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.