Sunday, December 24, 2017

Happy Holidays

DeKalb, Illinois

A pretty, quiet, snowy Christmas Eve goes a long way to help sooth the rancor of the past year—or at least it distracts in a very pleasing way. I'll repeat last year's Holiday cheer, as we need it now more than ever: Here's hoping that you and yours have a fun, relaxing, safe, and free-of-enmity Holiday season!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Legend and Lots of Drugs

The latest issue of Ugly Things features Sal Cincotta's piece on Total Crudd, an early 1970s, New Paltz, NY-based band. The article's everything that's great about rock and roll and everything that's great about Ugly Things. Total Crudd is most (in)famous for featuring Ross (soon to be "The Boss") Friedman, who left the band to join the Dictators. The band also featured Zeke Bruschi, Joey DeBenedetto, and Jim Sugerman, each of whom led interesting lives post-Crudd.

Cincotta rounded up the the members for a lively oral history, a must-read if you're interested in the era between the Sonics and the Ramones, when young diehard bands like Crudd kept the rock and roll flame going before heading into obscurity. The article's a blast, spiked with hilarious details that evoke the trashy, hungry early days of a ragtag rock and roll band inspired equally by blooze, parties, and misdemeanors, when everything was accomplished with a half-grin. "All the stories I tell you have been duly affected by legend and lots of drugs," Bruschi acknowledges, adding, "It happened at a time when events are very compressed in your life and it happens quickly, but is long-lasting. For those four years, we were thrown in together. Plus, we had the roots of coming out of the Bronx. The whole essence of Total Crudd was in the communal living. That's what made the magic happen. It was way more than just guys being in a band. It was how we lived."

That's a Rock and Roll Manifesto, there.

A few killer excerpts:
The first time we had a Crudd-type rehearsal was with Mike Roth on guitar, who we knew from Bronx High School of Science. We had to steal shopping carts to get the drums and amps up and down the hills of the Bronx. We set up in Arty’s mother’s apartment, and were playing Blue Cheer songs, with the feedback knocking pictures off of the walls! When we stopped playing we heard banging on the door. We looked thru the peephole and saw Arty’s mother, the landlord, and the cops; That was my first memory of Crudd practicing or playing. (Bruschi)
Every rehearsal, which was our off Fridays and sometimes Sundays, was a combination party and rehearsal in front of 50 to 100 people. We'd have the audience vote on arrangements. “Should we do that bit twice?” (Bruschi)
At any given time a party could erupt. There were plenty of nights when it was 2:00am and 25 people would show up. and we'd get out of bed and play. (DeBenedetto)
Fantastic. Do yourself a favor: buy the new UT (better yet, subscribe) and read this homage to a forgotten band, the likes of which is staggering hungover but hopeful to their next party/gig/party tonight, somewhere.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Preserve, Protect, and Project

"Patti Smith, NYC, 1976." Photo by Frank Stefanko
Near the end of her absorbing, achingly affecting memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith writes that among the lessons she learned from her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe was that "often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.” She was reflecting on Mapplethorpe's bisexuality—that he'd been "chided for denying his homosexuality," and that she and Mapplethorpe "were accused of not being a real couple"—but the discovery at the heart of that lesson glossed Smith's burgeoning performance style, also. A lifelong fan of rock and roll, Smith understood and dug the sensual, rhythmic pulse in danceable music, but also wished to expand the parameters of that music with poetry and spoken word, pushing rock and roll toward something more expressionistic and avant-garde, fluid and dynamic while still pumping a rocking groove and being very, very sexy. Contradictions: she'd blend the bone-simple workout "Land of 1,000 Dances" with a surreal noir, or sing Them's three-chord classic "Gloria" and use it as a basis for a long, formless-inside-shape exploration of identity, rebellion, and sex:
Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine...
People say "beware!"
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me
“In the beginning it was just Lenny and I, and then we brought in a piano player, who was Richard Sohl,” Smith said in 2006. “So it was just the three of us… and we did very simple songs, because the configuration was so simple. We just chose songs that were basically three chords, so I could improvise over them.” She'd take the template of a two-minute, verse-verse-bridge-chorus song and stretch it until it accommodated, willingly or not, a surreal and poetic narrative. Rock and roll as prose poem, or the other way around, maybe. The mid-1970s Bowery rock and roll scene in which she was an early presence was pointed with contradictions, many of the early, epochal-making artists (Richard Hell, Television, Mink DeVille, Talking Heads, et al) turning radio rock and roll and pop music on its head in similar ways to Smith (who was joined on guitar by Lenny Kaye, who knew a thing or two about rock and roll forms). Sustainable subversion was the anthem of the day (and night).

I'm always eager to read eye-level accounts of the liberating punk and street rock zeitgeist in lower Manhattan from this era, and Smith delivers in Just Kids. "We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll," she writes.
We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone.

CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call. It was a club on the street of the downtrodden that drew a strange breed who welcomed artists yet unsung. The only thing Hilly Krystal required from those who played there was to be new.

From the dead of winter through the renewal of spring, we grappled and prevailed until we found our stride. As we played, the songs took on a life of their own, often reflecting the energy of the people, the atmosphere, our growing confidence, and events that occurred in our immediate terrain.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I Need to Hear Your Voice

I was sad to hear about the death of Pat DiNizio. I didn't know him personally, but I know many who did, and I'll leave to them a proper tribute to the man and the impact he had on friends and family. He wrote and sung terrific, sturdy songs with his band the Smithereens, yet another group that toiled in the heady alternate universe of my and so many others' rock and roll and pop tastes. I'll never forget hearing Especially For You when it came out; spinning it in the preview room at WMUC, my college radio station, the top of my head came off at the irresistible blend of melodies, hooks, and power. This is it, I thought. I played that album, and the band's next few, to death, and like so many other musicians of that era—Tommy Keene, Marshall Crenshaw, XTC, the Three O'Clock, et al—the Smithereens soundtracked the elating, confounding, confusing days of my twenties, scoring smash after smash in my interior Top 40. So-called conventional success was always beckoning, haughtily: Keene signed with Geffen; the Smithereens with Capitol. (Capitol! The Tower! The Beatles!) 1989's 11 is a phenomenal record, loud and tuneful. I remember reading at the time that DiNizio and the band, working with ace producer Ed Stasium, wanted to make a record that sounded as if AC/DC had married Meet The Beatles. What a concept. And it worked.

It's a shame that you won't see me when I need you tonight
Cause I know that if you did then everything would be right
And I've tried my very best to give the things that you need
But the blues they seem to follow me I never succeed 

I also recall a disconcerting flipside, as it were. DiNizio had written the album's lead track and single, "A Girl Like You," for Cameron Crowe's Say Anything. Allegedly, DiNizio withheld the song following disagreements with the film's producer, who then substituted Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" in its place. That iconic scene could've been linked forever to a DiNizio song—and how might that have affected his career, his band, his life? We'll never know, and the story's old, but it illustrates just how much luck—good and bad—and sticking to personal values play in mainstream success. 

I fell away form the Smithereens in the 90s and 00s. A bunch of years ago they played Cornfest, the music and food festival held in late August in downtown DeKalb, and I ran the few blocks into town to watch. They were great: tight, humorous, rocking, gently self-mocking. As happens in northern Illinois at the end of summer, a rainstorm blew in. The band was near the end of their set, just as they were playing a cover of the Beatles' "Rain." Perfect. These kind of modest, happy career moments I'll cherish, from the lucky outside looking in, as a band makes me smile because they're smiling because isn't rock and roll a trip? 

RIP Pat DiNizio.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Super Rock, cont'd, etc.

I made the case years ago that the Fleshtones are one of the great and criminally underrated rock and roll bands. I occasionally still feel the urge to testify. Last night at Le Taquin, a venue in Toulouse in southern France, the Fleshtones closed out a two-week, fifteen-city tour of Italy and France, two countries long enamored with Super Rock. As the behemoth Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ™ trumpeted their Fan Vote ™, the Fleshtones played in front of small but intense crowds, packed into intimate clubs. The band debuted at CBGB in May of 1976 and have never had an inactive year, a claim very few, if any, American R&R bands can make. Above is sixty-three year-old Zaremba on top of the bar in Toulouse, leading a sold-out club singing along with "The Way I Feel"—the band's statement-of-purpose that they recorded with Marty Thau way back in 1978—seguing into a cover of the Yardbirds' "I Wish You Would." (Video below via boyissy.) Zaremba eventually makes it back to the stage, but a bar top is as natural a place for him to be as any, as the Fleshtones have spent decades tearing down the wall between stage and fan. A shame that they can barely afford to play extended tours in their home country anymore. (American Beat, indeed.) Few bands match the Fleshtones in sheer endurance and energy. For that reason along I hope that they'll be appropriately feted someday.

Peter Zaremba, aloft at Peti Bain, Paris, November 30, 2017. Screen grab of video via rapidi1

The Fleshtones, 2017. (l-r, Bill Milhizer, Keith Streng, Ken Fox, Peter Zaremba) Photo by Venus in Furs / Jack Torrance

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Words in Church

I read with some mild nostalgic alarm that Pope Francis is suggesting a fundamental change in the Lord's Prayer, which I recited so often as a dutiful adolescent, and more recently in my darker moments as a fallen-way agnostic, that the prayer has long settled into my DNA. (I wrote about it at length in an essay, "Occasional Prayer," here.) Francis is critical of the phrase "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," which appears in both English and Italian. In an interview on Italian television, the pontiff observed that the current language of the Our Father prayer "is not a good translation," adding, "It is not He that pushes me into temptation and then sees how I fall. A father does not do this. A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan's temptation." In response, the Catholic church in France adopted new phrasing in its Notre Père. The church wrote:
[T]he first Sunday of Advent, a new translation of the Our Father will come into force in all forms of liturgy. The Catholic faithful will no longer say: "Do not submit to temptation" but "Do not let us enter into temptation." 
This is a crucial difference, as Francis sees it. The Reverand Ian Paul, an Anglican theologian, demurs. "The word in question is peirasmos [from New Testament Greek] which means both to tempt and to be tested," he remarked to The Guardian. "So on one level the pope has a point. But he's also stepping into a theological debate about the nature of evil." Paul added: "In terms of church culture, people learn this prayer by heart as children. If you tweak the translation, you risk disrupting the pattern of communal prayer. You fiddle with it at your peril."

I'm of two minds. I understand Francis's concern about syntax, that believers reciting the earlier line might be led to believe that God, rather than allowing us to be tempted, is doing the tempting Himself—behaving as a cruel father might, rather than as a wryly understanding one. But part of that line's charge for me came from my belief that God was leading me, or, at least, opening the door, beyond which lay.... And I had the option of following or not. That felt very much like the real world, to me, where, if I understood things correctly, God appeared manifold, everywhere and in everything, and in surprising, complex ways. In the new language, God feels slightly removed from the process, more divine and distant, elevated, not alongside me in and of the world where excesses of all kind beckon. I guess I'd always heard tough love in that tough line.

Or maybe it's just that the new change upsets the poetry of the line, and, as Paul notes, would require me to accept after many, many years of recitation a fundamental change in cadence and music. If you were raised Catholic, the Lord's Prayer and the deep-tissue, hypnotic trance of its weekly- or daily-repeated language were as familiar as your siblings' names, as manifest as the breeze in the air. Yet there's not much at stake for me: I've long identified as an agnostic; I haven't regulalry attended church in decades. As a grumbling aesthete, perhaps, I'm most upset with the meddling of a formative adolescent memory, one in which I was tutored with realizing it in another lesson in the power of language to evoke and stir.

Photo of Saint Andrew the Apostle Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I attended grade school and mass, and served as an altar boy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ridin' High on Electricity

Buddy Guy's lively, unputdownable 2012 autobiography When I Left Home (co-written with David Ritz) is studded with fantastic details of mid-century Chicago blues clubs and bars. Guy moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 1957, and, under the tutelage of Muddy Waters, eventually wowed crowds in packed clubs on the city's south and west sides with a guitar-slinging showmanship that few had heard, or seen, before. I have to guard against romanticizing the life inside rockin' clubs like the 708, the Checkerboard, or Mel's Hideaway Lounge—while I'd pay big bucks to the time machine inventor we're all patiently waiting for, I recognize that the vast majority of the men and women in these bars were inwardly and outwardly fighting discrimination, low wages (Guy: “money was funny”), and shitty living conditions, a second-class status that many others were privileged to avoid. Sexism, violence and menace were everywhere. Yet reading about the the details of these shows—Guy's, Muddy's, Magic Sam's, Otis Rush's, and others—transport me to these joints, where I'm happy to virtually drink a few and marvel at routine and duress meeting grins and spectacle, turned up to distorted levels.

Early in his book, Guy writes evocatively of the vibrating divide between southern rural and northern urban blues, the step into electricity he and many blues artists made that was, well, electrifying. "Wasn't no way to amp it up. When we was young, we heard those guitars that are now known as acoustic. They were played soft because they were played in a room or on a porch where three or four or five people were gathered. Didn't need to be loud. The blues came through them in a beautiful tone—straight from the heart of the guitarist to the hearts of the folk listening. The softness of those notes did something to the soul. I'd say it soothed the soul."
Now come on up to Chicago and—Lord, have mercy—those the barrooms in Chicago are loud. The folk are happy and excited to be off work, and they wanna talk and tell stories at the top of their lungs. They got energy to release. So if you a musician and wanna be heard, you gotta pump up and project. Baby, you got to shout. That shouting is a thrilling thing to behold. If you went into a Chicago barroom, say, in 1958, you’d be thrilled out of your mind. The electrical music would throw you back on your heels. I loved it so much because, though it was new music, it was also old music. It wasn't nothing more than country blues jacked up with big-city electricity.

I cottoned to the electricity because it was something I could turn up. Volume did a lot for me. If I couldn't play better than the guitarists around me, at least I could play louder. I could also play wilder. When I heard the buzzin’ and the fuzz tones distorting the amps, that didn't bother me none. I figured fuzz tones and distortion added to the excitement of the sound. Didn't mind jammin’ notes together in a way that wasn’t proper. Notes crashing into each other was another way to get attention. I learned how to ride high on electricity.
Says Guys succintly: "The blues electricity got into the people."

Recognizing the need to outplay and outperform other local guitarists, feeling the breath of competition on his neck, Guy made the calculated decision—motivated by native joy and urgency—to show off, and to dismantle the divide between stage and audience, a time-honored, usually nervy, always thrilling rock and roll gesture dear to my heart.

He recalls one snowy night—three-foot drifts along the sidewalk and street—when he hooked up his 150-foot guitar cord and started playing from inside a car parked outside the bar. "The crowd was screaming long before they ever saw me," he writes. Unlike other local guitarists, Guy never sat down when he played. "I never started playing inside the club. No matter how cold or hot the evening, I'd come marching in, my guitar screaming. I might march into the men's room and play from there. Hell, I might march in the ladies’ room and play from there. I’d jump off the bandstand and sit at some pretty woman's table if she was alone. I'd leap up on the bar and play flat on my back. I’d pick the thing with my teeth. I’d put it between my legs and stroke it all sexy. I’d wave it around the room like it was a flag. I'd do any goddamn thing to get them to like me." I would've loved to have been in a club—or the men's room!—and see Guy enter playing his guitar. Boundaries blissfully erased. I'll have another beer.

Guy acknowledges an influence on his showmanship, Guitar Slim, "The Performanest Man," a rocking stage marvel I've written about here and here. Guy recalls going to see Slim play at the Masonic Temple in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I ran over," he writes. "I was the first guy in line to buy a ticket. Cost fifty cent. The hall had a big ballroom. I knew the place would be packed with dancers, and I wanted to be right up on the bandstand. I wanted to see the man’s hands when he played the guitar. Didn't take long before the crowd arrived. Soon it was full. Folks pushing and shoving, but I wasn't moving. Kept my spot so I could see and hear everything. Eight o’clock came and went. Then nine o'clock. Then nine-thirty. At about a quarter to ten the band came on stage and started playing the opening notes of 'The Things I Used to Do.' Man, my heart skipped a beat. It was like someone had poured a quart of whiskey down my throat. I was warm all over. I heard the music alright but I didn’t see Guitar Slim. The guitar kept playing, I thought to myself, Where is he? Where the hell is he?
Guitar Slim
Finally, I heard a buzz in the crowd. Everyone turned around. From the back of the ballroom, coming through the door, was this giant fat man carrying a guitarist on his shoulders. The guitarist was Slim, playing like his life was on the line. Mounted atop the huge guy, Slim looked like a baby. But he was no baby. He was slick as grease and dressed to kill—flaming red suit, flaming red shoes, flaming red-dyed hair. He made his way through the room until everyone was in a stoned fury. When he jumped down form the shoulders of his man, I saw that his guitar was a beat-up Strat that looked like it'd been through two world wars. He wore the guitar low on his hip like a gunslinger. His guitar strap was made of fish wire and the cord to his amp had to be three hundred feet long. Before this, my idea of a guitarist was Lightnin’ Slim, who sat when he played. Lightnin’ was the one who told me that the guitar was designed to be played sitting down. It fit on your lap. That's where I figured a guitar belonged.
Guy adds: "Guitar Slim never sat down. He played his guitar between his legs, played it behind his back, played it on his back, played it jumping off the stage, played it hanging from the rafters. Wasn't nothing Slim wouldn't do and nowhere he wouldn’t go with that beautiful old Strat of his."
The Strat was strong. Its one-piece Maple neck was made with steel and could take a beating. The tough construction allowed Slim to sling it around his hip like a bag of potatoes. I liked how he treated it rough, because that treatment got into the feeling of the music. The music was blistering. It was like the Strat was saying, “Go ahead, throw me around, beat me up, I can take all you got and still sound like a screaming angel from heaven."

Guitar Slim's show thrilled me. He wasn't bending the strings but straight lickin’ 'em. I had heard a little of T-Bone Walker, B. B.'s idol and one of the first to plug the guitar into the wall. I liked how T-Bone could chord the instrument. Slim didn’t know no chords. He was single pickin' with only two fingers, but those two fingers were causing a riot.

Among other great stories in When I Left Home is the one Guy tells about the hard-partying code among many blues players. Guy had long wanted to see his idol Jimmy Reed play. One night, Guy's at his small apartment in Chicago; his ne'er-do-well roommate's out with his girl, so Guy's trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. "Must have been three in the morning when a knock on the door woke me up. It was Joyce, the lady who'd shown me how the buses and trains worked."
“Buddy,” she said, “hate to wake you, but I remember you saying how you'd give anything to see Jimmy Reed. Well, a friend of mine just got back from Pepper's where Jimmy's playing with his whole band."

That’s all I needed to hear. I jumped out the bed, threw on some clothes, and ran over to Pepper's on 43rd Street. Must have been a helluva night, because people was laid out on the street, drunk on the music or just plain worn out from dancing. Had to step over one guy just to get in the front door.

“Jimmy Reed here tonight?" I asked the bartender.

“Was here. But they through playing.”

“I'd just like to meet him. I'd just like to see him."

“You just did.”

“How's that?" I asked.

"When you was walking into the club, that was the man you stepped over."

I went back out to get me a good look. Bartender was right. Jimmy Reed passed out cold in front of Pepper's, his face in the gutter, his red felt fedora all crushed up against his head.
The blues electricity got into the people, indeed.


I haven't swung by myself to check it out, but Google Street View provides this September 2016 evidence of the state of the legendary 708 Club on East 47th Street, where Guy made his Chicago debut and where Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf, and others played regularly. Conspicuously lacking electricity. Though there are plans to rehab the famous Sydni building, which dates to the 1920s.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Murmur to a Roar

Halfway through his autobiography Face the Music: A Life Exposed, Paul Stanley discusses KISS Alive!, his band's breakthrough 1975 live album recorded variously in Detroit, New Jersey, Iowa, and Cleveland, writing honestly about the post-production sweetening that gave that album its raise-the-roof oomph and stomping vibe. Other KISS band members have weighed in on this album in the past. "[Gene] Simmons claimed in his tell-all that tracks were redone simply to remove a few broken strings and the occasional off-key slip," Dylan Chadwick wrote in "In Defense of Live Rock Overdubs." "More damning accounts from Peter Criss and Producer Eddie Kramer suggest that only the drum tracks are purely live." (KISS Alive! has been scrutinized often; here's just one example.) Many producers of live albums resort to thickening, correcting, or otherwise manipulating recorded tracks in order to present a more listenable album. This isn't news. Musicians often sound defensive about the process, when they're being honest about it at all, as if they're guarding an embarrassing secret.

I really like Stanley's perspective. He remembers that what you take away from a show is less the notes played (or fucked up), less the degree of fidelity to album tracks, less the songs themselves than the playing of them—all of which often amounts to an abstracted recollection of a spectacle, sonic impressions played over and over in your head starting on the walk, drive, or subway ride back home from the show, on a loop for years. Intangibles like the wafting of weed, pushing up against people next to you, the sweat, ringing ears, the deep, letting-go pleasure in your bones of forgetting about work or other pressing matters are impossible to record onto tape or in the digital domain. Stanley gets that. "People have argued whether Alive! is a purely live recording or somehow enhanced," Stanley writes. "The answer is: yes, we enhanced it. Not to hide anything, not to fool anyone."
But who wanted to hear a mistake repeated endlessly? Who wanted to hear an out-of-tune guitar? For what? Authenticity? At a concert, you listen with your ears and eyes. A mistake that passes unnoticed in the moment lives forever when recorded. We wanted to re-create the experience of our show—whatever needed to be done, we did it. The flashpots were enhanced with recordings of cannons, because that’s what they sounded like in person. The audience was jacked up to immerse the listener in the crowd. It was the only way to replicate our concert-on-steroids. We figured the people who celebrated with us at a concert wanted to hear what they remembered, what they perceived.

We also made sure the audience could be heard throughout the show—just as you would experience it live. Most live albums in those days sounded like studio recordings until the song ended, when some applause could be heard between songs. But we wanted to portray the real concert experience. And the back cover paid tribute to those fans who made all that noise and turned our shows into such powerful communal events.
Alternate photo KISS fans at the Alive! show, in Cobo Hall, Detroit. Via Pinterest.
Stanley properly credits Kramer as the mastermind behind this, and the details of the producer's post-production methods are fascinating. "His brilliance in the studio and his innovations in enhancing the recordings were not only ground-shaking, but groundbreaking," Stanley writes.
He had different audience sounds on tape loops that were sometimes twenty feet long, held taut on mic stands and going around so you would never hear a repeat of any fan response. He had all these mic stands set up in the studio with different lengths of audience participation tape running on them so we could bring in actual crowd reaction, whether it was a murmur or a roar. I certainly would never have thought of that—to create different loops of tape and have them going continuously so we could raise or them and lower them and get different crowd reactions at will. It was brilliant.
Chadwick notes that "It’s these kinds of cleanups that established KISS as the fan’s band, that spawned the “KISS Army” and established KISS’ identity as a traveling hard rock carnival replete with kabuki makeup, pyro and blood."
Where fans once had to trek to the arena, they could now simply spin the record and scream alongside the crowd themselves. Maybe KISS would’ve still broken out. There’s no denying the early catalogue up to and including Destroyer. I just don’t think they’d be THE band still plugging “farewell” tours into the later part of the millennium. Alive established KISS as something vital, living and liberating, that would broach any barrier to come into your town, rock your GD balls off, and save you from the doldrums of your shitty 9-5.
The iconic cover photo for KISS Alive! was staged, arranged spontaneity photographed by Fin Costello at the empty Michigan Palace, not Cobo Hall where the show was recorded. You wanted the best? Here's your memory of it, which is sometime a greater document of a night of rock and roll than a recording itself.