Thursday, July 20, 2023

Just how I feel

Can a song shake off the clichés of its era through sincerity and delivery?

In July of 2002 I was day drinking at the Greenpoint Tavern (RIP) in Brooklyn. The previous week my buddy Steve and I had hit the Siren Music Festival out at Coney Island—a long, fun day drinking at Ruby's with the Fleshtones' drummer Bill Milhizer, soaking up the sun and breezes, and catching a hell of a lineup including the Donnas, the Mooney Suzuki, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At dusk Steve and I, both drunk and sunburned, took the Q train back to Bedford Avenue, the subway barely crawling in the godawful heat. Everyone around us in that packed car looked like members of the Strokes. Gazing back two decades later, it was an Of The Era day.

At the Tavern I'd struck up a conversation with a younger guy to my left. He too had been at Coney Island. We traded stories about the bands we'd dug, and he was scornfully dismissive of the Mooney Suzuki. I'd seen the band a year earlier at CBGB where they'd raised the proverbial roof in an epic show, and I'd got off on their set at Siren Festival, too. Meh, said my new friend. "I hate all that corny stuff, all that 'I climbed a mountain with my guitar, I came back down with this band!' crap. So corny." Yeah, I laughed, and then trailed off. Suddenly I didn't feel like engaging, comparing hipster bonafides with this guy who was already several foamy 32-ounce Buds into his afternoon. Yeah, the Mooney Suzuki was kind of corny. And I loved it.

I've written before at No Such Thing As Was about the thin line between invention and imitation. For decades I've been vaguely embarrassed by how much an "unoriginal" song can move me, how it can nourish, while meanwhile I keep an eye on those who are far braver than I (as I see it) in pursuing and embracing more original or unorthodox music. In 2002 had I a choice between seeing only the Mooney Suzuki or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, my instinct would've been to head, beer in hand, for the Suzuki. (At the Siren Festival I was cool to the Yeahs's arty, excitable performance, though I've come a long way in appreciating them.) I know: no guilty pleasures. And yet, I sometimes worry about my capacity for absorbing avant-garde or otherwise unorthodox music—even when it sounds like rock and roll!—so helplessly attracted am I to the three-chord, hook-laden, riff-shaking wonders of the world.


I've been thinking about my ol' Brooklyn drinking buddy after the Third Power's "Persecution" recently came up on shuffle. A classic power trio, the Third Power—pictured epically at top, left to right, bassist and lead vocalist Jem Targal, drummer Jim Craig, guitarist Drew Abbott—formed in the late 1960s in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a half hour drive from Detroit. Popular on the local circuit, another in the long line of Big In Detroit rock and roll bands, the Third Power shared epochal stages with epochal bands in that loud, heady era, and shacked up and partied fabulously in an era-defining communal farmhouse home. Their gigging, noise, and a locally-issued 45 landed them a contract with Vanguard, a somewhat odd sonic marriage given the label's predominantly classical, jazz, folk, and blues artists (though the Third Power had folk leanings; listen to the delicate "Crystalline Chandelier"). Sam Charters, the esteemed blues and jazz historian, produced the album; he'd had a long history in production as well as writing, and had helmed the boards for Detroit neighbors The Frost's debut album, also issued on Vanguard. 

In the event, the band cut a full-length record, Believe, which Vanguard released in 1970 but distributed and promoted anemically. The album landed at number 194 on the Billboard charts, but swiftly disappeared, and the band called it quits shortly thereafter—a story so common and eternal it feels Biblical. In the June 20, 1970 issue of Billboard, Fred Kirby, in a "Talent In Action" review of the band's gig at the legendary Ungano's in New York City, sounds hopeful. He describes the Third Power as "a promising young blues-rock trio" with "a top-notch lead vocalist" and "capable guitarmanship [sic]." "With more experience," he concludes guardedly, "this unit should be able to develop more individuality. The makings are there." Alas.

"The Third Power sounded different from other rock trios of the time such as Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience," Willy Wilson remarks in the liner notes of the 2016 reissue of Believe.

The music tended to be more melodic and layered and didn’t focus upon one musician but on the band as a whole. “I remember when Drew brought copies of Fresh Cream and Are You Experienced to our practices,” says Jem. "We were blown away. It was cool to see power trios that had the same energy as us. We were all like,"Hey, we can do this! We can do this on our own terms!"

A couple tracks on the under-appreciated Believe betray the era's propensity for down-home jamming and "Free Bird"-styled over earnestness, but several reflect the band's boldness. For a "power trio" the Third Power sure traded in mellow tones. "Passing By" is lovely and evocative, gently stringing together a sonic reverie, the startling "Lost In A Daydream" builds from folk stirrings to an aggressive, Who-like attack. Targal's powerful, graceful voice, which in fact puts me in mind of Pete Townshend's pretty high register, often lifts the band's songs, especially in the pleading, soaring "Won't Beg Anymore."

But I also want put forth here the argument that individuality is overrated. "Persecution" is very much a song of its times, little in the arrangement suggesting maverick, mold-breaking visionaries at work. It's basic anthemic blues-rock with a "social message," hard to distinguish from other like tracks from the era. Then why do I love it so, and listen to it more often than the album's quieter, more accomplished cuts? Well, for one, I'm an unapologetic eighth-note junkie, for whom Anti-Virtuosity is a creed. But more than that I'm a sucker for the era's guitar-forward, late-psychedelic, Rock Will Save Us ethos, which—is corny. As indulgent excesses and broken promises accumulated throughout the 1970s, such plugged-in glory began to look and sound trite, the heartfelt assurances that a song, in communion with a beatific crowd (and the right drugs), will unites us as One rang hollow, stinking of naiveté. And yet with certain songs, certain bands, and at certain shows I feel the tug of those promises, however momentarily, however, yes, naively, my sober recognition of the promises' limitations failing to decelerate the moments of bliss, thankfully.

"Persecution" begins with deceptive acoustic finger-picking—we feel that we're headed down a pastoral lane into Zeppelinham—before an electric guitar churns up a fat, funky groove. The singer—Abbot in this case; it's his tune—complains about friends of his coming around and calling him names, lecturing him that he shouldn't be playing "those silly games." He shrugs them off before stepping down into the song's chief complaint: "persecution, disillusion, yeah." It's hard to tell whether it's a question or a simple stating of facts, and the laments pile up: his friends don't like the way he plays guitar, doesn't think he'll get very far, but he couldn't care less, he's gonna pick up his guitar and play. As rebellion goes, especially in 1970, especially coming out of rough-and-tumble Detroit, it's pretty mild stuff, yet Abbot's sincerity is charmingly winning. He really believes that his guitar playing will raise a middle finger to mistreatment and blow off the shackles of disenchantment—and his fiery guitar solos only raise the stakes. After a breakdown to catch his breath, he digs deeper—

People tell me they've led a life free from care
Well, I look back at mine and it just doesn't seem fair
What'd I ever do to deserve such a deal?
Is there no one who can't see me and just how I feel?

—howling the final lines as his band whips up a like storm behind him. He's just gonna sing his song, a sonic battle waged that no persecution could withstand.


Then the song ends and life returns, where your options are to play the song again and convince yourself of its truisms, or move forward broken-hearted. Or, a third option: snort and roll your eyes at the whole damn thing. But I don't believe that sincere gesture has an expiration date. On that sweaty June 2001 night at CBGB Mooney Suzuki enacted the Third Power's promises—with more beery grins and less seriousness, perhaps—for song after song, until I believed that they maybe were the answer. To what, I wasn't so sure. I never fully connected with the Mooney Suzuki on their albums, on which their backward-looking, MC5/Grand Funk-inspired showmanship feels more contrived. No, the momentary stay under stage lights, the noise filling my chest in a loud, dark venue, be it the Grande Ballroom, the Bowery, a small college town on a Wednesday night—that's where such promises feel like the opposite of corny.

Bottom photo of the Third Power by Tom Wright

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