Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain

Last summer, I saw How To B A Rock Critic, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's play about Lester Bangs, at the 1700 Theater at Steppenwolf. I wrote then that I was on the fence about the performance, "somewhere between my gratitude for Blank and Jensen's commitment to a great writer and my my skepticism about whether music writing can be fully dramatized." Meanwhile, I'd wondered what Greil Marcus—Bangs's friend and editor—thought of the play. He recently weighed in in his "Real Life Rock Top 10" column, these days running in The Village Voice:
A marvelously fast and convincing one-man play, set in Bangs’s disheveled New York apartment, which the late critic (1948–82) finds full of people to whom he proceeds to act out what he does and why. The structure is, interestingly, on a parallel with Springsteen on Broadway—riffing through Bangs’s work as dialogue, instead of stopping to sing a song as Springsteen does to mark a point in his life, Jensen walks over to a phonograph, puts on a record, and talks over it. The music instantly confirms whatever case he’s making: The sound that comes out is so rich it’s as if you’ve never heard Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” or Van Morrison’s “Cyprus Avenue” before.
Blank and Jensen get to the heart of the matter: The play is about Bangs’s struggle to believe that music can not so much save his soul as allow him, through signal moments of music, to construct a soul in which he might want to live, and his struggle to believe that he can pass that truth on to other people. For Lester, all good music, or all real music, was soul music. It didn’t matter if it was the nerd soul of White Witch or the heroic soul of Lou Reed, the doomed soul of Otis Rush or the intellectual soul of Charles Mingus. Because it was never absolute that what they had, could he write about it, would truly come to him, his work was full of longing, revelation, self-mockery, and pain. Jensen gets it all.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Always looking for that first fuck

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an interesting (and wholly persuasive) New York Times article by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about how songs that we hear, and fall in love with or are haunted by, in our adolescence seem to stick with us with particular force for the rest of our lives; the songs move around us into adulthood like satellites in perpetual orbit. I'm re-reading Dave Marsh's Before I Get Old, and was struck again by this terrific observation made in 1980 by Pete Townshend, rock and roll's Great Articulator. "I think what’s always been my problem is that I've always been fascinated by the period of adolescence," he said.
And by the fact that rock's most frenetic attachments, the deepest connections, seem to happen during adolescence or just post-adolescence. Rock does evolve, and it does change . . . but to you as a listener, someone who needs both the music and the exchange of ideas—you always tend to listen in the same way. You expect—and you feel happiest when you get—an album that does for you what your first few albums did. You're always looking for that first fuck. Of course, you can never have that first fuck, but you're always looking for it. Occasionally, you get very close. Always chasing the same feeling, the same magic. 
I love that Townshend cites his obsession with adolescence as a problem, and yet one that's on him like a tattoo he can never rub off, a paradox that not even a lifetime of tinnitus can erase.

He's also responsible for another of my favorite definitions of rock and roll:
We're not perfectionists. We're idealists. We think that rock & roll is more than just music for kids. Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you to face up to problem. But at the same time, to sort of dance all over 'em.
I can't explain. Turn it up.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

They’re all going to get so bored...

I'm re-reading Dave Marsh's fantastic Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, first published in 1983. Nearly a decade into the Punk Era, and minutes after the Who had wrapped their (first of many, it turns out) farewell tour, Marsh takes the long view. Especially interesting to me is his description of the widening divide between Rock Bands and The Audience beginning in the early 1970s—a gap that a handful of bands strove valiantly to close, originating with the proto-punk MC5 and the Stooges and raucous pub rock, and cresting with punk by the end of the decade. Describing a rainy Forest Hills show in Queens, New York on the successful Who's Next 1971 tour, Marsh hones in on the issue:
The crowd inside was content to sit and soak as long as the Who played, a pattern that was maintained throughout, not just on this tour but for the rest of the decade as well. So the Who toured in continuing comfort, and their audience (like all rock audiences in this time) became increasingly irrelevant, except as a means of footing the bills. The bonds between band and fan were severed now; in a world without true connections, only shallow symbols remained. The moment to replace them had passed. The tour closed in Chicago with Townshend demolishing two guitars at once, battering the ruins of one with another until both shattered into tiny splinters. They had played to more than 700, 000 fans
A bit later, Marsh chronicles the vexed tour that the Who endured to support Quadrophenia. These '73 shows were beset with technical difficulties, particularly corrosive (and violent) bickering among band members, and Daltrey's curious decision to pedantically explain the context and meaning of the songs from the narratively-murky Quadrophenia before the band would play them. The alienated crowd seemed further away than ever from the stage. "As even Roger Daltrey could see, this situation couldn’t last forever," Marsh writes.
“If they want to bust that frustration bubble, they’ve got to show their feelings,” Daltrey said. “One day they’re all going to get so bored, they’re gonna go out and smash windows. Then we’ll have a whole new rock era.”


Friday, February 23, 2018

Muscle Memory

When I listen to music via iTunes or Spotify, the songs sound fantastic—I've EQ'd them (bass boost, thank you very much), Sound Checked them, and I play them loud through a good stereo. But when I listen a record, there's an accompanying dimension in the room that doesn't come with mp3s or streaming. recognize more and more that listening to vinyl involves more than listening to music. When I play vinyl, even new records, I play my past. There's the tactile issue, for sure, the relative weight of stiff album covers and papery 45 sleeves, and the gestural pleasures of dropping and lifting the stylus, of flipping the record. Vinyl sounds good to me not only because of the warmth of analog waves versus digital ones and zeroes, but because of a deep pleasure principle that kicks in which originates in my adolescence, when I played records all of the time, when the burst of sound and kicks and intensity issued only from vinyl, mint and fucked-up, and turntables, Pioneer grand or Radio Shack shitty. The gestures that I make today listening to an album or a 45 repeat the gestures I made when I was five, six, fourteen, twenty-one. Listening as muscle memory. A future fifty-year old who was raised only on mp3s and streaming will have similarly fond associations with those media, will warmly recall pressing buttons or scrolling for the first time, the thrill of, say, new, wider bandwidth dovetailing with the agonies of puberty, the portability of music an analogue to an ever-shrinking world, 20,000+ songs in her pocket a heady thrill and a tiresome burden of excess. Music on vinyl will always sound special to me because my music was born there. I guess I'm talking about the ways the past informs our present in every moment. Nostalgia, after all, means a desire to return home, and the special, irreplaceable pleasures there, even if that home is defined by its absence.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

I'm Still Around Here, Baby

I'm stoked to have finally found this record, one I'd been looking for for years. By 1965, Bo Diddley was commercially cold and culturally passe (though not in UK and parts of Europe). The criminally hard to find 500% More Man, recorded in Chicago by Ron Malo in July of 1965 as Diddley Disciples the Rolling Stones were riding high on the charts with "Satisfaction," is a solid and rocking album, full of style, attitude, and muscular rhythms. Bruce Eder in Allmusic points out that the sessions were among Diddley's last with Norma-Jean Wofford, aka the Duchess, and that the group he's recording with is the studio equivalent of the band he's rocking with in the following year's Big TNT Show.

"It's the thing that I started, and nobody recognizes where it came from, nobody mentions that this is an old Bo Diddley lick!" Diddley observed to George R. White about the raw, funky, and soulful sounds on this album, which he was to explore in greater depth the following decade. "If you listen to the song 'Bo Diddley,' that's where it actually came from. There's a lot of it in there—the 'muffled sound'—you know." 500% More Man was released in the fall, when Herman's Hermits, Sonny & Cher, the Beatles, Barry McGuire, the Supremes, and the Byrds were ruling the airwaves. Where would Bo fit in? In the liner notes, Chess Records' Marshall Paul wasn't selling a new Bo to a new teen audience in '65; instead he seems eager to rave about what's timeless in the Bo Beat:

Party swinging, indeed. The title track is a stomping classic, Muddy filtered through McDaniel. Bo wastes no time in laying down truth:
Some of you people think
That the man growing old
But I'm still around here, baby
And I let the good time roll
"500% More Man"

The real gems are the lesser-known tracks, such as this grooving take on Chuck Berry, Bo hollering in vintage style, chasing his girl around town, the band chugging along right next to him:

"Let Me Pass"

And look at Bo and his band rev it up (while lip syncing) in this performance. Few bands played with this much style, cool, and humor:

And this song, about a robbery in Las Vegas, based on a true story that occurred on the other side of the country, is very cool, a shrugging, shit-happens tale, the wearily accepting and funny tone of which you hear in nearly all of Bo's interviews:

"Somebody Beat Me"

Monday, February 12, 2018

"We believe in what we're doing"

Here's a Super Rock gem courtesy of Paul M. Martin, an interview with the Fleshtones by Ron Rimsite in the New York-based 99th Floor zine, circa 1982.

Rimsite's introduction nicely captures the early-I.R.S. Records era of skeptical optimism:

Here's my favorite exchange:
99th: How does it feel to be one of the only Rock 'n' Roll bands around?
KEITH: It feels great! We believe in what we're doing & always will. We always have.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


I love Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's column in today's New York Times, which basically proves with Big Data what we've known all along: a song gets in us when we're in our early teens and, like ink, saturates and tattoos us in a way we can't rub off. "Songs that came out decades earlier are now, on average, most popular among men who were 14 when they were first released," Stephens-Davidowitz observes. "The most important period for men in forming their adult tastes were the ages 13 to 16." What about women? "On average, their favorite songs came out when they were 13. The most important period for women were the ages 11 to 14."
...I did find it interesting how clear the patterns were and how much early adolescence matters. The key years, in fact, match closely with the end of puberty, which tends to happen to girls before boys. This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.
For both men and women, their early 20s were half as influential in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens.
The column's graph-heavy, but statistical curves aren't all that necessary. Think back to your teen years and the music you loved. Most of the essays I wrote in Field Recordings from the Inside are about those years and the confounding sensations, moods, and unspoken highs-and-lows that only Top 40 songs, it seemed, understood and articulated. At that age, songs tell us what we didn't know we knew, or didn't yet want to know, and score the baffling, dimly-glimpsed lessons we learn just about every day: about love; arousal; heartache; friendships; meanness; injustices of all stripes. When we're teens, songs lift the curtain on the complicated world that awaits us. But I'm not sure we want to live our adult lives by such sonic knowledge. Think of Jay Gatsby, the fantasy of a teenager named James Gatz. We all know how that story ends.

Stephens-Davidowitz also raises an essential aspect in the life of every music nerd (*raises arm*): that we love and obsess over songs that came out well before our teen years, and well after, songs that were massive hits or one-off obscurities that barely sniffed the charts. These songs, these artists, mean as much to use as the music that pulsated along with our puberty hormones. He admits to loving "Born to Run, though he was born eight years after the song was released. "In fact, my data analysis couldn’t explain where I got most of my musical taste," he writes. "O.K., maybe I caught the Springsteen bug because I grew up in New Jersey. But why my obsession with Bob Dylan? Or Leonard Cohen? Or Paul Simon? Most songs I listen to came out well before I was born."
This research tells us that the majority of us, when we are grown men and women, predictably stick with the music that captured us in the earliest phase of our adolescence.
But it also adds one more piece to the central puzzle of my adult life: Why did I develop so abnormally?
I spend as much time on Spotify filling in the gaps of bands I missed the first time around, Humble Pie to Husker Du, as I do jamming to the new Bat Fangs and Ty Segall albums. But those songs from my early teen years...they remain as vital, graphic, and memorable as cherished books, whose soft covers and tatty, dog-eared pages I turn again and again and again, relearning—reliving—the confounding lessons and mysteries enacted every moment around me in home and school hallways, back seats of cars, and as I tuned in to the radio alone in my room. Look out, here comes tomorrow.

"Teenagers listening to the latest hits 1957, New York." Photo: Esther Bubley. Via Pinterest

Friday, February 9, 2018

Between bravado and collapse

Bobby Fuller Four
Few songs capture heartbreak and its flip-side more evocatively than Bobby Fuller Four's "Let Her Dance." Released first in 1965 on Mustang, "Let Her Dance" is a dance song about fierce longing, stinging sorrow, wobbly confidence, defensive good cheer, and dance songs, not necessarily in that order. With its distressing lyric set against an irresistible four-four beat and catchy melody, the tune's both a lament and a celebration. A pop song can collapse under too much meta, but it's hard to listen to "Let Her Dance" and not realize that it's likely providing for its unhappy listener the very scenario that Fuller's broken up about—somewhere, someone's dancing to "Let Her Dance" like she doesn't even care, when just yesterday she danced with him the very same way. (And it was their favorite song, to boot.) The melody's a balm of sorts and—if it's correct that rock and roll is fun songs about sad stuff—then the hooks will help him forget, too. The generosity in the title is real, but wouldn't be there if not for the naively hopeful marching rhythm and the pep talk of dance let her dance let her dance dance dance, or is it a kind of a mantra? Is it the guy's bravely insisting inner voice, or his buddies' at the bar? Either way, he vows to turn the tables soon enough.

But I'm not so sure that he's as optimistically large-hearted as he appears in the last verse. As writer Lucy Grealy said in a different context, we have to re-learn are epiphanies every morning. The song's pitched at that teetering spot between bravado and collapse. It's got a beat and you can dance to it. That's the problem.