Tuesday, April 30, 2019

So much to prove

Purple Hearts, 1979

Labeling Purple Hearts a "Mod Revival" band created a problem where there didn't need to be one. This late 70s/early 80s outfit was a tight, punkish power pop band, and their first three singles were among several of the era's debut waves that built swiftly with crescendoing power. Yet most onlookers aligned them with targets, scooters, and beach riots, and then a nostalgic film, and boxed them up. A pity: strip away the Mod affectations, all of which the band courted but which in the end obscured them, and these three songs are timeless evocations of adolescence: the urgent search for identity; ongoing frustrations; and with earnest optimism, narrow-mindedness giving way to perspective and insight. All knotty aspects of growing up, all evoked and danced on top of with fierce and righteous rock and roll by the Hearts. And they ripped onstage: here's a show recorded live on October 1979 for the BBC Radio 1 In Concert Series.

Happily, hindsight has been generous to the top-tier bands in the Mod Revival movement. Ignore the unfortunately time- and date-stamp label and, as with Purple Hearts' contemporaries, the similarly tagged Chords, elevate to the eternal demands of great rock and roll. And play 'em loud.

single, 1979

single, 1979

single, 1980

Monday, April 29, 2019


Excerpts from "1957" in An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline, by Fielding Dawson.
Drunk all night and were falling asleep in our chairs, it was too late and hopeless to leave and go all that way from Avenue B, so Franz [Kline] put on pajamas and fell into bed. I too, beside him, as dawn broke. 
I woke in terror, rigid in anxiety for his arm was around me, and he was murmuring. I shifted position and he mumbled in his sleep and turned away, yet muttering—but sadly, talking his sleeptalk to her. 
He was sitting at the bar, gazing at his glass of beer. His set jaw dragged his eyes and lips down, in a bitterness. He didn’t move for a long time and I became a little: alarmed. I moved quietly beside him, and gently put my hand on his shoulder. 
Softly, “Franz.” 
He turned and looked at me. His eyes were so deep they were without focus. His voice was distant and hollow, but the last phrase was terrible, bitter in disappointment. 
“At first I thought it was a stalk. Then I saw it had a head on it, and then I saw it was alive.” 
It was a bright afternoon. For some reason I wasn’t sitting at the bar, but in one of the small center booths, quite near the telephone. Franz was sitting a couple of stools down towards the door from the beer taps, at the bar, by himself, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. 
He was clean shaven. He had his black pin stripe suit on, and a1 clean white shirt open at the collar; his shoes were shined. He had his hat on, slightly to one side, front brim snapped down. He was dramatic and beautiful. 
Now, [Willem] de Kooning, in his paint-splattered paint clothes, sat unnoticed by Franz, at the end of the bar near me, exactly in my line of vision, and of course I watched them both, Bill’s left elbow was on the bar, and  right hand cupped his right knee—feet hooked over the rung of the barstool—his head was forward, arrowhead, profile. His blue eyes held a certain silvery glitter, perceiving Franz. Franz, there, glowing, de Kooning was looking into the glow. 
But then he, Bill, began a change. I saw the start of a smile, and he looked so directly at Franz a personal beam of intense affection came out of his eyes and shone on Franz; almost religious, or a fullness with revealed torture. Bill stepped partly off the barstool and whispered. 
Franz turned. "Bill!" 
Bill picked up his drink and walked down, sat on a barstool beside Franz; after an instant of speaking I heard Bill say, softly, like someone telling a dear friend a piece of great news not everyone is allowed to hear, What about a little drink? 
Franz laughed, and Bill said to Louie, "Let's have a couple of little drinks here. And this one's on me." 
Quite a while later they were in the same place, but the were leaning on each other, heads together, like small stocky guys—no, tall buildings, tilting across avenues against each other—sky-scrapers, rather; having a little close conversation.
Kline and de Kooning

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Remorse, a Triptych

American Aquarium, "Ain't Going To The Bar Tonight," Dances For The Lonely (2009)

Go To Blazes, "Why I Drink," single (1992)

Hank Thompson, "Hangover Tavern,"A Six-Pack To Go (1966)

Friday, April 26, 2019


I'm not much of a musician. Strike that: I am not a musician. Drum and piano lessons in grade school, idly fooling around on a beat-up, passed-down acoustic guitar in the family basement, air guitaring (ongoing). My greatest success came with an imaginary band I formed with my younger brother.

I recall the several years of piano lessons with some distaste. They took place in Mrs. Pollack's basement a few neighborhoods over from mine; I have distinct memories of my mom picking me and my younger brother after school to take us there, and as I remember it it was invariably raining, the windows in the station wagon fogged over, my headache likely a result of the gross weather, not the existential ennui that gripped me. I had some difficulties getting over my childish aversion to going into strangers' homes, and I never much enjoyed entering the Pollack's, with its oddly modern architecture and wall-to-wall carpeting and strange smells (and appointments; I think they were wealthier than we were). I do recall my red piano book fondly, and can still sing, and maybe even play, "Song of the Volga Boatmen," and some others. I never liked practicing. (Stop the presses.)

The vivid memory I have from those long afternoons is unsurprisingly a lesson, but one not having much to do with scales. Mrs. Pollack instructed us, sternly but with her round, friendly face, to never let the mistake that we'd invariably make during practice or recital show in our playing; that is, we were told to play as if we hadn't made a mistake, seamlessly, and thus it's likely that the patient parents in the room wouldn't notice, or would at least politely behave as if they hadn't noticed. I took this little instruction to heart—it emboldened me, at age eleven or twelve, to play with confidence and a kind of worldly air that said, Of course mistakes happen, but I won't let them rule me. It wasn't an easy lesson to learn and I'm struck now at the pressure it put on us kids, as we were at an age when comical errors can cast the entire day in melodrama, when making mistakes went to the core of what felt like lame moral character—ie, I'm a loser—though we couldn't articulate that at the time, only feeling it in our hot faces or in our ears ringing with derisive laughter of classmates. At one recital, a girl tripped over some difficult passage and, upset, slunk back on her bench, sulking; she tried again, and again made a mistake, and to the horror of all of us began hammering the sequence of notes until she got them right, alternately dramatically sighing her way through the embarrassment and screwing up her face in frustration. As with all adolescent dramas, her public failing has grown to mythic proportions in my inner retelling, and I'm sure she recovered just fine. Maybe she continued to play piano, perhaps wildly successfully, or just for fun. But her face, those slumping shoulders, stayed with me. I never played piano or any keyboards seriously after these early classes (my brother did) but that lesson in grace and stoicism stuck with me, a small step toward maturity and, dare I say, sophistication. Funny what sticks at that age. Thank you, Mrs. Pollack.

Photo via Because I Like To Decorate.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Everything's ahead of us

On the same day when Chris Estey asked on Facebook for votes for the Top Ten cowbells in rock and roll, and the inevitable shouts for Grand Funk's "We're American Band" went up, Tom Breihan at Stereogum posted about the song. Now that's some funky coincidence. I happen to be reading Billy James's 1999 hagiography An American Band: The Story of Grand Funk Railroad now, too, so here's to serendipity.

Breihan nails the song's appeal well—it's a mildly embellished tour diary, rhymed and set to music. I'll add that my two favorite moments in the song—which I love immoderately, and which may be a perfect rock and roll song—have nothing to do with the lyrics or playing, but with expectations. After drummer Don Brewer sings the first verse, the story unspooling, the band settles back into the killer groove with which the song opened. On first listen, you know a second verse is coming and it was like waiting (back when we waited) for next week's episode of your favorite show, or putting down a great read knowing that you'll pick it up again and open it later that night. I can't wait for the next chapter! Similarly, during Mark Farner's eight-bar guitar solo after the second gangsingalong of the epic chorus, you have a feeling that that chorus is coming back; on later listens, you know it's coming back. Few moments in rock and roll from that era still fill me with the same heady joy, the sweet spot, the song's equivalent to the moments between drinks two and three, say, the night still young, the chorus coming 'round again. Everything's ahead of us. Party it down!

I'm grinning writing this. It doesn't hurt that the song is perfectly produced by Todd Rundgren: instincts to jam endlessly are squashed; Craig Frost's eighth-note organ stabs maintain the excitement simply but urgently; the chorus is repeated an ideal number of times, not too few, not too many. The song's greatness lies in the way I'm always brought me back to the first times I heard it.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Pursuing something

Four Tops
"Elusive Butterfly" was a hit for Bob Lind in 1966, reaching the number 5 spot on the U.S. and U.K. charts. The lyrics are purple in splotches and occasionally sentimental, but powerfully evocative, too:
You might wake up some morning
To the sound of something moving past your window in the wind
And if you're quick enough to rise
You'll catch a fleeting glimpse of someone's fading shadow
Out on the new horizon
You may see the floating motion of a distant pair of wings
And if the sleep has left your ears
You might hear footsteps running through an open meadow 
Don't be concerned, it will not harm you
It's only me pursuing something I'm not sure of
Across my dreams with nets of wonder
I chase the bright elusive butterfly of love
The second verse has its share of clumsy lines ("You might have heard my footsteps / Echo softly in the distance through the canyons of your mind") and the image of the singer "running through the long-abandoned ruins of the dreams you left behind," is wincingly close to Poetry 101, but the overall effect is unnerving and strange enough to work, especially as the heartache is softened by the airy, lilting balm of Lind's melody. The verse ends with the singer gliding past his elusive love "followed close by heavy breathing." Indeed.

Four years later, the Four Tops offered a transcendent cover of "Elusive Butterfly" on Still Waters Run Deep. Their version trades Lind's folksy lightness for something unsurprisingly fatter and funkier, their assured arrangement beginning with an atmospheric high organ line made spookily earthy by bongos and percussion. Levi Stubb's vocal is, as always, commanding and aggressive yet warm and nuanced, breaking in places but confident throughout. A string arrangement send the song airborne in a different way than Lind's acoustic buoyancy does, more groove than light. This is very much a group vocal arrangement, of course, Stubbs and Abdul Fakir, Lawrence Payton, and Renaldo Benson trading lines and exhortations, but there's a reason Levis was the front man: everything he sang sounded urgent and desperate, even songs with a lighter touch; such was his command of his baritone and its emotional range.

When I was in graduate school, the late writer John Haines liked to tell me that he believed popular music stole the love poem from the poets. The argument rang true to me. From Sinatra and Elvis to Beatlemania and Motown to Bubblegum and Boy Bands to Britney and Ariana, popular music delivers headiness and urgency, a Top 100 wattage that conventional love poems sometime blink feebly against, lacking spectacle. "Elusive Butterfly" is an eternal ode to lost love that via these two versions achieves poetry of a particular sort: melody and melancholy, singing voice and aching heart lifting cliché and Hallmark gentility into something greater, and deeper.

"Elusive Butterfly," from Still Waters Run Deep (1970)

Friday, April 5, 2019


Kurt Cobain died 25 years ago today. I remember sitting in a lousy Pizza Hut in Athens, Ohio sometime in 1992. Nevermind was out, and huge and getting bigger. Amy and I were eating when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came on. At the end of the song, to which we were paying only minimal attention, a denial, a denial, a denial, a denial roared through the place, cutting through everyone's meal, personal space, and sense of decorum, or peace, and it felt like nothing else than a demand to reevaluate things. That simple, and that profound. As what happens when encountering great art, the environment had been altered, and I'd been unprepared.

A year or so earlier, as I wrote in Field Recordings from the Inside, my neighbor on First Street and some friends of hers were out on her front porch.
I walk past and hear a song coming from their house that I’ve never heard before, and can’t place. In the few moments it takes to reach my front steps the music seems to have moved from sweet to ferocious to anthemic to desolate and back again. The singer’s great. The riffs are loud, but clean. “Who is that?” I yell from the street.

She smiles beatifically at me. “It’s Nirvana!”

When Nevermind was released in the fall of 1991 I was only vaguely aware of Kurt Cobain’s band. I’d looked the other way when their early Sub Pop records were issued, as I hadn’t been ready yet for their tuneful howl. What I heard my neighbor say was “nirvana” with a lower-case “n.” In the way we instantaneously make sense of a complex moment and its scope, it felt like what she had described for me was a feeling, a place, made of roar and stillness, to where she’d been transported, a spiritual instant. Not much later, when Nirvana took off commercially, I made the critical appellative correction, but the influential exchange on the street had imprinted itself in me. That was less music I heard walking by her porch on an ordinary sunny day in autumn than a state of being.