Thursday, February 28, 2019

So far away, so near

The Chords will forever be slotted in with the U.K. Mod Revival of the late-70s, early 80s, but the bulk of their songs—as in the best rock and roll—transcends any attempts to label or categorize. Formed in Southeast London in 1978, the band played often in their home country, including headlining two Mod festivals at the Marquee Club. They signed with Polydor records and released several singles—"Now It's Gone," "Maybe Tomorrow," "Something's Missing"—and one album, So Far Away. A handful of singles followed ("The British Way of Life," "In My Street," "One More Minute," "Turn Away Again") but by '81 the band was finished, as the Mod Revival receded and New Romantics and synths ushered the parkas and scooters on their way. (Chris Hunt wrote a terrific overview of the band here.)

The Chords have since reformed, and have issued a live album, some comps, and an EP, and So Far Away has stood the test of time, sounding fresh and relevant, with punchy sound courtesy of producer Andy Arthurs. In retrospect, these guys gave the Buzzcocks and the Jam a (brief) run for their money, in part because they didn't slavishly ape a Mod Look and didn't sing about Faces and pills and Bank Holiday riots, but mostly because their songs are urgent and passionately played. Billy Hassett was a fantastic singer, unique and excitable, and the band was tight and propulsive in the best coiled UK power pop/punk tradition. These three songs in particular demonstrate how a rock and roll band can both trade on and shake off a label, the driving Sam & Dave cover propelled by that clarion-call guitar lead, the gang-singing and key modulations in the title track sounding spontaneous yet inevitable, not pre-written. These songs lift above most of the Chords' peers' material out of sheer energy, tuneful desperation, and an eye above the horizon, traits that imbue most tunes with timeless appeal.

The weekend starts here, indeed.

The Chords at the Marquee Club, 1979 (Via Flickr)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Something's happening

Every generation has its share of timeless utterances, from Dylan seeing through bomb-builders' masks to Nina Simone responding to pressure with prayer to Marvin Gaye's fish full of mercury to the Sex Pistols' No Future to Nirvana's oh well, whatever, never mind—artists singing in the present about the future with more presentiment than they realize. I'm astonished, and chastened, at how relevant the Jam's monumental 1980 single "Going Underground" is in 2019. Strive for more? What's the point. Pleasure out of hate? Enough already on my plate, thanks. Choose your leader, place your trust—well, the public gets what the public wants. But I don't get what this society wants. From braying sheep on TV to kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns, the details are prescient and timely; like others before him, Paul Weller had his finger on the pulse of political hypocrisy and tyranny that seems to beat eternally.

Equally astonishing still is the band's performance: wire-tight, pissed-off, urgent. It feels as if the song is playing the band, not the other way around. And perhaps my favorite moment in any Jam song: after the dreamy middle-eight, a sing-song variation of the title and chorus phrase, Weller slashes at his Rickenbacker in such a violent, angry, and surprising way that it startles and excites me every time. A rupture in the performance that sounds and feels completely organic and inevitable, but which threatens to demolish the thing in a single stroke. Rock and roll at its best, and, sadly, its most prophetic and timeless. Turn it up, wash it down:
Some people might say my life is in a rut
But I'm quite happy with what I got
People might say that I should strive for more
But I'm so happy I can't see the point 
Something's happening here today
A show of strength with your boys' brigade
And I'm so happy and you're so kind
You want more money, of course I don't mind
To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes
And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society's got 
I'm going underground
Well the brass bands play and feet start to pound
Going underground
Well let the boys all sing and the boys all shout for tomorrow 
Some people might get some pleasure out of hate
Me, I've enough already on my plate
People might need some tension to relax
Me, I'm too busy dodging between the flak 
What you see is what you get
You've made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don't get what this society wants 
We talk and talk until my head explodes
I turn on the news and my body froze
The braying sheep on my TV screen
Make this boy shout, make this boy scream...
Songwriters: Paul John Weller
Going Underground lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Monday, February 25, 2019

Insights? Conclusions? Maybe.

Nancy Mairs, on the essay (and why I like it): "An essay is not the same as reportage, although it may subsume reportage as it may do poetry and narrative also; As a writer, I like best the flexibility
of the essay, its stylistic inclusiveness."
It may recount facts one moment, sing about them lyrically or raucously in the next, weave them into stories, transform them into lessons, toss them aside in the end. Strictly speaking, an essay is just what Michel de Montaigne meant when he named the genre: a test or a trial of an idea, which may lead to a firm, unambiguous conclusion but probably, in my experience, will not. In short, although an essay may offer insights into the truths of human being, it will never yield the capital-t Truth, for the not-so-simple reason that no such entity exists.

Photo of Mairs via Arizona Daily Star.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The people who listen to "People Who Died," cont'd

Last year, I wrote: "A little over seven years ago, I posted Jim Carroll's 'People Who Died' to my YouTube channel, 3 Chord Philosophy."
It's the fourth most viewed video there, after the White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button," the Cars' "You're All I've Got Tonight," and Dwight Yoakam's "Fast As You," yet by far it's received the most comments, 640 and counting, as of today. Many are of the "what brought me here" variety, but the more thoughtful and urgent comments tell a story: "People Who Died" has clearly struck a power chord in the young and the old, the experienced and the innocent, the sadly wise and the wide-eyed romantics alike who respond to the song's melancholic desperation, rock and roll fury, and biting honesty. 
"It's accessible to kids," Carrol said about the song in 1980, adding "It's like an elegy but it's not sentimental." Four years later, he remarked that "People Who Died" is a "about, you know, stolen possibilities, about people who died young before they could fulfill their promises, you know?" The song will last, and continue to move listeners and challenge them to face their own grieving, callousness, or befuddlement in the face of loss.
And the comments keep coming, 889 as of this morning. I think they always will. We're too close to the emergence of YT still to gauge the effects of the community it's established and fosters. But it's legit, and powerful. (Click to enlarge.)

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ty Segall + White Fence

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—On the last two occasions I caught Ty Segall a beatific mood pervaded the evenings. His gig last night with White Fence at the Empty Bottle was a looser, junkier affair: two pals swapping guitar leads and grins. Tim Presley's White Fence and Segall play like a chemical reaction, and you never know when it's going to explode or simply simmer, but it never fizzles out. Presley and Segall are a study in contrasts: Presley gives the impression of a late Small Faces-era Steve Marriott with his Swingin' haircut, slim blue crew neck sweater, gray slacks, and sharp shoes; Segall's lumpy in jeans and a t-shirt, his hair Vesuvian to Presley's Mod. Presley seemed shy, haltingly announcing the other band members while Segall couldn't keep a smile off his face; he leaped about and raised his guitar to the low ceiling in Feedback Rock God mode, while Presley stayed put, his eyes sometimes shut, sometimes open and regarding his hands and the textured sounds they created. I've never seen Television live, but I was put in mind of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd as Presley and Segall played off of each other, moving between earnest and goofy, loud and controlled but melodic, also. The songs didn't matter too much; the groovy "Easy Ryder" called attention to itself in both its brevity and well-constructed pop form but the other tunes were long-ish, psychedelic improvs, and happily for me the guys onstage never forgot they were playing for a crowd (a sold-out crowd, at that) and they rode the crests and waves of their sound with entertaining aplomb. They tuned up (a lot) between songs, Presley sheepishly admitted that he forgot how to play one tune, and Segall screeched-off instead of counted-off a few numbers, then laughed at himself afterward as the songs launched, a little embarrassed, and mightily into it all.

I'd wanted to see Segall and White Fence play together ever since I listened to and dug their collaboration Hair back in 2012. They delivered a set that was informal and muscular, trippy and in control, a great night of rock and roll elevating on good vibes and serious chops. Go see 'em if you can.

Tim Presley

The opening bands, both local, diverged as well. Tobacco City played spooky, touching, waltzing Americana, the guitarist and singer and the female vocalist calling to mind Emmylou and Gram; the pedal steel player sent gorgeous, heartrending lines throughout the small club—last night was his first gig with the band and he's probably a keeper. I can't imagine the band without him. Axis: Sova came on next, two remarkably adept guitarists, a bass player, and a drum machine. Somehow these guys rocked it up while tethered to the machine, their sinewy and dimensional playing finding a curious home inside the metronome. Dynamic stage presences these men aren't; they played super-serious with nary a nod to the crowd. (I think they take their cue from their standoffish drummer.)

Tobacco City

Axis: Sova

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Turning down the noise

Pitchers and catchers report to work today, and as always for me the news is in graphic contrast to the weather outside. And as I wrote recently, my normal excitement at the start of the long baseball season is muted a bit this year; although it felt good to get it off my chest and I'm looking forward to the long season, I still feel some unease at the state of the sport, if not the game. (Although if MLB tries to introduce runners at second at the start of extra innings....) I mostly think it has to do with the blanket coverage of the game I've come to expect and, to my sensibilities, be overly burdened with. I'm pretty confident that only large-scale disasters perilously affecting thousands of people merit 24/7 coverage, so I'm dialing back the amount of baseball "news" I'm receiving. I'll be cutting back on minute-by-minute social media reports, avoid General Manager Speak as best I can, and attempt to limit my exposure to the game to actual games on the radio and TV, and recaps the next day—is that a thing?—in the news. I'll still reliably read the always reliable Jim Margalus at SoxMachine, but perhaps go for hours between bulletins. Anyway, that's me. I'm turning down the noise a bit.


Oh and I came across this beauty online.

Top, detail from print advertisement for RCA Radio Corporation of America, 1948

Thursday, February 7, 2019

I'll Never Stop Being Amazed

Driving into school today I tuned in to the Underground Garage on SiriusXM as Palmyra Delran's new song "Tragedy Ann" was playing. I've been a fan of Delran since I saw her band the Friggs tear it up at the late, lamented Sleazefest down in Chapel Hill, North Carolina ten or so years ago. I haven't listened to her new record, yet before I'd made a right turn I was singing along with the chorus, notes and words I'd never heard before in this arrangement, this tune, this performance—singing along as if it was the hundredth time.

Fifteen minutes later, I board the elevator in Zulauf Hall to go up to my office on the tenth floor, and just before the door closes the adjacent elevator opens and off pops a guy heartily, and loudly, singing the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." All I hear was a line as he disappears—my grandfather and me—yet before my elevator reaches the second floor I'm singing the song to myself, then whistling it as I get off the elevator, now idly wondering who's going to take the torch from here: catch the tune consciously or otherwise from me—carry it inside, sing it aloud, or hum it—to the song's next magical destination, as an earworm or a gift. It's been hours, and I bet the the trail of "Sloop John B"'s is still going strong, somewhere, in the hallway of an office building, in an aisle of Hy-Vee, in someone's car whose radio's on the blink, in a bedroom where a new mom is laying down her baby, a trail lit back when I heard a stranger sing a song today.

Monday, February 4, 2019


When I was a kid it was easy to ignore baseball as a business: I didn't care about bottom line or salaries or profit margins, only that This Week in Baseball ran every Saturday and that I could watch the Orioles on television, and occasionally at Memorial Stadium, during the summer, the NBC "Game of the Week" for rare glimpses of National League stars, and the wonderful, exciting, seemingly endlessly tense playoffs and World Series.

Now, as Spring Training is set to gear up, I'm experiencing something of a dark night of the soul as a fan, as are many of my baseball-besotted friends. I don't like many of the changes the game is undergoing: the grim, nearly joyless over-managing; so-called bullpenning; the reliance on swinging for home runs and the suppression of station-to-station strategy and balls-in-play; the intrusion of replay which grossly rewards an unrealistic demand for perfection. But more importantly, the dubious and at times outright vile politics of many of those in charge and the obsession with the bottom-line on almost all teams, milking every last cent of the fans. (And now: gambling.) I could go on, and many have and many will. I understand that baseball is a business, run by men and women whose politics differ from mine and who do not have my best interest in heart, rather their investors and political bedfellows. I've been able to block this out, or frankly ignore it, for many years, yet the cumulative effect has been a watering down of my hitherto bottomless love for the game, which renewed itself this time every year for decades.

In the sports columns where I read about player contract news, I visually "x out" the dollar amounts, focusing only on the length of the contract, as I did effortlessly when I was a kid and could ignore off-the-field developments. But such childish gestures on my part can't erase problems everywhere: I've seethed at news of teams donating to politicians and causes I find reprehensible; I'll go out to happily watch my Northern Illinois University Huskies play ball, yet be aware of odious goings-on at the elite levels of collegiate sports; I'll listen to broadcasts of old baseball games online, but, guarding against nostalgia, recognize that the sport has always been infected with awful people with unfortunate interests. (On a far more self-interested note, I have a book about baseball coming out in a few months, which I'm enthused, not to mention obligated, to promote.) I don't want to have give up baseball cold turkey, yet I've been directing many 3 a.m. concerns toward the bedroom ceiling: am I disciplined enough to turn away from Major League Baseball given the many hours of deep and rewarding pleasures the game gives me for so many months? Will I refuse to buy tickets to games even though a day at the park is one of life's great pleasures? Can I sigh and philosophically acknowledge that humans screw up, that an ethically or morally pure sport is an impossibility? (Everything a human being touches "he deforms slightly in his own image," Flannery O'Connor.) Or am I being selectively righteous? Can I still enjoy the game as opposed to the sport? I allowed myself that luxury for a long time, something that's becoming harder to defend lately.

I'm not sure where I'll stand in a few months. (Yes, there are many far more important things in life.)  I'll continue to look for and enjoy what's good in baseball. I'll watch games and imagine the players battling without attachments to million-dollar contracts and unsavory owners, and out of the glare of 24/7 television, radio, and social media coverage. I can't not like baseball. My love for the game remains, yet will be in graphic contention with the growing, darker aspects of the industry.