Saturday, December 31, 2022

Having fun onstage

Ringing in the New Year with Lydia Loveless
DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I was happy to round out the year with Lydia Loveless and her band in a loose, intimate show at Golden Dagger, a tiny box of a venue in Chicago. I hadn't seen Loveless for years, and was pleased to watch her play, and goof around, with the same fellas from last time, guitarist and keyboard players Jay Gasper and Todd May and drummer George Hondroulis, along with bassist Mark E Commerce. In addition to their rhythm section, the band fit three guitarists—well, four, if you count Gasper's twelve-string—on a postage stamp-sized "stage" winkingly cordoned off with a toy-size velvet rope. Wedge in two keyboards and it was a tight fit under the lights. The old pals hit a warm groove from the opening number,  and Loveless made the small space her own. The joint was sold-out (she's playing there again tonight) and the crowd was attentive and grateful, singing her songs right back to her. The woman behind me had flown in from Brooklyn for the show.

Loveless played several songs from her most recent album, 2020's Daughter ("Love Is Not Enough" killed) as well as a handful from Real (2016) and Somewhere Else (2014). She introduced "Daughter," an emotionally complex and personal song, as being about reproductive rights, and "Sex and Money," a new song, as about "being poor and thinking about sex a lot." (So too was the band, apparently; the evening abounded with innocently smutty jokes. Life on the road.) Later she remarked of another new song: "it's about health care," then stopped, screwed up her face and chuckled, and said, "and it's about breaking up with someone," adding, "All my songs are about breaking up with someone, and then worrying about health care." It was funny—it got a laugh—but it's also genuinely true, as she writes songs that navigate the complicated politics of a woman's body, from desire and surrender to autonomy and self-reliance. "Fuck this country," she was heard to mutter at one point.

Loveless wore a spangly top, black pants, and sparkly boots. A couple of days ago she cut her hair to somewhere between a pixie and a crew cut, which makes her seem even more diminutive, and even more arresting as she belted out her songs. Her terrific band plays with loose-limbed, frayed-at-the-edges comfort, Gasper the class clown in a Metro hoodie, cracking jokes, leaning into Loveless to grinningly mock a melody hook, bandana-wearing May with an air of distraction, absorbed with his beat-up Fender, at a few points crouching on the stage to play a small keyboard. He seemed fascinated with it all. 

The band orbits Loveless, who was equal parts flip and self-deprecating. At the close of the opening number, she stepped back and tripped/stumbled, mouthed "Oh shit!", and laughed merrily—this set the mood for a band that plays serious songs about romance and messiness without ever taking themselves too seriously. Despite Loveless's trademark poignant songs, material devoted to love and loss, the night was fun, and also funny, the musicians goofing around between (and during) songs, suggesting there's a thin line between life in the van and life onstage with this group. During several songs her tour manager Michelle Sullivan hopped onstage to sing back-up (and groove and wave a plastic flower), following one song taking drink orders for the band; "waitress, tour manager, whatever," she muttered to me as she smilingly headed to the bar. 

Loveless's records are great; onstage, her personality, which is often channeled through personae in her songs, emerges, and she's a blast. Midway through the show someone behind me yelled for her nervy 2011 ditty "Steve Earle," but she flatly refused. "I'll never play that song again," before adding, "Don't video this 'cause he might see on the internet and I'd feel bad." Her blend of vulnerability and no-shits-to-give is very appealing. I once wrote about her voice: "Her twang usually arrives snapping off the end of a line, as a kiss-off or a heartbreak, sassy or vulnerable, depending on the mood." She's lost a bit of that twang on her newer material, which is more polished than her her noisier, rawer Bloodshot stuff, but that shifting mood remains, and the hard edges return onstage. Walking a line, she delivers moving and lasting songs. Highlights included "Poor Boy," "Real," an affecting "Wringer" during a brief solo set, "Summer Lover," which she announced she'd written for a songwriting workshop she teaches as an attempt to produce "a sweet love song," and "Bilbao," which, half-lamenting, she remarked is about the breakup of her marriage and yet's a song that everyone wants her to play "at weddings and shit." Such are the dimensions her songs assume, inside of which she, despite her casual air onstage, loses herself, and reemerges often visibly moved.

Her humor's as earnest as her songs are thoughtful. She ended one long tune by opening her eyes, stepping to the mic, and then, gathering herself in a very Loveless guise of humor and melancholy, said "Intensity! Whoo!" Then she smiled and apologized.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Loud at any volume

How the Dave Clark Five went BOOM in the studio
I'm always astounded at how booming Dave Clark Five songs are, especially their early tracks, especially on their 45s. Hell, even their ballads were loud. I pulled out "Glad All Over" the other night, but, as great as that song is, I was struck this time around by the flip side, which I hand't cranked in a while. "I Know You" makes a lot of noise in its detonated two minutes. 

The "Tottenham Sound" was made for the 45, a format that, in short, is hospitable to volume with its wider grooves and faster rotation. As explained at the essential Classic 45 site, in 1948 RCA engineers via a "precise optimization procedure" determined the speed at which a seven-inch single rotates, "given vinyl groove dimensions and certain assumptions about bandwidth and tolerable distortion." Their figures revealed that "the optimum use of a disc record of constant rotational speed occurs when the innermost recorded diameter is half the outermost recorded diameter." This is why a 7-inch single has a label that's 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Genius! The 33-1/3 12-inch album format, developed later by Columbia Records, "was a compromise that attempted to fit more music on a single disc, accepting the [sound] limitations." In order to cram singles and tossed-off tracks onto an LP, "a wide dynamic range or amplitude have to be reduced in level, otherwise they can damage adjacent channel grooves."

In the case of 45s, the cutting engineer has more available surface area and a greater rotation speed to play with, since he only has one track to worry per side. The higher rotation speed of 45 RPM allows for a wider frequency response, and the larger available surface area allows for less compression of any signals with a wide amplitude. Bass is an example of a wide amplitude signal that sounds better on 45. Overtones and high treble are also better.

45s literally move faster than LPs, thus more can be squeezed into the grooves. Essentially: "More bumps and grooves created in pressing a 45 means better audio quality." And BOOM goes the Dave Clark Five—not to mention most those great-sounding records exploding from transistor radios in the 1960s. The sheer wallop of "I Know You" is extraordinary, from the rumbling low end through the aggressive mid-range and chiming high end. Guitarist Lenny Davidson's kicks things off with a snarling, dirty riff that wraps around the song, barely containing the grinning mayhem of Clark's pounding drumming and Rick Huxley's bass, which positively throbs (especially through headphones), and the toweringly stacked vocals. The song's so loud—so heavy—that the change at the bridge threatens to topple over the whole thing. Good thing it's over in only a hundred and twenty seconds. 


The Dave Clark Five benefitted mightily from the staff with whom they worked at Lansdowne Studios, in London, where they demoed and recorded their key early material. "Built in 1958 by producer Dennis Preston and engineers Joe Meek and Adrian Kerridge, the studio was housed in Lansdowne House, a former artist apartment complex constructed in 1904 in the Holland Park section of London," Matt Hurwtiz wrote at Mix. Kerridge had helped the legendary Meek build the studio in the late-50s. I was unaware of the Five/Meek connection, and it makes perfect sense: Meek was obsessed with the possibilities of studio recording and sound engineering, and Kerridge carried the torch. (Don't look now, but the studio that was rough enough for the Dave Clark Five and the Sex Pistols is now a high-end triplex apartment. Alas.)

Clark loved Kerridge, thought he was "brilliant" and "a master," and especially dug that Kerridge, after Meek, strove to capture a live sound at Lansdowne. Dave Clark Five shows were legendary in their stomping mania and energy transference between band and crowd, and Clark and his band were eager to in the studio to replicate, or at least catch the vibe of, their shows. "We were basically a live band," Clark said. "So I believed we should try to get a live sound.” Hurwitz relates a great detail: "Key to the experience of a Dave Clark Five show at the Tottenham [Royal, a concert venue) was a bit of audience participation, typically involving a Clark drum break, getting the audience stomping their feet in time to his playing."
“I’d actually pay somebody five pounds to go switch all the lights on and off in the ballroom, in time with the stomps,” he says. “That’s what gave Mike and I the idea for ‘Glad All Over,’” whose chorus features a can’t-help-yourself “bomp-bomp” chorus.
Another advantage to working at Lansdowne was the band and Kerridge's ability to push everything into the red, needles aquiver as the band stomped and roared. Because Clark independently produced his recordings and leased the masters to labels, his band weren't beholden to a particular studio's rules and regulations common to the industry. (Think of George Martin and Norman Smith's early reluctance to get loud at Abbey Road.) “We took it to the limit,” Clark acknowledged. “And if we hadn’t been independent, we wouldn’t have been able to do that. But I just felt you needed to re-create that excitement that you got when you were playing live.” Another great detail that Hurwitz shares is Clark's alertness to his band going slack over multiple recording takes. “We’d never go more than three takes on a song,” Clark says. “I always believed that if you went through any more than that, it becomes automatic. If we went through three takes and didn’t get it, we would just stop and go down to the pub for a beer, and then come back and try it again.”

That bonkers reverb so familiar on the early Five recordings was attained via two chambers at Lansdowne: "a true reverb chamber, designed and built by Meek and Kerridge, used most typically, and another, which took advantage of the old brick building’s tall stairwell, with mics at each end."
“We usually used the reverb chamber, but we would occasionally use the stairwell version, for special effect,” Kerridge explains.

“It had a great sound,” Clark notes, “but if a resident came down the stairs while you were using it, you had to start all over.” Adds Kerridge, “It would upset the residents when we’d use it. They used to get angry.”
All of this—needles in the red, a lager-loosened band, pissed-off neighbors—amounted to some great and eternal rock and roll. Go ahead and crank this upload of my ancient and lovingly-worn 45. You don't really have a choice. It'll be loud at any volume.

Photograph of The Dave Clark Five in Lansdowne Studios via PBS; live photograph by Raymond J. Lustig Jr. via Milwaukee Journal 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Thursday, December 15, 2022

When the world is wrong

The Free released only one single, and what a marvel it was
I'd been watching the Free's "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" 45 in an eBay auction; I lost out, but was able to grab a copy (for less than what I would've paid in auction) via Discogs. Either way, its arrival feels fated. Occasionally a song makes contact through the ether and rearranges things.

The Free's scant history has been unearthed by the usual intrepid sleuths; the folks at Garage Hangover and Kossoff1963 tell the story here and here, respectively. In short, the Free were short-lived. Detroit-based, the band included guitarist Joe Memmer and singer Dave Gilbert, who together wrote "Decision For Lost Soul Blue." Area radio DJ Tom Shannon owned and operated Marquee Records with Nick Ameno and Carl Cisco, the latter of whom also managed Shannon and earned a production credit on the single, which was cut at Tera Shirma Studios. Released at the end of 1968, "Decision For Lost Soul Blue" enjoyed regional success, including a three-week stand as the “Pick of the Week” on CKLW. The major label Atco took interest in the local buzz, and in March of 1969 this good thing happened:

Alas, despite the national distribution push from Atlantic, a Billboard mention, and a title change, the single vanished from the charts soon after, enduring the all-too-common fate of glorious misses: a future of used record stores, thrift shops, online marketplaces, shuffling among hands of avid collectors, and  appearances on obscure compilation albums, including Psychotic Moose And The Soul Searchers and Sklash—Rare Tracks From The Psychedelic Aera, both ‎in 1982, and, more recently, Garage Daze: American Garage Rock from the 1960's ‎in 2017. The Free split up within twelve months of releasing the single, their only record. Within a couple of years, Memmer and Gilbert were working together again in Shadow; Memmer has gone on to play and tour with several groups, while Gilbert, who died in 2001, at one point toured with Ted Nugent and later joined New Order with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s drummer Dennis Thompson. He also sang with the Rockets.

What an astonishing single the Free left behind. Before the song begins, the title declaims. The tune's a soundtrack to a resolution of sorts, music to decide by. Who's Blue? (And did they at an earlier junction mean Blues?) It was the era of lost souls, Summer of Love realists, early acid casualties. The opening ten seconds give the impression of things elevating, and it sounds as if we're escaping something, tom drum to rhythm and wah-wah guitars, eighth notes propelling things upward. Then the singer arrives, and the litany of complaints, or heavy-lidded observations: the generation's wrong, he's sittin' home wonderin', people are turning their backs on each other, doctor can you help? The chorus is sung in  drone, and things are laid out starkly:
This is wrong, that is wrong
What do you do when the world's wrong?
The second verse is less articulate—a shrugging anti-answer maybeeeeee is stretched out over three bars, answered by its anguished cousin don't ever know a few long bars later—but doom's still in the air. Everything feels a little more complicated, things churn. The chorus returns, and feels more dimensional now, but the answer to "What do you do?" feels further away than ever.

Something remarkable happens next. At the 1:40 mark a shriek tears at the fabric of the song, and nothing short of a different song begins. The rhythm section begin an aggressive, four-on-the-floor drone-march while for just over a minute the guitarists—one screeching in fuzz, the other answering in wah-wah, both languages foreign to the singer but native to the song—drag the song into a darker place. On some listens it gives the impression of a randomly plotted acid trip—many songs of the era attempted to sonically reproduce such a thing—, on other listens it feels as if two things inhuman have landed onto and into the song, electrified and amplified, arguing. Nothing's solved. But it sounds great loud. Viva Detroit.

The third verse repeats the laments of the first, and to my ears the final chorus somehow sounds prettier, even though the song's disgusted with the world, and jaded in the face of the thin promises offered by culture, friends, drugs. But the melody's nice, and that's something, if not an answer.


"Decision For Lost Blue" was not a hit, did not unite millions of listeners and take its place in the open-air festival culture. It was not used numbingly often on soundtracks of films twenty years later "set in the Sixties." That was the Free's bad luck. It's my great luck. Because the song was not embalmed with the others of the era that are hauled out as Classic Rock, Oldies, Nuggets—you know them, are already humming them, I don't need to mention them—the song feels, is, fresh to my ears, and is in a very real and accurate sense undated. I've only recently discovered it. I don't have to blow off decades of tiresome, sentimental bullshit about the decade, didn't have to endure an actress in a flower power costume selling it to me on a Time-Life commercial, suffer its misuse in car or medication ads, or watch as an eleventh-generation Free Featuring One Original Member hauls out the song on tour. (Though that might've been nice for him.)

I watch the single spinning on my turntable in real time, turn up the volume, close my eyes and am timeless, out of time, with the song's eternal question: what to do when the world is wrong? Of the era, indeed.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

On Tommy Keene

My latest for The Normal School
Tommy Keene left us five years ago. In my latest for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine I wrote at length about his career, music, and the beautiful melancholy I hear threading through so many of his songs.

(You can read my other Normal School music essays here.)

Photo (detail) by Chris Rady

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Sincerely, your beloved son...

One of Chuck Berry's greatest car songs took the form of a letter to Dad
Berry and muse, in repose in 2011. Photo by Danny Clinch.
Chuck Berry released "Dear Dad" on March 15, 1965, his 38th single for Chess. It cracked the Top 100, idling at the 95 spot for a month. It's always been one of my favorite Berry tunes, a post-peak gem that tells a witty story with a great punch line while rocking slyly. Berry recorded the tune on December 16, 1964 at the Ter-Mar Recording Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, with a band led by the guitarist Jules Blattner, who Berry knew from seeing him play in the St. Louis area. With Blattner, bassist William L. Bixler, and drummer Howard Jones backing Berry, the performance motorvates along nicely, Jones's chugging backbeat especially propulsive as Berry plays a groovy and grooving syncopated car-horn riff in the verses (there is no chorus); somehow the thing both rocks and teeters. (I recently scored a copy of the 45, posted below, and the mono mix puts the anemic stereo mix to shame. Berry and the band also cut the loose-limbed "I Want To Be Your Driver" at these sessions, both tunes appearing on Chuck Berry in London in 1965.) 

In the tradition of the epistolary, Berry writes from the perspective of Henry Ford's son, who's desperate for a new car but who's afraid to ask for one, Berry merging the idiosyncratic with the universal, his super power. (He also knew that the family dynamic is one of the great issues in American art, the rock and roll 45 no less.) The premise alone—that even Ford's son is relegated to driving a piece of shit like every other teenager in America who can't afford a better car—is hilarious and fresh. Junior knows that if he's going to approach the old man, then his argument better be tight. He respectfully placates Dad at first ("don't be mad") and then in a long anxious breath lays out the dire mechanical issues, with one hilarious image-phrase after another: I might as well be walking; if I ain't going downhill I'm out of luck; if I push to 50 this here Ford will nosedive; cars whizzing past me look like I'm backing up. Fantastic. The whole argument's over in under two minutes. We never get Pop's return letter.

Berry was infamous taskmaster to his pickup bands, who were often treated churlishly, yet it's virtually impossible to hear this and not imagine grins on all of the musicians' faces as they rev tup. It's an essentially perfectly written rock and roll song; though the band sounds a tad underrehearsed, and the sloppy-even-for-1960s-Berry guitar solos feel a bit tossed off, to my ears the off-the-cuff performance conjures the car itself coming apart at the seams. (Like many rock and roll fans of my generation, I was introduced to the song via Dave Edmunds, who released a version on D.E 7th in 1982. His take is respectful, yet just as wittily rocking: he adds some period reverb and tidies up Berry's solos, offering one of them to pianist Geraint Watkins, whose winking glissando in the third verse mimics the Ford's "nose dive.")


Casting around for some diversions as I recover from Covid, I got the idea of transposing the song's lyrics as a hand-written letter. Unsurprisingly, the translation from lyrics sheet to scrawled note was effortless, Berry's vernacular perfectly capturing that cracking voice of an average teenager sweating out a letter to a parent asking for something they know they probably won't get. Read it aloud without the song—it works and sounds like a letter, too, so tuned was Berry's ear to the music in everyday speech. Berry's genius was so distinctive and dimensional as to seem epic, larger-than-life, when really what he did—superbly, poignantly, hilariously, and seemingly casually—was to capture that male adolescent perennially poised between stuck-at-home and bound-for-the-road, as American, as universal, really, as anything there is. As Berry himself once said, "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening."

Friday, November 25, 2022

Johnny Thunder, doin' his thing

"At the heart of anything good there should be a kernel of something undefinable, and if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then, in a sense, you’ve missed the point." That's John Peel, who knew a good rock and roll song when he heard it. He obviously knew something about the mysteries inside of one, also. Lately I've been marveling at Johnny Thunder's storming version of Tommy James and The Shondells' "I'm Alive." I'm not choosing sides here—each version's killer in its own way—yet the differences between the two are stark. One's an earnest, feel-good anthem, the other's nothing less than a conflagration. 

By the end of the 1960s, Thunder (real name Gil Hamilton) had released over twenty singles; his biggest hit was "Loop De Loop," which reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. None of his succeeding sides were nearly as successful. He moved on from Diamond Records to Calla Records where he teamed up with producer Teddy Vann to cut "I'm Alive" in 1968, released before James' version (which would appear as the b-side to "Crystal Blue Persuasion," and on side two of Crimson and Clover). Billboard mentions "I'm Alive" in the March 15, 1969 issue, where it placed the single in its "Top 60 Spotlight," the place where 45s "predicted to reach the top 60 of the HOT 100 chart" gathered, hopeful. James is credited as Arranger and provider of "Musical Concept," but his considerable commercial fairy dust couldn't propel "I'm Alive" to the top of the charts, or even near it. (A month later, Ed Ochs, in his "Soul Sauce" column in the April 19th Billboard, singles out Thunder, "moving with his first Calla release," and then notes that the singer "is up for the lead in a film, Two-Sided Triangle." To my knowledge, that movie never materialized.) 

Perhaps Thunder's "I'm Alive" was just too hot for the Hot 100. His version is pitched slightly higher than James', and so moves a bit more urgently. Whether this was intentional or a mistake in the mastering process is beside the point. And how is that the fuzz guitar snarls more menacingly in his version? Singing boldly in front of the Shondells' backing track, Thunder makes the song his on his own profoundly moving terms. Trading on his gospel church singing experience as an adolescent raised in central Florida, he transforms the original into a fierce and deeply felt declaration of pride and self-worth, belting out the words as if he himself had written them. Listen to the way he bites off the end of the title phrase in the opening line: he's hear to exclaim, and to prove something, the emotional source as much righteous anger as it is gratitude. James and co-writer Peter Lucia, the Shondells' drummer, were aware of strong new currents in the charged air, singing wisely, if naively, that long hair and racial differences ("I'm red and yellow and black and tan, I'm a man") were merely a distraction. Yet a black man singing these words in 1968 fundamentally changes those words, adds dimension to what in James' voice sound like bromides, however keen and well-intentioned.

Thunder delivered two seismic changes to "I'm Alive." In a ten-bar middle, he strides to the mic and fills a voiceless passage with a heavy-funk call-and-a-response riding Mike Vale's syncopated bass. Building in intensity, with sensuous moans, growls, and guttural affirmations, the passage leads to an explosion of release with the phrase "I'm a man"—a nearly-unhinged statement of purpose more electrifying than anything he'd sung even a minute before. 

In the Shondells version, James, a devotee of hooks and a songwriter and fascinated with the ear-bending possibilities of pop radio, halts things at the two minute mark, allowing for several daring seconds of radio silence before the band reenters. But this vocal arrangement was far too timid for Thunder, who's got work to do and things to say. What he sings, in a duet with himself—who else would understand things better?—
I'm no stone—I'm alive
And I'm no rock—I'm alive
No piece of metal, y'all
simply and powerfully reduces the song's argument to fundamentals, a simple, clear, and affecting cry for the recognized humanity of the singer, of anyone oppressed. This wasn't theatrical showiness. Various events during the tumultuous months that followed the release of "I'm Alive" offer context: on April 19th, Afro-American Society (AAS) members occupied Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University, protesting judicial unfairness and curriculum injustices during a fraught, potentially violent Parents Weekend; on June 28th, 1969, the groundbreaking Stonewall Riots began in Greenwich Village; on October 29, 1969 the Supreme Court ordered the immediate desegregation of every remaining segregated Southern school. Battles for dignity and basic human rights were sounding loudly. Thunder, his voice inadvertently soundtracking burned-out cities and passionate dissent, joined the chorus, muscling "I'm Alive" into one of the most mighty and rocking anthems of the era, detonating a social message the fuse of which lay in James and Purcia's original.


Bob Dylan recently released The Philosophy of Modern Song, his quirky and personal take on the multitude of stories told in songs. I wish that he'd recalled "I'm Alive" when he was writing the book. In an interview in the November 29, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone, he was asked by editor Jann Wenner if there was anything in current rock and roll that struck him as good.

"Yeah," Dylan drawled. "I heard a record by Johnny Thunder. It's called 'I'm Alive'."
Never heard it either, huh? Well, I can't believe it. Everyone I've talked to, I've asked them if they've heard that record.

Is it on the radio right now?

I don't know. I heard it on the radio a month ago, two months ago . . . three months ago. It was one of the most powerful records I've ever heard. It's called "I'm Alive." By Johnny Thunder. Well, it was that sentiment, truly expressed. That's the most I can say . . . if you heard the record, you'd know what I mean.
I know what he means. I hear it new every time I play one of my most cherished 45s.
Johnny Thunder, Tommy James and The Shondells, ca. 1969

Saturday, November 19, 2022

"Writing about EVERYTHING"

No one really needs to write any more words about "Born To Run." Or so I thought. I recently picked up an original pressing of the 45 (pictured spinning above).

By now, the story behind the writing and recording of "Born To Run" is as well known as the song itself. Springsteen started the song perched on his bed in a cottage he was renting at 7 1/2 West End Court in Long Brach, New Jersey, two blocks from the ocean. Here's a recent glimpse of the house via Street View; it's the little blue guy in the middle. I prefer the second, slightly shore-ward looking angle, with the slanting sun giving the impression of shining down on the cottage in benevolent inspiration:

Springsteen picks up the tale: "I was in the midst of giving myself a crash tutorial in fifties and sixties rock ’n’ roll. I had a small table holding a record player at the side of my cot, so I was just one drowsy roll away from dropping the needle onto my favorite album of the moment."
At night, I’d switch off the lights and drift away with Roy Orbison, Phil Spector or Duane Eddy lullabying me to dreamland. These records now spoke to me in a way most late-sixties and early-seventies rock music failed to. Love, work, sex and fun. The darkly romantic visions of both Spector and Orbison felt in tune with my own sense of romance, with love itself as a risky proposition. These were well-crafted, inspired recordings, powered by great songs, great voices, great arrangements and excellent musicianship. They were filled with real studio genius, breathless passion... AND...they were hits! There was little self-indulgence in them. They didn’t waste your time with sprawling guitar solos or endless monolithic drumming. There was opera and a lush grandness, but there was also restraint. This aesthetic appealed to me as I moved into the early stages of writing for “Born to Run.”

Helpfully, he parses his influences, sifting for the reader the ingredients of one the of all-time great rock and roll songs:  

From Duane Eddy came the guitar sound, “Tramps like us... ,” then “ba BA . . . BA ba,” the twanging guitar lick. From Roy Orbison came the round operatic vocal tone of a young aspirant with limited range attempting to emulate his hero. From Phil Spector came the ambition to make a world-shaking mighty noise. I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear .. . the last one you'd ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise . . . then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record's physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery and the idea of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.

Springsteen had a riff, but not much else besides a the title phrase, which haunted him like a half-recalled scene from a film. He was certain he'd seen the words somewhere."It might have been written in silver metal flake on the hood of a car cruising the Asbury circuit, or I may have seen it somewhere in one of the hot-rod B pictures I’d gorged myself on during the early sixties. Maybe it was just out there in the air, floating along on the salt water/carbon monoxide mix of Kingsley and Ocean Avenue on a 'circuit' Saturday night." He added, "Wherever it came from it held the essential ingredients of a hit record, familiarity and newness, inspiring in the listener surprise and recognition. A smash feels like it was always there and as if you’ve never heard anything like it before." 

A happy apostle to the imagery of "Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, Hank Williams and every lost highwayman going back to the invention of the wheel," Springsteen was keen enough to know that he had "make these images matter...shape them into something fresh, something that transcended nostalgia, sentiment and familiarity." A tall order indeed. "I started out with cliché, cliché, cliché," he writes appealingly, "and then I caught a piece of myself and the moment." The rest of the lyrics arrived swiftly. The song was then laboriously created in the studio over many months. "We layered instrument upon instrument, mixing down and down, track to track, combining sections of instruments until we could fit our seventy-two tracks of rock ’n’ roll overkill on the sixteen available tracks at 914 Studios," Springsteen wrote, adding, "In those days, there were no automated or computerized mixing boards. It was all hands on deck." "Born To Run" was released in the summer of 1975 in advance of the album, and then entered the lore. 


There is no way "Born To Run" should have worked as well as it does. Springsteen juggled calculation, consciousness, and industry pressures with inspiration, love, and an insanely large confidence in his own ability to deliver. The song should've collapsed under its own weight, burdened with self-awareness and a do-or-die Recipe For Success. Cliche's could've buried the song. Somehow, Springsteen, his band, and co-producer Mike Appel pull it off, one of the great, and thrilling, magic tricks of the era. Familiarity, meet Newness.

I didn't think that I could possibly hear the song again with fresh ears nearly a half century after its release, but I was surprised by the mastering on this 45. I revisit all of this now—the overly-familiar origin story, the epic production battles, this defining moment for Springsteen—only because I heard something different this time around and wanted to brush up on the song's genesis. On the single the low end rumbles more powerfully, especially Boom Carter's bass drum and Garry Tallent's bass, the singer's, and the song's, heartbeat beating louder. And Springsteen's vocal sounds as if it's been brought up in the mix slightly, and feels warmer, more intimate, as a consequence. The high end percussion sounds a bit muted, the consciously theatrical details (the glockenspiel, the tambourines, the string section) fading a bit into the sonic background, all of which makes the song feel realer to me, less contrived. I think it's that the mid-range feels more present in this version, like the weather. I'm not a Springsteen authority, and I don't know whether this 45 version was in fact mastered or subtly mixed differently from what ended up on side two of the album, or maybe it was alchemy at the pressing plant. (Hey, good name for a song.) Maybe you can hear some of this in the vinyl rip I made and posted below, or maybe I'm the only one hearing because what I'm hearing in my head is the song as a single, the way it was meant to be heard, and what Springsteen envisioned as he wrote it, joining the tradition of the world-shaking 45s he grew up with, roaring out of a transistor radio by the pool, or in a car, or from a basement or bedroom stereo. Its finite edges—seven inches across, no song before or after it—isolate the song in time and space, somehow making all the song's truths feel infinite.

But I don't think it's only in my head. It's in the cherished grooves. This has replaced the album track as my go to "Born To Run." Turn it up.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Ty Segall, surrounded

DOWN AT THE ROCK AND ROLL CLUB—I spent an evening with Ty Segall in the round last night at Thalia Hall in Chicago. I'm a fan, and Ty delivered, as he always does. I caught an acoustic show of his seven years ago at the Empty Bottle, and, like that night, at Thalia he repurposed the sonic groove of his electric material for something that was part ethereal, part earthly. Across a 21-song set, his engaging pysch-folk elevated from a "stage" a foot off the ground laid in the center of the floor of the large hall, around which a smallish crowd gathered, most of them clutching heavy coats in their arms, all of them smiling. (The dapper and winning Emmet Kelly opened with a brief set of his elegant, superbly sung folk songs.) The vibe was intimate but thankfully not preciously hushed. Segall was in fine voice, and inside of it moved from screech to falsetto to croon, enlivening his idiosyncratic, minor-leaning melodies with his marvelous guitar playing among three acoustics, including a ringing 12-string. His playing was gentle, with plucking and strumming, until it was furious, approximating the chug-chug of a freight train picking up speed but not too early where you can't jump on for the ride. 

Anytime I can hear Segall sing "Sleeper," I feel fortunate, and last night the melody, stripped of its electric, guitar-heavy finery, was a lilting thing of beauty. But the highlight came in the middle of the set. Segall sang the entirety of "Orange Color Queen" (from 2017's Ty Segall) off mic, his eyes shut tight but for the occasional checking of his bearings. The performance highlighted the impression I felt all evening that Segall was busking in a park for a small crowd, the illusion aided by the stray bird-song sounds he made while tuning his guitar between numbers, whistles that were then picked up and imitated by various members of the crowd. Close your eyes and you felt as if you were outside in warm weather beneath trees. Thankfully the ringing of registers, opening of beer cans, idle chatter from folks at the back bars—the usual problems at acoustic shows—never really intruded last night, because the crowd, surrounding Segall as they were, created its own island of sound and presence. I was grateful for this on the first really cold day of the season. "Warm Hands," also from Ty Segall, was a concert unto itself, Segall moving maniacally from verse to chorus to bridge in the long song as if he were narrating an epic short story, his guitar playing one of the characters. 

You won't get much "presence" from Ty; he's taciturn, offering a shy smile and an occasional thank you between songs. Soon you recognize that his personality emerges in the range of his vocals and in the shapeshifting of his guitar playing, the wellspring of his enormous catalogue of songs laid bare. At the conclusion of "My Lady's On Fire" at the end of the set, Segall asked the crowd to sing the final "no, no, no no no no" lament. We obliged. Hearing, and joining, I don't know, a hundred people singing loudly in a large hall for a few moments was no small pleasure, especially in these months of heading out to shows again. He came back for a two-song encore, then thanked us for being so nice.

After Segall took the stage for his opening song, the woman behind me turned to her friend and gushed, "He’s my Harry Styles!" It was maybe my favorite moment of the night. Keep ascending, Ty.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Sound and sense

Update: The Normal School is currently uploading my print-only essays (2012-2019) to the site. If you've the interest and the time, take a look.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022, cont'd

I was happy to speak with Matthew Bannister for BBC Radio 4's "Last Word" about Jerry Lee Lewis's career in its highs and lows, and where fans might choose to locate themselves. My segment begins at the 6:15 mark.

On a related note, in 2005 Cary O'Dell, the Boards Assistant to the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, asked me to write a piece about “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On" to be added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. The Library recently re-posted the piece at the Now See Hear! blog, on the occasion of Lewis's death.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022

Rest in Peace Jerry Lee Lewis, a complicated man. He was equal parts gifted, profane, and egocentric, deeply flawed, burdened by talent in an era when blazing a trail meant fucking up without much precedent. He will always be defined by his recklessness, some of it brutal and damaging, much of it unforgivable, but also by his scintillating gifts, his vast knowledge of, and deep love for, the Great Americana Songbook, to which he contributed in astonishing, break-the-mold ways. His early records still ignite any room they're played in, his Wilderness Years in the 1960s were both unfair and just, and his commercial resurgence via his honky tonk records in the late-60 and 1970s was, in its peaks and valleys, movingly authentic. He was one of a kind, and he reveled in that immaturely and was crippled by it in unfathomable ways. 

I never met him, and didn't really want to. He was Myth decades ago. Despite his personal shortcomings, which anyone interested in his life and career will always need to reckon with, his piano playing, singing, showmanship, interpretive gifts, and native energies onstage were remarkable, and will live on eternally no matter what the hell you or I think about the man. It all coalesced one night at the Star-Club in Hamburg in 1964, a performance so astonishing to me that I wrote a book about it.

"Y'know, there's nothin' like tearing up a good club now and then," he once said. Watch out Heavens, or Hell.

Photo by David McClister
Artwork by Jon Langford

Friday, October 21, 2022

He kicked me out

The Who's Quadrophenia is never far from my mind. Lately I've been thinking about "Four Faces," a song that the band worked on in June and July of 1972 during the early stages of the Quadrophenia sessions, but ultimately abandoned. Along with a couple other tracks that didn't make the cut in '73 ("Get Out And Stay Out" and "Joker James"), "Four Faces" appeared six years later on the Quadrophenia film soundtrack, a curio. 

To my ears, "Four Faces" is a delight, a whip-smart Townshendian ode to teenage disaffection and identity crises. Buoyed by sprightly keyboards and Keith Moon's rolling drum fills, the arrangement bounces along in jaunty mid-period Who style, and the imagery in the witty lyrics evokes the growing battle inside Jimmy. "I got four heads inside my mind," Townshend sings, in his patented half-grinning, half-unhinged style,

Four rooms I'd like to lie in
Four selves I want to find
And I don't know which one is me

I get four papers in the box each day
Four girls ringing that I want to date
I look in the mirror and see my face
But I don't know which one is me
Sounds like teenagedom to me. "It's little things that are hard," Jimmy complains, "Like starting up the car and I'm still underneath." He wakes up over here, and then he's over here. And:
There are four records I want to buy
Four highs I'd like to try
Every letter I get I send four replies
And I don't know which one's from me
Great stuff. 
Jimmy fighting with his folks, from the Quadrophenia booklet. Photo by Ethan Russell
Whether the song would've fit on Quadrophenia is another matter. Was Townshend right to kick it out? Richie Unterberger in Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia feels that the tune is an "innocuous piano-driven ditty...far below the standards of any of the songs included on the original LP." Though I'm not sure that I agree with him on that second assertion, Unterberger was correct in surmising that Townshend might've written "Four Faces" "out of pressure to come up with a song that finally spelled out Jimmy’s quadrophenic personality."

In his indispensable liner notes to the “Director’s Cut” Quadrophenia boxset (2011), Townshend writes that what "Four Faces" ultimately fell victim to was bad timing: it had arrived too soon. By the summer of '72, he had decided that the Who’s next album "would be set in the Mod days of 1964." Two songs that came to define Jimmy's dilemma, "Is It In My Head" and "Love Reign O’er Me," had already been written but were not yet earmarked for the album. "With ‘Four Faces’ I was making an early attempt at setting the scene for a four-faceted central figure," Townshend acknowledges, before adding,
but this is a really light-hearted picture of Jimmy, conveyed by the boy himself. It’s almost a pre-psychiatric view: Jimmy is explaining one of his problems; he is mixed up and confused, and torn in four directions. Yet he still sounds like a jolly young man, not yet beset by the rages that would be sparked by drugs and family battles, and although this song was later replaced by the far more powerful ‘The Real Me’, it did provide me as a composer with a musical scratchpad with a good title that began at first to demand, then to cement, the way Jimmy's four personality traits felt reflected by each of the disparate members of his favourite band, The Who.
Townshend adds that the Lowrey organ he'd played "is what gives the chorus [of "Four Faces"] its clattering, optimistic feeling." (He used the same organ sound on "Cut My Hair.") I'm inclined to agree with Townshend that the drollness of "Four Faces" is at odds woth the overall vibe of Quadrophenia, a grayly dour, fairly tortured record. But a darker shade arrives in the very-Who-like bridge of the song, and some days I wonder if the tune, though comparatively trifling, might've added some adolescent spirit to things, some "pre-psychiatric" innocence. After all, teenagers move between gloom and light-heartedness in a flash, and aren't exceptionally deep thinkers, even a brooder like Jimmy, who's often more bewildered throughout the album than he is enlightened. In the alternate reality in my head—a reality where a vinyl double-album can squeeze in one more song—I sequence "Four Faces" between "Is It In My Head" and "I've Had Enough," cresting nicely to the moment when Jimmy wrecks his scooter. 

Then he's off to Brighton on the 5:15....

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Light and darkness: Stax on Smith

Mike Stax's Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali had been sitting in my to-read stack for a while, as books do. After watching Stax's recent talk at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, I was inspired to read this galvanizing and moving tale. A pity I waited so long.

Swim Through the Darkness recounts Stax's years-long efforts to gather the myriad pieces of Smith's life and to assemble them into coherent narrative. Smith's story is remarkable. He was born in Los Angeles in 1945 to show business-seeking parents, and by the time he was in high school displayed an unerring knack for succeeding at just about everything he attempted. His ascension through the southern California folk and pop music worlds was swift and impressive: for three years in the mid-1960s he played guitar and sang in the Good Time Singers and made regular appearances on The Andy Williams Show. In 1966 he auditioned for a lead role in The Happeners, a quasi-gritty television show about a fictional folk trio; the pilot wasn't picked up, but Smith and fellow cast member Chris Ducey formed a duo called Chris & Craig, which would later metamorphose into the Penny Arkade, enjoying a partnership of sorts with Mike Nesmith, who produced them and shopped them around to labels in L.A. (to no avail). Though none of Smith's bands were commercial successes, suffering the usual bad luck and hard knocks endemic to the music business, Smith was a gifted and productive commercial songwriter who landed several of his tunes with popular artists—notably "Christmas Holiday" and "Salesman," recorded by Andy Williams and the Monkees, respectively—and earned sizable royalties into the end of the decade.

Which is when things became strange. The genial and winningly handsome Smith, always an intellectual and spiritual seeker of sorts not without a brooding interior life, was introduced to LSD and was soon tripping regularly, supplementing the drug use with intense and lengthy sessions of meditation. Eventually bored by the shallowness and artifice of pop music, Smith grew intrigued with the travels of hippies in the Middle East and Asia, and in 1968 embarked on a trip with friends on the so-called Hippie Trail. In a series of murky events in Afghanistan, Smith, on his own, allegedly got into an altercation with a street vendor and was brutally beaten, and possibly raped. He may or may not have spent time in a mental institution. The undeniable fact was that when he returned to the United States he was a permanently changed man: spacey and unpredictable, prone to violence, now going by the name Maitreya Kali. He continued writing songs, and in 1972 issued two lo-fi self-produced albums, Inca and Apache, the folky, gently lovely melodies and love songs inside made complicated by the inscrutable, nearly impenetrable liner notes on the cover which mingled sexual-spiritual and political rants with deeply personal symbology. In 1973 Smith violently assaulted his mother, and spent two and a half years in jail. Drifting deeper into his Kali identity, at one point sporting an ominous spider tattoo on his "third eye," Smith lived on the streets of Los Angeles for the remainder of his life. He died on those streets, alone, in 2012.

Mike Stax speaking at the Philosophical Research Center in Los Angeles on September 16
Stax, founder and editor of the indispensable Ugly Things Magazine, has devoted his professional life to rescuing and exploring obscure or otherwise forgotten musicians and bands of the 1960s and '70s, those artists whose own talents, productions, and star power had been greatly outshined at the time by the era's supernovas. (Ugly Things occasionally covers the Big Names, but on a leveled playing field). When Stax first heard Smith's music years ago, he was instantly drawn to its beauty, and then to Smith's odd life, and he became obsessed with learning more—specifically about how a bright and conventional talent like Smith might end up in such mysterious obscurity—and the result is Swim Through the Darkness, a decades-in-the-making book that, as its subtitle suggests, is as much about the story Stax lived in assembling Smith's life as it is about Smith's life. As such, the book reads as a kind of biography-memoir hybrid, music journalism disguised as a personal narrative. Over the course of researching and writing the book, Stax benefited not only from his own dogged approach, but also from the kindness of friends and acquaintances who offered hints, shadowy details, and memories, and leads, sometimes threadbare, as to Smith's past or current whereabouts. A lot of luck was involved: someone might happen to see Smith at this corner or exiting that establishment, and for Stax the trail would warm again. Yet had that person not been in that location that day, or had been there and looked the other way, the leads would never have materialized. Such is the tantalizing if frustrating process of tracking down a ghost-like figure. 

To Stax's immense credit, he never gave in to the frustrations, and in the end talked with dozens of people for the book, most of whom were eager to talk about the Smith they knew and loved, even as they were dismayed at the sad downturn his life took. Swim Through the Darkness is a large-hearted and humane book, testament to Stax's generosity of spirit and his commitment to sharing a story that he intuited was worth all of the hard work. Stax's writing, while committed to facts and accuracy, is also moving, and at times lyrical, as Stax navigates not only Smith's journey but his own sometimes overwhelming reckoning with the sadness of a life that moved slowly, agonizingly, from light to dark, knowable to mysterious, buoyant to tragic. In places Stax and others attempt armchair diagnoses of Smith's troubles as the consequence of mental illness, physical injury, and/or drug abuse. Yet Stax is all too aware of the limitations of grasping for certainties. Reading, I was reminded of J. Hillis Miller's observation that “one powerful means society has for dealing with someone who does not fit any ordinary social category is to declare him insane,” yet Stax is careful throughout to leaven guesses at cause-and-effect with the grim reminder that we may never fathom an individual's choices in life. Even if you're not particularly interested in Craig Smith, Stax's earnest and deeply-felt book will convert you, if not necessarily to his music, than to a sympathetic understanding of Smith's place as yet another person astray in the myth journey of humankind. 

At the book's close, Stax shares his quest to retrieve Smith's ashes. His family had refused, or ignored, them, and, tattooed by his desire to render Smith whole, Stax felt nearly honor-bound to assume ownership of the remains. He does eventually claim them, narrated as an absurdly suspenseful journey through Los Angeles's bland civic hallways. "The past is a vast ocean that moves beneath all of our lives," he writes at the book's close. 
In my long journey to find Craig Smith and discover the secrets of Maitreya Kali, I had swum deep beneath its surface, retrieving fragments of his life piece by piece then attempting to place them into their true pattern. Completing the entire puzzle was impossible. Many of his secrets lay deeper than I could ever reach, darker than I dared to swim. But now, in rescuing that box of ashes, in many ways my journey had reached its end—or more like a kind of new beginning. Sitting in the stillness of that crematory garden I experienced the very real sensation of breaking that vast ocean’s surface and breathing in fresh air again. My search for Craig Smith, my swim through the darkness, had in some ways been a wasted journey. By the time I found him, it was too late for there to be any kind of happy resolution. But in telling his story, surely there was still some kind of redemption to be found for this poor, lost, tragic, lonely soul.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Bodies and eyes

A passage in In China with Green Day, Aaron Cometbus's engrossing tour-diary/travel-essay about accompanying Green Day on a brief East Asian tour in 2010, gave me pause. I'm an admitted fameist. I haven't seen the light with regard to arena shows, but Cometbus's characteristically smart perspective shed some light on the appeal of tens of thousands congregating under a Jumbotron. 

Green Day was supporting 21st Century Breakdown, and were several years into their surprising second act as a worldwide phenomenon—a band that everyone suddenly had an opinion about. They asked their old friend and gadfly Cometbus along for the two-week ride. Raised on, and partly responsible for, countless indie shows in the Bay Area, Cometbus found the disorienting environment in Hong Kong, and later, Seoul, Korea, strangely familiar, yet in unfamiliar ways. In the 'zine Cometbus offers revealing glimpses of elite backstage life (the band members dialing back the alcohol and catered food consumption because they're playing the Grammy Awards show in two weeks and are watching their collective figure), essays the sometime sharp contrasts between Ordinary Fan and Band, sifts deep memories of Berkeley-based musicians and friends, and describes his own aimless wanderings deep into the strangeness of Asian urban and suburban culture, a rich travelogue that situates the 'zine in the tradition of walking essays. On that level alone, In China with Green Day is well worth reading. Cometbus's eye for narrative detail and his deeply-felt associative thinking are very affecting.

Cometbus was halfway around the world for a reason. Near the end, tired and grouchy, he nails what I so dislike about the rote machinations of arena shows:

Yet in Hong Kong, wedged into the crowd near the front of a massive stage, watching Green Day play a well-rehearsed, iron-clad set complete with complex light cues and pyrotechnics, Cometbus experienced an epiphany of sorts. And, reading along, so did I. "I wondered about the psychological divide between the audience and stage, which punk had been hell bent on destroying" he wrote.
Experiencing it on this tour for the first time, I found that I rather enjoyed it. Green Day's inaccessibility allowed the audience to focus on something outside of themselves; it gave them a chance to step out of their own skins and forget, for a few hours, their own problems.

    In a massive crowd, that was easier to do. Just being part of a huge audience was a moving, almost spiritual experience. I’d never known that before, having almost exclusively attended small, independent shows.

    I was like a kid who’s never been allowed to watch TV or eat sugar cereals. Arena rock was something new and fascinating to me, and I was lapping it up. Once the novelty wore off and I felt sick, I’d go back to the books and whole grains on which I was raised.

"It helped that there were none of the annoying aspects of an American concert here," he continued, "no drunk yahoos or people you saw in the halls at high school."

A big concert was a good way to bypass the isolation that came from being in a foreign country. Everyone was pressed up intimately close, and the ear-splitting volume made conversation impossible. Instead, we used our bodies and our eyes to speak, and our common language: the lyrics of Green Day.

I'll try and remember these words if I'm ever again in an enormous crowd fifty or more yards away from the band I've come to see.