Archive for September 2008
Work is heating up (hence my presence in front of a computer on a Sunday afternoon) and one of the things that’s gotta give over the next month, until we get the new MIT Sloan Management Review website up and stable, is blogging. But don’t fear: I’m still going to deliver useless information to you. It’s just that for the next month I’ll be doing it in 140-character increments, i.e. via Twitter. In recent weeks I’ve found it to be a good vehicle for making one point quickly and then moving on. This is not one of those occasional hiatuses (hiati?) I pull here every few months. You’re welcome to follow me on Twitter. And I will be back here on a regular basis once work permits. And, face it, 140 characters at a time of me might be all you need most days.
(For those of you who follow my updates on Facebook, I use Ping.fm to update Facebook and Twitter simultaneously and identically. You don’t have to subscribe to both.)
In May 2003, I wrote an essay about a posthumously released John Fahey CD, Red Cross. I just came across a copy of that review. I’d forgotten I wrote it. In part because my blog entries from 2003 are long trashed, I have no idea whether I published this anywhere. But I know it’s online now.
The myth of John Fahey is a heady thing. The late guitarist, writer, painter, entrepreneur, heckler, rescue mission resident, and ornery comeback king, full of contradictions in every role, could easily be used as a vehicle to tell many good stories: The rise and fall of American independent labels (he founded Takoma and Revenant), the era of rediscovering blues giants (he found long-lost Skip James and Bukka White, among others), and the advent of New Age music, which happened on his watch at Takoma, to name but three. As for that last one, don’t judge Fahey too harshly; it would be like blaming the Beatles for the Knack.
Fahey’s life has a strong narrative arc. It begins with a Maryland kid buying old records and rebuilding the careers of some of the performers on them; it ends with Fahey’s own rediscovery after some down-and-out years in Portland and him casing used record stores full of his 40-plus LPs. And there’s something fascinating about someone so deeply, unstoppably verbal (read his collection of essays How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) who doesn’t sing.
The myth isn’t nearly as complex or rewarding as Fahey’s music. His greatest critical success came from the first six records he released in the 1960s, most of them with the word “Death” in their titles, as he fused blues, ragtime, and bluegrass solo-guitar styles with methods of song structure that had more in common with classical composers than his fellow folkies. Those records seem austere and peaceful during an initial distracted listening, then you get pulled in, listen more and more, and realize how eccentric and ravaged they are. Sometimes listeners didn’t get past the surface: Fahey’s greatest commercial success was a solo-guitar Christmas record in which he pushed Yule standards through a peculiar Delta blues funnel.
Fahey’s music keeps showing up in record stores, again and again. Fahey is not as productive in the afterlife as Tupac Shakur or John Coltrane, at least not yet. Diehards welcomed last month’s reissue of Old Fashioned Love, an uncharacteristic 1975 set in which Fahey’s solo performances jostle alongside some wacky, full-band Dixieland exercises and three strong duets with fellow guitarist Woody Mann. Also out within the past year from Fantasy, which now owns the Takoma catalog, is an expanded version of The Best of John Fahey that covers the early Takoma recordings sensibly.
The most enticing piece of recent Faheyiana is a “new” record, Red Cross (Revenant), much of it recorded in the months before Fahey’s death in February 2001. The posthumous set pulls together most of the strands of Fahey’s restless career, makes some clever connections, and offers a pair of revelations.
A chunk of Fahey’s later work, some of it recorded with Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke, sought to replace his unerring sense of melody and calm with an almost-as-unerring sense of noise and terror, and the near-title cut “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today” builds a rickety but passable bridge between his more accessible and more experimental recent work. The guitar figures rise and fall in waves of echo and decay, creating an eerie, moaning late-night feel that’s equal parts Highway 61 and Twin Peaks. Similarly, “Untitled With Rain” is a spooky evocation hovering over organ, chimes, and sundry effects. On the more traditional side, a mow through “Summertime” starts straightahead and then we get to ride shotgun with Fahey as he shows how much he can mess around with well-worn melody and meter but still deliver the Gershwins’ composition in recognizable form.
Midway through Red Cross, Fahey fans are back in familiar territory. Extremely familiar, it turns out. The sly, percussive “Annanaias” is extremely reminiscent of Fahey’s classic “American primitive” style, and it’s a hissier recording (on headphones, anyway) than the songs that precede it on the CD. Those two clues led a Fahey discussion group on the Net to conclude, correctly, that despite the CD credits, “Annanaias” and another piece, “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues,” were in fact put on tape in 1977 around the height of Fahey’s performing career (if a bit past his compositional apex). In particular, the compact “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues” is outstanding. You can hear Fahey use a lighter touch than later work, playing sprightly and deftly – and then he surprises you with an unexpected section, at first apparently unrelated to the previous sections of the song, that he reconnects to the main theme. That’s the key to Fahey’s greatest work – surprise – and that’s why the two quarter-century-old cuts rise so high and cast a shadow over the rest of Red Cross. Most of the collection is very good, but back in 1977 Fahey was far beyond very good.
In work and life, we put off things we have to do forever and ever until they are causing us so much stress that we have to DO THEM RIGHT NOW. After we do, we’re surprised how little time, effort, and imagination we needed to draw on to get everything done. I’m having this experience right now. As I wrote in Remember the Milk fails to serve its Outlook users — or does it understand its audience perfectly? and the followup post Remember the Milk forgets me … but is it my fault?, I wrote about how hard it was getting the online task service Remember the Milk to work with Microsoft Outlook and I realized — after promptings from two of my smarter Friends on the Internets — that the problem was my reliance on Outlook. At MIT, I was finally working in a technology-agnostic environment. I wrote, “I’m going to move my work life to the cloud slowly and carefully.” I’d been working in Outlook for many years, ever since a client forced me to leave my beloved Eudora. The plan was to move slowly and calmly, so I didn’t lose any data or screw up my workflow more than it’s usually screwed up.
It took about a day.
I am a bit embarrassed about how easy it was. I won’t bore you with the particulars (fortunately for you, this is not one of those blogs that talks about the intricacies and idiosyncracies of secure POP-to-IMAP transfers), but I can tell you that (a) I’m not the world’s most tech-savvy blogger and (b) after about an hour I didn’t miss Outlook. Sure, there are compromises in getting the new system to work my way, but there were compromises in getting the old one to work my way, too. (One compromise I didn’t have to make: the most essential of my Outlook add-ons, Anagram, is available in a more lightweight version for Gmail and Google Calendar.)
Until the past few weeks, I understood on an abstract level that the computing world was moving inexorably from desktop-based applications to cloud-based ones. When I was editing Release 2.0 I reported from the front lines of the transition. But I didn’t truly grok it until I uninstalled Microsoft Office and looked for myself. Web apps have nearly all the functionality of desktop apps, they’re infinitely lighter and more portable, and they’re a whole lot cheaper. It’s pretty clear up here in the cloud. And, as Brian pointed out, I never have to wait for Outlook to open ever again. Microsoft is going to have to do a lot more than get funnier jokes out of Jerry Seinfeld to beat this.
I’ve been trolling “about” pages as I’m writing one for the MIT SMR website relaunch, and I just came across this:
“We’re still in beta, which means we still suck.” — from the “about” page on Business Sheet.
I’m a big Philip Roth fan (maybe for some reason I am particularly interested in Jewish writers from New Jersey), but Indignation isn’t very good: slight as best, exercise at worst. It’s not that the main character is unlikable; all Roth protagonists are jerks in one way or another. It’s that this jerk narrator is boring and what happens to him is uninteresting. He complains, he reacts to things that happen to him, he dies. That’s it. For an author who excels at creating repulsive protagonists you want to read about forever (hello, Mickey Sabbath!), this is disappointing. But even greats produce subpar work (among New Jersey artists, this is known as the Human Touch rule).
I write that having just finished it in one evening. So what am I doing dismissing a book I devoured all at once? How bad could it be, really, if I couldn’t put it down? It’s because of what Robert McKee identifies as the difference between literary talent and story talent. Roth’s spectacular literary talent grabbed me and pulled me through the book. His sentences are elegant, highly charged, surprising, as always. But the story is hackneyed, tossed-off, nowhere near as considered as the words Roth uses to tell it. Technically, Indignation is strong and lots of fun. But those marvelous words and sentences and paragraphs are wasted on a character and a story unworthy of them. Literary talent isn’t uncommon; story talent is. Roth has both by the truckload and it’s a surprise when the latter abandons him, even if only this one time. In traditional fiction, it doesn’t matter how thrilling the sentences are if they’re not in the service of a story.
I, of course, don’t have a fraction of Roth’s story talent. He’s written 25 novels, most of them of the top rank, and I’ve written, oh, let me count … zero. So feel free to ignore me. But maybe novices can be heartened that even their heroes don’t knock it out of the park every time. And that reminds me: I have something else I should be writing right now…
Turns out the Guns N’ Roses record Chinese Democracy is more than a mere 16 years late. As you can see from this undercover cameraphone shot taken by Eric “Who’s he gonna open for next summer?” Hellweg at the Harvard Club in NY City, people were worrying about when this record would come out, back in 1953, nine years before W. Axl Rose was born:
Like many in the insulated west, I’ve long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I’m half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of reunification.) I’ve read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I’ve explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I’m not sure the subplot it’s part of will earn space in the final draft.
So it was a delight this morning when I saw that my hometown website published Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken this year, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue’s recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. I won’t reproduce them here, but they are diverse, surprising, and well worth seeing.
Lucinda Williams Plots Protest Songs EP (Billboard)
Jason and the Scorchers are receiving an award later this week and will perform, probably for the last time ever. (See Jason and The Scorchers get their due in The Tenneseean for details; ego warning: I’m quoted in the article.) The Scorchers are an important, under-recognized band and it should please me, a longtime fan, that they’re getting some attention. Instead, it’s making me angry. They should be getting a lot more than just an award from an organization specializing in the “Americana” radio format. After all, Jason and the Scorchers were one of two bands in the early ’80s that invented the damn form. The awards I want them to receive are gold and platinum records, the audience I want them to have is the arena-sized one they have earned.
I remember in late 1983, Jason Ringenberg, the band’s lead singer balanced himself on a rickety stool in the basement of a now-boarded Philadelphia dive and wished aloud what he wanted his band to sound like. “Like a religious service,” he said wistfully, “only a lot dirtier.”
Then as now, this is not an attitude that brings major labels running, and Jason and the Scorchers were the great lost band of the eighties, maybe the great lost American rock’n'roll band ever, starting great and getting even better with each record, though fewer and fewer people heard them each time around. In the eighties, the music industry was simply not geared to handle an original group like Jason and the Scorchers, a ferocious hard-rock band with a strong grounding in country-and-western. A few years later, the Kentucky Headhunters, a group with similar sources but none of the wildness or fearlessness, found itself among the most-loved bands in Nashville. If any traditional rock’n'roll band in the eighties was ahead of its time, it was Jason and the Scorchers.
The Scorcher’s debut EP, 1982’s Reckless Country Soul, is the sound of Joe Strummer hurling a wrecking ball through the Grand Ol’ Opry. Its standout, “Shot Down Again,” starts with Ringenberg screaming, “Look out London — here come the Scorchers!” Pop-music historians will recognize this as important early evidence of the anti-eighties-hair-bands-from-England backlash.
Fervor, recorded the following year, elaborates the band’s strengths. Drawing from both their country-and-western and rock-and-roll sources, the Scorchers burn a country-rock path such poseurs as the Eagles would never have found even if their dealers had given them detailed directions. Drummer Perry Baggs and bass player Jeff Johnson give Ringenberg’s edgy songs a solid foundation while Warner Hodges slides from delicate lap-steel to dirty guitar-hero styles without allowing either to sound like an afterthought. The record, full of, well, scorching originals and a knockout version of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” had the immediacy of the group’s live show. Although Hodges wasn’t standing at the edge of a stage sucking a cigarette and Ringenberg wasn’t dancing like Ed Norton on meth, Fervor came across just as hard as the group did live.
And, as far as the record industry was concerned, that was it. At first, being signed to a major was good for the Scorchers: it gave a reworked Fervor (the Praxis original didn’t have the Dylan cover) a second chance. But despite terrific record after terrific record and blazing show after blazing show, the band was too direct and unpretentious to thrive commercially.
I know that for many years I made my living as a critic and all I should care about is the quality of the work in question. But Jason and the Scorchers are/were one of America’s greatest rock’n'roll bands and it makes me mad that they didn’t get all they deserved.
(Disclosure: I produced a now-out-of-print Scorchers compilation — there’s a pic above of the cover. I’ll post the liner notes if/when I find ‘em — and Ringenberg contributed a cut to The Sandinista Project.)
I raved about it last week and I love the record more now. There’s no U.S. release of the CD planned anytime soon, I’ve learned. But for now (thanks to a video Lydia found), we can watch a three-year-old dancing while she watches Ida Maria on TV. That counts for something, doesn’t it?
Only in the seventh paragraph do we learn:
Mr. Bush will also announce a decision to increase American force levels in Afghanistan by about 4,500 troops, according to the draft of the speech.
It’s not a troop reduction. It’s a redeployment.
Thai Premier Forced Out for Hosting Cooking Show (AP, via NYT.com)
More and more, it’s hard to tell whether you’re reading an Onion headline or a legit one.
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I am very happy to have moved this blog from Blogger to WordPress. But, Web 2.0 fans, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes the algorithm is flat-out wrong.
Radical Mormon Cult Financed By Selling Of Bob Dylan Bootlegs (Idolator). Not actually true, but what a headline.
“You are not authorized to remove yourself from this mailing list.”
A few weeks ago in this space I celebrated “Wooly Bully.”
Well, it turns out that someone else from New Jersey has been enjoying this lately, too (MP3 from August 30 show, audience recording so don’t get too excited, 3.1M).
I, too, am having trouble getting non-college-educated whites to agree that I should be their leader. Granted, those three non-college-educated whites are my kids, but I feel Obama’s pain.
Rank and File liner notes return, although the compilation is still out of print or sold out or something
Sean had lunch with a colleague today who turned out to be a big Rank and File fan. I told Sean about the Rank and File compilation Gary Stewart and I put together for Rhino back in, I think, ’02, and I learned that the page on which I posted my liner notes for the set — a page linked to on my home page (link about to be fixed) — got blown away during one of Blogger’s hissy fits. So I’m posting the notes again, for anyone who’s interested. The long-awaited CD of out-of-print material is, alas, itself out of print already.
“I’d like what we do to be called country music,” Tony Kinman told the New Musical Express in early 1982. “You can’t really label it. It’s not country-rock. One writer called it rock-country. It’s been called country-punk. It’s all those things.”
Along with his brother Chip, Tony Kinman was one of the two unique voices behind Rank and File, a band so good that even the musicians who drifted in and out fairly quickly, folks like Junior Brown and Alejandro Escovedo, turned out to be major talents. The Austin outsiders who turned into L.A. punks, ended up lending a jump-start to country music that, along with contemporaries like Jason and the Scorchers, made today’s alt-country/No Depression movement possible.
It’s no surprise that Rank and File broke barriers since the band the Kinman brothers ran before it, the L.A. group the Dils, was stretching listeners’ ideas of what punk could include. The Dils was an all-too-unknown band that played punk before its members had heard the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, or the Clash. “Musically, the Dils were always very adventurous,” Chip says. “We’d do long songs, we’d do slow songs. Other punk bands didn’t do that. On our third EP, there were acoustic guitars. It was kind of a shock to our fans. When punk started changing into hardcore, we realized we didn’t want to be part of that scene. We’d done our punk rock bit and it was time to move on.”
So Tony quit the music business (or so he thought) and Chip moved to New York to start a band with Alejandro. At the time, Chip was listening to “a lot of George Jones, Tammi Wynette, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash” and, almost by accident, began collaborating with his brother via the mail. “I’d send lyrics and he’d send me better ones. Alejandro and I put together a band in New York City, booked a small tour, picked up Tony, and brought him back to New York.”
“After the Dils I was tired of the music business,” Tony says. “I wasn’t interested in playing anymore. But after a year off I wanted to do it again. I liked the band Chip and Alejandro put together. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Chip calls what happened following that brief initial tour “pivotal. When we went to New York at the end of the tour, we figured we’d have to go to a place where they play country. We were not yet playing those real moody songs Tony writes. We were playing country so hard so fast so punk, we were perceived as high concept. Some folks thought it was like cabaret, but we meant it. Tony and I like to be contrary to what’s popular. We had listened to that stuff all our lives: watched the Porter Wagoner show and I remember one time our dad [who worked in the military] came back from Japan with Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash bootlegs. We always listened and played country, trendy or not. We had to get out of New York.”
So, to avoid “playing for writers in New York,” as Chip puts it, he, Tony, and Alejandro moved to Austin, Texas, in early 1981. (Alejandro has roots there.) “The first thing we did was audition drummers,” Tony says. “Everyone thought we were crazy. Slim Evans was literally the only drummer willing to play with us. We booked a show at Club Foot, a big new wave nightclub. After the show, they told us to go and never come back. They hated what we were doing. They were charging hard down that new wave highway. Eventually, we found a little honky-tonk called The Shorthorn Bar, a totally obscure place. We got a gig playing three or four sets a night on Wednesdays. And we started playing acoustic sets at the Alamo Lounge, which is where we began to develop a following, such as it was. The quality became apparent, the songs were good, people responded.”
Shortly thereafter, the Kinmans returned to the scenes of their crimes as the Dils and brought Rank and File to play in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “The thing we learned from those shows was that country music in California was even worse than it was in Texas,” says Chip. “We were playing to west coast Dils fans, punk rockers who had no idea who Lefty Frizzell was. It was weird and difficult. People didn’t care. No one was waiting for country-punk. There was no ready market for what we were doing, but it was a fun band to be in. Maybe our difference from what was going on helped create the camaraderie among all four of us.”
At one of those shows, Rank and File opened for the Blasters. “That was instrumental in getting us signed to Slash,” Tony says. “Dave Alvin was very supportive of us and he had the ear of Bob Biggs [top dog at Slash]. At another, the group opened for the Red Rockers. As Tony recalls, producer David Kahne “was at the show because he was thinking of producing the Red Rockers. He thought we were the Red Rockers and worked with us as a mistake! So we went to the Automat in San Francisco, where David was the house engineer, and cut four or five demos that sealed the Slash deal. We snuck in and did those tracks; we were working around the schedule’s of Jefferson Starship and Journey.”
Fortunately, the proximity of the corporate-rock icons didn’t rub off on Sundown, the record Rank and File recorded with Kahne at the controls. Their debut reveals Tony and Chip to own two of the most distinctive and complementary voices of the moment. Tony’s studied baritone suggested a punk Johnny Cash, whereas Chip’s quivery Lefty Frizzell tenor hovered over the songs he sang, occasionally swooping down to make some deadpan point.
If you listened hard, you could tell that the Kinmans were veterans of the Dils: The nihilism of Los Angeles-style punk influenced Rank and File’s lyrics as much as Merle Haggard encouraged some of their attitudes. “Things she does make me glad I’m not in love.” “Today was gonna be my lucky day.” “I don’t go out much anymore.” The words of every one of Sundown’s nine songs posit Rank and File as outsiders both socially and musically. In the sprightly “I Went Walking,” a bewildered Chip walks through New York’s St. Mark’s Place, bravely announces that he’ll never fall prey to such pretension as he’s seen there, and prepares to move on. Then he remembers. Without any antecedent (in the song, that is; this device goes back to Ernest Tubb), he recalls a woman who left him and he wanders away from the song. It’s even darker on “The Conductor Wore Black,” the story of a train being passed in the other direction by Woody Guthrie’s bound-for-glory locomotive.
There’s a sadness in every one of Sundown’s narrators, be they illegal aliens, union workers, or aghast lovers. Razor-thin country two-step rhythms propel most of these songs, only to end up cutting the singers. Sundown hurts; its performances imply that the sun may never rise again. But there was something new here: a unique country-rock hybrid. It’s a hybrid that has stuck in many minds: Nearly a decade later, Bruce Springsteen would regularly perform “Lucky Day” at sound checks.
“We weren’t trying to be revivalists,” Tony says. “You listen to the day’s rockabilly or ska revivals and you hear people trying to breathe life into forms that have gone away. Country never went awa., Rank and File was a new kind of country band and we faced the same problems so-called-alt-country up against now. Someone traditional like Kasey Chambers is not a revivalist but she has to go against the existing pop junk on country radio.”
Chip says of making Sundown: “Kahne is meticulous and painstaking, but he didn’t have to do a lot. He fixed up a couple turnarounds. He had good ears, which was great, because Sundown was our first experience at real recording. Back in the Dils days, the punk engineer didn’t care. He’d just say ‘are you done?’”
After recording the LP, the quartet returned to Austin, flush with the afterglow of several high-profile positive reviews, the most crucial one being from the L.A. Times’s Robert Hillburn, which were syndicated nationally. “Hillburn’s review gave us some real visibility,” Chip says. “There we were, doing something so different. It was fun to get up every night and show this shiny new marble we’d found. The alternative audience was getting bigger, too, since MTV was getting all over the place. But Rank and File never drew a lot of country fans. They didn’t really know about us. Country fans did not read Slash magazine or the alternative press. In Texas we had some country fans. Some genuinely old people knew we had the spirit.”
“Nobody likes condescension,” Tony says. “Older folks found that refreshing. We didn’t want to be the best country band in Austin. We wanted to be the most different country band in Austin. We honored the art form, but not as a monolith that could never be touched.”
After a scorching tour behind Sundown, including a handful of memorable double bills with the Blasters, Chip and Tony were ready for the next record. The Kinmans hoped to record again with Kahne, but schedule problems prevented that. There was another significant change: Alejandro had left the band. For Long Gone Dead, the Kinmans and producer Jeff Eyrich worked with session musicians. Flute, banjo, and slide guitar augmented the basic sound, although the lyrics (“Try to get up/They’ll only knock you down”) came from the same territory. “The first record was fresher,” Tony says, “but the second record was more of a country record.” Not mainstream country: the standout track on the sophomore set may be “Sound of the Rain,” an amazing reworking of a Dils standard. (Votes for “Hot Wind” and the title cut will be counted, too.) Throughout Long Gone Dead, Chip and Tony channel the open, lonesome sound of classic country – the sort of country that’s “too country” for country radio – and graft it atop rhythms and melodies that are darker than those on Sundown, no small achievement.
“A lot happened with the band between two records,” Chip says. “We got a bit of creative roadblock, which is part of why Alejandro left the band. We’d bring in a new song and start wondering what the band could do with the song. We’d all look at each other because we weren’t really sure. It left us in an odd place and I think you can hear that on the record.”
Recalls Tony, “The second album got incredible reviews except in L.A. It was the first Slash record with no hosannas in the L.A. Times. And then we had all these transition issues with Slash moving to its deal with Warner Brothers and the record coming our on Slash/Warner. And with few exceptions no one at Warner Brothers knew who we were. We did the classic tour-your-ass-off and the record sold whatever it was going to sell after nine months. We were ready to get started on the third record.”
And then corporate indecision, some of it chemically fueled, took over. “We spent months and months literally thinking we were going into studio the next week,” Tony says. “So we weren’t on the road or writing more songs. While we were waiting, people thought the band had broken up. If you’re not out there on the road, you don’t exist. After year and a half of that, we went to Slash and got out of the contract. A small band has to work to let people know you exist. So the band was dead before we got into the studio for the third album.
That record didn’t appear until three years after Long Gone Dead and began a series of unexpected moves by the brothers that continue to this day. Those Rank and File fans who wish the brothers Kinman might one day make more records in that vein have been rewarded recently, as the brothers have recorded a pair of records as Cowboy Nation (a third set is on its way), a unit even more stripped-down than Rank and File. But the feeling remains the same. “When you talk to people who followed Rank and File,” Chips says. They don’t tell you that Rank and File was another band they liked. It was a band they loved.”
The prospect of a McCain/Palin administration scares me, but this clip cracks me up.
P.S. The language in the video is quite NSFW. And please ignore the “click here to see more” link at the end of the clip.
P.P.S. For a lively, smart, personal take on Palin’s appointment that’s unlike any of the 10,000 other pieces you can read today on the subject, visit “I Am Sarah Palin” on Leaf-Stitch-Word. Forget experience and sexism. This is about class, people.
Sure, it’s a misleading headline, but it makes going to the Republican convention seem much more interesting than I suspect it really is.
I picked up an import of Ida Maria‘s debut album, Fortress Round My Heart, about a month ago. I’ve kept my mouth shut about it (here, anyway), because I didn’t trust my intense, overwhelming reaction. Halfway into the first listen, I believed this might give me more pleasure than any other record I’ve heard in a long time. A month and the better part of 100 listenings later, I can confirm: this is fantastic.
I know nothing about Maria except that she’s Norwegian and the import price for her CD was too expensive. But I do know that Fortress Round My Heart is an explosive debut that deserves to stand in the same company as Pretenders and the Strokes’ Is This It?, two landmark debuts I bet she’s listened to a great deal. It’s one of those out-of-nowhere records that seems to encompass the whole world: high-powered rockers, sober but affecting ballads, and weird combinations of the two. Almost every song has a moment in which it feels like everything is about to spin apart, but this tough band enjoys leaning just a bit too much over the edge of a cliff and pulling back at the last possible second. Indeed, the high point of one of the intimate ballads, “Keep Me Warm,” comes when a jackhammer guitar stumbles in and takes over for a bit.
I don’t want to waste your time making the case for this (be grateful; I could go on for an hour); the music (video excerpts below) does that better than this fan could. Maria is an outstanding and diverse songwriter. Steeped in rock tradition, she’s also an immediately distinct singer. She delights in singing right at the edge of her range — listen to how she roughens up the “you” at the end of the first line of the not-a-novelty-song “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked.” And then listen to everything else. This, friends, is the record of the year.
“Oh My God”
“I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” (UPDATE: embedding has been disabled, apparently; try this link)
“Queen of the World”
On a typical work day, I receive roughly 120 emails addressed to me. I also receive another 90 or so email on lists I subscribe to. And I get, on average, 930 pieces of spam per day. The “real” email is manageable; the spam isn’t. Until today, I’ve made time to go through the spam filters of my sundry inboxes. I’m stopping today for two reasons.
1. It’s too damn disheartening to see that the vast majority of email I receive pertains to such topics as debt refinancing, penis augmentation, and images of Angelina Jolie. But, more important …
2. In my past two weeks of spamsweeping, I found only one false positive among the 11,000 pieces of spam. It’s not worth reading the 10,999 to get the one.
So, keep sending me spam. I won’t be reading any of it from now on.
Someone just pointed out to me that Ceci N’est Pas un Blog has discovered Ted Hawkins. For others new to Hawkins’s work, here are my liner notes to Suffer No More: The Ted Hawkins Story, a compilation I produced with Gary Stewart for Rhino Records. The record was released in January 1998. The notes are unedited, even though they’re more than a decade old and I can see all that’s wrong with them. I think the record’s out of print now. Here we go:
Ted Hawkins is one of the most unlikely–and, at the same time, one of the most representative–performers in all of American music. The life story of this itinerant singer, songwriter, guitarist, and interpreter reads like someone made it up: born into desperate circumstances, all too familiar with the inside of various institutions, Hawkins nevertheless has a gift and a mission, so he redeems himself and wins the largest audience of his rambling career, just before his life is unexpectedly cut short. Hawkins’s astonishingly diverse music fits no pattern: from hard-edged soul to even harder country, from sweet-voiced pop to open-hearted folk, all pulled by a powerful, hard-earned spiritual undertow, all characterized by a voice as clear, powerful, and idiosyncratic as any.
The facts: Born in Mississippi on October 28, 1936, Ted grew up poor and mistreated, subjected to even more than the usual indecencies afforded African-American kids in the pre-WWII south. He was in Oakley Training School, a reform school (he called it “a school for bad boys”), before he was a teenager, and he was sent to the notorious Parchman Farm at age 15 for stealing a leather jacket. The years that follow are hazy. Ted traveled aimlessly but extensively from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, by which time he had lived through two marriages and landed in Los Angeles. (His third marriage, to Elizabeth, lasted nearly 30 years.)
Music had been part of Ted’s life since the wife of the superintendent at Oakley noticed his vocal aptitude and encouraged it in many ways, one of them inviting Ted to a reform school performance by Professor Longhair. Ted credited Professor Longhair’s appearance with inspiring him to do something with his developing voice, a fierce tenor with elements of many of the classic bluesmen and songsters and–most of all–Sam Cooke. Ted’s guitar playing has always been elemental, rarely diverging much from the Open-C style he learned as a child, which resulted in his major-chords-only style. As time went on, Ted began playing with a protective glove over his left hand–he played with such force that his fingers would bleed without it.
But for years Ted kept his musical prowess to himself. Ted’s first known recordings (as Ted “Soul” Hawkins) are the two sides of a hyperactive soul single–”Baby” and “Whole Lotta Women”–that he cut for Money Records,one of John Dolphin’s labels, but not until 1966. They are spirited numbers, reminiscent of the most raucous Stax sides, but they never charted nationally, and this collection makes them available for the first time in 30 years.
By the time of his 1971 recordings that didn’t see release until 1982 on Watch Your Step, Ted’s voice had deepened and so had his songs. Producer Bruce Bromberg had heard of Ted’s street singing and was struck by the conviction–and the terror–in the sparse solo performances. The four songs from Watch Your Step on this collection, all original compositions, showcase a unique talent determined to make itself heard. “Who Got My Natural Comb?” is a bit off-kilter and certainly faster than most of Ted’s songs. It’s also a riot. “Watch Your Step,” included here in a solo acoustic version, is one of Ted’s archetypal warning songs, elevated by gritty asides and ferocious strumming. Hear this and you’ll understand why he needs the glove. “Sorry You’re Sick” relates the tale of a man coping with the illness of a loved one with deep fear, longing, and commitment. When Ted sings the line “You can be sure, babe, you won’t suffer no more,” he’s trying to reassure himself as well as the one who is afflicted. Yet “Sorry You’re Sick” is not the most poignant number of Watch Your Step; that appellation belongs to “The Lost Ones,” a child’s tale of abandonment that manages to be almost impossibly sad without being overwhelmed by self-pity, no small achievement. Yet even though plaintive expressions of woe comprise a good half of Watch Your Step, Ted’s voice conveys them with a generosity and directness that always coalesce into hope.
While his music was full of such grace, Ted was soon in trouble again. He was released from the California Medical Facility in Vacaville on August 20, 1982, shortly after Rounder released Watch Your Step, and he enjoyed much critical attention. A second set for Rounder, Happy Hour, also produced by Bromberg and Dennis Walker, was released in 1986. It didn’t have the impact of Watch Your Step–the shock of discovering Ted could happen only once, after all–but it did deliver many songs that would become standards in Ted’s repertoire. It kicks off with “Bad Dog,” the tale of a man just returned from some unnamed confinement who discovers that his lover is having an affair because her ill-tempered dog treats one man with surprising tenderness. Ted’s performance is as wild as his writing here, fighting the meter to squeeze in every syllable of outrage, confusion, and still-burning love. When the song fades as Ted tries to feed the dog and sings “He bit my hand” over and over, it sounds like he’ll be reliving this moment forever. “Happy Hour” (the first of several covers in this collection) is another cheating song, one of the most overtly country-and-western performances here, in which Ted’s discovery of his beloved’s infidelity is less original than in “Bad Dog” but no less affecting. The honky-tonk rhythms make one wonder how Hawkins might have fared as part of the Nashville machine. “Cold And Bitter Tears” is “The Lost Ones” sung by an adult, a man trying to keep his life together after being abandoned, anchored by another of those unique images (his tears mixing with the dishwater) that only Ted could have dreamed up.
Another superb album notwithstanding, Ted was still making his living busking. His most popular weekend spot was along Venice Beach’s Ocean Front Walk, where he would demand attention. “In some ways, the beach is better practice than a concert hall,” Ted told me in 1994. “I sing it like I want to sing it on the beach. In a club I’ve got a roster I’ve got to keep to, and I’ve only got so much time. On the boardwalk, I can sing all day if I want to, eight hours, 10 to 6. I’ve got to sing to stop them and then I’ve got to get them to stay there. In the club, I’ve already got them.”
That the amateur roots of the most heartfelt pop music is inarguable. Great performers who have reached megaplatinum status can come up with songs and performances that cut to the core, but rock’n'roll is full of performers whose debut, recorded while they were unknowns, far exceeds anything else they’ve ever done. It’s no romantic cliche to suggest that great art might be more likely to come out of hunger, from performers who are singing for their supper. This is the way Ted lived for many years, but he had the good fortune of doing it on a boardwalk occasionally frequented by people who could do something about his predicament.
One of those people was H. Thorp Minister III, who brought Ted to Nashville and, in September 1985, recorded two records’ worth of the cover songs Ted performed for the beachgoers. (Only one original, “Ladder of Success,” graces those two records.) While fans of Ted’s compositions might want more, the two volumes of On the Boardwalk make the case for Ted as one of our finest interpreters. “I try to make the songs mine,” he said. “I sprinkle a little more pepper here, make it a little more intensified there.”
Intensified is the key word for the three diverse Boardwalk tunes here: the Brook Benton pop-soul hit “I Got What I Wanted,” Johnny Horton’s country standard “North to Alaska,” and the plaintive “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” Using his outdoor voice on these performances, Ted discards the traditional understatement of his studio recordings and makes sure that anyone within earshot will stop, look, and listen.
In early 1986, BBC Radio One DJ Andy Kershaw traveled to Los Angeles, unannounced, to record Ted for the British network’s flagship channel (Ted’s solo recordings from 1986, 1987, and 1989 for the BBC appear on The Kershaw Sessions, Strange Roots 006, 1995). After a second “field recording” in Los Angeles, Ted was persuaded to fly (for the first time) to England, where he spent much of the subsequent four years. He enjoyed some popularity (I Love You Too, a self-produced album that includes this collection’s “Who Do You Love” and “I Ain’t Got Nothing Yet,” made a bit of noise on the UK independent charts), a good amount of concert work, and some long-overdue recognition when Billy Bragg performed his “Cold and Bitter Tears.” But by 1990, he was homesick and no longer a novelty to British audiences, so he returned to the boardwalk of Venice Beach.
Javier Benitez was one of the may to hear Ted at the beach. Benitez’s friend Mike Drianis had a home studio, where he recorded Ted singing Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrer classic “Be With Me Jesus.” In this previously unreleased performance, we can hear the purest expression of Ted’s love for Cooke’s music, which we’d expect, and his ability to transcend that influence and go somewhere new, which we might not.
One of the beachgoers lucky enough to hear Ted was a top executive of the Mattel Co., who promptly whisked Ted into the company’s recording studio. As Ted wrote to his manager, Nancy Meyer, “He was standing in the crowd as I sang. I captured his heart.” The two previously unissued songs recorded on July 26, 1990, for Mattel, “You’re Beautiful to Me” and “Happy Days,” are among Ted’s most atypical and intriguing performances, especially the former, which includes an unexpected vocal counterpart (by wife Elizabeth) and a thrilling tribute to a country that treated Ted about as poorly as one could.
As glorious as these private performances are, it’s worth remembering that no one got to hear them. In the early 90s, most of Ted’s few recordings were out of print and all of them were difficult to find. He made enough money from his weekend performances on Venice Beach to get by, but not much more.
That all changed in 1993, when Michael Penn, whose apartment was within earshot of Ocean Front Walk, heard Ted perform, told his producer Tony Berg about him, Berg got a job at Geffen Records, and in his late 50s Ted was finally signed to a major label. In 1994, The Next Hundred Years arrived. It was a knockout.
Although The Next Hundred Years is a studio recording with professional musicians, its stripped-down songs, most of them closely held originals, are put across with the urgency of someone who knows what it’s like to stare at people’s hands while he’s playing to see if they’ll reach into their pockets. So when he charges into “There Stands the Glass” faster and harder than Webb Pierce, who had the original hit, he’s got good reason: He doesn’t want to go back to the beach. The record kicks off with “Strange Conversation,” an older tune (he recorded a demo of it for Bromberg in 1971) that mixes timeless, spooky wisdom with modern production to stunning effect. The set also includes Ted’s most unexpected cover ever, an atmospheric take on Jesse Winchester’s “Biloxi” that is at once both much sunnier than Ted’s own Mississippi childhood and a model of controlled emotion. This compilation concludes with “The Good And The Bad,” an autobiographical statement of love, warning, despair, and hope that ranks among Ted’s most tough-minded compositions. It feels like a summation of all his major musical and lyrical themes.
On the strength of the record and Geffen’s support, Ted embarked on his most extensive tour ever and began work on a second collection for the label. Without a doubt, 1994 was the happiest, most successful, most satisfying year of Ted’s life. His unexpected death from a stroke on New Year’s Day 1995 was cruel and tragic, but he passed on knowing that his music had finally connected, he passed on having been loved and accepted for the most constant thing in his life: his music.
Fortunately, for fans of music, I won’t be singing. Tomorrow, Tuesday night (2 September) at 10p CT, WXRT in Chicago is rebroadcasting a show the omnitalented Jon Langford and I did last summer celebrating the release of The Sandinista Project. Join Langford, the king of all media and most recently one-half of Jon Langford and Christine Tarkowski, as we play about half the record and crack each other up. If you don’t believe me, you can listen to Jon’s promo (brief MP3). If you’re not in Chicago, you can listen to a stream, linked off the WXRT homepage.