Saturday, November 30, 2019

Tomorrow's a long way off

"The vinyl single has suffered recently and is now, for all intents and purposes, extinct."

So wrote Thomas Ryan in 1996, in American Hit Radio: A History of Popular Singles from 1955 to the Present. Ryan begins his wide-ranging book with Fats Domino ("Ain't That a Shame," 1955) and ends with Bruce Springsteen ("The Streets of Philadelphia," 1994), in between raving about his favorite songs, placing music in the context of pop culture and social history, and all the while charting the slow, inevitable death of the 45 rpm single. The evidence was pretty clear: CD sales had clipsed vinyl by the late 1980s, and overtook the cassette in 1991. Yet something surprising happened around the dawn of the next century: the single came back. With the unprecedented rise of iTunes, legal and illegal downloading, and streaming, artists again led with singles, not only as promotions for forthcoming albums but self-standing joints, too. But like all of us, Ryan wasn't blessed with the powers of prophecy in the mid-90s. "With the ideal format no longer readily available, the whole idea of a 'single' can be brought into question," he laments in his introduction to American Hit Radio. "The technology that has given us the compact disc and the compact cassette may have destroyed twelve-inch album sales, but it totally annihilated the seven-inch single. Outside of specialty shops, seven-inch singles have become nearly impossible to find."
As a result, individual songs cannot be marketed properly. New “single” releases are readily available on cassettes as “cassingles,” and on CDs as “CD singles,” but neither format adequately replaces the seven-inch single. First of all, since space limitations are not a problem, both formats are often padded with an unbearably dull series of alternate mixes. Worse, these “single” formats are identical in appearance to their full-length counterparts, making them seem like a bad deal when compared to the collection they are extracted from. Most buyers would surely opt for the whole Magilla instead of settling for the less satisfying single. Besides, you can’t stack ’em. The most harmful aspect of this, though, is the resultant unavailability of individual classic songs.
Ryan adds that this development—which, again, felt pretty permanent at the height the CD era—marked "a serious change in the way pop music is marketed. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a song to appear solely as a single with no album appearance whatsoever. For example, many of the Beatles’ songs were originally marketed strictly as singles. Today, it is rare indeed for a hit song not to be embedded into a full-length “album.” But what are music fans who want a copy of 'My Love Is Alive' or 'To Sir with Love' supposed to do, particularly if they are reasonably certain they don’t want to purchase a heavily padded, “greatest hits” collection of either Gary Wright or Lulu on CD or cassette (provided that one is even available)?" And here Ryan voices the real concern that he and so many others faced in the mid-90s:
Although we hear this music every day, we can’t even figure out how to buy it. What’s the deal here? Has this music become the exclusive property of radio? It is something of a paradox that radio has become the last stronghold of classic pop while it is simultaneously murdering it. Modern radio can no longer do justice to these songs. In fact, sometimes it can kill a song outright.
Ryan notes that unless you were fortunate enough to live within the broadcasting range of a progressive station—blessedly, I was—the primary way to hear "diverse and stimulating radio is to channel-surf through the dozens of restricted formats that now control the airwaves." I can still recall vividly my disappointment when I'd turn on the radio in the car in '86 and happily catch the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Heads to Yourself," only to recognize with a sinking heart that I'd tuned in at the song's end. I didn't own the single or album; when would I hear it again?

Now, I can grab my phone and...etcetera. No need to rehash the advances we luxuriate it now, only to note that the facts Ryan grimly outlined in his book radically transformed within a decade. I'm not knocking Ryan for any kind of shortsightedness—none of us knew this was coming, and few of us with Clinton in the White House would've predicted the rebirth of vinyl (as of this year, sales are at a 30 year high!) Look at the catalogue of most indie record labels, Record Store Day, or any merch table at your local R&R venue: singles are back. We can learn to love the inevitable fade-out of our favorite single, but we can't guess what's coming.

More than 600 pages later, in his Afterword, Ryan cements his pessimism, his stone-faced sighing amusing to read nearly a quarter century down the line. "The vinyl 45 is all but dead, and is substituted by a variety of other marketing methods, none of which possess the allure (or admittedly, the limitations) of the 7-inch record."
Radio stations are programming from both compact discs and cassettes, so just because a station defines itself as a hit radio station no longer means that it plays only singles. The same is true for the consumer. With the ease of programmable CD players, there is little advantage to purchasing an individual track, which can cost fully half as much as an entire album. Without doubt, the long-playing compact disc (as well as its tenacious cousin, the cassette), has become the format of choice.
The future, tomorrow? Well, tomorrow's a long way off, the Shangri-Las reminded us in a 1966 single.

45 singles wallpaper image via Wallpaper Safari

Friday, November 29, 2019


I woke up around 5:30 the other morning, unfortunately a pretty common occurrence. As I lay awake the usual litany of concerns and anxieties mounted and crested. ("In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was just in a different time zone.) I got out of bed and walked quietly through the house, the chairs and tables materializing out of the semi-dark, various LED lights like calm fish under water. I looked out our kitchen window, which faces northeast, and a glimmer of sunlight was lifting over the tree line. And here's why this utterly ordinary moment mattered to me: unbidden, I thought of another person in my place, two hundred, three hundred, eight hundred years ago, standing quietly but embroiled in internal anxieties, watching the sun come up. A sense of peace and calm came over me, as I was both humbled and rendered, for a moment, universal, or eternal. Not me, but a person. Not Joe but a human. Pettiness lifted. Concerns lifted. I became a silhouette and for that brief moment that was all that I needed.

Photo by Li-Ji.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Charlie Watts is good, innit

Mike Edison thinks that Charlie Watts is dynamite.

OK, that's out of the way. There have been countless books written about the Rolling Stones. I've lost count of the ones that I've read, but I know what the best ones are, and I can now slot Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters among them. Edison's excitable tribute to the Stones' unflappable drummer is smart, funny, and comprehensive, written with palpable affection and a drummer's love for the game. Edison's thesis is not entirely surprising—Charlie Watts, a jazz cat by taste, always swung behind his kit and looked tastefully sharp while doing it—but his examples are consistently illuminating. Edison illustrates how Watts was always evolving within the Stones' basic blues-based rock and roll template, bringing jive sensibilities to his backbeat, gifted in knowing intuitively when to hold back the tempo and when to push it, both onstage and in the studio. Having listened to and marveled at Watts down the decades, Edison's greatest discovery is that, as a drummer, if you play to the melody then you don't have to keep time strictly, a wonderfully abstract yet graphic and powerful way to describe Watts's greatness, his feel for playing to the sensual and the fluidly lyric rather than to count-ins and bars and measures. This, and playing slightly behind Keith Richards's guitar rather than with Bill Wyman's bass, ultimately gave Watts his unique and irreplaceable sound.

If you know Edison from his late and lamented podcast Arts and Seizures or have run into him in a bar (happily, I've been his guest on each of those occasions) or from his earlier books, you'll recognize the propulsive, voice-driven, italics-exuberant writing style in Sympathy for the Drummer. I hear Edison's voice when I read, and had to actively slow down that voice in my head—the book sounds as if Edison's holding forth with his records strewn about his feet, and a great pleasure is allowing yourself to be caught up in Edison's enthusiasm. As a drummer himself, Edison's love for Watts never devolves into hagiography because he's genuinely, and regularly, startled and moved by Watts's authenticity and classiness, both as a musician and as a man. Edison dutifully recounts the infamous moment in the early 1980s when a besuited Watts decked Mick Jagger, nearly sending him out of the hotel room window into a canal below, and Watts's surprising descent into speed and heroin abuse during that same period, but Sympathy isn't interested in gossip or myth, but in how an unprepossessing man playing a tiny jazz kit can detonate his backbeat in stadia around the world, and how his playing organically moves within a song's sensual ebbs and flows. Watts is a hard man to know—famously modest and private—and so Edison does the smart thing: like the best music writing, his begins with a simple question—in this case, Why does Watts matter?—and lets the music provide the answers. And something else the book shares with the best music writing: it sent me back to the Stones' music, a catalog I know absurdly well, to listen with fresh ears to Watts's unique turnarounds, fills, and elastic grooves.

Edison writes for both the Watts-obsessed (guilty as charged) and the general Stones fan, and among the great revelations in the book are the wide-ranging influences on Watts's drumming; from obscure early jazzmen and blues drummers to Big Band bashers, Edison unearths knowledgeably and accessibly the sturdy, hard-to-see roots beneath Watt's drum seat. Sympathy also offers insight into the mysterious chemistry of a band, and serves as a helpful history of the Stones from their early, tiny-club gigging to peaking in the late-60s/early-70s to the malaise in the 80s to the recent-decades' worth of sporadic recording and worldwide touring. Watts has been consistent throughout it all: always game to play, fiercely loyal, an ear cocked to the particularities of song. Some readers unfamiliar with Edison's style might blush at his repeated use of "anticipation not penetration" as a sexual metaphor for Watts's intuitive style of playing; to my ears that's Edison's charm. He's never afraid to remind us that rock and roll is as much about fucking as it is about anything else, and Watts, though not a conventional sex symbol by any measure, always seemed to understand this, no doubt with a requisite eye-roll. Edison's smutty tone is hilarious, and performs a necessary de-styling of Watts, who's debonair, yes, but also tuned to the sexuality inherent in give-and-take rhythms and syncopation, to the anticipation of the thing. Check Watts's wry grin when he's playing.

Like any book extolling the virtues of a beloved musician, Sympathy for the Drummer is bound to set debate alight. I for one am still not sold on Watts's reliance on his china, or trashcan, cymbal in recent decades, though Edison's argument that Watts was, in his inimitable style, bringing the blues into the future, is nearly persuasive. (Still: too much, I say.) And a fun parlor game to play at home is to list the songs or moments that Edison missed, or chose to skip: my fave Watts moments include the impossibly cool four-bar close at the end of "Confessin' the Blues," from 1964, and his atmospheric, lyric, somehow cinematic playing throughout the epic "Moonlight Mile" from '71. Edison argues that to his ears the last truly great Stones song is "Had It With You" from the otherwise limp Dirty Work in '86; a worthy contender for sure, though I might go with "Thru and Thru" from '94's Voodoo Lounge. (Etcetera. I'm looking forward to hashing this all out with Edison next time I see him.)

Also Edisonian are the many funny and whip smart one-liners and observations throughout, writerly equivalents to Watts's sharp snare shots:
As Albert Einstein and Charlie Watts have successfully demonstrated, time is a fungible quantity. In the most human of terms, you wouldn’t want to make love with someone who fucks like a metronome, so why would you want to play rock’n’roll like one? 
Charlie’s rim shots didn’t sound so much like machine gun fire as much as they did a sprang of bullets bouncing off of marble walls during a bank heist—they rang of danger and were impossible to predict. He was never about muzzle velocity anyway—his charm lay in the danger of the ricochet.  
There is some kind of molecular chemistry at work when it comes to bands, strong bonds and weak bonds, and this is why Charlie and Keith and Mick matter. It is like building a water molecule: hydrogen and oxygen are plenty sexy on their own, but put them together and you can go swimming.  
[On playing along at home with Watts on the band's latest album, Blue & Lonesome] It was a hard reality check. I felt handicapped. Physically challenged. The tempos were maddening—the urge was always to push it, but the Stones’ magic was holding it back. Anticipation and penetration. Charlie Watts didn’t rise to the occasion, he rose with it.
Mike Edison gets it. He's produced an entertaining, thoughtful, funny, and frankly overdue book about how and why Charlie Watts matters. Pick up Sympathy for the Drummer and revel in the timeless style and unique gift of one of rock and roll's greatest drummers.
POV shot. From the Exhibitionism museum exhibit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Three things

"Rock 'n' roll starts between the legs and goes through the heart, then to the head. As long as it does those three things, it's a great rock song," John Mellencamp

Photo by Christian Patterson

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I am telling you only how it was

gazing back
There's a meme going around this week in which people post images of themselves from the beginning and the end of the 2010s, an end-of-decade cousin of sorts to people tweeting their greatest single accomplishment over that same ten-year span. Forty years ago Joan Didion took a similar vantage point, closing out the 1970s by reflecting on where she'd been and who she was in the tumultuous 1960s and where she was then, in Los Angeles, at her typewriter. "I am talking here about being a child of my time," she writes in the brief "On the Morning After the Sixties" in The White Album, her sixth book, published in 1979. She recalls her days as a student at Berkley in the 1950s—she was born in 1934—and how quaint so many of the details of that decade seemed to her at the end of the Seventies, suggesting the "extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies," a melancholy and disturbing discovery that every person makes at one point in her life. Also: history is personal, hardly a revelation until it's revealed to you for the first time with the clarity of an epiphany, and you wobble on your axis for a moment. "We were all very personal" in the Fifties, she writes, "sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us are still. I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise."

In her characteristic way, Didion then pulls wide: "To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation. I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults. That most of us have found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be falls perhaps into the category of prophecies self-fulfilled: I am simply not sure. I am telling you only how it was."

Later, she gives an offhand narrative summary description ("I got out of Berkeley and went to New York and later I got out of New York and came to Los Angeles") observing that what she'd subsequently made for herself over the course of the 1970s was "personal, but is not exactly peace." In Didionesque cinematic precision, she then recounts the fates of her fellow Sixties cast members: 
Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkeley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America's three-year executive-training program. Most of us live lives less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time.
She ends with: "If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man's fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending."

What I like here is how Didion, at her essayistic best, blends precision with ambiguity, a kind of clarion shoulder-shrug, the essential quality of the human condition if I have a vote. That Didion would view her Sixties persona skeptically is of a piece with her clear-eyed take on most things, but also a reminder that history is as personal as it is social, deeply and uniquely felt on the inside, a feeling often at odds with what the contemporary taste-makers are telling us we should feel, or did feel. Didion's ambivalence at the fates of her cohorts is personal to her as an individual in time, but universal also. Things happen, we label it in retrospect, decrying it or celebrating it, both in exaggerated terms. Meanwhile, here we are in the present mess. How will we feel in ten years, looking back? 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Joyful return

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, our family inherited a stack of albums including Introducing the Beatles and Beatles '65; both arrived without jackets, both beat up and scratchy as hell. I loved them immoderately, and learned to love music because of them. I have a distinct memory of listening to Beatles '65 in our basement, under fluorescent lights and a drop-ceiling, and playing "Baby's In Black," recognizing that the heart-sending harmonies in the chorus will return again in a minute. In my mind this was a First Recognition, an Origin Story, a Myth (and likely Precious, to boot), but I'm probably collapsing a series of memories, eliding, composing. None of that matters much: the die was cast. Experiencing the formal beauties of a pop song before you can articulate what structure is, before you can understand sound as song, before you learn what a "sea shanty" is and what it means to rip one off when a band's pressed for product up against a Christmas deadline, before you learn everything there is to know about that band and listening to everything they recorded, from demos onward: a body's pleasure with the mind catching up, panting to know. Those moments are rare but can be eternal. Mine are, as are yours. When I see myself as an eight-year-old in that suburban basement, eyes and ears going mad as the record spins, I see less a moment from my past than a tableau that transcends time and space. Heady stuff, but it starts in the heart.

Label via discogs

Friday, November 8, 2019

What do you hear?

For the January 1973 issue of Creem devoted to the Rolling Stones, Lester Bangs wrote a piece titled "I Only Get My Rocks Off When I'm Dreaming," in which he reassess his take on Exile On Main Street. Like many at the time of its release, Bangs felt that the album was muddy and unfocused, mixed oddly and generally underwhelming; he came around to the album later, eventually loving it. Though he regretted missing seeing the band on the now infamous '72 tour, he was critical of what he saw as the tour's financial crassness and of the growing if inevitable distance between the band and their fans, a "phalanx of concentric circles" made up of "mostly nonuniformed bodies which kept the Stones permanently insulated." He added: "Just like Dante, if a trifle more sleazy and less important." In the process of reevaluating Exile, Bangs quotes some of his favorite lines, filtering his growing dissatisfaction with the band's princely self-regard through the attitude and stances in their songs. Maybe it was tinnitus, but Bangs got some lyrics wrong. Then again, there was no lyric sheet with Exile, and with Mick Jagger's voice mixed notoriously low, it became a party game of sorts attempting to decipher many of his turns of phrase. (She comes every time she pirouettes over me?? Well, that one was right)

At one point, Bangs tosses off an observation, pursuing it no further, but it stuck with me. "Most of us didn’t get the real words, because at their most vulnerably crucial moments they were slurred and buried in the tides of sound," he remarks.
Jagger had to sing it that way, in "Sway” and again in much of Exile, because that is the way his pride works. Besides, anything else would make it all too concise and clear—like putting the lyrics on an album cover, which is the most impersonal thing any rock ’n’ roll artist can possibly do.
That strikes me as an interesting contradiction. You'd think that supplying a lyric sheet to an album would be a personal gesture, an invitation from the band to the listener to get closer, to hear, and share, exactly what the singer's singing. But to Bangs it amounts to impersonality, a kind of neutral intimacy. I guess what he's getting at is that what we hear when we listen to a song without its lyrics at hand, often mangled, misheard, and wildly off, is what means the most to us, is the most deeply personal. What Jagger wrote and then sang might mean something to him—or also, you know, being Jagger, not—but what means more to me is the language that the song spoke with when I heard it, either a snippet in passing or in a sustained, deep listen. Sometimes a misheard lyric is what, in fact, we need to hear, without realizing it, and the "correct" words can feel off, wrong even.

Like the vague disappointment you feel when the person you imagine as a novel's character is played by the wrong actor in the adaptation. (Casting director, get the fuck out of my fantasy.) The graphic artist and writer Scott McCloud gets at something analogous with his take on amplification through simplification: as readers, we more strongly identify with a cartoonishly simple face than with a detailed, realistic face. “When we abstract an image," McCloud notices, "we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details by stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning'." Less my weird uncle or my gym teacher, more a universal man.

So where Hendrix wrote Excuse me while I kiss the sky on the left, you hear kiss this guy on the right. Right? What you wanted or needed to hear, what you giggled at and dismissed or identified with strongly. What's wrong felt true.

The danger here is that a song's lyric—or a poem or essay or painting—might come to mean anything I want it to mean, a kind of relativism that's the death of an artist's agency, That, I steer clear from with urgency. But I'm sympathetic to what Bangs says, as it's a long and mysterious journey from pen to ear.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Shake it some more & some more

Every once in a while, a song will land on you that you didn't know you couldn't live without. In late 1965, Tony Sheridan and The Big Six issued the single "Shake It Some More" on Polydor International. By the middle of the decade, Sheridan was a has-been—had he really been a been? He was, of course, a popular fixture on the beat music scene in Hamburg, West Germany in the early 1960s where he was infamously paired up with a frightfully young Beatles in the studio for a handful of tracks, released in 1961 under Sheridan and The Beat Brothers (and in a million more iterations down the decades). Like so many musicians on the U.K. and northern European rock and roll scenes, Sheridan was laid waste by the Beatles meteoric success, and as the decade roared on was largely forgotten. (Sheridan was visited upon by luck more than once: on tour in April 1960 with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, he'd angled for a car ride with the two headliners but was refused. That fateful ride ended in an accident that killed Cochran and left Vincent badly and permanently hurt.)

Sheridan released several singles, EPs, and the odd album in the 1960s in various styles and approaches, but remained, unfairly or not, in the shadows. He obviously wrote "Shake It Some More" with the pop market in mind. (If you're interested in the story of Sheridan's backing band, The Big Six, Nick Warburton's got you covered here.) The tune bears hallmarks of the Dance Of The Week era, already unfashionable by the time Polydor issued the single, yet to my ears "Shake It Some More" transcends the origin of its composition, to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates. Sheridan and his band get their hands around something eternal in this simple, three-chord-based, garage-cha-cha tune, and play it loosely but with swinging propulsion; it's recorded well, too, with terrific dynamics. "Shake It Some More" does just about everything a rock and roll song has to do: gets you up, moving and grinning, encourages you to forget the shitty things in your life for a few minutes, reminds you that this song's always playing in the background somewhere if you'd only pay attention. Redemptive, that. The words are children's-book simple: one two three four shake it some more, five six seven eight don't you be late, hey shake it baby, shake it right now 'cause I feel alright now. On the right night, one man's nonsense is another's bible verse, not simplistic so much as elemental—eternal, I'd say, in the sense that anyone might've urged those lines, perhaps in a different language, in a different idiom, but with the same cheery invitation: c'mon let's get up.

"Shake It Some More" is, of course, only one of many, many like tunes from the beat group era, and I don't really know why it stuck on me and has become a longtime favorite. Partly its obscurity, partly the Sheridan link, but mostly the perpetual rocking beat, the moving clarity of it all. I arrived at the song in a fun way, as you do. The Swingin' Neckbreakers taught me the tune first on their debut Live For Buzz in 1993. Virtually the next week, it seemed, Lyres issued a version of the tune on a b-side. Serendipity! The needle landing at the same spot twice, which lightning never does, or so goes the myth, anyway. I dug both versions and commenced a fruitless search for the original 45 that lasted many years. I finally tracked down a copy via discogs without paying exorbitantly. Decades-worth of scratches and all, here's a simple, eternal beaut:

Here's a terrific video of Sheridan and his band performing the song on the German Beat Beat Beat television show in 1966. Sheridan's selling it, though the limitations of his charm and idol-esque look are apparent. The dancers? They're an odd blend of eagerness, resentment, and bafflement, but from the looks of it things are loosening up at the end:


Meanwhile here are the Neckbreakers' and Lyres' versions. Who wore it best?

Photo of Sheridan via Alchetron.