Monday, August 31, 2020

When we were kids

I'm often intrigued by what seems to be a disconnect between the ways I felt and saw things as a kid and how unperturbed by life kids seem now. I'll drive by grade schools and see kids running around the pavement or the fields, shrieking or playing it cool, and wonder if they're burdened by the same strange blend of fear, excitement, and existential dread that I was at their age. Of course, I didn't know the word existential at age 11, but I sure felt it—the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach when I woke, knowing that blacktop politics and recess dramas were looming, the impossible knowledge that I am, inescapably, a social creature and now must make some sense of the faces and bodies on the teachers and kids in the hallways. I had plenty of fun in grade school, but experienced plenty of mental agony and intense unhappiness as well, as all children do, yet it's hard to see this in the faces and bodies of kids I see. Can I not look past the clichéd innocence of kids in a park? Or am I projecting a misery on them that doesn't exist? (In other words, is this more about me than it is about...that old problem.) Naturally, kids deal with all kinds of difficulties, virtually and otherwise, that I didn't have to, their families and tenuous friendships collapsing into strife and melodrama at the slightest look, or jeer, or social miscue. Perhaps as adults we feel that what we carried inside as kids was readable to others—a kind of emotional acne—and so we feel in retrospect that we wore our adolescent problems for all to see, bullies and best friends alike. Not so. Only when I pass a kid walking home after getting off the bus, trembling under the weight of an oversized book bag, or the occasional straggler skirting the edge of a playground do I sense the nameless turmoil that they may be wrestling with. An early lesson in the space between our inner lives and the faces we present everyday.

Illustration via Envisioning the American Dream

Saturday, August 29, 2020

As it hits the air....

James Baldwin's story "Sonny Blues" was first published in Partisan Review in 1957, and then eight years later in Going To Meet The Man. The closing paragraphs are among the finest and most moving writing about music I've ever encountered.

Sonny's a young junkie and piano player living in Greenwich Village; his older brother, the story's unnamed narrator, is a high school algebra teacher in Harlem. Their shared history is fraught with racism, trauma, and violence—explicitly in the harrowing death of their uncle, implicitly in the low ceilings afforded each of them. The narrator's vocation is to teach kids how to solve for X, to recognize that abstract problems might have answers; to the narrator, Sonny's life looks, sounds, and feels chaotic. How to solve that? The friction emerges from this conflict, as both men speak different languages, seemingly at an unbridgeable divide, yet each wishes desperately to communicate to the other. The narrator's daughter dies of Polio, and in grief he resolves to make good on an earlier promise to his mother and to reach out to his brother, yet they remain estranged, each a stubborn, puzzled outsider to the other's calling.

In an early passage, the narrator, looking for Sonny in the city, deigns to poke his head into a local dive, absently hearing the "black and bouncy" music on the jukebox and insultingly assigning the barmaid a "battered face of the semi-whore," failing to see in her much dignity. Music is the soundtrack for low-lifes, for folks without aspirations. Near the middle of the story, the narrator's in his brother's room, resisting the urge to snoop, when he glances out the window and spies Sonny standing on the corner with a revival group. He notices something different in Sonny's walk, a kind of self-possessed strut, and that he's clearly enjoying himself down there on the street. Something focuses for the narrator, as if a lens has been changed. Following a halting if promising conversation between Sonny and himself about life choices, addiction, and pain, the narrator agrees to see Sonny play at a small club in the Village. There, he stiffly watches his brother on the piano, and listens to him—or tries to, the music's improvisations still alien and disordered to him. Yet he does recognize, and acknowledge, that what his brother's doing up on that stage is urgent, a kind of substitute, as Sonny's admitted, for the rush of a heroin high.

As Sonny plays, swapping solos with Creole, a fellow musician, the narrator ruminates on the mysterious power of music, admitting to himself that, "All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it."
And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal; private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is: hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of; another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
As he watches Creole's face, the narrator has a "feeling that something had happened, something I hadn't heard." The band finishes, there's some light applause, and then, "without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic,"
it was "Am I Blue." And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face.
The phrase I love is without an instant’s warning. He's wildly unprepared for what's happened and for what's coming in that tiny, dark club, something enormous, and surprising, something that might narrow the distance between himself and Sonny, and, because it's life-altering, it's dangerous and scary, too. Baldwin's a master, of course, so this isn't felt by the narrator with sentimental clarity, as my summary might suggest, but with the intuitive feel of a dawning epiphany and its slow rise on the horizon. Their shared heritage as black men and as estranged brothers is now taking a different, more dimensional form, as is his brother's confounding miseries, and to the narrator's shock, his brother's playing is what's giving it all shape. And a name. "Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues," says the narrator. "He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air."
Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.
These passages never fail to astound me. The great cosmic joke is that we don't choose our family members, yet we spend the bulk of our lives defining ourselves by them, a microcosm for life's joys, agonies, successes, and failures. A powerful story about family becomes also a powerful story about music, art, and connection—for Baldwin, is was all one in the same.


Photo of James Baldwin via The New York Times; jacket photo via AbeBooks; photo of Baldwin on the street via The Guardian; photo of Cecil Taylor's hands playing piano via The New York Review of Books.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Don't wait up....

The Beat (top) and Tweens
Two bands, two songs, two declarations of independence. The Beat's "Don't Wait Up For Me" from their 1979 self-titled debut lights out for territories unknown with thrilling energy, while Tweens' "Don't Wait Up" from their 2014 self-titled debut rides a melancholy mid-tempo groove into the dark night and its city lights.

What's in a tempo? Both songs head out the door with similar intentions, but at different speeds. Paul Collins's "Don't Wait For Me" begins with the singer's heart already racing, the band's stops and half-time passages doing their best to calm things down. But he's gone, and soon he'll disappear. "I tried to save," he says to her over his shoulder, "but you would never listen anyway." True or defensive? The difference is obliterated by the band's assault, as the song's more interested in racing to the horizon than in understanding why the urge to do so is so strong. "You got to make it on your own anyway," he says to her in a final parting shot, giving himself all the excuse he needs to get far, far away. So: don't wait up for me. The problem, to be be faced (maybe) after the eighth notes settle to quarter notes when the sun rises: on the road "there's no place like home" for him. That old problem, to be erased with three minutes of blissful rock and roll before the issue returns. That old problem. The song's rousing bridge, and Larry Whitman's desperate guitar solo, Michael Ruiz's assertive cymbal crashes, and the overall amped-up energy are characteristic of this great album's sound and spirit, producer Bruce Botnick and engineer Rik Pekkonen getting it all down on tape without sacrificing an ounce of energy.

Early in his new memoir I Don't Fit In: My Wild Ride through the Punk & Power Pop Trenches with The Nerves and The Beat, Collins regards his parents' early happy love, and reflects, "I wish I could say I've known that kind of love, but I haven't—at least not yet," adding, "I've been insanely in love, but it's always been with the wrong girl, for the wrong reasons, or both." A bit later, describing an early ambivalent sexual experience, he acknowledges something a little darker:
This paradox of wanting something so bad, getting it, and becoming repulsed has stumped me for a long time. I know it's some kind of character defect. I do not know why or where it comes from.
Honest stuff, an admission that colors not only "Don't Wait For Me" but many of Collins's rousing yet vexed love songs.

~~

Three and a half decades later, the urge to roam resurfaces in Tweens' remarkable "Don't Wait Up," in which guitarist/singer Bridget Battle's vocal, yearning yet defiant, pushes against a Velvets-like arrangement until it nearly bursts. Like the singer in the Beat's song, she too is poised at the threshold and is also young, and the road calls to her no less alluringly than it calls to him. But she's addressing her mama, not a soon-to-be ex; if the stakes aren't higher here, they sure are different. "It's getting so late, and your coffee's dirty, so can't we just leave the porch light on?" she asks her. Are they fighting? At the end of something? The bright daytime "is never the right time" for the singer, the dark night outside her home is calling her, and she want's to know what it feels like to be alive "wired under the city lights." It would all feel Springsteenesque if the beat wasn't so...ruminative. (The demo's even slower.) I love the song's shuffling among minimal chords, tugging the singer between home and what's out there, Peyton Copes's gently smiling bass lines suggesting the friends she might find when she gets there. She doesn't want her mama to wait up for her, because the last thing she needs is to be distracted by duty, diverted from her quest to feel alive, away from the suffocating kitchen, alone and independent. Both singers, each defiant but at different temperatures, exist in the eternal present tense of lighting out—we're not given the morning- or week-after sequel. I bet each of those songs would sound quite different. Come to think of it, maybe the fantastic opening cut on Tweens' album does give a hint as to the singer's fate after she gets to where she's going. This town is eating me alive....

I was afraid that Tweens were a one-and-done band, but earlier this month Battle surfaced on Bandcamp with a cover version of Bob Seger's "Still The Same," a choice I thought surprising as the song began, fearing an overly-ironic take. But Tweens' version is subtle, haunted, and utterly right for these times. Here's hoping there's more coming from her.


The Beat "Don't Wait Up For Me"

Tweens, "Don't Wait Up"

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Letting it roll with Bon Scott


On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the publication of my 33 1/3 book AC/DC's Highway to Hell, I spoke with Nathan Wilcox at the Let It Roll Podcast about the great Bon Scott, punk rock and rock and roll, teenage fandom, and lots of other fun, loud stuff. You can listen to our conversation here. And in case you missed it, I also spoke about Bon's swan song with Deep Dive: An AllMusicBooks Podcast, a few weeks back.


Last year, Nate and I had a blast discussing Jerry Lee Lewis's career and his incendiary album Live! At the Star-Club. Nate's a knowledgeable and spirited fan of music and books, and his podcast is wide ranging, lively, and well worth your time.


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Let it all out

Paul Williams, from his introduction in The Map: Rediscovering Rock and Roll, a Journey, published in 1988:
To me rock is a living force, resilient and stubborn, outlasting all those who seek to control it, explain it, pigeonhole it, exploit it, own it or understand it. The only thing to do with rock and roll is participate in it. Dance, shout, turn on the radio, buy records, go to concerts, make music yourself, read about it, watch it on TV. Identify with your heroes, even when you know better. Destroy all myths and then watch yourself create new ones, acting from an impulse that is as old as humankind. Say what you’re not, say what you are. Let it all out. Now.
He didn't really need to continue after the first sentence, but of course he did. Virtually every phrase in this brilliant summation of the power of rock and roll serves as a silhouette, or a blank space. Fill them in.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

So what's in a name?

In an opinion piece at CNN today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote, "My Italian father had a phrase that sums up the qualities of a good man—"
"a buon uomo." It means more than just being a nice guy. It means that person can be trusted, that he is a hard worker, and that he is a reliable friend with a big heart. My father was careful about using this phrase; a man would have to be quite special to deserve it, he would say.
Well, I don't know about all that, but I do try and behave as a good man as often as I can. When you were a kid with a plain first name and a last name that rhymes with homo and were surrounded by inventive wags on the playground, you looked for silver linings where you could find them. I first learned that my last name in Italian translates as "good man" when my dad told the family that when he was at his once-a-month poker game, playing with mostly with his Jewish pals, he'd go by the name "Phillip Goodman." Laughs all around. A hit at the card games, the joke falls a bit tonally flat these days, yet was an early indication to me of the slipperiness of words, how they can move in and out of different contexts meaning different things. I've clung to my half-Italian side my whole adult life, and so the origin of my surname has meant a lot to me down the years; I've carried it as a kind of calling card that I take out at parties and bars. Yet I also consider the derivation semi-seriously, in that it suggests a fate or some pre-ordained behavioral mode that I must live up to, elevate myself to, if sometimes failing in the process. I believe that somewhere in me a voice whispers buon uomo when I'm tempted to act poorly, to betray my better instincts, to act like a shit head, a bad man

In the season four finale of Breaking Bad, future criminal Jimmy McGill reveals his nom de plume  "Goodman" not as a kind of moral road sign to follow, but as a punch line to his first name Saul—as in, "it's all good, man." So, he went another direction. Do I really believe that my name, which I didn't choose, can act so powerfully on my behavior? Perhaps I use it retroactively to atone for my lack of sexy recklessness, for my boringly altruistic instincts that generally lead me to behaving well, rather than dangerously or heedlessly which might have resulted in a more exciting life. My first name derives from the Hebrew Yosephm, which means "adds" or "increases," so, put together, my name can suggest that I, humble I, am an additional good man. Hearty. Cheery, even. Also, boring. If my first name had originated in the word or phrase for lousy behavior, would I have used that as a defense of a lifetime of bad behavior, if I was so inclined?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Big Fuckin Party


In March of 1993, the Devil Dogs—guitarist and singer Andy "The Fabulous Andy G" Gortler, bassist Steve Baise, and drummer Mighty Joe Vincent—gathered with the Fastbacks' Kurt Bloch at Egg Studios in Seattle to cut Saturday Night Fever, an album that recreates the sonic blast of a crowded house party in all of its beery, humid, ear-ringing glory. The idea feels a little dangerous these days, no matter that it was put over with a half-grin. Folks inside drinking, rocking, and yelling only feet away from the band? Not this year, sadly. On the prowl in the mid 1990s, I needed this album, and return to it when I'm jonesing for a dose of lo-fi, amped-up, three-chord rock and roll, especially now as the memories of sweaty, packed clubs grow dim. The band having plugged in to something eternal back then, the album never disappoints.

The Devil Dogs turned to Bloch following an unhappy experience with their previous record, and their first with Vincent, We Three Kings. "We really had great songs on that LP," Baise told me, "but the mastering got screwed up, and we took the heat for it, so to speak." That record had been the third Dogs album produced by the Raunch Hands' Mike Mariconda, and as the band were already planning out Saturday Night Fever, Mariconda suggested that they consider doing the record with someone else. "That was odd," Baise acknowledges now, "but we love and respect him. He knew we had a great one in us and he knew enough to step aside and allow someone else to take us there." After returning from a tour of Japan during which they'd dug Supersnazz's Superstupid!, produced by Bloch, the Dogs knew who they wanted manning the boards for Saturday Night Fever.

By the time the guys arrived at Egg Studios, they were primed. "We rehearsed the shit out of those songs for months," Baise says, "then did an eight-week tour ripping those songs a new ass for two weeks before Seattle." He adds, "I believe we recorded four ten-hour days straight, and played three nights live." The Devil Dogs had no trouble acclimating themselves to the homespun charms at Egg. Gortler told Eric Davidson in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, “They talk about these famous studios—the Hit Factory, the Power Station, Olympic Studios in London. The places that I work in are like in some guy’s house, in the basement, next to the recycling bin. That’s what Egg Studios is, Conrad Uno’s basement. But Kurt really did know his shit. It sounds great!”

Hard at work
"The idea for the Live Party atmosphere was Andy's," Vincent told me. "He wanted it to sound kinda like the Beach Boys' Party! album, like the vibe of 'Barbara Ann'." Bloch concurs: "It was their idea to make it a party scene—We Are The Devil Dogs And You Have Been Invited To A Party!” That was the idea." Says Baise, "We always treated what we did as a special occasion. Andy orchestrated when everyone yelled or screamed." When Capitol Records hyped Beach Boys' Party! in 1965, the label distributed bags of potato chips featuring the album's cover art to record stores and radio stations. One can only imagine what Crypt Records might've sent as a promotional item with Saturday Night Fever: a shot glass? A bottle opener? A barf bag?

Vincent feels that Saturday Night Fever was the Dogs' "most planned and concentrated effort." The majority of the material was written and demoed at a studio in Brooklyn, and then battle tested on that long cross-country trip from New York to Seattle. "We were going to treat the recording just like another gig," Vincent said. "Just set up in the studio with Kurt and rip through our set."
Then we saved an overdub track where we were gonna put backing vocals and tambourines and stuff for the party. So on the last day we invited everyone we knew in Seattle to come to a party at Egg, which was not a very large room, got a bunch of beers, and had everyone making noise and getting drunk in the background. We got them to sing along on some stuff too. So we had the Supersuckers there, but I think it was only Eddie and Dan Bolton. We also had the guys from the Sinister Six who brought a bunch of cool girls with them. Forgive me but many of the names have been lost in the mist of time and drug use. Kim from the Fastbacks was there, as well as Ken Stringfellow from the Posies.
The Dogs cut twenty songs at Egg, fourteen for Saturday Night Fever, the remaining six spread over an EP and a single. Bloch remembers a highly productive week of orchestrated carousing. "The party was probably the last night of the session," he told me. "They’d invited their Seattle friends over for beers and a listening session. We must’ve had a pretty good idea of the album's running order, and they’d done a Seattle gig and a Bellingham gig during that week so we managed to load up the tiny recording room with likeminded revelers." Bloch, and Gortler, had to each don a poor-man's conductor hat, as the party hadn’t heard the record yet, "so it was hard for them to know where to clap along without some corralling, but it worked great!"

As Egg was set up in the basement of a house, "we’d have to be finished by ten p.m. each night due to the neighbors," Bloch remembers. "No-one really up and running very early in the daytimes. But what a raging session. Once they got warmed up and rolling, there was no stopping them. And so goddam funny they were. Non-stop slapstick. Glad we recorded everything the way we did, 'cause there wouldn’t have been nearly enough time to have done it any other way." The Dogs laid down the scorching tracks, live, with all involved working and hollerin' in the same room, "kinda the modus operandi of all good sessions," Bloch feels. "A few guitar overdubs and some vocals. It was all their raging energy that made it as killer as it is."

~~

Saturday Night Fever starts with idle party noise: some high-spirited chatter, stray handclaps to urge on the band who's taken "the stage" (probably the floor, feet away from the partygoers). Someone remarks that he could seriously use some beer. Just as someone else gets the nerve up to ask the girl next to him, "What did you say your name was?" the plugged-in Dogs count-in, hit a deafeningly loud chord, and Gortler steps to the mike: "It's so good to see all my friends down here tonight, and I know—I know—everybody's ready to have a good time, yeah!" "We are!" someone retorts, and after Gortler compliments everyone for looking good, the set rockets off with the evening's theme song, the stomping "Big Fuckin Party"—part one, that is. The song's reprised at the album's end. "I think that was Kurt's idea," Vincent says. "We recorded it as a whole and I think it clocked in at over four minutes! That is absolutely forbidden in Punk Rock world, and certainly in [Crypt Records honcho] Tim Warren's world! So it got split in two sections which open and close the album. I thought that was a brilliant touch."
l-r, Gortler, Vincent, Baise
Saturday Night Fever detonates one killer cut after another—sounding, as in the best rock and roll, that each song might implode before it finishes, that the band is letting the music play them rather than the other way around, all of it sent to the ceiling by a boisterous gang of partying friends. "I was worried that someone would break something down [in the basement]," Bloch said, "but I think it was all fine. Not the first drunken party in that room, that’s for certain." The band threw in a few covers: the Victims' "Dance With You Baby," Gary Glitter's "Shakey Sue" (left off of the CD version), Gene Pitney's "Backstage," and a quickly-arranged take on the Stones' "It's Not Easy" (Baise: "Andy said it could be done in five minutes, and he was right, as usual.") Each cover slotted in nicely next to snarling yet catchy originals such as "Gonna Be My Girl," "I Don't Believe You" (my personal fave from the record), "Back In The City," "6th Avenue Local," and "Sweet Like Wine." The band's take on "Backstage" is especially great, a desperate, heart-on-sleeve ballad about the loneliness of a rock star's life. No backstage in this joint, maybe a tiny bathroom off of the hall. The guitar's loud and distorted, the drums and bass rumble, yet the songs' considerable hooks are strong enough to withstand the assault. Everything's played at breakneck speed yet as tight as a Swiss watch, sung with half-grins and that intangible urgency that arises when a band knows it's locked in.

Just before the Dogs reprise "Big Fuckin Party," a reveler shouts "Uh oh, somebody's in trouble!" while another asks "Hey, what's in the box?"—a little off-stage narrative mystery and a great touch of drunken verisimilitude, reminding the listener that at every party there are always a few smaller parties working the room, all kinds of fun-and-drama catching fire, blazing, and burning out during the course of the long night. Alas, we'll never know what was in that box....

"All the memories [of the session] are great," Baise says. "We were so ready to record that record," adding, "We were taken care the whole time by really fucking nice, cool folks. I will say we always minded our shit and always kicked ass." Vincent added one more thing, "which sounds kinda name-droppy, because it is. After the album came out, one of the dudes from the Sinister Six was at a party in Seattle and Eddie Vedder was there. The guy put Saturday Night Fever on the stereo and Eddie loved it!" The next day, a note was slipped under his door which read:
Thanks for turning me on to the greatest Rock'n'Roll record EVER! 
Your friend, 
Eddie
Let's hope the cops don't show up....


Back on home turf