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.