Friday, August 25, 2017

"This is fucking awesome"

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—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

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—The Detroit Cobras delivered the goods at Brauer House's front room 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.