Sunday, December 10, 2017

Words in Church

I read with some mild nostalgic alarm that Pope Francis is suggesting a fundamental change in the Lord's Prayer, which I recited so often as a dutiful adolescent, and more recently in my darker moments as a fallen-way agnostic, that the prayer has long settled into my DNA. (I wrote about it at length in an essay, "Occasional Prayer," here.) Francis is critical of the phrase "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," which appears in both English and Italian. In an interview on Italian television, the pontiff observed that the current language of the Our Father prayer "is not a good translation," adding, "It is not He that pushes me into temptation and then sees how I fall. A father does not do this. A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan's temptation." In response, the Catholic church in France adopted new phrasing in its Notre Père. The church wrote:
[T]he first Sunday of Advent, a new translation of the Our Father will come into force in all forms of liturgy. The Catholic faithful will no longer say: "Do not submit to temptation" but "Do not let us enter into temptation." 
This is a crucial difference, as Francis sees it. The Reverand Ian Paul, an Anglican theologian, demurs. "The word in question is peirasmos [from New Testament Greek] which means both to tempt and to be tested," he remarked to The Guardian. "So on one level the pope has a point. But he's also stepping into a theological debate about the nature of evil." Paul added: "In terms of church culture, people learn this prayer by heart as children. If you tweak the translation, you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril."

I'm of two minds. I understand Francis's concern about syntax, that believers reciting the earlier line might be led to believe that God, rather than allowing us to be tempted, is doing the tempting Himself—behaving as a cruel father might, rather than as a wryly understanding one. But part of that line's charge for me came from my belief that God was leading me, or, at least, opening the door, beyond which lay.... And I had the option of following or not. That felt very much like the real world, to me, where, if I understood things correctly, God appeared manifold, everywhere and in everything, and in surprising, complex ways. In the new language, God feels slightly removed from the process, more divine and distant, elevated, not alongside me in and of the world where excesses of all kind beckon. I guess I'd always heard tough love in that tough line.

Or maybe it's just that the new change upsets the poetry of the line, and, as Paul notes, would require me to accept after many, many years of recitation a fundamental change in cadence and music. If you were raised Catholic, the Lord's Prayer and the deep-tissue, hypnotic trance of its weekly- or daily-repeated language were as familiar as your siblings' names, as manifest as the breeze in the air. Yet there's not much at stake for me: I've long identified as an agnostic; I haven't regulalry attended church in decades. As a grumbling aesthete, perhaps, I'm most upset with the meddling of a formative adolescent memory, one in which I was tutored with realizing it in another lesson in the power of language to evoke and stir.


Photo of Saint Andrew the Apostle Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I attended grade school and mass, and served as an altar boy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ridin' High on Electricity

Buddy Guy's lively, unputdownable 2012 autobiography When I Left Home (co-written with David Ritz) is studded with fantastic details of mid-century Chicago blues clubs and bars. Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957, and, under the tutelage of Muddy Waters, eventually wowed crowds in packed clubs on the city's south and west sides with a guitar-slinging showmanship that few had heard, or seen, before. I have to guard against romanticizing the life inside rockin' clubs like the 708, the Checkerboard, or Mel's Hideaway Lounge—while I'd pay big bucks to the time machine inventor we're all patiently waiting for, I recognize that the vast majority of the men and women in these bars were inwardly and outwardly fighting discrimination, low wages (Guy: “money was funny”), and shitty living conditions, a second-class status that many others were privileged to avoid. Sexism, violence and menace were everywhere. Yet reading about the the details of these shows—Guy's, Muddy's, Magic Sam's, Otis Rush's, and others—transport me to these joints, where I'm happy to virtually drink a few and marvel at routine and duress meeting grins and spectacle, turned up to distorted levels.

Early in his book, Guy writes evocatively of the vibrating divide between southern rural and northern urban blues, the step into electricity he and many blues artists made that was, well, electrifying. "Wasn't no way to amp it up. When we was young, we heard those guitars that are now known as acoustic. They were played soft because they were played in a room or on a porch where three or four or five people were gathered. Didn't need to be loud. The blues came through them in a beautiful tone—straight from the heart of the guitarist to the hearts of the folk listening. The softness of those notes did something to the soul. I'd say it soothed the soul."
Now come on up to Chicago and—Lord, have mercy—those the barrooms in Chicago are loud. The folk are happy and excited to be off work, and they wanna talk and tell stories at the top of their lungs. They got energy to release. So if you a musician and wanna be heard, you gotta pump up and project. Baby, you got to shout. That shouting is a thrilling thing to behold. If you went into a Chicago barroom, say, in 1958, you’d be thrilled out of your mind. The electrical music would throw you back on your heels. I loved it so much because, though it was new music, it was also old music. It wasn't nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity.

I cottoned to the electricity because it was something I could turn up. Volume did a lot for me. If I couldn't play better than the guitarists around me, at least I could play louder. I could also play wilder. When I heard the buzzin’ and the fuzz tones distorting the amps, that didn't bother me none. I figured fuzz tones and distortion added to the excitement of the sound. Didn't mind jammin’ notes together in a way that wasn’t proper. Notes crashing into each other was another way to get attention. I learned how to ride high on electricity.
Says Guys succintly: "The blues electricity got into the people."

Guy
Recognizing the need to outplay and outperform other local guitarists, feeling the breath of competition on his neck, Guy made the calculated decision—motivated by native joy and urgency—to show off, and to dismantle the divide between stage and audience, a time-honored, usually nervy, always thrilling rock and roll gesture dear to my heart.

He recalls one snowy night—three-foot drifts along the sidewalk and street—when he hooked up his 150-foot guitar cord and started playing from inside a car parked outside the bar. "The crowd was screaming long before they ever saw me," he writes. Unlike other local guitarists, Guy never sat down when he played. "I never started playing inside the club. No matter how cold or hot the evening, I'd come marching in, my guitar screaming. I might march into the men's room and play from there. Hell, I might march in the ladies’ room and play from there. I’d jump off the bandstand and sit at some pretty woman's table if she was alone. I'd leap up on the bar and play flat on my back. I’d pick the thing with my teeth. I’d put it between my legs and stroke it all sexy. I’d wave it around the room like it was a flag. I'd do any goddamn thing to get them to like me." I would've loved to have been in a club—or the men's room!—and see Guy enter playing his guitar. Boundaries blissfully erased. I'll have another beer.

Guy acknowledges an influence on his showmanship, Guitar Slim, "The Performanest Man," a rocking stage marvel I've written about here and here. Guy recalls going to see Slim play at the Masonic Temple in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I ran over," he writes. "I was the first guy in line to buy a ticket. Cost fifty cent. The hall had a big ballroom. I knew the place would be packed with dancers, and I wanted to be right up on the bandstand. I wanted to see the man’s hands when he played the guitar. Didn't take long before the crowd arrived. Soon it was full. Folks pushing and shoving, but I wasn't moving. Kept my spot so I could see and hear everything. Eight o’clock came and went. Then nine o'clock. Then nine-thirty. At about a quarter to ten the band came on stage and started playing the opening notes of 'The Things I Used to Do.' Man, my heart skipped a beat. It was like someone had poured a quart of whiskey down my throat. I was warm all over. I heard the music alright but I didn’t see Guitar Slim. The guitar kept playing, I thought to myself, Where is he? Where the hell is he?
Guitar Slim
Finally, I heard a buzz in the crowd. Everyone turned around. From the back of the ballroom, coming through the door, was this giant fat man carrying a guitarist on his shoulders. The guitarist was Slim, playing like his life was on the line. Mounted atop the huge guy, Slim looked like a baby. But he was no baby. He was slick as grease and dressed to kill—flaming red suit, flaming red shoes, flaming red-dyed hair. He made his way through the room until everyone was in a stoned fury. When he jumped down form the shoulders of his man, I saw that his guitar was a beat-up Strat that looked like it'd been through two world wars. He wore the guitar low on his hip like a gunslinger. His guitar strap was made of fish wire and the cord to his amp had to be three hundred feet long. Before this, my idea of a guitarist was Lightnin’ Slim, who sat when he played. Lightnin’ was the one who told me that the guitar was designed to be played sitting down. It fit on your lap. That's where I figured a guitar belonged.
Guy adds: "Guitar Slim never sat down. He played his guitar between his legs, played it behind his back, played it on his back, played it jumping off the stage, played it hanging from the rafters. Wasn't nothing Slim wouldn't do and nowhere he wouldn’t go with that beautiful old Strat of his."
The Strat was strong. Its one-piece Maple neck was made with steel and could take a beating. The tough construction allowed Slim to sling it around his hip like a bag of potatoes. I liked how he treated it rough, because that treatment got into the feeling of the music. The music was blistering. It was like the Strat was saying, “Go ahead, throw me around, beat me up, I can take all you got and still sound like a screaming angel from heaven."

Guitar Slim's show thrilled me. He wasn't bending the strings but straight lickin’ 'em. I had heard a little of T-Bone Walker, B. B.'s idol and one of the first to plug the guitar into the wall. I liked how T-Bone could chord the instrument. Slim didn’t know no chords. He was single pickin' with only two fingers, but those two fingers were causing a riot.
~~~

Among other great stories in When I Left Home is the one Guy tells about the hard-partying code among many blues players. Guy had long wanted to see his idol Jimmy Reed play. One night, Guy's at his small apartment in Chicago; his ne'er-do-well roommate's out with his girl, so Guy's trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. "Must have been three in the morning when a knock on the door woke me up. It was Joyce, the lady who'd shown me how the buses and trains worked."
“Buddy,” she said, “hate to wake you, but I remember you saying how you'd give anything to see Jimmy Reed. Well, a friend of mine just got back from Pepper's where Jimmy's playing with his whole band."

That’s all I needed to hear. I jumped out the bed, threw on some clothes, and ran over to Pepper's on 43rd Street. Must have been a helluva night, because people was laid out on the street, drunk on the music or just plain worn out from dancing. Had to step over one guy just to get in the front door.

“Jimmy Reed here tonight?" I asked the bartender.

“Was here. But they through playing.”

“I'd just like to meet him. I'd just like to see him."

“You just did.”

“How's that?" I asked.

"When you was walking into the club, that was the man you stepped over."

I went back out to get me a good look. Bartender was right. Jimmy Reed passed out cold in front of Pepper's, his face in the gutter, his red felt fedora all crushed up against his head.
The blues electricity got into the people, indeed.

~~

I haven't swung by myself to check it out, but Google Street View provides this September 2016 evidence of the state of the legendary 708 Club on East 47th Street, where Guy made his Chicago debut and where Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf, and others played regularly. Conspicuously lacking electricity. Though there are plans to rehab the famous Sydni building, which dates to the 1920s.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Murmur to a Roar

Halfway through his autobiography Face the Music: A Life Exposed, Paul Stanley discusses KISS Alive!, his band's breakthrough 1975 live album recorded variously in Detroit, New Jersey, Iowa, and Cleveland, writing honestly about the post-production sweetening that gave that album its raise-the-roof oomph and stomping vibe. Other KISS band members have weighed in on this album in the past. "[Gene] Simmons claimed in his tell-all that tracks were redone simply to remove a few broken strings and the occasional off-key slip," Dylan Chadwick wrote in "In Defense of Live Rock Overdubs." "More damning accounts from Peter Criss and Producer Eddie Kramer suggest that only the drum tracks are purely live." (KISS Alive! has been scrutinized often; here's just one example.) Many producers of live albums resort to thickening, correcting, or otherwise manipulating recorded tracks in order to present a more listenable album. This isn't news. Musicians often sound defensive about the process, when they're being honest about it at all, as if they're guarding an embarrassing secret.

I really like Stanley's perspective. He remembers that what you take away from a show is less the notes played (or fucked up), less the degree of fidelity to album tracks, less the songs themselves than the playing of them—all of which often amounts to an abstracted recollection of a spectacle, sonic impressions played over and over in your head starting on the walk, drive, or subway ride back home from the show, on a loop for years. Intangibles like the wafting of weed, pushing up against people next to you, the sweat, ringing ears, the deep, letting-go pleasure in your bones of forgetting about work or other pressing matters are impossible to record onto tape or in the digital domain. Stanley gets that. "People have argued whether Alive! is a purely live recording or somehow enhanced," Stanley writes. "The answer is: yes, we enhanced it. Not to hide anything, not to fool anyone."
But who wanted to hear a mistake repeated endlessly? Who wanted to hear an out-of-tune guitar? For what? Authenticity? At a concert, you listen with your ears and eyes. A mistake that passes unnoticed in the moment lives forever when recorded. We wanted to re-create the experience of our show—whatever needed to be done, we did it. The flashpots were enhanced with recordings of cannons, because that’s what they sounded like in person. The audience was jacked up to immerse the listener in the crowd. It was the only way to replicate our concert-on-steroids. We figured the people who celebrated with us at a concert wanted to hear what they remembered, what they perceived.

We also made sure the audience could be heard throughout the show—just as you would experience it live. Most live albums in those days sounded like studio recordings until the song ended, when some applause could be heard between songs. But we wanted to portray the real concert experience. And the back cover paid tribute to those fans who made all that noise and turned our shows into such powerful communal events.
Alternate photo KISS fans at the Alive! show, in Cobo Hall, Detroit. Via Pinterest.
Stanley properly credits Kramer as the mastermind behind this, and the details of the producer's post-production methods are fascinating. "His brilliance in the studio and his innovations in enhancing the recordings were not only ground-shaking, but groundbreaking," Stanley writes.
He had different audience sounds on tape loops that were sometimes twenty feet long, held taut on mic stands and going around so you would never hear a repeat of any fan response. He had all these mic stands set up in the studio with different lengths of audience participation tape running on them so we could bring in actual crowd reaction, whether it was a murmur or a roar. I certainly would never have thought of that—to create different loops of tape and have them going continuously so we could raise or them and lower them and get different crowd reactions at will. It was brilliant.
Chadwick notes that "It’s these kinds of cleanups that established KISS as the fan’s band, that spawned the “KISS Army” and established KISS’ identity as a traveling hard rock carnival replete with kabuki makeup, pyro and blood."
Where fans once had to trek to the arena, they could now simply spin the record and scream alongside the crowd themselves. Maybe KISS would’ve still broken out. There’s no denying the early catalogue up to and including Destroyer. I just don’t think they’d be THE band still plugging “farewell” tours into the later part of the millennium. Alive established KISS as something vital, living and liberating, that would broach any barrier to come into your town, rock your GD balls off, and save you from the doldrums of your shitty 9-5.
The iconic cover photo for KISS Alive! was staged, arranged spontaneity photographed by Fin Costello at the empty Michigan Palace, not Cobo Hall where the show was recorded. You wanted the best? Here's your memory of it, which is sometime a greater document of a night of rock and roll than a recording itself.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

You Don't Matter

I love these comments from Stanley Plumy in The Writers Chronicle (subscription) on the relative insignificance of the human. It's always a tonic to be reminded of my puniness and ordinariness, such as this morning as I railed against the heavens because the internet was spotty. Perspective, indeed. 

"All you have to do is look up at the sky—at the great dimensions of the sails of the clouds or the clarity of Venus in a clear night sky or the dusty Milky Way from the perspective of the sea," Plumly said to Jacqueline Kolosov. "The immensity beyond our withering comprehension is more than humbling, it is humiliating that we should take ourselves so seriously";
yet there we are, serious beings, looking up through the branching of the trees at what we like to call the Tree of Life. I do this looking every day, each night, and it makes me happy that I am nothing but words on a page that is made of the same material as leaves. Words, Yeats says, are wasted breath. Wonderful! 

...

Archetypes, like metaphors, come from within; they are not made up. They are simply expressions of examples from our everyday lives. They embody and give meaning to our shared experience, and save us from irrelevance. We all, in one way or another, therefore, live in the past in that our lives repeat what has already happened. The little uniqueness that we are is overwhelmed by the ways in which we are and do again what was and was done.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"On Exhibitionism"

My latest is up at The Normal School. In "On Exhibitionism" I take a deep look at the Rolling Stones' vast, career-spanning museum exhibit, currently at Las Vegas. "What am I doing here" I ask.
I’m a skeptical fan, drawn to the exhibition by my longstanding love for the Stones and their complicated, fascinating career, and by positive word of mouth. Though I natively resist rock and roll under glass, the thesis that music might be dramatized and evoked by objects, truth be told, the amateur archaeologist in me is curious.
You can read the full essay here. (More photos from my visit last May here.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Punk print in the Digital Age

Two years ago, Austin punk collector Ryan Richardson at Circulation Zero did a very cool thing, offering free, searchable downloads of complete runs of punk mags and zines, including Slash (1977-1980; 29 issues), No Mag (1978-1985; 14 issues), Damage (1979-1981; 13 issues, and Dry (1979-1982; 14 issues). This followed Richardon's uploading of other mags to his website, including Rock Scene and Star. "The beauty of digitization really sinks in at 30,000 feet," Richardson writes in his manifesto. "In-flight woes—that seat leaned to within an inch of your face, the unshowered over-sharer, the wailing toddler—all fade with Claude Bessy rants and Melanie Nissen pics in view. Several years ago, a collector comrade assembled a complete run of Slash magazine (with a little help from me) and had scanned every last newsprint page and had sent 'em my way (thanks, Jeff). That small kindness of sharing such a sizable effort would prove to be a turning point."
While complete runs of fanzines like Touch & Go and We Got Power have been collected into awesome anthologies, many pioneering punk rags—the large format, newsprint ones in particular—are available only to dedicated collectors or packrats who've kept 'em since way back when. Not infrequently I've talked to fanzine creators and contributors who didn't even hang onto copies of their own publications. While assembling some sets is doable with some moxie and spending cash, several runs border on the impossible even if you've got the drive and dough to acquire 'em. Digital editions are the only way most people will encounter these punk rags of yesteryear.
Circulation Zero is an experiment, my attempt to "give back" by parlaying the preservation of some beloved punk publications into a greater good. My hope is that the original creators will not only enjoy seeing their work resuscitated but will also appreciate the fact that their work is helping generate donations to worthy causes. The site is also an attempt to answer some questions that bounce around in my head. Are collections better off inside institutional libraries or in the hands of collectors? Should ancient in-fighting prevent bringing the punk print hey-day to a new generation? Should eggshell walking over copyright issues cock-block oldsters from taking a whirl on the wayback machine? Can a world chock full of entitled interweb denizens be trusted to donate even a pittance in exchange for a treasure trove of never-before-digitized fanzines? I don't know the answers but hopefully Circulation Zero will prove my hunches correct. Dig in! 
~~

Here's a 2015 article about Richardson and Circulation Zero in the Austin American Statement. “I just wanted to have all this stuff in once place,” Richardson says. “I wanted to be able to read it on a plane.”
There was no point—not to mention a mess of legal issues—in trying to monetize any of this labor, but Richardson didn’t want to just give it away. So we, the public who do not have time or money to track down all of this rare stuff, are the beneficiaries of Richardson’s time and labor.

“Hopefully, I can generate some charitable contributions,” Richardson says. “If you’re broke, fine. If you go to Starbucks once a week, you can kick in $10 to use this stuff.”



Top photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez via American/Statesmen

Friday, November 24, 2017

In Our Lives

"Wow. Now he's gonna make it." I distinctly remember thinking this as I held Tommy Keene's Songs from the Film in my hands at Phantasmagoria record store, in Wheaton, Maryland. That Keene's 1986 debut for Geffen Records didn't send him to the commercial stratosphere somehow made sense. It kept him ours. I was stunned to hear about Keene's untimely passing, at age 59. He'd been out on the long road only recently, posting his evocative and funny posts and photos online. Now he's gone and with him, a certain sense of and feel for the past.

My grief means nothing next to the shock and mourning of Keene's family and friends, and the long list of grateful musicians who played and created music with him over decades. Yet I feel his loss sharply. If you came of age in the Maryland/DC area in the 1980s as I did, you knew Keene as a steady, generous, ultra-knowledgeable, wryly smiling presence, a musician as talented as his name was pop-epic. He was a local legend, from his days in the Razz onward, and it always felt as if he were a step ahead of the rest of the city's musicians, the anointed one, his eye on the horizon of conventional success. Today I'm fondly remembering the many shows my buddies or my girlfriend and I went to, a handful at the 9:30 Club, where his guitar glinted in the stage lights and cut against the wounded lyricism of his melodies and words. Once, at an afternoon show on the campus of George Washington University I made my way to the stage and between numbers asked if he'd play "And Your Bird Can Sing"—I'd heard that they'd played it in Philly or New York City or somewhere, and had been pairing it with Keene's "Call On Me" on my radio show at WMUC—and he looked at me with a genuine laugh of surprise and pleasure. I don't think they played it, but they could have. Keene's knowledge of rock and roll was deep and affectionate—his band covered Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," the Stones' "When the Whip Comes Down," and the Flamin' Groovies and Alex Chilton, among others—and he wrote some of the most indelible songs of the 1980s, his peak era. 

He wasn't a refined singer, but an emotionally driven one, and his best songs were pop gems, melodic but muscular. Two songs, in particular, never fail to send me. The gorgeous, lightly ascending guitar riff in the opening of "Nothing Happened Yesterday," from his 1984 Places That Are Gone EP, is subverted by Keene's melancholy, descending vocal line in the first verse, a competition between happiness and sadness that marked so much of his best work and that soundtracked my and so many other's interior, messy emotional lives:



And the utterly galvanizing harmonies in the chorus of "In Our Lives," from Songs from the Film, pinned back my ears the first time I heard them, and I can say without exaggeration that they got me through many a twenty-something low point as I listened on headphones or while driving aimlessly around College Park or D.C., miserable and self-obsessed yet somehow on a healthy line out via Keene's reliable melodies, a tonic my best campus therapist couldn't offer:



~~

He was so local. Some of Keene's songs bring to mind seeing local bands at Fort Reno Park in northwest D.C., and though I never saw Keene play there, his music lingers in my imagination when I think of those balmy, heady outdoor shows at dusk—he was the soundtrack to so many of my experiences in D.C., a kind of Musical Director. His bass player, the redoubtable Ted Nicely, local producer extraordinaire, worked at Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville and so I saw him all of the time, and always cocked an ear his direction if I thought he was muttering about life in the Tommy Keene Band. We were all pridefully pleased that the photos inside of Songs From the Film were taken at the Metro Center subway station; Keene and I both went to the University of Maryland. I'd drive past the street in Bethesda, near the Beltway, where I thought I'd heard he lived, or had grown up, and imagined him in the basement writing a song, looking great. His sartorial flair was a big influence: for many years I stole his golf jacket/black loafer/flat-collar plaid shirt look, and his lean Modness informs my own style, still.

We also left town around the same time, the late 1980s, me to southeast Ohio, he to Los Angeles, where he thrived, making records, making new friends, touring, playing or writing with Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms, Robert Pollard in the Keene Brothers, Paul Westerberg, Velvet Crush, and others. About a decade and a half ago, I played catch up with his 1990s and 2000s releases, marveling at great songs like "Going Out Again" on Ten Years After and the well-chosen tunes on Excitement At Your Feet, the shimmering covers album he cut in 2013. My favorite post-D.C. Keene moment comes in his cover of the Beach Boys' "Our Car Club" from 1989's Based on Happy Times, a silly, and lesser, hot rod tune from Brian Wilson and Mike Love that Keene relishes making new again. There's a breakdown in the opening: the boyish guitar riff (played by guest Peter Buck) is so absurd that Keene busts out laughing as he attempts to sing the doubled vocal line. You can't hear it without seeing Keene's face, his eyes alight at the fun and joy to be discovered in even the smallest pop moment. It's a look I saw on stage many times.




Yesterday, Jim Colby posted at the Facebook group DC Scene: The 80's & 90's, nicely evoking the local, eternal sway of Keene. "I know that we have lost one of our own," Colby writes. "He was one of the stars that shined brightly in the local music scene and beyond. He was always one of the reigning court of those folks that would supply the soundtrack to my life and many others."
In the strange wonderful time called the 80’s there was an amazing music scene in DC. We could count on our weekends to be populated by folks like Tommy Keene, the Slickees, the Insect Surfers, Tru Fax, and more. It was our soundtrack. Kids from PG County and Montgomery stood shoulder to shoulder in the F street corridor where you might hang out at DC Space for an hour or so and then wander over to 9:30 with its sweat slicked walls. Or up to ‘China Block’ for late night Chinese food. Then back down New York Avenue blasting ‘HFS all the way. Or up to Little Tavern in Bethesda in hopes of seeing Root Boy or one of the local bands members in the the harsh fluorescent light. Tommy was was a critical part of this landscape and I thank him for it. He will be missed.
Indeed. RIP Tommy Keene, a pop original.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"Suburban Basement, 1970s: Study in Soundesign Stereo Eight Track Player, Made in the Shade, Atari (detail), and Pachinko

A couple of years ago, my parents moved out of the home they lived in for more than fifty years, and in which I was raised. On a last visit, I ducked down into the basement where I'd spent formative years and found things quite similar to how I'd left them three decades ago.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Malcolm Young, 1953-2017

I was saddened to hear about Malcolm Young, who died today at age 64. I can barely recall his voice—he rarely spoke in public, mumbling with a wry half-grin in this interview or that—but his voice wasn't his instrument. His growling and grooving Gretsch rhythm guitar work in AC/DC, from the band's inception in 1973 to his retirement from dementia in 2014, provided the chassis, the foundation, the earth's core, whatever metaphor's right for you, and that Malcolm would roll his eyes at. He simply went to work, with his younger brother Angus churning out one killer riff after another, reinventing Chuck Berry and the blues album by album. At their best, AC/DC's songs were perpetual motion machines, and Malcolm was the one who set them in motion. (If you're scoring at home, Malcolm was usually mixed in the left channel; turn down Angus on the right if you want a layman's course in the properties of engine transmission.) As I wrote in AC/DC's Highway to Hell, "Watch the brothers whenever AC/DC plays 'Highway to Hell.' During the verses, Malcolm stands with his right hand resting on his Gretsch, bobbing his head lightly, tapping his right foot, the job foreman who’s supervising Angus going down the manhole. It’s a job."

Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune quoted Angus on his brother's style: "In the beginning, we would sort of flip roles, then he took over on rhythm. His rhythm style is a style in itself."
I sit and watch and try to copy him but it’s still not Malcolm. He’s got this amazing left hand, y’know? It’s just so quick, so fast … he’s always three or four moves ahead of us all. The adaptability of it — there’s all the chords I’ll struggle with, and he’s already hitting ’em. And on top of that, he keeps that right hand going, and it’s so smooth that there’s never a note missing. When you look at it, you go, ‘Aw, he’s just filling in spaces.’ But when you look at it closer, you realize he’s not only filling them in, he’s playing in between them. We sound like we do because of him.
Dig Malcolm's opening riff in "Jailbreak," from the band's 1976 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and marvel:


And I gotta believe that Malcolm's the author of this killer riff:


At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, AC/DC was a dangerous band, but the danger felt fun and liberating, never toxic or destructive. Malcolm's on-the-job commitment was reassuring. If you were in junior high school as I was when Highway to Hell was released in the summer of 1979, Malcolm gave you hope, even as he scared you. He was small and wasn't great looking, but had the courage and cockiness to climb on stage in front of a bank of towering amps and let it rip with his band, the introverted foot soldier in the background who got smaller as the stages grew in size but who got as many girls as did the crazy singer out front. Malcolm's look was vivid, indelible to me ever since I glanced at the cover of Highway to Hell in Kemp Mill Record Store in Wheaton, Maryland, and caught the look of that guy on the left: "Five bad-ass guys are glaring at me. They’re definitely older than I am, but the guy on the left kinda looks like that kid at school, the one who’s given me problems. He’s got shoulder-length, greasy hair, a skin-tight, dingy white t-shirt on, and he’s wearing hooded eyes that look like he’s really pissed-off or really hungover, or both. He looks like a burnout, one of the public school guys.
But I know one or two of them at St. Andrew’s. The guys with bared-chests and skin-tight jeans who walk up and down the boardwalk at Ocean City, Maryland, cutting through the night salt-air under the lights and past the kids on Trimper’s Rides, trying out moustaches and carrying huge stuffed teddy bears so that the girls will run up to them and go awww. The guys cruising up and down Coastal Highway in Trans Ams? He looks like one of those guys. Kinda scary, actually. I’d never talk to them. The two guys in the back must be his buddies. They look like they want to sell me something. Or buy something.
Malcolm had battled alcoholism for many years, but sobered up in the late 1980s. His dementia, as it is in all cases, was crippling, and sadly, bafflingly diminishing. The man who co-wrote such vivid and graphic rock and roll songs couldn't remember them anymore, let alone those written by his heroes. I'll crank "Bad Boy Boogie" and "Hell Ain't a Bad Place to Be" and" Riff Raff" and "Girls Got Rhythm" and many other Malcolm-steered classics tonight and raise a glass to Young's workmanlike, utterly necessary guitar playing, and to his ambition, commitment, and the fun he gave me and millions of others.

I'm not sure where Malcolm is now, but I know that he's plugging in somewhere. Maybe his older bro George is watching. And his old buddy Bon's been waiting for him for thirty-seven years. He can't wait to remind him that hell’s got a rocking band, while heaven's stuck with harps. RIP Malcolm Young.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Joe Tex, Sugar & Salt

I've been grooving to the rough and ready sounds of Joe Tex lately, loving his blend of Southern looseness and soulful gruffness. These three are faves. Never mind for now his one-again, off-again chart successes or his feud with James Brown, and just turn up these killer Dial sides recorded in Memphis and Nashville.

single, 1965

I've long loved the rolling, perpetual motion machine of this one, a number one R&B hit in 1965.

~~

b-side, 1966

Like many of my generation, I heard Rockpile's killer version of this first. Tex's muscular original—the flip side to "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)"—is taken a bit slower, the dusty horns and loping beat impossible to resist. He had a hell of a band.

~~

Live And Lively, 1968

Some social consciousness in this, from a faux live album. An inspiring, mid-paced groove chronicling a poor childhood, Tex ends the tune with an exhortation both hopeful and melancholy: "I think this will be the year for underprivileged children." Alas....

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The fuse blows: Luc Sante on NYC

April 1977: a crowd outside CBGB
Luc Sante's "Maybe the People Would Be the Times," an expressionistic, urgent, affectionate remembrance of New York City in the mid-1970s for VICE magazine and Noisey's new music issue, reminds me again of why he is one of my favorite writers about New York City. With his characteristic blend of anthropological detail, scene knowledge, and deeply felt personal experience, Sante evokes the heady nowness of the street rock and poetry energies of the city in an epochal age.

Check out this passage about dancing in lofts below 14th Street, marvel, and then read the whole piece. "This is music that gives us seven-league boots to walk the streets in, loping 20-block miles faster than taxis, or else we dance in somebody's bare loft decorated with foil-sided insulation panels, with clamp lights scattered on the floor pointing up the walls, a single pole-mounted fan moving the air around the 1,500-square-foot oven, the turntable hooked up to a guitar amp and the music's echo redoubled by the cavernous echo of bricks and mortar."
We dance to reggae, and we dance to soul, or disco, or R&B. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" and "Got to Give It Up," the Floaters' "Float On," Chic's "Le Freak," James Brown for days but especially right now "Papa Don't Take No Mess," and it's also the inaugural year of Funkadelic's anthem, "One Nation Under a Groove." Someday they will swap out Francis Scott Key's Bavarian drinking song for this stepping march that gathers all the strands—it's a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions, on a national scale. The song already seems to be under way when the needle hits the groove, and it might as well never end, since we keep taking the needle back to the start when it starts edging near the run out. It's a whole circus parade of sounds and effects: brass band, clowns, aerialists, prancing horses, confetti showers, giant papier-mâché monster heads. It will teach you how to dance if you don't know how. You let your ass fall into the central bounce path carved out by the bass and the handclaps, and then the rest of your body can align with whatever you want for however long you want: the half-tempo crooner, the squeaking synth, the chuckling guitar monologue, the drum fills, the whistles, the calls and interjections by what sounds like two dozen different voices. It's maybe on the sixth reprise that those of us who aren't completely fucked up start to notice that the floorboards are visibly moving up and down on the one, and this is no joke when you're talking about century-old joists and beams. We start to edge toward the walls, where long tables are covered with empty bottles and cans. From there the crowd looks like one body with 400 limbs. The air, redolent of sweat and spilled beer and tobacco and cannabis and unnameable musks, is maybe a third of the way toward transmuting into a solid. Somebody screams along with the falsetto wail that turns into "You can dance away." Just then the fuse blows.
A great companion read with "Maybe the People would be the Times" is the elegiac "My Lost City" which Sante wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2003, bookends on euphoria and loss.

The above photo and others in Sante's essay are from Meryl Meisler's terrific Paradise & Purgatory: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Some Qs, Some As

Here's a roundup of some conversations I've had this year about Field Recordings from the Inside, out now with Soft Skull Press. I've rapped with Counterpoint here, The Normal School here, Northern Public Radio (WNIJ) here, Vol. 1 Brooklyn here, and a thoughtful audience at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago here, after a reading.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Watching the Fab Four in '64: A Conversation with Beatles Historian Doug Sulpy

The age-old question "Does the world need another book about the Beatles?" is answered monthly at Amazon: yes, apparently. But Doug Sulpy, a Beatles historian and longtime editor of The 910: the International Journal for Beatles Scholars and Collectors, has produced something different from the average Beatles book. Invasion! The Beatles 1964 Video Guide is a reference book that catalogues every second of every excerpt of circulating video documenting that tumultuous and unprecedented year. Reporting on numberless limo rides to and from airports, repetitive press conferences before and after shows, thousands of wailing girls, and snippets of concerts, these clips tell the mad story of Beatlemania and the relentless scrutiny the group experienced, an explosion of attention detonated seemingly over night. In the absurd fish bowl of 1964 the Beatles continued to write top-shelf pop songs, and recorded two albums (A Hard Day's Night and Beatles For Sale), a non-album EP (Long Tall Sally), and a standalone single ("I Feel Fine" b/w "She's A Woman"). Oh, and they made a wildly-popular and influential movie.

On the trail of a good story, inspired equally by curiosity and cynicism, the relentless press was at the band's heels, filming them dashing in and out of hotels and concert venues, mobbed by fans, and waving from balconies, and lobbing inane questions at them in press conferences. (As Sulpy must've run dry on synonyms for "screaming" and "crying" early on while annotating these clips, so did the Beatles exhaust clever ways of answering questions about hair length, money, fame, regional differences among fans, and Ringo's rings.) Sulpy documents each scrap of silent or sound film down to the second, whether the footage runs twelve minutes or a few moments.

I devoured the book, and dutifully headed to YouTube and the odd online film archives site to re-watch many of these clips. Viewing them chronologically, I was astonished at the consistent level of professionalism exhibited by the Beatles—kids in their early 20s—while dealing with the onslaught from the press and fans. Sure they grew testy with reporters as the tours took them around the world and across punishing time zones, but they remained civil and remarkably patient given how tired and bored they were with the monotony. Of course the guys enjoyed the many—ahem, undocumented—perks of their success, escaping their prison-like hotels for private residences when they could, bedding groupies and basking in the intense adulation and their new-found sex appeal, yet their touring, recording, and promotional schedules were nothing short of brutal, and continued on, grimly, for two more years. That the band would turn out Rubber Soul and Revolver and push against the limits of pop music and expression while being tossed about in the draining hurly-burly of fame and attention never fails to amaze me.

Here are two pages from Invasion!, just another packed day for the band:


Recently, I virtually sat down with Sulpy to discuss Invasion! The Beatles 1964 Video Guide, forensic approaches to R&R history, and the nuttiness of Beatlemania.

~~

Let's get the inevitable question out of the way, Why another book about the Beatles? 

That’s really a question I would never ask myself. I do what I do primarily because I’m passionate about writing about whatever facet of The Beatles’ career interests me. If I had some kind of commercial focus, I’d be writing about Madonna or something. I also have enough confidence in my own ability that I don’t feel threatened by the existence of other books out there on the same subject. I’ve seen a couple of them, as you probably have, and they don’t come close to what I’ve done here, because I made sure I brought the same level of attention to this work as I did to my previous books on The Beatles' audio

More pointedly, why did you decide to write this book?

My friend Scott Kail, who was there as a sounding board every step of the way, has been trying for years to get me to write a book on the subject, and I’d always said, “I don’t care. I know what they look like.” A couple of years ago, though, I did a special issue of my The 910 that focused on the anniversary of The Beatles’ summer ’64 tour of America. Once I began compiling the video for that project, I suddenly realized that there was so much of it that, when it’s taken as a whole and put back into context, it constitutes a vast block of raw information, much as the hours of audio recordings that leaked out from their 1969 “Get Back” sessions. That excited me, because suddenly I realized that somewhere, in all that footage, lies the truth of what had happened fifty-odd years ago.

Doug Sulpy
You mention in the introduction that you're chiefly interested in a "forensic approach to rock and roll history." Why is that your preferred method? Are there any limitations to such an approach? 

I like to tell the story of how, when Ray Schweighardt and I were working on our book Drugs, Divorce and a Slipping Image, we ran into interviews with all four Beatles claiming that George had quit The Beatles in January, 1969 because of a fight he’d had with Paul. The only problem with this is that it’s definitely not true. The argument was with John, instead. So if you can’t believe all four Beatles on something as important as the reason that George quit the group, how can you believe what anyone says about anything, particularly when there’s the human tendency to make their part in the Beatles’ story more prominent than it might have really been. I remember Alistair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s assistant, insisting to us once that they’d dragged the piano up onto the rooftop at Apple and performed “Let It Be” and he knew this to be the case because “he was there!” This kind of thing taught me that the only thing I really trust, both for audio and video, are the things that I can hear and see and, as with my books on their audio recordings, you’ll note that nothing is given an entry in Invasion! that I haven’t actually seen—I guess you could consider that a limitation, but it’s self-imposed.

Were your sources mostly online, or did you a have access to actual film, professional or otherwise?

I was surprised that so much of what I wrote about in the book is actually available on-line somewhere. Much of it is on YouTube, but you can also have a great deal of fun hunting up other footage on the web pages of various film archives. Mostly, though, I used my own video collection, with Scott and others filling in some much-needed missing pieces. Needless to say, there’s more footage out there—but I did everything I could to acquire everything that’s circulating among collectors, and then some.

You offer little editorializing in what is essentially a research book. Having watched and catalogued many hours of footage, what are your takeaways?

Surrounded, Dallas, September 18, 1964
How exhausting 1964 must have been for them. Even granting the stamina you have when you’re younger, these four guys worked like hell for their success. But just as much as them, I enjoyed writing about the events surrounding them—the fan interviews and Beatlemania, sometimes, were more interesting to me than watching clips from The Beatles’ actual performances. It was also interesting to watch the excited and energetic Beatles of early 1964 and see how much they change over the course of the year.

You quote a young woman saying revealingly that she doesn't know why she screams and loses it when she sees, or even senses the possibility of seeing, the Beatles. After watching and assembling this footage do you have a clearer understanding as to why "Beatlemania" occurred? Do you have a better feel for its origins and reasons, or is the phenomenon essentially mysterious?

I have a clearer understanding of what happened, but not necessarily why it happened, because the genesis of that was really in 1963, the year before this book takes place. Remember, when they arrived in America in February, Beatlemania was already full-blown—in fact, I’d say it was at its peak. What becomes clear, studying the footage, though, is how real it all turned out to be. It wasn’t hype or publicity at that point, it was already something very special, and unique. And I think that’s why it’s endlessly fascinating to go back and study what happened and try to understand it, as best we can.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"That was an embarrassment of riches," Earl Weaver, somewhere

"Instant Classic!" is not always a value judgment. I'm sympathetic with those who feel that last night's Game Five slugfest was a parody of a baseball game. Where the hell was the pitching, Earl might've asked. Well, there was a lot of it, it just wasn't very good. 14 pitchers. 417 pitches. 22 home runs have been struck so far in the Series, a new record to be padded on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday. StatCast nearly burned out from the overtime. The game was a bit of a laugher—entertaining in that AstrosTrainGuy got to emote for the camera, home runs provide their own majesty and geometric hysterics, any see-saw game is fun to watch, and I love me some 5' 6" Altuve wacking the ball to the furthest part of the park. Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated summarized it succinctly: a "five hour and 17 minute rollercoaster ride abetted by an extra-wide strike zone, slick baseballs, gassed bullpens, and deep lineups that refused to roll over when faced with deficits of three or four runs." I'd still prefer a low-scoring pitchers' duel, or some blend of taut pitching and clutch, small-ball hitting. Alas, those days are waning. Last night's 13-12 marathon feels a whole lot like baseball's future. Hello, Launch Angle.

I'm fairly certain that in, say, February, I'll look back at Game Five fondly. As absurdly fun as it was, it kind of felt like a lo-fi version of baseball, a teaser to get you to pay more for the full game I'd pony up.

UPDATE: Grant Brisbee at SBNation has written my favorite description of Game Five:
In the middle of all that, though, there was Game 5, which was a delirious mess that was more like a tanker truck tipping over and spilling a baseball-like substance all over the highway. The cars behind it couldn’t slow down in time, and they spun off a cliff and into the abyss. We clapped when the cars spun into the abyss, and we impatiently waited for more cars, which kept coming. I get chills thinking about it days later.

It was unrepentantly awful baseball, of course. Filled with hitters succeeding, sure, but also filled with pitchers failing. And umpires failing. And fielders. It was the world’s largest bag of Cheetos, and after inhaling thousands of them, we were left with a pleasant taste in our mouth, stained fingers, and rickets.




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