Saturday, March 30, 2019

DeKalb, Illinois, or something

Near the close of "Give Peace a Chance! Grand Funk Railroad Take Shea Stadium" in the August 1, 1971 issue of Creem, writer and guitarist Lenny Kaye imagines a time in the near future when Grand Funk Railroad reverently bring their manager Terry Knight onstage and launch into a version of "I (Who Have Nothing)" a 1966 hit for Terry Knight and the Pack, in which future Grand Funkers Mark Farner and Don Brewer played. Little did Kaye know from the vantage point of '71 how ugly things were going to get between Knight and the band over the next few years, as an ugly breach-of-contract lawsuit by Knight and a resentful out-of-court settlement by the band created a million-dollar drain on Grand Funk that threatened to derail their promising career. Instead, after wrenching free from the exploitative Knight, they added a member, hired producer Todd Rundgren, and the rest is history.

Kaye's piece was reissued in 2003 in Barney Hoskyns' essential The Sound and the Fury: 40 Years of Classic Rock JournalismKaye spends the bulk of the eye-witness piece describing Grand Funk's enormously successful sold-out show at Shea Stadium on July 9, 1971, a terrific account that places you right in the rocking and swaying and weed-bathed stadium bleachers alongside Funk freaks. (Here's some great of-the-era footage of the show, which famously sold out in 72 hours). Kaye also considers the band's Midwest roots, and the key to their considerable success:
Grand Funk never disappoint, unless you happen to be looking for things that just aren’t there. They’re always square-shooters, on the level, up front and together. They believe wholeheartedly in their ‘brothers and sisters’, instinctively think of their audience in that light, and this in turn means that they will never treat their fans badly: never step on them or scorn them or take them by the heels and shake them until the last little bit of change falls out of their pockets. They realize that given another time and place, it might’ve been them down there rather than them up here; a sobering thought—for any musician. And if, in the end, it may come to mean that they'll never be more than the sum total of their audience, that Grand Funk will never be able to rise far above themselves that they levitate a crowd beyond any of its other awareness...well, what the hell, rock'n'roll is only rock'n'roll, and it ain't too many who get to find God in a I-IV-V progression.
That's a pretty great definition and defense of bare-bones rock and roll, and, notwithstanding the Funk's often tedious, elongated boogieing, soloing, and we'regonnarocktonight exhortations, Kaye really nails the source of their earnest appeal in the early 70s.

All of this is to say that I was startled by the paragraph near the end.
But even with all this, they haven't hit their peak yet, and I’ll tell you why. They’ve saved the best for last, those sly l’il devils. You’ll see: one of these days, they’ll be finishing up a concert in some out-of-the-way place: Dekalb, Illinois, or something. The closing bars of "Inside Looking Out" will shudder to a close, and they’ll leave amid cries for more. After only a matter of seconds, though, they’ll be back in their places, excited and energized, like kids who are about to receive an unexpected surprise. 
I find it hilarious and awesome that Kaye would choose l'il DeKalb as the site of an imagined emotional moment onstage between Grand Funk and Knight. (DeKalb with a lower "k." That's alright, Lenny Kaye, or should I say kaye, it was probably the editor.) I don't know if Grand Funk ever played DeKalb; a few years later KISS did on their first tour, at Northern Illinois University's Field House, so I guess that could've been the place where Farner, Brewer, and Mel Schacher brought the Funk, another stop on a long journey for The American Band. Alas, the moment never happened, and DeKalb remains a what-if in 70s arena rock myth. Or something.

Photo of Kaye at Village Oldies, NYC via Pinterest.

Friday, March 29, 2019

More Chords

Discovering The Chords has been a revelation. Here are a few more killer singles: stirring, excitingly played, politically aware, urgently gang-hollered and rocking. "The Chords came out of punk," singer and guitarist Chris Pope explained a few years back to Rock At Night. "We were all 14-15 when it kicked off—so it was our time, our music. But we were also steeped in '60s Brit Pop. We wanted to marry the two sounds together...sort of the Who meets the Clash in some mad 'mod-punk-rave-mix-up' somewhere in South London."

The Chords' run of 45s in 1980 into '81 measures pretty damn well against other bands' similar spans (The Jam, The Buzzcocks, etc.). (Absent below are "Maybe Tomorrow," released in January 1980, and "Something Missing" released in April, both of which appeared on the band's debut album.) More proof that the late 70s/early 80s was really a golden era for well-produced guitar-based rock and roll, and more evidence that The Chords were a notch above the other Mod Revival bands, transcending the limits of identity politics with brash songwriting and stirring performance. I wish they'd held it together for another album.

"Now It's Gone" [re-recording], bonus single issued with So Far Away, May 1980

"The British Way Of Life," single, July 1980

"In My Street," single, October 1980

"One More Minute," single, May 1981

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Opening Day

You know where to find me.
Man Sitting at the Bar Watching a Tigers Game, Detroit, 1972. Photo by Dave Jordano

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

"Everything suddenly honks..."

On Frank O'Hara's birthday I'm remembering a poem of his I recited in my Introduction to Creative Writing course as an undergrad at the University of Maryland in the mid-1980s. My teacher was Brooks Haxton, who stayed on at Maryland for a maybe a year or two, eventually ending up at Syracuse, where he's taught since. The anthology Haxton chose was The Voice That Is Great Within Us, a by-now dated and unfashionable collection, but in the mid-1980s I came to prize it for its rawness and eclecticism. When tasked to choose a poem to recite, I gravitated to the dynamic cityscape in O'Hara's "A Step Away from Them," which first appeared in his Lunch Poems in 1964, indulging my obsession with all things Manhattan and recognizing a similar vibe in the cherished walks I'd take through Washington D.C.'s noisy and diverse neighborhoods on weekends (and days I blew off classes). Some of the phrases in the poem— "the hum-colored cabs," "dirty glistening torsos," "skirts...flipping above heels," "cats playing in sawdust," "Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which makes it beautiful and warm"—have stayed with me vividly, like old friends or images I swear I've witnessed myself, so irresistible and lively is the language. It's a long-ish poem, and I was proud of myself for pulling off the recitation. That I'd memorized and delivered it before class is less a testament to the occasional discipline I could find as a distracted English major than to O'Hara's jazzy, street-drunk phrasing, which was easy to commit to memory because it felt like I story I'd already told myself, or imagined living. I barely understood the references, of course—to Edwin Denby, Giulietta Masina, John Latouche, Pierre Reverdy, et al—but that didn't matter, because they morphed into everyday pulsations in the knocked-out joy the speaker feels simply existing on this street in this moment. It's still a favorite, decades after I first encountered it. Happy birthday, Frank.
A Step Away from Them 
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                    Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
               There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                    A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ex Hex, before and after

Ex Hex (l-r Mary Timony, Laura Harris, Betsy Wright)
When I first listened to Ex Hex's new album It's Real, I was a bit dismayed by the number of mid-paced tunes. I like when the band rocks out, soaring on their riffs. But subsequent listens taught me that I was listening the wrong way, or listening for the wrong thing, anyway. The songs on the new album sound as if they were born of reflection, not of an urgency for immediate connection; they sound distracted, arrived at, and the measured arrangements reflect that. There are a few eighth-note rockers ("Diamond Drive," "Cosmic Cave," "Radiate") and some 70s posturing, and I hear KISS and Thin Lizzy in the chugging riffs, but mostly guitarist Mary Timony, bassist Betsy Wright, and drummer Laura Harris seem interested in the abstracted ruminating before, and the contemplation after, the burning gesture, the big moment or blow-up. As always, Timony's lead guitar playing is a revelation—there are few guitar-based rock and roll bands out there now whose lead playing sounds like a distinct voice in the band, as full of personality and dimension as a sung vocal. Her playing is Ex Hex's signature sound, like the certain lilt in someone's voice or skip to their walk that you know, and love, as theirs alone.

The album's greatest song is the haunted "Want It To Be True" which sounds like a daydream, the backing Ooh-ooh-ooh's part of the score of a reverie, what thinking sounds like when sung. But something happens in the middle, after the third verse, when the singer says "I don't want to lose control"—the song threatens to do just that, Timony's playing leading the band into a dangerous place as a tidal wave or a thunderstorm or squall takes over the soundscape, threatening....and then the song gains control again, and the opening line, "What kind of things do you tell yourself?" sounds directed at the singer as well as to whomever she's singing about and to. The whole thing might be taking place inside the singer's head as she's driving or sitting at her desk, or in bed, alone, staring at the ceiling—but desire and wistfulness take her into stormy seas until things calm again. Great stuff.

Timony's voice is stately; she sounds as if she's narrating the songs even when she's singing about herself in the first person. That remove isn't icy or impersonal but a measure of her deliberation, and oddly elegant on top of such righteous riffing and the dynamic rhythm section of Wright and Harris, Her vocals work better on It's Real than on the band's debut, Rips, where to my ears her voice sits uncomfortably atop a few of the more rocking songs. I appreciate her singing now more than I every have. Dare I say this is adult stuff. Turn it up.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Number 4

Fingerprints, scuffs, pen marks, dust, smudges, proof of people living. That's what I love about vinyl, the virtual conversations taking place among scratchy, sleeveless 45s in some shitty cardboard box on the floor of a record or antique store, the ghosts of chatty, previous owners I sift through. I found this brilliant Eddie Floyd single from 1968—an all-time fave—in a cramped box in a store in Rockford, Illinois for a couple of bucks. It looked worn as hell but, like an old house or used paperback or dirt road, that's what drew me to it. Nothing a Spin Clean couldn't help, anyway, which did in fact brighten the highs and deepen the lows of this beauty, written by Floyd with Booker T. Jones, who produced it for Stax. Those pops and clicks in the opening: the sound the ground makes under your feet on the approach to your grandma's or your new girlfriend's; that creak in the front door of the beach house you stayed in that summer when you.... The number 4 written on the label? I have no idea, but I could come up with about ten imagined storylines to explain it.

With perspective, I gotta say that I don't find such tactile sense memories among my CDs (which are now boxed away down in my basement), even the ones I first bought back in the late 1980s. I dropped loads of money on CDs for several decades, bought into the overwhelmingly present argument that 1s and 0s paved the virtual road to the future, that there was no looking back. Yeah the shelf of mix tapes I made, swapping with friends and wooing my girlfriend, tell lots of stories, but plastic only bends so far before it snaps. Fingerprints on a CD case, the robot-like error when a damaged disc plays: these seem to lack the depth and the sponginess of vinyl and of album covers and 45 sleeves, softened with the years and the touch of hands. Now I regret that I pressed pause on buying vinyl for so long, though I never truly stopped.

This is generational, I know. I still listen to half of my music via Spotify anyway, and the CDs from your high school years sure tell their stories. When you come across a stack of chipped cases in twenty years, or notice the obscure handwriting on some random CD-r, you'll enter the past and its richness and mystery they way I do when flipping through vinyl, at a store and at home. And so it goes.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Gotta tell me why

It's too much to go into, but Amy and I have been hate-watching Gilmore Girls for a while. In an episode from the fifth season, the character Zack Van Gerbig, a scruffy "rocker" who plays in a local band, scoffs at his girlfriend and fellow bandmate Lane Kim when she suggests that their band try and improve on some recent promo photographs.

Happy with the ones that they have, Van Gerbig dismisses the idea. "We're not Maroon Five or The 'gee whiz' Slickee Boys," he says.

WTF. Now, Gilmore Girls was a show that prided itself, often way too cutely, on its pop culture references, and the character of Lane, in particular, was an energetic fount of favorite bands and musicians, most of the earnestly cool/hip/alt variety. Yet no band name-checked on the show was nearly as surprising as The Slickee Boys, an indie-label garage-psych band out of the Washington D.C. area who never broke into the mainstream. (Having grown up in suburban D.C., they're a longtime fave of mine.) I don't know how they ended up on the lips of a pretty-boy rocker in an episode of a dramedy that aired in February 2005, a decade and a half after the marginally-known Slickees called it a day (save for many reunion gigs). Preliminary Internet research has turned up nothing but the episode's Wikia page (scroll down to "Pop Culture"), deepening the mystery. Was a show writer a fan? Did the writing staff pick the band name out of an old issue of Trouser Press? You gotta tell me why.

Photo (cropped) of Slickee Boys via discogs.

Friday, March 15, 2019

"Would you believe?"

I picked up a copy of Blue Magoos' 1967 Electric Comic Book recently, and didn't notice until I got home that the four-page comic book featured in the original pressings was sitting inside. Now this is truly an of-the-era document: as dramatized over the two-page center spread, the story involves the band enjoying a "psychedelic lollipop" ("Look what somebody sent us."... "I hope it's safe."... "Well I'm not gonna get all hung up about it."), then kinda freaking out yet maintaining their cool ("I don't understand what's going on here."... "I have a chest cold."), rocking out onstage, and then, hilariously, the band's organist and vocalist Ralph Scala being mistaken by two mini-skirted girls for the Fugs' Tuley [sic] Kupferburg! Surrounding the chaos are collage sketches of the band and some sage advice ("Patience is the key word"—apply when and as necessary). The drawings are credited to Jody Sutton, Naomi Schiroma, and Betty Acker—where are they now? “We got fan letters with cartoon drawings of us,” Scala explained to Record Collector. “Eventually, the girls who sent them...hooked up with our producers and submitted a portfolio of ideas. Their work was so good that the producers used them for the comic book insert.”

On the back page, a Magoos fan could order a very cool looking iron-on transfer, join the Blue Magoos Society, and order a "wild" psyche-de-lite, the secret formula of which creates the "wildest, weirdest shapes imaginable!" We're informed that "it's so wild the BLUE MAGOOS carry two PSYCHE-DE-LITES with them everywhere they go." I know I want one. Of course you can, or could, find one on eBay.

Grab that lollipop and enjoy.

Blues Magoos, 1967

Thursday, March 7, 2019

I get the music, I get the heat

I'm somewhat embarrassed to I feel I still have things to say about the Who, yet at its best their music continues to move and startle me. The other day "See Me, Feel Me" came up on shuffle, and I was sent yet again by that song's optimistic naiveté, beatific surrender, visionary passion, and anthemic spirit. And I remembered this passage that I'd read recently in Roger Daltrey's memoir Thanks a Lot Mr Kibblewhite in which Daltrey recalls the awful experience of his band's epic day/night/day at Woodstock. The band endured a helicopter flight, car drive, and then mile-slog-through-the-mud to get to Max Yasgur's dairy farm, weren't immediately paid, suffered from some idiot spiking everyone's drinks, waited around forever tripping resentfully, and didn't hit the stage until five in the morning.

"Somehow, we kept going," Daltrey remembers, "and every time we felt like we were losing it, we dug in a bit deeper."
Then, shortly after six, we got to "See Me, Feel Me" from Tommy and the bleeding sun came up. Right on cue. You couldn't have topped it, After all the shit we'd been through, it was perfect. It was extraordinary. It was one of these moments you couldn't ever recreate if you tried. Once in a lifetime.
A famous moment in Rock Mythology, and no finer a dramatic background for the performance of that song. (A debated "famous moment," it must be said; some who were there insist that the sunrise occurred during "My Generation," the actual finale of the band's set, a few songs following "See Me, Feel Me." You can certainly see the warm bluing sky in the footage. Either way, as the Who were stomping though "See Me, Feel Me"'s remarkable finish, the sun was ready for its closeup.)


One night long, beery, unremarkable night in the late 1980s at the Union, my favorite bar in Athens, Ohio, "See Me, Feel Me" came on the jukebox, sparring with our usual faves. I probably didn't notice when the song came on, or I did and barely registered it, having heard it hundreds of times. Yet as I stood at the bar—it was my turn to buy—I turned to my right and glanced down at the length of the joint, smoky, dark, junky, my friends squeezed into a booth next to the pool table, laughing, elbowing, and as if coming out of a haze I realized that the end of the song was playing, and—yes, I can grant some of this to the beer, to youth, to the heady joy of friendships and an evening of possibilities—I heard the long, repeated chorus in a way I'd never heard it before. In fact it felt as if I were hearing the song and its moved and moving, hymn-like changes and harmonies for the first time, tricked or surprised or whatever-it-was into the moment. Listening to you I get the music gazing at you I get the heat following you I climb the mountain I get excitement at your feet—the millions, the glory, the story—I get the story....

Everyone was smiling, everyone was happy to be there, everyone was bathed in a glow and looked to me to be elevating slightly unaware, the whole bar warmer and safer and more beautiful than I'd ever seen it, before or since. Writing about the career-making Woodstock set and by extension the then-new era of thousands-strong, giant-stage, open-air music festivals, Daltrey remarks that as the band's front man he had to learn to drive the band in a new way, "with no back wall and half a million people stretching over the horizon. I had to drive the curvature of the earth." That's an amazing observation, as evocative of the heady era as the ecology flag and Armstrong on the moon, and yet as tiny and cramped as the Union is (well, was) that song that night raised the black-painted ceiling and dropped the shitty walls and for a few moments I glimpsed, or I felt, nothing less than the curve of the earth. I get the story. Then it was back down for me.

Corny, sure. But that's mostly because I haven't figured out how to describe an age-old story in a new way. This is little more than an account of a song issuing from a jukebox in a dive bar and altering the landscape. Nothing and everything.

Photo of The Union via Pinterest.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Sublime trouble

I don't know that anyone needs to add to the words already written about the sounds produced in the Stax Studio, but then I hear a song like "Ole Man Trouble." The lead track on Otis Redding's Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul album was cut in Memphis, Tennessee on July 27, 1965 with old hands Booker T. Jones on organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson on drums; Wayne Jackson and Gene "Bowlegs" Miller added trumpet, Andrew Love and Floyd Newman tenor and baritone saxes respectively, and Isaac Hayes piano. That supremely gifted group of musicians play with characteristic restraint and raw elegance, on top of which Redding sings a simple, needful, and dimensional blues-based melody, from the bottom looking up.

These are just words. How can prose translate, approximate even, the elemental beauty and agony of this song? What astounds me today, as it does so often, is Cropper's playing. In Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Robert Gordon observed that Cropper, in order to write with Redding, bought himself a second Telecaster, “a good used one, because Otis always tuned to a chord, open tuning." He's quoting Cropper now. "Otis was a one-fingered guitar player, so in his songs, there are almost no minor chords—because he didn’t know how to make that form. For things like ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ I played in standard tuning; for things like ‘Ole Man Trouble,’ the intro was all done with a chord on the second Tele." Characteristically, Cropper plays rhythm and lead, the desperate body and the voice it speaks with. Those muscular, dirty riffs Croppers plays in response to Redding's pleas at the end of each line are pretty nasty-sounding for Stax; they sound like hungover agita, and yet they're menacing and prideful, too, completely and intimidatingly bad ass. When the horns return at the end of the first verse, they're heralding, uplifting, but sound a little wary of the guitar, too—at least they're wise enough to give Cropper a wide berth, let him sort himself out.

Blues, soul, R&B: screw taxonomy. The story's old as dirt, and it sounds somehow as if the recording is, too. Like so much of the music produced during Stax's peak years, the performance feels like it's about to burst out of its own blues and misery—even the elegantly modest Jackson hits an excitable drum roll at the end of the second verse, out of what, impatience? Bravado? Desperation? I'm not sure, even the many times I've listened, except that it sounds inevitable and necessary. "Ole Man Trouble" was "one of the few ballads Otis sang that was not in triplet time, unfolding instead in a steely 4/4 meter set by Steve Cropper's mesmerizing rhythm guitar," Jonathan Gould writes in Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life. "Cropper and Redding would wind up sharing the writing credits on nearly a dozen songs, but it's hard to say why 'Ole Man Trouble' wasn't considered one of them, so thoroughly does Cropper's playing determine the character of the track." Gould too marvels at Cropper's "thickly voiced chords, sliding sixths, muted clicks, and driving bass-note runs," and Dave Rubin, in R&B Guitar Method, writes of Cropper's "telepathic backup"—I love that phrase—and that his playing's a "first-rate example of chords, bass lines, double stops, and triple stops combined to create a full accompaniment."

Again, these are just words, abstractions that attempt to voice what's beyond language: as with the greatest music produced by the Stax players the sound is vital, and of-the-era, post-electric blues and righteously soulful, lovingly assembled and as loose as the weather, and feels as old as the Bible.