Friday, June 14, 2019

His Song, His Story

When I was a kid, the rumor burning up school was that Elton John earned a nickel every second. He was at the height of his fame then, and the idea that simply by existing—fabulously—Elton earned millions a week was of a piece with the mythic, larger-than-life figure he cut. I can't decide if Rocketman is ridiculous or nearly perfect, and I think that's the point. Much has been made of director Dexter Fletcher and screenwriter Lee Hall playing wildly with chronology in this life story: Elton wows a pub crowd when he's just a lad and still Reggie Dwight singing "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" which was written years later; he sings "Crocodile Rock" at his legendary Troubadour gig in 1970, though the song wouldn't be out for two more years; his hit "I'm Still Standing," cut in 1983 when Elton was seven years away from sobriety, is used in the film as his final-act Redemption Theme of recovery; etc.. But this is what I like about the movie, which is less a biopic than a grandiose song that a peak-era Elton and Bernie Taupin might've written about his life, packed with hooks, camp, sentiment, sentimentality, nuggets of wisdom, and spectacle. Granted, Elton may very well have bodysurfed atop a writhing orgy at one point, or several points, in his life, and I'd love to think that he literally strode into rehab in full-costume. The movie poster winks that the film's "based on a true fantasy," and in this way Rocketman's very much a true story—Elton played himself onstage, and often in private, as a diva beyond all normal range, and as much of his life post-1975 charted graphic rises and plunges via abuse of drink, drugs, and sex, so does the movie trade on exaggerated sensations and highs, normal chronology a thing for mortals.

But the problem with using camp and melodrama to tell a story is that eventually you may have to move beyond camp into ordinary, real drama: the interwoven scenes of Elton's 1990 stay in rehab try to ground the film in gritty reality, but end up bumping up against the film's fantasies, leading to an unfortunately cringe-worthy scene of release and recovery. Hall and Fletcher give Elton one or two moments when he glimpses his true self behind the facade, but they're really just pauses between (the great) songs. If you go in to Rocketman expecting the kind of based-on-real-events life story that Elton would screen in his imagination, up awake at 4 a.m. thinking up new, theatrical arrangements of his most well-known songs, then you'll have fun with it. In public, Elton John was in many ways a caricature of himself, and Rocketman interprets his songbook as joyously, if as flatly, as a cartoon.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Something in the air

13th Floor Elevators
It's highly unlikely that John Lennon heard 13th Floor Elevators' version of the Beatles' "The Word," captured live at the Avalon in San Francisco in September 1966 as Lennon's band was winding down their touring career. Had he somehow, I imagine he would've been studiously cool toward it, and then dismissed it; he wore an infamous superiority complex over a host of crippling anxieties. After Roky Erickson's recent death, I've been revisiting his first band's stunning output, especially digging the '66 show, released officially in 2009 on the Sign Of The 3 Eyed Men box set. The Elevators' take on "The Word," a tune sung and mostly written by Lennon, is slower than the the original, the Beatles' proto-flower power vibe funked-up into something grungier and much louder. I love its soulful grind and churn, and Roky's Yoko Ono-like wailing and screeching near the close, something Lennon, eventually, would come to dig. As the story goes, John met Yoko in the Indica Gallery in London a couple months after the Elevators let loose this version. Something in the air.

Lennon, '65

Saturday, June 1, 2019

It was always there anyway

Forty years ago this month the Fleshtones released their debut single, "American Beat" backed with "Critical List." Dedicated to Miriam Linna, the 45 was released on Marty Thau's Red Star Records in June of 1979, the picture sleeve sporting a close-up of Keith Streng’s Mustang-strumming hand, a frame from Henry M. Jones’s Soul City. Thau pressed up twenty-five-hundred copies of the 45, and competition on Billboard was stiff. Though Blondie’s "One Way or Another," Joe Jackson’s "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and the Knack's "My Sharona" were charting that month, the big sellers were The Charlie Daniels Band, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand.

Copies ended up in Los Angeles, and even trickled over the pond to London and Paris. "We were pretty proud," Peter Zaremba recalls. "There was our 45 with its own pigeonhole at Bleecker Bob's. In our little world, anything seemed possible then." The single received good notices: "'American Beat"'s booming wall of sound caught my ear," Richard Mortifoglio wrote in the Village Voice. "Though the mix muffles Zaremba’s guttural Mitch Ryder vocal somewhat, lines like 'Heard it on the radio in my hometown' emerge often enough to make 'American Beat' a raving anthem for traditional-minded local bands who say no to the No Wave."
Peter Zaremba (middle) and Keith Streng (right) signing with Red Star Records, with Marty Thau (back) and Miriam Linna (left), 1978.

Slash, the burgeoning rock and punk magazine out of Los Angeles, published an effusive review that described "American Beat" as an "awesome recreation of a period in time (mid-60s) when rock & roll was YOUTH music, not an Industry Business. This record captures it all—fuzzy reverb guitars, tambourines, harmonicas, gruff voices, oohhing backup—god, it's perfect, and yet still real and immediate enough to keep from being a museum piece."
Like the Cramps, the Fleshtones have reshaped the past for the future, and I can't fault their faithfulness. The sincerity is overwhelming, you wanna blast this out of your car radio, even though they don't play this kind of music on the radio anymore. Ok, the tape deck then. It's a soundtrack for going a thousand down the freeway with no tomorrow, blast it in your den, do all the Shindig dances on the living room rug. This is the rock & roll we all nearly missed the first time out. Let's get it right this time. Hey, play that again!"
Perhaps most exciting for the guys were hearty European notices. New Musical Express in London wrote that the single was "a nugget from New York's best-kept secret weapon. The purest distillation of garageville gonzo genius this week (or maybe this year) comes from The Fleshtones, sublime practitioners of the rigorous punk four chord trick."
Body crushing waves of sexy power surge and jangle to the front in a mad melee while the rhythm section bites on the beat with a zealous disregard for subtlety and the singer (a deranged specimen in the mould of Messrs. Saxon and Erickson) mouths off in full glorious spate: 'Can you hear the American sound / Don’t wanna hear you put it down.' This is an example of the beast at its most dangerous with American new wave's forgotten hero Marty Thau at the controls. History in the making.
(Excerpted from Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band)


Indeed. As I write this the Fleshtones are currently testifying to Super Rock through Switzerland, Austria, and Germany on a fourteen-gig tour. Shows are selling out, and the band's promoting a new single, "Layin' Pipe," the twenty-first of their career. (UPDATE: On June 10, "Layin' Pipe" debuted at #7 on Billboard's Maxi-Singles Chart. Not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary.)

In 1984 the Flestones re-recorded "American Beat" for the soundtrack to Bachelor Party, and they occasionally still haul out the old song, most recently a few months ago at Bowery Electric in New York City. Never, as they say, lose that beat.

And dig Handsome Dick Manitoba and the Nomads' rip through "American Beat" from the 2007 tribute compilation Vindicated! A Tribute To The Fleshtones:

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