Monday, August 21, 2017

L'American Beat en France

The YouTube channel ScottishTeeVee has posted this beaut, the Fleshtones performing "American Beat" (into "Everybody Needs Somebody") on French television in March of 1985. This must've been filmed during the band's residency at the Gibus in Paris, well-documented on the Speed Connection albums. Never lose that beat!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Having Fun with Detroit Cobras On Stage

Rachel Nagy (left) and Mary Ramirez
The Detroit Cobras delivered the goods at Brauer House in suburban Lombard last night, their patented sloppy, tipsy strut through obscure, bad ass rock and roll songs well received by the sizable crowd. It's well known that you roll the dice when you see the Cobras: lead singer Rachel Nagy, she of the superbly emotive and impossibly timeless voice, staggered onto the stage a couple times before when I'd seen the band. Last night she was all there: confident if a bit self-conscious in the opening numbers, forgetting some of the words to "Out of the World" ("because I'm old!" she grinned at the crowd), pausing at one point to indulge herself with a face-bury into the ample cleavage of a besotted fan at the front of the stage, and ordering a "fire brigade" to bring her a Grey Goose and soda near the end of the set. She was fully committed to each bracing song, from the rocking to the "slow skate" ballads, from the silly stuff to the momentous, and her voice.... Well, what can I say about Nagy's voice that hasn't already been said? Whether she's husky close to the mic or rearing back her head and belting from the back of her throat, she owns the songs she sings, renewing each of them out of their obscure past, and the decades-old songs feel as relevant as the contemporary rock and roll over played the PA before the set. Nagy's the real thing. I hope she never puts down the mic.

The rest of the band were loose, in good humor throughout the night, clearly enjoying themselves. (A bucket of iced-down Miller High Life's always helps.) Longtime Cobra Mary Ramirez, grinning and peacocking, plays a muscular rhythm guitar that churns below the songs' surfaces, the engine parts that move them, and swapped occasional aggressive leads with the second guitarist. During Irma Thomas's "Cry On," a heartbreaking ballad, Ramirez looked lost in the sentiment of her expressive playing. (Note: I have no idea who the other guitarists and drummer are; the Cobras' rhythm section is notoriously fluid, and the website, which didn't even list this current Chicago jaunt, didn't provide much information. The lead guitarist looked a bit like Emit Rhodes, if that helps.) Though clearly having fun, Ramirez at times gives the impression of being a slightly older, resentfully responsible kid straitening ties and cleaning the smudged faces of her mates before the trip down to the Principal's office. "Uh guys, this ain't the van, OK?" she addressed her giggling band. "We're in front of a crowd of people now."

My favorite exchange occurred between Nagy and Ramirez after a bit of onstage lovey-dovey during one song:
Nagy: (pointing to Ramirez) That woman is the true love of my life.
Ramirez: (smiling back at Nagy) My best friend is a little salty.
Nagy: It's called sweat, you dipshit!
Ramirez: I've got to keep my sodium intake down!
Nagy: Sorry I don't smell like peppermint and roses!
Bass player: You mean, "Incense and Peppermints."
Nagy: No I don't. 'Cause I'm not a hippie.
Near the end of the set as Nagy danced onstage, she blanched at the lead guitarist's extended vamping. "Hey, I thought we had a no jamming rule!" Lead guitarist: "Well, I thought I saw some ass." And so on. It's hard to know how much of this is shtick, but it's a blast to see a band having so much fun. Things veered into strange territory at times. Nagy made more than one reference to Chicago's violent reputation, which didn't seem to go over well, and on one occasion between songs began lecturing about the fact that dolphins rape other dolphins. As the bass player stepped to the mic to concur, Ramirez swiftly interrupted: "No rapy dolphins, please!" And the band kicked in to the next tune. There were several good-natured roofie jokes. All in a night's work.

Songs were spread over the band's several albums, and a new number, the terrific "Feel Good," rocked the joint. The Cobras play only old R&B and soul covers, with the infamous exception of the original "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)" from 2004's Baby ("'Hot dog' means 'slut' in Detroit," Nagy helpfully explained), and they play the eternal chord changes and song structures so lovingly and with such loose pleasure that they give the impression of inviting the crowd to crash on the floor with them as they rifle through their great album and 45s collection. "We are a cover band," Nagy said to Roger Holland at PopMatters. "We definitely do covers for a reason, and it’s not so we can start off here with covers and then grow up into our own sound and material. It’s that this is what we love to do, this is what we want to do. These are the songs and the music we love and that we want to play.... We’re not thinking that we’re improving on it or anything else, we’re just saying that you can’t go see these people any more, but hey! We’re a cheap imitation ... well, not so much an imitation ... we’re a cheap thrill ... but at least you get a little bit of the thrill as opposed to not getting to hear this stuff at all."

Highlights last night included the sexy "Weak Spot," "Bad Girl," a deliriously fun "Leave My Kitten Alone," and the perennial raise-the-roof "Hey Sailor." The Detroit Cobras play loud, beery, fun rock and roll, and last night their enthusiasm, energy, and good will matched their catalogue. The phrase "I Know Where You're Coming From" is emblazoned on the band's drum set. I know exactly where the Cobras come from, too, but last night they show that old rock and roll songs can sound like they were written yesterday, in the van.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"A stupid song, a brilliant song"

I pulled out Dave Marsh's book about "Louie Louie" for the first time in a while. I still dig this graph that comes early on:
It is the best of songs, it is the worst of songs. A rock’n’roll song, a calypso song, a sea chanty, a filthy, dirty, obscene song, the story of rock’n’roll in a nutshell, the most ridiculous piece of junk in the history of damnation. A stupid song, a brilliant song, an R&B oldie, a punk rock classic, a wine cooler commercial, an urban legend, a sacred text, a song with roots, a glimpse of the future, the song that defines our purpose, the very voice of barbarism. A song that casts a spell, a song that ought to have been forgotten and many times has been—and for all that, a song that roots into the brain until there’s no erasing it. Barely a song at all—three chords and a cloud of dust; the song that really does remain the same—no matter the reinterpretations it suffers. An old story, an untold story.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Music Without Melody: Jim Carroll on singing rock and roll

JC onstage, Albany, New York, May 13, 1982, Photo by Martin Benjamin
I've been re-reading a lot of Jim Carroll lately. In a passage in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973, he reveals that he's been thinking about writing lyrics for some rock and roll bands. "Certain friends have prompted me toward this idea for years," he writes. "Some, like Jenny Ann [Patti Smith] have even made the ridiculous proposition that I sing these songs . . . that I actually front a band! They tell me they see the possibilities when I give readings of my poems and diaries. The way I move. The phrasing."

Considering this a bit further, weighing the exciting possibilities against his own perceived limitations, Carroll offers a brief but potent theory of good rock and roll singing: "I do believe that a poet would possess a stronger intuitive sense of phrasing with a rock song . . . ",
that there is a way to tap into the emotions of an audience simply by the cross of a certain phrase, even a single word, against a certain chord. There’s no doubt in my mind. But I respect craft. I believe in technique . . . and my singing abilities are so serious a handicap that it would take a whole new scale to make the entire thing less than ludicrous. Music without melody, where my voice would simply be another rhythm instrument, like a drum.
Sounds to me like the template for many a raw and untutored rock and roll classic. Like this one Carroll and his band cut at the end of the decade:

Photo of Carroll via OB Rag.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Present and Future

Thanks to my DeKalb buddy Kevin Goldstein, a scout for the Houston Astros, we enjoyed sweet seats for the White Sox/Astros game last night at Guaranteed Rate Field. Bad news for Kevin: the Sox commandingly beat the AL-best 'Stros, winning the three-game series. Miguel Gonzales held the Astros to five hits over eight innings, his only miscue surrendering a homer to Derek Fisher in the eighth. For the Sox, Nick Delmonico had three hits and Tim Anderson—who could use a confidence boost—drove in three. The weather was beautiful, the park in a fine mood, the company terrific. A great night.

During the third inning, a friendly Dad-type sat down next to us and asked Kevin what had transpired during a comic infield opera when three Astros infielders let Adam Engel's high pop land among them on the dirt. (Engel was alertly running the whole time, but blew the gift by trying to stretch to third, where he was thrown out: the 2017 Sox season writ small.) Moments later, Kevin introduced me to the man, his boss, Jeff Luhnow, the Astros general manager. It was quite cool to sit with a scout and a GM at a game, imagining seeing what they're seeing, and when Luhnow departed I wished him luck with the rest of his season. (When Amy and I stood to buy some beers, Luhnow had made sure that we were aware that it was Dollar Hotdog Night at Guaranteed Rate—generously promoting the other team's promotion! A class act.) Despite his team's current slump, Luhnow needn't be worried, and he didn't look particular anxious as he watched his team lose: the 'Stros will play in October. As for the Sox, last night was another glimpse into the hoped-for bright future.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dog Days at the Park

I enjoyed a beautiful night of AA baseball at Canal Park in Akron, Ohio last week. How could I not pull for a team called the Yard Goats!—who, it turned out, handed it to the home team Rubber Ducks that night. Canal Park, built in the mid 1990s, is a beaut, right downtown, tucked into a hill, with plenty of cheap-o parking a block away; the Ohio and Erie Canal runs behind the left-field wall.

It was Dog Day at the park, which was a blast, with pups yipping and yapping all over the concourse, and catching frisbees in the outfield.

But the coolest thing: I'd noticed an inordinate number of #22 Indians jerseys that night. It turns out that Cleveland Indians' second baseman and two-time All Star Jason Kipnis was rehabbing his sore right hammy, and he obliged the crowd with a homer. I must report: to anyone who worries about baseball not sticking with kids these days, just head out to a Minor League game sometime. This adorable twig of a kid in a Kipnis jersey ran down to the netting behind home plate every time Kipnis headed to the plate, and the little fist bump through the net that Kipnis gave to the kid in the on-deck circle, just before he hit the homer, made my night, and the kid's year. Later, Kipnis tossed his batting gloves to a lucky 13-year old in the second row as Kipnis left the field, and the game. I can't really describe the look of "Wow!" joy on the kid's face, and on the faces of every kid in his section. Great stuff, great night.

Monday, July 31, 2017

All I want

In 1987, when blues-based rock and roll wasn't terribly fashionable in most quarters, it was very cool to hear The Godfathers quote Elvis:

"I ain't greedy, baby..."

...all I want is all you got."

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sleepless nights, slashing guitars

The Buzzcocks, ca. 1978
Among the legacies of the Punk and New Wave era of the late-70s was the revival of the speed-laden, tight rock and roll performance. Hippies, use back door. The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and countless bands in between, from Pub Rock to No Future, renewed the music they wrote and played with an amphetamine garage band ethos, playing short songs fast. Bands like the Buzzcocks played swift, tuneful songs, and, perhaps ironically given the punk mentality in the air, rarely neglected the pop song-craft of verse-bridge-chorus. In fact, Punk went a long way to restoring the value of the mid-60s AM radio pop song. Easy to see that, in retrospect.

One of my favorite bridges occurs in the Buzzcock's killer 1978 single "What Do I get?" All the singer wants is a lover, a friend, a caress, and/or a break—but what does he get instead? The answer, implied in the unhappy anxiety of the verses, is made explicit in the bridge:
I only get sleepless nights
Alone here in my half-empty bed
For you things, seem to turn out right
I wish they'd only happen to me instead 
Those breakneck changes in the second and fourth lines kill me every time: he's alone and miserable, awake and self-pitying, and the turmoil in his head and heart is best told, and hopefully left behind, via slashing guitars. Even an era intent on destroying the past tells old stories.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Smiling, frivolous duties

Vladimir Nabokov on memory still amazes. From Speak, Memory:
In thinking of my successive tutors, I am concerned less with the queer dissonances they introduced into my young life than with the essential stability and completeness of that life. I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors, in an alley of birches, limes and maples at its debouchment on the smooth-sanded space of the garden proper that separated the park and the house. I see the tablecloth and the faces of seated people sharing in the animation of light and shade beneath a moving, a fabulous foliage, exaggerated, no doubt, by the same faculty of impassioned commemoration, of ceaseless return, that makes me always approach that banquet table from the outside, from the depth of the park—not from the house—as if the mind, in order to go pack thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement. Through a tremulous prism, 1 distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech. I see the steam of the chocolate and the plates of blueberry tarts. I note the small helicopter of a revolving samara that gently descends upon the tablecloth, and, lying across the table, an adolescent girl’s bare arm indolently extended as far as it will go, with its turquoise-veined underside turned up to the flaky sunlight, the palm open in lazy expectancy of something—perhaps the nutcracker. In the place where my current tutor sits, there is a changeful image, a succession of fade-ins and fade-outs; the pulsation of my thought mingles with that of the leaf shadows and turns Ordo into Max and Max into Lenski and Lenski into the schoolmaster, and the whole array of trembling transformations is repeated. And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties—smiling, frivolous duties—some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats, sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Found, Baseball

I found this photograph in a box of my father-in-law's memorabilia, containing items ranging from photos and postcards of upstate New York to World War II snaps and letters. This may be my father-in-law, Lou Newman, swinging through a strike, but the shadows and lighting and age of the photograph make it difficult to be certain that it's him. There's no writing on the back. There's so much I love about this photo of a mid-century pickup baseball game, the casually tossed jacket (third base?), the grass-high perspective, the big sky.

Where was this taken, I wonder. Brooklyn? Catskills? Europe?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dave Marsh on "Punk"

Dave Marsh, writing in Rolling Stone in 1977:
Because of a certain churlish attitude and a deep-seated distaste for elites and the effete, I have myself sometimes been described as a punk. This would be endlessly amusing to those hard guys back on the block. But however vicarious my experiences, the punk sensibility (as I define it) is at the heart of what I care about in American culture, not least of all in rock and roll.

For me, the punk sensibility in its original form offered something better and deeper than a way to walk and talk, or an excuse for petty crime and amateur nihilism. Punk in its fifties sense could never be merely music or merely fashion. The pose implied a set of standards, a code of behavior, founded on friendship, carried out as a matter of principle. This sensibility runs through American folklore from the mythic (if not actual) Billy the Kid to what once were known as antiheroes—Cagney and Bogart, later Dean and Brando. That sort of punkitude reached its greatest glory with Elvis Presley, who could bring teenage women to the edge of orgasm while dedicating songs to his mother. The punk code is simple, direct street philosophy: loyalty and self-respect are its highest values, the camaraderie between friends the only society it recognizes.


I mourn the prostitution of true punks by performers for whom public vomiting is a rebellious act of stagecraft, but that’s not what really disturbs me. It's the idea of the dilution of that concept as another symptom of rock’s loss of moral force. That’s not to say that the Ramones and the Sex Pistols are immoral—though they’re definitely a little mixed up. But what these performers and their fans (not to mention their promoters) mistake for rebellion—the honest stand—is too often merely marketable outrage....

A few years ago Esquire called me the last man in American who believed that rock could save the world. I responded that I was, instead, the last who believed that rock could destroy the world. But I never expected to see my prediction confirmed so soon.

Image via PunkiLadd

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Tourist at Home

Amy and I hung out for several days in wonderful Asheville, North Carolina, where we took in a Tourists game. The Class A team for the Colorado Rockies, the Tourists play their home games at McCormick Field, where the history is palpable. Teams have played under the Tourists name dating back to 1897; the current team has played in the South Atlantic League since 1976. The curious "Tourists" name was adopted sometime in the 1930s—an earlier team had been called The Moonshiners, which I prefer! In the 1940s, the Tourists shared the park with the Asheville Blues, an independent Negro Leagues team.

McCormick Field opened in 1924, and was renovated in 1959 and again prior to the 1992 season. A mostly concrete structure now—the old wooden roof was leaking badly—the park is still intimate, cozy, and, nestled in the green mountains, with houses right across the street, fantastically homey. The whole thing feels like it's tilting (in a good way). As night fell and the outfield lights came on, the trees were illuminated in such a way that a home run ball hit to right vanished in the trees, giving the impression of a bright mythic sphere consumed by the dark. Good beer is plentiful in the park, as throughout all of Asheville, terrific local brews (my fave that night was the Hi-Wire Hi-Pitch Mosaic IPA), and the mood was convivial and family-friendly, without being sentimentally cloying or stuffed with distractions, save for the fun, Minor League kind: kids running bases between innings, groups of them leap-frogging in giant underpants or racing the mascot. One kid a row over from us took a shot at predicting the speed of the first pitch of the following inning. He called 87, and had three chances: the first three pitches were clocked at 88, 89, and 86. Everyone around us laughed. Baseball's hard.

Perusing the game program, I learned about the team's and park's history, including the impressive number of Tourists who've ended up in the Majors, most for a cup of coffee, a few for a Hall of Fame career. The coolest fact I learned was that Cal Ripken Jr.'s father—that would be Sr.—managed the Tourists for a spell in the 1970s, and young Cal was the batboy. Right after I read this, I saw the Tourists' current ball fetcher run onto the field to claim a ball or a bat, and I pictured Cal—skinny, little, wide-eyed—in this boy's place. Modest moments of history, transposed one on the other like that, are among the deep pleasures of taking in a baseball game at an old park.

The Tourists won in a bit of a laugher, 12-3. The Augusta GreenJackets' catcher had a rough night of it, both behind and at the plate, and the Tourists' middle infielders, second baseman Carlos Herrera and shortstop Jose Gomez, threw some mighty impressive leather. I'll keep an eye out for them. Nearly all of the crowd of 2,300 stayed until the end of the game.

Beforehand, as we were descending the hilly lot where we parked—for free—an attendant asked if we'd ever been to McCormick Field. We said No, and he gave us each a "My First Tourists Game" button. Can't wait to get back.

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