Thursday, April 29, 2021


The Shangri-Las' great run of singles in the mid-1960s never fails to astonish me when I hear them. I recently found "Out In The Streets" in a box of 45s at a local joint, smitten as ever by the guitar slingin' red robin on the label. The names on the label are familiar: Jeff Barry. Ellie Greenwich. Shadow Morton. Artie Butler. Yet the sum's nearly always greater than the parts in the best Shangri-Las tunes. This one's over in under three minutes and feels as dense and layered as a three-hour film. The atmosphere Shangri-Las and Shadow Morton create somehow merges bedroom longing and street rawness without sounding contrived or insincere, much of it is due to Weiss's naked, honest singing, much of it is due to the lyrics evoking rather than directly saying: what are the "wild things" her-now-good boy doesn't do anymore? (I'm imagining them.) And what about that long, isolated ooooohhh at the front? Is that wisdom or regret, or both? She loves him, yet it pains her that he lost himself in loving her back. And who's downstairs at the end?

One verse suggests biography, rumor, story, and back story in just thirty-six words
He grew up on the sidewalk
Streetlights shining above
He grew up with no one to love
He grew up on the sidewalks
He grew up running free
He grew up and then he met me
No wonder Springsteen was obsessed. He'd have killed to have written that. The sexiest line? "There's something 'bout his kissing that tells me he's changed." The Shangri-Las' nailed complicated sentiment like this: adolescent mysteries cloudily originating, and then shockingly revealed, in sex, then made even more more mysterious, all of it wrapped in moody, heartbreaking major-minor melody shifts (naive to curious, innocent to knowing) and decorous language, the vivid details—the facts—of his kissing graphically burning in the singer's memories, hers alone and tragic because of that. 

None of this is new, and yet the song still amazes me with each listen. No one sang stories quite like the Shangri-Las.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Bo Diddley vs. Cosmic Mind

Re-reading the Summer 2020 issue of Ugly Things (which, like every UT, is a must-read) I was taken with Tom Campbell's article on the Paisleys, a late-60s Minneapolis-via-Canada psych band whose live shows, musical output, and general worldview were, one can say, of the era. (Campbell's article is reprinted at MinniePaulMusic here.) "To put it cruelly," Richie Unterberger wrote in Allmusic, "the Paisleys were exactly the kind of band roasted by the Mothers of Invention so unmercifully on We're Only in It for the Money." To many, the band is irredeemably dated. 

The Paisleys aren't entirely my cup of (dosed) tea either, yet I was struck by their song "Diddley," from their only album, Cosmic Mind At Play, released on the Peace label in 1970. The song gives the impression of a scruffy garage-rock loner who sees the light while tripping and wanders, smiling, into the nearest Be-In, a graphic example of how horizons were expanding in the Woodstock Era yet old-school rock and roll still exerted an influence of sorts. "'Diddley' is based on that rhythm that Bo Diddley would have come out with," bassist and vocalist Richard Timm told Campbell, "that one-chord jam." Drummer Bob Belknap insists that he didn’t play the Diddley drum pattern on the recording: "I made up my own drumming to it." Be that as it may, Belknap's still deeply indebted to the Bo Beat, which the band peaceably utilizes to sing about shallow identities and true essences. 

"I've got a few things on my mind, I'd like to say if you don't mind," the singer begins, gently. The color of your soul, he wonders, "Is it pure and free to flow?"
I'd really like to know what you are
Why you keep your face inside a jar
We're all just actors in a play
I hope to see you smiling every day
The band balletically dances behind the vocal, a Manzerak-style organ substituting for Bo's guitar and a high-fret bass line playfully syncopating, while layering the soundscape with shimmering harmonies. Halfway through, the song somewhat predictably evolves/devolves into a freakout of sorts, as a mock car salesman hocks his wares before reverb-laden swooshes and sensual moaning intrude and the glorious chorus returns. It's quite a tune, one that wouldn't have been imagined a year or two before. 

Benevolently trippy, the song's got a Pop Bubblegum vibe, also. Meanwhile, where was Bo? Singing about the times, too, in his own way. "Bo Diddley 1969" was co-written and produced by Layng Martine Jr. and Richie Cordell, the latter a songwriter and producer for the Roulette, Buddah, and Super K labels. Cordell had written or co-written killer material for Tommy James and the Shondells, among others, and wrote the great "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" with Joey Levine for Crazy Elephant. What could Richie do for Bo? Let him boast about being back in the driver's seat, the implication being that he had to mildly shove more than a few stoned hippies out of the way to resume the wheel. ("Ain't nobody gonna pass me by!") Back and feeling fine, winked at by his spunky female backing singers, Bo isn't doing anything all that new on this single, yet it too is a product of its era, illustrating both the historic reemergence of roots rock and roll after the psychedelics wore off and Bubblegum's stubborn insistence on the eternal, blissy pleasures of the two-and-a-half minute, AM-radio nugget. 

At the end of a tumultuous decade, Bo rightfully bops again atop his trademark beat while the Paisleys climb aboard to see just how far into the cosmic giggle they might ride it. Bring on the Seventies.

Saturday, April 24, 2021


The more my creative nonfiction students detail their essays with pop culture references, the more things stay the same. Recently, a student wrote about her propensity to escape into her active imagination when she was a child, daydreaming about Percy Jackson fantasy novels, and later Harry Potter, gathering sticks in the backyard and playground as magic wands under the tutelage of Hogwarts, while in the same era swinging on a swing set she helped her grandfather build as she lost herself in songs on her iPod, dreaming of ancient myths. Sound familiar? Substitute any generation's favorite novel or movie (or television) series for Percy Jackson/Harry Potter, or imagine a clunky Discman or, earlier, a Walkman or, going back even earlier, a boombox or radio for the iPod, and what's revealed is a silhouette of adolescence—though the transparencies laid on top change with the era, the tableau is eternal. Dreaming on the edge of young adulthood, escaping from the politics of family and friends are gestures as old as time. The details and technology may change, but try to rub away the outlines left by those posters on your bedroom wall.

The other day, my students in ENGL 200 presented their final projects to the class (via Zoom, of course, as I taught the course remotely). Borrowing a prompt that my wife Amy created and uses in her class, I asked my students to react in any media of their choice to a text or texts that inspired, moved, or challenged them in any way. Unsurprisingly, their projects delighted me in their range and creativity: one student wrote an original song responding to the emotional challenges faced by many of the characters and figures in the fiction and autobiography we read; another created an abstract video using found imagery and ambient noise to reflect on those same issues; a few students created Instagram accounts that they imagined a character might have; some curated Spotify playlists responding to a story or a novel. One woman painted the point-of-view of The Awakening's Edna Pontellier as she strode toward the beach on her final morning alive; another created a digital illustration of Luke Ripley from Andre Dubus's "A Father's Story," rendering visually his internal and external conflicts; another presented a Powerpoint of the actors she'd cast in an imagined film adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; another wrote a screenplay for an imagined five-episode mini series adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides.

One student felt inspired to write a poem in response to Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy; as the deadline neared she challenged herself to come up with something more creative, and wrote a rap that she posted on her TikTok account. Later that night, I tweeted the video at Laymon, who loved it ("mercy," he wrote simply) and pinned it to his account, opening the door to thousands upon thousands of views, likes, and comments, unanimously positive. The video earned like acclaim on Facebook and Instagram. I was thrilled for my student, and struck by the enormous power of social media when used for praising a person's poignant and powerful response to race, family, and body positivity. Such a cultural impact would've been impossible for a student of mine to have had a couple decades back, and yet this woman's imaginative response to literature—reading, I am moved; moved, I respond in kind—is one that I've been fortunate enough to witness in, and receive as a gift from, my students down the years. Technology morphs its models and discards its skins virtually every week; responding to art is everlasting.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The things I'm going through

Some songs renew themselves with virtually every listen. One of those songs for me is Joe Jackson's "Don't Wanna Be Like That," from his 1979 album I'm The Man. "OK, let me tell you about some of the things I'm going through," Jackson sings at the start, and it sounds less like an invitation than a demand. The brave guitar/bass/drums intro does its best to stabilize things, but fifteen seconds in the song feels as if it's headed down a steep hill—I love songs that sound as if the band's trying to catch up to what they're playing. The excitable, noisy blend of Gary Sanford's guitar, Dave Houghton's drums, and Graham Maby's bass score Jackson's frustrations and anger, build the humming foundation which he threatens to abandon before the song's even over. 

Recently, Greg Cartwright spoke about songwriting with Aquarium Drunkard. "To me, if you can find a way to talk about it that’s not specific, that’s the best kind of music," he said. "Because then the listener can project themselves into that framework, and it’s a much more cathartic experience to think about how the song reflects what you’re going through." You have yours, I have mine: "Don't Wanna Be Like That" for me is the sound being seventeen. Jackson's lyrics articulated just about everything my friends and I felt but couldn't name, what we knew as a racing pulse, knotted stomach, and speeding head but what we couldn't yet hang labels on to. Jackson had a knack for nailing the stuff I cared about. I went to a Catholic, all-boys high school, and girls spoke in a foreign language across town; when I listened to the gentle "It's Different For Girls," Jackson translated for me, and he seemed like a grownup while doing so. The spirited "On the Radio" described the kind of horizon-expanding set lists I was hearing daily on WHFS, the phenomenal progressive radio station five or so miles from my house ('HFS was then located on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland, "Beneath the Twin Towers at Radio Park"). The righteous title track skewered consumerist culture in time with my own growing sense of irony (and superiority), and rocked like hell: the last line in the chorus may be my favorite hook in any song released in 1979, which is saying something.

Jackson's litany of complaints in "Don't Wanna Be Like That" was part social criticism, part personal, to me: mean girls, drug abuse, phonies, the shallowness of pop culture that I both abhorred and felt pressured by to consume and fit inside of. "Well, maybe it's time for getting out of line," he sings, and man did that cool, casually tossed-off sentiment feel as graphically urgent as anything in my life during high school, when my friend Marty and I discovered this album, a couple of years after it was issued. 

Take me away, I said take me away
I don't wanna be like that
Don't wanna be like that
That chorus is as exciting now to hear as it was when I was a kid. Though the demands are less urgent now, the urgent expression of them is still palpable, as was the thrill I felt when cranking this song in my bedroom or the car. There were so many people I didn't want to be like, so many gestures I didn't want to make, that the horizon Jackson's words drew was nearly limitless to me. But also the fear that I wouldn't have the guts to "get out," the way the singer does (or wants to, anyway.) At seventeen, eighteen, I didn't feel the need to get out town, out of my family's home, or out of school, but I sure as hell wanted to get out of the worst aspects of myself—enacting helplessly what Cartwright means about projection. The tense, eight-bar bridge, heralded by Sanford's acute guitar line that sounds like nothing less than a air-raid siren,
Some people get crazy
Some people get lazy
Some people get hazy
Some people get out
pays off with thrilling discovery as good as anything Bruce Springsteen and his band ever concocted, intensified in the breakdown near the song's end as Jackson howls and Sanford's siren cuts through the fraught air. As my heart pounded I did the math in the back of my head: craziness, laziness, and haziness weren't the beautifully decadent options that they appeared to be. Get out, instead, and find your true self in the things you're going through.

The are really two stories here: Jackson's desperation and his band's playing. On some days I feel that Jackson's arguments would've come through loud and clear even if the song had been an instrumental, so expressive and coiled is the group's performance, moving from excitement to nerviness to release to tension and back again. Here's the white-hot band tearing through the song on March 14, 1980 in Cologne, Germany, on the Rockpalast television show:

Photo of Joe Jackson by Paul Natkin (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Sunday, April 11, 2021


I was awake early, again, this morning, around 5:30, as the first birds started to sing. One by one, two by two, others joined in until I was enjoying a stereo performance through both of our open bedroom windows. Unable to sleep, I listened for more than an hour. The big fat cliché is that birds create a symphony or an orchestra with their songs, and to actively listen does give that impression, with the quiet start of a bird or two and then the increasing layers of song that build a dimensional dome of music. But there's little that's ordered or composed about the mess of bird song—it's a cacophony, really, the only counterpoint, structure, or sympathy among the "musicians" supplied by me, lying there awake, willing an order or beauty to the randomness of sound. More avant-garde than classical. I'm not an ornithologist, yet I recognize that there are patterns and purpose to the birds' singing—they're out there hungry or looking for mates, or both, or just saying hey to the new day, in full-throated conversation—but I'm the one inside with the tired metaphors, the boring tropes, imagining a swelling of orchestral beauty within the chaos of a species that's just going about its native business of surviving, mordantly indifferent to me under the blankets. None of what I observed this morning was original—for thousands of years' folks have been moved by hearing, or imagining, a kind of aesthetics in the animal kingdom—but that my thoughts aren't at all that new and yet arrived in such an unbidden and engrossing way, and will, tomorrow, to someone else across the globe, is itself startling, and moving. One's thoughts feel novel first thing in the morning, and that's a beautiful thing.

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.