Archive for the Rock and Pop Category

Though I Didn’t Come From Vaudeville, I Did Come from This

Posted in AMERICANA, Blues, Comedy, ME, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2017 by travsd

Providence, 1950. The only thing different in 1970 or 1980 were the cars.

One of the questions I have been frequently asked in the context of having written No Applause is “Did you have relatives in vaudeville?” and my usual answer is along the lines of , “No, other than myself, I have no connection to show business.” But that’s not quite true. My brother Larr Anderson is a musician and I’m certain a good portion of my love of show business rubbed off on me from him. He’s best described as a raconteur — always full of hilarious stories of his experiences (old ones and new ones), and jokes he heard from other performers while working in clubs and bars. It was glamorous and exciting to me as a kid, and his stubborn pursuit of his own dreams was an undoubted model for my pursuit of mine.

I’m from Rhode Island; our local cultural center was Providence, and with the fullness of time I can see how its local show biz culture influenced me as a teenager. In the ’70s, Providence, like most small New England cities, was trapped in the past, if only for economic reasons. The industries that had made these towns hum early in the 20th century had fled. New things were not being built; sometimes at night the streets looked deserted. In some ways, it could be depressing, but it also gave a town like Providence a kind of funky retro chic. It looked trapped in the 1940s or ’50s. Its largest landmark (now called 111 Westminster) was an art deco skyscraper built in 1928, colloquially known as “the Superman Building” because it resembled the one George Reeves flew over in the ’50s television show. It was a gritty noir town, full of diners and lunch counters and dive bars and mafia hoodlums.

Talking Heads, prior to being joined by Jerry Harrison of the Modern Lovers

Some of its aesthetic crept into New Wave music, I think. Local artists throve on vintage culture; old threads from consignment shops, and self-consciously kitschy home decor. The best known exponent of this culture is The Talking Heads, three of whose members met at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and played locally as “The Artistics” in 1973 before moving to NYC.

Also from the RISD scene in the ’70s was Charles Rocket, best known today for being fired from Saturday Night Live in 1981 for uttering the word “fuck” on national television. (This despite his being the most popular cast member of the first season following the departure of the original cast; he was touted as the “new Chevy Chase“.) Rocket later had prominent roles in films like Dances with Wolves and Dumb and Dumber. He originally fronted and played accordion in a Providence band called The Fabulous Motels. Rocket’s frequent partner in crime was a painter and performer named Dan Gosch. (The two were known for staging protest publicity stunts at the State House dressed as super heroes.) Gosch painted a locally famous mural of weird faces at a bar/restaurant called Leo’s, where I later worked my way through theatre school as a dishwasher.

Another hugely influential local phenomenon was a band called The Young Adults. My best friend’s cousin Ed “Bumpsy” Vallee was its guitarist, and another of their line-up Thom Enright was a close friend and frequent band-mate of my brother’s, so I got to hear The Young Adults’ satirical set a lot, and their funny songs like “A Power Tool is Not a Toy”, “Fallen Arches” (about an explosion at McDonald’s) and their best known song “Complex World” (which later became the title of their 1992 movie),  definitely influenced me as a songwriter. Their best known member David Hansen (a.k.a. “Sport Fisher” — for whom a sandwich at Leo’s was named) left shortly after the band started to gain some momentum and formed Cool it Reba (named after a remark frequently uttered by Soupy Sales) in New York. The other key member was a character named Rudy Cheeks, probably the biggest local star, a hustler who not only fronted The Young Adults but wrote a funny column in the New Paper (later known as The Providence Phoenix) called “Phillipe and Jorge’s Cool, Cool World” and screened B movies while making wisecracks into a microphone, decades before Mystery Science Theatre. Rudy writes about his memories of how all these players (Talking Heads, Fabulous Motels, Young Adults and others) overlapped and interacted here. 

Martin Mull is also a comedy/musician who came out of the RISD scene (he studied to be a painter), and whose path crossed many of those on this page, although he quickly moved to Boston, and then the world, after graduating. There’s a great article about his early years here.

Another key artist to emerge from this scene (possibly even better known in some quarters than David Byrne and Talking Heads) is Brenda Bennett, of Vanity 6 a.k.a. Apollonia 6, one of Prince’s many side projects, whose day in the sun was the mid 80s. The attached article mentions two of my brother’s pals and bandmates Phil Green and the aforementioned Thom Enright as key people she met and played with early in her career. Enright had also played with Beaver Brown, which achieved mainstream success in the mid 80s with the song “On the Dark Side” and the Eddie and Cruisers soundtrack. To my amazement, the article also mentions that her brother, along with the above mentioned Ed Vallee of The Young Adults were in the band Universal Rhundle together. My brother had mentioned this band to me when I was a kid. It became the inspiration for this play of mine.

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My brother is a drummer who has been playing professionally since he was 11 years old. We wrote a little about here about how he knew folksinger Patrick Sky in his younger years (Sky started a coffeehouse in our hometown). He played in all kinds of bands over the years, but the strongest thread was his participation in the blues revival of the 1980s. Roomful of Blues is one of the best known local bands in that movement; they were formed in Westerly, Rhode Island, where I was born. My brother has sat in with them and played in many bands with their guitarist Chris Vachon, including his current one Li’l Shaky and the Tremors (see bottom of this post for an important update!) Roomful’s bassist Preston Hubbard also played with the better known Texas band Fabulous Thunderbirds, which was part of the same national movement. My brother also played in a trio with Duke Robillard, best known as a member of the original Blues Brothers line-up before quitting in disgust (or being fired for mouthing off, depending upon who tells it).

As a kid, I was often taken to bars and clubs to see my brother play (things were more relaxed then) and once I even got to hang out in a recording studio and watch him and his friends record a single. But for the most part, in my little seaside hometown, I was far from the action. The above-mentioned New Paper was one of my lifelines. It was the equivalent of our local Village VoiceIn addition to Rudy’s column, it carried Doug Allen’s deadpan comic strip Steven and, unless I misremember, also Feiffer, Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World and Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer — although some of this may be bleeding into my memories of my first days in New York and the Voice itself. The New Paper featured left wing writing on local politics and reviews and ads for local bands like (in addition to those named and others I will name) Throwing Muses and Steve Smith and the Nakeds.

Another of my lifelines was Brown University’s fm radio station WBRU. They played mostly dinosaur rock, but I especially lived for the weekly show of one “Dr. Oldie, the Dean of the University of Musical Perversity”, who spun mostly singles from the 1950s, often very obscure and strange ones, not the usual hits. I learned to my shock just now that he is the same guy as John Peck…aka, The Mad Peck, the co-author/illustrator (with the fascinating Les Daniels) of the seminal, groundbreaking book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, as well as the famous Providence poster:

A terrific article in the Providence Journal here about Peck and his interactions with many of the above-named players.

The local band (outside of my brother’s influence) I followed most closely was the neo-psychedelic outfit Plan 9, whom I got to know from my friend Colin Cheer, who took guitar lessons from their leader, a scary-looking dude, with a wild, frizzy mane of hair named Eric Stumpo (yeah I know that’s bad grammar — fuck you). Through Plan 9’s influence, I discovered ’60s garage rock of the proto-punk variety…not to mention the film for which the band was named, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Colin introduced me to all the punk music going up until that time 1982-3-4. But I liked 60s’ garage rock more, which is why I remain well versed in punk only up until the early 80s…I know very little of what came after. Colin, me, and our friend Alex Nagle briefly had a band called the Happy Machines. I played drums on a make-shift kit made up of my brother’s castoffs. We only played a couple of gigs — we chased most of the audience away. But Alex later joined Plan 9, which was quite a step up. We weren’t close but Colin was a big influence on me when I was about 17. One cold winter night we spent the entire evening running around the streets of Providence. He took photos; I wrote a play based on some characters I witnessed. Dysfunctional Theatre presented it a few years ago, I call it The Big Donut. Later I slept on Colin’s sofa in Boston on one of my first attempts to leave the nest when I was about 19. (I have one very cool anecdote of that experience, but that one I may have to fictionalize that one).

The Arcade in Providence, the oldest mall in America and the improbable, but actual, location of Periwinkle’s Comedy Club

One other Providence name I want to drop. Janeane Garofolo did her first stand up dates at Periwinkles Comedy Club in the Providence Arcade when she was a student at Providence College in the mid ’80s. I’m almost exactly the same age and performed there at around the same time. When I saw this mentioned in the book We Killed a light dawned: “Ah!” I think we may have performed on at least one bill together.

At any rate, working on this piece has been a revelation for me…comedy and music are the most important parts of show business to me (even better when they’re mixed), and I am also pretty obsessed with vintage pop culture. It’s pretty clear that I am a product of Providence, that the roots of No Applause are in the culture of Providence, and my gateway to that was my brother Larr.

And, now after all that lead up, an old fashioned plug. My brother’s band Li’l Shaky and the Tremors, led by Chris Vachon of Roomful, has a new album called Aftershock, released by Alligator Records. Guest artists on the record include Brenda Bennett of Vanity 6 and Ed Vallee of the Young Adults! It features ten vintage rhythm and blues covers and is a great illustration of what these guys have been doing all their lives. You can get it here and I hope you do!

Nine Favorite Chuck Berry Covers

Posted in African American Interest, Music, OBITS, Rock and Pop with tags , , , on March 19, 2017 by travsd

This is how Chuck Berry looked on tv when I was a kid. He just died at 90. Wake up call!

Rock in Peace, Chuck Berry! I have little to add to the tribute I wrote in 2010, except 90 is a damn good run, Rudolph. One good measure of the value of a songwriter is the number and quality of cover versions of songs you wrote, and the prestige of those who perform them. Here are some covers of Berry’s songs I have particularly enjoyed,in no particular order:

1.”Come On” — The Rolling Stones.

I love the original version of course (it was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bass) but I also love the Stones’ arrangement with its manic key changes, wacky energy, and harmonica punctuation. For some reason the Stones changed Berry’s more forceful “stupid jerk” to “stupid guy” — always wondered about that.

2. “Memphis” — Johnny Rivers

“Memphis” may well be Berry’s most covered song. It is haunting and poignant and sweet and wonderfully constructed, with that touching twist in the last verse, and original turns of phrase like “hurry-home drops”. Rivers practically made an entire career covering Berry tunes, but this may be his best known one (and perhaps the best known version) of the song. (Another version I’ve always loved is the Beatles’, from the Cavern years. John Lennon’s performance pulls the heart strings; he seems to invest a lot of emotion into it)

3. “Roll Over, Beethoven” — The Beatles

Well, it’s hard to choose just ONE Beatles Chuck Berry cover — their version of “Rock and Roll Music” absolutely tears it up. But I’ve always had a particular affection for their cover of “Roll Over, Beethoven” as one of George Harrison’s earliest moments to shine; he has a lilt in his voice I’ve always loved, and I like the way the Beatles version flows even more than the original. The whole thing is much more frenetic.

4. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — Jerry Lee Lewis

Okay, this song is dirty whether Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis is singing it, given their mutual penchant for VERY under-aged girls. But Lewis MAKES it more dirty in his virgin. Berry’s a writer; when he performs his version you at least IMAGINE the singer is also a teenager. When Lewis does it, nope, he’s 24…then 34…then 44. Probably still be tryin’ it at 84.

5. “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — Buddy Holly

We all know that this began life as “Brown-SKINNED Handsome Man”, but that hasn’t stopped white skinned men from interpreting it. Buddy Holly, as he often did, brings a bit of Bo Diddly clave rhythm energy into it, and I hear Holly’s voice just as easily as Berry’s whenever I think of the song.

6. “Too Much Monkey Business” — The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds live version (from 1963’s Five Live Yardbirds) of this tears up. When one thinks of the Berry version one thinks mostly of the lyrics, it’s just a tour de force of language and vocal performance. With the Yardbirds, it’s all about the heavy, amplified bass and guitars. Keith Relf’s vocal performance is def proto-punk.

7. “Sweet Little Sixteen” — The Beach Boys (as “Surfin U.S.A.”)

As even a child can tell, the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is simply “Sweet Little Sixteen” with altered lyrics, with that wonderful stop-and-start energy, and Carl Wilson’s almost note for note homage to his master (Wilson was probably Berry’s foremost acolyte as a guitar player. Yes, Keith Richard and George Harrison, too, but those guys absorbed and synthesized a lot of OTHER guitar players. With Wilson, you just hear the influence of Chuck.) The Beach Boys also had a hit with Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”, one of their biggest hits of the 1970s, but I find the arrangement cluttered and simply don’t like it as much.

8. “Johnny B. Goode” — Jimi Hendrix 

Hendrix wasn’t just a musical, aural genius — we often forget that he was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing showman — much like Berry himself. The blues was always the foundation of what he did, no matter how psychedelic he got. His interpretation of “Johnny B. Goode” is a great illustration of the range of the performer, and the adaptability of the song itself.

9. “Around and Around” — The Animals

“Around and Around” is a great party song, it’s all about a fun time, “what a crazy sound”. It lent itself well to the Animals’ quintessential sixties wildness, with Eric Burdon’s rough, raw vocals, with Alan Price’s organ helping it swing.

On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, Music, My Family History, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd

The_Band_2005710037

Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-1912), the only American in The Band, but I think most of his fans will agree that he had enough America in him for a million Americans.

Now, I’ve already blogged about his last years and the documentary about them here. Today, it seems timely to talk about his best known song and its deep personal meaning for me. I call it “his”, though technically it was co-written with The Band’s leader and guitarist Robbie Robertson. But really — come on. Robertson pursued his interest in rural American culture as a fascinated alien. Helm on the other hand, drove and encouraged the process from the INSIDE. He’s the one who sings the song for a reason. He owns the song, spiritually and artistically, if (clearly) not legally. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is about Helm’s culture and history. Robertson helped raise the barn, but it’s Helm’s lumber and nails.

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I’ve known and loved this song almost my entire life. Ironically, along with millions of other Americans I’m guessing, I knew the Joan Baez hit single version first. She released her version in 1971 and it went all the way to #3 on the pop charts. Though the original version by the Band came out in 1967, I don’t imagine that I ever heard it until some time in the early ’80s, through the agency of my best friend who was a big fan of the group. I am fond of both versions of the song; I’ll compare and contrast them directly.

If I had to pick one popular American song of the post-rock era that means the most to me — more than that — is about me, illuminates me — this would be the one. Written in the style of a traditional American folk song, it’s a first person (fictional) testimony from an East Tennessee farmer about the last days of the Civil War when the North’s Total War, slash and burn tactics had reduced the people of the region to starving beggars, the 19th century equivalent of having been “bombed back to the Stone Age.” They’re not just dirt poor, but demoralized, so beaten in spirit that they won’t recover for at least a century.

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For some Americans it is a kind of anthem, for others it can be thought of as a test of our humanity. I’m born and raised a Yankee, though culturally, through my father, there is much about me that is Southern. My entire life has been a sort of internal wrestling match to the death between both sides of my brain. Now, last year I wrote this piece about the Stars and Bars. I feel pretty strongly that museums and history movies are the only places it ought to be flown. The secret hope that “The South will rise again” has been the source of so much damage and hurt. It ought to have been a matter of settled politics over a century ago.

But this song isn’t about the cause of slavery. It’s about the cause of humanity. Men have been fighting wars since before there were men. This side or that one may be the aggressor, this cause or that one may be the more heinous. But in the end each individual soldier fights for his own reasons. A certain number of men who fought and died for the Confederacy neither kept slaves, condoned slavery or wanted secession, they were just doing their duty. And many others didn’t even take arms, but still suffered the same privations and so forth. On top of this it’s not like the North wasn’t also full of racists whatever their politicians and clergymen said (this is a topic I’ll be returning to in a post in a couple of weeks.) So who “deserves” what happened is really an open question.

Ultimately, I can and do step back and say…yes but at the end of the day, they served the cause of evil. There were numerous Southerners who made a different choice…either became Union soldiers (some of my Southern relatives did that!), or like my (4th) great uncle Levi H. Knight spied for the union, or didn’t serve at all. I’m not someone who sees unquestioning duty as an intrinsic virtue. I am more partial to the American tradition embodied by Thoreau. God gave you a brain and a heart to make choices with. Abdicating the use of them just because you’re told to is to be less than a human. But the ENTIRE South suffered during and after the Civil War, not just slave owners and racists.

And in the end, war sucks for everybody, including innocent civilians. Well, that’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing humankind can endure. Granted, as an entity the South was akin to a mean, cruel and arrogant bully, but in the aftermath the bully lay in the mud, his bones broken, his eyes gouged out, his flesh lacerated in a thousand places, his home burned, his wife raped, his children killed, and he’s howling and crying in pain. What’s next, Victor? Our first reaction is to say, “Good! You had it coming!”. But I like to think most of us would soon soften, to as Lincoln said, quoting the Psalm, “bind the nation’s wounds.” If, once healed, the bully turns into a monster again (as I think it can be argued that the South has collectively done on occasion, many times), you cross that bridge when you come to it. But when someone’s down, you don’t kick them.

The Second Inaugural

The Second Inaugural

It’s amazing to me that The Band wrote and recorded this song at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King had the kind of largeness of spirit this song appeals to, one of the million reasons his assassination was a major loss to the nation. Luke 6:27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.” Easier said than done. But it’s exactly what Lincoln’s plan was for the post-war period, “Charity To All, Malice Toward None.”

Anyway, that’s my imaginary conversation with a Yankee who might be lacking in sympathy for the vanquished Rebel. I feel like I know how to have that conversation because, like I say, I grew up a Stranger in a Strange Land.  But as for those like me who are also children of the Rebels, I can attest that the memory of the wounds received lingered long, mostly because, yes, this is a stubborn and tradition-loving people, and they refused to let go. Culturally, many Southern people are Scots-Irish. They are a people given to multi-generational feuding. They don’t forget. Like, ever. They kept the loss and sense of grievance alive, nursed it, relived it every day. The culture of the South developed that beaten, fatalistic quality, that all the great Southern writers like Faulkner and Williams capture. My father absolutely had that quality. In some ways, it was as though the century behind us had never passed.

And a century isn’t such a long time anyway…the Civil War was four generations ago in my case. The children of that generation were my father’s grandparents, whom he knew well, and that knowledge was passed on to me. I was four years old when the Baez version of the song came out, so I was YOUNG when I first learned about the Civil War, as my dad parsed and interpreted this song for me. I generally have found myself confused and appalled to hear adults say they don’t understand what the song means…but that’s a wrong impulse. It ought to be a Teaching Moment. At bottom I find I can be a surprisingly crummy teacher.

Some nice person at www.traditionalmusic.co.ok posted the lyrics:

the_night_they_drove_old_dixie_down-robbie_robertson

My great-grandfather’s name was Virgil Stewart, and this became one of my earliest connections to the song…it’s impossible for me to hear this without thinking of him, of thinking of this as my story. And Virgil was a farmer in Tennessee, just like the narrator. (My family, just like Levon Helm’s, were cotton farmers). Virgil Stewart was born after the Civil War, though. It was his dad’s generation that fought it. Virgil’s father Calvin sat it out (my theory is that because he had a newborn baby at the time of enlistment, and then Tennessee was soon occupied by the North after that). But Virgil’s uncle William Carrol Stewart did go and fight and was badly wounded at Gettysburg, so it is him and other relatives I think of when I hear the part about “a Yankee laid him in his grave”.

The choice of the name Caine seems significant, Cain being the Biblical inventor of murder. And not just murder: fratricide. “Brother against brother”. The South started it, there’s blood on their hands, and like Cain himself, they paid. Oh, how they paid.

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Years later, I began to link Virgil Caine with Buster Keaton’s character in The General.  A train engineer? Union soldiers tearing up the tracks? As I’ve written elsewhere, I firmly believe that the melancholy historical echoes of the setting were what prevented Keaton’s masterpiece from being a hit in 1927. The ticket buyers were the kids and grandkids of the Civil War generation. Too soon? Yes — too soon.

Whose eyes indicate that he's crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? Well Stonewall Jackson is dead, so how about THAT guy?

Whose eyes indicate that he’s crazy enough to harm women, children, old men and animals? How about THAT guy?

“Stoneman” in the song refers to Major General George Stoneman, who led one of the last of the Union raids through the South during the Civil War, which was launched in Mossy Creek, Tennessee and moved East into North Carolina. His mission was to lay waste to everything he saw, and demoralize the civilian population. Mission accomplished!

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Like I say, lately I’ve been listening to both versions of this song, comparing and contrasting them. Baez’s and Helm’s voices couldn’t be more different. Her’s is pretty and polished, Helm’s is homely and real. Baez is interpreting something for us from the outside; Helm is re-enacting it from the inside. The Baez version is guitar-driven, the Band’s is driven by Richard Manuel’s piano. I am partial to the many voices on the chorus on the Baez version, which to me evokes the cries of the many. I feel like the Band’s version is marred by Robbie Robertson’s whiny high harmony, I’ve never been able to stand his weak, thin voice. But I love the haunting harmonica!

There are interesting differences in the lyrics in both versions, reportedly because Baez didn’t have access to the real ones (beyond listening to the record.). Why she didn’t try to obtain the real ones is a question. I know that things were clunkier in those days…it was just telephone and U.S. mail to conduct business, but that’s not exactly an insurmountable hurdle. There may have been a time crunch. But what is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie down” but a folk song? And all the great folk songs pretty much get rewritten every time they’re sung. That’s the way of oral tradition. What are the “real” lyrics of “Stagger Lee”? For that matter what is the real title of the song? There are none. It is a perpetually re-interpreted, protean cultural product.

One lyrical difference (to my ears): in The Band’s version it sounds to me like Helm is singing “You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” On the Baez version that line sounds to me more like “You cant raise the cane back up once it’s in the feed.” I don’t know if that’s what she’s singing but that’s what it sounds like. I’d take it to mean something like…if you’ve already mixed sugar cane into the fodder (lucky livestock), you can’t pretend its still planted in the ground to inspire with visions of what you’ll do with your crop. This could be my own hallucination, but this metaphor also works for me. The deed is done and now all hope for the future is dead,

Also…I’ve always heard one of the lines as “There goes THE Robert E. Lee”. I always pictured it as a train named after the Confederate general and it’s being hijacked, just like in the Buster Keaton movie I mentioned above. As a kid, I also interpreted the”Dixie” of the chorus in the same way, as a train, literally being driven away. After all, Virgil “drove on the Danville train”. With Dixie of course ALSO representing the entire Confederacy being driven into the ground through the scorched earth tactics.

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There was also a steamboat named “Robert E. Lee” (like in the 1912 song “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) but that vessel wasn’t christened until after the war (so much for letting sleeping dogs lie, South!). Consensus (including a quote from Helm) seems to indicate that the song refers to the literal Robert E. Lee, but that sounds dumb to me. Like, what’s he doing over there? Near a Tennessee farm, when he’s closing in on Appomattox? At any rate, I despise literalism in poem and song interpretation. If there’s only one meaning to it, it ain’t much of a fuckin’ song. As opposed to this song — which is a hell of a fuckin’ song. It’s a hell of a fuckn’ song.

Happy 75th, Bob Dylan

Posted in Jews/ Show Biz, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , on May 24, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the 75th birthday of that mod, mad minstrel Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman).

Writing about an artist who’s so important to me is a Cow in a Can I have kept kicking down the road ever since I started this blog. In contrast with the vaudevillians and classic comedians we have written about here (with whom we started off with an initial biographical post and gradually expanded some of them outward with additional posts until they formed entire categories of their own) I have found that I’ve sort of done the opposite with some of my favorite rock and pop stars: lapped around the edges first, deferring the creation of some definitive, encapsulating post or perhaps never doing one.

One major reason for this is probably that everyone knows who they are, they are already in our face all the time, and there are even many books about them. There’s no point in going “Robert Zimmerman was born in Duluth, Minnesota, etc etc” like I might with Joe E. Brown or somebody because everyone already knows all that.

But secondly, these contemporary artists loom too large in my life. There can only be essays about aspects of them because I have too much to say. So I’ve written it piecemeal. I wrote quite a bit about what Dylan and the folk revival means to me in this post about Inside Llewyn Davis here (no, go ahead. Follow the link.  Read and come back. I know you can do it.) I wrote about the Rolling Thunder Revue here. A little bit about Don’t Look Back here. And I’m planning a couple of others, one called “Dylan Drippin’s” (about the records Self-Portrait and Dylan) and an upcoming 50th anniversary appreciation of Blonde on Blonde. 

But now it’s his 75th birthday and that calls for something special. I can’t blow it off and I can’t wait around for his centennial…or even his 80th birthday. And a bio’d be ridiculous. So I figure I’ll ramble on a little bit about what he’s meant to me personally and artistically.

Where did he come from? His father was just a small town appliance salesman. It is as though the culture itself gave birth to him, like one of those science fiction movies where a supercomputer becomes sentient and then builds itself an artificial man to inhabit.  He is of course self-created, but usually there’s some person as catalyst. Young Bobby Zimmerman took it all off the radio and records and TV and from books, and then later from the people he encountered, gobbling the substance of their souls like galaxies. The electronic babysitter begat its own Johnny Appleseed.

Especially fascinating that he comes at it from the OUTSIDE. It’s almost like he can see this vision of Americana more clearly, with more perspective because he’s watched the rodeo from the audience (as a midwest middle class Jew in the 1950s). So he simply put on a mask and BECAME  a cowboy, was one because he SAID he was one. And there’s something so American about that, the imposture, the mask, the reinvention. A con man, a Mountebank, a Duke, a Dauphin.

When he first moved to New York he lied to EVERYBODY about his background: his friends, his colleagues, his patrons, Columbia p.r. people, the press. He said he’d been a hobo, that he’d ridden the rails (like Woody Guthrie), that he had studied and played with famous old black blues men, This was the days before you could easily check up on anyone’s story. For a couple of years at least, he got away with it. I find it so glorious and inspirational and enviable to have been able to move in a world so free. I am who I say I am, and I’ll be somebody else tomorrow. If you don’t like it, I hear there’s six billion other people for you to hang out with. Take me at my word. It doesn’t have to be true. But it’s not on you to join me on this joke. The INSTANT you claim to understand me or be “on” to me, or to have me figured out or reduce me to some “definition”, is the instant you are farthest from the ACTUAL truth. Dylan understands — as Whitman did — that to possess consciousness (as plainly only some men do) is to BE a universe. You can’t figure me out any more than you can predict the direction of the wind. If you say you can, I’m gonna call ya a liar so loud the whole fuckin’ barroom will hear it. I’ll call you out. Then when you throw yer punch, I’ll blind ya and confuse ya by being dressed like a little old lady.

Some early writers compared his physical presence onstage to Charlie Chaplin, this funny, little rambling, gambling hobo character. Dylan denied ever seeing Charlie’s films, but it is kind of astounding, the overlap in their obsessions. Embodying this creature with no fixed identity, who’s whoever he needs to be, whenever and wherever he needs to be it. (It’s obviously something that fascinates me as well, I’ve returned to it in several plays, The Confidence Man, The Fickle Mistress, Jasper Jaxon et al, right down to the name of my theatre company Mountebanks).  Anarchy and rootlessness and refusal to knuckle under to ties and straightjackets and boxes and multiple choice exams. The answer is in the spaces between A, B, C and D.

Which is probably why I’ve managed to get through an entire (if brief)  appreciation of Bob Dylan without ONCE talking about his music.

Pet Sounds at 50

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , on May 17, 2016 by travsd

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All kinds of cool things are turning 50 and 100 these days — I’ll never catch them all. Both Pets Sounds and Blonde on Blonde hit the half century mark yesterday. I had on my calendar to blog about them both, but found myself momentarily paralyzed. Honestly, I could write an entire book about either one of those records, and each deserves it. I also dallied with the idea of doing a post that contrasted the two albums. They are both so AMERICAN, and yet in vastly distinctive ways. The oversimplification would be that Brian Wilson is about exploring the music as far as it can go, and Dylan about exploring language as far as it can go. The problem is that there are some positive things to be said about Loren Schwartz’s lyrics on Pet Sounds — and many more positive things to be said about the music on Blonde on Blonde. So I figured I’d jot a few notes on the former today, and save the Blonde on Blonde post for early June, when my friend Alexis Thomason and her friends are doing a musical tribute.

Also, I had written in excruciating detail about Pet Sounds in my ‘zine The Herald of Freedom in the late ’90s. The multi-part article I wrote was called “The Genius of Brian Wilson”. But I don’t have the original files, and the thought of retyping all that seems prohibitively onerous. That’s one of the main reasons why, despite having blogged here about Dennis and Carl, I have not done one yet on Brian. Such a huge topic! And I felt I’d already tackled it, even if it is inaccessible. And starting from scratch also seems a pain.  But the article I wrote was sort of uncooked anyway — lots of analyzing of specific musical moments that only about two people would want to read. So today I share a few thoughts and recollections.

I grew up listening to the Beach Boys.  My brothers had all their early albums through 1965’s The Beach Boys Today and had left the records behind when they moved out of the house. So I was discovering the music 10, 15 years after it had originally come out. But it wasn’t like I was the only kid in school doing this. Tons of kids at my school did. Other kids had those compilation albums from the mid ’70s, Endless Summer, and Spirit of America. In later years I came to know all their original albums through the early ’70s.

But oddly, I was well into adulthood before I listened to Pet Sounds. I’d read about it for years, of course, in the context of its influence on the Beatles, and I knew its more famous songs, “Sloop John B.”, “Caroline No, “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” But I’d not heard the rest. And I recall not warming up to it immediately. For me, the point of the Beach Boys was a kind of fun and fast quality, the kind of feeling you get from a song like “Little Honda”. There was and is a kind of inclination on the part of Brian Wilson to evoke concrete things through his music. Part of the joy is the fantasy…being transported to some spot where some action was happening….a drag race, a trip to the beach, a party, an amusement park. The sentiments and desires they were expressed were near-universal (among teenagers at least), hence the popularity of their singles.

But like any great artist (pop or otherwise), Wilson also explored the subjective. “In My Room” is an early example of this kind of thing. I’ll confess that I often moved the needle over the introspective songs. I was a teenager. Frankly I found the slow songs somewhat, well, boring and Pet Sounds initially struck me as an entire album of such material. But like I say, I was an adult at the time I finally got around to exploring it. I was intrigued by the album’s legend. I got most deeply into it in my late ’20s when I was away at the MacDowell Colony for a two month writing retreat. My music of the moment was a Beach Boys boxed set (including the first ever released versions of songs from Smile), and a cassette with Pet Sounds on one side and the original Broadway production of Threepenny Opera on the other. With nothing but time on my hands, in the hours when I wasn’t writing (and sometimes when I was) I played these albums to death. And so this when I first truly HEARD the album, absorbed its complexities, noted its wit, paid real attention to it, and let its beauty move and inspire me.

Of course, it is the farthest thing from boring. Certain parts of the record are EXHILARATING and I now go straight to those songs. The almost evangelical “I Know There’s an Answer” would be chief of these, but I also love “I’m Waiting for the Day”, especially the surprise outro section. Surprise! That’s the key. There’s not a single moment of music on the album Wilson hasn’t labored to make interesting in some way, either melodically, or rhythmically, or harmonically or (perhaps especially) in terms of instrumentation. Like his hero George Gershwin, he opens the door of possibility, he brings unprecedented ambition to a popular art form. (I always think of the bicycle horn in “You Still Believe in Me” as a nod to Gershwin, who used a taxi horn in “An American in Paris.”) I know very little about musical education, but I’ve always thought Pet Sounds would be the perfect record to use to get young people interested in orchestration. Kettle drums aplenty! Strings! Horns! Harps! And then weird stuff you have to keep listening to figure out, and sometimes you never do. Americana creeps in (low notes on a harmonica, an autoharp, a banjo). Yes, if I were one of Brian’s brothers (especially Carl), I would have been more than a little pissed about being sidelined by session men. But they all get their moments of glory as vocalists on this record.

As for the lyrics, if not up to Beatle standards, I find most of them on this record to be quite clever. I’ve always been fond of the couplet:

I know so many people who think they can do it alone

They isolate their head and stay in their safety zone

It sounds commonplace enough until you make a football reference out of the last two words, which for me ties the song to their earlier “bubble gum” music thematically. And we must never forget that though Wilson be a genius, he’s first, foremost and ONLY a bubble gum genius. I always pair him mentally with Quenton Tarentino. Master of his chosen form in every way you can think of, a true artist in all the ways that matter, so eloquent in the work itself — but when they open their mouths to speak in interviews, they sound about 14 years old. How did someone so apparently elemental make something so sophisticated? There’s something very American about this virtual savantism, something that makes them akin to inventors like Edison or the Wright Brothers. “Hey, I’m just a guy tinkering in his garage.” And suddenly, they hit something and the entire universe explodes.

Now, as we all know, Wilson went a little too FAR out into the universe. Pet Sounds ended up being his last completed masterpiece during the most successful phase of his career. (This is something, too, the album has in common with Blonde on Blonde, although in the case of the latter album, I am aware I would have much arguing to do to convince some people of that, and some people would never be convinced.) But it has been a joy watching Wilson pull himself together over the last couple of decades. And oh the irony that he — who QUIT touring because it made him anxious, freeing him up to create masterworks in the studio — is now touring the country with a live version of his greatest masterwork?   This is something we could not have predicted in 1976, when John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd had to roust the overweight, depressed emotional cripple out of his four-poster bed and force him to go surfing. Ya know? As another famous all-American savant once said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

The Time John Lennon Went Too Far

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Rock and Pop, Women with tags , , , on March 31, 2016 by travsd

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Hey, it’s still Women’s History Month! I bet you forgot all about women, didn’t you? I know that you did.

In the spirit of our St Patrick’s post which savaged “The Luck of the Irish“, we treat today of another ill-considered song from John Lennon’s 1972 Some Time in New York City LP, the Song Whose Name May Not Be Mentioned in Polite Society. Why have I been in such a Lennon-beatin’ mood lately? I dissed him a few weeks back when George Martin died, too. Maybe it’s because I loved him so much when he was ineffably himself, and there were so many times when he was led around by the nose by whatever crackpot commanded his attention. But I’ve always criticized him on that account. The Elephant in the Room is that I am now old enough to be Beatle John’s father, and I find myself now having the clarity to see many of Lennon’s mistakes for what they were: the follies of youth. Those who die young are like Peter Pan, imprisoned forever in youth.

Now, everyone has their own personal “Time When John Lennon Went Too Far.” For some more conservative folks it might be much earlier. It might that Jesus remark in 1966, it might be “Revolution #9”, or hanging out in a bag with Yoko in a press conference in Toronto, or returning his MBE, or for even existing at all. For McCartney it seems to have been the song “Cold Turkery” (a mistake on his part, I think. Lennon’s solo single of it is amazing, truly interesting, and really pushes the expressive power of rock ‘n’ roll into some unprecedented places. It would have been a credit to the Beatles had they recorded it).

But I think we can all agree that the time Lennon went too far for EVERYBODY is when he released “Woman is the Nigger of the World” (there, I said it). I have never, in all my travels, met a single person who didn’t shake their head in wizened scorn and bewilderment when it comes to this song.

Let us not, as so many are wont to do, blame Yoko for this egregious lapse in judgment, coherence, sensitivity, and taste. I find her to be a genuinely interesting artist. Up to a certain point she was a good influence on Lennon, I think. The intersection of Japanese minimalism and rock ‘n’ roll is not only interesting and original, but it clicks. It really works. Songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Don’t Let Me Down” , much of the White Album, and Lennon’s first two solo LPs are all quite remarkable and they bear her influence.

But for someone who is so associated with leadership and domination, Lennon could be peculiarly passive and susceptible to the voices of others. It seems as though this was particularly the case in the mid to late 60s when several years of daily ingestion of hard drugs had broken down his ego and turned him into something like an existential vessel or void. When you hear many of his great songs, you often hear the voices of othersLewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Bob Dylan. But in Some Time in New York City, I think it is safe to say that voices of others (not just Yoko’s but those of the east Village radicals he was hanging out with) grew too strong. Lennon had always been at his best when he was somewhat elusive and ambiguous, hard to pin down, hard to figure out. Now he was literal, on the nose, obvious. That quality had been a virtue when he was dealing with his own emotions and his demons in the early solo work. It came across as raw, painful honesty. But when it came to social issues and politics, he was no longer saying broad, universal things (e.g., “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”) he was saying “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair…we got to, got to, got to, got to set him free.” While his music itself was often interesting and great, the lyrics were now strident and boring and singularly unrewarding to play more than once or twice, and DEFINITELY embarrassing to sing along to.

Now his voice was not even his own. He was playing second fiddle on his own album. One of the most gifted popular wordsmiths of the late 20th century, he was ceding control of that gift, sitting back and letting other people do the literary driving. And we can’t blame anyone but Lennon for that weakness. It’s his name above the title.

The phrase “Woman is the Nigger of the World” had come from Yoko. She had said it to Lennon in a conversation, and most of the lines in the song sound like things she had said to him as well. And well…to be charitable these “thoughts” could have done with the contribution of an editor. They are undigested; they have not been turned into lyrics. Many or most thinking people sign off on the thesis that women have been second-class citizens placed in a role of subservience for millenia in nearly every culture on earth. And most agree to one degree or another that change is in order. The objection is to HOW these thoughts are expressed. Most of the phrases in the song (including above all the title) sound like what they are: the kind of “brilliant revelations” potheads have when they are having a “heavy discussion”. Some of them are dubious. “We make her paint her face”? With apologies to Naomi Wolf, try and STOP some women (and some men) from putting on make-up. Who’s making BOY GEORGE paint his face and dance? That’s a different issue from being brutalized and kept down, I think. Ugh, and the self-important way he instructs us to “Think About It”. It’s unbearable.

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s the clumsy and callous and clueless trivialization of the N word, which to me seems like it ought to be equally offensive to both women and people of color. It’s also a singularly weird use of language, which I suspect can be partially attributed to the fact that English is not Yoko’s first language. This may have made it seem original and provocative to Lennon, but it’s really just kind of inept.  African Americans and women are two separate, traditionally subjugated groups of people. Using one as a metaphor for the other makes no sense. It’s like saying “lemons are the limes of this fruit bowl” — not that they’re equivalent but you can’t deny that in the context of this conversation they are similar. And it blows off the plight of black people even as it insults them by using a derogatory epithet to describe them. It’s, like, wrong in about 100 kinds of ways. Which is why radio stations didn’t play it…and you may have never played it or even heard of it, although it’s on most Lennon “best of” collections.

On the other hand, the sax player is great. If you’d like to play it go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtY5bv-oxLE. I’ve stopped embedding youtube clips here because they have a way of asserting themselves PAST my post links when I share them on social media.

Lennon and McCartney: Which Wrote the Worst Irish Song?

Posted in Irish, Rock and Pop, St. Patrick's Day with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2016 by travsd

It might be argued that the period of around two years after their official breakup was the artistic nadir for former Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with both setting back the frontiers of sullen self-indulgence, spinning far, far away from every quality that had formerly endeared them to fans. By 1972, Lennon was deep into a period of political radicalism and enchantment with his avant-garde wife, short circuiting any remotely commercial instinct he ever possessed. McCartney, on the other hand, in a quest for legitimacy as a rock figure, had ironically (as he was periodically wont to do) thrown quality control out the window.  The LPs associated with this period were Wings’ debut record Wild Life (December, 1971), a skimpy collection of jams and half-written songs; and John and Yoko’s Sometime in New York City (June, 1972), a grab bag of underwritten, shallow anthems written in response to current events (and thus dated almost the instant they were released).

Interestingly, though they were diverging artistically, the former partners were still competing with each other. One of the more interesting aspects of this rivalry (given that so many aspects are so uninteresting) was they each wrote their own pro-IRA anthem at around the same time. Lennon’s was recorded first, but McCartney’s was released first, and as a single (Lennon’s was just a track on an LP). Each is drastically sub-par, excellent examples of why they were better together than apart, for each of them would most certainly have corrected the worst indulgences made by the other partner in these terrible songs.

Why did they write these songs at all? Well for a bit of context, this was a very “hot” period in the long-roiling unrest in Northern Ireland. “Bloody Sunday”, in which British soldiers shot and killed unarmed Irish civilians had just occurred (January, 1972). This was a horrible event — so horrible that even the normally unpolitical McCartney was motivated to respond. The instinct was laudable. And both Lennon and McCartney had some Irish in their background, which perhaps (they may have felt) gave them permission to speak out on it.

Yet, one can’t help thinking, the Irish themselves take a back seat to no other people on earth as poets or songwriters. One can’t help smelling something a little patronizing about these British millionaires, making their little “statements” and trying to get everybody to sing along. But…

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Wings’ debut single “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was released on February 25, 1972. It seems to have been partially motivated by the fact that the band’s guitarist Henry McCullough was Irish. The record was considered too incendiary; it was completely banned from all British radio, although it became a #1 hit in Ireland. But it was heard almost nowhere else, and still hasn’t been. It’s not just because of the content, but because both the lyrics and tune are makework, completely uninspired. I confess to finding the tune to this one catchier than Lennon’s, but it is also marred by McCartney’s patent superficiality. The line that always makes me wince is “Great Britain, You Are Tremendous”, a Las Vegas level sentiment, more suitable for Steve Lawrence than a former Beatle.

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Lennon’s song “The Luck of the Irish”, released June 12, but recorded the previous December, is to my mind, even worse than McCartney’s. This from the pen of the man who wrote “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance” and “Revolution”. Though Lennon was doing interesting things vocally and in terms of musicianship and production during this period, he seemed nearly bankrupt as a songwriter. The tunes from Some Time In New York City are his absolute weakest. As he had copped from the blues for “John Sinclair”, for “The Luck of the Irish”, he dabbles in what I call “Irish Bullshit Music”, with a vaguely traditional sounding melody  and ornamental penny whistle as an atmospheric gesture. So this one evokes Ireland more than McCartney’s, but rather lamely. (It was McCartney who would eventually nail this traditional sound in “Mull of Kyntire”, although the theme for that one is Scottish).

The lyrics are perhaps even more embarrassing than McCartney’s. “If you had the luck of the Irish/ You’d be sorry and wish you was dead/ You should have the luck of the Irish/ and you’d wish you was English instead.” Now, when he wrote this, it may have originally been intended as characteristic Lennon humor. If he recorded the song in that vein, perhaps as a raucous drinking song, with many male voices, like Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, this song may well have come off. But instead he does it SUPER earnest. We can only conclude that he means this drivel. His sentiment is excellent; his method of expressing it, terrible. Even more hilariously, Yoko comes in on the second verse, bringing us her take on the English-Irish question, which I just know the public had been waiting for with baited breath:

Eh, wot? A little skunk cabbage to have with your corned beef. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

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