Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Riding around, riding high

Via Google
Today for no apparent I remembered crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan-bound, sometime in the early '00s when Suicide came on, scoring that brief, iconic journey like no other song could. For the four minutes it played, I felt elevated—less from the bridge's span over the East River than from the song's echo-y, eerie mood, its odd propulsion, and its lyrics of doom and violence. Martin Rev and Alan Vega were singing about the late-70s, a couple of decades and a cultural continent behind me, but the vibe was,—is—timeless, as Manhattan loomed before before and Brooklyn behind me, the river beneath me and its relentless currents a reminder that songs are like rivers: you never hear the great ones the same way twice, and whatever waves lapped to the shores in a different era lap today's shores too.
Whole country's doing a fix
It's doomsday doomsday
Riding around, riding high
Riding around with my babe
Speeding on down the skyway

 


Suicide, 1979. Photo: Adrian Boot

Thursday, April 14, 2022

One door. Two songs.

Melbourne, Australia's Romero and Kansas City, Missouri's Whiffs write tuneful, amped-up, riff-driven songs, Romero's noise sweetened by lead singer Alana Oliver, the Whiffs' by AM radio hooks. Both bands prove that guitar-driven rock and roll is in good hands, its future bright (and loud!). Oliver's voice is huge and rangy; she'd likely have the judges of a music competition reality show eating out of her hand, but she'd cut those hands when necessary. To my ears she sounds a bit like Lydia Loveless, minus the twang, and, recorded well by producer Andrew Hehir, her suppleness is never smothered by her band's considerable fire power (brothers Adam and Dave Johnstone on guitar and drums, respectively, Fergus Sinclair on guitar, and Justin Tawil on bass). The Whiffs' muscular sound (Zach Campbell on bass and vocals, Rory Cameron on guitar and vocals, Nic Allred on guitar and vocals, and Jack Cardwell on drums) thickens their songs but the tunefulness remains vivid, and the record's so lovingly recorded by Joey Rubbish—his record collection is practically visible as you listen—that its late-70s analog vibe never sounds contrived or retro. (Ignore the requisite and limiting "power pop" label that critics feel compelled to tag the band with.) These groups' good songs are so good they transcend their influences.

Romero's debut "Turn It On!" just came out; the Whiffs' Another Whiff, their second, came out in 2019. I'm in love with a bunch of tracks on these albums right now, especially these two for the stories that they both tell and hint at. "My Vision Of Love" begins with a nod to Hoodoo Gurus' "Bittersweet," but the singer's so hoarsely charged that within a few bars it's the Whiffs' song only. It's an old story, but so desperately winged that the singer's hungers feel brand new: he's got no money (he "spent it last week"; a great detail, versus the more clich├ęd "last night"). He can't win and yet can't stop himself from ringing her doorbell, his vision of love the only thing that night that's keeping him right. He could use a lucky break or three, and if she'd let him inside then everything might feel not only possible, but likely. The guitar solo, as in the best rock and roll, declaims everything that he can't, threatening to derail things until that passionate chorus returns.
The Whiffs
Romero
Great, sexy stuff, yet Romero's "Halfway Out The Door" offers another the other perspective. The POV switched to The Vision herself, who's opened the door for this panting guy many times, but lately to diminishing returns. The song opens with a three chord sequence that mirrors "My Vision Of Love" but raises a skeptical eyebrow. In the Whiffs tune the singer's desperate to see her face; in Romero's tune we're seeing the back of his head. This is her turn, and her complaints are as old as his pleas: I’d tell you how I loved you / But you’re always halfway out the door / We aren’t like what we were before. In the powerful and affecting chorus, guitars ringing, echoing the singer's resolve, she makes things clear:
If this isn’t what you want, baby
Don’t come knocking, knocking, knocking, knocking
If you’re halfway out the door
Oh no, I won’t be calling no more
He always "howling in the street"—I mean, the Whiffs' singer practically admits it—and she's pissed and sad about it all. "How did we ever end up this way?" she wonders, "the first to call each other insane." The song's pace is measured, and I think that that's key: if the band had worked their way through these complications at a breakneck pace, careening around the corners, the couple would just as likely keep moving toward each other, burning each other out, unable to turn away from the heat and lust. But I'm pretty sure that she's figured out her next move; though she's in conflict—she loves him and fucks him, though he's too often halfway out that door—her song's slowed to the point of a reckoning, a deeper breath. She's considered things. His time's running out.

~~

Two continents, two bands, two songs, a bunch of the same chords. One man, one woman, three stories. 

Maybe I'm a pessimist, imagining the Whiffs' singer's desperation to score with his vision—or just to see her in an open door—burning out in ambivalence, the age-old tale of the man who can't stick the landing, who's gotta move on, restless. I love that songs collide in the air above my head, the reverberations telling a new story. (Both bands write about ambivalence and contradictions really well: check the mixed-up man and the "undone" woman in "On The Boulevard" and "Petals," respectively.) Some days I listen to "My Vision Of Love" and the two end up in bed; sometimes I listen to "Halfway Out The Door" and the two end up in bed, but the satisfaction's waning, because both of their looks are directed at that front door she opened to him last night. For him it'll open again. For her it may close for the last time. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

All you need is Modernism

Rereading Paul Williams last night and was reminded of this item in the "What Went On" column in the August '67 Crawdaddy. File under, What Might've Been.


Thursday, April 7, 2022

My twenties; or, minor regrets

I'm teaching a class in Writing Arts Criticism this semester, and for one essay the students wrote about music—any artist, album, song, video, anything that turned them on and that they wanted to know more about, get inside of. (Among our texts was Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, which a third of the students dug, a third rolled their collective eye at, and a third despised, which felt about right.) It's been a pleasure not only to read their work but to be exposed to a handful of artists with whom I was wholly unfamiliar, or knew only by reputation or, worse, held narrow biases against. In the best classes I'm learning, too.  

One lesson has been an unhappy reminder of my blinkered musical tastes when I was in college. My students have remarked that in the age of streaming, they're exposed to so much, encouraging the cultivating of a wide-ranging taste, yet the vast music collection to which we all have access now has only encouraged genre-biases and territory-staking; it seems that the number of echo chambers are virtually uncountable. Nearly forty years later, I can palpably feel the the thrill of sampling the new LPs and 45s that arrived weekly at the tiny offices of WMUC, the radio station at the University of Maryland where for three years in the mid-80s I had a show, enduring various time slots. I also recall the stiff resistance I put up to certain bands and songs that weren't in my wheelhouse, which then, as now, was planted firmly in 1960's and '70s guitar-based rock and roll, garage rock, R&B, and punk. 

I had a standing joke in the 80s, unfunny to most, that the only bands that could drive me out of a bar were the Cure and the Smiths, two groups I couldn't stand and yet whose rabid fans—among them some of my best friends—I'd eye enviously as they lost themselves on the dance floor. Less smug and narrow-minded now than I was at twenty-one, twenty-two, I have clearer purchase on what I was instinctively rebelling against then. It wasn't that I couldn't relate to what I heard as the moodiness, affected doom, and sighing melancholy in these and other like bands; the problem was that I related too much. I had the voices of Robert Smith and Morrissey running in my head all day long; the words weren't theirs, but the edgy, disconsolate tone was theirs, a tormenting, claustrophobic ennui that I fought against in my worst moments. I didn't want to hear that on the dance floor, have my inner thoughts amplified; I wanted to get away from that, leave my head and body, exchange my depressiveness, self-doubt, and hyper self-consciousness for the grins and good times of rock and roll. Beers and barre chords! Riffs and hooks! (I ended up writing a 420-page book about one of those bands I loved.) Echo and the Bunnymen's "Bring on the Dancing Horses" might've sounded great at Cagney's or Back Alley Cafe, but it was the Godfathers who raised the roof for me, and in whom I found an urgent sense of purpose. There was a reason why I was teased at 'MUC as the guy who played The Knack (including tracks off of their third album) and The Slickee Boys more often than say, Siouxsie and the Banshees or New Order. Even when I did spin songs that soundtracked my inner dejection, they were usually sung by R.E.M. Rain Parade, or Pop Art—never too far from jangle.

I sought out manifestations of my complicated moods instead in books and art, Joyce and Eliot and Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell, and on long walks in the then-decrepit Old Downtown in Washington, D.C.. My morose reflection was cast back at me most graphically in my art history, literature, and philosophy courses, where in the quiet of reading, or in the endless stacks at the campus library, I could stoke my melancholy and self-pity across the centuries. Though I've never warmed to the metronomic "Blue Monday," my distaste for the song in my twenties blocked a rightful appreciation I ought to have felt then for Joy Division, another band who I resisted at the threshold, fearful of how swiftly they might invade. Of course, back then I hadn't really listened to the Cure or the Smiths, to Bauhaus or Coctueau Twins or for matter much of what I'd overheard or read was Gothic—childishly, I wouldn't let myself. We forgive a lot for youth and yet it turns out, of course, that the Smiths were a great guitar band all along! Johnny Marr's trippy vibe in support of Morrissey's emotionally nakedness was sadly beyond my ken when I was twenty, putting me at odds not only with my friends but with pop culture, and history. If I'd only looked through my beers more closely at the dance floor I'd have seen guys and girls rejoicing and identifying, in their authentic way—in a foreign language, sure, one I was too petulant or cowardly to try and learn. But the release on their sweaty faces and in the limbs transcended language, as great music does. These regrets are minor relative to others that haunt me from those years, yet I wished I'd opened up some neural pathways earlier than I did. I'm catching up. 

File all of this under A Pity I Didn't See It At The Time, a bulging, still-growing folder.

Top: Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on Light Ground), Francis Bacon, 1969. (2014 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/DACS, London)

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Happy Birthday!

Five years ago this month I published Field Recordings from the Inside with Soft Skull Press, a collection of personal essays about music, listening to music, being in love with music, and about how music soundtracks our lives in both small and profound ways. If you missed the book the first time I spun it, it's still available at the usual joints (here, here, or here, and hopefully your local bookstore).

This is what some folks had to say: 

[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

The collection’s 18 essays do what the best music writing is supposed to do—they make the reader care, regardless of whether they enjoy, or are familiar with, the material being written about; I was mostly willing to follow Bonomo anywhere he wanted to go.—Los Angeles Review of Books

~~ 

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, March 20, 2022

Everything, everything

After a short while, I headed home to join Patti and pick up our children from school. As I drove over the gravel of the beach club parking lot, I hesitated before pulling into traffic on Ocean Boulevard. Just then a car careening off Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge shot past, its window down, and its driver, recognizing me, shouted, “Bruce, we need you.” I sort of knew what he meant, but...
I ignored The Rising for many years, for lots of reasons, a few of them silly. I’m in one of my Bruce Springsteen reassessment periods now, and recently gave the record the full listen and attention it deserves. I don’t find the album overlong as many do, and to my ears the upbeat and affirming songs blend well with the somber songs about loss and grief—which feels like the confounding mess that life is, especially in the surprising, careening ways we grieve. One of the reasons I did shy away from The Rising was because of its weighty place in history. Writing for an occasion can be tricky. 'Tis Spring! verse in modestly-circulated public library newsletters and Presidential Inauguration poems alike often sag under the weight of their own agenda, striving for Big Statements and time- and -date-stamp relevance, or at least for fresh metaphors for rebirth, at the expense of artfulness. (There have been exceptions, of course.) 

After the events of 9/11, many writers felt compelled to somehow respond. Along with millions of others I was at home, watching on television, 800-plus miles from the World Trade Center. In the weeks that followed, I tried again and again to scratch out something that got its hands around my feelings, and what I thought others might be thinking and feeling, but I always wrote toward a blind end. My experience of 9/11 wasn't an experience at all, it was a somber observation from a time zone away, utterly meaningless in the context of the suffering of those in New York City, western Pennsylvania, and northern Virginia. I recall laboring with a piece of writing having to do with being "west" of West Street in lower Manhattan, but I was appalled at my presumptuousness, and at my preciousness for believing that I could create something of value in response. What to do, then, with the impulse to respond artfully to humanitarian crises, a terrorist attack or the suffering of innocent Ukrainians, if you're hundreds of miles away, safe and secure? Work it out on your own terms, I guess, in private, or anyway modestly. Ask an important question: who are you doing this for?

When Springsteen pulled out of that parking lot, made contact with a random fan, and heard that he is needed—that is a different story entirely. That morning, Springsteen had been at home, again as millions of us were, eating cereal and watching the news. Then he felt compelled to drive closer to the horrors. For Springsteen, leaving the cocoon of his secluded, 400-acre farm in Colts Neck, New Jersey  and driving the ten or so miles to a public beach is not an idle drive of a suburbanite—it was the journey (I wince, but there's no other word, really) of a public artist with the burden of a vocation. "In the late afternoon, I drove to the Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge," he wrote in Born to Run. "There, usually, on a clear day the Twin Towers struck two tiny vertical lines on the horizon at the bridge’s apex."

Today, torrents of smoke lifted from the end of Manhattan Island, a mere fifteen miles away by boat. I stopped in at my local beach and walked to the water’s edge, looking north; a thin gray line of smoke, dust and ash spread out due east over the water line. It appeared like the smudged edge of a hard blue sheet folding and resting upon the autumn Atlantic.

Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge, looking north toward lower Manhattan, November 2021 (Google Maps)

Sea Bright Beach, looking north toward lower Manhattan, January 2021. Photo by Vitalli Beliaiev (Google Maps)

~~

Naturally, Springsteen's response to the unfolding tragedy was to write songs. But his brilliance came in trusting his impulse to write at the edges of post-9/11 suffering, in the inevitable wakes moving from the wreckage of the World Trade Center back into the small towns that produced so many of the victims that day. The politics on The Rising are subdued, polemics nowhere to be seen; instead, Springsteen looks unblinking at the carnage, and then to the side where what smolders does so with a different yet no less destructive heat, and imagines into song the kind of characters he always has, those who live modest, unspectacular lives. When we listen to The Rising in the coming decades I don't believe that it will sound overly of-its-era (minus some production touches, perhaps) precisely because Springsteen recognizes that loss takes many shapes, from the absence next to you in bed and the photographs we grieve on the mantle to the unrecoverable at Ground Zero and a Tower-less blue sky.

Nearly half of the album's songs ("Waitin' On A Sunny Day," "Nothing Man," "Countin' On A Miracle," "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)," "Further On (Up The Road)," "My City Of Ruins," and possibly "Lonesome Day" and "Mary's Place") were written before September 11, and this is revealing, in that Springsteen recognized not the specifics of 9/11 but its outline resonating through songs he'd already written, or begun. That's key to the album, I think, in that Springsteen likely felt liberated from having to compose an entire album's worth of songs in the burdening occasional mode. The songs that he did write after the attacks—"Into The Fire," "Empty Sky," "Worlds Apart," "The Fuse," "You're Missing," "Paradise," and of course "The Rising"—blend seamlessly with the earlier material, to my ears. I’m not sure that the reputation of the title track isn’t greater than the song itself—but then again I wasn’t listening to it in the dread echo of 9/11, when the song might’ve transformed for me.

In Born to Run, possibly in light defensive posture against those who felt that the album was too long, Springsteen justified The Rising's blend of the upbeat and the morose. The inclusion of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” feels wholly appropriate in retrospect, but others backed into the sequencing. "We recut 'Nothing Man,'" he wrote, "a song I'd had since ’94," adding that "It captured the awkwardness and isolation of survival." "Worlds Apart" and “"Let’s Be Friends" are described as "Beach music!" and "the band tearing down the house," respectively. If "Mary's Place," one of his great late-career uplifting rockers, was indeed written earlier, than Springsteen was shrewd to include it, a "house party" that the album "rises to...party music with the blues hidden inside." He added that he wanted "some of the warmth and familiarity of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, a home place, the comfort music and friendship may bring in a crisis."

Finally we circle back around to “My City of Ruins," the soul gospel of my favorite sixties records, speaking not just of Asbury but hopefully of other places and other lands. That was my record.

"The dead have their own business to do, as do the living," he added (a line so good I'm surprised he didn't save it for a song). In the end, the lower-pitched songs on The Rising resonate the most for me, those moments between seemingly endless grieving and the yearning for transcendence, no matter how brief that redemption might be. “Nothing Man,” “The Fuse,” and the quietly devastating “You’re Missing”—each below—are among the strongest songs Springsteen has written, modest, respectful portraits of men and women navigating the long spaces between communion and desolation, and unity and brokenness. Eternal gestures, those, stretching back in history and forward into the future, released, always, from the lousy specifics of our own daily, though crucial, lives.

~~

"Our band was built well, over many years, for difficult times." From Born to Run

When people wanted a dialogue, a conversation about events, internal and external, we developed a language that suited those moments. We were there. It was a language that I hoped would entertain, inspire, comfort and reveal. The professionalism, the showmanship, the hours of hard work are all very important, but I always believed that it was this dialogue, this language, that was at the heart of our resiliency with our audience. The Rising was a renewal of that conversation and the ideas that forged our band.
Brendan O'Brien's production is tasteful and unobtrusive, atmospheric studio touches rare and effective, and the E Street Band and the many side musicians play expressively. I don't love everything on The Rising—the breathy "heartland" talk-singing that Springsteen adopted sometime in the mid-90's quickly grows tiresome for me—yet now I see how in its sprawl, ambition, and generous spirit this album is indeed one of his and his band’s best. Pity that I couldn’t have been bothered to listen to it when it was released, when I might’ve responded to it in deeper ways.



Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Talkin' 'bout heavy music

Say what you want about Dave Marsh—and for a while there back in the 80s and 90s, people said a lot—he really understood rock and roll. Though he was prickly and at times smirkingly arrogant about his tastes, which you should, he assured you, share, and too interested in cultural politics for some, he was genuinely moved by loud, righteous rock and roll, and his urge to share his passions was ultimately generous and right-minded (and longstanding: he currently hosts three Sirius XM Radio shows). He was on the ground in Detroit, in the crowds and backstage at the Grande, and in the offices of Creem and, later, Rolling Stone, for some of the most exciting music there was. Lately I've been re-reading Fortunate Son, his terrific, long out-of-print collection published in 1985, and was happy to be reminded of "Doncha Ever Listen to the Radio?", a run-down he wrote of Bob Seger singles that ran in Creem in May, 1972. At the time, Seger was doggedly grinding it out as a native (Detroit) son-star, on the cusp of national attention. Marsh's take on Seger's incredible "Heavy Music (Part 1)," his last single for Cameo-Parkway, released in 1967, is still humming a half century later.

I love reading on-the-ground accounts of rock and roll that emerge in real time, as it were, the sounds of writers making sense of a band, artist, album, song, or show within weeks or months of the music having emerged. Given how the parameters in music criticism have changed in the last few decades, it's somewhat bittersweet now to read Marsh's of-the-era enthusiasms for the likes of the MC5, the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, and Bruce Springsteen, among other heroes. Vaguely quaint in some quarters these days, his belief that rock and roll—read, loud spectacle made by (mostly) white men with guitars—could genuinely change people (if not systems) might fall on deaf ears, irrelevant or tiresomely rockist in the culturally diverse era of Hip Hop, EDM, Pop, and Dance and the billions in revenue they produce. And if that development, along with the implacable passage of time itself, dates some of those takes, for both the reassessing writer and the reader, what often lasts down the decades is the palpable thrill of the initial contact. Here, Marsh considers "Heavy Music" a long five years after its release, yet he writes as if his ears were still ringing, his heart still racing, enthusing that the song "hasn’t lost a drop of the magic it possessed in 1966 [sic]," that it's "so simple it’s almost primal." He recalls that "Everyone who heard [the song] was incredulous. No one had ever put it that way before, but suddenly the phrases seemed to have been there all the time. And the music that punched the message home said the same thing, just as effectively," adding that the song's "musical power abets its lyric, so that together they're improbably strong."

What startled and thrilled Marsh in "Heavy Music" was its self-consciousness about rock and roll—still relatively young in '67—which, rather than hobbling the song's message, liberated it. On top of a pummeling groove, provided by Seger on guitar and organ, Carl Lagassa on guitar, Dan Honaker on bass, and Pep Perrine on drums and percussion, Seger howled a manifesto about the power of AM radio and the stage and the sounds that leap from them, the song boldly "proclaiming itself," as Marsh recalled. "Its opening lines ('Doncha ever listen to the radio / When the big bad beat comes on') are as magically rhetorical as anything ever written. Of course you do—otherwise you wouldn’t have heard this," adding:
Sometimes it’s just a stone-cold, drop-dead-in-your-tracks pronouncement that a new phase has dawned:

    Doncha ever feel like goin’ insane
    When the drums begin to pound
    Ain't there ever been a time in your life
    You couldn't believe what the band is puttin' down

A new phase as yet un-billed. "[I]t must be remembered that no one had thought to call [music 'heavy'] before,' Marsh wrote. "Though the song may never have reached your backyard, it was Bob Seger who coined the phrase that sums up everything since Zep unzipped and the Jeff Beck Group zapped us right in the guts with a whole new sound. That sound was what the Who and the Yardbirds had been implicitly promising but never quite defined." You could hardly be anywhere in the Detroit metro area, Marsh remembered, "without hearing 'Heavy Music,' and every time you got into the car, you practically had to keep one foot on the dash to keep it from driving you right through the windshield." Yet Seger's local hits often dropped into commercial oblivion when his label's promo people pulled wide; this was deeply frustrating for Seger. In typical luck, Cameo-Parkway folded soon after "Heavy Music" was released. Seger asserted that the problem was Allen Klein ("Yes, that Allen Klein") who had purchased the label, causing the stock to soar "and then the federal government shut the company down," Seger sighed. "The stock went from two to seventy, so the company was literally shut down."

There was another stumbling block to getting the heavy "Heavy Music" into the Top 40. “A lot of people really misconstrued [the song],” Seger remarked. “That was a song about the music but a lot of people thought it was a song about music and sex, the two together. There was nothing sexual in it, it was simply read in by a lot of program directors. The part about goin’ deeper.” Seger added that those program directors told him that he oughta go in "and rerecord that tail end, put something different on the tail, because no one’s ever gonna play it'." More a downed-power-line groove than a song, born out of a late-night jam one long night in Columbus, Ohio, Seger and his band riffing on the word "deeper" and the righteous, mind-opening concepts it inspired, "Heavy Music" was destined to be ignored by the masses, and dug by those in the know. For decades the early Seger singles traded at high value, and YouTube opened up the songs to a whole new audience. Near the end of the piece, Marsh mentions that the celebrated Detroit label Hideout was interested in buying the Cameo masters and releasing them on a compilation titled Bombs Away. Alas, that never happened. It took nearly half a century for the material to finally come out on Heavy Music: The Complete Cameo Recordings 1966-1967 released in 2018 on ABKCO. (Yes, that Allen Klein.) The wait was worth it.

On the flip side to "Heavy Music," an unhinged Seger riffs over the backing track, near the end name-checking an artist who I imagine he felt was close competition when writing the tune: "Stevie Winwood's got nothin' on me." That signaled a sonic turf of sorts in heady '67, yet the wailing, sublime, hypnotic groove that Bob Seger & The Last Heard laid down that night utterly transcends its origin. It sounded exhilarating to Marsh in '72; it sounds the same to me in '22. Turn it way up.


Photo of Marsh by John Collier, Detroit Free Press via Detroit Free Press

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Early contact high

I don't remember how this 45 ended up in the Bonomo family basement. I think it came with a promotional bundle of various singles that my folks, or perhaps an older sibling, bought at Korvettes—there were one or two other Buddah singles in that shrink-wrapped stack, too. Regardless of how the song ended up on the family stereo, I spun it endlessly. This would've been six or seven years after the Lemon Pipers released the song in 1967—it went to number one in February of '68—a world away culturally from the headiness of those years, the subsequent hangover and grim, Nixon-era reassessment of the era lost on me as I sat, listening to this, the top of my head coming off as neural pathways were forged and endlessly explored on long afternoons. 

I knew nothing about the band; I didn't have the hallucinatory cover sleeve (detail above) to check out, though I saw those colors anyway when I listened. I wasn't aware that the band was from Ohio, which would've pleased me, as I cherished my family's annual summer visits to Coldwater, in far western Ohio, to visit my grandparents. I didn't know that the band recorded the song reluctantly, feeling obliged to their label, nor that the song was a Brill Building special concocted to order by the band's manager, Paul Leka, and his songwriting partner Shelley Pinz. I didn't know that the song was a gentle exploitation of psych rather than an authentically deep response to a changing world. (Though down the line, maybe it was both?) I wasn't aware of the adult bittersweetness of a "one-hit wonder." "Bubblegum" was what I chewed tirelessly while flipping baseball cards, riding my bike, or walking in the woods.

What I did know was that the song was irresistible beyond language, that the trippy play-yay-yay-yay in the chorus did pleasingly strange things in my head and tiny chest, that the serpentine guitar sounded, and felt, exotic before I knew that word (or for that matter, the word serpentine) but that the descending part before the verses sounded scary, that the changes in the two bars before the chorus, which I would've ID'd excitedly as "that part, there!", moved me inexplicably, and that the tune was fun to sing and goof on with my brothers and sister. The single vanished from my parents' house at some point, as records do. I grabbed the single for a dollar last week (that's it below). An early childhood contact high, both the deep and the ethereal vibrations of which are still sounding deep in me. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

To break away

In 2010, Bruce Springsteen released The Promise, a "lost album" of tracks he'd begun with The E Street Band during the fraught, unhappy years between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. So astonishingly prolific was Springsteen during this period that he and his band wrote and recorded more than fifty songs, brooding, deeply emotional material that was eventually whittled down to the ten tracks that appeared in 1978 on the lean and mean Darkness

The era was a complicated one for Springsteen, as he moved between frustrating, legal-entangled inertia and his own native productivity. Blocked from releasing new material, he strained at the leash, imagining and reimagining the lives of the characters he wrote his songs about, and for, and what those songs should sound like. "By 1977, in true American fashion, I’d escaped the shackles of birth, personal history and, finally, place, but something wasn't right," Springsteen wrote about these years in his essential 2016 memoir Born to Run. "Rather than exhilaration, I felt unease." Following the mammoth success of 1975's Born to Run, he acknowledged the growing sense that "there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom. Many of the groups that had come before us, many of my heroes, had mistaken one for the other and it’d ended in poor form. I felt personal license was to freedom as masturbation was to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real deal."
Such were the circumstances that led the lovers I’d envisioned in “Born to Run,” so determined to head out and away, to turn their car around and head back to town. That’s where the deal was going down, amongst the brethren. I began to ask myself some new questions. I felt accountable to the people I’d grown up alongside of and I needed to address that feeling.
He added, "I was on new ground and searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and seventies cynicism. That cynicism was what my characters were battling against. I wanted them to feel older, weathered, wiser but not beaten. The sense of daily struggle increased; hope became a lot harder to come by. That was the feeling I wanted to sustain. I steered away from escapism and placed my people in a community under siege."


"Breakaway" was recorded on June 1, 1977 during the first night of the Darkness sessions, but left in the can until 2010, when Springsteen added a new lead vocal, backing vocals, and horns for The Promise. I am moved beyond reason by this song. Unfinished in '77—and the evidence is there: the new tracking, a line in the chorus later moving to its rightful place in "Badlands"—the song is dimensional now. Sonny, Janie, and Bobby are familiar Springsteen characters, pared down here to their essentials. They're desperate to break free—from their towns, their fate, their bodies—yet they're hemmed in by circumstance, shitty luck, bad choices, low ceilings. Springsteen recorded his vocal more than thirty years after making contact with these characters, and he sings as if the song's still warm. Donny gambles away his life, Bobby goes down hard on the blacktop, Janie cashes out the bar she's working and the fucks a guy in his car, giving her soul away. (Springsteen doesn't consider other, competing angles on Janie's decision, that she might be empowered, or anyway looking for an aimless night of pleasure.) The pace is measured, respectful of the vulnerabilities of the characters but mourning their lives, too. The melody is simple, to my ears among Springsteen's most affecting. The verse melody moves simply and gracefully among three notes, until the melody descends toward the title phrase, the inevitability of that gently falling melody pulling each character down to their fate. In the chorus, Springsteen wills the melody to ascend again, against the brutality of the lyrics, but what he achieves is a kind of anti-lullaby, a woeful sing-song, or the musical equivalent of a feather borne atop a deceiving updraft, only to inevitably to drop and settle. Devastating stuff.

In his liner notes to The Promise, Springsteen wrote, "Post 'Born to Run' I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth and early musical education. Echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, the full-voiced rockabilly ballad singers of the Fifties and Sixties along with my favorite soul artists and Phil Spector, thread throughout."
As I page through my thirty-year-old “Darkness” notebook, I see a young man filled with ambition, a local culture/B-movie-fueled florid imagination, and thrilled to be a rock ’n’ roll songwriter. The nights of listening to Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, the geniuses of early rock ’n’ roll songwriting had seeped deep into my bones. Their craft inspired me to a respect and love for my profession that’s been the cornerstone of the writing work I’ve done for the E Street Band and my entire work life.
You can hear late-50s and early-60s song craft here ("ronde, ronde ray"). Certainly, Orbison is deep inside "Breakaway"'s DNA—from drummer Max Weinberg's dignified fills and the shadowy guitar shadings to Springsteen's yearning melody and the ethereal background sha-la-la-la's—but finally this is a dark, burdened song, and through and through it's Bruce, amongst the brethren, at his most powerful, large-hearted, and sad.


~~

As I've written about before, I love overhearing conversations that songs engage in over time. Springsteen has mined his characters' names and backstories endlessly over his career, a Faulknerian Jersey Shore universe-building. "Janey" and "Bobby" aren't limited to the stories told in "Breakaway." A "Janey" appears in "Incident on 57th Street" and "Spirit in the Night," a "Bobby" in "Glory Days" and "Murder Inc." And both names appear in "Spare Parts" from 1987's Tunnel of Love. ("Janie" is spelled "Janey" here, but the silhouettes are the same.) I imagine the "Breakaway" couple meeting sometime later, trying to make it work, but, alas, the cycle continues:
Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in
Janey had a baby, wasn’t any sin
They were set to marry on a summer day
Bobby got scared and he ran away
Jane moved in with her ma out on Shawnee Lake
She sighed, "Ma sometimes my whole life feels like one big mistake"
She settled in in a back room, time passed on
Later that winter a son came along
Spare parts and broken hearts
Keep the world turnin’ around
At the end of the song, Janey sells her wedding ring and wedding dress, a righteous fuck you to Bobby, and to that old life, reclaiming some measure of her soul that she lost in that car in the parking lot so many years ago. 

Let the hearts that have been broken stand as the price you pay, to breakaway. 

Top (detail) and middle photos by Eric Meola, from The Promise.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Here comes Mr. Misery

Sometimes perversity wins out. I've been listening a lot lately to "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" from Elvis Costello and The Attractions' 1986 album Blood And Chocolate, a song I was fairly obsessed with when the album came out, and one which is still tactile and graphic to me in its ugliness—and I mean that was a supreme compliment. Blood and Chocolate is a famously difficult album to love; released in the same calendar year as the breakthrough King of America, it features stormy songs swiftly banged together on Costello's "clanky" 1930s' Gibson Century acoustic guitar, tunes that were uncomfortable, irksome, in a spiteful mood. Band members, particularly Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas, were mired in a tense and unhappy period, and producer Nick Lowe took advantage of this by suggesting the group set up up their live monitor system and blast away in one cavernous studio (Olympic, in London) at stage volume, cutting the songs live in as few takes as possible and with minimal overdubs. Allegedly he wanted to get the whole thing over before the band killed each other. In his 2002 liner notes for the album's reissue, Costello put it succinctly: "This is a record of people beating and twanging things with a fair amount of yelling." 

I loved, and love, the album for the visceral ways it cuts when you listen, its unpleasant odors. I was going through intense bouts of depression, girl trouble, general, unfathomable ennui when the record came out, and something in the grossness of "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" spoke to me, soundtracked my own lousiness and my obnoxious insistence on suffering with it. The song, as is typical with Costello, went through a couple of variations before arriving at the morose, self-deprecating version on
Blood and Chocolate. "The music had started out as a bright pop melody," Costello wrote for the 1995 reissue, "but [in the studio] I placed it in an almost impossibly low register which made me sound as if I was either seething or gasping for breath." Method Singing, he called it. Perfect. (I've always imagined the earlier "bright" arrangement as sounding something like the jaunty "Fish 'N' Chip Paper" from 1981's Trust.) Costello describes the song as "tale of a man driven mad by love." Mr. Misery, an ID I pathetically adopted at the time, is "contemplating murder again," so "he must be in love." In many ways the singing persona is common to many Costello tunes: he's bitter, abandoned, obsessed, seething at it all, mean-spirited. The heartbroken guy who's had too much to drink and who's now alone in his room, with nothing around to keep his demons at bay. Home isn't where it used to be....

Yet what truly drags this song down is Costello's perverse vocal, the aural equivalent of the stench coming off of a loser. He commits fully to his "method singing," bringing to life a man you don't want to spend time with, whose woefulness is a grim reminder of just how low we're all capable of getting emotionally. The arrangement is so agonizingly slow it feels as if the song's going backwards, or is at least stuck, the musicians almost visibly struggling with the inertia (even Pete Thomas's muscular drumming can't push through), and now we're stuck too, with the misery and the miserable man, in a room with the door locked. The melody ascends and descends forlornly, yet the song's darkly funny—from the title phrase to the generally derisive tone to lines like "You're tired of talking and you can't drink it down / So you hang around and drown instead," but the jokes are at the man's expense, all the more uncomfortable for that. Costello, characteristically moving in his lyrics from commentary to direct address and back again, is knowing: he's acting here, practically onstage, singing with his eyes glinting and his mouth corners imperceptibly raised, aware of how obnoxious and off-putting the man in the song is being. Listening, I remembered two great lines from Costello's 2014 autobiography Unfinished Music & Disappearing Ink. He's considering the autobiographical impulse in his songs:
I changed every “I” to “we,” so as to share the blame that was entirely my own, and then changed “I” to “he” to further cover my tracks. 
For all the appearances that these songs were a diary or a confession, I’d say that real life was much more harrowing and happens in slower motion than its dramatized form in song.
Knowing that Costello's first marriage crumbled in acrimony only a couple years before he wrote this song, I wonder at how knife-edge of all of this must've felt for him. He's singing in the third person, but the persona he conjures and mercilessly mocks is so vivid and absurdly melancholy that you feel you're in his skin. Who's mocking whom? Form and content, that eternal marriage. The whole thing just drones.

The last verse is devastating in its dry dismissal of the man and his problems, which are so darkly urgent to him:
The day ended as it began
He was seconds older than the man he was this morning
And the world has wiped its mouth since then
Or maybe it was yawning
In his liner notes Costello tips the hat to Bruce Thomas, praising his "fine bass playing" ("as accordions and spoons fly past his window") during the closing minute of the song, a mock-dramatic coda that's indifferent to the singer's anguish, the song gradually pulling wide until it unmoors a universal truth: sometimes our ugliest side is our most authentic side, and sometimes the ugliness sticks around.


Thursday, March 3, 2022

"Keep trying next week!"


Alas, my essay on Iggy and The Stooges' infamous takedown of The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" did not survive the First Round of this year's March Xness tournament-of-essays, the 2022 edition, "March Faxness," devoted to cover songs. (If you missed the news, I lost out to Ryan Carter's take on The Lemonheads' "Mrs. Robinson." Congrats, Ryan!)

"The Kingsmen found a home in 'Louie Louie,' the decades-long durability of which probably amazed them," I write near the end of my piece. "Some days I listen to The Stooges’ deconstruction of the song and it sounds like a bad joke, a desperate pose in the face of hostile indifference, a house of cards I could blow over. On other days their song sounds, and feels, like performance art of the highest order. On those days, what fascinates me is the movement from the mystery in Ely’s vocal to the transparency of Iggy’s, a move from wide-eyed innocence to heavy-lidded jadedness that’s nothing short of a lesson in cultural history."
The Kingsmen’s song wasn’t explicitly dirty, but playground and high school hallway rumors would have none of that, and desire took over, told its story, all manner of lascivious imagery and blue phrases filling the heads of kids all over the place. (A side note: The Kingsmen’s insane “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” released in 1964, has always sounded a lot filthier to me than “Louie Louie.” Recorded “dirty” with tons of distortion at what sounds like a single-bulb basement-party, the excitable percussion and rumbling floor-toms are impossibly sexy and nearly take the song down. Shake it, shake it, Lupe. I don’t know how the thing was released sounding as unbuttoned as it does.) Iggy Pop squeezed the mystery out of “Louie Louie,” making what was kinda-sorta heard (and certainly desired) into explicit, poor man’s porn, and that aggressive, bullying move was punk as hell, if unsubtle. Iggy and The Stooges Did It Themselves. What both versions of “Louie Louie” can’t extinguish is the mystery in the music, the eternally renewing three-chord majesty, the perpetual motion machine those chords create, the primal hip shake of it all. “Louie Louie” will never end.
You can read my essay for the duration of the tournament here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Fleshtones, Gurus, combine!


The latest ultra-obscure gem to resurface online is a November 1, 1990 audience recording of the—as far as I know—one and only set by Gherkin Milkshakes, a Super (Rock) Group comprised of Peter Zaremba and Keith Streng of The Fleshtones and Hoodoo Gurus (Dave Faulkner, Brad Shepherd, Rick Grossman, and Mark Kingsmill). Zaremba and Streng were in Sydney to assist with the mixing of Powerstance, which Faulkner had produced. 

I pick up the story in Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band:
The mixes and album completed, Peter, Keith, and Faulkner turned to a harebrained idea that they’d batted around in New York: Hoodoo Gurus backing Peter and Keith for a one-off show. Dubbed the Gherkin Milkshakes (a slyly explicit reference to male ejaculate) they played a smashing set of Fleshtones songs at the Hopetoun Hotel in Sydney, a crowded venue packed with Gurus fans digging the two New Yawk frontmen doing their thing. Observed a local journalist wryly, “That night will long be remembered for its frenzied scenes, reminiscent of an old Easybeats film clip, or at the very least, a balmy summer’s evening on the Hill at the Cricket Ground.”
Kicking off with "When The Night Falls," the fellas streak through fifteen rollicking tunes, including "Way Up Here," "Cara-Lin," Buddy Holly's "Well Alright," 'Living Legends," and Custom Five's "Let's Go In '69," Get Down With It, boys!

~~

Above is a Google Map image of The Hopetoun Hotel, constructed between 1836 and 1839. Many bands lifted its roof down the decades; unfortunately in 2009 it was shuttered due to fines and repeated noise violations, to which this motley crew of New Yorkers and Australians certainly, grinningly, contributed on this night.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

“SUPER” “HITS!”


So I’m working on a long-gestating essay about those gloriously strange, of-the-era, early- and mid-70s budget compilations on the Pickwick label that featured recordings of contemporary hits by faceless and anonymous session musicians, in this case going by the band name Kings Road. I’m well into research but am asking help on the off chance that someone knows someone who knew someone who knew a musician who worked on these sessions, or who might have leads on Pickwick recording info I’m unaware of. If you have any info at all, please comment below or hit me up at jbonomo@niu.edu. All vague and semi-promising leads welcome!