Archive for the Rock and Pop Category

On the Man Who Gave Us Eurhythmics

Posted in Classical, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2017 by travsd

I think I just saw him get off the L train in Williamsburg

If you come expecting a post on the great 80s synth pop band starring Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart, I hope you will only be slightly disappointed. This post will explain the name of the band, but the bulk of it is about the ORIGINAL eurhythmics.

Eurhythmics was a music education technique devised by a radical pedagogue named Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1850). Ethnically French, Dalcroze was born in Austria, and studied in Switzerland, where he also began his teaching career. He set up his school in Germany in 1910. Anita Berber was one of his pupils! Basically Dalcroze felt that the prevailing way in which western music is generally taught, notated, read, etc, that is,  through repetitive exercises and rote memory, was fundamentally flawed, because there was a primary disconnect between the systemization and the meaning and purpose of music, which is, or ought to be, intensely emotional. While music is intellectual and abstract on one level, there is an important way it is very real and concrete — what it does to our bodies. We tense, we relax. Our pulse quickens, it slows down. We involuntarily tap our toes, nod our heads, sway, and otherwise move our bodies to the rhythm. Dalcroze devised an elaborate method for teaching music that doesn’t just take this basic fact into account, it makes it the primary entry point for encountering and learning to listen to, play, and compose music. Movement, integrating the whole body, becomes the way music is internalized. (It must be said most “untrained”, or self-trained musicians take an approach much closer to this than conventionally trained musicians do. It’s about going directly to “owning” the music. Good trained musicians eventually get to the same place but by a somewhat circuitous route that alienates a good portion of the music loving public — including your humble correspondent!)

At any rate, I’ve never taken in a course in this, much as I’d like to have done, but it seemed to me worth celebrating Dalcroze in a show biz context on this his birthday. By the way, Annie Lennox was formally trained at the Royal Academy of Music, where she undoubtedly first encountered Dalcroze’s theories, which she and Stewart named the band after, removing the “h”: Eurythmics. And my wife makes the amusing point that in certain photos, Dave Stewart definitely seems to be channeling Dalcroze:

On the Vaudeville of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Music, Rock and Pop, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on June 2, 2017 by travsd

Well, I’m surely the farthest thing from unique in celebrating the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’s U.S. release today, but some things are above my overweening need to remain apart. I associate this record, like the band that made it, with absinthe, The Wizard of Oz, and Christmas. Listening to it again last night, I realized I wanted to write far more about it than I’ll ever cram into a single blogpost. I could easily write a post on each song, though I probably won’t, because one has other priorities, at least this one does. After writing a post about Rubber Soul, I let all of 2016 pass without doing a promised one on Revolver, though I may still get to that. The subject is big; you can get lost in the weeds. So I may stick to a few generalities today. And after all, one can write on the same topic many times. In fact, I have already touched on Sgt. Pepper in my book No Applause and here on this blog.

The fact that Sgt. Pepper is my favorite album and the fact that I’m also fairly obsessed with vaudeville are not unrelated. I denied to someone the other day that I am obsessed with vaudeville, but I realize this morning that that is objectively preposterous. I guess what I mean to convey with such protestations is that A) I’m not concerned with vaudeville to the exclusion of all else, which is what a true obsession is; and B) I’m not as obsessed with it as I might be. There are guys who spend all day poring over 100 year old issues of Variety. I very rarely do anything like that. I am interested in the big picture and in making connections — connecting the dots between past and present, between black and white, between young and old. Sgt Pepper is a unifying cultural force like that, and furthermore (as I’ve written more than once), it is steeped in vaudeville.

The vaudeville element is mostly due to Paul McCartney, who like Ray Davies, brought a bit of music hall into the rock arena, and had written “When I’m 64”, or at least a draft of it, when he was a teenager. McCartney only became the Beatles’ bass player because they needed a bass player and it just so happened that he could do anything, at least anything musical. I recently came across a quote where McCartney said that before the Beatles came along, he was thinking he might wind up doing some kind of cabaret act. When you hear bootlegs of another teenage composition, the mock-hokey “Suicide”, you hear that. He was one of those precocious piano kids. You know the kind I mean. The kid everyone hates because he sits there smugly doing something everybody else can’t. For me, this provides insight into the whole thing. On occasion McCartney plays the role, dons the guise, of a rock and roller, in the same way he assumes any musical style for the purposes of entertainment. That’s quite different from BEING a rock and roller. And so when opportunities arose, McCartney reverted to form, asserted his true self. For God’s sake, think of him singing “Til There Was You” from The Music Man in their early set. He actually does that! It’s on one of their records! What other rock bands did that? That’s almost like a declaration of some kind, or (for some) a warning signal, a symptom. “Yesterday” is another important benchmark — his fellow Beatles are replaced completely by a string quartet. Just how does that fit into John Lennon’s band, precisely?

Lennon isn’t absent from Sgt Pepper by any means. In fact, you might say the strongest, most memorable bits are his, like tent poles, daft, hallucinatory, visionary. But they are few in number (just four), while the entire concept for the album, and most of the songs, are McCartney’s, and the overall sound tapestry and all of the arrangements (except on “She’s Leaving Home”) were George Martin’s. Ultimately Martin is probably my favorite “Beatle”. Prior to working with the band, he was best known for producing comedy albums and novelty songs. Much of what I love most on the album has to do with his contribution, and shortly after Sgt Pepper, when Martin’s role became diminished, I like their work a lot less. I love the AMBITION of Sgt. Pepper, the DETAIL, the constant SURPRISE and VARIETY. All of that is vaudeville!

Because of this, many are apt to stress the degree to which the album is not rock. For example, this is not an album in which electric guitar solos dominate (the title song, its reprise and “Good Morning Good Morning” are the only highlights as far as that goes). And of course the drug inspired lyrical content, social criticism and so forth are countercultural at least, though still that’s getting pretty far away from, say, covers of  Little Richard. This criticism would continue to dog the band — plenty of rock critics criticized Abbey Road for being “inauthentic”, because of things like string sections and songs like “Something” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. But with the passage of time and perspective, we can only say “so what”? Time is being flattened out. We have all of musical history at our finger tips now. Like McCartney, we are apt to regard rock as another style, one of hundreds, through which to express ourselves, and not some sort of vanguard talisman of rebellion. Yet when Sgt. Pepper came out, it was considered by most people to be very much the latter.  It was “acid rock”. “I’d love to turn you on”. “A crowd of people turned away” from “the war”.

But we who weren’t alive (or in my case, were very young) when it came out, see it through other eyes. It is a self-contained thing. For us it has never been the future, or the now, but only the past — which is another element that makes it like vaudeville. I was about 14 when a friend first played it for me, around 1980. And my response was a feeling that everything in my contemporary reality paled in comparison and probably always would. Sgt. Pepper is the gold standard. Anything less feels like some feeble, profitless gesture, some half hearted, lazy exercise in scarcely disguised futility. I want that level of lyrical wit and playful orchestration. ALWAYS. I want to be taken places, many different places. 50 years passed. Not only did the Beatles never hit this mark again, but no one else did either. A thing to be celebrated; a thing to do be decried.

To learn more about vaudeville and even Sgt. Pepper, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.


The Wild Party’s Over (But Not Really, You Have One More Chance)

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2017 by travsd

We have been following the progress of Jennifer Harder’s The Wild Party’s Over with great avidity ever since she won the well-deserved First of May Award from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which gives small grants to deserving variety artists to develop projects. She chose to adapt Joseph Moncure March’s book-length Jazz Age poem The Wild Party, an admirably daunting task, as it has been adapted for the stage before. We were privileged to be at an early reading she and her artistic partner Charley Layton gave at the Way Station, and to sit in on an early brainstorming session for the project. The pull of the material on Harder is not surprising; her former stage character Bathtub Jen evoked similar Jazz Age echoes of illicit, criminal life choices, of life on the lam.

The Wild Party is simultaneously a celebration of bohemian culture and a tragedy. Only the timid would take it as a cautionary tale. I’d much rather experience these events and LIVE… than last until I’m 95 without experiencing any such wild parties. (I was going to add that I might feel differently if I ever found myself at a party that ended up with a corpse on the floor, but then I remembered that I HAVE been to one that ended up with a corpse on the floor and I STILL find myself longing to be at such parties — just not that particular one.) Harder’s adaptation is wonderfully successful at evoking that feeling of nocturnal seduction as embodied by the Siren call of music. The cast of four (Harder, Layton, Natti Vogel and Stephen Heskett) are not just an acting ensemble but a rock band, working Blondie and Velvet Underground covers into the narrative in place of the Hot Jazz which would have been the original inspiration. Harder, as always, sings and plays trumpet; Vogel sings and plays piano; Layton mans accordion and guitar; and Heskett, to my surprise and delight played percussion and drums in the solid and basic manner of Mo Tucker. 

Heskett surprised in any number of ways. His normal stage presence is as a decent, nice All American fellow; here he is the villain of the piece, a rapey, woman-hating creep in clown make-up, part Joker, part Juggalo. The other three are manifestations of their normal stage characters in the variety world; Vogel doubles as narrator. There is more than a little Brechtianism in the presentation. It’s a wonderful showcase for the talents of all, and at just under an hour, completely lean and mean, and lacking in dead spots. Know that it’s a workshop, a work-in-progress, but my main takeaway is that it has lots of potential as a bookable, tour-worthy thing, with its compact troupe, minimal sets, and loads and loads of vivacity flying off the performers.

I was so jazzed by the show I was inspired to interview folks afterward…only to discover afterwards that the ubuiquitous Adam McGovern had already done so, and perfectly too, so I herewith direct the curious to his blogpiece here at HiLow. 

The Wild Party’s Over but not really — there’s one more performance on at the Tank April 20. I highly recommend it! And if you do attend, know that the fifth voice in the production, including the annoying neighbor is the show’s director Chris Rozzi. Chris is currently playing the Joe Weber part in my Weber and Fields revival project, which you can check out in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s gala on April 25. Don’t miss that either! 

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

Posted in AMERICANA, 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.

Roomful of Blues 001

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, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the late, great Levon Helm (1940-2012), 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.


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 one 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.


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.  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 posted the lyrics:


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.


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!


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.


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 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 fuckin’ song.

Happy 75th, Bob Dylan

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


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.

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