Saturday, December 3, 2022

Sincerely, your beloved son...

Berry and muse, in repose in 2011. Photo by Danny Clinch.
Chuck Berry released "Dear Dad" on March 15, 1965, his 38th single for Chess. It cracked the Top 100, idling at the 95 spot for a month. It's always been one of my favorite Berry tunes, a post-peak gem that tells a witty story (this one with a great punch line) while rocking slyly. Berry recorded the tune on December 16, 1964 at the Ter-Mar Recording Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, with a band led by the guitarist Jules Blattner, who Berry knew from seeing play in the St. Louis area. With Blattner, bassist William L. Bixler, and drummer Howard Jones backing Berry, the performance motorvates along nicely, Jones's chugging backbeat especially propulsive as Berry plays a groovy (and grooving) syncopated car-horn riff in the verses (there is no chorus); somehow the thing both rocks and teeters. (Berry and the band also cut the loose-limbed "I Want To Be Your Driver" at these sessions, both tunes appearing on Chuck Berry in London in 1965.) 

In the tradition of the epistolary, Berry writes from the perspective of Henry Ford's son, who's desperate for a new car but who's afraid to ask for one, Berry merging the idiosyncratic with the universal, his super power. (He also knew that the family dynamic is one of the great issues in American art, the rock and roll 45 no less.) The premise alone—that even Ford's son is relegated to driving a piece of shit car like every other teenager in America who can't afford a better one—is hilarious and fresh. Junior knows that if he's going to approach the old man, then his argument better be tight. He respectfully placates Dad at first ("don't be mad") and then in a long anxious breath lays out the dire mechanical issues, with one hilarious image-phrase after another: I might as well be walking; if I ain't going downhill I'm out of luck; if I push to 50 this here Ford will nosedive; cars whizzing past me look like I'm backing up. Fantastic. The whole argument's over in under two minutes. We never get Pop's return letter.

Berry was infamous taskmaster to his pickup bands, who were often treated churlishly, yet it's virtually impossible to hear this and not imagine grins on all of the musicians' faces as they rev this up. It's an essentially perfectly written rock and roll song; though the band sounds a tad underrehearsed, and the sloppy-even-for-1960s-Berry guitar solos feel a bit tossed off, to my ears the off-the-cuff performance conjures the car itself coming apart at the seams. (Like many rock and roll fans of my generation, I was introduced to the song via Dave Edmunds, who released a version on D.E 7th in 1982. His take is respectful, yet just as wittily rocking: he tidies up Berry's solos, and offers one of them to pianist Geraint Watkins, whose winking glissando mimics the Ford's "nose dive.")

~~

Casting around for some diversions as I recover from Covid, I got the idea of transposing the song's lyrics as a hand-written letter. Unsurprisingly, the translation from lyrics sheet to scrawled note was effortless, Berry's vernacular perfectly capturing that cracking voice of an average teenager sweating out a letter to a parent asking for something they know they probably won't get. Berry's genius was so distinctive and dimensional as to seem epic, larger-than-life, when really what he did—superbly, poignantly, hilariously, and seemingly casually—was to capture that male adolescent perennially poised between stuck-at-home and bound-for-the-road, as American, as universal, really, as anything there is. As Berry himself once said, "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening."


Friday, November 25, 2022

Johnny Thunder, doin' his thing

"At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point." That's John Peel, who knew a good rock and roll song when he heard it. He obviously knew something about the mysteries inside of one, also. Lately I've been marveling at Johnny Thunder's storming version of Tommy James and The Shondells' "I'm Alive." I'm not choosing sides here—each version's killer in its own way—yet the differences between the two are stark. One's an earnest, feel-good anthem, the other's nothing less than a conflagration. 

By the end of the 1960s, Thunder (real name Gil Hamilton) had released over twenty singles; his biggest hit was "Loop De Loop," which reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. None of his succeeding sides were nearly as successful. He moved on from Diamond Records to Calla Records where he teamed up with producer Teddy Vann to cut "I'm Alive" in 1968, released before James' version (which would appear as the b-side to "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and on side two of Crimson and Clover). Billboard mentions "I'm Alive" in the March 15, 1969 issue, where it placed the single in its "Top 60 Spotlight," the place where 45s "predicted to reach the top 60 of the HOT 100 chart" gathered, hopeful. James is credited as Arranger and provider of "Musical Concept," but his considerable commercial fairy dust couldn't propel "I'm Alive" to the top of the charts, or even near it. (A month later, Ed Ochs, in his "Soul Sauce" column in the April 19th Billboard, singles out Thunder, "moving with his first Calla release," and then notes that the singer "is up for the lead in a film, Two-Sided Triangle." To my knowledge, that movie never materialized.) 

Perhaps Thunder's "I'm Alive" was just too hot for the Hot 100. His version is pitched slightly higher than James', and so moves a bit more urgently. Whether this was intentional or a mistake in the mastering process is beside the point. And how is that the fuzz guitar snarls more menacingly in his version? Singing boldly in front of the Shondells' backing track, Thunder makes the song his on his own profoundly moving terms. Trading on his gospel church singing experience as an adolescent raised in central Florida, he transforms the original into a fierce and deeply felt declaration of pride and self-worth, belting out the words as if he himself had written them. Listen to the way he bites off the end of the title phrase in the opening line: he's hear to exclaim, and to prove something, the emotional source as much righteous anger as it is gratitude. James and co-writer Peter Lucia, the Shondells' drummer, were aware of strong new currents in the charged air, singing wisely, if naively, that long hair and racial differences ("I'm red and yellow and black and tan, I'm a man") were merely a distraction. Yet a black man singing these words in 1968 fundamentally changes those words, adds dimension to what in James' voice sound like bromides, however keen and well-intentioned.

~~
Thunder delivered two seismic changes to "I'm Alive." In a ten-bar middle, he strides to the mic and fills a voiceless passage with a heavy-funk call-and-a-response riding Mike Vale's syncopated bass. Building in intensity, with sensuous moans, growls, and guttural affirmations, the passage leads to an explosion of release with the phrase "I'm a man"—a nearly-unhinged statement of purpose more electrifying than anything he'd sung even a minute before. 

In the Shondells version, James, a devotee of hooks and a songwriter and fascinated with the ear-bending possibilities of pop radio, halts things at the two minute mark, allowing for several daring seconds of radio silence before the band reenters. But this vocal arrangement was far too timid for Thunder, who's got work to do and things to say. What he sings, in a duet with himself—who else would understand things better?—
I'm no stone—I'm alive
And I'm no rock—I'm alive
No piece of metal, y'all
simply and powerfully reduces the song's argument to fundamentals, a simple, clear, and affecting cry for the recognized humanity of the singer, of anyone oppressed. This wasn't theatrical showiness. Various events during the tumultuous months that followed the release of "I'm Alive" offer context: on April 19th, Afro-American Society (AAS) members occupied Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University, protesting judicial unfairness and curriculum injustices during a fraught, potentially violent Parents Weekend; on June 28th, 1969, the groundbreaking Stonewall Riots began in Greenwich Village; on October 29, 1969 the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of every remaining segregated Southern school. Battles for dignity and basic human rights were sounding loudly. Thunder, his voice inadvertently soundtracking burned-out cities and passionate dissent, joined the chorus, muscling "I'm Alive" into one of the most mighty and rocking anthems of the era, detonating a social message the fuse of which lay in James and Purcia's original.

~~

Bob Dylan recently released The Philosophy of Modern Song, his quirky and personal take on the multitude of stories told in songs. I wish that he'd recalled "I'm Alive" when he was writing the book. In an interview in the November 29, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, he was asked by editor Jann Wenner if there was anything in current rock and roll that struck him as good.

"Yeah," Dylan drawled. "I heard a record by Johnny Thunder. It's called 'I'm Alive'."
Never heard it either, huh? Well, I can't believe it. Everyone I've talked to, I've asked them if they've heard that record.

Is it on the radio right now?

I don't know. I heard it on the radio a month ago, two months ago . . . three months ago. It was one of the most powerful records I've ever heard. It's called "I'm Alive." By Johnny Thunder. Well, it was that sentiment, truly expressed. That's the most I can say . . . if you heard the record, you'd know what I mean.
I know what he means. I hear it new every time I play one of my most cherished 45s.
Johnny Thunder, Tommy James and The Shondells, ca. 1969

Saturday, November 19, 2022

"Writing about EVERYTHING"

No one really needs to write any more words about "Born To Run." Or so I thought. I recently picked up an original pressing of the 45 (pictured spinning above).

By now, the story behind the writing and recording of "Born To Run" is as well known as the song itself. Springsteen started the song perched on his bed in a cottage he was renting at 7 1/2 West End Court in Long Brach, New Jersey, two blocks from the ocean. Here's a recent glimpse of the house via Street View; it's the little blue guy in the middle. I prefer the second, slightly shore-ward looking angle, with the slanting sun giving the impression of shining down on the cottage in benevolent inspiration:


Springsteen picks up the tale: "I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in fifties and sixties rock ’n’ roll. I had a small table holding a record player at the side of my cot, so I was just one drowsy roll away from dropping the needle onto my favorite album of the moment."
At night, I’d switch off the lights and drift away with Roy Orbison, Phil Spector or Duane Eddy lullabying me to dreamland. These records now spoke to me in a way most late-sixties and early-seventies rock music failed to. Love, work, sex and fun. The darkly romantic visions of both Spector and Orbison felt in tune with my own sense of romance, with love itself as a risky proposition. These were well-crafted, inspired recordings, powered by great songs, great voices, great arrangements and excellent musicianship. They were filled with real studio genius, breathless passion... AND...they were hits! There was little self-indulgence in them. They didn’t waste your time with sprawling guitar solos or endless monolithic drumming. There was opera and a lush grandness, but there was also restraint. This aesthetic appealed to me as I moved into the early stages of writing for “Born to Run.”

Helpfully, he parses his influences, sifting for the reader the ingredients of one the of all-time great rock and roll songs:  

From Duane Eddy came the guitar sound, “Tramps like us... ,” then “ba BA . . . BA ba,” the twanging guitar lick. From Roy Orbison came the round operatic vocal tone of a young aspirant with limited range attempting to emulate his hero. From Phil Spector came the ambition to make a world-shaking mighty noise. I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear .. . the last one you'd ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise . . . then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record's physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery and the idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.

Springsteen had a riff, but not much else besides a the title phrase, which haunted him like a half-recalled scene from a film. He was certain he'd seen the words somewhere."It might have been written in silver metal flake on the hood of a car cruising the Asbury circuit, or I may have seen it somewhere in one of the hot-rod B pictures I’d gorged myself on during the early sixties. Maybe it was just out there in the air, floating along on the salt water/carbon monoxide mix of Kingsley and Ocean Avenue on a 'circuit' Saturday night." He added, "Wherever it came from it held the essential ingredients of a hit record, familiarity and newness, inspiring in the listener surprise and recognition. A smash feels like it was always there and as if you’ve never heard anything like it before." 

A happy apostle to the imagery of "Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel," Springsteen was keen enough to know that he had "make these images matter...shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity." A tall order indeed. "I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché," he writes appealingly, "and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment." The rest of the lyrics arrived swiftly. The song was then laboriously created in the studio over many months. "We layered instrument upon instrument, mixing down and down, track to track, combining sections of instruments until we could fit our seventy-two tracks of rock ’n’ roll overkill on the sixteen available tracks at 914 Studios," Springsteen wrote, adding, "In those days, there were no automated or computerized mixing boards. It was all hands on deck." "Born To Run" was released in the summer of 1975 in advance of the album, and then entered the lore. 

~~

There is no way "Born To Run" should have worked as well as it does. Springsteen juggled calculation, consciousness, and industry pressures with inspiration, love, and an insanely large confidence in his own ability to deliver. The song should've collapsed under its own weight, burdened with self-awareness and a do-or-die Recipe For Success. Cliche's could've buried the song. Somehow, Springsteen, his band, and co-producer Mike Appel pull it off, one of the great, and thrilling, magic tricks of the era. Familiarity, meet Newness.

I didn't think that I could possibly hear the song again with fresh ears nearly a half century after its release, but I was surprised by the mastering on this 45. I revisit all of this now—the overly-familiar origin story, the epic production battles, this defining moment for Springsteen—only because I heard something different this time around and wanted to brush up on the song's genesis. On the single the low end rumbles more powerfully, especially Boom Carter's bass drum and Garry Tallent's bass, the singer's, and the song's, heartbeat beating louder. And Springsteen's vocal sounds as if it's been brought up in the mix slightly, and feels warmer, more intimate, as a consequence. The high end percussion sounds a bit muted, the consciously theatrical details (the glockenspiel, the tambourines, the string section) fading a bit into the sonic background, all of which makes the song feel realer to me, less contrived. I think it's that the mid-range feels more present in this version, like the weather. I'm not a Springsteen authority, and I don't know whether this 45 version was in fact mastered or subtly mixed differently from what ended up on side two of the album, or maybe it was alchemy at the pressing plant. (Hey, good name for a song.) Maybe you can hear some of this in the vinyl rip I made and posted below, or maybe I'm the only one hearing because what I'm hearing in my head is the song as a single, the way it was meant to be heard, and what Springsteen envisioned as he wrote it, joining the tradition of the world-shaking 45s he grew up with, roaring out of a transistor radio by the pool, or in a car, or from a basement or bedroom stereo. Its finite edges—seven inches across, no song before or after it—isolate the song in time and space, somehow making all the song's truths feel infinite.

But I don't think it's only in my head. It's in the cherished grooves. This has replaced the album track as my go to "Born To Run." Turn it up.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ty Segall, surrounded

DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I spent an evening with Ty Segall in the round last night at Thalia Hall in Chicago. I'm a fan, and Ty delivered, as he always does. I caught an acoustic show of his seven years ago at the Empty Bottle, and, like that night, at Thalia he repurposed the sonic groove of his electric material for something that was part ethereal, part earthly. Across a 21-song set, his engaging pysch-folk elevated from a "stage" a foot off the ground laid in the center of the floor of the large hall, around which a smallish crowd gathered, most of them clutching heavy coats in their arms, all of them smiling. (The dapper and winning Emmet Kelly opened with a brief set of his elegant, superbly sung folk songs.) The vibe was intimate but thankfully not preciously hushed. Segall was in fine voice, and inside of it moved from screech to falsetto to croon, enlivening his idiosyncratic, minor-leaning melodies with his marvelous guitar playing among three acoustics, including a ringing 12-string. His playing was gentle, with plucking and strumming, until it was furious, approximating the chug-chug of a freight train picking up speed but not too early where you can't jump on for the ride. 

Anytime I can hear Segall sing "Sleeper," I feel fortunate, and last night the melody, stripped of its electric, guitar-heavy finery, was a lilting thing of beauty. But the highlight came in the middle of the set. Segall sang the entirety of "Orange Color Queen" (from 2017's Ty Segall) off mic, his eyes shut tight but for the occasional checking of his bearings. The performance highlighted the impression I felt all evening that Segall was busking in a park for a small crowd, the illusion aided by the stray bird-song sounds he made while tuning his guitar between numbers, whistles that were then picked up and imitated by various members of the crowd. Close your eyes and you felt as if you were outside in warm weather beneath trees. Thankfully the ringing of registers, opening of beer cans, idle chatter from folks at the back bars—the usual problems at acoustic shows—never really intruded last night, because the crowd, surrounding Segall as they were, created its own island of sound and presence. I was grateful for this on the first really cold day of the season. "Warm Hands," also from Ty Segall, was a concert unto itself, Segall moving maniacally from verse to chorus to bridge in the long song as if he were narrating an epic short story, his guitar playing one of the characters. 

You won't get much "presence" from Ty; he's taciturn, offering a shy smile and an occasional thank you between songs. Soon you recognize that his personality emerges in the range of his vocals and in the shapeshifting of his guitar playing, the wellspring of his enormous catalogue of songs laid bare. At the conclusion of "My Lady's On Fire" at the end of the set, Segall asked the crowd to sing the final "no, no, no no no no" lament. We obliged. Hearing, and joining, I don't know, a hundred people singing loudly in a large hall for a few moments was no small pleasure, especially in these months of heading out to shows again. He came back for a two-song encore, then thanked us for being so nice.

After Segall took the stage for his opening song, the woman behind me turned to her friend and gushed, "He’s my Harry Styles!" It was maybe my favorite moment of the night. Keep ascending, Ty.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Sound and sense

Update: The Normal School is currently uploading my print-only essays (2012-2019) to the site. If you've the interest and the time, take a look.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022, cont'd

I was happy to speak with Matthew Bannister for BBC Radio 4's "Last Word" about Jerry Lee Lewis's career in its highs and lows, and where fans might choose to locate themselves. My segment begins at the 6:15 mark.

On a related note, in 2005 Cary O'Dell, the Boards Assistant to the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, asked me to write a piece about “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On" to be added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. The Library recently re-posted the piece at the Now See Hear! blog, on the occasion of Lewis's death.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022

Rest in Peace Jerry Lee Lewis, a complicated man. He was equal parts gifted, profane, and egocentric, deeply flawed, burdened by talent in an era when blazing a trail meant fucking up without much precedent. He will always be defined by his recklessness, some of it brutal and damaging, much of it unforgivable, but also by his scintillating gifts, his vast knowledge of, and deep love for, the Great Americana Songbook, to which he contributed in astonishing, break-the-mold ways. His early records still ignite any room they're played in, his Wilderness Years in the 1960s were both unfair and just, and his commercial resurgence via his honky tonk records in the late-60 and 1970s was, in its peaks and valleys, movingly authentic. He was one of a kind, and he reveled in that immaturely and was crippled by it in unfathomable ways. 

I never met him, and didn't really want to. He was Myth decades ago. Despite his personal shortcomings, which anyone interested in his life and career will always need to reckon with, his piano playing, singing, showmanship, interpretive gifts, and native energies onstage were remarkable, and will live on eternally no matter what the hell you or I think about the man. It all coalesced one night at the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, a performance so astonishing to me that I wrote a book about it.

"Y'know, there's nothin' like tearing up a good club now and then," he once said. Watch out Heavens, or Hell.

Photo by David McClister
Artwork by Jon Langford

Friday, October 21, 2022

He kicked me out

The Who's Quadrophenia is never far from my mind. Lately I've been thinking about "Four Faces," a song that the band worked on in June and July of 1972 during the early stages of the Quadrophenia sessions, but ultimately abandoned. Along with a couple other tracks that didn't make the cut in '73 ("Get Out And Stay Out" and "Joker James"), "Four Faces" appeared six years later on the Quadrophenia film soundtrack, a curio. 

To my ears, "Four Faces" is a delight, a whip-smart Townshendian ode to teenage disaffection and identity crises. Buoyed by sprightly keyboards and Keith Moon's rolling drum fills, the arrangement bounces along in jaunty mid-period Who style, and the imagery in the witty lyrics evokes the growing battle inside Jimmy. "I got four heads inside my mind," Townshend sings, in his patented half-grinning, half-unhinged style,

Four rooms I'd like to lie in
Four selves I want to find
And I don't know which one is me

I get four papers in the box each day
Four girls ringing that I want to date
I look in the mirror and see my face
But I don't know which one is me
Sounds like teenagedom to me. "It's little things that are hard," Jimmy complains, "Like starting up the car and I'm still underneath." He wakes up over here, and then he's over here. And:
There are four records I want to buy
Four highs I'd like to try
Every letter I get I send four replies
And I don't know which one's from me
Great stuff. 
Jimmy fighting with his folks, from the Quadrophenia booklet. Photo by Ethan Russell
Whether the song would've fit on Quadrophenia is another matter. Was Townshend right to kick it out? Richie Unterberger in Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia feels that the tune is an "innocuous piano-driven ditty...far below the standards of any of the songs included on the original LP." Though I'm not sure that I agree with him on that second assertion, Unterberger was correct in surmising that Townshend might've written "Four Faces" "out of pressure to come up with a song that finally spelled out Jimmy’s quadrophenic personality."

In his indispensable liner notes to the “Director’s Cut” Quadrophenia boxset (2011), Townshend writes that what "Four Faces" ultimately fell victim to was bad timing: it had arrived too soon. By the summer of '72, he had decided that the Who’s next album "would be set in the Mod days of 1964." Two songs that came to define Jimmy's dilemma, "Is It In My Head" and "Love Reign O’er Me," had already been written but were not yet earmarked for the album. "With ‘Four Faces’ I was making an early attempt at setting the scene for a four-faceted central figure," Townshend acknowledges, before adding,
but this is a really light-hearted picture of Jimmy, conveyed by the boy himself. It’s almost a pre-psychiatric view: Jimmy is explaining one of his problems; he is mixed up and confused, and torn in four directions. Yet he still sounds like a jolly young man, not yet beset by the rages that would be sparked by drugs and family battles, and although this song was later replaced by the far more powerful ‘The Real Me’, it did provide me as a composer with a musical scratchpad with a good title that began at first to demand, then to cement, the way Jimmy's four personality traits felt reflected by each of the disparate members of his favourite band, The Who.
Townshend adds that the Lowrey organ he'd played "is what gives the chorus [of "Four Faces"] its clattering, optimistic feeling." (He used the same organ sound on "Cut My Hair.") I'm inclined to agree with Townshend that the drollness of "Four Faces" is at odds woth the overall vibe of Quadrophenia, a grayly dour, fairly tortured record. But a darker shade arrives in the very-Who-like bridge of the song, and some days I wonder if the tune, though comparatively trifling, might've added some adolescent spirit to things, some "pre-psychiatric" innocence. After all, teenagers move between gloom and light-heartedness in a flash, and aren't exceptionally deep thinkers, even a brooder like Jimmy, who's often more bewildered throughout the album than he is enlightened. In the alternate reality in my head—a reality where a vinyl double-album can squeeze in one more song—I sequence "Four Faces" between "Is It In My Head" and "I've Had Enough," cresting nicely to the moment when Jimmy wrecks his scooter. 

Then he's off to Brighton on the 5:15....


Saturday, October 8, 2022

Light and darkness: Stax on Smith

Mike Stax's Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali had been sitting in my to-read stack for a while, as books do. After watching Stax's recent talk at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, I was inspired to read this galvanizing and moving tale. A pity I waited so long.

Swim Through the Darkness recounts Stax's years-long efforts to gather the myriad pieces of Smith's life and to assemble them into coherent narrative. Smith's story is remarkable. He was born in Los Angeles in 1945 to show business-seeking parents, and by the time he was in high school displayed an unerring knack for succeeding at just about everything he attempted. His ascension through the southern California folk and pop music worlds was swift and impressive: for three years in the mid-1960s he played guitar and sang in the Good Time Singers and made regular appearances on The Andy Williams Show. In 1966 he auditioned for a lead role in The Happeners, a quasi-gritty television show about a fictional folk trio; the pilot wasn't picked up, but Smith and fellow cast member Chris Ducey formed a duo called Chris & Craig, which would later metamorphose into the Penny Arkade, enjoying a partnership of sorts with Mike Nesmith, who produced them and shopped them around to labels in L.A. (to no avail). Though none of Smith's bands were commercial successes, suffering the usual bad luck and hard knocks endemic to the music business, Smith was a gifted and productive commercial songwriter who landed several of his tunes with popular artists—notably "Christmas Holiday" and "Salesman," recorded by Andy Williams and the Monkees, respectively—and earned sizable royalties into the end of the decade.

Which is when things became strange. The genial and winningly handsome Smith, always an intellectual and spiritual seeker of sorts not without a brooding interior life, was introduced to LSD and was soon tripping regularly, supplementing the drug use with intense and lengthy sessions of meditation. Eventually bored by the shallowness and artifice of pop music, Smith grew intrigued with the travels of hippies in the Middle East and Asia, and in 1968 embarked on a trip with friends on the so-called Hippie Trail. In a series of murky events in Afghanistan, Smith, on his own, allegedly got into an altercation with a street vendor and was brutally beaten, and possibly raped. He may or may not have spent time in a mental institution. The undeniable fact was that when he returned to the United States he was a permanently changed man: spacey and unpredictable, prone to violence, now going by the name Maitreya Kali. He continued writing songs, and in 1972 issued two lo-fi self-produced albums, Inca and Apache, the folky, gently lovely melodies and love songs inside made complicated by the inscrutable, nearly impenetrable liner notes on the cover which mingled sexual-spiritual and political rants with deeply personal symbology. In 1973 Smith violently assaulted his mother, and spent two and a half years in jail. Drifting deeper into his Kali identity, at one point sporting an ominous spider tattoo on his "third eye," Smith lived on the streets of Los Angeles for the remainder of his life. He died on those streets, alone, in 2012.

Mike Stax speaking at the Philosophical Research Center in Los Angeles on September 16
Stax, founder and editor of the indispensable Ugly Things Magazine, has devoted his professional life to rescuing and exploring obscure or otherwise forgotten musicians and bands of the 1960s and '70s, those artists whose own talents, productions, and star power had been greatly outshined at the time by the era's supernovas. (Ugly Things occasionally covers the Big Names, but on a leveled playing field). When Stax first heard Smith's music years ago, he was instantly drawn to its beauty, and then to Smith's odd life, and he became obsessed with learning more—specifically about how a bright and conventional talent like Smith might end up in such mysterious obscurity—and the result is Swim Through the Darkness, a decades-in-the-making book that, as its subtitle suggests, is as much about the story Stax lived in assembling Smith's life as it is about Smith's life. As such, the book reads as a kind of biography-memoir hybrid, music journalism disguised as a personal narrative. Over the course of researching and writing the book, Stax benefited not only from his own dogged approach, but also from the kindness of friends and acquaintances who offered hints, shadowy details, and memories, and leads, sometimes threadbare, as to Smith's past or current whereabouts. A lot of luck was involved: someone might happen to see Smith at this corner or exiting that establishment, and for Stax the trail would warm again. Yet had that person not been in that location that day, or had been there and looked the other way, the leads would never have materialized. Such is the tantalizing if frustrating process of tracking down a ghost-like figure. 

To Stax's immense credit, he never gave in to the frustrations, and in the end talked with dozens of people for the book, most of whom were eager to talk about the Smith they knew and loved, even as they were dismayed at the sad downturn his life took. Swim Through the Darkness is a large-hearted and humane book, testament to Stax's generosity of spirit and his commitment to sharing a story that he intuited was worth all of the hard work. Stax's writing, while committed to facts and accuracy, is also moving, and at times lyrical, as Stax navigates not only Smith's journey but his own sometimes overwhelming reckoning with the sadness of a life that moved slowly, agonizingly, from light to dark, knowable to mysterious, buoyant to tragic. In places Stax and others attempt armchair diagnoses of Smith's troubles as the consequence of mental illness, physical injury, and/or drug abuse. Yet Stax is all too aware of the limitations of grasping for certainties. Reading, I was reminded of J. Hillis Miller's observation that “one powerful means society has for dealing with someone who does not fit any ordinary social category is to declare him insane,” yet Stax is careful throughout to leaven guesses at cause-and-effect with the grim reminder that we may never fathom an individual's choices in life. Even if you're not particularly interested in Craig Smith, Stax's earnest and deeply-felt book will convert you, if not necessarily to his music, than to a sympathetic understanding of Smith's place as yet another person astray in the myth journey of humankind. 

At the book's close, Stax shares his quest to retrieve Smith's ashes. His family had refused, or ignored, them, and, tattooed by his desire to render Smith whole, Stax felt nearly honor-bound to assume ownership of the remains. He does eventually claim them, narrated as an absurdly suspenseful journey through Los Angeles's bland civic hallways. "The past is a vast ocean that moves beneath all of our lives," he writes at the book's close. 
In my long journey to find Craig Smith and discover the secrets of Maitreya Kali, I had swum deep beneath its surface, retrieving fragments of his life piece by piece then attempting to place them into their true pattern. Completing the entire puzzle was impossible. Many of his secrets lay deeper than I could ever reach, darker than I dared to swim. But now, in rescuing that box of ashes, in many ways my journey had reached its end—or more like a kind of new beginning. Sitting in the stillness of that crematory garden I experienced the very real sensation of breaking that vast ocean’s surface and breathing in fresh air again. My search for Craig Smith, my swim through the darkness, had in some ways been a wasted journey. By the time I found him, it was too late for there to be any kind of happy resolution. But in telling his story, surely there was still some kind of redemption to be found for this poor, lost, tragic, lonely soul.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Bodies and eyes

A passage in In China with Green Day, Aaron Cometbus's engrossing tour-diary/travel-essay about accompanying Green Day on a brief East Asian tour in 2010, gave me pause. I'm an admitted fameist. I haven't seen the light with regard to arena shows, but Cometbus's characteristically smart perspective shed some light on the appeal of tens of thousands congregating under a Jumbotron. 

Green Day was supporting 21st Century Breakdown, and were several years into their surprising second act as a worldwide phenomenon—a band that everyone suddenly had an opinion about. They asked their old friend and gadfly Cometbus along for the two-week ride. Raised on, and partly responsible for, countless indie shows in the Bay Area, Cometbus found the disorienting environment in Hong Kong, and later, Seoul, Korea, strangely familiar, yet in unfamiliar ways. In the 'zine Cometbus offers revealing glimpses of elite backstage life (the band members dialing back the alcohol and catered food consumption because they're playing the Grammy Awards show in two weeks and are watching their collective figure), essays the sometime sharp contrasts between Ordinary Fan and Band, sifts deep memories of Berkeley-based musicians and friends, and describes his own aimless wanderings deep into the strangeness of Asian urban and suburban culture, a rich travelogue that situates the 'zine in the tradition of walking essays. On that level alone, In China with Green Day is well worth reading. Cometbus's eye for narrative detail and his deeply-felt associative thinking are very affecting.

Cometbus was halfway around the world for a reason. Near the end, tired and grouchy, he nails what I so dislike about the rote machinations of arena shows:

Yet in Hong Kong, wedged into the crowd near the front of a massive stage, watching Green Day play a well-rehearsed, iron-clad set complete with complex light cues and pyrotechnics, Cometbus experienced an epiphany of sorts. And, reading along, so did I. "I wondered about the psychological divide between the audience and stage, which punk had been hell bent on destroying" he wrote.
Experiencing it on this tour for the first time, I found that I rather enjoyed it. Green Day's inaccessibility allowed the audience to focus on something outside of themselves; it gave them a chance to step out of their own skins and forget, for a few hours, their own problems.

    In a massive crowd, that was easier to do. Just being part of a huge audience was a moving, almost spiritual experience. I’d never known that before, having almost exclusively attended small, independent shows.

    I was like a kid who’s never been allowed to watch TV or eat sugar cereals. Arena rock was something new and fascinating to me, and I was lapping it up. Once the novelty wore off and I felt sick, I’d go back to the books and whole grains on which I was raised.

"It helped that there were none of the annoying aspects of an American concert here," he continued, "no drunk yahoos or people you saw in the halls at high school."

A big concert was a good way to bypass the isolation that came from being in a foreign country. Everyone was pressed up intimately close, and the ear-splitting volume made conversation impossible. Instead, we used our bodies and our eyes to speak, and our common language: the lyrics of Green Day.

I'll try and remember these words if I'm ever again in an enormous crowd fifty or more yards away from the band I've come to see.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Energy! It's my currency!

DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I caught Amyl and The Sniffers at The Vic in Chicago last night—a packed show on a Wednesday. I was hopeful to hear the great Amy Taylor and her band play two songs in particular. One was "Control," and the band obliged by opening the show with it. I was taken aback, as I'd imagined that the manifesto would be an ideal mid-set scorcher, poised as a kind of sonic ballast for a show that might come undone by its own energy. As an opening number, "Control" had a different role, laying down the law: I like control. It's the reason I exist.

And Taylor was in full command, bounding onstage with her mates precisely at nine o'clock wearing tight, bright-blue short shorts and a midriff-baring monokini, a grinning, bleached-blonde dynamo running circles around the stage that she owned. The band—Fergus Romer on bass, Bryce Wilson on drums, and Dec Martens on a Flying-V guitar—anchored Taylor, or tried to, with their stocky riffs and low-end rumble. Wilson and Romer were shirtless within a couple of songs. I was three-deep in the roiling crowd at stage right, feet away from Martens and a mammoth speaker stack and had to fight a muddy mix all night. Martens's melodic leads, so distinctive and propulsive on the band's newer material, were sometimes lost in the roar, and even Taylor's considerable pipes lost out occasionally to the venue's acoustics, a problem I hadn't experienced before at The Vic. But no matter: neither a murky sound nor Taylor's thick Australian-accented, between-song patter interfered with the show's message. Amyl and the Sniffers' blend of righteousness, intensity, and grins (there were fart jokes) makes for a lively, thrilling night. (Energy they can muster even while serenading a river at dusk.) I left covered in sweat and not a little beer. This is an exciting time for the band, as it feels like they're in ascension. This was their second visit to Chicago in 2022 on the Comfort To Me tour, and most post-show accounts along the long road indicate panting adoration. The leap in ambition from the band's debut album to last year's remarkable Comfort To Me was startling and exciting, and I can't wait to see where the band takes their stomping punk rock next. 

There were so many highlights in the barreling, nineteen-song set: the mini-narrative of "Security" had the crowd sing-yelling along to Taylor's efforts to get into a pub where she's looking for love, not for trouble—the sentiment seemed to warm an already humid room—; the brilliant road-trip tale "Hertz" careened as it should, Martens's riff driving the song around dangerous curves and bends (the impression was of the century-old Vic itself creaking and banking into the hysterical chorus, where Taylor commands "Take me to the beach! Take me to the country!" like she's got a gun to your head); the anthemic "Got You" turned into a declaration of love between the crowd and the band, just as I'd hoped, and figured, it would. And "Shake Ya" positively shook us. The elated "Guided By Angels" was especially remarkable, a song which declarations of personal agency and spirit-lifted independence was mirrored in the crowd's response. I took note of the many women around me vibing off the tune: two in front of me turned to each other during the chorus and loudly sang along to the lines "Energy, good energy and bad energy, I've got plenty of energy, it's my currency!" They were hyped and plugged in, and Amy Taylor was their source. Her onstage rambunctiousness—the toothy smile, the speed walking, the body-building poses, the slaps-on-the-ass (hers)—is not only a blast to see, it's empowering in the best ways, as she's clearly being herself, and having a lot of fun doing so, strutting with dudes behind her. Freaks to the front.

~~

The second song I'd hoped for was the extraordinary "Knifey," one of the most powerful and moving rock and roll songs I've heard in years. Sensing the occasion, the normally scurrying Taylor stood still in front of her mic, bathed in a bit of blue light. She sang about the anger and frustration she feels being unable to walk by a river in the dark or enjoy the evening stars alone without fear of assault, and the performance was forceful, the band pushing the raw lyrics with the assertiveness that they deserve. I think that Taylor is sensing that "Knifey" is becoming her signature song. The identification with the women in the crowd was palpable, and poignant; so many around me were singing along in bittersweet recognition, playing out their own vexed memories or imagining a nervous walk home from the show. It was a killer, mid-paced performance, the anger tightly controlled, and when they followed the song with the savage set closer "Some Mutts (Can't Be Muzzled)," the segue felt redundant. Taylor had already bared her fangs. 

After "Knifey," Taylor stepped to the mic and said that she knows that the women in the room understand that song, but she bets that some of the men do, too. A moment later a guy behind me turned to his friend, another male, and asked, "What did she say?" His tone was earnest, not dismissive. He was curious. My bets are with Taylor: he got the message anyway.






Friday, September 23, 2022

Gig


Since 2012, I've been stoked to be the music columnist at The Normal School: A Literary Magazine. The folks there have now set up my own page, and I'm pleased that my earlier print-only pieces will be moving into the digital domain in the future. Please bookmark!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

737 comin' out of the sky...

There's a moment in the new Netflix documentary Travelin' Band: Credence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall when drummer Doug Clifford's on a balcony in Paris, knocked out that he's spending his 25th birthday in the City of Lights, gushing about having visited the Louvre and Lois XIV's "playground" like a wide-eyed tourist. Which he was. Though in the Spring of 1970 Credence Clearwater Revival were in rapid ascension, the band members were still appealingly untutored in the ways of the world. And, in some ways, on stage as well. John Fogerty mentions to an interviewer that his band isn't progressing as swiftly as he'd like, that they're still clocking in the hours at The Factory in order to learn and grow as musicians. You wouldn't guess that by watching the Albert Hall performance, which is tight, grooving, and, in several places, transcendent. My favorite moments occur during an excitable "Fortunate Son"—the air's crackling in the Hall despite the overly polite audience—as the band members make eye contact among each other, grinningly in awe at the rock and roll they're making. 

Narrated sparingly by Jeff Bridges, who's wise to step off of the stage as CCR hits theirs, Travelin' Band is part biography, part tour film. The editing suggests that the two Albert Hall gigs were the pinnacle of the European Tour, when in fact they sat in the middle of the eight-show swing, which also saw the band playing Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Sweden, Essen, West Germany, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The show's sequencing is altered as well: if Setlist is to be trusted, the twelve-song show began not with the fiery "Travelin' Band" but with the swampy "Born on the Bayou." No matter, the band's at their peak in whatever order they're delivering the goods, white-hot and tight, and the newly-mixed sound is superb, Stu Cook's bass and Fogerty's searing leads in particular standing out warmly and clearly. Well rehearsed, the band doesn't push their songs into the red or recklessly careen into improvisations; one or two songs pick up a tick in speed versus the studio versions, but mostly this band's about delivering solidly. You can see the smile growing on Fogerty's face as the set progresses: he knows that his songs kill.

Pull wide, and the Albert Hall gig can be seen as a peak of antoher sort. Travelin' Band refrains from commenting on the band's rapid and ugly demise the following year, during which Tom Fogerty would leave the band, and CCR would carry on as a bickering three-legged dog. The documentary ends with the boys smiling on couches in their rehearsal space while miming to "Looking Out My Back Door." What they saw out that door was a startling three-year span that saw CCR become, indeed, "the biggest band in the world." The view through the front door was far murkier, but the credits roll before that view becomes clear. For that, we should be grateful: the thankfully-full performances of songs that comprise the film's last hour allow us to marvel at one of the finest American rock and roll bands at their commercial and artistic peak.

John Fogerty comes across as characteristically guarded in his interviews; he smiles the least, but perhaps that's because, as he'd reveal in interviews down the decades, he was under the most pressure at the time. We know now that during this time his band members were eager to contribute more in the studio, but Fogerty, assuming the role of gifted but burdened task master, wouldn't let go of the reins, stubborn in his knowledge that the key to the band's considerable success was in his capable songwriting hands. (For the full story, I'm eager to read John Lingan's new A Song For Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as Lingan's Homeplace was a terrific read.) 

My chief takeaway is the marvel that is drummer Doug Clifford (seen left). From his guileless reactions to visiting the Old World for the first time to his appealingly friendly interviews to his commanding drumming onstage, where he's somehow both locked-in and blissed-out, he's an utter delight to watch. All of the band members are young and beautiful, and hairy, laughing as they're digging the world that's arrayed at their feet. Travelin' Band ends as the band's final act begins. Enjoy the moment.

~~

Another reminder in this film is just how timeless CCR's best songs are, transcending the era's fractious, political theater into the realm of Platonic rock and roll. The songs' deep imagery of the South (where Fogerty hadn't stepped a foot) evokes an eternal landscape devoid of dated sloganeering. Fogerty's more pointed anti-war, anti-Establishment songs, hollered in his inimitable way into the oddly-quiet dark of Albert Hall, aren't time- and date-stamped as are many of his peers' because of the immediacy of his band's blues-based, black-influenced playing, conservative, yeah, but steeped in ages-old lore. Nary a psychedelic note is heard, yet Fogerty, a backward-looking traditionalist in many ways, was reflecting his times and singing as directly to his audience as were Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the rest.

That said, several of my favorite moments in Travelin' Band off the stage do issue from the era:

Stu Cook, basking in the liberating breezes of Europe, where culture is "like shades of gray compared to America, where things are really getting...black and white. People don't get all pissed off at what you look like, you can get a job and you can, like, advance, with long hair! In the States, man, to get a job you've got to cut your hair. You can't even have sideburns! It doesn't matter how many degrees you have or what your trip is, or any of that."

Tom Fogerty, excitable in the van en route to Berlin, "I'd like to go to [the Berlin Wall]. It'd be great. The wall, is it barb wire? Or is it thick? I was thinking about setting up there, you know, set the equipment on roof the wall, and aim it that direction, you know? We can aim it in both directions, how about that, and bring every up on it and dance and maybe the wall would come down!"

And his brother John, dryly relating to an interviewer his hopes for a more a considered rock and roll, "I want people to know when I'm really saying something serious, and when I'm just being an entertainer, you know? But it's also important that I don't appeal to basic motivations, and I don't start, you know, 'Hey all you hippies, join together and let's smoke dope!' I mean, people are gonna dig that, a certain element of society, but I don't want 'em digging it for that. I want them to look a little further than just, 'Hey, OK, we're all together, brutha!' and all that crap," adding, 

"Who'll Stop the Rain," and some of the others, too, but especially that one, I tried to stay away from, "Hey, he's a Left Wing Radical Crazy or he's a super Bircher," you know. Because both sides can take it and use it as their own rallying cry. Same as "Fortunate Son," really.

How prescient. One side or the other will always manipulate a song in order to hear what they want to hear. Yet, happily, a half century down the line we'll also always want to watch a kick-ass rock and roll band kick up some righteous noise.