Monday, October 16, 2017

"Oh, I feel foolish!"

I'm in love with this ticket-scalper-buying housewife from Westchester County who comes in on her own to see the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden on July 25, 1972. She was among the fans interviewed outside of the Garden by Dick Cavett for a special episode about the Stones' NYC shows, broadcast on ABC on August 11.

I really hope that she went to a bootleg showing of Cocksucker Blues later.

Dick Cavett: Are your children with you?

Woman: No, they're at home.
C: Where are you from?

W: Port Chester, New York.

C: Are you a housewife?

W: Yes. Mother.

C: And you're going to the concert?

W: Mm-hmm.

DC: How did you get tickets? And how many?

W: I bought one off the street.

DC: Hold on to it, because people have been known to get them away from people.... Are you going or are your children?

W: No, I am. They're going tomorrow night.

C: Do they know you're here?

W: Yes. I hope [laughs]

C: Is your husband a Stones fan?

W: No. No.

C: Just you?

W: And my children really turned me on to the music and that's why I grew to love it and that's how come I'm here. Oh, I feel foolish! [laughs]

C: You shouldn't feel foolish. Do you have a poster of Mick Jagger up in the kitchen or anything?

W: No [laughs]

C: Nothing like that. You just like the sound.

W: Yes, I just like them. . . .

C: Would you want to meet Mick Jagger? I can't arrange it, but if you did do you have any idea what you'd talk about?

W: I have a son that reminds me of him. [laughs]

C: How old is the son?

W: He's eight-years old.

C: But Jagger's twice that old!

W: Ah, just something about him reminds me of him. I have a few children, and he's just different from all all the rest.

Screen grab of The Dick Cavett Show via Decades

Friday, October 13, 2017

Let 'em Play

Major League Baseball should be ashamed of itself. The replay decision that overturned the on-field, rally-killing call of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras's pick off of the Nationals' Jose Lobaton was a disgrace. Among the pleasure of watching sports is seeing athletes hurl their bodies through air and control those bodies in elegant, often breathtaking ways. "Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities," Roger Angell wrote, "and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses,” Athletes are bigger, quicker, stronger, and more agile than I am or will ever be; watching them play at the elite level, I expect that they'll test their limits in entertaining ways. One of the remarkable aspects of baseball is how well-designed the game is: the dimensions on the field, notwithstanding the varying distances of the outfield fences and the recently (1969!) lowered pitching mound, have remained unchanged for decades. It's astounding that a player in 1923, after hitting a grounder to third, would hustle down the first base line and just beat—or not—the throw to first, and that his larger, faster, and stronger counterpart in 2017, hustling, in theory, still faster, would also face a split-second decision at the end of that same ninety feet. What a perfectly designed game!

When a player dives back to first in response to a lightning-quick pick-off move, he by definition hurls his body through air, and occasionally his foot or leg will come up off the bag even after he's arrived safely. That's physics. That's poetry. It's not a mistake. It's a body moving through space. Instant Replay should be used to reverse bad calls and obvious mistakes made by the umpires and players—it should not be used to penalize a player for being six feet and an inch and weighing 205 pounds and, against gravity and with brutally-honed instincts, lurching to his left to touch a bag and—for an instant—lift off.

Simply because we have the ability to micro-zoom and freeze a chaotic moment of intensely competitive sport, must we apply it on every occasion? Baseball is played by humans and umpired by humans; why must technology supplant the naked eye on the occasions where a leg lifts off of a bag for a slit-second of time after the runner clearly reached the bag, as observed by the first base umpire from a few feet away? Baseball is applying an unprecedented, hyper-realistic standard of physical play if it permits replay on such microcosmic instances of athletic competition. It does a disservice to the talented, hard-working players and umpires, to kids watching, to fans, to the game. I know it's unlikely that replay will be refined, but I hope that in this off-season someone in New York suggests a re-think. The game is too beautiful to be policed—reduced— by a high-definition camera. Let the boys play.

I was texting with my brother, who was at the game and didn't have access to the replays I was watching. I thought I'd cool off about this overnight, but nope.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Flash & Crash"

I've always loved the brutally raw sound of Rocky and the Riddlers' garage stomp "Flash & Crash," released on the Seattle-based, Jerden-affiliated Panorama label in 1966. Recently, Ric Ulsky, who played organ on the song, contacted me at my YouTube channel, 3 Chord Philosophy. I asked him for any memories of the session:
I remember it being very exciting. An actual recording studio! Wow! Plus I was the youngest member of the band so I was even more excited. It was 1966 technology. I believe we were in a 2 track studio downtown Seattle. Jerry Dennon was the Producer, I'm pretty sure. Carnie Barton was the engineer, I think. Hell, he was old then. He just sat there reading the paper and eating an orange. I was playing a Farfisa through a 147 Leslie and a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone amp. Hell of a rig for those days.
Hell of a sound. Turn it up, if you dare.

Photo of Rocky and the Riddlers via Pacific Northwest Bands

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How it Feels

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.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Playoffs are Here

As are my fearless predictions. Making an educated case about the Wild Card games is akin to judging a four-course meal on one bite, but I'll go with momentum and, in the case of the Yanks, home-field advantage. Same with my picks for the Divisional and Championship Series.

I, again, have no horse in the race. I'd like to see the Nationals win it all for my Dad, brother, and longtime buddies back in Maryland. But the 'Stros and Dodgers feel right to me to play for it all. Not a controversial prediction, I know, and anything can, and will, happen. Here's to taut, well-played games and each Series going to a decoding game! Play October Ball!
Yankees > Twins

Rockies > Diamondbacks

Indians > Yankees
Astros > Red Sox

Dodgers > Rockies
Nationals > Cubs

Astros > Indians

Dodgers > Nationals

Astros > Dodgers in 7

Photo via Time: "University of Pittsburgh students cheer wildly from atop the Cathedral of Learning as they look down on Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates are playing the Yankees in the 7th game of the 1960 World Series...". George Silk—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Friday, September 29, 2017

Winding down...

I couldn't attend the White Sox's final home game last night. They close out the year in Cleveland, assured of losses numbering in the 90s. That's OK; this was a rebuilding season, and the foundation for the structure assembled over the next couple of years feels surprisingly sturdy at this point. Highlights of the season: Jose Abreu continued his steady, workman-like march toward the category of elite sluggers; Avisail Garcia had a career year; Tim Anderson got better and more consistent; Matt Davidson caught more good luck than bad; a couple pitching prospects stepped up.

White Sox announcer Jason Benetti and the team said their goodbyes:


Being at Guaranteed Rate Field for Abreu's unlikely Cycle on a few weeks back was a personal highlight for me; the amped-up excitement at the park is something I'll carry with me as a low murmur over the off season. Speaking of the off season, there really isn't one anymore, and I don't know how I feel about that. The long wait between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training has, like so many delays in contemporary culture, been eradicated, or replaced 24/7 with loud data. Great for baseball writers, researchers, and obsessives, but I'm not so sure that even devoted fans need this much baseball—videos; blog reports; off-season feel-good stories; "Hot Stove" talk, and the rest—between November and February. I'll eat it up over the cold, dark days, but not without some wistful looks back at the off season years when I was a kid, when Eastern Seaboard snow and endless gray figuratively smothered anything baseball-related until the Spring thaw, when, deep in the Sports section of the Washington Post grainy, black-and-white photos began popping up of ball players in white unis and bright sun.

Anyway, the playoffs start next week and I am psyched. Predictions coming once the Wild Card game participants are settled. The White Sox open next season against the Royals on March 29 at Kauffman Stadium. See you here.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bangs on Rock & Roll, ctd.

In 1980 Lester Bangs wrote Blondie, a idiosyncratic biography of the band then riding high on the commercial wave of "Call Me." Bangs famously cared little for the book that he saw as a hack-work project to make some dough. (You can find decent-priced copies at Amazon and elsewhere.) Neither Greil Marcus nor John Morthland excerpted Blondie in their respective collections of Bangs's work, though Marcus acknowldges the book is "scabrous" and "crackling."

In 1992 Clinton Heylin did, in his criminally hard-to-find Penguin Book of Rock & Roll Writing. In the passage Bangs revisits a favorite topic, the anti-virtuosity of great rock & roll, its democratic call to arms to anyone with the nerve and style to pick up an instrument. By 1980, Bangs had traversed this subject many times, but it's always great to listen to the man hold forth on the lo-fi power of rock & roll and punk. "The point is that rock & roll, as I see it, is the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action, because it’s true: anybody can do it," he writes.
Learn three chords on a guitar and you’ve got it. Don’t worry whether you can "sing" or not. Can Neil Young "sing"? Lou Reed, Bob Dylan? A lot of people can’t stand to listen to Van Morrison, one of the finest poets and singers in the history of popular music, because of the sound of his voice. But this is simply a matter of exposure. For performing rock & roll, or punk rock, or call it any damn thing you please, there’s only one thing you need: NERVE. Rock & roll is an attitude, and if you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about. Rock is for everybody, it should be so implicitly anti-elitist that the question of whether somebody’s qualified to perform it should never even arise.

But it did. In the sixties, of course. And maybe this was one reason why the sixties may not have been so all-fired great as we gave them credit for. Because in the sixties rock & roll began to think of itself as an "art-form." Rock & roll is not an 'art-form"; rock & roll is a raw wail from the bottom of the guts. And like I said, whatever anybody ever called it, punk rock has been around from the beginning—it’s just rock honed down to its rawest elements, simple playing with a lot of power and vocalists who may not have much range but have so much conviction and passion it makes up for it ten times over. Because PASSION IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT—what all music is about.

In the early sixties there was punk rock: "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen being probably the most prominent example. It was crude, it was rude, anybody could play it, but so what? It’ll be around and people everywhere will still be playing it as long as there’s rock & roll left at all. It’s already lasted longer than Sgt. Pepper! Who in the hell does any songs from that album anymore? Yet, a few years ago, some people were saying Sgt. Pepper will endure a hundred years.

Photo of Lester Bangs via San Diego Reader; photo of Debbie Harry via Medium.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Little things remind me of you"

From dive bars to neon clubs, Honky Tonk to New Wave, bourbon to blow, heartbreak knows no genre.

single (1965)

I just came in here from force of habit
I don't intend to spend too much time in here
But I saw you headin' for the music
And if you play A-11, there'll be tears

I don't know you from Adam
But if you're gonna play the jukebox
Please don't play A-11

This used to be our favorite night spot
And when she was here it was heaven
It was here she told me that she loved me
And she always played A-11

I don't know you from Adam
But if you're gonna play the jukebox
Please don't play A-11

(words and music, Hank Cochran)


 single (1982)

So I saw you in the pizza place
You were with another girl
It was a crime it was such a disgrace
You really shattered my world

Little things remind me of you
Cheap cologne and that damn song too

Don't put another dime in the jukebox
I don't want to hear that song no more
Don't put another dime in the jukebox
I don't want to hear that song no more

Then I learned the treacherous end
You were with my best friend
Ain't got no class ain't got no respect
My broken heart will never mend

Don't want to hear that song no more No! No!
Don't want to hear that song no more
Don't want to hear that song no more No! No!
Don't want to hear that song!

(words and music, Bobby Orlando)

Jukebox photo via Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Field Recordings at Open Stacks

My April 1 reading from Field Recordings from the Inside at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago is up at the Open Stacks podcast. You can listen here. While you're at, swing over to Spotify and crank the playlist I created as a companion to the book, a romp through (most of) the songs, bands, and artists I write about in the book. Link here.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Jose Abreu hits for the cycle

Abreu moments from launching a homer to center.
I was on hand last night at Guaranteed Rate Field for Battle of the First Round Draft Pick. The White Sox and the San Fransisco Giants own the third- and second-worst records in baseball, both peering with mixed feelings at the cellar position and dubious compensation. Although Sox General Manager Rick Hahn has thus far done a terrific, and to many surprising, job of restocking the franchise's depleted farm system through trades, the team can use all the help it can get. The Sox didn't help out themselves last night, crushing the Giants 13 to 1 behind an improbably sterling performance from beleaguered starter David Shields, who held the Giants to one hit through six and a third innings before surrendering a homer to Nick Hundly. Shields made the Giants hitters look foolish and over-matched all night, hitter after baffled hitter trudging back to the dugout hanging his head ("muscle memory," my buddy Dan quipped.) The Sox bats were hopped up on a cool, windy evening, all six of the home runs no-doubters. I hadn't heard such loud contact the park in a long, long time.

By the far the highlight of the game was Jose Abreu hitting for the cycle, only the sixth White Sox player to do so (the last was Jose Valentin, in April 2000). Coming to bat in the eighth, Abreu had already slugged a homer to deep center, driven a double down the left field line, and looped a little single into shallow left. What was ridiculously fun and improbable about the cycle was how steeply the odds were stacked against Abreu: a triple his hard to will; Abreu's a big guy, the opposite of swift; he fouled the second pitch, a 94 mile per hour fastball, off his foot, a real stinger that brought out manager Rick Renteria and team trainer Herm Schneider. All Abreu did was laser the very next pitch, another fastball, to the gap in right-center. As he rounded second I, and thousands of others, yelled "He's gonna go for it!"—he slid into third just ahead of the throw. I've never seen a player hit for the cycle, and to see one of my favorites do it—improbably!—at his home park was a thrill I won't soon forget. The White Sox scoreboard operator seemed a bit overwhelmed by all of the clangorous contact throughout the night—the Sox rapped out eighteen hits—and didn't acknowledge Abreu's feat, only flashing on the big screen a GIF of an applauding baseball.

Just as well. Abreu's a modest, go-to-work guy. He smiled and caught his breath while standing on third, and received the mauling of congratulations in the dugout, a celebration I was fortunate to be able to see form my seat just above the visitors' dugout. Another night at the park for the low-key and gifted Abreu, only this time it was historic.


It was Tim Raines Night last night. Dan and I were somewhere between the Craft Kave and our seats when Raines threw out the first pitch, but we were each clutching out Raines figurine, courtesy of the team. The scoreboard ran a terrific career-spanning video montage of Raines running, hitting, cashing into walls, and mugging it up in various dugouts. Truth be told, "The Rock" excelled during an era when I wasn't paying much attention to baseball; distracted, I didn't find my way back from my late-70s/early-80s love affair with the game until roughly the mid-90s, when Raines left the White Sox for the Yankees. I'd missed him, but I love the fact that's he's heading to Hall, and that the team for which he played five of his twenty three seasons would so fete him. A fun night all around.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Punk is..."

In the August 1977 issue of New Wave, Lester Bangs, charged with writing about the roots of "punk," launched an epic treatise on the word, a careening manifesto that's ridiculous, profane, mean, true, immature, self-absorbed, in-character, mock-heroic, probably three-quarters correct and entirely authentic. "The roots of punk was the first time a kid ended up living with his parents till he was 40," Bangs writes. "The roots of punk was the first time you stole money out of your mother’s purse and didn’t know what to spend it on because you weren’t old enough to buy beer. The roots of punk was the first time your father got so frustrated with your intransigence he almost raised his fists against you, and you not out of high school yet, and you didn’t even care, you just wanted to drift a few blocks away and get fucked up."
Punk may (may?) be essentially passive. Punk is stupid proud consumerism. Punk is oblivion when it isn’t any fun and unlike winos you do have a choice in fact; you're young. Punk is bleared out of your mind watching Lancelot Link at 12 noon on Saturday and having no idea of what you're seeing. Punk is getting up early Saturday morning to jack off to Isis. Punk is vomiting all over your “motherfuckers”/ John Sinclair liner notes version of Kick Out the Jams and not particularly caring. Punk is ten thousand tattered skin magazines under your bed but never getting any satisfaction from masturbation not the kind that leads to languorous rest anyway so you exist on a thin hot prostate wire of tension and jack off three, four times a day, knowing it’s stupid and pointless and hating it for that more than submerged guilt but doing it because there’s nothing else to do but get drunk. Punk is having favorite girlfriends in the skin mags you come back to again and ahain. Punk is finally getting a girlfriend and then treating her shitty because you’re too stupid, drunk, and self-absorbed. Punk is being a girl and fucking your husband/ boyfriend while watching TV over his shoulder as he gets his gun. Punk is not punk, because it has become too codifled. Punk is sitting in a half-dark room alone wishing you had Valiums with an indifferent record playing wanting to claw the stuffing out of the chair but feeling futility in your fingernails. Punk is hating poeticization of your condition. Punk is vague dreams of carnage and bloody revenge when you can barely swat a comatose fly. Punk is wine stains across the grooves of Between the Buttons and “Sister Ray.” Punk is pointlessness. Punk is ripping up articles like this one. Punk is lacking the energy or interest to bother ripping them up. Punk is reading this article mechanically because there’s nothing else to do and the words glide by like cinders. Punk is hurling the magazine across the room, dropping your hands into your lap, idly scratching your dick or clit wondering if you wanna jerk off again, deciding it’s not worth the trouble, staring blankly into space. Punk is thinking maybe we should go to the movies tonight and not having the energy or self-discipline to get up and walk across the room to pick up the daily paper. Punk is talking back to situation comedy rerun syndicated characters on afternoon TV. Punk is seeing girls in TV commercials and croaking “Take off yer clothes . . .” when you haven’t been laid in two years. Punk is running out of beer at 5:30 A.M. and taking three Chlor-Trimetons to see if they'll exacerbate what’s left of it. Punk is waking up in the morning and not having the energy or motivation to get up and turn on the soap operas on the color TV atop the dresser across the room from your bed. Punk is starting to jerk off, getting a hardon, thinking oh fuck it what’s the use, and giving up. Punk is putting on a record you love, lying down on the couch, rolling over and trying to go to sleep at four in the afternoon or seven at night just because you want that state of twilight consciousness which is better than drugs. Punk is being so lazy you want girls to jack you off or suck you instead of bothering to fuck. Punk is being willing to eat pussy while dreaming of some record you wanna buy. Punk is laziness at apogee with no apologies. Punk is saying fuck rock ’n’ roll. Punk is saying fuck punk rock. Punk is treating your 2,000-plus LP collection like dirt. Punk is passe’. Punk is just a word dug by media. Punk is anything you do that should have consequences but either doesn’t or you ignore them. Punk is a meaningless word that everybody is sick to death of purporting to represent a state of mind and lifestyle which while not so very complex cannot be reduced any further than it has been already in inchoate preverbal practice. Punk is something worth destroying posthaste. Hopefully this article will speed that process. Punk is being old and smart enough to know that your girlfriend is too young but not having the balls to kick her out. Like when she keeps saying “Oh, I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOU” everytime you say some ridiculous alkie crazy thing only Bukowski has a right to, and instead of attacking her or just withdrawing you chuckle indulgently. Punk is playing father to teen pussy when you should be a shark but haven’t got the teeth. Punk is getting stuck months later like the old curmudgeon as she chases local deejays at press parties in front of you and all you can say is maybe she’ll grow out of it because you love the taste of her twat and the fact that no other woman will fuck all nite to “Raw Power." Punk is when you throw her over and pick up a barfloozy same day take her home drink gin fuck and in the nite she menstruates all over your bed and in the morning you drink more gin. That is when you know you are growing from punk into what some people think of as a man. At least some blood marks the spot, like Grauman’s prints or the hollows ‘of Pompeii. You don’t feel like such a punk no more with all that history under you. I suppose that’s when you grow up to Jon Landau productions. Either that or a dusty window and an eye that needs a toothpick.

Photo of Bangs in 1977 via CBGB.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Happy 10th Birthday, Sweat

I can't believe that it's been ten years since Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band was published. The writing process felt twice that long, longer still the time spent hoping against hope that I might publish the thing. I heard from more than one agent and editor along the way who told me either No Way, or, more charitably, I love those guys, but who's gonna buy a book about them? I'm forever grateful to David Barker, my editor at Continuum Books, for taking a chance. Barker understood the story I wanted to tell: how a rock and roll band that wants to keep playing after their shot at stardom has passed is forced to redefine what "success" means and, against great odds, continues to plug in to what drew them to rock and roll in the first place. The tag line on the book's cover, "30 years, 2,000 shows, 1,000 Blue Whales, no hits, no sleep," might as well have read, "How to live a life successfully." In addition to deepening my friendship with the guys in the Fleshtones and with ex-members, I made a ton of friends while living and working in New York City researching and writing the book, and many more since online around the globe, and I'm grateful for that, too. Above all, thanks and love to Amy, who decided at one point to intercept agents and editors' rejection letters and hide them from me so that I would keep going.

Though I rub my eyes that a decade has passed, the Fleshtones have barely missed a step: since the book came out they've released five albums, nine singles, an EP, three compilations, and toured North America, Europe, Mexico, and China. 2016 saw the band celebrate their 40th anniversary testifying to SUPER ROCK around the globe.

Of the many very cool things that have happened since the book was published, I'd have to list being name- and title-checked in the band's song "It Is As It Was" from Wheel of Talent a few years back as the supremely coolest. I'll let the guys have the last word. See ya at a show.
C’mon, we’re gonna start at the beginning
Page one, Bonomo says: “It’s gonna get good, now, it’s gonna get better”
Read on, this is the story of The Fleshtones
Chapter One, how it started: it is was it is and it is what happened

It is as it was, you know that it is as it was…

Dig it, we didn’t make a whole lot of money
But we did what we wanted to
If you read Sweat you can find out too!

It goes back to our past
But the present rolls on into the future

Tonight the band is ready for some action
Hold tight, you’re here to have fun
Like the Pope in Rome says, “It is as it was, now”

Friday, August 25, 2017

"This is fucking awesome."

For years, I'd been deeply skeptical that Green Day could play a show in front of 40,000 people and make the experience feel intimate, could topple the figurative wall between enormous stage and enormous crowd. They made a believer of me last night at Wrigley Field.

I'd never expected to see Green Day. Although I've loved the band since the mid 1990s, I'm a bit of a fameist, and rued that I'd missed my chance to see them in a small club or theater. (I was unable to snag tickets to the band's show at Aragan Ballroom last October.) But when my pal Dave scored free tickets to the Wrigley show and generously asked me along, I couldn't say no. Our seats were near the end of the right field line, lower deck—during a game we'd have been within heckling distance of Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward. The view, it turned out, was pretty terrific; yes, to be in the pit in front of the stage would've been intensely great, but our seats' long view gave me the perfect opportunity to see if Green Day could indeed command a stadium.

They could and, every night, they do. Since around the time of the Nimrod, I've watched video of Green Day perform at enormous stadiums around the world, and I've doubted that a show like that could match the intimacy of a small venue or theater. I saw the Rolling Stones (second row!) and the Who in the early 1980s, and both shows were highly memorable, but were just on the cusp of my exploding love for indie and punk, for bands whose gigs take place in small, sweaty places—and it's there I was truly baptized a rock and roll fan. I hadn't seen an stadium-size show since then (though, in retrospect, I should've put my anti-arena bias aside and gone to see the Kinks, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and a few others). Green Day's show began with the mock-heroic triumvirate that's kicked off each show on this tour: Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop"—originally recorded five months and a galaxy apart, here sharing anthemic spectacle—followed by Ennio Morricone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme blaring over the PA. Soon after, Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool, and Mike Dirnt darted onto the stage and kicked off "Know Your Enemy." Within a verse, Armstrong showed that he was regarding the crowd: he yanked up a guy from the pit who took over for a verse (after a big bear hug for the singer). When the song was over, Armstrong counted down and the kid took off down the ramp, leapt into the pit, and crowd surfed.

And this was still the first song. Armstrong did this twice more, hauling up a young boy to sing a verse of "Longview" (You're fucking lonely! included) and then sending him into the crowd to surf—he looked like a tiny cork on a sea—and then another guy to shed some guitar during the cover of Ivy Operation's "Knowledge," the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity inspiring the guy to run up and down the drum riser and to ape the end of the song. Twice. (The band happily obliged, and then security hustled him off.)

Now, I follow setlistfm; I know that Green Day has featured these "spontaneous acts" at nearly every show since the late 1990s, but there was no denying the thrills and laughter that those audience-participation stunts generated, a feeling of good will and humor that hummed throughout the park, all the way up into Section 240, where I sat with a dumb grin on my face. I rolled my eyes at the thirtieth "Hey-oh, Hey-oh" call-and-response that Armstrong bellowed from the stage, the one-too-many "HELLO CHICAGO!" arena cliches, and the overly-elongated songs—but this morning, an odd thing happened: I awoke and remembered them all fondly. Armstrong knows that those telegraphed, well-worn giant-stage gestures work, and that when they work, accompanied with the fireworks and the flash pots and the light show, the crowd feels involved and spirited, and when the crowd feels involved and spirited, every song sounds better, every solo sounds inspired, every beer tastes better, all of that fun accumulating as the long night goes on. Armstrong is tireless; his and his bandmates' stamina are magnificent, and the band's willingness to play long and hard is tribute to their affection and respect for their fans and the great time that they want, and pay for.

Ideally, I'd like Green Day to play a two-week residency at, say, the Empty Bottle (capacity of a couple hundred) so that I could experience the band up close and watch Armstrong field a smaller venue. Those days of small clubs are long gone for Green Day, and I stupidly lament that, though I don't fault the band their mammoth success. (Selena Fragassi, reviewing the show in Chicago Sun-Times, shares my sentiment: "Though Green Day is anthems away from playing the small clubs anymore, it still makes one wonder if returning to places like Metro (which hosted a one-day pop-up shop across the street) just might be the most punk rock thing ever for a band that has gotten very used to the big time.") Yet, remarkably, Green Day played not just a great stadium show last night, but a great rock and roll show, with hooks, spectacle, anthemic choruses, grins, a well-paced roar of songs with the proper ebbs and flows. I knew in advance that "King For A Day" was going to blend into the Isley Brothers' "Shout"—the band's been doing that for years—but I was dubious about "Shout" blending into the Stones' "Satisfaction" and then into the Beatles' "Hey Jude," warhorses all. Yet at that point in the song, three quarters of the way through the show, Armstrong, lying on his back, implored the crowd to fuck politics and fuck Neo Nazis and fuck hate speech and by extension fuck Trump, and as he sang "take a sad song and make it better," with his eyes shut, he looked a little embarrassed at the song's shopworn sentimentality, but also probably how he looks at home on the floor, alone, singing a song that he digs no matter how "classic" and overplayed it might be, no matter how many strangers love it for different, corny reasons. It was the most intimate moment of the night—a pretty remarkable occasion considering that he's lying on the stage in front of thousands of people. It led warmth and texture to everything that came and everything that followed.

Yeah, the giant screens help—but even in the right field stands I felt, as undoubtedly many in the crowd did, that I was crashing on the stage alongside him.


On the day of the show, Rolling Stone published an article written my buddy Dan Epstein about Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, a documentary directed by Corbett Redford focusing on 924 Gilman, the nonprofit Bay Area club which spawned Green Day and many other punk and indie bands in the 1980s and 1990s. (Snippets from the film played on the screen before Green Day took the stage last night.) Infamously, Green Day experienced backlash from bands and figures of the small but intense Bay Area scene when they signed to a major label in the 1990s, enmity that only increased as the band experienced major success and ultimately a Broadway adaptation of their most popular album. (I saw American Idiot in 2011 and found it surprisingly moving). Armstrong told Epstein, "There was a very vocal few that sort of blew it out of proportion and we felt it. But I think the majority of the people in the scene were wrapped up in their own lives, and doing their own thing, you know? Most people were just like, 'You're going your way, and I'm going my way'." Still, I couldn't help but think about the many miles that Green Day's trekked from playing Berkley back yards and garage shows in front of dozens to enormous stages in front of millions around the world. Back then, Armstrong and others on the scene surely loved the Isley Brothers, the Beatles, and the Stones, but would they have admitted it, or played their songs in way but ironically? Last night, Armstrong, a genuine ham but also a genuine rock and roll fan who gets it, ran that line of Sixties classics with love, affection, and an instinct for pleasure. "This is fucking awesome," he said at one point last night, surveying the phone-lit crowd and ancient Wrigley. "Let's just celebrate this."

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.
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