Thursday, January 26, 2023

New Places

In 1966 The Chicago Loop dragged the heartbreak song to a strange joint

"What you have to say—though ultimately all-important—in most cases will not be news. How you say it just might be." This wise observation comes from Charles Wright, who was thinking about form, as he often did. He was considering poetry, yet I've always found that his argument's applicable nearly everywhere where form meets content—which is, well, everywhere. Take heartbreak songs, for example. In the mid 1960s, conventional pop music forms were under direct assault—just glance at the Top 40 chart in any Billboard of the era and you'll see (and hear) songs rolling back the horizons, demanding to know what the pop song can do, not what it can't do. By the mid-60s songs about broken hearts had been composed in nearly every form and style, and in certainly every genre, yet they were still being challenged, reshaped by new, onrushing approaches to songwriting.

I picked up a 45 by The Chicago Loop last month. I confess I knew very little about the band. Helpfully, back in 2010 ace Chicago music archeologist Plastic Crimewave, aka Steven Krakow, filled in some of the blanks. The a-side "(When She Wants Good Lovin') My Baby Comes to Me" was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for the Coasters, who released it as a single in 1957. A tumultuous decade later, the Chicago Loop recorded a version for their debut single on DynoVoice, featuring in the studio guitarist extraordinaire Mike Bloomfield, keyboardist Barry Goldberg and three members of the rhythm section that backed Mitch Ryder on tour after he split the Detroit Wheels. The record was produced by Bob Crewe, the man behind the Four Seasons. 

Billboard was certainly enthusiastic. In a note in the October 8, 1966 "Pop Spotlights" column, riches and a Top 20 landing were forecast for the single:
In the event, the single made the Top 40, peaking at number 37. I dig the tune—it's an upbeat, excitable performance, the band swings and Bloomfield's licks are dynamite, but it's a little straight for my taste. I eagerly headed over to the b-side, where the freaks are usually hanging out. 

"This Must Be The Place" was co-written by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, a songwriting duo who'd been banging around the industry for a while with some success. By the middle of the decade they'd became interested in composing songs for movie soundtracks, and would strike gold the next decade landing hits on the soundtracks to the mega-smash disaster epics The Poseidon Adventure ("The Morning After") and The Towering Inferno ("We May Never Love Like This Again.") (Talk about of the era!) For "This Must Be The Place," Crew stepped aside, allowing Kasha to arrange and produce a nutty soundscape. Blending exotic horn and keyboard arrangements, an hallucinatory, feverish lyric, and some outlandish sonic details, they create nothing short of a demented carnival inside of a dreamlike interior.

The story itself is as old as dirt: the singer's got a broken heart. In his misery he staggers from home to find some relief and enters...a bar? Its unclear. The crazed Klezmer-like horns and loopy sound effects create a careening yet inviting atmosphere; it feels like the joint's upside down and you can see without seeing mad smiles on faces in the shadowy corners, but a place this insane might be just what he needs to erase his pain. "I thought of you with someone new" he confesses, "and then the pain began to hit. I needed somewhere I could hide and I knew that this was it." 

He's come for the promised cure, but his shudder's made clear in the song's opening bars. Swiftly the place devolves into mania: 
Saw a man all dressed in black and I fell back with surprise
I saw a girl reading old love letters and I saw tears in her eyes
The window shades were drawn to keep away a ray of sun
And a little man closed the door behind me in case I tried to run
He steels himself, but look: everyone here is "high in space, ‘cause they each had a different scene," and the music gets more and more bonkers as his head spins. When he muttered “Hello” at the door he didn't realize that he "broke an old routine"—a killer line evoking the convention-smashing headiness of the era. 

By the third verse he's openly weeping, and he cries all night, and into the next day. His tears bring some relief, though he's trapped inside the place for a week—and who knows what goes on in the verses that weren't written. On the seventh day he's allowed, or anyway he manages, to crawl out "from this burden." But succor is tough to find:
I fell on my cloud of memories and I headed for the door
To face the world of strangers and get knocked around once more
Great stuff. And a weird, weird song, equal parts amusing and scary—childlike, in the way that the innocent world can turn sinister without warning. (The lyrics are vivid enough that even an acoustic solo reading of the song would raise hair.) Lead singer Bob Slawson hits the perfect balance between drama and melodrama in his vocals, and I can virtually see the storyboard that Hirschhorn and Kasha presented the band in the studio, where their swirling, carnivalesque freakout blazed in glory. 

~~

As for The Chicago Loop, they would release three more singles ("Can't Find The Words" and "Richard Corey" in 1967, and "Technicolor Thursday" in '68) before vanishing. In a 1968 Billboard piece, Fred Kirby reported on the "new" Chicago Loop—they'd lost and gained musicians, and Slawson was the only original member—and though he was knocked out by their act at a two-week engagement at Arthur's discotheque and at Cafe Au Go Go in Manhattan, stage dynamism wasn't enough to keep the band firing. They left behind a small marvel with "This Must Be The Place," an ancient story told in a startling way—the very stuff of a pop era where surface artifice and radically explored interior spaces created new and vanguard art. Broken hearts were never the same.

The Chicago Loop


Photo by The Chicago Loop via Discogs

Friday, January 20, 2023

In praise of the derivative

If it moves ya, who cares about the source?
The Kaisers
Way back in the 16th century, humans recognized that which is "taken or having proceeded from another or others" as "secondary." And they duly named it. Derivative behavior is as old as dirt. I'm not sure when the negative connotations arrived, but "secondary" pretty much says it all.

If you're in the Rock as Art camp (I have annually-updated but provisional membership), then music should evolve, challenge, surprise musicians as well as listeners, forge new ground, destroy the past. Songs and albums should build upon on the last songs and albums, horizons should expand. Countless artists and bands have burned to the ground following the dreaded sophomore slump, their well dry, while countless others have lobbed toward Billboard a track conspicuously similar-sounding to their previous big hit, hoping that no one would notice—or rather, that everyone would notice, and open their wallets for another round.

I'm here to praise the derivative. Years ago, I caught the Kaisers at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, Illinois. I can't remember now where I'd heard of them, but I went expecting precisely what the band delivered: a note-for-note, gear-for-gear, pointy boot-for-pointy boot recreation of early 1960s Beat music. And, man, was it a blast. The Kaisers were fun, funny, and absurdly tight, and their stage patter delivered in thick Scottish accents only added to the vintage Northern verisimilitude. They'd stop mid-song and strike a spy-action-movie pose, holding their glinting vintage guitars like guns. Their cover tunes mined an appropriate blend of the well-known and the obscure, and their originals were catchy, utterly unoriginal. I had a great, beery time. If you never caught the Kaisers in person, here are couple clips to give you a feel, one from a 1993 Scottish television appearance and the other from a 1995 gig in Manchester.

Joyce Carol Oates said that outstanding writing "is not place- or time-bound," that it "survives the occasion of its original composition." This is true also of ground-breaking music that breaks molds, or creates ones that hadn't yet been made. But some songs have nervy ways of slipping free from imposed ways of defining their value, and they're among my favorites. Some time after the Kaisers show I picked up their 1995 album Beat It Up!, recorded in glorious mono by the inimitable Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios in London. Amidst a few ace ace covers ("Leave My Kitten Alone," "Let's Stomp") are some rip-roaring originals, including "She's Gonna Two Time," written by guitarist Matt Armstrong. One can easily listen to this tune and imagine a a 1963 or '64 U.K. band bashing it out, but I find it hard to do that only because I'm catching up to the song every time I play it and have little time to access, let alone frowningly care about, appropriation. The interplay between the sharp, ringing lead and chunky rhythm guitars, the open hi-hat—a sonic equivalent of a toothy grin—, the blissy manner in which the guitarist threads his way through the words in the bridge, the hoarse harmonies, the forward momentum of the whole damn thing, over in two and a half minutes, create such a joyous sound and movement that the song transcends its obvious influences. The only tradition it belongs to is "Songs, great."

Sure, the singer sounds a lot like early Lennon—so did Buddy Randall of the Knickerbockers in their sublime '65 hit "Lies," and we're still cranking that one. Sure, the mono production consciously evokes the four-track limitations of early '60s technology, and the arrangement screams late-night Hamburg. Like Sire-era Flamin Groovies, Utopia's smart, playful Beatles homage Deface The Music, and early Spongetones, the influences in "She's Gonna Two Time" arrive at your door decked out in the proper period look and gear, but are really here just to throw a party, at the end of which everything—and everyone—is so blurry from the fun and good times that "revivalism," "retro," and any slurred phrase beginning with "Neo" are beside the point. Pull wide and the only thing that matters is the fun, not how we got there. If we can listen to "She's Gonna Two Time" a hundred years from now, we're likely going to get off on the delight, not do the math to determine degrees of separation from Beatlemania.

Anyway, what I'm really here to praise is joy, wherever the hell you find it. Turn it up.

The Kaisers, "She's Gonna Two Time," Beat It Up! (1995)



Photo of The Kaisers by Masao Nakagami via flickr

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Sounds of shapes of things

Rest in Peace, Jeff Beck
It's unfortunate that the occasion of an artist's death often encourages us to revisit their work. It's also a gift. I pulled out some Yardbirds last night following the news of Jeff Beck's untimely death and, listening to "Shapes Of Things," it felt as if a blurry transparency had been lifted, and I was hearing the song new again. Which is appropriate, and the best tribute to Beck, really, whose futuristic, mind-bending playing during his twenty months with the Yardbirds was as new as new got even in the heady, dynamic world of mid-60s pop music, where startling sounds arrived and horizons rolled back at astonishing speed. 

"Shapes Of Things" was recorded in two sessions in late 1965 (at Chess Recording Studios in Chicago) and early 1966 (at Columbia Recording Studios in Hollywood) and released as a single in February of '66. It's difficult to re-hear a song I grew up with on "classic rock" radio and had hawked at me endlessly late at night on TV commercials. Yet Beck's death opened a door that I hadn't been aware of in a long time—going through, I found myself in the middle of the song's strangeness and thrills, a sound that at the time must've felt like an arrival from another world. It still does. Beck and guitarist Chris Dreja's playing shade the verses in a quasi-menacing, dark layers of distortion, power chords that glower behind Relf's politically-charged lyrics, set against the martial rhythm sections like a howling protester at an anti-war rally. (Samwell-Smith: "I just lifted part of a Dave Brubeck fugue to a marching beat.") The band locks in and kicks in at the raw, exciting chorus, one of the first passages in a rock and roll song I remember loving as a kid, and also being a little scared of with its anthemic power. 

Credited to drummer Jim McCarty, singer Keith Relf, and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, the song's authorship ignores Beck, but everyone knows that his contributions were crucial. That chorus devolves as the famous solo, where for thirty seconds Beck takes down the song, and his band, in a maelstrom of controlled feedback inside of a quasi-raga lead, McCarty and Samwell-Smith galloping to keep up with the new sound—a new song, really. Over in half a minute, the solo changes everything—the song itself, and also Billboard, the rest of the year if not the decade, and the interior lives of anyone listening who dares to let the song take them on its journey. Beck recalled in Alan Di Perna's Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits that "there was mass hysteria in the studio when I did that solo. They weren't expecting it and it was just some weird mist coming from the East out of an amp," adding that "[producer] Giorgio [Gomelsky] was freaking out and dancing about like some tribal witch doctor." If Beck had retired or otherwise vanished after his brief tenure in the Yardbirds, his reputation would still be secure for that half minute of playing. 

A great title—of a novel, a poem, a rock and roll song—always grows on a second glance: "Shapes Of Things" are what Relf, disgusted, sees metamorphosing in Vietnam, in a green world under assault, in his reeling perceptive mind; shapes are also what Beck conjures in his solo, best described as outlines or silhouettes of something vanguard and unheralded, frightening because they're unbidden and because they have something to say we may not want to hear. Whatever images you conjure during the stark, stuttering ending are the right ones. Songs can alter things for good. 

Of course, today, the words in the chorus:

Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
ring true in a different, sadder way, there being no more tomorrows for Beck, and utterly changed and grieving tomorrows for his friends and loved ones.

~~

"The right time to record is when you're not quite ahead of yourself." That's Beck. This morning I find that observation profoundly moving, as it glosses his playing in a brilliant and helpful way, the mind not yet caught up with what the spirit, through hands and fingers, can do, will do. Rest in peace Jeff Beck, a guitar visionary.


Bottom photo via Getty

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The promised land callin'

RJ Smith's bold new Chuck Berry biography is now the standard-bearer
"But finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality." 

So wrote James Baldwin in 1955, in “Autobiographical Notes," adding, in parentheses, "Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for."

~~

Chuck Berry was iconoclastic, preternaturally gifted, and fiercely driven. So large, he feels, six years after his death, like a fictional character. "The Originator," some figure from mythology.

The writer RJ Smith, then, faced quite a task. How to bring alive someone who to the average reader is more likeness than man? A doubled task: he's telling the story of a man in a time and for a culture that's growing impatient with the grossness behind the artist. Chuck Berry was an asshole, particularly in his final decades. Well-documented and well-known incidents and accusations abound of deplorable behavior set against the great music. It helps that Smith has great affection for his subject, warts and all. Faced with the task of presenting a dimensional Berry, Smith wisely avoids a hagiographic, defensive airbrushing of Berry's character, as well as a pious condemnation of it. Simply: Smith reports, from a distance, wryly dramatizing Berry as a gifted, flawed, nonetheless engrossing character, the kind of person we find compelling in a novel or in a prestige drama. 

In some ways Chuck Berry: An American Life is a difficult book to review. While writing I feel as if I'm recreating a lively conversation I had with someone on a long night, affectionately recalling the talking points the next morning, still smiling at his bright, witty turns of phrase. Smith's writing ebbs and flows on currents of talk, moving from insight to insight, sometimes surprisingly, the connections implied rather than stated. By the end, Chuck Berry is a necessary, powerful, often moving look at an important American artist, and is clearly now the standard bearer of Berry biographies.

Smith
Chuck Berry is a story about music and race, form indivisible from content. It could not have been about anything else. As with many biographies about (and autobiographies from) wildly successful artists, the tension produced in the opening chapters, where the subjects struggle to identify themselves and to be identified, moving hungrily from one long-odds shot to the next, slackens in the final third, as the subjects' risks are often smaller, less charged, and usually less interesting. Yet the essential struggle for Berry—that of living a life of liberty on his own terms as a Black man—never goes away, it only softens at the edges, mutates into something arguably less offensive as the fame and the money arrive. 

Berry never stopped working. In this supremely well-researched book, Smith recounts gig after gig spanning the globe, well into Berry's late years, a careerist drive in part planted by his hard-working father, and in part native to Berry anyway. He felt that he had many things to prove to many people, to his numerous backing bands, his label, his fans, women. He never ceased enacting out those demands, and Smith follows these impulses from Berry's adolescence through his fame, foregrounding Berry's motivations against a background of strife, from segregation and Jim Crow to Black Lives Matter. Berry's struggles to define himself, at times arrogantly, against popular culture even as he was embraced by that culture is the book's true subject.

The songs and the recording sessions are, of course, also here, nearly always explored as reactions on Berry's part to the complex world around him, a world to which he wanted—demanded—full access. Hence his famous songs about moving, going, and arriving on the singer's own terms, half grinning as he plays. Smith's takes on the cultural importance of a Black man driving, and being seen in, a Cadillac are informed and powerful, and add dimension to Berry's songs the way great criticism should. To Berry, the long road offers much and promises little to a Black person who dares to steer his own car forward. 

~~

Three passages about three seminal Berry tunes—"Let It Rock," "Promised Land," and "Rock and Roll Music"—illustrate Smith's intelligent and sensitive takes on Berry's music, on its daringness and uniqueness, clear and profound thinking that is characteristic of the book:

From the start, "Promised Land" feels tossed off, musically and lyrically, and that’s a big part of its power. It arrives like another Chuck Berry road song and rings with artless sincerity, a friendly character eager to tell his story. It could be a superior version of “Route 66,” a road trip full of place names and featuring one fresh plot device—a mob in the rearview mirror.
 ...

“Let It Rock"... [is] rock & roll if anything is, not to mention A People’s History of the United States with [pianist] Johnnie Johnson accompaniment.
 ...

A funny thing happens in the last verse of "Rock and Roll Music.” Berry sings, “It's way too early for the congo, so keep a rockin’ that piano.” What’s that about? He probably means to say too early for a conga. That dance step fits with the mambo and tango he’s mentioned, and it's too early to go dancing because it’s not night yet. But Chuck Berry doesn’t make many mistakes with his words, and if he chose to say congo instead of conga, it has meaning.

Smith goes on to mention "the place called Congo Square, which Berry might even have seen when he traveled through New Orleans the year before and again about a month before he recorded 'Rock and Roll Music'," observing that "the conga drum was played there, in the one space in New Orleans where enslaved people could play drums on Sunday."

The conga that comes from the Congo. A oneness, then, among the sound and place. All of which underscores how “Rock and Roll Music” steers the music forward and backward in time. This will be something you will want to be a part of, he begins by cheering. Then he says: this backbeat is ancient, and lived long before Elvis Presley.

I hear Berry take on discrimination in "It's My Own Business," his drolly-sung single from 1965 (it also appeared on his album Fresh Berry's). By this point Berry was revered not only by his normal faithful but by fans with names like Lennon, Dylan, and Jagger. He was worldwide-present. And yet: "I am tired of you telling me what I ought to do / Stickin' your nose in my business and it don't concern you." And that's the opening line. The rest of the lyric reads as thinly veiled autobiography, especially after Smith's book. Just beyond the rim of the spinning 45 are the white supremacist know-it-alls ("Seems like the ones that want to tell you / They don't ever know as much as you"), the cultural snobs ("If I go buy a Cadillac convertible coupe / And all I got at home to eat is just onion soup / It's my own business"), the pious ("After workin' on my job and then drawin' my pay / If I want to go out and have a ball and throw it all away / It's my own business"). And authority at large: because the singer's "not a juvenile," he can "go out at my own free will,"
'Cause I don't wait until tomorrow
To do something I could do today

For Berry, authority at large came in one color.

~~ 

I'm not suggesting here that Smith sacrifices the ecstasy of Berry's music for cultural analysis. The songs are here, their magic and their thrills evoked. Smith has great ears, a fan's set of ears, and he gets, and gets at, the shifting dynamics of song-making, the transparencies that musicians in the same room lay on top of what each other's playing, the semi-nods to all around acknowledging that what they've got going is good, maybe even new. Smith's especially well-tuned to pianist Johnnie Johnson, bassist Willie Dixon, drummer Ebby Hardy, and the other musicians crucial to Berry's early and ascendent sound. (Happily, Smith keeps the long overdue Johnnie Johnson revival going with this book. His writing about him is warm and respectful.) His portrait of Berry is of an artist who forged new paths and followed those paths into a life imagined but not articulated by the millions of fans who, delighted to be there, followed their hero up those trails. He got there via rock and roll. Here's Smith on the early stirrings:

Extraordinary to think of the voodoo that happened when folks heard an electric guitar with their feet for the first time, flooding their spines, connecting them to every other spine in the barn. Extraordinary, as well, to think about a human strong enough to invoke that state again and again, hundreds of times a year. It was a form of play from the start, your hands opening up spaces that radiated a shocking form of love, of wildness, lawlessness within community. It was better than work, harder than work. Not work.

Great stuff. His account of Berry showing up unannounced at Circle Jerks gig to play is perhaps my favorite passage in the book, a moving illustration of the profound generational influence Berry had (and has) and of Berry's eternal love for plugging in and playing the guitar onstage, not to mention getting off on screwing around with whatever band had the courage to back him. The unlikely Circle Jerks had no choice that night at the Mississippi Nights club, and their punk energy and plucky attitude floored Berry, improbably, who made it known to the band, in his style, that they were one of the best he'd ever witnessed. He didn't need to say that to them.
~~

But what of the Mann Act, the years in prison, the "toilet sex" tapes, the decades of infidelities, the unauthorized photos of sexual debauchery, much of it mean-spirited on Berry's part? Smith reports it all, does not defend any of it, adds the material to Berry's outsized strangeness and stubbornness. He documents the protests at Berry's funeral. Leaning in at the margins is the feeling that, whatever Berry's compulsions, sexism, and nastiness, his life was simply tougher to live out than others', a burden less to do with the intrusions of fame than with the daily, deadening drumbeat of racism, which from the onset put Berry at odds with living the kind of liberal, indulgent life that it was his desire—his choice—to live. "Racism and sexual freedom fused," Smith observes of Berry, "moving with him wherever he played." There's no forgiveness on Smith's part for what Berry delicately called his "peccadilloes," but then I don't think that Smith feels his biography is the place for pardoning anyway. "What we have is more interesting," he writes near the end. 
A choice of threading through the details of his life or working around them completely—your call!—and simply hearing him. To pull the joy and poetry out of the music he created and have it take us where it wants to go—not where he went. To live our lives with it, and not live his life. That's a lot.
James Baldwin also wrote, "This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of this disorder of life that order which is art." Berry's fierce focus was on his bottom-line, his guaranteed pre-show bags of cash, on not asking permission to take what he wanted, what he knew was his, what his art gave him. His American life. Berry smoothed the sharp edges of disorder, the unruly elbows it threw, into promises of movement and purpose for as overwhelmingly white audience for whom the roads were always far more hospitable. "Everything I wrote about wasn't about me, but about the people listening," he told an interviewer. Yet, always there—noxiously in his early life, implied in some of the songs, veiled but not vanquished by his fame and fortune—was racism. 

At one point Smith describes Berry as "Rock 'n’ roll’s Black best friend," a pretty brilliant summation of the place Berry found himself as other white artists cashed in on his material. "The Beatles and Stones placed his songs with young listeners and then poured out their gratitude in interviews," Smith writes. "How did it it feel, he would be asked over and over in the years to come, to have the Beatles play your songs? There was an expectation from white interviewers that he would be publicly grateful for the acknowledgement. He had worked for years to distinguish himself against all others and perhaps now it was starting to seem that he had lost the distinction, that he was a barely seen content producer enabling others to express themselves." 

Chuck Berry outlived rock & roll, Smith argues, and he now seems "less like a rocker and more than ever simply a representative American artist. He had a vision of a country that did not exist, and he willed it into life. A place where anybody might want to live."

His reward? "A day pass and a warning that it was best he not hang around after sundown."


Photo of Smith by Madeleine Burman-Smith / Courtesy of Hachette; bottom photo of Berry via Globe Photos/Zuma