Monday, January 31, 2022

I could go on for hours

Happy 40th birthday to The Jam's "Town Called Malice," one of the band's best and one of the outstanding singles of the 1980s. As late-Jam tracks go, the sonic marriage here of Motown/R&B danceability and post-punk, Thatcher-embroiled U.K. bitterness is a Platonic Ideal. 

Weller's at his peak here as a lyricist, too, these two passages ranking among his greatest, incisive evocative, and lyrical:

Rows and rows of disused milk floats stand dying in the dairy yard
And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry
It's enough to make you stop believing when tears come fast and furious


The ghost of a steam train echoes down my track
It's at the moment bound for nowhere, just going 'round and 'round
Playground kids and creaking swings, lost laughter in the breeze
I could go on for hours and I probably will
But I'd sooner put some joy back in this town called malice
Images of abandoned milk trucks and of women clutching empty bottles, the sounds of swing sets and of kids' laughter on the breeze had as profound an effect on my spirit and imagination as anything I read in my literature classes. And you could dance to it. "Town Called Malice" was the Jam's final stupendous song, and an indelible marker of my teen years' euphoric tumble into the joys of rock and roll. Thanks again, mates.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Freaking about

Photo by Fin Costello

Today I'll jam to some Small Faces and Humble Pie, loudly celebrating the birthday of the mighty Steve Marriott, mindful of the man's wise words:

People who got on their feet and freaked about were called idiot dancers. and nobody wants to be called an idiot dancer. But the whole idea of rock and roll is to get people off their arses—that's what it's about.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Can you hear?

The other day in my Writing Arts Criticism class the students and I listened to a traditional version of "The Star Spangled Banner," trying to hear with fresh ears a song so familiar and unsurprising that it's something like the weather, or our own bodies that we end up taking for granted. Then we listened to several very different covers of the song, among them an acoustic performance by Victory Boyd, Hendrix scorching the earth at Woodstock, and an arrangement in which the full song was transposed to a minor key.

We listened to version each twice. Before we heard Boyd's performance for the second time, we considered the fact that she'd posted her cover to YouTube after she'd been "cancelled" (her word choice) by the NFL; she'd been scheduled, though no contract had been signed, to sing the National Anthem at an opening day game and after she'd disclosed that she'd refused a COVID vaccine shot claiming a religious exemption, the league dropped her appearance. Unbowed, she uploaded her version online "not for the theatrics of a football game" but because "this time I sang for America. To remind her who she is… the land of the free and the home of the brave," adding, "This is dedicated to anyone that has taken a stand for freedom. I stand with you." Learning this, the temperature in the room changed a bit, as my students felt compelled to reassess the hoary, dubious promises embedded in that old anthem, this time sung by an African American woman asking her listeners to consider what rights mean even if they may disagree with her stance.

Hendrix at Woodstock, unsurprisingly, set the room alight. The first time we listened I blanked the screen; the second time we listened we watched Hendrix performing. I'm fairly certain that most of my students know who Hendrix was, or know his name as uttered reverently by their parents, uncles, and aunts, but few had seen the footage. I hadn't myself in years, and was nearly moved to tears watching a black man destroy and reconstruct the national anthem at 8:30 in the morning, his playing hanging loosely from the melody, toying with it, really, before devolving into the hair-lifting sounds of screeching jet fighters, the sound of carpet bombing and the roar of disbelieving and angry resistance caught through a guitar and amplifiers on a farm in upstate New York. Hendrix's intentions, of course, especially at this point in his musical evolution, weren't punk, but the song as he deconstructs it was as pissed off and politically charged as anything the U.S. and U.K. punk bands would sneeringly deliver a decade later. Though overfamiliar, his performance never fails to startle me, but I hadn't realized that I needed a reminder of how thoroughly and thrillingly Hendrix defamiliarized the song, turning it into something frightfully new. I looked around: the students' faces registered amazement, pretty righteous stuff a half century down the line. 


Yet Eoin Sands's minor key rendition might've moved the room even more. Following Hendrix's sonic take-down, Sands's arrangement (titled "Sad Spangled Banner") softened the charged mood in the classroom, as if things had abruptly moved from color to black and white, a trippy sunrise replaced by mournful dusk. After two minutes we all felt that we'd had a crash course in an alternate history of the United States, where this is how the anthem's commonly heard, its regrets and sorrowful disappointments as familiar as the rhymes in the lyrics.  We know what a minor key transposition does theoretically: such a trick can turn an innocent early-60s pop tune into something that sounds strange and wounded. (There are many minor key versions of the anthem online; it seems to have, as it were, struck a chord.) After we listened, I asked the students to get into small groups and discuss and rank the versions, by whatever aesthetic standards they wished. The conversations were terrific and lively, surprising and funny. (My students are exceptionally bright and enthusiastic this semester, and I think they've really  missed the brick-and-mortar classroom.) Nothing really new here, yet by the end of class we had yet another reminder of what sound can do, and how form can affect content so graphically, as if someone had switched off-and-on the lights in the room.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Richard Goldstein on The Scene

Richard Goldstein's late-1960s music columns for The Village Voice were incisive, dryly funny, and often prescient. "Why the Blues?" ran in The Voice in 1968 and was included two years later in Goldstein's first book, the essential Goldstein's Greatest Hits: A Book Mostly About Rock 'N' Roll. I love reading "on the ground" accounts of pop culture in transition, especially from the epoch-a-week 1960s. Here, Goldstein explores the trending blues revival among (white) musicians, seeing it as a rebellion of sorts against the sheen and artifice that much of the pop landscape had been adorned with the previous few years. Though that's thoroughly covered ground, Goldstein's take is worth a read given his pointed observations and droll amusement with the whole thing. 

He situates the piece at The Scene, Steve Paul's music joint on West 46th Street (pictured below), where things have "changed a bit, grown stern and funky like the rest of us." Goldstein acknowledges that he can’t "listen to today’s rock without noticing the sound of shovels."

We are churning up the earth again, with the aim of re-fertilization, but with the immediate effect of killing off what happens to be growing—however poorly—at the time. Pop, of course, is all topsoil. It’s what shows—immediately, apparently. It catches the sun and receives the rain, and erodes first under the impact of trampling feet. I once chose to live off this topsoil because for a time, it was lovely to look at, and rich to the touch. As for the bedrock, I was satisfied to perceive that it offered vital support. But the surface was what turned me on.

Yet he's recognizing, with the blues reviving and the turbulent events of 1968 behind him, that pop music isn't providing what it used to. "The blues matters," he writes, "because it is always there when you need it—those 12 bars inviolate, self-contained, eternal. Blues is the humus of American music, but you have to burrow to find it. When the surface seems to shine of its own accord, all that spadework seems unnecessary." He adds, "When pop is vital, we are unwilling to sanctify the blues. But rob rock of its spasm-grace, and replace energy with a stylized motif, and suddenly, they are turning the topsoil under for nourishment from below." The blues revival he's witnessing is nothing short of a "requiem for rock. The simple fact is that the entire pop renaissance of the mid-’60s has failed to sustain itself beyond that first, shattering tonal wave."

That failure holds true far beyond the sphere of music. The pop sensibility—and its extension in painting, theatre, cinema, even politics—never moved from a mere fascination with the surface of things, toward a true metaphysics of the moment. The fragile alliance between intellect and energy which characterized pop art at its finest has fallen prey to the very abstruseness pop began as a rebellion against.

The Scene, W. 46th Street, 1968.
Given the "distressing...failure of pop to lead to anything," and that the movement, as he sees it, hasn't even "inspired its own antithesis," generating "no anti-pop, no rejection of the superficial as a fit subject for investigation"—though I wonder if he'd ever seen the Velvet Underground—Goldstein ticks off a number of crucial moves rock musicians must make as acts of rebellion. For one: "If rock is to retain its outcast’s appeal, it must renounce its alliance with the intelligentsia" and "declare the entire pop enlightenment null and void." 

He cites The Doors and The Beatles, in particular "The White Album," as complacent, unthreatening pop—The Beatles, he argues, "are 'haves' in the most far-reaching sense of that word. They are the golden boys of pop, and we have no right to demand of them the consciousness of desperation which seems so appealing at the moment." The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, on the other hand, is a truly relevant album, steeped as it is in the blues and roots music, away from pop glitter. "The question of relevance is no critic's conceit," Goldstein insists, "especially in rock, where it is the only truly relevant criterion." The Stones have responded "much more effectively to their audience’s demand for songs that sound like Rockabilly or blues." Though songs like "The Salt of the Earth” and "Prodigal Son" may be "calculated," they're "deliberate attempt[s] to draw bonds between the blues revival and themselves." Those otherworldly titans The Beatles? Goldstein sniffs that they seem "more than ever the creatures of their own cosmology."

In an exciting passage, Goldstein goes on to laud the MC5—providing early east coast critical support for the band that hadn't even released an album yet. The MC5's "open hostility to all that is 'gentle' in rock" moves Goldstein, because as "heroes of the new, down rock," The MC5 reflect "distrust—so central to current youth culture—of the ornate, the educated, and the efficient. In America, it is inevitable that the rock underground must embrace the maintain its position of seeming aesthetically 'pure' without being intellectual." In a terrific observation, Goldstein argues that the blues revival "is the first cultural appointment of the Nixon administration," signifying "a distrust of all innovation, when it is tied to popular appeal." Yet he's also shrewd enough to recognize that the then-new and wildly popular Bubblegum Music and the blues reflect "the same basic tensions in American life. Both seek refuge from complexity and disunity in the power of pre-existent forms," adding, "B. B. King and the Ohio Express are both a great consolation to their audiences."


There's a whiff in the piece of an earlier generation's unfortunate tendency to romanticize and sentimentalize the blues, and hence the hardscrabble conditions that produced much of the early blues, and by extension the unhappy situation of many African Americans. Albert King is "authentic," while Jim Morrison is a poser; Ma Rainey, "who is black and rural-real," is easier "to adore than Janis Joplin, who is white and nearly rich"—when Rainey would've gladly traded a privileged white man's well-intentioned adoration of her reality for the reality of a celebrated and well-paid white singer. 

But on the whole, Goldtsein remains smart and ironically witty about race as it plays out in culture at the end of the decade. He ends the essay with a trenchant, devastatingly funny set piece at The Scene. Four white women are watching, and very much enjoying, Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo onstage, "smoking and sipping and staring down a convenient crotch. And the one sheathed in voile, with spitcurls on her eyelashes—turns to her friend with the listing breasts, and sighs, 

“He really lays it down, that Lightnin’ Slim.” “Yeah,” says the other. “Didn’t he used to write for Cream?”

Goldstein sighs, "the blues revival is at best an interim, a necessary haven for pop refugees. It will matter to the bulk of America only in its popularizers," adding, "The man who emerges from some cosmic delta to instant acclaim as a superstar will be the one who reconciles blues power with the freaky exhibitionism of rock. I'll wager a year’s supply of Arhoolie records that he’ll be a white man."

Iggy Pop, your table's waiting for you to overturn.

Goldstein in New York in 2015. Photo: Caleb Ferguson

Monday, January 24, 2022

Beneath notice: Frank & Kerouac

One of my cherished books is Looking In, published in 2009 in conjunction with a major retrospective of Robert Frank's work at the National Gallery of Art. I've been dipping in and out of Jack Kerouac lately for the first time in many years, and opened this book again to be reminded that Lucy Sante (then identifying as Luc Sante) had written a typically terrific piece about Frank and Kerouac's working relationship.
[On The Road] is a saga of Western exploration long after the end of the frontier, a tramp narrative for the automobile age, a search for authenticity in the deadening atmosphere of postwar consumer-society retrenchment, a literary analogue to the long-breath solos of jazz saxophone players in the heroic period of bebop, the founding myth of a high-speed traveling bohemia. And it stood for a refusal of intellectual cynicism and a conscious embrace of wonder at the very aspects of American life that were supposed to lie beneath notice at the time: the filling stations and bus stops and fleabag hotels and jukeboxes and diners and dented cars and industrial landscapes. This aspect in particular intersects with what Frank saw and recorded in The Americans.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

"While you're there, do it"

The sad reality of Rachel Nagy's death was difficult to wake up to today. I can't imagine what her family, close friends, and loved ones are feeling. My condolences go out to all of them. I never knew Nagy personally, but anyone who heard and watched her sing felt as if they were an intimate of hers. Her voice was sublime: she could move from vulnerable, to bad ass, to mournful in the same song, sometimes in the same line. Onstage she was fun, funny, boisterous, coy, sexy, and gleefully rude (sometimes in the same song). A few months ago, I complied a 740-plus playlist of Detroit-area bands for a cross country drive. Over the course of many hours of that trip, it seemed as if Nagy and her band the Detroit Cobras popped up every few songs, grinning emcees to the party, hard-won emissaries of the Detroit rock and roll ethos that they represented so well. I couldn't have asked for better company on that drive.

The last time I saw the Cobras was in 2017, fittingly in a small bar, the Cobras' native environment. Nagy was in fine shape that night; to watch her longtime friend and cohort Mary Ramirez onstage with her was to witness a sisterly, at times even motherly, concern for Nagy, as Ramirez would listen closely—with studied cool—to every line Nagy muttered, or bellowed, between songs, there to reel in her friend a bit if she went too far. I was drinking at the bar before the Cobras hit the stage that night, and Nagy was a couple stools down, chatting with fans. I regret now that I didn't approach her to tell her how much how singing, personality, and stage presence meant to all of us.

This is what I wrote about that show:

A few weeks later, I drove fifty or so miles past farmland on quiet, rural Route 38 through DeKalb and Kane Counties to see the Detroit Cobras at Brauerhouse, a small pub and eatery in suburban Lombard. The Cobras’ patented tipsy strut through obscure, bad ass rock-and-roll songs was warmly received by a decent-sized crowd. It’s well known that you roll the dice when you see the Cobras: other times when I’ve seen the band, lead singer Rachel Nagy, she of the superbly emotive and impossibly timeless voice, had staggered onto and eventually off the stage. At Brauerhouse she was all there: confident if a bit self-conscious in the opening numbers, forgetting some of the words to “Out of this World” (“Because I’m old!” she grinned at the crowd), pausing at one point to indulge herself with a face-bury into the ample cleavage of a besotted fan at the front of the stage. She was fully committed to each bracing song, from the rocking to the “slow skate” ballads, from the silly stuff to the momentous. Whether she’s husky close to the mic or rearing back her head and belting from the back of her throat, Nagy inhabits the songs she sings, renewing each of them out of their obscure past, and the decades-old songs feel as relevant as the contemporary rock and roll played over the PA before the set. 

The rest of the band were loose, in good humor throughout the night, clearly enjoying themselves and the proximity of the tiny crowd. (A bucket of iced-down Miller High Life’s always helps.) The intimacy of the club encouraged banter among the band members and with the crowd; we were all eavesdropping. Songs were spread over the band’s several albums, and a new number, the terrific “Feel Good,” rocked the joint. The Cobras play only vintage R&B and soul covers (with the exception of the original “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” from 2004’s Baby; “‘Hot dog’ means ‘slut’ in Detroit,” Nagy helpfully explained to us), and they play eternal chord changes and song structures so lovingly and with such loose, informal pleasure that they give the impression of summoning the crowd to crash on the floor with them as they rifle through their great album and 45s collection. At Brauerhouse that night, such an invitation seemed plausible. The phrase I Know Where You’re Coming From is emblazoned on the band’s drum set. I know exactly where the Cobras come from, too, but on this night they showed that old rock-and-roll songs can sound like they were written yesterday, in the van. 

Watching the Detroit Cobras in a small joint weeks after seeing Green Day in front of tens of thousands was less a study in contrasts than in alternate universes. As professionally rousing as Green Day was, exhorting a baseball park to rise, stay risen, and cheer, the Cobras played the room; the band was indivisible from the room. Near the end of the set, Nagy ordered a “fire brigade” to bring her a Grey Goose and soda, a feat accomplished with enthusiastic brio by a line of well-oiled fans; the bar, where before the show I’d been two stools down from Nagy, who was chatting amiably with a couple fans, was maybe a dozen feet from the stage; I saw band members alight from their van out back and duck into and out of a fluorescent-bathed hallway at the end of which was their dressing room and probably also the bar’s stock room. Before the show I practically leaned over Cobra guitarist Mary Ramirez’s shoulder as she tuned her instrument and then taped down the set lists; earlier, I’d peered into the other guitarist’s case, laying open at the foot of the stage. It was intimate, like reading someone’s diary. Nothing can replace the nearness of you, rock and roll.
Nagy's voice was ours—by ours I mean the rabid community of lifer fans of under-the-radar bands, musicians who write, or in the case of the Cobras, bring to life, the songs that star our interior Top 40, the alternate reality we fans live in where rock and roll has vital currency. Longtime Cobras friend, songwriter, musician, and producer Greg Cartwright—a pillar of that aforementioned community who wrote the touching tribute on Instagram confirming Nagy's death—said this in 2007: ""The thing is Rachel's voice. When they asked me to help them, that's the reason I'm doing it. She's definitely blessed. Someone with those kinds of natural chops is refreshing, especially when you can look at people on television shows like American Idol and see all these kids. They've studied and they've mimicked every vocal trick in the book, but they don't have any natural ability to convey feeling."
Unfortunately, that's what most of the American public wants; they've been tricked into thinking that's what music is. They don't know that music is even a spiritual thing. So when somebody comes along like Rachel who learned nothing—she didn't come from a background where she sang all her life, mimicking this guy or mimicking that person. She just has it.
I wrote years ago about accompanying the Fleshtones on a small Midwest tour in 2001. One morning in Cleveland, I think, I woke up, hung over and sleepless after a long night, and someone somewhere in the house put on the Cobras' fabulous Life, Love and Leaving album, which I hadn't yet heard. Nagy's voice and her fiercely rockin' band poured throughout that house and directly into my bloodstream; I felt as if I'd been given a shot of B-12, so renewing and redemptive were Nagy's pipes. Listening to the Cobras was a healthy regimen, I've always felt.

I'll give the last words to Nagy herself:
It's about feeding off of people. That crowd's energy, it's huge. Nowadays, everyone thinks they're a hipster and ironic, and they want to stand around and analyze what's happening. Get out there and dance. That's the point of live music. Dance around, meet a pretty girl. It's not to stand against the back wall and analyze and write for your stupid blog. Everyone's blogging and taking pictures and they forget to enjoy what they're actually doing. I guess that's more advice for the audience, but the band too. While you're there, do it. Be there. You can talk about the memories later. We only need a couple photographers in the world. We only need a couple writers.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

"I'm so glad I found you"

When I was a kid growing up in the '60s, music was an outlet for enlightenment, frustration, and rebellion. 
So said Joey Ramone. It's poignant to read those words today after the death of the brilliant Ronnie Spector, who Joey worshipped and was able to work with before his untimely death in 2001. In honoring Joey on his birthday last May, Spector tweeted that Joey was "incredibly special" to her, that he "was there when I needed someone to believe in me." Joey's ears were always tuned to the sound of pre-Beatles innocence muscled up by street bravado, however put-on. And nobody hit that sweet spot quite like Spector. It's easy to surmise that if there were no Ronnie, there'd be no Joey, and if they were no Joey.... Etc.

So here's to two of the greats, who channeled life, love, loss, and redemption in their greatest songs, work that will live forever.