Friday, April 9, 2021

3 a.m. thoughts


My second COVID vaccination shot kept me up tossing and turning last night. Some random thoughts I had while staring at the ceiling....

I miss the rpm adjust dial on my old turntable. I'm very happy with my AudioTechnica table, but I liked being able to easily nudge a song while playing it to "go" a bit faster, or in rare occasions a bit slower. I've written here and here about torturing my younger brother when we were kids by playing songs at wrong speeds, and adjusting the rpm when I got bored with my AC/DC records back in the 80s. There's something about the analog omniscience that rpm adjustors provide; you can subtly affect reality by changing the speed of the turntable, because in a very real way you're tricking your mind to hear the song new again, as if you're catching up to it bar-by-bar the way you did when you first heard it. (The digital revolution of 1s and 0s wiped out this possibility, of course.) I was afforded a hands-on way of altering the fabric of a song, and, so, the way it's heard. All of this is "artistically irresponsible" in that I'm playing around with a song on my terms, rather the artist or band's, yet I miss that feeling of bending sound waves in such a way as to make a song fresh again, in a kind of laboratory of the mind.

~~

As I often do when I'm battling insomnia, I tried to sing myself to sleep, and the first song that popped into my head was Peter and Gordon's transcendent "I Go To Pieces." The first line—"When I see you walking down the street"—struck me: how many times has that line, in various tenses and versions, appeared in songs? Thousands of times? So many lyrics seem to begin, be struck by in the middle, or end with the singer seeing someone walk(ing) down the street. Something eternal, archetypically social in that.

~~

To my ears, the Spongetones' "You Better Take It Easy" is a great song that completely transcends its slavishly retro and revivalist origins.

~~

When I finally fell fitfully asleep, I had this dream: I was at a packed rock and roll show, standing at the right of the stage. I'd hung a large computer monitor on the club's back wall on which I was streaming the show, and I was preoccupied with adjusting the image—cropping the musicians, playing with filters, etc.. At my feet was an oversized color printer. There were a few people at the show who I knew—one of my brothers, and an old friend, among them—but I didn't want to be bothered with or by them, too busy was I at the monitor. In the dreaminess of the dream some time passes and I sent an image through the printer, which made such a loud noise that a guy next to me grabbed the photo out of the printer, cursed me, using my full name, as a parent would, and tore the photo to shreds. At that moment, I realized with a sickening feeling how obtrusive I'd been at the show, and that the printer was actually louder than the band. I awoke and thought, after William Stafford, I must revise my life. 

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Fate


One weekend night in May of 1984 my buddies and I jumped the fence of a private pool in Kemp Mill, a neighborhood a mile or so from my house. We were drunk—surprise—and had triggered a silent alarm. As we idiotically splashed around in our clothes, the police arrived stealthily. When their cars' siren lights cut through the darkness, we variously scattered, and tried to hide, my friends in the bushes, me behind a Coke machine. Needless to say, I was easily discoverable. I'd just turned eighteen, the oldest of our crew, and as the rest of them were let off with stern warnings, I was arrested for criminal trespassing.

A few months later, under an agreement reached with the county, I entered a diversion program to expunge my record. Each Saturday in the month of September I awoke painfully at dawn, drove to a MDOT in Rockville, and gathered with a bunch of surly, generally silent guys who'd each been arrested for petty stuff (although a couple weeks in I was to discover during our lunch hour that one guy had been busted for bringing a shotgun back to a dive and shooting out the bottles behind the bar). The work was tedious; what I recall mostly is, orange-vested, cutting through overgrowth to pick up garbage along the sides of roads, including, once, an ancient, anciently-heavy refrigerator filled with putrid rainwater, and a particularly dire day spent under high sun at a suburban intersection somewhere moving an enormous pile of gravel from one corner to the opposite corner. That took the better part of an afternoon. My family were members of the pool I'd trespassed, which only compounded my embarrassment. My dad, to his immense credit, understood the nature of all things adolescent, and assured me that the work might, at least, build character.

For that month of character building I bought these boots. I still own them, and wear them nearly every day when I'm working in the yard. The tread's completely worn, the tongues have given up, and the laces have long atrophied, yet the boots have held up remarkably well over thirty-plus years. They've lasted several moves, eight presidential terms, and more music fads than I can count. They slide on like slippers yet still stubbornly beat back the water when I splash through puddles. Three decades in, there's barely a tear. Apart from a handful of records and books, I count this pair of boots as among my oldest possessions. They've lasted, against all odds. There's much of me now that bears little resemblance to 18-year-old me, and yet there's also plenty that still does. These pair of modest boots have served that long continuum of selves.

~~

Two more memories from that month of labor: a few weeks later I ran into one of my fellow scofflaws on campus. He seemed to be a cool dude, played in a local band with llamas in the name, I think, and looked the part now, in fringe and boots. We'd only hung a bit while working to pay pack our debt, yet when we ran into each other he acted as if we were long-lost buddies. I knew what was coming; sure enough, he hit me up for some cash, "just to make it through the day, man." As a freshman in college I had little to no money to "lend" to anyone, and at any rate the memory ends with his request. I don't think that I slid him anything; his desperate, fake bro-ness felt lame and kind of creepy to me. 

And this: I was idling in my car one morning during the last precious minutes before I had to report for work, trying to stay awake while listening to WHFS, the great progressive music station out of Annapolis. Whatever DJ it was who was spinning at 6 or so in the morning played the Who's "I Can't Reach You" followed by the Spongetones' "Now You're Gone," from their just-released Torn Apart EP. The pairing was sublime, and moving, and it scored the rest of that day for me, casting the exhausting, menial work and my own deep misgivings and regrets in a softer, more forgiving hue. I needed to hear the melancholy yet sweet vibe in each song that day. Many times over the next coming years I'd play those two songs back-to-back on my radio show at WMUC, smiling silently at the memory, and now whenever I pull on my old boots, that pairing comes back to me, and without really realizing it I'm humming for the next hour or so, glad at my fates and the silly and profound places they've brought me.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The only truth


The band Silverhead fell apart in the mid-1970s after releasing two studio albums—their self-titled debut in 1972, and 16 and Savaged a year later—that didn't perform well commercially. Though they toured internationally, they never stuck on the radio, and as history tells the story, they will forever be considered a should've-made-it-big band associated with the dated Glam movement. I was listening to their debut the other day half in the background, when the side one closer "In Your Eyes" came on and moved dramatically to the foreground. I stopped what I was doing, struck by what a desperately beautiful love song it is, and was reminded again how music, when striking an eternal chord, can lift beyond the circumstances of its origin and feel fresh and relevant for later ears.

Written by Michael Des Barres—that's him on the album cover, pulling the title like an acid trail—"In Your Eyes" is a ballad that catches fire across its six minutes, and, arriving as it does at the end of the first side, feels both like a the end of an ending and the start of a beginning. There's a wonderful Stones/Humble Pie-ish vibe of druggy, exhausted decadence to much of the album; it struts ("Ace Supreme") and grooves ("Long Legged Lisa") and strikes poses ("Under the Lights") and the impression's that booze and powder are fueling the whole affair. The discoveries in the song all the more powerful and surprising to the singer, and so to us, in that they arrive as epiphanies earned at the end of a long ride. 

Michael Des Barres in '72

The song opens with the quiet, simple declaration of two held chords. Bassist Nigel Harrison and drummer Pete Thompson lay low, while pianist Mick Hodgkinson begins to move around a bit in the opening verse, adding some balm to Des Barres's wounded vocal. The story he's singing is as old as dirt, though perhaps a bit fresher given that it's coming from a post-1960s rock and roll frontman: I ain't much to shout about, he says, I thought I was special, I thought I had really good credentials. Older still is the naked admission that follows: it took you to make me realize that the truth was in your eyes. In bed next to her, besotted with the curls in her hair, he can't believe that in the morning she's still there. When the chorus comes around again, the band's in full swing, happy for the singer's good fortune, allowed now to express their own take on things; Harrison's bass and Steve Forest and Rod Rook Davies's guitars strut a bit now, but out of gladness, not ostentation. A couple of female back-up vocalists (uncredited, they're billed on the album in of-the-era fashion as The Silverettes, and included Suzi Quatro) sweeten the chorus. But the stakes are raised a bit: now, surprisingly, thrillingly, the only truth is in her eyes. 

That's the line that gets me. Of course, I don't know if Des Barres is writing autobiographically, and when a song's honesty is this universal, it doesn't matter what its origins are. Anyway, here' the story I'm imagining when I listen: a silhouette of a performer, drained of energy by drugs and the long road, waking up exhausted every morning with a woman, or dealing in the lobby downstairs with a manager or a hanger-on, whose eyes are bright and urgent but promise far more than they can deliver. It turns out that the only truth that matters is in her eyes, this very morning, the truth of her sticking around, of not used and split. What they did or talked about into the night is left unsaid, but the song basks in the afterglow. By the time the second verse arrives—it feels like the sun's coming up—the two are out on the street, if only in their heads, and the performance turns joyously funky, liberated from the solemn, half-lit opening verse as love floods the room with light. Her eyes are sincere when no one else's are. The song ends with soaring guitar solos and that simple but profound chorus trading places, the mood elevating as the song fades.

~~

A good love song is a funny thing. Begun in the dark, it's deeply private as it's composed and performed, yet connects somehow with strangers listening across the globe, or shyly trading mix tapes or Spotify playlists, or in a dark basement during the closing credits of a movie, leaving the one who's watching in tears. You've got yours, I've got Sam & Dave's "When Something is Wrong with My Baby," which sounds to me as ancient as scripture and as fresh as the blush of new love every time I listen. I connect on a very personal level to the lines that Des Barres wrote in the chorus of "In Your Eyes." They conjure a pivotal moment in my life that's unimportant here, yet crucial to my connection with the song; it's what surprised me when I was working at my desk, with the album playing behind me, and then in front of me. That's the thing about a love song: it sings in a common language that may be foreign to the one who's not in love, or who's not ready to hear it. In 1972, Silverhead got in touch with something eternal while singing about a moment, a universal truth that came as an utter surprise to a man lying in a bed, who knows, finally, where and when.


Photo of Des Barres in 1972  via Pinterest 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Here it comes


This morning Amy and I were out in the yard attempting to train our cat to come when we call him (status: ongoing) when a stiff breeze lifted and cut west to east and chilled the already chilly air. There are few stronger indicators of the time of the year; no one in this part of the country needs a calendar to know when it's March, the sometimes pleasant, sometimes surly swing month between winter and spring. The moment felt acutely in-between, a kind of a hinge, and without willing it I recognized, or anyway felt, the significance in my bones: we're between Covid vaccine shots, as are many, though not nearly enough. Our second shot, staged and administered again in the large Convocation Center on campus, marshaled, I'm hoping, by the same heroic local National Guard unit, arrives next month, and I couldn't be more grateful for and receptive to a sign of Spring, of moving on. We've all felt curiously liminal the past twelve months, one foot in the overused and taken-for-granted "normalcy," one foot in the under-experienced and unwelcome "new normal." That my vaccines arrive along with Spring is a coincidence, and a precious analogy or, worse, metaphor, if I were to insist on making one, and while I'm at it, I'll leave alone the symbolism of cutting away the winter growth in our yard. I'm resisting expressing too much gratitude in public these days—mindful of the unfortunate swath of the country that's still pining for the vaccine, and of the potentially rough weeks ahead as more and more businesses open and maskless folk head in and out—and reading more into a cold late-March breeze than I really ought. Yet my in-betweenness in that moment never felt more graphic, nor more hopeful. Here it comes.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

All you ever want to be

Joey

When the Ramones started out in the mid-1970s, banging together songs without really knowing how to, they swiftly realized their starry-eyed if somewhat naive ambition: to be as big as the Bay City Rollers. In retrospect, the band's songs were just too bizarre and weird, no matter how catchy, to be feted on Billboard's Top 40. A certain swath of cool, curious teenagers might've dug bopping with Sheena at Rockaway Beach, but the radio industry wasn't gonna make it easy for them to find, let alone to hear, much of it. Johnny Ramone would complain that Sire would only release as singles the songs that didn't sound like the Ramones; their late-70s manager Danny Fields laments to this day his inability to get his favorite band on the radio. It's an old story. 

I've been listening to a lot of the Ramones lately and what I'm digging this go around is the emotional wallop of so much of their material. (I've written recently about revisiting Dee Dee Ramone's great songs.) Because of the Ramones' cartoonish image—which they courted, in which they indulged, and from which they never wavered—and the sameness of their later records, many ignored or couldn't (or wouldn't) hear the poignancy in their songs, much of which, of course, was founded in Joey's delivery and in Joey's own rich songs. He remains an underrated rock and roll singer, in my book, one of the best. His vocals were sometimes mannered, or sounded tossed-off in his band's lesser, derivative songs, of which there are many, and filtering them through his innate love of innocent-era Brill Building and Bubblegum distracted listeners for the very real stuff he was warbling about. Yet when he sang with sincerity and vulnerability, opening himself up to surprises, he really delivered. Listen to the moving "She Belongs To Me" from Animal Boy, written by Dee Dee with Jean Beauvoir yet utterly owned by Joey, who moves through the heart-rending changes as if he'd been singing the song his whole life; it's his greatest Ramones ballad performance. The macho posturing in the lyrics is turned inside-out, somehow made sympathetic by Joey's wounded persona, not to mention by the gorgeous changes. 


Or a small moment like the four-bar bridge leading to the chorus in "Swallow My Pride" (written with Dee Dee) from Leave Home: "Oh, gonna have a real cool time / And everything's gonna be real fine," he sings, but if you've been listening you know there's a good chance that he's willing himself the courage to go out. Joey's always at his most stirring when he sings near the top of his range, and the melody and changes make it vivid to my ears, anyway.

"What's Your Game" is something different. Joey wrote the melancholy song and turns the lens outward on a girl, Mary Jane, who's odd and wants to fit in; he's probably singing about himself, or anyway writing with a hard-earned empathy for this girl, real or conjured, whose "insanity" he grimly recognizes and who likely shares his own geeky past, crippling shyness, and low self-esteem. He knows her game. Like all of Leave Home, the song's shiny relative to the lo-fi nuggets on the band's debut, and producers Tony Bongiovi and Tommy Ramone add Spector-ish reverb, a bit of jangle on Johnny's guitar, and sweet backing harmonies on the chorus to the Who-esque tune, which Joey sings with purpose and sincerity. There aren't many sleepers in the Ramones' early catalogue, but "What's Your Game" deserves to be played more. Joey's sympathetic tribute to his beloved AM radio commercial vibe and his marginalized, troubled fans is one of the band's most affecting and touching songs.

In 1984, an interviewer told Joey that he ought to write more ballads. "They've always sounded so honest," he remarked to the singer. "They're not syrupy ballads, but they always leave a heart-wrenching impression." Joey's response: "I don't personally like sappy, wimpy bullshit from other artists.I like things from the gut. I write and it just comes out. I don't say, 'I'll try to write about this.' I mean... [smiles] you just know when it's right."


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Maybe it's a conspiracy

Gary Walker and The Rain
I came late to Gary Walker and The Rain, the band that drummer and singer Walker formed after the Walker Brothers broke up in 1967. Recording for the Philips label, the group cut a handful of singles and one full-length, the hopefully titled Album No. 1, released in 1968 in Japan only. The album's a terrific blend of wholly original pop, psych, and Mod, underrated and sadly unheralded (apart from those in the know). After a number of possibly illegitimate releases, Audio Clarity issued the album last year with beautiful sound (though it's oddly mastered low, and there's nary a liner note). 

I've spun the album countless times and have became obsessed with the lead cut, the kaleidoscopic "Magazine Woman" which is nothing short of a lost classic. Written and sung by guitarist Paul Crane, this brilliant slice of moody, mid-paced psych pop is somehow both dreamy and propulsive, with a hypnotic bass line (courtesy of John Lawson), an insanely catchy hook in the chorus, and an overall vibe that's introspective yet busting with the colors of a lived life. What strikes me is how of-the-era the song is, not in a dated way, although that argument can be narrowly made, but in the way it reflects the immediacy of its times while also offering something eternal in its melody and arrangement. To my ears, though the song's as instantly identifiable with its time as are, say, "For What It's Worth" and "White Rabbit," its obsessions with interior states and fashion advertising feel fresh and relevant. It's a shame that the song didn't fall into the hands of the Mad Men showrunners, who could've played it behind a Betty Draper photo shoot, exposing this magical song to millions.

The singer's problems are familiar enough: he's attracted to a girl in a magazine, but his desire's so heady and all-consuming that fantasy and reality blur. His dilemma's scored by droning, effects-driven guitar lines that swirl about the singer's delicious complaints and threaten to pop the bubble of the daydream. "The scenes in your dreams make it seem like you've been with that woman," he sings, half-aware of the irony.
It's so strange as it seems that it isn't quite real but supposing
the feelings you feel become real even though you're just dozing
His response to this delicious conflict: Run, run, run, run, run to the sky. It's nice when someone needs you, he sings, but when that person is only an image, and a created one at that, when you realize that the only thing she needs of you is your money to purchase her, things get strange—the trippy melody knows and expresses that—but, oddly, no less pleasurable. The song's a graphic illustration of the disconnect between wanting and having, the unobtainable so real she feels as if she's yours, though you are, of course, eternally waiting to posses her, an end that's never going to arrive anyway. Something remarkable happens in the final minute, as Walker's drums fade from the mix, and even Lawson's bass line can't prevent the song from ascending into the sky, drifting toward a vanishing point of desire and loss. Tragic stuff, laid out in ecstatic terms here. 
 

When I listen to "Magazine Woman," I'm put in mind of another brilliant pop song about unobtainable realities, the Records' "Girls That Don't Exist" from the brilliant Shades In Bed. Released a decade after Album No. 1, the song, co-written by Will Birch and Richie Bull (of the Kursaal Flyers), rewrites Crane's complaint—in '79, girls that don't exist are haunting me—and the distracted bliss devolves into angst and resentment. This being a prime-era Records record, though, the frustration's sweetened by hooks, harmonies, and a killer chorus. 

It's ironic that both songs long for pop perfection, for an ideal that doesn't really exist, when both songs are about as perfect as pop gets.


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Danny Talks


Danny Says, Brendan Toller's 2015 documentary about the career of Danny Fields, is lovingly made, affectionate not only for Fields, who's very easy to love here, but for the eras which he heralded and in no small part helped to build. In the 1960s Fields hung with Andy Warhol and his extended crowd, popping up in the corners of, and often dead center in, countless photographs of that scene at Max's Kansas City and other infamous rooms, worked as an editor at Datebook (where, it's suggested, he was responsible for including John Lennon's loudly infamous Christianity remark on the front cover), as a self-made publicist for the Doors, and then in the same capacity as the middle-man who helped to sign the MC5 and the Stooges to Elektra. He later managed the Ramones through their first three iconic albums, lamenting, as he did of his earlier passions, that he couldn't get them on the radio, where they fully deserved to be. Joey Ramone wrote "Danny Says" for the Ramones' End of the Century album; it's a fitting title and end song for a story about hard work and perseverance in the margins and for the weird, wild, beautiful people who love, toil, suffer, and are unutterably fabulous there.

Aided and abetted by the usual number of talking heads, Fields holds forth dryly, humorously, and with a kind of existential, blissy, shoulder-shrugging sighing at the life he's lived and the people he's know, suffered, and loved. At one point, in the middle of an excitable rant—as excitable as the laconic Fields gets—he interrupts himself to go to the bathroom; wisely, Toller includes this bit of vérité as it characterizes Fields well. He often interrupted himself to try something that no on else yet had tried, and this made for a mercurial, up-and-down career, less remunerative than it might have been had he led a more conventional work ethic. Fields is a delight to watch and to listen to: with mischievous blues eyes and half-grins, with his body-slumping, occasionally kvetching and animated, Fields talks matter of factly about growing up as a "flaming faggot" and Jew in mid-Century Brooklyn, a precocious, intensely intelligent young man who entered Ivy League colleges early yet never finished, who came alive sexually in the West Village when downtown was churning with lovely freaks and lovelier weirdos, everyone making art, or talking about making art, or simply watching, and everyone fucking everyone. Danny Says is a fascinating look not only at 1960s and 70s lunatic fringe pop culture, but at how singularly important a driven someone can be in the back rooms and business offices, helping, out of love for art and music and exceptional, sometimes fucked-up geniuses, to do the heavy lifting of managing, promoting, publicizing, and knocking on doors to make dreams reality. All while having a blast doing it. Fields has been visited by no small amount of luck in his life with timing and good cheer, but he's also lost quite a bit—friends, acquaintances, bands—yet never, it seems, the twinkle in his eyes.

Fields, left, with Iggy Pop and David Bowie

Late in the film, Fields discusses the Ramones, and his comments on their appeal, vexed career, and legacy are sharp and moving, revealing indirectly the lasting mark that the band made on him: "The Ramones were disaffected teenagers for whom, in fact, there was, when they were in high school, no future," he remarks. 

But through their work, they gave themselves a very long future. They left a legacy of No Future people: "Maybe we have a future. We thought we had no future. Look at them, they can't play. They're terrible. But look, this is exciting. They're big, they're famous, they can get laid. Let's start a band!" What more can you do? You're pied pipers out there. You can't pay the rent with that, and a lot of these bands are going to go on and be U2 and Pearl Jam and outsell you by the zillion....

A bit later, he waxes philosophical about the ephemeral nature of success and failure in life, and the standards we use to measure them. In a way it's his epitaph:

Oh yeah, stick with me, forty years from now you'll be a star! You'll be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! That's the worst case, but, you know, life isn't long enough to see everything that happens that we saw beginning or continuing, or we thought was ending. It takes more time than that when it comes to things that will endure. 

Indeed. Danny Says is currently airing on YouTube TV.


Photo of Fields, Pop, and Bowie via Magnolia Pictures

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Why does it always end like this?

The Damned, ca. 1980
I finally got around to watching the terrific Damned documentary Don't You Wish That We Were Dead, released in 2015 (airing now on Prime). Director Wes Orshoski (Lemmy) has gathered together archival footage and new video shot in the early-2010's of the current lineup featuring only singer Dave Vanian and guitar Captain Sensible from the original, incendiary iteration of the group, the first punk band to issue a single in the U.K. and to tour the United States. Original guitarist Brian James and drummer Rat Scabies are interviewed, and the sometimes uneasy blend of Vanian and Sensible's careerist drive and James and Scabies's bitterness makes for riveting viewing. The story's depressing or graphically realistic, chose your poison. Men growing up, and apart. Ideals and commitments changing; pettiness leaking in with age. Near the end, backstage somewhere, Vanian and Sensible's grumpiness almost visible—they'd been complaining about how the songs of their contemporaries are used in commercials, but never theirs—Sensible mutters that the Damned are bound to have a good year soon, forty years after their debut. Vanian: Yeah, after we die. Laughter all around. Battles over lost royalties and the humiliations of onstage bitchiness are a bit tiresome, and utterly familiar to the the Music Documentary Genre, yet these issues ultimately derailed the original lineup in ways that still hurt: James strums alone in a seaside room, gently contemplative, if sore; Scabies prowls an open-air market loudly cursing his former band.

Vanian comes across as unsurprisingly aloof, heavily veiled, Sensible as a good-time Charlie, a punk inspiration one minute, a juvenile asshole the next. James and Scabies look older than their former bandmates—I guess that's an unfair observation to make, and probably not very valuable, but I certainly noticed. Bad lighting? The harsh weathering that regret and disgust (and drinking) visits upon one's face? By comparison, the jolly Sensible and remarkably well-preserved Vanian look youthful for their age. The joy of playing live to besotted audiences across continents? (Good lighting?) Anyway, it's a great watch, and to witness the band's development from snotty punk kids to 80s' proto-Goth to revived touring outfit is to see hard work and perseverance personified, the wake left behind them, of jaded and skeptical ex-members as well as amped-up and admiring fans and of members of later-generation bands, both familiar and inevitable.

~~

Of course I went back to the music, and was struck again but the brutal, simple majesty of this track, from 1980's The Black Album, a hinge in their evolution from first generation punk to New Wave/Goth. But screw labels: "Hit Or Miss" is planted firmly in eternal rock and roll, and it's one of the most exciting songs of the era. Given the perspective of the many decades since the band's debut, one could see the lyrics as prescient: though Vanian's singing about a night striking out, he might be unwittingly serenading his band's future commercial ups and downs ("I gave you everything that money could buy...I didn't see you stab me in the back"). What I love most about this great rock and roll song is the middle eight, coming in an era when even iconoclastic bands cared about such things:
Why does it always end like this?
Why does it always end like this?
Like the most urgent and desperate middles, this one rises swiftly to the surface like a festering boil, fed by resentment, lust, and bafflement, goaded by Sensible's fiery, pissed-off guitar solo, and just before it bursts, the eighth bar ends and it's back to channeling—wrestling, really—those feelings into verses and a chorus. If the middle went for one more bar we'd have a real mess on our hands. Great, timeless stuff, no matter what group of kids might be singing it, famous or unknown, or in which packed venue or nearly-empty rehearsal room.


Photo of the Damned ca. 1980 via Punky Gibbon

Friday, February 26, 2021

When midnight comes


I'm a fan of Big Eyes, the rockin' band that Kait Eldridge has steered since 2011. Among lineup shifts and a Brooklyn-to-Seattle-to-Brooklyn U-turn a few years back, the band's released four albums and a handful of singles, each devoted to riffing, 70s' inspired rock and roll. Eldridge is a great songwriter and a terrific, belting singer, and I'm as enamored of her record collection and Spotify listening habits as I am her considerable chops; she's one of those who gets rock and roll and its formal, classicist origins, who's not shy about producing un-ironic, guitar-driven pop songs dirtied up by muscular riffs and a dark lyrical perspective. And fuck yeah she'd like to sell millions of records and play arenas. The lineup on Big Eyes' most recent album, the terrific Streets Of The Lost—Eldridge singing and on guitar, Paul and Jeff Ridenour on guitar and bass, and Scott McPherson on drums—plays tight, hooky songs as if a secure place on the radio and most-streamed lists is their amplified birthright.

On the occasion of Streets Of The Lost's release, Eldridge remarked to Bushwick Daily that over the decade the group has gotten "tighter and the band’s sound has become more of what I envisioned when I first started the project." She was 20 when she started the band "and not as good at the guitar as I am now," she admits. "It took a couple of albums to get a more hard rock edge that I wanted." As her playing and songwriting grew more assured, she found herself intrigued with writing from multiple perspectives, acknowledging that some of the record is "very dark," adding, "I wanted to branch out and tackle more topics. You can only write so many songs about someone who broke your heart or a friend that’s wronged you, so I tried to write from the perspectives of people that don’t usually have a voice or a perspective that isn’t typically heard." She passes these new perspectives through cords and amps plugged into her bedrock source: 1970s rock, revealing that she'd spun Blue Öyster Cult "a lot" whole writing the album. "We get the comparison to Thin Lizzy, which is amazing and flattering," she says. "I think it’s more Blue Öyster Cult, though. A few years ago, we were listening to a lot of Kansas. We’re all digging more hard rock and progressive rock stuff."

Eldridge ambitiously threads BÖC grandiosity and Lynott-styled melodramatic desperation throughout several strutting songs on the crisply-produced Streets Of The Lost, though my favorite right now is "When Midnight Comes," a four-on-the-floor, packed-club-ready anthem about the joys and dangers of the early hours. Perhaps because in the Covid era it's been so long since I've run around at midnight, spilling drinks or having them spilled on me, that the song moves me so, yet I'm also knocked about by the song's propulsion and amped-up vibe. The singer's running the streets of Chinatown, threatening to wreak havoc and earn her stripes when the clock strikes twelve because she's not your pet, you can't put her in a box: she's a threat, so check the locks. The song's driven by a twin-guitar riff, a perpetual motion machine that sags and lifts nearly simultaneously: the night's second wind. It's all a bit menacing, but there's some posing, too; it's a very sexy song, playful in its grasping of a few hours of fun, and maybe some meanness, in a run of dark, tiny bars. But there's no sense of toxicity or self-abuse here; it's a roar of release before life arrives again, as it will tomorrow morning. She sings with a half grin.

"No, it's not a phase, it's just a putrid stage when midnight comes," Eldridge sings at the song's close. I'm seeing a literal stage in that line, whether she intends that or not. I'm looking forward to watching her band rip into this one under stage lights come some mythic midnight.


Illustration by Nicole Rifkin

Friday, February 19, 2021

The genius of Smokey


Smokey Robinson turns 81 today. If you get the chance, watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown (originally aired on Showtime, it's free on Prime until the end of this month). The documentary's a joy to watch, an inspiring story of personal and civic pride, discipline, camaraderie, courage, and master songwriters, cut through with humor. Among the many highlights for me were the studio breakdowns of "My Girl" and "What's Going On" and the far-too-brief footage of the electrifying Levi Stubs onstage, but the whole story's fascinating and moving. I wish it were twice as long. Smokey and Berry Gordy are the central players in the film, the center around which all of the musicians and songwriters orbit, and it's a blast to see them bs-ing, mock quarreling, and generally holding forth, if not revealing all. It's a must watch.

There are so many indelible songs of Smokey's, or those that he pitched in on, to choose from to celebrate today: but to my ears "The Tears of a Clown" is as close to perfect as a pop song gets. Stevie Wonder and producer Hank Cosby wrote the melody and arrangement, which glides between childlike circus wonder and four-on-the-floor dance propulsion, and brought the material to Smokey who, vibing on the calliope mood, wrote the lyrics. The song closes the Miracles' 1967 album Make It Happen, but wouldn't enjoy prominence for another three years until released as a single in England in July of 1970, where it rose to the top of the UK Singles Chart; always keen to exploit any commercial possibility, Motown recognized their error and re-released the song in the States, where it hit #1 on both the Billboard and the R&B Singles Chart.

And where it duly entered jukeboxes in nearly every bar. I fondly recall in the late 1980s sitting with my buddy John in The Union, our favorite joint in Athens, Ohio, feeding dollar after dollar after dollar into the jukebox, playing "Tears of a Clown" again and again, marveling at the production, the singing, the band, the tight yet somehow fluid arrangement wherein Smokey, effortlessly moving from chorus to verses, sings a fun song about sad stuff, that eternal game. The Union of course, was always loud, but the jukebox was loud, too, and yet we puzzled over the lines in the bridge—we couldn't make them out. We were steeped enough in the song's argument and metaphors, the story it was telling, that our ears were tuned, but drunken epiphanies as to what Smokey was singing were always just beyond us. In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, we really had to work, relying on guesses shouted at each other over the din, on well-oiled hypotheses, squinting our eyes in the smoke as we listened as if that would somehow help, or gabbing our friends and strangers by their collars, jovially desperate for their help. It felt like—it was—a fun game we looked forward to each time, Smokey, smiling, winking his gold-green eyes at us, just beyond our reach: What am I singing? One night, it just clicked for us, we simply heard it, the lyric as clear and sweet as air. And when we heard it, we collapsed in the simple beauty of it—the rhyme, the image, the from-left-field reference that—of course!—made perfect sense!
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
Right there is the genius of Smokey Robinson, a line made infinitely rich with a smart simile sung on top of a lilting melody carrying both joy and agony, the Miracles singing "The Great Pretender" behind him knowingly and pityingly. It's all so simple and simply perfect that I wonder how I ever missed it the first time.

Happy Birthday, Smokey.



Image of Smokey Robinson on the front porch of the Motown Studio, Detroit, Michigan, 1967 via Pinterest

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Moving On: Super Rock '88


And the old Super Rock™ footage keeps surfacing....

Here's a full Fleshtones show from June of 1988, not, as the title says, from May of '87 (and that sure as hell ain't Fred Smith on "basse" and "chant"!) [Note: the video info was corrected after I posted this.] This show from Lyon, France dates from Robert Warren's final days in the band—his last show would be a few weeks later. Gordon Spaeth would depart in October. An era coming to a close, for sure.

The camera roams enthusiastically, but unfortunately the sound sucks. Setlist:

Let’s Go in ‘69
I Was a Teenage Zombie
Hexbreaker
Morgus the Magnificent
Return to the Haunted House
Long Green
Way Down South
Stop Fooling Around (part)
The Dreg
I See the Light
Moondog
It’ll Be Me
Nothing’s Ever Gonna Bring Me Down
Let it Rock
I Got a Line on You
American Beat
Whatever Makes You Happy
Hexbreaker
Roman Gods

First encore:
The Lonely Bull
The Turn On Song
Return of the Leather Kings
The Theme from “The Vindicators”

Second encore:
Tiger Man
Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby
I’m Moving On

Doors, windows


DeKalb and Ogle Counties, Illinois







Sunday, February 14, 2021

Driven


Amy and I have never been a Valentine's Day Couple; we generally ignore it. In the COVID era of compromised intimacies and cautious physical distancing, I'm reminded of a time nearly thirty years ago when we experienced a surprise intrusion into our lives on a February 14 evening.

We were asleep in our home in Athens, Ohio. At three in the morning we were awakened by a loud banging on our front door. We opened it to find a young guy—student-aged—wearing a desperate look. There'd been freezing rain and sleet that night, as I recall, and when he gestured over his shoulder I saw that he'd driven his car off the road and flipped it over on its top in our front yard, into a ditch. Disoriented and in shock, he'd staggered to our front door. We invited him and he sat on our couch, his shoes and lower legs soaking wet. He stunk of alcohol. Trembling, he told us that his girlfriend had broken up with him that night—or she'd rebuffed him or ignored him, I can't remember, and I'm not sure even he was clear about it—and he'd driven out of town in a miserable state. Nearly all roads leading out of Athens end up winding, in places precariously, through hilly country; at that time we lived several miles west of town on a major state route but a curvy one; he'd hit a rough patch and, wasted, lost control of his car and it careened onto our lawn where it sat, having spun to a rest. Amazingly, he wasn't hurt, just badly shaken up, in agony over the state of affairs with his girl. Sobbing, he cycled over and over again through intense anger, bitter sadness, and boozy, shell-shocked glumness. Amy made some hot chocolate, and as we waited for the police he calmed down a bit. The tow truck arrived swiftly, and we watched from our window as his car was pulled from the ditch. 

A couple of days later, the doorbell rang. We opened it to find our boy again, hung over but cleaned up, wearing a contrite, bashful expression. He was clutching a basket of fruit; just behind him his mother stood looking stern and twice as embarrassed as her son. We accepted the basket and his gratitude for our having taken him in. We said, Of course. He offered a hand, and we shook. The whole thing seemed pre-staged by his mother, whose insistence that he visit us again, contritely, we felt was unnecessary yet also very moving. The tough, lucky lesson the kid was learning was nearly visible over his sorry head. 

For the remaining time we lived in Athens, I thought of him nearly every time I approached our house. A year or so after we moved friend of ours flipped his car in nearly the same stretch of road, emerging relatively unscathed; in retrospect, winding State Route 56 feels a bit cursed. But what has really stuck with me all of these years later is the way a Valentines Day went horribly wrong, the dark, desperate anti-sentiment you don't see in the Hallmark cards, commercials, and TV movies. To this day I can smell the booze on the guy, and his despondency. The features of his face are slipping from memory, but not his sobbing tears and shoulder-slumped pose of defeat on our couch. He was lucky, and no doubt recalls the crash, if in a blur, and the morning after reconciliation, far more vividly, in some blend of shame, bafflement, and gratitude. His car, spun onto its back in our yard in the dark: the flip side of Valentine's Day.

"sad anthropomorphic heart tattoo" via Pinterest

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Talking 'bout the Star-Club


In case you missed it the first time around, Nathan Wilcox at the Let It Roll podcast is re-airing the 2019 conversation we had about Jerry Lee Lewis and his Live at the Star-Club album.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

In the middle

Detail of Franz Kline’s Turin (1960), left, and Joan Mitchell’s Noël (1961-1962)

In college I essentially moved among the poles of art, literature, and rock and roll, cut through with beer. At the University of Maryland I minored in Art History; in retrospect, I wish I'd Double Majored, so in love was I with those cool, dark classrooms, murmuring professors, and oversized screens full of eye-popping, challenging paintings. I loved the way that the stakes in Modern and Post Modern paintings felt so absurdly huge, matching my own outsized self-regard and innocent belief in the power and value of art, and seemed to speak to me in a secret or foreign language that I boldly intuited. (I hooked up with a painting major named Kate H., and mooned over after her even when I knew that there was nothing there.) This all came back to me as I was looking through some of my old textbooks from those classes. I'm thinking fondly of a time when I'd be exposed to a Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, or Joan Mitchell painting, and I'd be affected for days. It's what life felt like, as if the painters were using my chest cavity and heart chamber as life models. And it still does. As I look back, my deep affection for the work of those painters, and many more, has stood the test of time, though I demand, or need, much less from them now than I did then. 

Then: I was half-convinced that, beyond boring stuff like food and sleep, all I needed in life was that zone between Kline and Mitchell, beyond stark figuration and colorful abstraction. At the end of a day, staring at the ceiling trying to fall asleep, my heart pounding—looking back at my fraught crushes on girls next to me in class, the politics at the campus radio station, songs playing in eternal rotation on my Walkman, the difficulties of remaining faithful to a girl I no longer loved as much as I did, anxieties and sleeplessness, musty books in high, musty floors in the graduate library, solitary strolls on campus, rock and roll on the radio—everything dissolved into that abstract yet deeply felt space between Kline and Mitchell, all of life in its variety of sensations, arguments, sadness, bliss, ugliness, and beauty, right there in the middle. 

Kline, photo by John Cohen (via ThoughtCo)

Mitchell, photo by Robert Freson (via Artsy)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

You don't know what it's like


I took a long drive the other day with the Ramones on shuffle. If I could, I'd write a screenplay or novel based on the songs that Dee Dee wrote or co-wrote for the band. There's a great character-study story there of urban disaffection, addiction, triumph, and tragedy. I'm currently re-reading Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones (written with Veronica Kofman), struck again by Douglas Colvin's fucked-up adolescence as the wayward son of a brutal alcoholic father and generally indifferent mother. His book's semi-fictional, grouchy, and riven with paranoia, pockmarked with errors, misremembering, and petty grievances, and swerves from topic to topic—so, in many ways it's an ideal rock and roll memoir, energized by a storied man at the end of the bar chatting off the cuff, moving between honesty and mythology. Ramones' lighting and art director Arturo Vega's quoted in Monte Melnick and Frank Meyer's On the Road with The Ramones as saying that "Nothing of what [Dee Dee] wrote [in Poison Heart] is 100 percent true. In his mind it became indistinguishable to write something that was supposed to be autobiographical and to write a song or to write a chapter in a book—there was no difference. All the differences were erased."
It wasn’t intentional. He wasn’t doing it to be more provocative or to shock; it was more an artistic decision. He wanted to live his life like his art. His life and his art became one. It’s not that he was lying, but he was creating at the same time he was supposed to be writing the truth. His intention was to create exciting literature.
In his autobiography Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, drummer Marky Ramone concurs, remarking that Dee Dee "fantasized the way other people breathed," adding, "It didn't make him a reliable witness, but it made him a great songwriter." 

Shuttled among military bases until settling in Forest Hills, Queens, Colvin found refuge in drugs, rock and roll, and male friendships, eventually learning bass, forming the Ramones, and changing his name, not necessarily in that order. His history of drug abuse and mental strife is melancholy, to say the least, and the pole between normalcy and instability was a wide and difficult gap for him to bridge. A famous person, he's an Everyman addict. His story's painfully familiar. I've always been attracted to the characters in his songs, who seemed genuinely and graphically punk to me, despite his band's often cartoonish image. I won't claim to know how purely autobiographical his songs were, though I'm guessing most began in a fraught memory, an unhappy personal situation, and/or a fuck-up, universalized in the guise of a faceless, lost street punk, a silhouette inside of which millions of outsiders found they fit. 

Late in Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, Marky Ramone touched upon Dee Dee's gift. As he tells it, the band was visiting Stephen King in his New England home in the late 1980s when King slid Dee Dee a copy of Pet Sematary; Dee Dee vanished for an hour and returned having skimmed the novel and produced the lyrics and melody to what would become the theme song of the film adaptation. Despite his triumph that night, Dee Dee was beleaguered, strung out and near the end of his tenure in the band. Marky sat with Dee Dee on King's front porch. "I explained to Dee Dee that he was among maybe a handful of people who could pick up a book, skim it, and write a catchy song about it in under an hour," Marky wrote.
I told him he had done for punk what Stephen King had done for fiction—create, from scratch, images, themes, and stories that drew people in because they could relate. Because the songs penetrated to the curiosity, fears, and insecurities people carried around with them but couldn’t put into words. 
I can easily see a composite character based on Dee Dee's songs in a narrative film, moving on the streets of the East Village, or a similar cityscape, among hard drugs, friendship, sex, and music, striving for reasons to live beyond opened eyes in the morning and a drug fix by noon. Some of Ramones's later songs for the band—"I Believe in Miracles" and "Strength to Endure," among them—wearily celebrated a hard-won transcendence, yet we know how Douglas Colvin's life ended in Hollywood. 

His lyrics, however aphoristic and skeletal they sometimes are, dramatize a really vivid point of view, and suggest so many possibilities for story lines for a kid born "a drumbeat behind" striving to battle addictions and demons to find a place to call home. Here's the storyboard.

~~

Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have somethin' to do
...
Then I took out my razor blade, then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me, but I proved that I'm no sissy
...
I was feeling sick, I was losing my mind 
I heard about these treatments from a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place

Peace and love is here to stay, and now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time shock treatment, I'm doing fine
...
You by the phone
You all alone
It's a long way back to Germany
...
The plaster fallin' off the wall, my girlfriend cryin' in the shower stall
It's hot as a bitch, I should've been rich
But I'm just diggin' a Chinese ditch
...
I am an outsider
Outside of everything
Everything you know
It disturbs me so
...
Under street lamps I will play, after the school day
When troubles disappear, I feel excitement is here
...
I'm not an imbecile
Don't treat me like an animal
I'm not a creature in the zoo
Don't tell me what to do

You don't know what it's like
You don't know how I feel
I don't have a monkey's brain
I'm not an animal
...
No one ever thought this one would survive
Helpless child, gonna walk a drum beat behind
Lock you in a dream, never let you go
Never let you laugh or smile, not you
...
I'm making monsters for my friends

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Playing a ventriloquist


Luc Sante's 1998 The Factory of Facts is an engrossing memoir in which Sante attempts, with the titular facts, to assemble some sort of coherence out of the circumstances of his life: namely, he was born in Belgium, yet raised in New Jersey. Feeling rootless in both histories, he's in a sense placeless, without a tangible heritage to call his own. It's a great read, Santeesque in its unsentimental looks back at childhood and adolescence with, paradoxically, a romantic urgency. What Sante knows about his and his extended family, and about the history of Belgian art and culture—what the facts say, or dispute—often leads him into the ether of speculation, and that movement between solidity and uncertainty, between calendar and narrative truths, drives this great book. (I spoke with Sante back in 2010 about his work.)

This passage on the vagaries of writing about childhood is exceptional, and hasn't left my head in the weeks since re-reading the book:

Friday, January 15, 2021

"Time..."

The Cheepskates, summer 1983

"...that's the only problem." So said Mark Strand. I was reminded of that observation last night as I listened to the Cheepskates' "Run Better Run." My then-girlfriend had dug the song when it came out, played it on her radio show at WNUR at Northwestern, and turned me on to it on a compilation tape. I never owned a copy—I've happily sung it in my head for decades—but I recently picked it up. When the Cheepskates released the single in 1983, they were a decade-and-a-half removed from the era and the influences they mine in the tune; the Farfisa organ, neatly-harmonized chorus, and early-Lou Reed vocals vibe might consign this song to the heap of Neo Garage tunes bands with the proper period gear and look were issuing in the mid-1980s. Spinning the 45 at home last night, I realized that I'm nearly four decades removed from its release now, more than twice as far away from the single as the single was from its ancestors. And the further away "Run Better Run" gets from its source material, the fresher or, dare I say, the more timeless it sounds. Gently lifted by the rising tide of history, its self-conscious fashion trappings falling away, the song stands on its own as a great tune—well written, well played, no more, no less—rather than a copy, or an homage. Stripped of its historical context, which paid explicit tribute to earlier times, "Run Better Run" now exists in the air above our heads, unmoored, if not new again, than certainly less moldy. I'm not sure what accounts for this except the passing of the years, which, as they often do, force us to reassess the past, maybe second guess the smug biases we'd placed on things, the boxes labeled This or That that we dropped them in, secure in our narrow knowledge of naming things, consigning them to smaller lives. It's what the late Ned Stuckey-French called, in another context, "the tyranny of taxonomy." Time's not only a problem, Strand, it's also a welcome, often surprising unburdening. Anyway, turn it up, it's a good song.



Photo of the Cheepskates via The Cheepskates Live at The Dive

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Beyond us


A disconnect has been shooting sparks in my brain lately. The wide gap between the ugliness of the events on the national stage and the beauty of the natural world around me has been nearly impossible to reconcile. Here in northern Illinois we've been blessed with a hoar frost that has lingered for days—trees have been wearing stately coats seemingly for our benefit for nearly a week. The landscape has been a surreally serene background to the abhorrent gestures of Trump and his rabid, terrorist followers, and has created a cognitive dissonance, a graphic tension between loud violence and silent awe, between monstrousness and brilliance. I confess to have been so distracted by what's gone down in the country that I haven't paid nearly enough attention to the natural world, a small, pretty patch of which I'm fortunate to have just beyond the backyard. Nature always wins out, of course, as, hopefully, will our democratic institutions, ideals that are larger than the puny folk who are trying to subvert and twist them. The stately, beyond-gorgeous trees in town bedecked in dazzling ice and frost, as in a regal ball, have been reminding me of what's always just beyond us—the world that will outlive us.