Thursday, May 31, 2018

On the Outside

I'm dipping in and out of and enjoying Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011. As with all good oral histories, reading it gives the impression of being at a party with all the right people at that sweet spot when everyone's in a good mood and talking, say between drinks (or snorts) two and three. I didn't listen to all of the bands Goodman's book covers—over the years I've essentially sampled Kings of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and many others she talks to—but I loved the Strokes' and Mooney Suzuki's first records (and the White Stripes', the Kills', and the Hives'), and at the time was cutting through the haze of the myth as the myth was blooming.

But I was on the outside looking in. I lived in New York City for month-long stretches in the early 2000s as I was researching and writing Sweat, a book about a NYC rock and roll band utterly ignored if not dismissed by most contemporary Big Apple musicians and bands (and conspicuously absent from their own scene chronicles, as well. I'm looking at you, Please Kill Me). In a sense I was living in an alternate reality, thinking a lot about a band that itself lived a kind of invisible arc. Once at B-Side, a bar in Alphabet City where I'd become friendly with the bartenders and regulars, I mentioned why I was in town, and one of the twenty-somethings a few stools down said to me, "Hey, call up the Fleshtones, let's get 'em down here to drink with us!" He didn't realize just how out of the scene and, saddled with families and other burdens as two of the band members were, otherwise occupied the band was. It might've been Goodman's twenties, but It wasn't the Fleshtones' anymore.

My vivid sense of New York City the early 2000s is not hanging out at Pianos or at Brooklyn loft parties but walking around lower Manhattan post 9-11 vibing the mean streets by blasting the Dirtbombs' epic version of Curtis Mayfield's "Kung Fu" on my CD Walkman. So it's interesting in retrospect to have been in the City during the era Goodman's book describes, and to recognize how far from the epicenter I was, in part by choice, willfully planting myself in another era as I reconstructed the late 70s and 80s. I did catch Mooney Suzuki at CBGB in the summer of '01—a killer show—and Yeah Yeah Yeahs (and Mooney again) at the Siren Festival at Coney Island the following year. On the agonizingly long subway ride back to Greenpoint, Brooklyn after the Festival I drolly remarked to my friend Steve that just about everyone on the oppressively hot, crawling train looked like a member of the Strokes. Such idolatry didn't last too long, as Goodman's book makes clear. Amidst the blurry recollections of drug abuse, random hookups, record contracts, and touring are vivid glimpses of the Strokes' early gigging and swift ascendancy and just as swiftly their fall from the heights of commercial potential. The first Strokes album is great; the second, being a rewrite of the first, is good. The similarity in sound and sounds in those two records goes a long way to illustrating the gap between hype and reality, mood and fact. What sounds vanguard and revolutionary today might sound bittersweet tomorrow. As Goodman titles her book's first section: "Nostalgia for an Hour Ago."

But what do I know? I was there bodily but it wasn't my time; my time was over. I wasn't there in spirit. All of which is to say, it's a blast and always moving to read the memories of those who in their twenties believed truly in their generation's music, as you do, blasting ever forward by the native propulsion of stay-out-all-night youth and fizzy optimism, and now landing and settling in the rear-view wisdom of perspective. Every era needs its book like this.

The Strokes, circa 2001

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Work-a-Day Worlds

A few days before The Longshot played Black Cat in Washington D.C.—one of the best R&R shows I've seen in a while—Paul Collins posted a picture of himself with Billie Joe Armstrong snapped by Bob Gruen after The Longshot played Coney Island Baby in the East Village in Manhattan. "It was the third time I have met Billie and he is always the coolest guy!" Collins wrote. "He wears his success very well!" Among the covers The Longshot played a Black Cat was a rousing rip through "Walking Out On Love" from the Beat's 1979 debut album.

Billie Joe Armstrong, left, and Paul Collins

The Longshot's terrific Love is for Losers rocks in the spirit of the Beat's debut, and I revisited the latter album today, reminded again of what a great rock and roll album it is. With its singer's punk-ish loner persona and track-by-track girl problems, it's always sounded like an album that, in an alternate universe, the moody bad boy Jimmy in the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack" might've listened to. To my ears, it's always been the paragon of rock and roll sound, via a tight band and producer Bruce Botnick: the guitars are bright and sharp and sound as if they could cut you; the drums and bass are recorded to emphasize muscle and punch but mixed to maximize pop sheen. (Listen to those cymbals!) Everything's in your face, but the room's recorded, too, and the dynamics are so well-balanced as to retain the wallop and roar of a hot live band as well as that band's beguiling hooks and melodies. Power. Pop. The album benefits from the era in which it was produced, as well, as the songs breathe without the stuffy, loudified suffocation of so many current-day recordings.

The album's full of killer tunes—"Rock N Roll Girl," "Different Kind Of Girl," the explosive "Don't Wait Up For Me," the driving "U.S.A."—but to my ears "Work-A-Day World" best captures Collins and his band's exuberance at playing rock and roll and believing in the promises that the music can deliver. The back-and-forth bass and guitar riffs mimic the clockwork grind of a work day, but the song busts out of that rut with a great singalong chorus, as at the end of the second verse:
The boss comes and says to me, "Hey, get to work for me!"
Who is he anyway? I just got to get away from the work-a-day world
The best moments occur in the two ruminative half-time passages, at 0:54 and 2:17, when the clock on the wall's going backwards but the song lifts the singer from the blues of everything that work requires of him, everything that working dulls him to and prevents him from achieving, no matter how trivial:
I don't want to think about all the things I could've done
I don't want to think about all the time that's gone in my work-a-day
But listen how the song's pace accelerates, insisting on itself, and brings us right out of the tiresome, what if doldrums into the lift of that terrific chorus. Like so many great rock and roll songs, the music rescues the singer from the problems he's singing about, or at least gives him reprieve, and in just under three minutes.

I caught Paul Collins and his band a few years back in suburban Chicago and two years later (opening for the Fleshtones) in Jersey City. Time has done nothing to dim his ardor. He's working a better job now.

Monday, May 28, 2018

That's my DNA

I love my friends and family, but playing, that's my DNA. 
     —Billie Joe Armstrong

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Photos and video of The Longshot and about a hundred kids onstage, at Black Cat in Washington D.C. on May 25. A righteous night of amped-up rock and roll.

Here's some video. I especially love the kid starting at 0:34 who leaps into the crowd at Armstrong's prompting. It doesn't matter that such spontaneity happened the night before and the following night, too: this kid will never forget this moment. And that's the point.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

When we were kids

Driving around the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and into the district last week, I grew nostalgic for the music I loved during my era I lived in town. So I cued up my Slickee Boys playlist, struck again by this great, lesser-known song which first appeared on Here To Stay, a hard-to-find, German-release compilation in the early 80s. (The band re-recorded it for 1985’s Uh Oh...No Breaks!) I came late to the original version, years after I’d left the area, but it’s become one of my favorites. The insistent, driving arrangement beats like a teenager's heart, and the lyrics perfectly evoke adolescence and its heady blend of innocence and cockiness, mystery and disappointments, oft-ignored limits and dimly-understood facts. Mark Noone (center) always had direct access to the world as felt by kids and near-adults; here he and the band really capture that overwhelming sense. And it rocks.


Everything our parents told us
Every way they tried to mold us
We were all so pliable when we were kids
Running in the street at night
We were cute when we used to fight
No one thought we were dangerous when we were kids
Being good as loonies can be
We got away with stealing candy
We got away with murder when we were kids
We believed in what we were taught
Believed in God, believe it or not
All we believed was wrong when we were kids

Go to teach at Sunday school
Stoned lifeguards at the pool
We didn’t know minds could be altered when we were kids
How to drink and how to drive
How to keep yourself alive
We never had to pay rent when we were kids
We gave ‘em hell at the liquor store
What is this thing between my legs for?
We couldn’t know enough when we were kids
Getting drunk, stay out all night
Or settle down and marry Mr. Right
We couldn’t wait to grow up when we were kids

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Writing about music

I love discovering the where-else that a song that's taken me somewhere might take me as I think and write about it, yet something essential's lost in the process. I like to explore the mystery of music, how an arrangement of notes and chords and words played by strangers sometimes half the world away from me and decades ago can come to mean so much to me personally, now, how that meaning, though urgently felt, is often difficult to describe, existing in a kind of pre-language bliss. I guess I'm as interested in the atmosphere a song creates, and is created in, as much as I am in the nuts-and-bolts of composing and playing. How Al Jackson strikes his snare in such a way to evoke both power and tenderness; how a three-chord rock and roll song banged out by kids in a basement or garage might reach emotional depths that the most dimensional literature does; how close-harmonies can drop me to my knees and make me cry, but only from some vocal pairings, not others...all of this amazes and so deeply interests me, and as a writer I try and make sense of it, failing often (to my ears, anyway).

In "To Fashion a Text" Annie Dillard says, "You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work battens on your memories. And it replaces them." This is true, and this is melancholy. Once I've explored a song or an album or a performance that I love, especially one that I've loved for many years—and, like any memory, have played and replayed and thus shaped and re-shaped in my head for all of those years—the mystery is replaced with the attempt to understand. The irrational with the rational, I guess, sound with sense, or ineffability with comprehension, the unknown with known. Loving a song for decades means giving over to myth it creates, and writing about that song debunks the myth. Sometimes as a music writer I feel what folks must've felt when science explained lightning.

When I write about music, I open a window and something powerful and unnameable escapes the room for good. Why bother, then? Hang on, I've got to flip the record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Just like a Human Being

EC and the Attractions, 1978
If had to choose one song that fulfills the promises that rock and roll makes, it'd be "Lipstick Vogue," the ferocious track Elvis Costello cut with the Attractions in late 1977/early 1978 at Acton Studios, in London. Written in a flurry, the song's rhythm was inspired by Costello's rides on the Metropolitan London Underground as those journeys dovetailed with the propulsive Byrds track "I See You," from Fifth Dimension (1966). Lay the rocking to-and-fro of a tube ride over Jim McGuinn and David Crosby's raga-inflected soundscape and you have the taut sinew of "Lipstick Vogue." Costello later said, "I didn't mention this bit to [Attractions drummer] Pete Thomas at the time, so what you hear is all his own work," adding, "I stand by every word."

"Lipstick Vogue" is a remarkable performance. Thomas's driving drums, a snare-and-tom attack that ebbs and flows throughout—a pulse that quickens and slows and quickens—, Bruce Thomas's high-end anxiety on bass, and Steve Nieve's paranoid organ lines amp the energy and anxiety levels of the song, and sound like nothing less than the inside of your body the moment when you're angry, resentful, proud, and vindictive, your heart racing and blood pounding. The song's subject is Costelloian: a hot-temper persona rails against someone who's self- and surface-obsessed, mean, teasing, and dismissive, unable or unwilling to see the heart and depth of the man she's throwing away. The chorus suggests that the singer sees something more in her than she does, that she's more than just a prevailing fashion or style; that she can't or won't see this fill him with spite. That old story. The song features one of Costello's most biting opening verses, spat out in Elvis's signature early-career style:
Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out
and other lines that have become iconic:
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being
You say I've got no feelings, this is a good way to kill them

You want to throw me away but I'm not broken
But it's the Attractions' performance that elevates and adds dimension to the anger and resentment in the lyrics. As in all great rock and roll, it feels as the musicians have to catch up to the song though they're the ones playing it, creating yet chasing after something that in its eight-note urgency, blend of loud and quiet passages (the vitriolic verses and chorus, the take-a-deep-breath middle), and hurtling, forward momentum embodies what the lyrics alone can't fully. I love a song that sounds at the end as if the band was amazed at where their playing took them.

What does rock and roll promise? That a song you can never quite catch up to can say everything you're feeling in a moment of passion.

Look at this kicking garage band, from a June 21, 1978 show for Rockpalast at WDR Studio L, in Cologne, West Germany. Incendiary:

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Worth Remembering

At its best, Roger Ebert's writing was a moving blend of observation and insight. Ebert's tone was marvelous, and inspiring: he wrote accessibly about complex issues in a casual, uncluttered style that never sacrificed depth for clarity. I strive in my own writing for that mix, and fail far more often than Ebert succeeded weekly—and, later, regularly, when he turned to blogging near the end of his life. His late essays are fantastic, and are likely to be considered among the best of our age.

I'm finally getting around to reading his memoir Life Itself, published in 2011 two years before his death, a largely chronological, detail-heavy reminiscence. (I have yet to see the film.) If it in places gets bogged down by Ebert's amazing and generous memory, and threatens to go under the stream of events and the men and women he met in his amazing life, the passages where Ebert takes a wide-angle lens on larger subjects—such as as his adolescence in downstate Illinois, alcoholism, world traveling, illness, spirituality, and endless coincidences and charmed moments of serendipity—glow with humane, universal discoveries. His writing about movies is, of course, terrific. Two graphs in particular exhibit that Ebertian knack for chasing a larger subject in a narrow one, for writing generously about the democratic love for popular art, even shitty popular art, and for pleasure as an argument for itself (to paraphrase another great critic, Emily Nussbaum). Writing about his film reviewing career, which fell into his lap (he was planning on being an op-ed writer and then a novelist), Ebert acknowledges that "There is something unnatural about just...going to the movies."
Man has rehearsed for hundreds of thousands of years to learn a certain sense of time. He gets up in the morning and the hours wheel in their ancient order across the sky until it grows dark again and he goes to sleep. A movie critic gets up in the morning and in two hours it is dark again, and the passage of time is fractured by editing and dissolves and flashbacks and jump cuts. “Get a life,” they say. Sometimes movie critics feel as i they've gotten everybody else's. [Gene] Siskel described his job as "covering the national dream, beat," because if you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn’t thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.
A bit earlier, he quotes something that the film critic Pauline Kael said to him about her reviewing process, a line that was very influential to Ebert: "I go into a movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me." This is a wonderful sentiment and critical approach, putting aside agenda and bias and trusting that your response to something might have a representative quality to it, one as applicable to the viewing of great works of art as to the next Adam Sandler film. I miss reading Ebert every week describing what happened to himself in the dark.

Sunday, May 6, 2018


Rock & roll is so great, people should start dying for it. You don't understand. The music gave you back your beat so you could dream...The people just have to die for the music. People are dying for everything else, so why not for music? Die for it. Isn't it pretty? Wouldn't you die for something pretty?
    —Lou Reed

I think Lou Reed is a creep.
   —The Dictators, "Two Tub Man," Go Girl Crazy

Ezra Furman's 33 1/3 book on Reed's Transformer moves among many impulses. Furman's respectful, adoring, obsessive, overly forgiving, overly harsh, indulgent, embarrassed, knowledgeable, joyous, stubborn, and skeptical in his take on Reed's iconic second album, careful not to absolve Reed of his racism and sexism as he extols his brave, idiosyncratic navigation of his queer identity. It's a great read, equal parts autobiographical and critical, doing what the nervier books in the Series do: risking reverence and personal crushing at the expense of objectivity, and loving the friction that comes when those fanly impulses rub up among each other. (Deeply personal, the book's likely to be embraced by many, and dismissed by some.) Furman, a songwriter and musician, is at his best when he talks about the tensions in Reed's gestures. Is he gay? Queer? Straight? Or does he ignore labels and try to live among them? And is he sincere or bullshitting, anyway? The album's "gay-themed songs are hiding in plain sight," Furman writes. "Many listeners were amazed that the line 'even when she was giving head' was not censored on UK radio stations; the censors were, reportedly, not familiar with the term."
But listening forty-odd years later, with the shock value of sexual songs considerably if not totally dulled, the non-explicit lyrics are where the real intrigue lies. These songs fascinate, not for the excess and over-the-top deviance that was associated with Lou Reed in the sixties, but rather for their understatement, their partially submerged aggression, and the damaged personality they both mask and expose.