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. 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 font 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 obscure, indie-label garage-psych band out of the Washington D.C. area. (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

Cropper
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.

Redding
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.

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