Thursday, August 31, 2023

You get what's given to you

Thirty years apart, The Boys and The Hives sing the same side of the coin

"No future!" sounded the clarion call of 1977, and the Sex Pistols made it personal: no future for me or for you. As dramatic as that line was—is—and as simply and brutally as it articulated what so many were feeling, a lot of kids in the U.K. in the mid-70s had more immediately pressing needs than to fret over a bleak horizon: I got no money to spend now, fuck the future.

The Boys formed in London in 1975/76 after guitarist and singer Matt Dangerfield quit the band London SS and roped in keyboardist Casino Steel (late of Hollywood Brats), an art college friend and guitarist Honest John Plain and a couple of Plain's t-shirt printing company co-workers, bassist Duncan "Kid" Reid and drummer Jack Black. The Boys enact the old story of Missed Opportunities, never succeeding commercially yet rightfully looming large and influential down the decades as among the earliest and fiercest punk bands of the mid-70s London scene. 

The month the Sex Pistols detonated "God Save The Queen" on an unsuspecting British public, The Boys were holed up in a studio recording their eponymous debut album, which was released in September of 1977. "No Money" is one of the unheralded great songs of first-wave U.K. punk, a storming take on anger and anxiety with an ear cocked to Pub Rock and the excitable eighth-note riffing of cohorts The Damned. The song's details are site-specific, and also universal: the singer's broke, the General Post Office is threatening to cut his phone line, the landlady's breathing down his neck. No job prospects, unemployment's dried up, no food on the table in a freezing room, the future in doubt. Money's all gone. Sound familiar? 

You'd think that rock and roll would've solved all of this already—kidding—yet a desperate financial situation is among the commonest of through lines in music, from Delta Blues to punk, hip hop to garage. "Rock and roll is about the freedom to express yourself very loudly," observed R&R photographer Bob Gruen. Ok, I GOT NO MONEY! Countless songs are born, raged, sent into and/or form a community, and when the dust settles and the ringing in the ears fade, nothing's changed, except for the lucky few. In "No Money," Steel and Dangerfield complicate things when they look out the window of their shitty freezing flat and see the world in its unhelpful array:

Politicians shaking hands with the queen
Power kings with a power dream
Crawling forward on their hands and knees
For an OBE

Money men down on money street
Business men into business deals
Drive their Sunday colour limousines
Over you and me

Try counting similar items in similar lists of resentments conjured by folks in similarly dire straits in similar songs—the sheer volume of music devoted to railing about class injustices and monetary inequalities is testament to not only their sad relevance, but to their grim inexhaustibility. The Boys take a patented, spirited approach here—moving in all senses of the word—by turning up the noise and speeding up that noise until all that matters for one minute and forty-seven seconds is the fact of noise itself as a way of blotting out the world even at it takes that sorry world to to task. The song always ends, of course.

~~

There will always been someone somewhere plugging in and howling No Money. (The Stooges did in 1969, only changing "money" to "fun" and saying basically the same thing.) The Hives hatched in Fagersta, Sweden sometime in the mid-1990s allegedly under the tutelage of one Randy Fitzsimmons, a far-northland Svengali who anointed the band's name and the band members' names. Three decades after The Boys, in vastly different circumstances, The Hives found themselves in a similar economically desperate situation on "Square One Here I Come," from The Black and White Album, released in 2007. 

The agitated, two-note riff in the opening bar is a sonic straitjacket, before crunchy, churning guitar riffs tear it open. The age-old dilemma, howled by Howlin' Pelle Almqvist: "Well, don't have no money 'cause I don't have a job." The—what shall I call it?—Reverse Evolution Theory presented in the opening verse is worth quoting in full; the impression, given the anxious melody and the tape effects that mimic collapse is that you're traveling backward in time, from zero to zilch, devolving along the way:

Don't have a job 'cause I ain't got no skills
Ain't got no skills 'cause I was not trained
I wasn't trained 'cause I didn't go to school
Didn't go to school 'cause nobody told me
Nobody told me 'cause nobody knew shit
No, nobody knew shit 'cause nobody knows nothing
Nobody knows nothing and that's just it
What can you do?

Answer: nothing. "Square One Here I Come," a kind of Theme Song to Economic Determinism, is one of the great rock and roll songs of the aughts, charging, anthemic, perverse, nearly menacing in its dry insistence on seeing things as they are: "You get what's given to you," Almqvist yells before sing-songing an anti-lullaby to Naturalism in the refrain, "Square one here I come, here I come square one!" As in "No Money," the supercharged riffs, here courtesy of dapper guitarists Nicholaus Arson on lead and Vigilante Carlstroem on rhythm, tell a wordless story alongside the lyrics, because the physical response to anxiety and anger is a compulsion to muscle the bad news into submission, or to ironically grin it away, or at least hold it aloft for scorn. This song absolutely rocks‚ and is incendiary onstage. ("It's about you!" Almqvist helpfully informs a packed, sweaty crowd.) And as in The Boys' spirit cousin, "Square One Here I Come" itemizes despair: 1.) no work, so 2.) no pay, so 3.) no bills to pay, so 4.) no home. Rock and roll as a logic problem. But more fun, for a while, anyway.

Things get a bit complicated in the third verse here also, where Almqvist admits that beneath the low ceiling he wants it all "for free," that he's on the search for "an easy way out." The song ends brutally, with a pile on—"Get down, you feel stupid! Don't try, you can't do it! Can't win! Don't you forget it!"—before a simple statement of facts closes down the song: you missed out and get what's given to you, sing with a sneer or a shoulder-shrug, I can't make it out through my speakers. I missed out because I didn't grasp an opportunity that was there, or because the opportunity was never mine to begin with? Somewhere, someone's writing another one, trying to answer that, trying another way out. 

Photo of The Boys onstage at The Marque Club, London, via The Boys Official Website; photo of The Hives via Getty

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Let's take a walk on Avenue A

Five songs about New York City from The Fleshtones
The Fleshtones have been banging around for nearly half a century now. A longtime New York-based band, these days only one member, frontman Peter Zaremba, lives in New York City (Brooklyn, specifically). Drummer Bill Milhizer and bass player Ken Fox decamped for upstate New York in the mid-2000s, and co-founder and guitarist Keith Streng spends most of the year in Sweden. Yet the city's bloodlines run deep. Zaremba and Streng are native New Yorkers, born and raised in Queens. Milhizer grew up in Troy, New York and Fox in Toronto but both lived in the East Village for decades. Any "local band" that debuted at CBGB in 1976 and hasn't had an inactive year since (even a pandemic couldn't stop 'em) is bound to be rich in regional flavors. The Fleshtones remain, in my heart, a quintessential New York City band. 

Unsurprisingly, the boroughs have popped up often in Fleshtones songs. In "F-f-fascination," an early tune from 1979 cut with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums, Zaremba sings about going down to "the river" (presumably the East) to "look at all the weeds," searching for some of that titular enchantment. Favorite bars and hangouts routinely make appearances. In "The Return Of The Leather Kings" Zaremba sings—decorously—about being "down by the river" (this time, presumably, the Hudson) in the late '70s and hitting up various West Village and downtown discos, intrigued by men emerging from the mist "clad in black leather," some surprises among them, including old Kramer who owns the hardware store and an old high school gym teacher who's "knocked out" on the dance floor. In "A Motor Needs Gas," Streng's riff-driven tribute to dodging DUI's, the Greenpoint Tavern (Brooklyn) and Brownies and the Holiday Cocktail Longue (East Village) all get beery shoutouts, and in the hyper "Dig In" the fellas are center stage at the Continental on 3rd Avenue in the Village doing poppers. (Well, someone is, anyway.)

Toronto transplant Ken Fox wrote a swingin' appreciation of "New York City," a town that's too much for the singer's girl to resist. The Stones-y groove conjures the sex appeal of arriving in old time Manhattan in style, rocking short skirts, and "stomping at the Savoy 'till the break of day." He's hopeless, staring forlornly at the train leaving town with his girl on board: "C'mon New York City, show a little pity, send my baby home to me." Unlikely.

l-r, Fox, Empire State Building, Streng, Milhizer, Zaremba

Not all of the NYC references are cheery. In "Bigger And Better" Zaremba laments "wasting time" at the checkout line in Key Food, the venerable supermarket chain founded in Brooklyn nearly a century ago, where everyone's "slack-jawed, checked-out, and overdrawn." The recent "Spilling Blood (At The Rock & Roll Show)" tells a particularly tragic story set in New York. In the summer of 1971 Zaremba was a teenager working for the New York rock show promoter Ron Delsener, who'd booked The Who to play at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, in Queens. One of Zaremba's coworkers, twenty-two year old security guard George Byington, was stabbed to death before the concert (by, as Rolling Stone reported, "a recent parolee.") 

The show went on, yet as Zaremba sings, "The sixties were over, malaise swept the nation / I was looking for fun but got alienation." Something clicked on that fateful, sorry night:

Love was out of reach as the stage was tall
I realized I didn’t like arena rock after all
And high on the stage like they didn't know a thing
The Who went through the motions to play and sing

~~

Here are five Fleshtones songs about New York.

1) "Take A Walk With The Fleshtones," Beautiful Light (1994)

This Kinks-like stop recounts a typical night-in-the-day for Zaremba, who lived for years on Fifth Street near Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. The tune commences at "11:11" as the singer's trying to catch some shuteye, but screw it, everyone's down on the streets about to "swing into action" at joints where they "can't stop the beat." As the night progresses he bar hops west, eventually ending up boozy and woozy on Avenue D in Alphabet City, in that era still a dicey area to visit, regardless of your purpose. The song ends with the singer wondering what the hell he's doing there. It feels like something's starting, too.

2) "Destination Greenpoint," Do You Swing? (2003)

This rocking two-minute ode to Zaremaba's neighborhood—adopted after a frightful rent increase sent his family (and countless others) over the East River from Manhattan—ought to have roared out of every bar in Brooklyn during the aughts. Where's the new joint? He's coy: "Here's a hint, I take the G and not the L." The appeal of Greenpoint, beside the cute locals, the kick-ass kielbasas, and plentiful bar stools? "The housing market there is such, I don't have to pay too much." He'll have to brush up on his Polish.

3) "Ruby's Olde Time," Take A Good Look (2008)

There's one place I'd rather be. In this feel-good tune, the fellas laud long afternoons drinking beers at Coney Island's venerable breezy bar on the boardwalk, opened by Ruby Jacobs in 1972 and long a band favorite. Zaremba's jolly organ solo evokes the amusements nearby—you can practically smell the salt air and Nathan's hot dogs—and the whole thing, again over in two minutes, celebrates the simple joys of a beloved New Yawk bar, where there's always a stool, where they set up your drinks without asking, and where it turns out that the suntanned regular sitting next to you spends his winters swimming with polar bears.

5) "End Of My Neighborhood," single (2016)

It's not all grilled meat and cold beers. Streng wrote this stomping tune as another in the line of recent Fleshtones songs bemoaning gentrification and cultural upheaval in their beloved 'hoods. From the sixth floor of his place on Bedford Avenue Streng implores us to take a good look at the speed-of-light changes, grieving, among other losses, the fates of Joe's busy corner ("not so busy no more"), the Domino Sugar refinery ("not so sweet anymore") and the legendary Coyote Studio, forced to close in the face of unconscionable rent increases. 

The Fleshtones' verdict: "North side, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it's worse than SoHo to me."

4) "Remember The Ramones," Wheel Of Talent (2014)

"You don't know what it means / to hit the Bowery and make the scene / for a rock and roller and a kid from Queens." Zaremba penned this tribute to the band that inspired him, Streng, and original bassist Marek Pakulski to start the Fleshtones in 1976, and to the thrills of the raw New York street rock scene where, as the band likes to make clear onstage before they launch into this song, they were there and they remember

In a rush and blur the impressionistic details evoke the Zeitgeist: CBGB where patrons were "packed like sardines" but "didn't care" and where folks stood on chairs to catch the bands, where Suicide "attacked the crowd" and where Zaremba swilled cognac with legendary music biz man (and head of the Fleshtones' first record label) Marty Thau. (Or was that Max's Kansas City?) In a history lesson disguised in a concise-as-a-Ramones tune, Zaremba reminds us that the Ramones were first but "more than this" they "re-lit the fire the music missed." A reminder, students: "The Clash and The Pistols didn't exist."  

Honorable Mention:

"New York, New York," Dictators Forever, Forever Dictators: A Tribute To The Dictators Vol. 1 (1996)

OK this isn't a Fleshtones song. "New York, New York" was written by Andy Shernoff for his band The Dictators, but it could've been written for the Fleshtones too, so in sync is it with both bands' humor and skeptical-but-proud Big Apple worldview. For this Dictators tribute album they dash through a cover of it with aplomb. A fun fact: Shernoff went to Flushing High School in Queens with Zaremba and Streng. Edumacation!

Photos by Anne Arbor

Thursday, August 17, 2023

What we were going through

 D.C.-based Slickee Boys were a "local band" in all the best ways

Photo ©Don Hamerman
The Slickee Boys were formed in the Washington D.C. suburbs in the mid-1970s by two guitarists, Kim Kane and Marshall Keith. Martha Hull sang lead and, after a couple of rotating bassists and drummers, Emery Olexa joined on bass and Dan Palenski on drums. In 1978, Mark Noone replaced Hull as lead singer, and John Chumbris would eventually replace Olexa, solidifying the lineup. The Slickee Boys released a handful of EPs and singles before signing with Twin-Tone Records in Minneapolis and releasing Cybernetic Dreams of Pi in 1983 and Uh Oh...No Breaks! in 1985. They released a final studio album, the aptly-titled Fashionably Late, in 1988 on the French New Rose label and a live album in '89, calling it quits in 1991, realistic about diminishing returns. After breaking up, they more-or-less annually reunited during the Christmas/New Years holidays to play shows with multiple lineups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Those gigs ended a decade ago, yet the Slickee Boys remain beloved in their hometown.

I discovered the Slickee Boys in the early 1980s in a well-worn fashion: through my older brother Phil and the radio. Phil owned a couple of the band's singles, and WHFS 102.3 FM, then based in Bethesda, Maryland, often played the Slickees' "Gotta Tell Me Why" and "Here To Stay," two ferociously great singles, as well as "When I Go To The Beach" (which video appeared in "light rotation" on MTV for a minute). If you were a rock and roll fan in the Washington metropolitan area, it was a rite of passage to see the Slickee Boys play. The band allegedly holds the record for most shows at the original 9:30 Club in D.C.—81 appearances—and by the time I got to catch them for the first time in 1983, they were legends on the scene, the biggest pop stars in the area, brighter even, at that point, than Tommy Keene (who would within a couple of years sign with Geffen Records, and eventually split Maryland for Los Angeles).

The Slickee Boys never achieved great commercial success, and so they remain the quintessential local band. (They do for me, anyway; you in your town have yours.) In the alternate reality so many of us live in, by choice or circumstance, the Slickee Boys were, for a while, larger than life, packing area clubs and theaters, opening for big bands, earning notices and reviews in the Washington Post and City Paper, consistently putting out records. They toured the U.S.—they were especially popular along the Eastern Seaboard—but wouldn't visit Europe until 1988, only a few years before calling it quits. 

~~

This century has upended the notion of a local band. Extensive touring is still a bitch and a money-drainer (but fun!), especially if a band or artist doesn't have much merch to hawk or a dedicated fan base across cities and regions, but with live streaming from a backyard or a shitty apartment, uploading inexpensively-made home recordings to Bandcamp or Patreon, and maintaining a presence on socials, your favorite local band can now reach millions around the world, for what that's worth. Things felt—things were—much smaller in the 1980s, the ceilings lower, the walls nearer, a two-hundred mile round-trip for a gig in front of a half dozen folks a real commitment. A local band might print up a 45 in a limited run, might sneak onto a regional compilation, might get some radio airplay with adventurous DJs, but, looking back, might realize that regularly packing the bar on the corner was a hell of an achievement. And it was.

In the early 1980s I was coming into my own as a lifer fan of indie music, and beginning to shed the Police, ZZ Top, and other Top 40 stalwarts. Wide-eyed and eared-open, I'd spy local addresses on the Slickee Boys' records and press materials (Bethesda, Rockville, Arlington) and feel an exciting, tangible presence. Listening to their songs down the decades, that frisson of nearness has only deepened. My ears perk up when in "Disconnected" Noone (singing lyrics by Juliet Chats) reference Peoples Drug Store, a local chain where'd I spent countless hours of my adolescence, and "When I Go To The Beach," though lacking in specific geographic details, might as well have been the Official Unofficial Song of Ocean City, Maryland, and we all knew it. Even the store window mannequins in "Glendora," written in the 1950s in another world, evoke for me the tall windows on the old Hecht's department store along Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring. "Kids"—with its lyrics about stealing candy, believing in God ("believe it or not"), learning "how to drink and how to drive" and "how to keep yourself alive"—felt so personal that I could imagine the precise places that Noone was writing about. If my local haunts weren't his, they were down the street.

~~

"Here To Stay" 45 insert, 1981
I wear a scar on my right knee from when I went down hard on a jagged rock in the ground in front of the stage at a 1983 Slickee Boys show at LaPlata Beach, an outdoor area between dorms at the University of Maryland. Onstage the band was always a fun, dependable, showy blast. Noone, usually wearing a tuxedo jacket and dress pants, sang and danced, sweating, telling corny jokes, drinking straight from a bottle of bourbon with the panache of a cool older brother, or, in subsequent years, a cool, drunk uncle who's a bit wide in the middle yet powerfully pulls off one rocking song after another. With his his receding hair line and acne-scarred face, Noone looked a lot more like guys in the crowd than he did a pin-up rock star.

Kim Kane, lean as a stick, quasi-menacing with his waist-length hair, ass-length ponytails, and serious "Fu Manchu" 'stache and beard, wore Asian graffiti-art-inspired graphic shirts, long scarves, wraps, and serpentine arm bands (and a Kabuki-like mask during "The Brain That Refused To Die"), holding his guitar low and slinging it around as he played. Kane named the Slickee Boys after the slang term for hard Korean street youths, and once tagged his band's sound, curiously, as "Korean-viewed American music." (A visual artist, he designed all of the band's distinctive cover sleeves, and their logo, and issued the band's early releases on his own DIY label, Dacoit.) No one could quite nail down Kane's style: Mike Joyce in the Washington Post once described him as "Rasputin in Day-Glo trousers." For much of the band's existence Kane held onto his day job as a building services manager at an elementary school. I remember that rumor afloat on the local scene, and the dissonance of that incongruous, mysterious, hilarious image bewitching us.

Lead guitarist Marshall Keith (leaping, right) was the band's secret weapon, if you could describe someone who teased up his hair in a high Mohawk, wore skinny checkered pants, and played a bright-pink-and-black striped guitar a "secret." He played looking down at his fretboard and fingers as if thrilled by a science experiment. He was loud in many fun ways, and a terrific, inventive, and unique player, often adding witty, characterful lines in response to Noone's lyrics, and playing solos that sounded simultaneously studied and recklessly loose. Listen to his excitable leads in charging songs like "Gotta Tell Me Why," Here To Stay," and "Life Of The Party."

It's on a deeper Slickees cut from the band's third EP where Keith truly marvels. "Forbidden Alliance," written by Noone and Keith, tells an old story of the young couple who have to hide their relationship from their parents ("they didn't know what we were going through"), enduring weeks of "white lies and alibis," "short meetings and quick good byes," nervous phone calls, and that damaging note, "the one they found, the one you wrote," with "all the things we'd done and taken / all spelled out in an incriminating note" that "didn't leave much to the imagination." Keith paints a cinematic story board in his anxious solos, the tension and teen hysteria rising with each measure, culminating in the final bars when Kane kicks in on rhythm and the song explodes in delirium, giving the impression of a car taking a turn far too fast (which works as a metaphor for teen recklessness for me!). 

In the comical last verse, Noone, his eyes darting about, offers a breathless scenario:

I'm sneaking through your house, I'm hiding in your hall
Is that your daddy's voice? I'm out the basement door
I'm underneath your bed, our clothes piled on the floor
If I'm caught I'm dead, I'm out the basement door
Cue Keith's solo again—and you can virtually see the frantic couple in their room, the kid hiding out and then escaping through the door, his gf's Dad hot on his heels, Keith's solo conjuring silent-film frenzy. Fantastic.


~~

Early in a sweaty, beery 1992 reunion show at the 9:30 Club, Noone wryly announced to the crowd, "We're gonna do all the hits tonight," before adding, "But, you know, I like to look back at Slickee Boys songs as nothing but hits." Those who shared the same Zip and Area Codes as the band, in the crowd that night or dispersed now around the globe, could only agree.

Top photograph of the Slickee Boys by Don Hamerman (www.hamerman.com), Childe Harold club, Washington D.C., 1979; photo of Marshall Keith by Tom Shea

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Airplanes, flying, records, rotating

The Three O'Clock's magnificent "Jet Fighter" will never touch ground

In the latest issue of Ugly Things magazine, Ric Menck writes in his "Call Me Lightning" column about the early records by the Three O'Clock, a seminal band in the so-called "Paisley Underground" scene in southern California in the early 1980s. Menck's piece sent me back to the band's records, which, truthfully, I hadn't pulled out in a while. As usual, Menck's right: "I Go Wild" from the Baroque Hoedown EP does sound like "Revolver-period Beatles on steroids"; Earle Mankey's production updates the band's 1960s leanings without time- and date-stamping the sound; and the band's ecstatic cover of the Easybeats' "Sorry" was a bold choice in that it threw light on an obscure song, much as the Bangles' version of the La De Da's "How Is The Air Up There?" did the same year, ultimately sending so many of us scurrying to find the original on hard-to-find compilations of varying authenticity.

A song can bounce off you, or a song get in and stay there. Circumstance is everything. A shaft of sunlight, a gaze from another, depression or an anxiety attack, grief, a road trip: the contexts are fluid, and unimportant, yet when a song or an album's wavelengths pass through the wavelengths of that particular context, the music changes, and remains eternally alive no matter how many times you listen to it. When I hear the opening bars of "Jet Fighter," the lead track off of the Three O'Clock's debut album Sixteen Tambourines, I'm transported to a particular time and place. I selected "Jet Fighter" as the first song on my first radio show at WMUC at the University of Maryland. The details—3 am, Saturday morning, April, 1985—are only interesting to me. Few memories are more tactile, more dimensional than the moment when, my hands shaking and my heart racing, I spun that song.

WMUC flexed a robust 15 watts of transmission power, and the joke was that the signal didn't even reach all of the dorms on campus. There'd be the odd story that someone claimed to have picked up 'MUC in Washington D.C. "if the wind was blowing right"—the D.C. line was five or so miles from the station—or while driving somewhere on the Maryland/Virginia Beltway at dawn, yet at the moment I began my first show I didn't care whether two or two million were listening. Watching that turntable rotate, terrified that I wouldn't get the next song cued up—a laughable concern given that I'd memorized my opening set days earlier—swallowing my excitement for some measure of poor-man's (boy's) professionalism, and mentally preparing my first post-set "patter," I was thrilled in the aliveness of the moment, and I was hooked. I'd DJ at 'MUC, eventually moving to prime afternoon slots (see flier below), for my remaining years at college. (I titled my show "Innocent Startings," a ricochet off Colin MacInnes's 1959 Mod novel Absolute Beginners, which I'd read and was determined to love. It seemed clever at the time.)

~~

Several years ago the University of Maryland curated an exhibit devoted to the history of WMUC, and I was startled to find included a photograph of me taken during one of my afternoon shifts (see right, if you must). I vaguely recall a photographer visiting the studio one day; I posed for two or three awkward shots, unsteadily straddling my late-college, collegiate cum Mod look. (Think Mick Talbot's younger brother.) Clearly I was "featured" because the photographer was available only during my slot. In the event, it was a blast nearly four decades later to see those studio rooms again, and the faces of many who I remember fondly.

My friend Don Smith was a DJ at 'MUC the same era I was; he started a year or so after me and so our time overlapped there. After I posted some old fliers on social media he commented on the headiness of our student DJ days, "special times for many reasons, from the camaraderie that we all held in the face of College Society—a lot of which we positioned ourselves for after 7+ years of 'Slobs vs Jocks' college movies, as well as the legitimate love of the music," he remarked. "And secondly, for me, was the sense at the time that our places in the future world could be endless."

Nobody knew what the future would hold and that's something really special about being 18, 19, 20, 21- your future opportunities are wide open and don't begin to narrow for years. That summer when the wall fell and all these people I knew went to Prague! We were inventing our own rules without the fences of the past. I think back to the times of interviewing Kurt Cobain and Björk or giving away tickets to Dave Chappelle and Wanda Sykes at the Greenbelt Comedy Club and knowing people would be big, but not really knowing how to actually get there....

"We were a crucible of 'all that was cool' around that campus," Smith wrote, before adding, "And some of those feelings are bittersweet too." 

At age 19, every morning I'd wake up and say to myself, "I can make a difference working in the music business!" At Age 29 I said to myself, "I lost 7 friends to drug overdoses and suicide, I don't ever want to work in music." It was a time when friends in music could be so much but then there was a time when we realized that friends in music isn't a paying job. A few snickers behind someone's back when their major label debut missed the mark, not realizing that the same tiredness I felt with aging grunge wannabes in 1995 also meant I was soon to get passed over for opportunities. But at...1986? The world was our oyster.

Indeed it felt that way, unbound in our cramped, crummy little station above a dining hall. I never had a desire to work in the music business, and the odd interviews I landed with bands were ham-handed at best, but I lived and breathed my sets, mentally running through potential segues while in class, jotting down songs I knew I wanted to play. (One summer I had a jazz show, and I tried my hand at literary programming, too, in "Meter & Frequency," the name courtesy of my then-girlfriend.) More than once during my three-to-six a.m. "graveyard shift" days I'd close a bar with friends in D.C. or Maryland with a shopping bag of albums and 45s at my feet. Then I'd drive to campus and spin records for three hours beneath tottering shelves stuffed with promo carts and albums until the sun came up, drive home, sleep a bit, wake up and head back to campus for classes. 

~~

Those were marvelous, indelible times, soundtracked, for me, by "Jet Fighter." I listen again to the song's opening—guitarist Louis Gutierrez's curious, tantalizing sounding, the garage rock cha-cha laid down by drummer Danny Benair, Mike Mariano's twinkling keyboard figure, sounding like nothing less than sunlight glinting off a jet wing, Guitierrez's woosh of an ascending riff, the muttering of an air traffic controller, then Michael Quercio's wispy yet urgent vocals, "Jet fighter man, that's what I am, 'cause tanks go too slow"—and I feel as if I'm ascending, as I did as an excitable eighteen-year old kid, alive on the air, my future world, when I bothered to consider it, indeed feeling boundless as a plane in flight.

Interestingly, what I wasn't hearing in the song then was the blatant ambivalence—the evocative phrases "flying, yet I feel so low"; "protect the land that fills my hand with nothing to show"; "on the day when duty calls I don't think I will go"—in part because the music and the performance are so glorious and exciting, in part because I was tuned to so many emotional confusions at the time I had room for little more. A bit of an anti-anthem, or anyway an anthem to doubt, "Jet Fighter," like all great pop music, elates in itself and complicates things at the same time. Beneath the shimmering glimmer of Mankey's production, some mysteries: who's the singer? Are they off to war? Which war? (Hence the ambivalence?) And who are Mark and Ann? "Come watch me land, I'm sure that they would know"—what would they know?

No matter. Quercio's voice and the words he sang were simply one more instrument in "Jet Fighter," one more moving part in an engine of bliss. It was pitch black outside the window that April early morning of my first DJ show. Inside the studio I was glowing, lit by more than lights.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Keepsakes

Our details may change, but our stories remain the same

All clichés are born unique. (Even that one!) Every shopworn phrase, gesture, or insight was muttered, made, or scrawled down somewhere for the first time, and whoever heard it, saw it, or read it felt as if the top of their head was coming off. And they told two friends, and they told two friends, etc..

I've had the platitude "the more things change, the more they remain the same" in my head for a little while now. Seneca wrote "On Noise," one of his late-life "moral letters," sometime in the early '60s A.D.. Gathered among more than a hundred such letters in the philosopher's Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic, "On Noise" is a brief complaint wrapped in a moral. Clamor, Seneca offers, shouldn't in itself prevent one from focusing or meditating or writing: the stoic inner self, calmed by reason, can flourish in even the noisiest of climates. (All well and good. But at the end of the letter the stoic acknowledges that he can't take the din and is splitting town.) 

Living above a bathhouse, Seneca's endured "every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years." In the opening paragraph he describes the commotion that drives him up a wall, such as,

When the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away—or go through the motions of toiling away—at them, and the hissings and strident gasps every time they expel their pent-up breath. When my attention turns to a less active fellow who is contenting himself with an ordinary inexpensive massage, I hear the smack of a hand pummeling his shoulders, the sound varying according as it comes down flat or cupped.

Seneca piles on, he can't help himself: a ball player shouting out the score; someone starting a fight; someone caught stealing; "the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath;" the hair remover hollering about his services; "the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own."

Robin Campbell's translation nicely updates Seneca's language, yet, I remind my essay-writing students, and myself, this litany is nearly two thousand years old. How contemporary it still feels! I ask my students what current sounds they'd add to Seneca's complaints, and they oblige: someone loudly talking on a phone in a public place; car alarms; ring tones; loud television commercials, construction sites, etc.. 

~~

Roughly 1,960 years after Seneca wrote "On Noise," Harmony released her single "Shoplifting From Nike." (The tune and video dropped last week.) In a squeaky synth-pop bubble of fun and angst, Harmony complains that "everything is boring, somehow," and that "vanity, it's all love" so "give me the thing that I want." A needy, grabby tune, "Shoplifting From Nike" (the title's a winking reference to Winona Ryder's old criminal troubles), drops one pop reference after another: Ryder ("I love that '90s shit," Harmony confesses); trending lipstick; Cronenberg; Marlboro Reds; "Sanrio girls on ecstasy ("they totally get me"), Tumblr, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The best lines—"Life's lived best in debt," and "I get so insufferable / I think it makes me whole"—get at the heart of the problem, the lie we still fall for that consumerism will enrich us. "I'm rich in my mind." Harmony logically states, "'Cause everything is mine."

Harmony's family was briefly homeless during the 2008 housing crisis, and she gets at the complications in a recent interview. Asked by Nylon to describe the songwriting process for "Shoplifting From Nike," she remarked, "I feel like it's owed to my teenage self a little bit, but it's also that mischief that still exists in me for sure," adding, 

I don't steal, but I used to when I was a teenager, a little bit, and it was right after the housing crisis. God bless the 2008 housing situation. The real heads will remember.... Because I have this opinion that materialism and spirituality are the same thing, and whatever people find fully is equally valid to anything else.

The song's pre-chorus kills me—

Then you watch a sad movie
With the girl that you're using
On my Hulu in airplane mode
—the way it tells an old-as-dirt story with the stuff of today, the super power of any great pop song no matter what time in history it's written. Will Harmony's song need footnotes to be understood a half century from now? Will the Genius website annotate it within an inch of its life? Probably, yet the song might endure anyway. It doesn't matter what we're watching, when we're watching, or how, there will still be mean, self-absorbed boys and unhappy, confused girls, and the other way around, and at all points along the gender spectrum. The more things change....

~~
Wyldlife, l-r, Dave Feldman, Samm Allen, Spencer Alexander, Russ Barnett
Six or so years ago the New York/New Jersey band Wyldlife released Out On Your Block, a really good rock and roll album, '70s Glam/street rock updated for the new century. "Keepsakes" also tells an eternal story: she split. But ends are always messy beginnings in disguise. The things she left behind, the stuff that the singer can't let go of—her shoe, some baggies ("who took the drugs?"), bobby pins, pills, stray hairs, her T.Rex tee shirt, lipstick stains on a still-warm coffee mug—are intimately theirs, but curiously ours too, morphed into silhouettes of loss. And though they're tangible, holdable, they're also ephemeral:
You’re just a lost cause gone beyond a reasonable doubt
You’re a mystery that I couldn’t figure out
With your keepsakes

Subtract Marc Bolan, and the lyrics to "Keepsakes" might've been written any time in the last half century. Call it unoriginal, if you must, I call it enduring. The song, written by Feldman and Allen, places itself securely in the tradition of the baffled, heart-broken lament, and so the details matter less than the story, yet, as anyone who's been deserted knows, the details are the embers that never die out. I guess the musicians themselves don't matter either, only the song they're singing, though I'm glad Wyldlife got together and banged out this, a fresh take on an ancient tale. The arrangement, with its herky-jerky changes and stops, drums on the prowl, and eighth note bass, strives to remain upbeat, but Feldman's howling, and the song's pretty angry, actually. Fun songs about sad stuff is itself a clichéd description of rock and roll and pop, and a damn good one; my head lifted when I first heard it. Wyldlife, like countless before them, turned to that bromidic paradox in "Keepsakes," a good a move as any when you're  heartsick. 

Yet when the sad outweighs the fun, when the liveliness can't transcend the blues, you're in a timeless bind, stretching back two thousand years and earlier. Seneca was bothered less by the details around him—the yells and shrieks, the splashes and grunts—than the unhappy fact of noise itself, just as Harmony and Wyldlife, making and singing music in a world someone in the first century A.D, couldn't have possibly imagined, make their way through the thorns of last night's and today's stuff to get at something abiding. The more details change, the more heartache stays the same.


Top image via Getty Images/E! Illustration, photo of Harmony by Morgan Maher, photo of Wyldlife by Jason Yamauchi