Monday, August 29, 2011

An Origin Story

We had a crab apple tree in the front yard that in spring grew heavy with bitter, marble-like fruits and Gothic with awful caterpillar nests, silk clouds of milky white suspended in the trees, loathsome tents bursting with a thousand caterpillars; we'd light them on fire every year.  Before the nests would arrive, before my mom would sigh, I'd climb the tree, loving the time alone and the argument with gravity that kept me tethered to the house and the family that I wanted distance from, even as I was building imaginative houses in the tree, knowing and naming the crooked hallways, slim desks, and windows in twists of limbs and thatches of crowded leaves, here a cramped staircase of winding limbs, there a dim bay window, a clearing of branches onto the lawn and the maple tree on the other side of the yard wherein I built another house in my head, propped against a dresser of thick, brown limbs, sitting and trying to doze—guarded against the fear of falling—in a rocking chair made of sympathetic branches, a kind of L bent enough to say chair, and hold me.  This was my home's doppelganger, my tree's parallel house, a blueprint of floor and wall and roof that I drew in my head, every day up there in the trees against the fading sunlight, a dream as substantial as the structure I dreamt in.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"From rotgut to milkshakes, do-rags to ponytails": Tosches, rock and roll, and Satan

Nick Tosches' new book Save The Last Dance For Satan is a slim, raucous descent into the hidden history of late-50s/early-60s rock and roll, specifically the pay-for-play, Mafia-greased machinations among DJs, record producers, promoters, and many uncredited musicians.  The book, the third in a new series of paperbacks issued by Kicks Books—ie., Miriam Linna and Billy Miller at the venerable Norton Records—began life eleven years ago as an article in Vanity Fair; in his introduction, Tosches says that he'd always wanted to flesh out the story, and the book has the tone and style of Tosches' best magazine pieces: brisk, narrative, and well-researched.  The 30,000+ word count allows Tosches enough room to explore his subject while keeping things focused and clear of indulgences that have at times derailed his writing.

What Tosches focuses on is the layer beneath the layer beneath the layer of pre-Beatles history, peering behind Dick Clark's smile and Perry Como's suits at the corruptible, corrupted promoters and producers—men and women—who did what they had to do to get their minimally-pressed 45s played on regional radio stations, in the hopes of breaking big onto Billboard Top 40.  If they had to consort with connected men, do business out of sham offices in Chicago's Playboy building, attend meetings with a newspaper wrapped around a steel pipe, or play a song by a nobody artist simply because they dug the tune, payola be damned—then they did, without apologies, and with the hard-bitten, ethics-ignoring drive of characters in a film noir.  Tosches wants to blow away what he sees as the precious layer of Brylcreem-and-bobby-socks-nostalgia that has been laid over the decade before the the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan arrived to get things dicey and edgy again: things were always pretty dangerous, Tosches reminds us, it's simply that history has done its best to erase the those dangers.

The book's a quick, fun read, and it benefits from Tosches doing what he does best: adopting a quasi-hard boiled tone while letting the genuine participants—among them Hy Weiss, producer and owner of Old Town Records, members of Bronx doo-wop group the Jaynettes ("Sally Go 'Round The Roses") and their producer and session player, and Jerry Blavat, aka "The Geator With The Heater," a Philadelphia-area oldies DJ—speak for themselves, in incriminating, sometimes self-deluding, but always lively and honest ways.  The heart of the book is the sound of these voices.  Tosches' well-earned tendency to become a participant in the book's telling is here, but he doesn't steal any light that isn't his.  He's at the large tables in the smoky backrooms where these altercockers are holding forth for him (and for themselves) for posterity, but he lets us in that privileged room for accuracy's sake, and to give us the kind of there-by-proxy thrill that he's good at dramatizing.  Ultimately, and rightly, Tosches lets his generous curiosity about this era lead him. In a great moment, one of these old timers pulls Tosches aside after a conversation about the legendary and possibly Mafia-connected Moris Levy, founder of Roulette Records and infamous record executive:
But alone, some speak differently. One takes me aside, his arm around me, whispering though we are in earshot of no one.
    "Let me tell you," he says. His hushed words are delivered slowly and surely.  "Morris simply could not have done what he did alone."
These kinds of moments, born of Tosches' decades-long and hard-earned involvement in and excavating of popular culture's seamier underworlds, give his book authenticity and character.  When Tosches later mentions his relationship with Robert De Niro, he does so not as a look-what-celebrity-I-know cheap stunt, but as a genuine contribution to the story.

Save The Last Dance For Satan should be a gobbled-up by Tosches' fans and by anyone interested/obsessed with the shadowy, dubious state of commercial popular music in the 1950s and 1960s. (About the novelty 45 "Gila Monster" and the wild story behind it: "There are those today who treasure this record as one of the artefacts of rock and roll at its trashiest depths."  He knows who those trash-treasuring folk are.)  A slim volume, the book is peppered with Tosches' turns-of-phrase that straddle Old World diction with 20th Century crassness.  My favorite description, Tosches at his witty best, comes when he's describing a certain record promoter: "a promotion man of the non-defenestrating kind," a reference to an earlier account of Hy Weiss' confessing to having dangled a deadbeat kid by his ankles out of a high-rise window. Weiss got what he needed; the other promoter doesn't know what he's up against.


Nick Tosches is reading from Save The Last Dance For Satan in New York City on September 9 at Jefferson Market Library at 425 Sixth Avenue (Tenth Street).  And Kicks Books is selling a specially-created cologne inspired by Tosches, so you can smell like him.  If you want to.

UPDATE: here's a great interview with Tosches about Save The Last Dance For Satan on the 9/3 Fool's Paradise With Rex program on WFMU.   Rex spins some great Satan-related tunes, as well.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lastfm as Self-Portrait

Every man's work, whether it be literature, or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, Samuel Butler—to this I add one's Lastfm music profile.

The decade-old Lastfm is a music website that, among many other features, allows me to "scrobble" my iPod and iTunes, so that whatever I'm listening to is entered in my music profile under my "Recently Listened Tracks"—updated in real time, if I'm scrobbling at home while listening to iTunes or to lastfm's Internet radio, or later after plugging in my iPod.  This provides a very cool and utterly accurate record of my listening habits and tendencies, allows me to see what my lastfm friends (many of whom are actual friends) are listening to, or have listened to, and gives me the opportunity to sample recommended playlists or to dip into said friends' libraries, opening up a vast array of artists and songs and albums that I otherwise wouldn't hear.  It's all very 21st Century, all very amazing, something that, though it's unimaginable now, will one day seem quaint or archaic, like so many lid-lifting advancements on the web.

What interests me about lastfm beyond all of this is its conspiring role in shaping persona, that is, my persona.  I'm an autobiographical writer and essayist; my persona is shaped, rendered, consumed.  Lastfm and sites like it provide a profile and recommender system that together behave as a kind of digital self-portrait.  Is this the new autobiography?  "Profile data," indeed.  Provided that I've enabled scrobbling, anyone who wants to can eavesdrop on what I'm listening to now, or if he really wants to, discover what I was listening to on, say, January 19, 2009 (among other songs, the New Pornographers' "It's Only Divine Right" and Shoes' "Shining."  Hmm, a pop day).  Remember listening to records, tapes, or CDs alone, with headphones, on a rocking chair in the rec room or up in your bedroom, eyes shut tight against the music and the world?  Through lastfm I can now invite anyone in, friends and strangers, and say Hey this is what I'm digging now do you know it do you have anything else by them who else sounds like them?

But what if I don't want you to know what I'm listening to?  The Recently Played Tracks feature is a cracked window into my life: what you think you're seeing is distorted.  As in an autobiographical essay, I'm in charge, confidently, shamefully.  I see what I want you to see.  I'll confess that I sometimes disable scrobbling if I'm in, say, a helpless Paul McCartney mood, lest I look lame; other days I say, Who am I kidding, McCartney's great, who cares if I get to "Maybe I'm Amazed" via "Only Love Remains"?  When I've been researching and writing my books over the last several years, my lastfm playlists reflected an unhealthy obsession with garage rock, rockabilly, and AC/DC.  What's wrong with that?  Nothing, save for those dark, melodramatic days when I'm feeling tragically narrow in taste and experience, and wish I had a more catholic, experimental flair.  When I was a DJ at the University of Maryland in the mid-1980s I not-so-silently sneered at the jocks who reveled in their free-form shows, segueing from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack to The Kingston Trio to Dead Kennedys out through Tears For Fears and ending with a PSA for Jews For Jesus.  Privately, I wished I was half as daring.

Like all autobiography, my lastfm profile is woefully inaccurate.


Can you tell I've been reading The Old, Weird America?

A random afternoon in August, tracing songs, impulses, moods:

No, but wait! I listen to a lot more than alt-country Americana.  Come back when I'm rocking the Teenage Shutdown series, obscure 60s garage punk.  Or Guided By Voices.  Or the Kills. Or the Star Spangles. Or Sleepy John Estes.  Or Billy Childish.  Or....


Montaigne: Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. 

Luc Sante: Every human being is an archaeological site. 

Prince: I've got two sides, and they're both friends.


A German proverb: "As fast as laws are devised, their evasion is contrived."  Although I don't feel good manipulating the truth on lastfm, the playlists that I do create—or more accurately, the playlists that I don't create, sin by omission—are no less truthful.  Anyone writing personally offers a persona made up as much by absences as by presences: the gaps and holes, the missing playlists, the playlists that exist in private in the mind, unseen, are substantial in their invented lack.  What I don't want you to see—in my past, in my fantasies, my Recently Played—is certainly as tangible to me as what I willingly disclose, maybe to you, too?  But this is all rationalizing: sometimes I'm embarrassed by my moods, by my self-perceived unadventurousness.  So tell the truth already!  But an autobiographical self is full of demurring, dissembling, Light Disclosure.  What's held back from from your prying eyes—the profile data unmined, the 1's and 0's not key-stroked—is conspicuously Me, if only a version.  I wonder what I'll feel like hearing tonight?  I'm gonna close the door.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


In 1981, George Thorogood and the Destroyers embarked on a tour that embodied the grinning absurdity of rock & roll.  Beginning October 23 in Honolulu, Hawaii they played fifty consecutive shows in all fifty U.S. states, ending December 11 at Pasadena, California.  I remember hearing about the feat at the time, on DC101 radio in Washington, D.C., and it lodged itself in my imagination; over the years I'd vaguely recall the event, in a kind of silent awe, and it grew to mythic proportions.

Thorogood in 1981
I didn't pay specific attention until 2001 or so when, researching microfilm materials at the New York Public Library while working on Sweat, I came across an article about the tour in a 1981 issue of Billboard.  There were the details in front of me: 11, 243 miles driven by Checker Cab averaging 248 miles a day, Thorogood and his Destroyers playing cumulatively before 150,000 fans.  The map proved it, or more accurately dared me to believe it: a white line pinging across the great nation from Hawaii to Alaska (on Checker Airlines?) over to Oregon and Washington and relentlessly pushing eastward in great gulps and hairpin turns and then a grand u-turn along the Eastern Seaboard and straight back the other way across the South and Southwest.  At the time of the tour I was rocking out to "Move It On Over," "I'm Wanted," and "Night Time," great early Thorogood cuts that I loved, before he became internationally famous, the happy accompaniment to beer commercials and last calls at Hard Rock Cafes, before he cashed in.  In 1980, Thorogood was still lean and hungry—though he could smell his payday—and had the nerve, humor, intestinal fortitude, youthful energy, and rock & roll ambition to embark on a 50/50 tour.  No matter what I think now of Thorogood and his commercial status, no matter how inessential his music threatens to become, no matter how rote and predictably his persona grew, this Herculean feat of rock & roll showiness will forever endear me to him.

No Nights Off!

At a Thorogood fan forum someone's posted the tour's itinerary and a newspaper article, and below is a cool advertisement (and detail)  from the December 19, 1981 issue of Billboard, a crowing congrats to the kid from Delaware:

Photo of George Thorogood by Chris Walter via Photofeatures.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Going faster miles an hour

"Only one in twenty thousand has the nervy genius of Iggy or Jonathan of the Modern Lovers and is willing to sing about his adolescent hangups in a manner so painfully honest as to embarrass the piss out of half the audience."
—Lester Bangs, Creem, 1972

"You’ve got to remember, these were the times of the ‘rock stars’ and glitter and God knows what else. Here was a band that rocked without any of this bullshit, with a lead singer who made a point of being a human being, and what great songs, about real stuff that no other bands were singing about."
—Peter Zaremba, jojoblog interview, 2008

"Richman's music did not quite sound sane."
—Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, 1989

Monday, August 1, 2011

I wish there was a word other than "mystery"

Richard Barone
I wish there was a word other than "mystery" to describe the mood cast by the early songs of Richard Barone.  Besides being overused, mystery doesn't quite capture the songs, which are haunting, ethereal, special, inexplicable, ecstatic.  Of course, those adjectives aren't much better.

Like so many, I'm embarrassed by a lot of what I listened to in my late teens and early 20s.  (I don't spin Pop Art or The Style Council too often these days.)  Much of the jangly pop I swore by in my R.E.M. trance-haze is terribly slight and twee to my ears now.  But many of Richard Barone's songs from the early 80s—on singles, 12-inches, and EPs with the Bongos, and on a duo album with James Mastro—have aged very well.  I got a bit of grief from some of my fellow DJs at WMUC at the University of Maryland as I spun, and earnestly enthused about, the pop I played on my show; they rolled their eyes at the Bongos while clutching their 4AD, Homestead, and early Sub Pop records.  It turns out that they were often right, and I was sometimes wrong: I did play a lot of lightweight stuff on the air during my Pop phase (a lot of great stuff, too, the Flaming Groovies, Slickee Boys, Paul Collins' Beat, etc., etc.).  Barone's songs, amazingly, surprise me as much as they did when I first heard them.

I cock my ear to the era: there's a bit of the first blush with a first girlfriend, the newness and excitement of early 80s New Wave and indie pop, the up-all-night buzz of being college-aged, but I can't put my finger on the all of the sources of all of the pleasures that Barone's early songs gave, and give, me.  They were little fragments of pop bliss, and they seemed to come from a (yes) mysterious place.  The melodies were galvanizing, strange, instantly memorable, but quirky.  As played by the crack musicians in the Bongos, the tunes were wire-tight but lovely, too, angular but breathtakingly melodic, tiny but immense, lo-fi but sweeping.  I still hear it:

"Glow In The Dark," The Bongos, b-side, 1980

"Hunting," The Bongos, 12", 1980

"The Bulrushes," The Bongos, single, 1981

"Zebra Club," The Bongos, single, 1982

"Lost Like Me," Nuts and Bolts (with James Mastro), 1983


The Bongos ca. 1981
The hypnotic opening 35 seconds of "Lost Like Me"—dreamy and childlike—the heart-catching harmonies in "Zebra Club," the evocation and strangeness of "Glow In The Dark" and "The Bulrushes": it's all there, decades later.  These are little pop gems just beyond rational explanation of their urgency, their brief pop translation of something nameless but human.  These songs have small moments that are among my favorites in pop music.  The songs are like little toys; if you were to break them open you'd find something infinite inside.

Later tunes like "Numbers With Wings" and "Barbarella" (from 1983's Numbers With Wings EP) saw Barone fit his small-scale pop sensibility into larger, more radio-ready forms, with glossy success (artistic, not commercial). I grew less enchanted with the Bongos with Brave New World, an over-produced album with slight songs that came out in 1985.  Barone embarked on a solo career soon after, playing chamber-, acoustic-, and the occasional electric Bongos-style-pop.  I lost touch with his music by the mid-90s—his songs became melodramatic, their sentimentality overt, and he sounded impressed with his own seriousness.  I wonder if New Wave's punky insistence on two- to three-minute masterpieces might have served him better (ie, the mania of "In The Congo").  I'm beginning to catch up with his more recent online releases, but I don't expect to be as transported as I was in the early- and mid-80s.  That's OK; that wouldn't be fair to Barone to demand that.  My low expectations say more about me, and the impressionable age I was when I heard the songs, and the heady era that produced them, than it says about the work of an honest, working, capable songwriter.  But it also says a lot about the—oh well—mysterious songs themselves that originated from a pop universe very close to ours, but somehow not ours.  The songs sound so fresh, still.  If Barone had failed to catch them back then, they might've been lost for good. 

Photo of The Bongos via, of Richard Barone via Musoscribe.