Sunday, May 30, 2021

The rescue that took place

I love this passage from Michael Davis's 2018 autobiography I Brought Down the MC5 (a book I'll write about more later). With equal parts pride and astonishment, the MC5 bass player writes about his band's tendency to fuck up while playing live, mostly as a result of the deafeningly loud volume at which they detonated their songs. Onstage, "it was impossible to hear the vocals unless we were playing softly, which rarely happened," Davis acknowledges. "Things would get so confused at times that we would look at each other with panic and frustration, trying to get back in sync. I can’t think of a single show that didn’t include some form of musical derailment. Some were momentary, while others were extended lapses into musical chaos. [Drummer] Dennis [Thompson] would become completely unhinged when none of the instruments were playing on the same beat. Yet at times, he was the reason for the fault. Who could hear what was going on?"
...In spite of our inconsistent stage work, we somehow managed to transport audiences into magical experiences through our sheer unmitigated gall. You couldn’t deny the results; something was lifting us up and giving the audience a dose of euphoria. Perhaps the mistakes were actually a key part of our act, unintended, but nonetheless a part of the show. The desperation and drama that was created, and the rescue that took place must have had an emotional value that made seeing the MC5 unparalleled. I can’t say, being one who was on the stage.
Desperation. drama, rescue: a hell of a definition of rock and roll, which I'll add to my list. If there are any musical derailments in this astonishing performance from July 1970, I can't hear or see them (apart from Thompson's projectile drumsticks), so amazed am I by the band's power and the sonic and visual spectacle that it creates. Which I guess is Davis's point.

Photo of the MC5 by Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Times like those...


"After a time, we got ourselves an apartment in the inner city, close to Tiger Stadium, a short distance from the Wayne State campus. When we weren’t walking around where other 'street people' hung out, we went to Detroit Tiger baseball games. The price of admission to the upper deck bleachers was one dollar. You could bring your own beer into the park, as long as it was in a plastic container. A one-gallon milk jug did the trick, holding exactly ten 12-ounce beers, an amount guaranteed to get you drunk, but well within our capacity in those days. Those upper-deck bleachers were filled with pot smokers, and, as is the custom, joints were passed around indiscriminately. Times like those will surely never be seen again." 

    —Michael Davis, from I Brought Down The MC5

Photo of Tiger Stadium bleachers via Detroit Free Press archives

Friday, May 21, 2021


Yesterday as I cleaned my latest batch of lovingly-worn 45s I listened to Spotify's "Release Radar" playlist, and as the songs moved in and out of me something remarkable happened that doesn't occur too often: I felt as if I ascended slightly, leaving time and place behind. Something in the stories the songs were telling—Sleater-Kinney's new one, where if the singer's gonna mess up, she's gonna mess up with me; Jake Bugg seeing her everywhere yet never feeling more lost; Matt Berry's blissy "Summer Sun" opening in my head all sorts of sunny vistas that'd been shuttered for too long—that felt both fresh and eternal. As I cleaned one obscure, one-off, regional-band's-only-regional-hit 45 after another, songs a half century old already, I was reminded of how we're always singing about the same old things. I flashed on the faces of my students, the past year flat images on my computer screen as I sat and taught a few feet away from my LPs and 45s, as their wrinkled brows and preoccupied stares and hesitant mumblings indicated their grappling with ancient issues for the first time, stepping into that long tradition. Yesterday, the room I was sitting in became a kind of transparency, a sheet lifted to reveal someone else sitting down somewhere else in time listening to new songs about old stuff that revealed the world again, songs that ended up in dollar bins for me to pick up decades later and hold to the light to inspect the damage that those lessons, spun again and again, wrought on the vinyl. And the Spotify playlist you made and sent to your partner, or your buddy, or the one you're flirting with?—none of us know where streaming 1s and 0s will end up, except that "end up" is a phrase that will be endlessly redefined and reimagined. The digital cloud's an amorphous thing, but a steadily moving one, darkening or brightening whoever will be listening in the future, the sounds somehow both new and ancient. None of this, of course, is news, and yet it startles, and so it feels like news. Turn up the paradox loud.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Good Times, Bad Times

No one really needs another ranking of the Rolling Stones' studio albums, but I'm between projects, so what the hell. I feel fairly confident about my Top Five and Bottom Five; ordering the rest was the real fun. I've followed the UK releases in the 1960's, and have left their singles/b-sides and live albums for another list. Unnecessary caveat: this is subjective.

Ahead of my rankings, the short and curlies:

* They never again quite recaptured the blend of decadence, grandeur, nastiness, and smirky fun of Sticky Fingers, from "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch" to "Sway" and "Moonlight Mile," where it sounds as if the songs are playing the band, not the other way around. Endlessly renewing. Their high-water mark.

* That Exile is, of course, a very close second indicates how absurdly high the gifted Stones were riding in the early '70s. Only the economy of Sticky Fingers over the sprawl and occasional lags in song sequencing of Exile keep it at number two. "Loving Cup" is their greatest single-that-never-was.

* Pure rock and roll? To my ears they's never captured or played it better than on Some Girls, where their humor, winking sexism, and louche style are matched by raw guitar work and their loosest ensemble playing. Their final summit, and the last time, with a few surprising exceptions, that the band sounded effortless and unselfconscious.

* That said, I struggled placing Let It Bleed at Number 4. On balance, I probably listen to Some Girls a bit more than Let It Bleed, which suffers only, and unfairly, in comparison to the nearly-perfect duo that followed it. As it turns out, the band needed another guitarist to help out Keith and to balance the ship in the coming stormy waters, but with "Gimme Shelter" as the opener and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" closing it, this album captures its era sublimely.

* Their toughest R&B album, Out Of Our Heads is underrated, in my book. The covers ("She Said 'Yeah'," "Mercy, Mercy," "That's How Strong My Love Is") kick ass, and "Gotta Get Away" and "I'm Free" point to the confident and distinctive songwriting just around the bend.

* As great as Beggars Banquet is ("Parachute Woman"!), when I zoom wide, it sounds and feels like a full dress rehearsal for the band's next few years of rock and roll ascension. Still, its rejuvenating take on Americana, before that was a word, makes it a Top 10-er.

* I've never fully warmed to the Stones' 1966-67 output—the non-album 45s excepted—which doesn't put me in kind company with a lot of my friends and those whose taste and knowledge I respect. I appreciate Aftermath's unprecedented boldness, but I always felt that the record was too long, the sound of a band surprised by their own genius but unsure how to edit. The truth is, I don't listen to Between the Buttons or Satanic Majesties all that much, but that's where the pleasure principle pulses for me. I think I've always been a bit skeptical that they rarely wrote music after '67 that sounded like this again, which gives those two albums a slightly theoretical vibe to my ears. But: "Connection," "She Smiled Sweetly, "Complicated," "Miss Amanda Jones," "Citadel," "2000 Man," and "2000 Light Years from Home" are genius.

* I'm uncomfortable with ranking Tattoo You so high, if only because I feel that it's more of a compilation album, some of the material dating back nearly a decade, cobbled together with songs from the fertile 1977/'78 studio sessions in preparation for the band's '81 tour. But the album's cohesiveness and quality again indicates how absurdly gifted they were as songwriters and musicians throughout the '70s. Oh, and "Slave" kicks ass.

* As I made this listEmotional Rescue gathered itself at the fifteenth spot without calling much attention to itself. A somewhat odd Stones album, it's greater than "Son Of Some Girls" but also decisively marks the end of the band's terrific late-70's run in the studio. Thus, the gap between this album and the next, the underwhelming Undercover, feels, culturally, much wider than three years. Emotional Rescue stands as the band's last blast of loose, grinning 70s decadence, and as such scores its end-of-decade era as evocatively as Let It Bleed scores its (substitute coke and disco for weed and country-blues). Yet the album looks forward curiously to the '80s, where the Stones, it turns out, would be a very different-sounding band.

* The mid-70s run of Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, and Black and Blue bunches together nicely, poised as the albums are between the sublime originality, nerve, and freshness of the late 60s/early 70s work and the (mostly) workmanlike albums that followed. And the first side of It's Only Rock 'n' Roll is pretty much perfect. Sometimes lost in the post-Sticky Fingers/Exile hangover are tunes like "Coming Down Again," "Time Waits For No One," "Memory Motel," songs that any like band would've given up a lifetime of cocaine for. They perfected the Stone Ballad in this era, for what it's worth.

* Man, the '80s sucked
. Though "Almost Hear You Cry" (Steel Wheels) is one of their great ballads, and the opening 30 seconds or so of "One Hit (To the Body" (Dirty Work) are so killer I almost forgive the drum sound. I used to think that "Undercover of the Night" (Undercover) was a Stones classic, but it feels more derivative and dated as the decades pass.

* The 90s, on the other hand, were a little more interesting. The band was still divided between Jagger's commercial anxieties and need for relevance and Keith's stubborn purism, and the sound of the albums reflect that. But Voodoo Lounge would've been a good record if a third of it had remained in the can, and Bridges to Babylon is a fascinating, of-its-era attempt at sonically mending the yawning gap between the Glimmer Twins ("Anybody Seen My Baby?", meet "You Don't Have To Mean It"). "Thru and Thru" (Voodoo Lounge) is one of the best things they'd cut in years. David Chase got it.

* I'm not surprised at how good Blue and Lonesome is, only that it took so long for the guys to pull it together and cut. The album features some of Jagger's least affected singing in years, and his harmonica playing is fantastic, adding characterful touches. Their version of "Little Rain" ranks among their greatest covers—coming in the 21st Century, that's saying something. And like Voodoo Lounge, A Bigger Bang if trimmed of its excess would've made a bigger bang—though likely not commercially or culturally (sorry, Mick). Anyway, crank "Rough Justice" or "Oh No No You Again" after "Get Off My Cloud" or "Lies" and let me know if you moved or not.

1. Sticky Fingers (1971) 

2. Exile on Main St. (1972) 

3. Some Girls (1978) 

4. Let It Bleed (1969) 

5. Out of Our Heads (1965) 

6. Beggars Banquet (1968) 

7. Aftermath (1966) 

8. Tattoo You (1981) 

9. Between the Buttons (1967) 

10. Goats Head Soup (1973) 

11. It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974) 

12. Black and Blue (1976) 

13. The Rolling Stones No. 2 (1965) 

14. The Rolling Stones (1964) 

15. Emotional Rescue (1980) 

16. Blue & Lonesome (2016) 

17. Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) 

18. Voodoo Lounge (1994) 

19. A Bigger Bang (2005) 

20. Bridges to Babylon (1997) 

21. Undercover (1983) 

22. Steel Wheels (1989) 

23. Dirty Work (1986)