Tuesday, June 30, 2020

An empty Bottle

DOWN AT THE ROCK & ROLL CLUB—"An empty drawer is unimaginable. It can only be thought of." So says Gaston Bachelard. But what of an empty rock and roll club? Courtesy of these wonderful, melancholy photos, I don't have to try to imagine it. I can see it.

I certainly never wanted to think of the Empty Bottle as, well, empty for the foreseeable future, but here we are. (You can contribute to the venue's Reopening Fund, Staff Fund, or Music Friendly Distancing artists here.) These photos capture something beyond the atmospheric hour-after-last-call or the busy few minutes before a joint opens up: they evoke stillness and quiet, a noun and adjective one rarely associates with a raucous rock and roll club. Gorgeously photographed with a blend of light sources, the long bar, the dance floor, and the adjacent room (whither goest thou, merch tables?) look beautiful and artfully appointed, because they are; over the decades, the staff at the Bottle have created a warm and lived-in feel at the place but the aesthetics, not to mention the often striking artwork on the walls, are often lost to dim lighting, and in another lifetime, to swirling cigarette smoke. These noiseless photos create an alternate mood, homey, rich even. All that's missing are the patrons, the bands, and the virtually-visible music reaching into every corner. The images are pleasing yet heartbreaking, most of all to the struggling owners and the unplugged bands who were primed to visit the little Ukrainian Village corner joint from a few neighborhoods over, or the other side of the country, or another continent. I want so badly to pull up a stool here, order a beer and a shot, people watch, stroll the place, and ignore, or fall in love with, the second of three opening acts who I'd never heard of before. In the meantime, I'll wait. The music will come back one day. In a silly way, I'm grateful for these evocative photos even as they do what all photographs do: welcome me in while keeping me out. See you soon, down at the rock and roll club.

Photos courtesy of Empty Bottle

Monday, June 29, 2020

Less human noise

It might be my imagination, but it appears that the animals around me—birds, deer, even the fireflies at night—are less fearful, more approachable. I wonder if this is due to the pandemic, if wildlife is feeling fewer vibrations of human activity and, instinctively, feel emboldened, or anyway more comfortable, venturing out. The deer in the woods in our backyard come closer to us and don't bolt off as suddenly; birds are more plentiful and full-throated, it appears, and have taken to landing very close to us when we're out on the deck. Fireflies have returned at night; they've been scant the last few years. A couple of months back, ABC News ran some photos documenting this new "roaming," for better and for worse.

Again, I might be imagining this, but even so I take comfort in the apparent ease with which the suburban wildlife around us are spending their ordinary days, blissfully unaware of our ugly, self-created problems, and vibing off of the new clearness within which they silently move, perhaps feeling, and fearing, less human noise.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Magic Sam's secret heart

I'm astonished at the places singer and guitarist extraordinaire Magic Sam goes in his version of "My Love Will Never Die," one of the great obsessive love songs in blues history. Willie Dixon wrote the brooding tune and released it in 1952 with his Big Three Trio. After Otis Rush and others, Magic Sam recorded a version at Sound Studio in Chicago with his Blues Band for his debut album West Side Soul, released in 1967. Mighty Joe Young aids and abets on guitar, and Stockholm Slim on piano, Earnest Johnson on bass, and Odie Payne on drums round out the band, who play—surrender to, really—the compulsive 12/8 time as if they have no choice: the song arrived, and well, that's it, you may as well not play it like might you stand out in the rain and stay dry. The music masters the musicians, even as they master its dilemmas.

I'm not a musician, nor am I an actor. But like every human being in existence, I present a different persona for any given time of the day. We get into roles and we play them. What's brilliant and unsettling is how Magic Sam navigates words he didn't compose, lyrics which dramatize either a pathetic and delusional man or a brave and noble one. Sam amazed with his expressive guitar, but I keep coming back—on this record, his equally great follow up Black Magic, and the terrific Magic Sam Live—for his voice, which can leap into a falsetto so graphic in its expressiveness that I'm startled nearly every time. What Sam lacks in finesse he more than makes up for in gruff urgency; he's too close to the mike at times, the needle in the red just a corollary to his own heart pounding. He's steeled by the song's insistent, coiled beat, which gives the impression of a brave march, yet the minor key gives away his desperation and weak bargaining position. "You've done me wrong for a long, long time, and all you've done still never changed my mind," he—asserts? wills himself to believe?—and those dozen or so words lay out the song's problem to solve: she's hurt him, yet he still loves her. Now what? The last verse—
These flowers grow where I lay and rest
And these colored blossoms darling, hold to your breast
And darling, I know it's my mind breaking out
From inside my love for you will never die
—says that he's here for the long haul, but to what end? Does he believe that his declaration will win her back? (And why would he want to?) Doesn't he realize that his feelings for her, however noble and earnest, might look like neediness to her, or, worse, as tiresome and creepy obsessiveness? Yet either way he's singing, he has no choice, and that's what's both moving and exhausting about "My Love Will Never Die." The more he sings, the further she moves away, until he's alone at the end, clutching little but his continuing, baffling affection for a person who's hurt him. How to solve that age-old dilemma.... The strutting time signature has its knees taken out by the sadly knowing minor key; Sam's needful vocal is undercut by the helplessness of the very words he's singing. No matter how many times I listen to this remarkable performance, my sympathies remain at war: the singer's tired yet confident, resolved yet weak, emboldened yet haunted, assertive but owned by a weepy tremolo that he can't keep out of his voice. Of course, this is what I hear, with my own history, biases, and needs—you might hear something else.

Magic Sam's performance cut in this studio on this day in 1967 is timeless, and reveals a surprise or two with every listen. Like all great art, "My Love Will Never Die" remains in many ways unresolved. Joyce Carol Oates, who knows a thing or two about the dark heart, says “Lovers of pristine harmony, those who dislike being upset, shocked, made to think and to feel, are not naturally suited to appreciate art, at least not serious art, which, unlike television dramas and situation comedies...does not evoke conflict merely to solve it within a brief space of time."
Rather, conflict is the implicit subject, itself; as conflict, the establishment of disequilibrium, is the impetus for the evolution of life, so is conflict the genesis, the prime mover, the secret heart of all art.
It's an observation as old as dirt, sure, yet the paradox that Magic Sam tries to sing himself out of sounds and feels desperately fresh every time I listen. In the eternal present tense of the song's finish, he's battling a problem so ancient that it's as new as yesterday.

Trying to figure it all out

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


Years ago, Amy and I planted a Serviceberry tree by our front walk. We only recently learned that the fruits are edible when ripe. So this morning we picked a cup full and baked some muffins. It's restorative these days to be able to walk outside, pick some berries, and an hour later have a plate of muffins. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

If a band plays in an empty club...

DOWN AT THE (VIRTUAL) ROCK & ROLL CLUB—Well, at least I didn't have to wait in line for a beer. Otherwise, like many others, I wish I'd been there.

Last night, the original lineup of Reigning Sound played a twenty-three song set at B-Side Memphis; the show was streamed via GonerTV. As when I'd caught them in Chicago three months ago—the last show I attended before the pandemic restrictions—the band was warm and loose and clearly enjoying themselves, and like the bunch of old buds they are they looked back fondly and bemusedly as they revived the very songs that scored their shared past. "Hey Greg," bass player and good-natured nostalgist Jeremy Scott said to band leader Greg Cartwright between numbers, "do you know that in August it will have been twenty years since we recorded our debut album?" Cartwright smiled and muttered something about how some folks have had to suffer him for even longer than that. Good jokes, great songs.

The set was divided among the band's first four albums, with a few covers thrown in, notably the 1960s-era Memphis band Tommy Burk and The Counts' "Change Your Mind," and a wistful version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Memphis In June." Head-down, eyes closed, and committed to his material, Cartwright was all business (when he wasn't tuning up; he'd needed to borrow Goner Records co-owner Zac Ives's guitar, the strings' heavier-weight gauge of which caused him some troubles.) The rest of the band—Scott, drummer Greg Roberson, and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Greene—confidently muscled the songs and/or held them gently aloft, depending on the mood the songs created. By necessity there was very little vibing off of the crowd—because there wasn't one, apart from the venue's staff and maybe a few friends. (One or two "Happy Birthdays" were offered from the stage.) "Wow, a studio audience!" Cartwright crowed at one point, peering between songs into the venue's barely-peopled dark. "I never get to say that. The best kind of audience, too, a captive one." Grins all around.

A couple of months ago, Rob Sheffield wrote a terrific piece for Rolling Stone about his live-show withdrawals in this pandemic era (a suffering that I share with him). Recounting both the joys and the tedium of going to shows, he recognizes that the gulf between the two experiences is what gives shows their dimension, and often their surprises. He writes, "I go through my phone scrounging for karaoke photos I meant to delete, though now I’m glad I didn’t—proof I have friends who don’t run in terror when I’m on my sixth 'Shallow' of the night. Was it just a couple months ago in late February when I got up to karaoke 'People Who Died'? And everyone danced and nobody felt a single pang of fear? Did this all really happen?"
I chew on these memories like a crust of prison bread. They nourish me. They also torment me. I think of all the crappiest bands I’ve seen live, and picture myself crawling through broken glass to hear them tune up. I think of the lamest bands I’ve walked out on, even worse than the ones I hear in my sleep.
He adds, "Even more than the great shows, I find myself missing the mediocre ones. The nights when you drop by on a whim, run into friends, enjoy the music in the most transitory way, then walk home, stop for a slice on the way, maybe forget the band the next day. What a luxury."

Live streams like last night's do no small part in helping soothe things. And I'm thankful for the bands and artists who can manage to put on events like these, singing into empty studios or venues or their own living rooms, eager to help the many listening and watching to sing along, to dance and move again, to elate in favorite songs and onstage fuck-ups and the odd new arrangement of a classic tune. The silence in between songs was odd to listen to—I clapped at home, watching in my music room/office—and I'm sure even more odd for the band. I was grateful for every song. The advantages of watching a streaming show (I'm home already, there's all the beer I want in the fridge a few steps away) are finally outweighed by the losses (the intimacy of a crowd of friends and strangers, the excitement of a dark club, the decibels) but the contest was a friendly one; I enjoyed having a favorite band playing for me in the comfort of my own home, and I really wished I could've been there plugging my ears against the din.

There was no merch table, There were far fewer bodies in the room and hugs and slaps on the back. After the show, as the DJ played Merle Spears's "I Want To Know," the camera lingered on the stage as Greene stood and wrapped a bandana around his face; across the room, Scott opted for a more conventional mask, and the two stepped off of the stage into the dark into the new normal.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ironies in Pleasant Valley

Listening to music can nearly always become an ironic experience. Context is everything: one song's uplifting lyrics might bedevil a listener's down or anxious mood; another tune's downbeat words push stubbornly against the listener's elation, creating in that moment a kind of perpetual motion machine of intention and effect. This can happen on the dance floor, when a song's ugly words rise to your consciousness only when you're at the bar, thirsty, after having danced your ass off to it; this can happen when a mix tape suddenly sings very different songs after a breakup, or a joyful reconciliation; this happens when a song that mattered to you when you were a carefree fifteen-year old matters a whole lot less when you're an encumbered adult; or it may mean more.

This morning I was outside watering the front and side gardens. We've planted loads of ajuga groundcover in the front, and some coneflowers, and a hummingbird vine, etc., and all need careful tending in their early days. So, out this morning with a cup of coffee and the hose, I watered. As often occurs when I'm out in the yard on a pleasant Sunday, the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday" starts playing somewhere in my head. Soon I'm singing along. Recorded in Hollywood by the Monkees and studio musicians across two sessions in June of 1967, the song was issued a month later, and went to number three on the Top 100. Gerry Goffin and Carole King's song was inspired by Pleasant Valley Way, a street in West Orange, New Jersey, where they lived. I love the tune, have always dug the earnest "local rock group down the street" gamely serenading the "weekend squire" out cutting his grass, Mrs. Gray's roses, Mr. Green's multiple television sets, mothers complaining, their kids a generation gap away, and growing. But I usually find myself singing along to the song dryly, not without some qualms, having found myself, in a long journey, on a street in a Status Symbol Land of sorts, enjoying the garden and yard yet also fighting my native resistance to "creature comfort goals" that "numb my soul," even as I grimly acknowledge my civic duty to maintain appearances.

Anyway, with bemused half-grins on our faces, Goffin, King, Micky Dolenz, and I sneer as we go. I usually bring the song inside with me when I'm done, offer a few sardonic bars to Amy, who gets it but is then annoyed with me for planting the day-long earworm in her head. Today, that level of irony, and my grinning enjoyment of it, feels absurdly inconsequential. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests of police brutality, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting physical and economic suffering, ugly, ugly politics and the spread of fascist ideologies and brutal enactments, enjoying, however acerbically, a sunshine AM radio hit from the Summer of Love that unthreateningly satirizes suburbia feels the very definition of privilege. There are millions in the world who'd gladly take a cup of Pleasantness right now. Yet the song plays unbidden in my head, pop music's pleasures pushing against bitter truths, larger savagery, and generations' worth of injustice. A queasy incongruity that's impossible to ignore.

"I hate to pop your balloon about 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'," Michael Nesmith said to a reporter a decade after the song was released. "That song was actually written about a mental institution." I don't know whether or not Nesmith was joking.

Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Photo of Goffin and King via Los Angeles Times; 45 picture sleeve via Discogs