Saturday, September 29, 2018

Friday, September 28, 2018

Body Music, Head Music

Jon Landau, left, at home among friends
I've been dipping in and out of Jon Landau's It's Too Late To Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal, published in 1972, a gathering of the critic's late-60s and early-70s music writing from Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, and the Phoenix. I always enjoy reading "on the ground" reports about bands and artists that are now mythic or otherwise "classic," and Landau writes with real present-tense passion and smarts about the on-going travails of the Stones, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Otis Redding, Credence Clearwater Revival, Wilson Pickett, Sky Stone, and many others who were turning him on, challenging him, and/or disappointing him.

One of his pieces, "Rock as Art," really resonates. I've always said that I look for art in art, not in rock and roll, a pithy comment that hasn't always served me well among my music writing friends. On my dark days I question the limitations of this long-held creed, yet I always return to it. In college, rushing between studying, say, Franz Kline or Joan Mitchell in an art history class and James Joyce and Sylvia Plath in a literature course, still tingling with the head-lifting discoveries of each, I'd lose myself to the Ramones or REM or the Jam on my Walkman, and that experience, sonically and bodily intense, was far different but no less urgent than what I'd experience in the classroom. "Rock is not primarily poetry or art," Landau argued, "but something much more direct and immediate than either." This I felt. I didn't much want to find cross-currents between my American Literature syllabus and the playlist to my afternoon radio show at WMUC 88.1 FM. Neither cancelled out the other, of course, yet the distinction—between literature and eight notes, between the plastic arts and a transcendent middle-sixteen—felt like holy writ. That gap hasn't narrowed all that much since I was in my late teens and early twenties. Perhaps that should embarrass me.

Landau, too, was preoccupied with the matter. Though some of his later industry behavior, particularly his monomaniacal, ruthless management of Bruce Springsteen, is suspect, his writing, especially his early writing, really impresses me in its authenticity, energy, and ideas. He was informed, and he had arguments to make. His essential premise in "Rock as Art," it must be said, is wobbly: he pushes far too hard to separate the supposed binaries, allowing for little gray area in between, though this was perhaps not as unsophisticated a point of view in 1968, when Landau wrote the piece, as it feels now. (Though his friend and colleague Greil Marcus was already poking holes in it.) He's prone to overstatements and unsupported generalizations, and yet his direct drive here lands on target. I confess, turning up the volume, that he's got my sympathetic ear.

"Rock and roll has to be body music, before it can be head music," Landau writes, "or it will wind up being neither." That's scriptural, that.

Some excerpts:
It must be realized that the core attitude of rock, with the early Beatles as much as with Little Richard, and the core attitude of formal art were antithetical. Rock was not intended to be reflective or profound. God help Little Richard if he had had to survive in the atmosphere of an opening night art gallery. Yet over a period of the last "two years, the artiness cult has grown within the rock community. More and more people expect of rock what they used to expect of philosophy, literature, films, and visual art. Others expect of rock what they used to get out of drugs. And in my opinion, rock cannot withstand that kind of burden because it forces onto rock qualities which are the negation of what rock was all about in the first place.
But why rock and roll has turned to the more preachy, poetical and pretentious style which it sought to disparage in its earlier years, at this particular point in time, is a very complex question. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that as older people, including many refugees from the folk-scene of the early Sixties and many post-adolescents in general became involved with rock, they wanted it to say more than it already did. 
It wasn’t good enough to just sing about cars, balling, dances, school, and summertime blues. There was a feeling that you have got to say something big and new; The self-infatuation and easy half-truths that come so easily with semi-religious mentality filled that void and created the kind of piety and solemnity which is often rock’s worst enemy. The joyfulness and uninhibited straight-forwardness which is such an essential side to all rock and roll was often lost in the shuffle. Rock became cerebral. 
Of course, we can’t force rock back into its own past. But rock, in its earliest period, created a life style which has relevance today, and to which we may find more and more of our leading rock stars turning as they reach a dead end with the kind of artistic, proselytizing mode that infested so much of the recent outpouring of pop. 
There is nothing wrong with being serious if you keep it all in perspective and if you have the artistic ability to be serious. Most rock and roll musicians are banal, amateurish and insipidly stupid when they try to express their philosophy of life in the context of popular music.     
The only thing I would insist on is that rock functions at its best when it does not seek to over-generalize, preach, or tell people what to do or think. It is at its best when it is used to explore the experience of the musician and the listener, when it seeks to entertain as well as provoke, when it realizes that rock is not primarily poetry or art, but something much more direct and immediate than either. Rock and roll has to be body music, before it can be head music, or it will wind up being neither. Rock and roll may be the new music but rock musicians are not the new prophets.
Cue the 1970s and progressive rock. The next act dawns.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Great Moments in Rock and Roll, Ctd.

From The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen. and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman:
...the [MC5's] legend...really began to solidify with a May 31, 1968, gig at the Grosse Point Hideout. The club, one of a chain of Hideouts owned by rock manager Punch Andrews, drew a capacity crowd of four hundred kids that night, perhaps helped by Gary Grimshaw-produced handbill that showed the band, naked in front of a backward American flag, along with the legend “Break through American stasis with the MC5.” 
   During an opening set, [John] Sinclair and drummer Dennis Thompson had stepped outside to smoke a joint with a group of local kids when the club’s security guards saw them and called the police. About to be arrested, Sinclair and Thompson got word to the band. Ron Levine, the group’s roadie, took the microphone in front of the packed club and urged the crowd to surround the police outside if they wanted the show to go on. And although the police dragged Levine offstage and quickly closed the club’s doors to prevent a confrontation in the parking lot, the manager was sufficiently shaken to have the police release Sinclair and Thompson. It was a triumphant MC5—and an equally jubilant audience—that rocked the Hideout that evening. When the exasperated club manager later shut off the electricity in a bid to end the frenzied show, the audience—led by guitarist Fred Smith—chanted “Power! Power! Power!” until the electricity was turned back on and the band allowed to finish.
John Sinclair's take on the cataclysmic event here.
The MC5, picnic shelter in park, 1968 

Top photo via Pinterest; bottom photo via Make My Day.

Friday, September 21, 2018

"Man, I don't know. I can't tell. I got no way of knowing."

Terry Knight and The Pack
Lately I've been obsessing over this 1965 teenage ground report, dateline Detroit Rock City, from rockin' Terry Knight and the Pack:
Sit all alone got no money in my pockets
Newsman on the radio talks of bombs and rockets
Jagger's on the TV screen singing about his cloud
Man lives in the house next door yelling at me loud 
People laugh at my long hair and try to put me down
My funny clothes and way-out ways are the talk of this whole town
Nobody tries to understand why I'm the way I am
Just tryin' to make a living, doing what I know I can 
Landlord's been yelling for me to pay off my back rent
The last girl I was goin' with, well, she pulled up and went
And it's hard, yeah it's hard, to get along without the one you love
When everyone around you just wants to push and kick and shove 
How much more have I got to give?
Before I can live the kind of life that I want to live
The kicker is the dramatic playlet in the eight-bar bridge, a shouted exchange between the singer and The Man next door in Everytown, USA:
"Hey, you with the long hair!"
"Tell me where you're going!"
     "Man, I don't know. I can't tell. I got no way of knowing"
"You leave my daughter alone, you hear? Don't try to take her out!"
     "Well, what makes you think your daughter wants to hang around in my cloud?"
I love that fourth line, a summary of all of the angst that a long-haired kid might've felt mid-decade, with the Byrds and Dylan and the Stones on the radio both scoring and fighting with heartbreaks and the social mores of home, school, bosses, and the rest. In that last line, the singer might be snarling "what makes you think your daughter wants to hang around with my crowd?" It's hard to tell, he's too worked up. I got no way of knowing.

Essential reading on Terry Knight and his wild career here and here.

Words and music by Terry Knight, Photo via YouTube.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Old 97s on Broadway

Times Square, old and new
Old 97's are a great American rock and roll band. It's no surprise to me that one of the best song about New York City in recent years was written by a guy born and raised in Dallas. Old 97s songwriter Rhett Miller moved from Dallas to Manhattan (via Los Angeles) in the late 1990s as his band was on the cusp of leaving the indie label Bloodshot for Elektra Records. "We landed [in New York]... and rode in a limousine to the Paramount, a swanky hotel 'just off Times Square'," Miller wrote. "The lobby was as massive as the rooms were tiny, and everything about the hotel seemed to ooze the kind of hipness that inflates the nightly rate by about 80%."
My room looked out across a narrow street, into the large windows of a dance studio where a ballet class was in full swing. If it is possible to fall in love with twenty-five women simultaneously, that is what happened to me the moment I looked out that window.

As I stood in that tiny room, I did the math. I could live for a month in my East Dallas garage apartment for the amount of money Elektra was paying per night at the Paramount Hotel. Granted, my accommodations in Dallas were humble to say the least, but this was some serious opulence. If you ever wonder why the old “major label” business model failed, look no further than the money lavished on our little Texas rock band by the dozen or so labels that wooed us that summer. Ridiculous.
Miller had his guitar, "a bunch of nervous energy, and an hour to kill before dinner." He wanted to impress his new label bosses, but mostly he wanted to capture "the feeling I had at that moment–the feeling of being on the brink of something huge. My life was changing right before my eyes. The dream I’d fostered since adolescence was coming true." The song came quickly.
I am the innocent of the song, but I’m not. I have always been too aware to be "unaware." That night, even as my dreams were coming true, I was laughing at the silliness of it all, the overblown nature of these things we build up, these goals to which we attach ultimate significance. You know what’s real? This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, and that lovely roomful of dancers.
"Broadway" appears on 1997's Too Far to Care. Miller's lyrics capture his disorientation and fearful awe, and the rise and fall of his melody in the verses chart his hopes and realizations, but the transcendent chorus sends the song to a place that's somehow both timeless and new—what one feels visiting New York City for the first time. The yearning, ache, and melancholy of the chorus capture the splendor and the decadence, potential and heartbreak of the moment. Feeling crass or cynical about city living? Spin this cut and you'll feel innocence again. This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, indeed.

Old '97s in '97.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

"It's the same every year"

Last night, Amy informed me that since June of 2016 she's been privately writing down comments that I've made about the Chicago White Sox, some to her, some spoken under my breath, ducking into her writing room and scribbling as many as she could. Among my mutterings while reading the Tribune and various online sites and my cheers and curses during games, there's been quite a bit for her to document. I barely noticed when she'd disappear for minutes at a time, probably because I was still puzzling over a lousy game. She was curious if over time she might be able to chart a baseball fan's hopes and optimisms in the face of the game's typical and relentless heartbreaks, look for patterns. ("It's the same every year," she helpfully points out to me.)

Eventually she started thinking that it'd be kind of weird if I stumbled upon her secret on my own; coupled with the devastating news of Sox pitcher Michael Kopech likely out for 2019 with Tommy John Surgery, the time felt right for her to turn over her findings to me. Reading them was part strange, part hilarious. Apparently I'm a bit of an obsessive, and a repetitive one, at that. No surprise there. That's what baseball does to you if you're a fan: build you up in March, and test your will over the next several months, only to do it all over again the following season.

Here are some highlights and lowlights, some ups and downs from a White Sox fan. See any common threads?

15 June (Wednesday)
Baseball is so humbling. They’re only the best players in the world. And still they struggle.

16 June (Thursday)
There’s a rumor today that Robin Ventura might be fired.
20 June (Monday)
Wow. Walked the bases loaded. None out. Okay. Not much to say.

25 June (Saturday)
By the way did you see that the White Sox hit seven home runs but still lost? It’s only happened 3 times since 1913.

17 July (Sunday)
It’s comic that we do not score runs when Jose Quintana is pitching. We waste a beautiful pitching performance. I love baseball. It’s confounding.

18 August (Thursday)
I don’t get it. It’s a humbling game.

20 August (Sunday)
Inconsistent offense and shaky bullpen. Same old stories. [shakes head]

4 September (Sunday)
[reading from paper] White Sox are leading the Major Leagues with 26 blown saves. That’s great.

1 October (Saturday)
[sigh] Last game of the season tomorrow. I’ll watch as a loyal fan.

3 October (Monday)
God, why do I have to pull for a team that is so mediocre? Oh well, we’ll see… [wry smile] I already feel optimistic about March.

12 June (Monday)
It's a rebuilding year. Currently we’re in last place but if we stay there, we get a good change at a high draft pick so it’s actually a good thing.

16 June (Friday)
You know what place the White Sox are in the Central Division? …Last.

Hey it’s the second inning and we’re already 7-1! Maybe we’re getting our stroke!

17 June (Saturday)
With today’s win the Sox have won 5 of 6. We're still 5 under 500.

They say you win 60 and lose 60 and it’s what you do with the other 42 that counts. [a saying Joe likes]

18 June (Sunday)
The American Central Division is so bad that we’re in last place, but we’re only 4 games behind first place.

25 June (Sunday)
We’re in last place but that’s okay because it means we’ll get a higher draft pick.

2 July (Sunday)
Pedroia plays his 100th game without an error, meanwhile our shortstop Tim Anderson is leading the American League with errors.

8 July  (Saturday)
[excitedly] It’s that time of year when the division races are tightening up. [pause] The White Sox are not involved. They’re in last place. Last place. Can’t be worse in our division than last place.

22 July (Saturday)
Record-wise the White Sox are by far the worst team in the major leagues. Thought I’d clue you in.

27 July (Thursday)
This is going to be a real laugher of a season.

Meanwhile our great pitcher Chris Sals who was traded to the Red Sox is having a great year. That’s one of the difficulties in being rebuild-y.
We have a stadium logo with an arrow pointing down and our new pitchers name is “Bummer.” That just about tells you how our season is going.
30 July (Sunday)
Love the sport more than the team.

31 July (Monday)
We’re in last place but that felt like October ball.

27 August  (Sunday)
It’s getting to the point where I realize it’s only a month left of White Sox baseball [listening to DJ and Farmer on the radio]

1 September (Friday)
I can’t wait ‘till playoffs. [Amy: for the White Sox??] The White Sox are firmly in last place with one of the worst seasons in baseball. We’re rebuild-y, don’t forget.
52-80 wow that’s bad. But we’re optimistic!
8 September (Friday)
[sunny day] Beautiful day for losing baseball battle of the #1 draft pick.

9 September (Saturday)
Ame my favorite White Sox player hit for the cycle!

9 April (Monday)
I don’t know if I’m going to be saying this everyday, but the Sox are losing.

21 April (Saturday)
[whistles] We’re terrible. I knew it was going to be rebuild-y, but…

6 May (Sunday)
[offers extended play-by-play of the game] …then we lost it. Typical Sox game. Typical Sunday.

10 May (Thursday)
White Sox are 3 and 15 at home.

11 May (Friday)
Rough season for the White Sox. That’s okay, rebuild-y.
May 30 (Wednesday)
In other news, White Sox are down 7-0 in the 4th inning already. Just keeping you in the loop.
May 31 (Thursday)
[reads headline] "Brights spots getting hard to find with Sox." It's true.

June 1 (Friday)
This looks about right. We're down 2-0 and the bases are loaded.

7 June (Thursday)
Sox start playing 21 games on 2 days. Oy. [voice of mock earnestness] We'll see what we're made of! We'll see if we've come to play!

19 June (Tuesday)
[listening to radio] Oh, rough year.

[a minute later] If you have a team that's terrible you don't have any anxiety or tzuris about losing or winning. You can just enjoy the baseball!

21 June (Thursday)
I feel bad for the White Sox beat guys because they have nothing to write about because we’re doing so bad. It’s all ‘specu-lying.’

8 July (Sunday)
Boy I wish my baseball team was winning.
Sox lost. Houston swept us every game this season. Hashtag rebuild-y.
21 July (Saturday)
You know what the Sox W-L record is? 33-62. 63 after last night.

26 July (Thursday)
I think the White Sox traded a player today. I gotta find out.

30 July (Monday)
[kindly tone]: Just wanted to let you know… The White Sox have reached a new low in ineptitude. … this is one of the worst teams that I can remember… that’s all. 13-4.

31 July (Tuesday)
We’re on a course to be one of the worst seasons in the franchise’s history!

26 August (Sunday)
Kopeck’s pitching well; got everyone out of a jam again

29 August (Wednesday)
[listening to a game on the radio] I love baseball; I’m already missing it.

1 September (Saturday)
[yearning tone] Honey, are the White Sox gonna compete in the next two years? Probably not.

2 September (Sunday)
It’s probably best that the White Sox won’t compete because I’d be a nervous mess, but when are we going to be good enough to compete again? It would be SO FUN to be in the playoffs. Oh well, rebuild-y. Two, tree years.

7 September (Friday)
Kopech tore his UCL and is out for the season. That’s why the White Sox can’t have nice things.
To be continued....

Saturday, September 1, 2018

All night: Spectacle in the Desert

I've been re-reading the chapter on underrated honky-tonk singer Wynn Stewart in Colin Escott's essential, and equally underrated, Roadkill on the Three-Chord Highway: Art and Trash in American Popular Music. In 1961 Stewart opened Nashville Nevada, a club in Las Vegas east of The Strip at 3015 Fremont Street called. "It was more a honky-tonk than a Vegas showroom," Escott writes.
The prevailing motif was Western, and when the curtain was lowered around the bandstand it simulated a covered wagon. There was a button behind [drummer] Peaches Price’s riser triggering the curtains, although [steel guitarist Ralph] Mooney insists that the device never worked, and the curtains usually had to be raised and lowered by hand. In theory, the curtains scalloped back, revealing the band.
As if this description isn't evocative enough, Escott includes these two great details: a jukebox would play as Wynn and his band hit the stage, and they'd open each set "by picking up whatever was playing on the jukebox in midsong."

Fantastic. But the best:
The club never closed, and so as part of the opening celebrations, the door key was dropped into the desert from an airplane.
That may be my new all-time favorite music story.
Stewart at the Nashville Nevada with Jackie Burns (at mic) and Ralph Mooney (on steel). Who knows at what time of night.


Here's a Google Street View image of the building, now housing Imperio Club, taken in March of this year:

And here's Wynn few years after Nashville Nevada opened rocking a killer tune that I've always wished those other consummate showmen, Rockpile, would've covered:

Photo of Nashville Nevada via Vintage Las Vegas; photo of Stewart at Nashville Nevada via Biography of Wyn Stewart.