Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The people who listen to "People Who Died," cont'd

Periodically, I check in at 3 Chord Philosophy to scan the comments on The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died." (1,526 viewers have weighed in since I uploaded the song; my visits in 2018 and last year are here and here.) I'm fascinated by the community that forms out of, and as, YouTube comments, a gathering place akin, at times, to an intimate party or a group of strangers around a merch table at a club: commiserations, sighs, shy one-off responses or testimonials. Amidst the typical show-offy, tone-deaf, and/or "[whatever show or movie] brought me here" comments are unusually candid replies from grieving folk who've recently lost a loved or or who've been laboring with loss for years, and who hear, and rock out to, Carroll's frank litany of senseless or otherwise confounding deaths, and find release, or at least something to identify with. And with the Covid pandemic, a new tragic voice has entered the room. As long as this song's heard, it'll speak.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Angell turns 100

Happy Birthday to Roger Angell, who turns 100 today. Do yourself a favor and read some of his work, and savor the peerless ways he writes and thinks not only about baseball, but about the larger subjects in the game he loves that have always captivated him: belonging, community, the vagaries of luck, and family connections. We're fortunate to have such an elegant writer (and editor), observer, and thinker among us, and I'm so grateful to have been able to write about him and his career and to get to know him, which has been an at-bat of a lifetime for me.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Nothin' left to do at night

Nancy and Ann Wilson

What a run of singles Heart released between 1975 and 1977. "Magic Man" and "Crazy On You" (from the band's debut, Dreamboat Annie) and "Barracuda," the lead single from Little Queen, run fearlessly from desire, curiosity, and risk to betrayal, rage, and catharsis—with a night of straight-up joyful fucking in between, though even that pleasure's made complicated. Ann and Nancy Wilson wrote each track (guitarist Roger Fisher and drummer Michael Derosier pitched in on "Barracuda") and have down the years discussed the songs' origins: "Magic Man" concerned, in part, Ann Wilson's relationship with Heart's manager Michael Fisher, who was older; "Barracuda" stemmed from the Wilson sisters' outrage after their label Mushroom Records concocted an obnoxious publicity stunt hinting at an incestuous affair between the two, and a male radio promoter's gross "follow-up" with Ann; the sex in "Crazy On You" is an effort to block out the messy world, specifically the Vietnam War and attendant social upheaval. So: rocking songs about relationships, sex, sexism, hurt, outrage, and denial. That's a pretty broad spectrum the band traverses in under fifteen minutes. Ann Wilson's fearless, feral singing—Joni Mitchell and Robert Plant, in bed—Nancy Wilson's and the band's propulsive playing, the moody keyboard flourishes, and the transcendent harmonies, shaped by producer Mike Flicker, whose arrangements were striking (dig the disco hi-hat in "Crazy On You"): all of this soundtracked drama and yearning, and anyone who was around in the mid-1970s when these songs were all over the radio remembers their sexiness and mystery, the irresistible, sinuous melodies and rocking pleas-cum-assertions. Like the best pop music, this clutch of singles is very much of its era, an evocative time capsule of Top 40 positioned between singer-songwriters and New Wave, yet paradoxically also timeless and eternal. Great stuff.

Photo by Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Monday, September 7, 2020

The monster he built

I occasionally pull George R. White's 1995 biography of Bo Diddley off the shelf to marvel at passages like these, in which in the capable hands of The Innovator, junkyard automobile parts, the guts of an industrial wind-up clock, and toilet-chain copper weights create the sound of a freight train:
I never actually built an amplifier, but I would take the guts out an’ put ’em in larger boxes, an’ stuff like that. I also spent years tryin’ to develop a clean speaker that I could use. What I did was, I’d take two Fender Bassmans—which has ten-inch speakers inside—I’d take ’em out an’ build ’em into one big cabinet, because I needed eight or ten or twelve speakers to handle all that stuff I was puttin’ through ’em. Ten-inch speakers are very clean an’ clear. They take a whuppin’, you know.‘ This was before monitors, so I also put two speakers in the back of each cabinet, so the drummer could hear what was goin’ on. I spent twelve years tryin’ to develop a good, clean sound because I hate distortion. You know what happened? Some guy built a fuzz-pedal! [laughs] Busted my bubble! That was the beginnin’ of a new sound.
I was lookin’ to get a bigger sound, an’ I came up with that “freight train drive”—that’s what I call it. There were three of us, an’ I developed a style that would make us sound like six people at least. That’s the monster I built!’ [laughs] If you listen to the stuff I’m playin’, you won’t find any gaps in there: I play first an’ second guitar at the same time, an’ the minute I start playin’, you know it! It’s power-packed all the way. Pure energy."

Chess Studio, Chicago
Then, I came up with the idea of breakin' up the sound. I went an' got me a great big ol' wind-up clock that had a good, strong spring, an' I attached separators an’ stuff. I got me some automobile parts, an’ made it so it would break this circuit an’ connect this circuit, break this one, connect this one. Then, I wired it in-between my guitar an' amplifier, so that everythin'. that came from the guitar had to go through this bullshit that I had hooked up on the floor. It was noisy as hell, but it worked
About six or eight months later, Diamature came out with a tremolo with some kinda crap in a lil’ ol' bottle that shook around an’ broke the circuit. This was exactly what I was lookin’ for, so somebody else was on the same wavelength, but they knew what they were doin’. It was on the market, but I didn’t have enough money to buy one, so I kept on usin’ mine. 
Later on, Jody Williams bought one, but he didn’t like it an’ I bought his offa him. He couldn’t use it, but it was just right for what I wanted. It was a trip tryin’ to play with the sound disappearin’ an’ comin’ back—you get all out of step—but I learned to play with it, an’ when I learned that, that was the greatest thing in the world, an’ I made that sucker work for what I needed it for.
Bo with Jerome Green

Now, I needed more rhythm for what I was tryin’ to do but couldn’t carry a set of drums up an’ down the street with us—there's too many of ’em—so I got me some maracas. I got this idea from listenin’ at Sandman [a street performer who carried "a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand–which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner"] sandin’ on a piece of board. I’d sit up in the house an’ shake ’em an’ create rhythm patterns with ’em. I changed the whole thing that calypso dudes do, because that didn’t fit in with what I was doin’. I needed somethin’ that sounded like a cat playin’ with brushes, an’ I finally struck upon that pattern. 
“The first maracas I had, I took two of those copper weights off a bathroom—you know those pull-chains they used to have, with copper weights in there to let the water go down? I took one an’ cut me a hole in it, right at the top, an’ filled it up full of black-eyed peas. I had no money, man, to buy nothin’, so I’d go round junkyards an’ find old water tanks an’ stuff, an’ screw things out of ’em.  
After I’d figured out about as many rhythms as I could on ’em an’ taught myself, I hit Jerome [Green] with it. I bought him a brand new bag of maracas an', surprisingly, I picked the right dude. That cat could shake the hell outa them things! He was better than “great”; Jerome was fantastic!

Top photo via Pinterest, middle photo via Crain's Chicago Business, bottom photo via Pinterest