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 lust, bafflement, and resentment, 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
Morgus the Magnificent
Return to the Haunted House
Long Green
Way Down South
Stop Fooling Around (part)
The Dreg
I See the Light
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
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


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.