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.