Friday, May 30, 2014

Rock & Roll & Growing Up

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Last night at Wire in Berwyn IL, Paul Collins was in fine form. I only wish I could say the same about the crowd, which numbered fewer than fifty and was predominantly of the sit-on-their-butts variety. Too bad: Collins has written so many great rock and roll songs that are meant to move you, literally. "What can I do to make this a experience for you?" he asked glumly into the darkness in front of the stage a third of the way through the show. "I've asked people before to move their tables and chairs, but I'm not gonna do that again." Collins's voice is raspy now—he's pushing 60, and he's a long veteran of touring—and the gleam in his eye belied his frustrations. He didn't change out of what he was wearing while the opening bands played, whom he half-watched respectfully: relaxed dark blue jeans with wide cuffs, a black button-shirt open over a Muck And The Mires t-shirt. At one point, faced with utter silence after a song, he announced hopefully: "Hey, I quit smoking!" A smattering of applause. Well, that was something.

But he rocked, and so did his band. Given the older, mostly-sedentary crowd, it was moving to me to see young kids up onstage with Collins: front line of a skinny-jean, Descendents-t-shirt-wearing, loose-limbed guitarist and bass player, and an energetic drummer. They not only know Collins's songs well, they loved them, and it was heartening to see them jumping around to Collins's great melodies, hooks, and eighth-note choruses as grinning fans as well as white-hot support musicians. They played all the great ones: "Rock N Roll Girl," "I Don't Fit In," "Don't Wait Up for Me," "Walking Out On Love," "Hanging On The Telephone," "Let Me into Your Life," "Working Too Hard," the Flamin' Groovies' "You Tore Me Down," "That's What Life Is All About," a clutch of strong songs from the latest album, King Of Power Pop!. For an encore, after announcing that the band is about to drive 10,000 miles in the next month, Collins and the band launched into a rousing "U.S.A." The beautiful, anthemic "The Kids Are The Same" was placed oddly mid-set. "If this won't get you movin', nothing will!" Collins smilingly challenged the crowd. It didn't. Funny moment: after the song, Collins said, "You know, it's weird. I have a nineteen year-old son now. I tell him to do something..." He mimed his son flipping him off. Rock and roll grows up.

I know: people have lives, and those who showed up came from jobs, needful families, their own complex arrangements of things, most of which they hadn't planned on. Rock and roll is charged by the promises and the lies of being young, and it's difficult to both play and believe in those songs as one hits middle-age. And it's tough to stand for so long, and tomorrow is a work day. They drank and politely cheered. But there was only a handful of folks on the dance floor in front of the stage. Judging by his face, Collins seemed, finally, bemused by it all. It's a work-a-day world. Next stop: Milwaukee.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

More Than Words

1979 was a heady year, moving as I was among early-teen grade school politics, endless afternoons on my ten-speed, and the unattainable bikini-clad girls at Wheaton Pool, all of it sweetly, painfully scored by Top 40 radio. Two songs especially evoke that time, the Knack's "Good Girls Don't" (released as a single in August 1979) and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Here Comes My Girl" (April 1980). Both songs are about girls, and so mattered to me desperately, the words to each—lascivous in Doug Fieger's case, grateful in Petty's—narrating boy-girl dynamics I was getting hip to, if from the outside looking in. Fieger's explicit reminder to me that the adolescent dream is getting inside her pants was laughably superfluous, and his infamous complaint in the bridge (And it's a teenage sadness everyone has got to taste / An in-between age madness that you know you can't erase / 'Til she's sitting on your face) was lurid in a scary kind of way, inexperienced as I was, but it also made desperate sense. (Now it's hilarious to me.) And Petty's tribute to his girl was a bit beyond me, as well: my "old town" wasn't hopeless to me, and I wasn't working hard for little reward the way his narrator was—it's an adult's song, and adult's set of problems. And yet, again, his affection for his girl was made so palpably true in the song that I, burdened only by my book bag and school books, fell right in step.

But something affected me more powerfully than words. In each song the singer takes a leap. When Fieger sings the lines So, you fantasize away..., There's a ringing in your brain..., and So you start to make your play... he jumps up more than an octave from his blue-balled anxieties, perfectly embodying the surging hormones and thrumming anticipation that he's feeling, and bothered by. And Petty does something similar: his verses about small-town ennui and diminishing returns are spoken, solemnly, and a little angrily, as if he's boxed in. When his girl arrives along with the chorus, Petty, well, he bursts into song, disillusioned, beaten-down B&W flowering into color at her entrance. I don't know where in the composition processes these leaps occurred, but they take the songs into places anyone can follow, and make purer sense out of desire, frustration, want, and gratitude than words can. These aren't new observations I'm making, but again and again I'm struck by the simple, poignant, and timeless moves in each song.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Confessions of a Rural Slummer

One of my favorite things to do is hop in the car, put my Americana playlist on shuffle, and head in any direction out of town—before long I'm surrounded my farms and cornfields, the horizon boundless, the bends in the road inevitable, subtle and pleasing. It's May, and so the fields are enormous brown squares, freshly tilled; in August, I'll stand on the edge of one of those fields and the corn will tower over me. The sky is enormous, the fields are whisper quiet. I'm usually on the search for empty or abandoned barns to photograph, wary of No Trespassing signs and the roar of semi-trucks behind me. But I'm also on guard against preciously sentimentalizing these fields and buildings. I don't work on a farm—I drive to look at one. My phone's GPS will guide me safely back to DeKalb when I feel hopelessly turned around after one long dirt road too many. I was born and raised in the suburbs, where yards are delimited by social and civic frowns, but every August my family drove from Maryland to Coldwater, a small town in western Ohio where my mom was raised and where her parents lived for decades. Coldwater was—is—surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland, and something in those annual visits stuck with me. I'll never forget dusks in Coldwater, or a train rumbling along at the edge of my grandfather's yard, and whenever I walk into an old rural garage or see rusted-out farm equipment I'm brought back to infinite Ohioana afternoons. But the deep affection I feel for barn buildings, tractors, the quiet of a corn field at high noon, the breeze at the peaceful, silent intersection of county roads is affection born of the visitor. When farmers are up at five in the morning, I'm sleeping, dreaming indulgently of zooming along corn and bean fields while listening to Drive-By Truckers, the Blasters, or Buck Owens, my romanticizing scored by fiddles and country changes. I'm childishly immune to the economic realities of empty barn buildings and the burdens they may be to the owners. I don't know that my tourist Visa will ever expire, but I'll likely always be a visitor in the Midwest, a rural slummer, one for whom lolling cows and boundless horizontals of wooden fences and vertical, towering grain silos are touching, gorgeous, and mine to mawkishly, stupidly love.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dictators NYC @ CHI

I can't comment on the fractious relationship between Handsome Dick Manitoba and Andy Shernoff, as I have no idea what's going on between them off the social media radar. I can only say that the clutch of Shernoff's songs that the Dictators NYC played last night at the Empty Bottle are so strong and sturdy that Shernoff's absence is barely felt. (I'm accustomed now to Scott "Top Ten" Kempner's having gone periodically missing.) Simply put: these guys want to work, and clubs still draw the twenty- to -fifty-something-aged fans who want to see them. Manitoba was in fine form last night, his belly a bit rounder, his voice in terrific shape, his between song banter still funny and galvanizing. He bitched about fat guys in Manhattan wearing shorts and flip flops and rocking brand-new calf tattoos. He praised the blue-ness of Gatorade, complained about Chicago pot holes. He mocked Chicago baseball fans for having endured a century-plus of futility; this was greeted by a rousing, argumentative White Sox! White Sox! cheer by (a third of) the crowd. (Nice for this Sox fan, who throatily joined in.)

Manitoba and Dictators vets Ross the Boss and Thunderbolt Patterson are augmented these days by longtime New York City musician/producer/guitarist and band pal Daniel Rey and new bass player Dean Rispler. It's always amusing to me to watch Rey—he's a great, confident guitarist, riffing and soloing with flair, but he strikes poses as if he thinks that's what he should so onstage; he looks a bit distracted, introverted, and that's one of the charming things about him. Ross was the Boss—shredding and cocky, tethering the band's garage, punk, and power pop sources to metal mania in the blend that the band perfected decades ago. Rispler, the new kid, was having a lot of fun, mock-marching in place to the songs' stomp, mouthing an accusatory "lame, lame" while frowning at the crowd, and flipping the bird more times that I could count. When Manitoba introduced the band, he took a swing at Shernoff, relating how nice it is to finally be onstage with a bass player with whom he likes to play. Baiting the crowd, Manitoba barked, "You think I'm a nice guy? I spend all my time on Facebook destroying people!" He turned to Rispler and assured him, "They're not booing, they're saying, Deeeaaan."

Funny stuff, and any ill will was vaporized by the band's confident roar through their classics "The Party Starts Now," "Master Race Rock," "Stay With Me," "Faster and Louder," "Who Will Save Rock & Roll," "New York, New York," "Two Tub Man," and the rest. (They closed with a tear through the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams.") Manitoba—more liberated than I've ever seen him—jumped into the crowd during "Savage Beat" and stayed there for the whole song, grinning and sharing the mic, pummeled and tossed around good-naturedly by drunk kids and oldsters. The crowd was terrific. It was a very beery night. I was up front the whole night and left covered in Hamm.

Ross the Boss

Ross, HDM, Rispler
And yet Shernoff's ghost was up there, no doubt, at least for this fan. This self-described "mom and pop" band wouldn't be working without Shernoff's terrific songs. It's a shame that he can't hold down the low end again, peering out at the crowd under the bill of his baseball cap and planning future master plans for his band. But the world keeps spinning, and the songs are eternal. Those fists raised aloft during "I Stand Tall" were as much a tribute to a timeless anthem as to its absent writer. D.F.F.D.


Just out: a new Dictators compilation Faster... Louder - The Dictators' Best 1975-2001 ("...for those who weren’t around in the glory days," Shernoff) and an interview with Shernoff about the history of the Dictators.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What A Life! ca. 1965

The Strangers
Of the many great one-off garage rock 45s rescued from mid-60s obscurity by the inestimable lo-fi archaeologist Tim Warren—in this case, via his Teenage Shutdown! compilation series—this track by Boston-area band the Strangers is especially poignant. Dare I say, moving. It's an inept amplified paean to teen independence and all of the promises that rock and roll made in 1965. The singer's on the outs with his teachers and with girlfriend's possessive parents, and all he wants to do is play guitar 'till he dies. But his band's gonna make it big some day, so he'll have the last laugh, drivin' away in his car wearing high-heeled boots, tight black pants, a nice high-button shirt, collared jacket, and long long long long hair! Ridiculously clichéd, even for 1965, and yet something in the knowing "Hitch Hike"-styled opening, the drummer's earnest but fumbled fills, the studied, lo-rent guitar solo, and the hopeless falsetto back-up singing says that at least for these two minutes those clichés felt like truths—and all clichés begin in truth, anyway, however unreliable or misleading those truths may be. Why did kids form rock and roll bands in the mid 1960s? Listen to "What A Life" and you'll hear the answer.

Here's a recent interview (conducted by Mike Dugo at 60sGarageBands) with the Strangers' lead guitarist Dan Gioioso. Highlights:
   "We recorded at Oriel Records. I think there was one mike recording vocals and music at the same time...."
   "'What A Life' took about twenty minutes to write...."
   "The Strangers broke up when Tony [Baglio, the bass player] went to college."
Sounds about right.

Turn it up and bug your parents:

Photo of the Strangers via Beyond The Beat Generation

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Abandoned, Ctd.

Ruins of a one-room schoolhouse. Oregon, Illinois. 
You have to look closely; this appears to be the basement or cellar.

Up the road, this was easier to spot. Inside turning out, all over again.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Viva College Baseball (Death to Metal Bats!)

Cold weather, work, and inertia have so far kept me from attending a Major League baseball game—to be rectified in about a week while I watch the White Sox defeat the Indians. The first game I attended turned out to be my Northern Illinois University Huskies hosting the University of Akron Zips in Mid-American Conference action, at old Ralph McKinzie Field. I take in a few Huskies baseball games a year; besides that old school spirit, there's much to be said for college ball, MAC-level, despite the Huskies' abysmal play of late. I sit right behind home plate on metal bleachers and can watch the sometimes-impressive break on the pitchers' curve balls. I usually sit next to a student worker who's holding a radar gun, carefully noting each pitch in a steno pad while keeping an eye on incoming texts on his phone. The playing is always energetic, if not always expert. I love how all the players who happen to be on base run to the coach during an infield conference, even the runner on first scurrying over to the third base area to confer; they're college students, after all, still being taught. I'm near enough to each dugout to hear clearly the various baseball-unique pep talks, phrases, and strategic warnings barked by the players and their coaches; close enough also to make out the frustrated face on the kid who struck out on three pitches and failed to move over a runner.

There's plenty of popcorn, and an unseen train occasionally rumbles by beyond the center field fence. The crowd's small but always pleasant, a nice blend of pale, yawning hungover students (if you listen closely you can hear them muttering about their exploits, between innings, half-grinning; a couple of them are studying for finals, or complaining about same), some fellow athletes of different sports out to cheer their colleagues—a cluster of women softball players, today—some girlfriends of athletes, and families, including a nice number of traveling Akron families today, equipped with portable soft-seats, wearing their oddly-different school sweatshirts and cheering their sons by name. And because the play is a bit closer to adolescence in spirit and skill level than to the Majors, I can indulge in some memories of my own, inconsequential time playing ball as a kid. The sun was high in the blue sky but the day was not oppressively hot. I had to leave in the eleventh, by which time the Huskies has excitingly tied the game; they'd been behind the whole contest.

And several players were wearing old-school stirrups, which bodes well for the sartorial future of the game at the Major League level. All of this helps to blunt the awful ping of college metal bats. Easily ignored on a day like this.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"In The Morning I'll Rise Above"

I have a new music essay out in The Normal School, Saturday night rejoicing and Sunday morning repenting with Ishmon Bracey, Red Foley and The Cumberland Valley Boys, John Fogerty, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Blasters, Green Day, Ted Daffan’s Texans, Webb Pierce and His Southern Valley Boys, Ty Segall, and The Nighthawks.
Saturday night brings both pledges and lies of limitlessness, of a night never ending, a jukebox always playing, dance partners always spinning, car wheels revolving on roads that never end in daylight. But no matter how it’s beerily dismissed, or blithely ignored in the clutch-and-heave of Saturday night lovemaking, Sunday always comes.
A handful of those tunes:

“Saturday Blues,” Ishmon Bracey (78-rpm single, 1928)

“Tennessee Saturday Night,” Red Foley and The Cumberland Valley Boys (78- rpm single, 1948)

“Almost Saturday Night,” John Fogerty (John Fogerty, 1975)

“Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Jerry Lee Lewis (Mean Old Man, 2010)

“Just Another Sunday,” The Blasters (Hard Line, 1985)

“Church On Sunday,” Green Day (Warning, 2000)

“I Got Religion On Saturday Night,” Webb Pierce and His Southern Valley Boys (78-rpm, b-side, 1951)

“Thank God For Sinners,” Ty Segall (Twins, 2012) 

The Normal School publishes twice each year, Spring and Fall. Get a two-year subscription, or four issues for $20, here.