Sunday, June 23, 2013

FDR, Disney, Russ Hodges, and the sounds of history

I've always loved the opening to Tommy Keene's "Places That Are Gone," the title cut to his 1984 EP. In a brilliant sound montage, a section of President Roosevelt's "Pearl Harbor Speech" (left), Russ Hodges's dramatic radio call of Bobby Thomson's pennant-clinching home run (the "Shot Heard 'Round the World") (right), and a snippet of noir-sounding dialogue from Disney's One Hundred and One Dalmatians (middle) are blended in front of a swell of orchestra strings in advance of Keene's and Billy Connelly's guitars.

I didn't notice until recently that the three sources are separated by ten years each—1941, 1951, and 1961. The surreal yoking together of FDR, Hodges's call, and the Dalmatians feels like memory, a dream-like confluence of cultural touchstones that when laid atop each other as aural transparencies create what the past feels like—and maybe sounds like—when filtered through memory: shards, snippets, dread, excitement, music. Nothing lands, everything hovers, little is stated, a lot it evoked. Ghosts replace people. These three moments—one epochal, one fantastic, one thrilling—are unmoored from their moments of origin and collide in space, making a new soundscape. Which is what memory does, create, not re-create.

Anyway, that's the first 20 or seconds, then the songs kicks in, and it's a great one. I was a big fan of Keene and saw him many times in the Washington D.C. area in the mid-1980s, and the EP itself is terrific (featuring a very cool, rousing version of Alex Chilton's paean to Catholic high school girls "Hey! Little Child").


A bittersweet coda: in 1986 Keene signed with Geffen Records, and for all of us in the D.C. metro area it felt as if he was headed for the big time and was going to bring D.C. with him. His debut album for Geffen, Songs From The Film, was quite good but suffered from somewhat stiff arrangements and excess production via Geoff Emerick. The greater sin was the decision to re-record "Places That Are Gone." The opening montage was dismissed, and the new slick version of the tune, despite the addition of nice harmonies in the last verse, fell sadly into the Second Guesses file. Stick with the above, Keene- and Ted Niceley-produced version, which is better in nearly every way. Keene's a great songwriter and singer who's had a fine and productive career—I urge you to check him out if you're unfamiliar with him. This dreamy, obsessive, evocative opening to his EP is a high-water mark.

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