Sunday, September 29, 2019

Desire, struggle, and acceptance

Jerry Lee Lewis turns 84 today. Here's a triptych.

She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left Of Me) (1969)

In Loving Memories: The Jerry Lee Lewis Gospel Album (1971)

Mean Old Man (2010)

Saturday, September 28, 2019

And on the other side of town...

Dave Alvin and John Prine
Two songs. Two fucked up couples. And two wildly different fates.

Such is the human condition. The great songwriters John Prine and Dave Alvin have made careers by weaving their stories with a fiction writer's eye for detail and for the great themes of being alive as dramatized in ordinary folk leading ordinary lives. I first heard Alvin's "Wanda and Duane" the mid-1990s via Marshall Crenshaw's rollicking version on his album Marshall Crenshaw Live...My Truck Is My Home. It's pretty clear what drew Crenshaw to the song, who knows a good one when he hears it: the title couple's characterized so memorably and artfully with just a few trenchant details, and the whole sorry story swings.  

Their tale: Wanda meets Duane in a bar "next to an industrial park." He doesn't dig her clothes but "she felt real good in the dark." After only a few dates they shack up at Duane's place ("on the second floor next to the 605 freeway"), and fuck all morning, afternoon, and evening. Alas, he soon gets sick of her voice, she of his breath, and the final act dawns much sooner than either hoped or expected. They give it a try: she joins a gym and thinks of stepping out, but doesn't have the nerve or the courage to act; he smokes three packs a day and falls for the girls in his dirty mags. She thinks: Maybe someday I'll blow out that door and I won't blow back again—he thinks: Maybe someday I'm gonna jump out this window and I won't say goodbye when I leave. The kicker:
Well, ain't it a shame, but there ain't no one to blame
when love just slips away and only the lovers remain
So the names have all been changed to protect Wanda and Duane
Meanwhile, on the other side of town you'd be forgiven if, peering nosily into the window of another joint, you figured you're watching another couple go under. He bitches that she don't like her eggs "all runny," thinks crossin' her legs "is funny," scoffs at money, and gets down like the Easter Bunny. Her turn: nope, they haven't gotten it on in a long time, and one day she caught him sniffing her underwear. Oh and he drinks beer "like it's oxygen." His turn again: she thinks that his jokes are cheesy, and get this, movies about convicts turn her on; she puts ketchup on her breakfast and swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs. But he's a "whacked-out weirdo and a love bugged junkie." When his paycheck arrives he howls at the moon.

Yet unlike Wanda and Duane, neither is gonna ever let the other go:
In spite of ourselves we'll end up a-sittin' on a rainbow
Against all odds, honey we're the big door-prize
We're gonna spite our noses right off of our faces
There won't be nothin' but big ol' hearts dancin' in our eyes
I love these two songs immoderately: each is funny, sad, brutal, and hummable. What more can you ask for in a song? "Wanda and Duane" appears on Alvin's second solo album Blue Blvd, released in 1991, and in his gruff manner, Alvin sings about the couple with affection and knowing sympathy. (Check out Crenshaw's live version if you like your vocal with some sweetening.) He seems baffled but shruggingly OK about the couple's fate, recognizing the way men and women pull apart in mysterious but sorrily inevitable ways. Their story's sad, but so common it's like the weather: if you don't like it, wait, and the sun will be around eventually, and then gone again. It's that elemental, that unavoidable. That humbling.

Meanwhile, Prine and his partner Iris Dement sing in the first-person, and their rustic intimacy makes the couple's love-against-odds all the more graphic and beautiful. "In Spite Of Ourselves" is, I feel, one of the great love songs of our era. It's the title track of and sole original on Prine's terrific album of duets he released in 1999—he also sings with, among others, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, and Patty Loveless—and so effortlessly catches, in its wry details and characterful touches, a partnership strengthened by the pull of opposites, a winking recognition that bitching and moaning and pulling faces at your partner's shitty habits might mask a genuine tenderness and frankly vulnerable admission that you want and need that person beyond all else. Love: it's complicated. As in so many of the great songs, Prine and Alvin sketch a dimensional portrait of men and women in just a few words, a clutch of smart, catchy phrases, and a melody, and by the time the chorus comes 'round again the second time, the discoveries inside are only bigger and even more affecting. "Wanda and Duane" isn't a love song, though it's kind of an anti-love song; anti-heroes abound in "In Spite of Ourselves," but they'll both improbably ride into that sunset together, snortin' and cussin' but lovingly side-eyeing each other all the way. Life is surprising and funny and unpredictable, and these songs sing that so well.


Here's the great pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green's instrumental version of "Touch My Heart" (written by Aubrey Mayhew and Johnny Paycheck, and first cut by Ray Price in 1966, who had a hit with it; Paycheck cut his version a year later). It's got lyrics, yet not here. Take a listen. What story, what messy life, do you hear this song scoring?

Friday, September 27, 2019

"Why are they so happy?"

Redd Kross
DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—"These guys are too happy! Why are they so happy?" That's drummer Dale Crover in Born Innocent, a (hopefully) forthcoming Redd Kross documentary, quoting a member of Nirvana skeptical of Redd Kross' undeniable joie de vivre under swirling colorful lights. That brand of irrepressible fun and funny hook-laden glam pop rock and roll was on loud display last night at The Metro in Chicago. What a blast these guys are, and what showmen—they're why I go out to see bands. Dipping into albums spanning their long career, Redd Kross offered tight but swinging songs, supremely well played, that call to my mind the loudest and best of Cheap Trick and Hoodoo Gurus with grinning irony and irresistible energy. Bass player Steve McDonald, resplendent in a natty white suit and matching bass, looks a bit like Sebastian Bach and plays his long-hair like an instrument, leaping about as if on marionette strings. His Rock Star Poses are part of the fun: campy and ironic but, like everything this band does onstage, filtered through bottomless affection and the desire to have, and to spread, a lot of fun. Older bro Jeff played slashing rhythm guitar when he wasn't solo at the mike, delighted at and drifting within his own songs, singing one tune through a sheet of spangly fabric. Lead guitarist Jason Shapiro got sounds out of his Les Paul that ranged from blissy Frampton to ethereal organ to riffing Ace Freheley, and like the others couldn't seem to wipe the grin off his face. Drummer Crover nailed things down with muscular aplomb.

The exquisite "Jimmy's Fantasy" soared, and material from the band's latest, Beyond The Door, rang out as sharply and memorably as anything they've released, especially "The Party Underground" and "Fighting," the melodies' sheen nearly peeling off from the band's hi-watt wattage attack. My fave performance of the night was "Stay Away From Downtown," from 2012's Researching The Blues, the hooky, singalong chorus of which is as much a party invitation as a warning. But the supreme highlight was the band's glorious cover of the Beatles' "It Won't Be Long," which they slowed down a bit, the melody revealed as all the more aching for that small twist in the arrangement, an old song made new, its promises as urgent on the floor of the beery Metro as they were in the EMI studios nearly sixty years ago. You're coming home, indeed.


Redd Kross opened for the venerable Melvins, a band I respect but who aren't my thing; I'll leave commentary to those who genuinely dig them. (The bands are together on an "Escape From L.A. Tour." Bassist McDonald played with Melvins, as does Crover; manful double-duty for both—McDonald changed into a new, equally splendid, suit for his second job.) The intense Buzz Osborne gets ferocious, mammoth tones from his guitar—imagine the roar of a collapsing mountain—yet I was as interested in the girl in front of me who braved the duration of the bro-bullying mosh pit as I was in the songs. The night was made sweetly, gloriously complete when Jeff McDonald and Shapiro came back onstage at the close of Melvins' set; teasing first with a couple bars from KISS' "Do You Love Me," the bands ripped into an absolutely stomping version of "Deuce" (here they are in Santa Ana, CA a couple weeks back). Crover nailed the show shut with the opening staccato of "Love Gun," which, alas, the super group onstage left unplayed. What a fun, loud night.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Prolonged and glittering

In honor of Roger Angell's 99th birthday, a paragraph from his piece "La Vida," which appeared in his 1988 book, Season Ticket. “Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out,"
but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. 
I made certain to give Roger the last word in my book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and Life in Baseball Writing:
I’m not retired, which is good. So I’ll keep at it. There will always be obituaries. At my age you write a lot of farewells.

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Minor griefs, cont'd

For a few years after high school I worked at Baskin-Robbins in Rockville, and then later Bethesda, Maryland. I dreaded the weekend afternoon shifts, always packed with customers in the warm months. Occasionally I remember, with not a little shame, a man who used to stop in—though stop in was a delicate proposition for him, as he'd only enter the store if there were no children present. On more than one occasion we'd watch as he'd walk slowly past the large store window, peer in to make sure that no children were inside (the odd grown up was fine, it seemed), shuffle toward the door, and then literally grimace in pain when an unexpected small child would bound toward the store ahead of a parent or friend. He'd beat a hasty retreat, but linger on the sidewalk, his hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting coat, and wait, with a pained expression on his face. Naturally, his weirdness became fodder for us bored and resentful teenage employees. Some of us (though not me) would openly taunt him and jeer at him, immobile on the sidewalk as if mired in glue, but I confess to silently, childishly hoping that a rambunctious kid would suddenly appear after he'd steel up the courage to enter the store. The plainest way I can express it now is that I got off on his suffering. I was less cruel to him outwardly than some of my co-workers (and some of the customers, if I'm remembering correctly) but still I'd hate to see what my face betrayed whenever he'd show up—the four o'clock weirdo—and any measure of sympathy I might've held gave in to the much stronger, indulgent desire to rubberneck this man's strange problem. I don't think that I'll ever forget the look on his face as he loitered outside—some blend of desire, embarrassment, and genuine suffering. He really—he merely—wanted some ice cream, but for whatever reason couldn't bear to buy, let alone eat, it if kids were present. At the time we self-righteously diagnosed him as a deviant, a kind of anti-pedophile who fetishized young kids by rendering them toxic (though we were hardly this objectively "smart"-sounding in our gossiping). He looked mean but also helpless about it, and so became a butt of our jokes. Decades later I don't know what possessed this man, why he couldn't enjoy a simple tasty diversion among children, but now I'm regrettably and I think eternally sorry for him and his obvious inability to live in the world the way the world offered itself. Maybe he was a grouch, or worse a sorry and cruel man, but he was also weirdly tender and mild in his manner—yet in my childish imagination I never allowed for any other possibility but "freak." Maybe he was sad and deeply ashamed of his compulsion, and couldn't control it, was far more innocent than we imagined. Maybe he wanted to be able to be around kids, but I'll never know. I never let him in.

Photo via Villa Skaar.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

That unseen wall

I've been listening to a lot of Edwin Starr lately. Most bio sketches will observe that Starr never received the level of fame and recognition that he was due; it's true that, although everyone knows "War," not everyone knows Starr's name—he's not on par with the Smokey Robinsons and the Marvin Gayes in Tamla Motown iconography. But his voice and interpretive skills were among the strongest and most enduring that the label ever featured. A ferocious singer with controlled yet extraordinary dynamics, Starr possessed vocals that were frightening in their righteousness and power. He died in 2003.

These days I'm obsessing over the track "Time" from War & Peace, released in 1970 (co-written by Starr with Richard "Popcorn" Wylie and Wade Marcus, it was also issued as a single as the follow-up to "War")The arrangement, propelled by the peerless Funk Brothers, is a sonic illustration of form nearly conquering content. The song begins with a chiming, and charming, tick-tock over a metronomic hi-hat; horns enter in the fifth measure playing descending notes until Starr enters, looks around with disgust, and commands "Well, well, well, well well well." Pummeled by a driving, headlong, full band rush into the first verse, that clock up on the wall's destroyed—though its looming presence is never absent from the song.

Oh let me tell ya. An emboldened Starr refers to the time of the second-hand moving implacably on the clock face, yes:
Time is the one thing everybody feels
It just expires with no regards to years
but also to the time of eras and moods and movements:
They say time can bring about a change—listen!
But I ain't see a doggone thing
"That's what they tell me: It takes time," Starr laments, his patience growing thinner with each verse. The problem?
"It's in the answer," that's what people say
But it looks like peace is getting further away
"Together we stand, and divided we fall / But we are still divided by that unseen wall" is one of the great lyric couplets of the late 60s/early 70s, a devastating comment on both the potential that time offers and the speed at which time is wasted, the unseen wall created by the spin of the earth and the bigotry and short-sightedness of the folks spinning upon it. This is a seriously pissed-off song, Starr's ferocity echoed in the relentless tambourine and the fiery backing vocals, clamoring for their own attention. Starr reaches for some measure of optimism in the last verse, but it burns to a crisp, really, under the white-hot heat of his performance. Like so many great songs, the content can't bear the form, which consumes it with its own urgency. ("How much time will it take?" the song pleads.) It's amazing that the musicians cut something this combustible without burning down the studio. A positively stirring recording, it will stand as one of the most powerful songs of its era. We can't solve time, but I'm tempted to give a victory of sorts to Starr.


I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that War & Peace also includes the song to turn up when you've gotten the bitterness out of your system and you're ready to party. Starr's rip through Little Willie John's "All Around The World" (an absurdly fun and funky arrangement that the Fleshtones taught me via their 1981 cover) is the perfect antidote to the grim recognitions in "Time." Fuck the clock on the wall, tomorrow will never come as long as the joint's rocking. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Given the immediacy of contemporary life—connecting on Skype across oceans in a millisecond, drones bringing food to your front door, Spotify and Wikipedia offering the largest music collection and encyclopedia, respectively, at your fingertips, instant downloads, and the rest—it feels almost morally important to get stopped every once in while at a train crossing. Happens fairly regularly in town and, though it can be mighty annoying, there's something humbling and perspective-shifting in being required to wait, to be still, to not move, to not proceed. You're in a different zone of nowness, one in which a large moving object impedes your path and there's no click or ESC button or scrolling away to save you. It sucks, and it's also marvelous.