Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Favorite 45s, Part 1

Over at Facebook I've been posting some my favorite 45s over a ten day period. Here are days one through five:

Day One

This one's a no-brainer, one of my cherished singles and among my favorite songs of all-time. I crank it when I need the reminder, which is more and more often in these strange, dark days

Day Two

Another all-timer for me, from the all-too-brief "Nashville A Go-Go" tradition. This one's got one of my favorite couplets:

"Daddy preached Fire and Brimstone
And Mama did The Monkey all night long"

A conflict as old as the bible, that.

Day Three

Call this rockin' Gentry & Cordell-produced Bo tune a novelty, or an attempt at riding the late-60s "roots rock" revival. Either way it's got cool attitude to spare. #BoKnows

Day Four

Sam and Dave reached the heights many, many times in their extraordinary career, but to my ears they never topped this, quite simply one of the greatest and most sublime love songs ever waxed. I always say if you want to know whether the one you're with is "the one," play this song—your response to it will tell you everything you need to know.

Day Five

Because some days call for a cheery, mindless garage stomp in the face of toxic everything. Hell, most days call for that. I learned this 30+ years ago via The Fleshtones' brilliant "Kingsmen-like Medley." The band had expressed their love of the a-side, "Hide and Seek," to songwriter/producer extraordinaire Richard Gottehrer, who responded, "You guys like this stuff? I got a whole bunch of this junk lying around."

Monday, October 26, 2020

On Bruce

I was honored to be invited to talk about two of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, "Tunnel of Love" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" for Springsteen: Writers' Favorites, a three-hour special produced by Paul Ingles for the PRX media company in advance of Springsteen's new album Letter To You. I'm in absurdly good company: Anthony DeCurtis, Ashley Kahn, Holly Gleason, Jim Fusilli, and Holly George-Warren also discuss their favorite Bruce tracks.

You can listen to the full show here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

How it Feels [re-post]

Re-posting this piece I wrote on the occasion of Tom Petty's untimely death three years ago. He would've turned 70 today. 


"Mourning a musician you've never met is inevitable and complicated. I can't say that I'll miss Tom Petty, the man; I never knew him. His family, friends, band mates, and musicians who've played with down the years—one in the same, at the end of the day—will miss him, and I feel awful for their grieving that begins today, and will never really end."

What I and millions more are grieving is the end of a generous and supremely gifted musical career, a career that gave deep pleasures to so many in so many different ways  during so many eras. Petty will never write or sing another song. That hits keenly today. I didn't pay close attention to his career from the late 1990s onward, but his songs will stay very close to me. It's always been my impression that Tom Petty was the Great Leveler. Put a handful of music fans of different stripes in a room—a Rockabilly obsessive; a garage rock hound; a Punk/New Waver; an MTV kid; an Indie Rock stalwart; a millennial streaming Classic Rock into Hip Hop back to 60s AM hits; college kids raiding their parents' music collections; drunks, stoners—and I'm pretty sure they'd agree on Tom Petty. His greatest songs were formalist gems that were so true and clear-eyed about what it meant to be alive that they cut across bias, taste, and generations, as all great popular art does. I hope that he knew this. I hope he knew how it feels.

The timing of one's fandom is crucial. I was a teenager by a few months when Damn The Torpedoes came out in the fall of 1979, and his songs—the hits, especially—scored that year and the next in graphic, indelible ways. The backing vocal on "Refugee" sounded exactly like a friend's voice, the same timbre and tone; Petty and his band were familiar already. And when I'd listen to the mumbling verses in "Here Comes My Girl"—so masculine in their bitter, shrugging defenses and talky inarticulation, on guard against powerful sentiment and emotional surprise—and then the lyrical melody bloom in the chorus, Petty, moved, singing at the top of his register, the room and the song lighting up with her and her presence, I had everything laid out before me, a lot of which I'd experienced but hadn't named: crushes; love; lust, the power of intimacy; looming adulthood; surrendering; all in one song. Thanks, Tom Petty, for this song and so many others.

My buddy Marty owns a cabin in West Virginia overlooking the Cacapon River. We'd fantasize about inviting Petty to hang with us for a weekend—jamming to tunes; drinking beer and smoking weed; laughing; busting on politicians and talking rock and roll; just hanging out. So many fans have adolescent fantasies like this, but with Petty we could actually picture it, see him in front of us hanging onto the deck, peering into the trees below, a half grin on his face, making some crack, the way we couldn't imagine Keef or Prince, or even Bruce. We knew, somehow, that we'd all get along, that he'd put his fame and fortune beside him and just chill. Ridiculous, I know. But his songs and low-key demeanor made the fantasy tantalizing, asked that we keep him close to us. We'll miss you, Tom. Rest in Peace.

Sunday, October 18, 2020


Our foster kitten has been Googling while we're not looking. I don't know if I should be worried. Can anyone help me break the code?

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Nothing changes

The last several years have been stormy for Lydia Loveless. Bumps in the road have been well documented: her split from her husband and bandmate Ben Lamb; a messy entanglement with and departure from her longtime label Bloodshot over sexual harassment allegations; a move from her native Ohio to North Carolina. It's tempting to call her great new record her "divorce album," the latest attempt in an unhappily long tradition of an artist working out marital woes in song and lyric, but that would be limiting. Daughter does begin with the line "Welcome to my bachelor pad" and closes with "Carolina lost my identity, or it's coming in the mail, either way I'm not the same, and it isn't just a change of place," yet in between, Loveless sings about loss and disappointments, gains and setbacks, in eternal ways, moving from her own private travails to sketch out a persona that morphs into a silhouette of rueful longing, cut with cynicism and humor. As all great artists do, she moves from experience that begins in the dark to a shared understanding of what makes all of us get up in the mornings, uncertain that today's going to be any better than yesterday.

Working with a basic lineup of Todd May and Jay Gasper on guitars and bass and George Hondroulis on drums, Loveless moves between her guitar and keyboards, nudging melancholy lyrics into the shape of melancholy songs. The alt country twang of the earlier records is gone—there's a pedal steel on only two tracks—but if the edges of her sound have been smoothed, the cowpunk propulsion tempered, the stuff she sings about's no less urgent and raw. She occasionally ups the tempo to fight the odds, as in "Never," in which she drolly identifies not as a liberated woman but as a "country bumpkin dilettante" who carries pain around; the song's upbeat against the confession, but doesn't really solve anything. What's she pushing against? Folk whom she's wronged, or been wronged by, navigating between the poles of the one who hurts and who's hurt. Often it sounds as if she's singing to herself, as in the opener "Dead Writer," where she acknowledges "I don't want to disappoint you anymore"—but who's the you? Another, or the bumpkin in the mirror? Daughter is a sad album, spiked with sorrowful imagery, and, as always, Loveless's voice, which is both assertive and vulnerable, sometimes in the same line, gives that sadness dimension and gravity, reminds us that though sadness is an abstract zone, at its most genuine it's earthbound. 

"Dead Writer"'s interest in art and legacy signals one of Daughter's chief concerns: work, the value it brings against the lofty promises it makes. A trio of songs addresses the dilemmas of a singer who's never shied away from singing about her vocation (see among others "Paid" from her debut The Only Man). In the lyrically clever "Wringer," she laments "I want to be a symphony but I'm just a singer, and all that singing ever does is run me through the ringer." In "Can't Think," she asks, "Why can't I just close the door and let the work be the reward," repeating that question later and wondering why her notebook and instruments won't allow her to be "more than yours." In the closing "Don't Bother Mountain," she sings, "I've been patiently taking my time, or I'm just lazy, your guess is as good as mine"—and the whip-lash of that burns every time I listen. The arrangement of "Can't Think" plods and move sideways, frustrated, the phrase the work is the reward repeated like a hopeful mantra.

The title track is the album's standout, and one of the greatest songs Loveless has written. She's singing, again, to a man who's made present by his absence, who's taken off or been chased off, it's unclear, but for whom the singer still has some hope. "I wanna be a part of you," she sings, but it's not enough, there's too much between them still. Then the kicker: "If I gave you a daughter would you open up?" She repeats the question later, adding, "would it be enough?" The question is enormous and also fragile, and the music is tentative, gently searching, the honesty in the proposition so hot that it has to be approached carefully lest it combust. "Daughter" is a frightfully adult song, if an adult can be someone so scared of yet hungry for communion that she stands on the outside of things, wondering. And of course an adult is that someone, whose honest skepticism is as well-worn as anyone else's courage. We have Loveless' five albums to prove it.

In "Love Is Not Enough," she implores someone to tell her how it feels "to always see everything in a major key." I'm not surprised that she has trouble imagining what that feels like. A few years back I wrote, "Every note Lydia Loveless sings sounds as if it's in a minor key."  The final words of Daughter are "everything's changed," and of course I don't believe it. Loveless will keep writing songs that stubbornly, painfully, yet with wry humor make it back to that point before—ever the adult—she has to start all over again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Jerry Lee turns 85

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 85 today. In recognition, I spoke with Paul Ingles over at PRX about Lewis's tumultuous career, oversized talent, and considerable legacy. Tune in to hear music critics Anthony DeCurtis and Mark Kemp weigh in on The Killer, as well. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

"With that kind of music"

Two paragraphs from two books I'm currently reading:

"Sam tried to imagine Grace Slick bellowing out at the enemy."
With that kind of music, why didn’t the North Vietnamese just lay down their weapons and get stoned? If they had understood English, maybe the music would have won the war. But now, listening to “All You Need Is Love,” she realized how naive the words were. Love didn’t even solve things for two people, much less the whole world, she thought. But it wasn’t only the words. Sometimes the music was full of energy and hope and the words were just the opposite. Emmett had said rock-and-roll was happy music about sad stuff.
"Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music." 
If you are in your teens or twenties—and who isn’t—pretty much everything you do apart from your day job has something to do with music. And it isn’t even just the permanent soundtrack on your stereo and in your head. The music is your spur. You were led to the city by music. You were fourteen or fifteen and wanted to crawl inside the music. The music was immense, an entire world immeasurably different from the sad one you were born into. If you could figure out how to get in, the music would suffuse you. You wouldn’t even need an instrument: you would become one with the music and it would pour from you like light through gauze.
The first passage is from Bobbie Ann Mason's novel In Country, the second from the title essay of Luc Sante's new collection. Mason was writing in the eighties, Sante in the 2010s, yet both were looking back to the early 1970s. Sam, whose father was killed in Vietnam, is eager to learn and know more about the war so she peppers local veterans with questions. Music threads its way through the novel, and here, having learned that soldiers routinely grooved to rock and roll while in country, Sam tries to imagine how songs might've changed things—politically, culturally—before giving in to ruefully to the truth. Sante's writing about the magic mayhem of New York City, pre- and post-Punk, when songs scored everyone's daily lives with urgency and a kind of magic-ball prophecy, flash-lighting dark corners and opening doors that Sante and his buzzing twenty-something friends didn't even know were there, let alone closed. His reckoning—of his, and our, aging, of the perils of excess, and of general cultural obsolesce—comes a bit later in the essays. But it comes.

Sunday, September 27, 2020


Like so many others beleaguered by the pandemic, noxious politics, and stay-at-home guidelines, we've been watching—and rewatching (and rewatching)—The Great British Baking Show as a balm against daily strife. While enjoying the second episode of the series's third season in which vicar's wife Sarah-Jane "freestyles" her plaited bread and suffers for it, I was waiting for something that never came. I'd remembered her embarrassed confession on-camera that she couldn't manage even a simple three-strand plait of her daughter's hair, much to her shame. And I remember her crying as she said this and, later in the episode, reckoning with her self-perceived failures as a Mum. Turns out that I'd invented this bit of narrative; she had mentioned her lame plaiting skills, but never upbraided herself for it in the weepy manner I'd remembered. I'd taken her bit of self-mockery and turned it into a story in which she'd allowed her meager motherly talents to get under her skin and define her as a poor mother. It's interesting to me what grows in the mind. Flannery C'Connor wrote that "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind," and I guess that was what I was doing with Sarah-Jane: letting her story hang on and expand—except what I wrote was fiction, steering her story into places it hadn't gone (as edited for television, anyway). I took her small confession where I wanted it to go, into melodrama, a mother-daughter dynamic rich with pathos. I was surprised when that scene didn't play out as I watched last night, but then I was struck by where the imagination goes, adding rooms to a story as one adds rooms to a house. This is how fiction works, obviously, but this is also how our day-to-day minds work, thickening memories with sentiment they don't have, building up dramas in our head, adding dimension to our ordinary days by allowing events to lead to stories which expand and hang on, blurring the line between nonfiction and fiction, between fact and desire. What the imagination wants. Anyway, I wish Sarah-Jane and her daughter well, wherever they are.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The people who listen to "People Who Died," cont'd

Periodically, I check in at 3 Chord Philosophy to scan the comments on The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." (1,526 viewers have weighed in since I uploaded the song; my visits in 2018 and last year are here and here.) I'm fascinated by the community that forms out of, and as, YouTube comments, a gathering place akin, at times, to an intimate party or a group of strangers around a merch table at a club: commiserations, sighs, shy one-off responses or testimonials. Amidst the typical show-offy, tone-deaf, and/or "[whatever show or movie] brought me here" comments are unusually candid replies from grieving folk who've recently lost a loved or or who've been laboring with loss for years, and who hear, and rock out to, Carroll's frank litany of senseless or otherwise confounding deaths, and find release, or at least something to identify with. And with the Covid pandemic, a new tragic voice has entered the room. As long as this song's heard, it'll speak.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Angell turns 100

Happy Birthday to Roger Angell, who turns 100 today. Do yourself a favor and read some of his work, and savor the peerless ways he writes and thinks not only about baseball, but about the larger subjects in the game he loves that have always captivated him: belonging, community, the vagaries of luck, and family connections. We're fortunate to have such an elegant writer (and editor), observer, and thinker among us, and I'm so grateful to have been able to write about him and his career and to get to know him, which has been an at-bat of a lifetime for me.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Nothin' left to do at night

Nancy and Ann Wilson

What a run of singles Heart released between 1975 and 1977. "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You" (from the band's debut, Dreamboat Annie) and "Barracuda," the lead single from Little Queen, run fearlessly from desire, curiosity, and risk to betrayal, rage, and catharsis—with a night of straight-up joyful fucking in between, though even that pleasure's made complicated. Ann and Nancy Wilson wrote each track (guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael Derosier pitched in on "Barracuda") and have down the years discussed the songs' origins: "Magic Man" concerned, in part, Ann Wilson's relationship with Heart's manager Michael Fisher, who was older; "Barracuda" stemmed from the Wilson sisters' outrage after their label Mushroom Records concocted an obnoxious publicity stunt hinting at an incestuous affair between the two, and a male radio promoter's gross "follow-up" with Ann; the sex in "Crazy On You" is an effort to block out the messy world, specifically the Vietnam War and attendant social upheaval. So: rocking songs about relationships, sex, sexism, hurt, outrage, and denial. That's a pretty broad spectrum the band traverses in under fifteen minutes. Ann Wilson's fearless, feral singing—Joni Mitchell and Robert Plant busy in bed—Nancy Wilson's and the band's propulsive playing, the moody keyboard flourishes, and the transcendent harmonies, shaped by producer Mike Flicker, whose arrangements were striking (dig the disco hi-hat in "Crazy On You"): all of this soundtracked drama and yearning, and anyone who was around in the mid-1970s when these songs were all over the radio remembers their sexiness and mystery, the irresistible, sinuous melodies and rocking pleas-cum-assertions. Like the best pop music, this clutch of singles is very much of its era, an evocative time capsule of Top 40 positioned between singer-songwriters and New Wave, yet paradoxically also timeless and eternal. Great stuff.

Photo by Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Monday, September 7, 2020

The monster he built

I occasionally pull George R. White's 1995 biography of Bo Diddley off the shelf to marvel at passages like these, in which in the capable hands of The Innovator, junkyard automobile parts, the guts of an industrial wind-up clock, and toilet-chain copper weights create the sound of a freight train:
I never actually built an amplifier, but I would take the guts out an’ put ’em in larger boxes, an’ stuff like that. I also spent years tryin’ to develop a clean speaker that I could use. What I did was, I’d take two Fender Bassmans—which has ten-inch speakers inside—I’d take ’em out an’ build ’em into one big cabinet, because I needed eight or ten or twelve speakers to handle all that stuff I was puttin’ through ’em. Ten-inch speakers are very clean an’ clear. They take a whuppin’, you know.‘ This was before monitors, so I also put two speakers in the back of each cabinet, so the drummer could hear what was goin’ on. I spent twelve years tryin’ to develop a good, clean sound because I hate distortion. You know what happened? Some guy built a fuzz-pedal! [laughs] Busted my bubble! That was the beginnin’ of a new sound.
I was lookin’ to get a bigger sound, an’ I came up with that “freight train drive”—that’s what I call it. There were three of us, an’ I developed a style that would make us sound like six people at least. That’s the monster I built!’ [laughs] If you listen to the stuff I’m playin’, you won’t find any gaps in there: I play first an’ second guitar at the same time, an’ the minute I start playin’, you know it! It’s power-packed all the way. Pure energy."

Chess Studio, Chicago
Then, I came up with the idea of breakin' up the sound. I went an' got me a great big ol' wind-up clock that had a good, strong spring, an' I attached separators an’ stuff. I got me some automobile parts, an’ made it so it would break this circuit an’ connect this circuit, break this one, connect this one. Then, I wired it in-between my guitar an' amplifier, so that everythin'. that came from the guitar had to go through this bullshit that I had hooked up on the floor. It was noisy as hell, but it worked
About six or eight months later, Diamature came out with a tremolo with some kinda crap in a lil’ ol' bottle that shook around an’ broke the circuit. This was exactly what I was lookin’ for, so somebody else was on the same wavelength, but they knew what they were doin’. It was on the market, but I didn’t have enough money to buy one, so I kept on usin’ mine. 
Later on, Jody Williams bought one, but he didn’t like it an’ I bought his offa him. He couldn’t use it, but it was just right for what I wanted. It was a trip tryin’ to play with the sound disappearin’ an’ comin’ back—you get all out of step—but I learned to play with it, an’ when I learned that, that was the greatest thing in the world, an’ I made that sucker work for what I needed it for.
Bo with Jerome Green

Now, I needed more rhythm for what I was tryin’ to do but couldn’t carry a set of drums up an’ down the street with us—there's too many of ’em—so I got me some maracas. I got this idea from listenin’ at Sandman [a street performer who carried "a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand–which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner"] sandin’ on a piece of board. I’d sit up in the house an’ shake ’em an’ create rhythm patterns with ’em. I changed the whole thing that calypso dudes do, because that didn’t fit in with what I was doin’. I needed somethin’ that sounded like a cat playin’ with brushes, an’ I finally struck upon that pattern. 
“The first maracas I had, I took two of those copper weights off a bathroom—you know those pull-chains they used to have, with copper weights in there to let the water go down? I took one an’ cut me a hole in it, right at the top, an’ filled it up full of black-eyed peas. I had no money, man, to buy nothin’, so I’d go round junkyards an’ find old water tanks an’ stuff, an’ screw things out of ’em.  
After I’d figured out about as many rhythms as I could on ’em an’ taught myself, I hit Jerome [Green] with it. I bought him a brand new bag of maracas an', surprisingly, I picked the right dude. That cat could shake the hell outa them things! He was better than “great”; Jerome was fantastic!

Top photo via Pinterest, middle photo via Crain's Chicago Business, bottom photo via Pinterest

Monday, August 31, 2020

When we were kids

I'm often intrigued by what seems to be a disconnect between the ways I felt and saw things as a kid and how unperturbed by life kids seem now. I'll drive by grade schools and see kids running around the pavement or the fields, shrieking or playing it cool, and wonder if they're burdened by the same strange blend of fear, excitement, and existential dread that I was at their age. Of course, I didn't know the word existential at age 11, but I sure felt it—the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I woke, knowing that blacktop politics and recess dramas were looming, the impossible knowledge that I am, inescapably, a social creature and now must make some sense of the faces and bodies on the teachers and kids in the hallways. I had plenty of fun in grade school, but experienced plenty of mental agony and intense unhappiness as well, as all children do, yet it's hard to see this in the faces and bodies of kids I see. Can I not look past the clichéd innocence of kids in a park? Or am I projecting a misery on them that doesn't exist? (In other words, is this more about me than it is about...that old problem.) Naturally, kids deal with all kinds of difficulties, virtually and otherwise, that I didn't have to, their families and tenuous friendships collapsing into strife and melodrama at the slightest look, or jeer, or social miscue. Perhaps as adults we feel that what we carried inside as kids was readable to others—a kind of emotional acne—and so we feel in retrospect that we wore our adolescent problems for all to see, bullies and best friends alike. Not so. Only when I pass a kid walking home after getting off the bus, trembling under the weight of an oversized book bag, or the occasional straggler skirting the edge of a playground do I sense the nameless turmoil that they may be wrestling with. An early lesson in the space between our inner lives and the faces we present everyday.

Illustration via Envisioning the American Dream