guitar Slim had a greater impact on the electric sound than any other guitarist. Once, Slim and Fats Domino were scheduled to engage in a “Battle of the Blues” at the Monroe Civic Auditorium. Fats was scheduled to go on last because he had several hit records. Before the show, Slim warned Fats that he was going to run him off the stage.

The auditorium was packed and true to his word, Slim had the crowd going wild. Slim walked off the stage with his guitar, slipped out the back door of the auditorium, and got into a car, still playing. No one knew where Slim had gone. When Fats came on, he told the people, "Ain’t gonna be no battle tonight." Instead, Fats played his regular show.

An important source for Aswell was Jeff Hannusch's I Hear You Knockin': The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, published by Swallow in 1985. Two choice cuts from Hannusch's excellent book:
Earl King remembers seeing Guitar Slim at the peak of his all too short career:

Gatemouth Brown, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and Guitar Slim were all performing one night at the White Eagle in Opelousas, Louisiana. Slim was headlining because "The Things I Used To Do" was a scorcher. They were an sitting in tho dressing room and Guitar Slim walked up to ‘em and said, "Gentlemen, we got the greatest guitar players in the country assembled right here. But when I leave here tonight, ain't nobody gonna realize you even been here." Well, they all laughed, but that's exactly what happened.

Slim come out with his hair dyed blue, blue suit, blue pair of shoes. He had 350 feet of mike wire connected in his guitar, and a valet carrying him on his shoulders all through the crowd and out into the parking lot. Man, he was stopping cars driving down the highway. No one could outperform Slim. He was about the performanest man I've ever seen.
When Slim came in off the road, he stayed upstairs at the Dew Drop. "Slim liked |o be where we action was," chuckles Earl. "In fact, you knew Slim was back in town, ‘cause early in the morning, around seven-eight o'clock, if he was tanked up, you'd hear them amps and P.A. going off. People'd be calling me police, ‘cause you could hear Slim three blocks away! And here's Slim up in his room with his shorts on, goin’ through his stage routine.

"And Slim‘s room was something else, man," laughs Earl. "If you went up there, thcre‘d always be about seven or eight different women up there. He'd have his songs written with eyebrow pencil on pieces of paper tacked to the wall."

Two more essential eyewitnesses to Guitar Slim's storm and spectacle. Legendary producer Jerry Wexler lured Slim over to Atlantic records near the end of Slim's life; Wexler picks up the story in his indelible Sufferin' Mind liner notes:
...I will never forget our first session with him at Cosimo's J&M Studio, A rehearsal has been arranged in a back o' town hotel ballroom the day before the date, and Ahmet [Ertegun] and I and the arranger, Renald Richard from Thibodeaux, awaited him with growing trepidation as the hours went by and the was no sign of Slim.

The next thing we saw was a tidal wave of humanity pouring down the street, children and grownups, couriers announcing to the world “Here come Slim! Slim on the way!" A fleet of three red Cadillacs pulled up, and himself emerged in a mobile bower of chicks in red dresses—matching the Cadillacs—and a retinue of courtiers, senechals, janissaries, mountebanks, and tumblers.

Slim did not agitate himself getting the rehearsal started; first thing he told us was he had to change into his singing pants. As he was changing, the room filled to bursting with his public, an excited, euphoric crowd of chattering, laughing civilians. When Slim finally appeared, we explained that what we were about to do was prepare tomorrow’s record session, and that the audience would require dispersing. He nodded gravely, plugged in a guitar cord that had to be, sans exaggeration, 100 feet long. He called to his sidemen for a blues in B-flat and as they vamped, he circled the room, addressing each of his admirers, one by one. Most of them were given congé (Slim explaining that we were rehearsing) but a sprinkling of devotees, all female, were allowed to stay.

One of the ladies in red dresses explained to us that she was a shake dancer and that Slim had scooped her up in Las Vegas just three days before, on the way down. “You know that $2000 advance you gave him?” We knew. “Well, I got most of it now—at $500 a week.” She dimpled charmingly.

The next day we cut four sides with Slim in a wild session during which he kept sneaking up the gain on his guitar and blowing the tubes in Cosimo’s tape recorder, as well as the lights in the studio—a story to be told another time.

Finally, here's one legend on another:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Another Notable for Nolan

Every baseball fan knows the name Ron Bloomberg. If for nothing else, he'll be forever remembered as the first Major League player to bat as a Designated Hitter. On April 6, 1973, Bloomberg stood in against Boston Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, and drew a base-on-balls, his future on the back of baseball cards ensured.

A few days ago, I got to wondering who the last pitcher was to make a plate appearance in the regular season before the D.H. rule went into effect. I headed to trusty Baseball-Reference, and learned that there were five A.L. games on October 4, 1972, the final day of the regular season: Boston at Detroit, Texas at Kansas City, Chicago at Minnesota, Milwaukee at New York, and Oakland at California. I assumed that that lone West Coast game was the last contest to finish, yet I just as quickly realized that it could've been a day game. Baseball Reference didn't provide start times, so I was stuck. I was commiserating about this with my buddy Dan Epstein—who knows a thing or two about 1970s baseball history—and he provided evidence, via an October 4th Chicago Tribune previews listing, that the Angels game in Anaheim Stadium began at eight o'clock PST, and was indeed the final game of the regular season:

Nolan Ryan started for the Angels against the soon-to-be crowned World Champion A's. The game mattered little to the Angels—they were mired in second-to-last place in the West Division—and with 92 wins, the A's had locked up a postseason appearance. Ryan took the mound searching for his twentieth win of the season, and he pitched well, scattering five hits and surrendering an earned run in a complete game, his twentieth that year. He struck out ten—bringing his season total to 329—and walked three. Alas, the sleepy Angels hitters provided little run support. Ryan lost the game, 2 to 1.

History, of a sort, occurred in the bottom of the seventh, when Ryan came up to plate with two outs and an opportunity, however unlikely, to tie the game in front of those who remained of an announced attendance of 7,977. Down by two runs, the Angels had a modest tide of momentum going: right fielder Leroy Stanton started off the inning with a double to right. Leo Cardenas grounded to A's second basemen Ted Kubiak, moving Stanton to third. John Stephenson came off the bench to hit for catcher Jeff Torborg, and promptly grounded to first, scoring Stanton. The Angels were within a run of knotting the game, and who should step to the plate but Ryan, then hitting a robust .135. History being occasionally generous with poetic narrative, Ryan, of course, struck out. Inning, and mild threat, over. The last pitcher in the American League to bat in a regular season game was the future all-time strikeout king who'd pitch seven no-hitters, one of the most dominant pitchers of his or any era and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He whiffed. Baseball is hard.

I couldn't find an image of Ryan batting with the Angels. This shot from the 1985 All Star game will have to do, incongruous Padres batting helmet and all. Ruthian, Ryan was not.

Ryan baseball bard via Baseball Cards. Ryan batting via Uni Watch: History of the Midsummer Classic.

Monday, January 30, 2017

My Life's a Mess

Five years years ago, Pete Townshend published a memoir, Who I Am, which I liked at the time but which hasn't grown on me well. Though stuffed with some terrific details of 1960s rock star culture—including the best on-the-ground description of the Beatles I've read by a musical contemporary; it was their their potency, Townshend marvels, that astounded—and some characteristically Townshendian discourses on the spiritual magnitude of songwriting, the book clouds over in the second half with the author's unfocused musings and obsessions. In places, his bafflement in the face of his own philandering and general ill behavior gets tiresome and predictable. The two takeaways for this reader: 1) Townshend really, really loves sailing; and 2) he'll probably die in front of his laptop, with fifteen music composition tabs open.

If you want more graphic Townshend autobiography, go no further than his 1980 solo album Empty Glass, a personal and deeply idiosyncratic memoir-in-songs. Throughout the record, Townshend's famously expressive, inexpert voice dramatizes his internal struggles and reflections; his singing is naked. He writes about love, sex, writing, death, and fame—each a longstanding passion for him—in material and spiritual iterations; the songs alternately rock ("Rough Boys"), lilt ("Let My Love Open the Door," "A Little is Enough"), and leave the earthly realm in a kind of hymnal bliss ("And I Moved"). Each of the ten songs reflects an aspect of Townshend's complex and contradictory persona—it's Quadrophenia, all over again—and the songs fail to resolve those tensions. Townshend was a drunken and drug-addled (and Keith Moon-grieving) mess when he wrote the album, and the desperation in his personal and public lives is given shape in fascinatingly different ways in the songs. In short, Empty Glass is a lesson in the richness, limitations, and value of the autobiographical impulse. Sometimes I joke about teaching the album in a Memoir class; other times I'm dead serious about doing that.

The title track is the standout. The verses trade Townshend's spiritual concerns—the meaning of living, the uselessness of materialism, the shallowness and vivid promises of rock star posturing, the endless cycle of physical excesses, Ego versus God—his voice at turns mocking and confessional, chiding and vulnerable. The song begins aggressively, Townshend barking over a single, insistent guitar note, and the verses are melodically and rhythmically upbeat, gladly doo-wopping their way along, until things change dramatically at the chorus, when the tone abruptly, and movingly, shades toward confession:
My life's a mess I wait for you to pass
I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass
The melody's heartrendingly beautiful, and Townshend, as he does often when moved, sings near the top of his register, yearning and unembarrassed. This brave and pathetic tavern confession—or is it supplication?—is soon elbowed out of the way by the return of the assertive verses and some classic Townshend guitar licks. (Wasn't this the man who said that rock and roll allows you to dance all over your problems?) Yet the chorus returns, of course—it's the reason the song exists and what it spins outward from, and the truth the singer can't dance away from, or ignore. A playlet, "Empty Glass" is theatrical, almost absurdly so—you can virtually see the lone spotlight on Townshend as he sings this passage—but the honesty of the lyrics and vocal is real.

Near the song's close, Townshend bravely tries one more time to balance the prayerful desolation and dissolution in the chorus with, what, good cheer? Empty bromides? A pep talk?
Don't worry smile and dance
You just can't work life out
Don't let down moods entrance you
Take the wine and shout 
More likely another self-erasing excuse to get wasted. Either way, it doesn't take, unsurprisingly, and that haunted and haunting chorus returns—to my ears, among the most moving and powerful passages Townshend has written—as the weary, accepting guitar notes fade at the song's unresolved end.

In a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus, Townshend explained the song's genesis:
"Empty Glass" is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz–he was a poet in the fourteenth century–used to talk about God's love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God's grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink–the barman being God. It's also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can't fill it up with his love–if it's already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: "This 'Empty Glass'–is that about you becoming an alcoholic?"
The listener hears what the listener hears, filtering the song through her own personal drama and self-absorption and demons, casting sentiments written by a stranger as personal holy writ—that ancient and generous magic trick of art. In one of his greatest songs, Townshend essayed something deeply private and ended up somewhere eternal. 

"Pete Townsend in London pub in 1980" (cropped) via Getty Images. Townshend bleeding photos triptych via The Pulmyears Music Blog.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Enjoy Life

Spring Training games start in twenty-five days.
Roberto Clemente, 1962. Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him: the Legend of Guitar Slim Onstage

I love this passage about New Orleans legend Guitar Slim in Randy McNutt's terrific and overlooked book Guitar Towns: A Journey to the Crossroads of Rock 'n' Roll:
He attracted thousands of customers to the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans. Like Slim, it never shut down. When he climbed up on its stage, he became a Crescent City happening through which customers vicariously fulfilled their fantasies—the women, the adulation, the money, the cars, the no-cares lifestyle. For a few hours, at least, they could forget the kids and the bills. With the hit ["The Things That I Used To Do", January, 1954], Slim finally gained the national audience he needed. He sang at Gleason’s and the Ebony Club in Cleveland, the Club Walahiye in Atlanta, and the Palms Club in Hallandale, Florida. At the Apollo in New York, Slim once became so excited that he wouldn’t stop playing. Stagehands had to drop the curtain, but Slim continued. In Louisiana, his act became a legend. Before battles of the bands, Slim would tell the other performers—Fats Domino, Bobby Bland, and anybody else with enough nerve to share the stage with him—that he would win. In clubs, he’d often walk off the stage and into the street, playing guitar with an electrical cord that stretched, according to varying estimates, from 200 to 350 feet. Sometimes he Stood on the shoulders of a muscular valet. Traffic stopped. Drivers honked. Woman ran up and touched him. He walked on the tops of cars, picking his guitar and somehow not missing a beat.
More epic details from Ted Barron in Perfect Sound Forever:
Every account of Guitar Slim places him as the greatest showman and most outrageous performer in the history of New Orleans music. That's saying something. He would dye his hair the same color as his suit and shoes--sometimes using paint to get the shoe color to match. One week it was red, the next blue, or yellow, and so on.... He would enter a club through the front door, playing while moving through the crowd, and join his band onstage, frequently on the shoulders of his personal valet. He exited the stage in the same fashion, proceeding to his car and driving away while still playing.
Barron's piece featured a rare shot of Slim doing his thing live:
Guitar Slim: what a rock and roll spectacle he must've been onstage—and off!—breaking down the walls between performer and audience well before 1960s and '70s rock and roll and punk bands. Sadly, I can find no footage of Slim playing onstage; he died in 1959. We're reliant upon the memories and first-hand accounts of knocked out witnesses.

Here's a killer b-side, with insane guitar distortion, from 1954:

Photo of Guitar Slim via Innocent Words.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Enter to Win a Free Copy of Field Recordings from the Inside

Goodreads is giving away a five free copies of my new book of music essays, Field Recordings from the Inside. You have until the end of the month to enter (United States, only.) If you're interested, enter here—and spread the word! (You can pre-order the book at Amazon and Indiebound.)

About the book, which is out on February 14 from Soft Skull Press:
“[Bonomo] looks at the ways music influenced and underscored events throughout his life. The best essays here extend that gaze beyond his own life and into those of other artists and their audiences . . . [a] great collection.” —Publishers Weekly

“The writings he collects for this mix tape of memories are deep cuts . . . That is the appeal of this genre-spanning collection, along with the mix tapes: no special musical expertise is necessary for appreciating Bonomo’s point of view or the richly described nostalgia. Just drop the needle, hit play, scroll, or turn the page and enjoy.” —Booklist

“Bonomo’s passion for his subject matter is undeniable, and the verve with which he writes about music is endearing.” —Kirkus Reviews

“What is music? More importantly, what isn’t music? In Field Recordings from the Inside, Joe Bonomo looks at family and faith, country and culture, Mississippi and Memphis, life and death, with sharp eyes (and ears) and a strong heart, shining a light on the past to help arm the present to make sense of the future. If you want beautiful writing in the service of powerful emotions, you want this book.” —Ben Greenman, author of Mo Meta Blues and The Slippage

“It’s so easy for critics to spend all their time worrying over how pop music gets made—the granular technical details, what a song or record means in its various historical or social contexts. Joe Bonomo understands those things, but still returns to what’s arguably the most crucial component of art: how it makes us feel and what it does to our lives. Field Recordings from the Inside is a beautiful, revelatory book about what it means to be a human with headphones on.” —Amanda Petrusich, author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records

“Part memoir, part criticism, Field Recordings From The Inside maps the ways music can define and shape our lives—which, in Joe Bonomo’s case, encompasses local bands and Top 40 one-hit wonders, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, everything that gets inside if your ears are open enough.” —Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken and former Editor-Chief of Spin Magazine

Field Recordings From The Inside is the first book I’ve encountered that expertly blends my two favorite kinds of writing: music criticism and the literary essay. Joe Bonomo combines sound, the self, and the “roll and prank” of an essayistic mind to create a book that skates between discussions of history, records, coming of age, literature, relationships, and great rock-and-rollers. This book is a thoughtful and sonorous pleasure from start to finish.” —Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and Animals Strike Curious Poses.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

demanding and hopeful and desperate and lonely

The idea of "perfection" in rock and roll is kind of counter intuitive: a great rock and roll song threatens to fall apart by the next measure, is played with, and against, a kind of desperation, no matter how fun and liberating it feels. Unless what you've built is built to break, then what you've built is imperfect. But we all know rock and roll perfection when we hear or feel or see it, usually measured in moments: a move to a bridge or chorus; a rawly, surprisingly transcendent solo; 45 reckless seconds in the middle of a song played by a bar band in Somewhereville on a Tuesday night.

The Ramones' "I Just Want To Have Something To Do," the lead track of their fourth album, Road to Ruin, released in the fall of 1978, comes close to my ears to achieving two and half minutes of rock and roll perfection. The song's about nothing and having nothing to so, so it's about everything, on that night anyway. The opening riff is downbeat and tense, suggesting an East Village tableau that's slightly menacing yet is all that's on offer, and we're only five seconds in. (The riff is a variation on the Dictators' "The Next Big Thing," released two years earlier.) The famous first verse—the song was written by Joey—lays out the stakes:
Hangin' out on Second Avenue
Eating chicken vindaloo
I was just wanna be with you
I just wanna have something to do tonight...
I love that he moves from wanting to hang with you, to just wanting something to do; there's a kind of acknowledgement that she might not come through, or be around, or want to hang with him. What's left? No matter that Joey was pushing 30 when he wrote the tune; this kind of desire to make contact is eternal, doesn't die with adolescence. "I Just Want to Have Something to Do" is one of punk rock's great melodramas, and I write that with great affection. In the chorus, Joey, against three chords, aches and climbs up into his vocal range, singing tonight tonight tonight in a poor-man's EV play-let; it's theatrical. The song gains great power in the gang-sung "Wait! Now!" passage—which could've been in the running as the song's title, too, come to think of it—and in the final 40 or so seconds, where the chorus is repeated against those stubborn chords and as commenting guitar leads (likely played by someone other than Johnny; I could be wrong) howl and detonate all over it until the thing crashes to an ambivalent close. Producers Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium recorded and mixed the band's dynamics superbly: crisp, punchy, with an ear tuned to hooks and radio drama. Great stuff. The final 40 seconds are, still, absurdly moving to me, in its below-14th Street widescreen catching everything demanding and hopeful and desperate and lonely about adolescence and desire and kicks—not to mention about guys and girls. And it's one of the great rock and roll songs about New York City, too. Turn it up.

Photo of the Ramones in 1978 via New York Daily News.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Eight Seconds

Rock and roll history is a long, sturdy bridge, elevated on sturdy pillars. The beginning of the bridge is hard to discern now—it's so far back there—and we haven't reached the end yet. A more accurate metaphor might be that same bridge in a thick fog; as history and biases and subjectivity lift, more and more of those pillars are revealed. Or, I'll just make it easy: Eddie and the Hot Rods were a great rock and roll band and they don't get their due. Usually categorized as a pub rock outfit, Eddie and the Hot Rods were a smokin' rock and roll band that made a handful of great records. Their EP Live at The Marquee was released on Island Records in July of 1976—from a mobile recording of a July 9th show—as the UK punk scene was roiling. Their version of "Gloria" segueing into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" vibes off of the same nihilistic energy that the Sex Pistols let loose when, snarling, they attacked and upended the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" a little while later. Earlier that year, the Pistols opened for the Hot Rods at the Marquee and smashed up the joint, and also the Hot Rods' gear; later, in the summer, the Hot Rods would alternate ear-ringing slots at the club with AC/DC.

This performance begins even before the song starts, when one of my favorite rock and roll moments occurs. Singer Barrie Masters, surveying the front of the stage, senses something not quite right, and then gets dismissive:
Move all these chairs, don't want 'em in 'ere! Get up, move 'em all. Can't have chairs in the audience, they get in the way. Get 'em out of here!!
The front of the room cleared for dancing, pogo-ing, and general slamming around, the band rips into "Gloria." It's a fantastic moment, and sounds epochal, practically historic: in eight seconds, one era ends and another begins. That's as long as it takes, sometimes. Feels that way this on this night, anyway. Sitting, that's finished; get up and jump around, 1977's almost here.

And listen to Masters—with Dave Higgs on guitar, Paul Gray on bass, Lew Lewis on harmonica, and Steve Nicol on drums, churning behind him—as he hollers "Satisfaction!" over and over at the song's close, so close to Johnny Rotten's heralding "No Future!" that it could be one transparency laid over another. The Stones roughed up. Pub Rock. Punk Rock. Rock and Roll. The tyranny of taxonomy. What's in a name? Clear those chairs and turn it up.

EP sleeve pic via 45cat
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