Archive for the ‘music’ Category
Help my 17-year-old see Beyonce’s sister (in which Jimmy begs for help in an uncharacteristically direct fashion)
Hi Internet friends. It’s Jimmy. I need your help. Again.
You helped me once before. Back in late 2008, I wrote Ida Maria and how the Internet might be able to help me make a 12-year-old girl happy, in which I begged for ideas on how to help my daughter Lydia get in to see an artist we love, Ida Maria, even though Lydia was nine years too young to get into a 21-and-over gig. We got some advice from friends and from kind strangers at Idolator, and eventually a high-level meeting of two wonderful singers took place.
Four-and-one-half years later, Lydia wants to see Solange Knowles at the Paradise next week. Alas, she is 11 months too young to get into the show, which is 18+. I had heard of a state law asserting that those under 18 can get into 18+ shows as long as they’re accompanied by a legal guardian. I asked a manager at the ‘dise about this and she said no way. I’ve asked some friends and friends of friends who work or worked at various clubs around town; some say they vaguely remember the rule but can’t cite it definitively. Google, for once, has not been helpful.
In some ways, it’s easier to get a club to let a 12-year-old into a show she’s much too young for than to let in a 17-year-old who’s only a bit too young. The various attempts to get her in — not all of which I’ve listed here — have not worked. If anyone has any ideas — and if anyone is owed a solid from someone at the ‘dise or Live Nation — please get in touch with me. It would keep my daughter’s faith in me and my faith in the Internet. So, Internet friends, any ideas?
I will post major progress here and minor progress on the Twitter. As my buddy John Lennon used to shout, Help!
UPDATE: We got in!
Etta James died today, and I’m listening to my favorite album by her, the spectacular Tell Mama, which Chess put out in 1968. Conventional wisdom states that the great rhythm-and-blues singer never recorded an album as massive as her talents. As usual, such conventional wisdom is grounded in an iota of fact and then turns out to be completely wrong.
As it did with all of its female singers, Chess Records had much trouble placing James. They tried her out on big-band ballads, straight blues, and the uptempo rhythm-and-blues hits with which she had scored in the fifties, like “Dance with Me Henry.” But no matter what the style, she wasn’t generating any hits, though many individual tracks were sinewy and harrowing.
Producer Rick Hall believed in James enough to fly her down to Fame Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a place where soul smashes were being cut every day, it seemed. The idea was to get a rough, smoldering album out of her—very much in the mode of Aretha Franklin, who had recently broken out of a similar rut with churchy soul. The result, Tell Mama, is the only soul-bandwagon record that can stand with Lady Soul’s classics from the period.
The big rhythm-and-blues hit on Tell Mama was the Clarence Carter title track, a compressed explosion of affirmation and generosity. The acknowledged standard is “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in which James takes standard better-dead-than-unloved banalities and exposes them as true. Turn the volume as low as you like; she’ll still overtake everyone in a loud, crowded room. Even the album’s giving songs sound generated by hurt; James sings as if she knows that alleviating someone else’s sorrow won’t lessen her load one bit. R.I.P.
My daughter, a cult guitarist, and how journalists can become semicompetent programmers, pretty much in that order
Warning: this is a much longer post than what usually shows up on this blog, but it’s an attempt to answer an important question I get asked all too regularly.
I was in the living room, listening to Lydia’s computer in the dining room. She was listening to “Hammond Song,” my favorite performance by the Roches, and I was lost in Robert Fripp’s guitar solo. After that, I was hungry to hear some more Fripp (the only other Roches song I felt like listening to was “Losing True,” which moves me but is damn near the same song as “Hammond Song” so I passed). I’ve enjoyed Fripp’s work with other people (Bowie, Blondie, Talking Heads) although I’ve never owned a King Crimson record. I saw Fripp live twice in the early ’80s, once at Irving Plaza leading his sharp, funky League of Gentlemen, once six months later at a WXPN benefit in Penn’s Houston Hall, when he was in Frippertronics mode. And that joint interview he did with Joe Strummer around the same time had an enormous influence on me as a beginning interviewer of rock stars.
I looked up Fripp on Spotify and was greeted not by music, but a recording of a keynote address he gave to a conference of motivational speakers, among them his sister. I found the talk engaging, adventurous, and practical; if you have Spotify, check it out.
Among many other gifts, the talk offered a great contradictory lesson. Several times during it, Fripp talked about how important it is to work with people who are better than you. True, and I try to do that whenever I can, but Fripp delivered insight after insight during the talk; he wasn’t learning from anyone else there, he was helping everyone else there. It’s a lovely, humble talk about mastery.
As I continue to get not younger, I understand more and more the value of surrounding myself, both in my work life and in my life life, with people who are better than me. But every now and then I get the chance to help someone else — I have learned a few things — and this blog gives me a chance to pass on what I’ve learned publicly. Here’s a question I get asked at least weekly, both by fellow veterans and newcomers to my profession: I’m a journalist and I’d like to continue being employed as a journalist. Everywhere I read that an employable journalist is as competent with 0s and 1s as I am with nouns and verbs. Does that mean I need to become a computer programmer?
Back when I helped out at GNN, O’Reilly’s early online service, and Delphi, the first of many online services that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership ruined, I thought there might be a brief opening for an editorial person who “got” the web. (Fortunately, almost two decades later, that window hasn’t closed yet.) One of the ways I’ve been able to make a go of it has been to learn how to program.
The idea is to make computer programming one of the tools in your journalistic kit, something that makes it easier for employers or clients to work with you. I once pitched a project conducting an online survey for a syndicated research firm and one of the reasons I got the gig was that I was able to do the whole project myself, not just designing the survey and interpreting the results, but also getting a working survey onto the web. These were in the pre-SurveyMonkey days when you needed to be able to do some grunt-level coding (in that case, in Perl) to create an online survey. I did plenty more work with that company in the years that followed; most of it was straight editorial, but knowing I could solve a technology problem independently made my client more comfortable keeping me around.
Although there are particular skills a programming journalist needs, what the ability to code offers a writer more than anything else is a way, an approach, even more than specific, problem-solving skills. To be a competent computer programmer, even for relatively simple web-based programs, you have to be able to break down a complex problem into small, manageable pieces. That’s a career skill, a life skill, and it’s something that programming forces you to do if you want to get any good at it. I’ve never been able to code for hours as if under a spell, which professional programmers can do easily. I can get into that zone as a writer, but not as a programmer. As someone who’s more journalist than programmer, that will likely be the case for you, too, so you will not spend hours under headphones, able to keep disparate parts of a large coding matter in your mind at the same time. You’ll break your pseudocode into small, manageable chunks, and then go from pseudocode to real code.
And chances are you’re not just writing code, you’re editing code someone else has written. Whatever problem you’re trying to solve as a programmer/journalist, there’s a very good chance that you are not the first person who’s had to solve this problem. Any popular language you are working with will have repositories all over the web of publicly available code that can solve at least part of your problem with only minimal customization, and, more important to your development, show you how other people approached the same issues. Curious journalist/programmers don’t just paste in code; they read it over — just like a beginning journalist reads John McPhee or Robert Caro — to learn how the pros do it. Then they make their own way.
That’s how you might want to proceed conceptually. Here are some admittedly idiosyncratic recommendations regarding what particular skills a journalist/programmer could use. (And I mean use practically. My favorite language to work in, the Lisp dialect Scheme, as taught in the beloved wizard book, is a learning language only. I’m more likely to get paid as a theremin roadie than as a Scheme programmer.)
The foundation: HTML/CSS/HTML5. Thanks to visual tools, journalists can work in web publishing with minimal exposure to HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). That’s not a good thing; it prevents journalists from knowing even the rudiments of the platform they’re working on. It’s hard to produce a vivid sound recording without knowing how to work a physical or virtual mixing board; similarly, how can you make your story work best on the web, tablets, and mobile devices if you don’t have a basic understanding of what the formats can do? HTML isn’t even full-fledged coding. It’s more page layout. Understanding HTML is not much harder than understanding how to use early DOS word processors like WordStar and XyWrite, programs that made you explicitly underline, etc.
The two steps after HTML are CSS and HTML5. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) gives more precise layout tools and makes it easier to separate content from layout. HTML5, the latest version of the HTML standard, is still under development, but it’s already being used on many websites and in many web applications, particularly those aiming for tablets and mobile devices. There are an avalanche of useful new commands in HTML5 that make it much easier to integrate multimedia (HTML5′s ability to do this is one of the reasons Adobe’s more cumbersome Flash format is going away).
You don’t have to memorize too much HTML(5)/CSS syntax; there are plenty of online and offline resources. And don’t worry about learning explicitly what every last command parameter can do. The key is to know what tools are available and have a general sense of which one will get you out of which types of problems. You don’t have to know everything; you’ll know when you know enough.
You also need to know how to manage a database. In the late ’90s, when I got serious about educating myself as a journalist who could program, I became a great fan of Philip Greenspun, particularly his book Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. In addition to being a physically beautiful object (Greenspun is an accomplished and very opinionated photographer), the Guide spelled out what anyone who had aspirations of becoming a web programmer had to know. Greenspun’s knowledge and style placed his book high above the “Teach Yourself TK in 21 Days” books that were popular at the time. He was rigorous, he was funny, and his approach made you want to learn. In particular, he showed why being able to manage a database was the key to building and maintaining any real website. That’s still the case: the fancy content management systems journalists use today, from bare-bones blog-building systems like WordPress to the more bloated “enterprise” systems, are customized databases. Many database systems are built around SQL; Greenspun has a guide to SQL, too, but don’t attempt that before you’ve got a good grounding in web technologies.
Finally, learn one language, any language (parenthetical removed; see why in the comments). There are plenty of arguments for learning plenty of different languages, but I think journalists entering the word of programming are best-served by learning Python. The tools you pick up are reasonably transferable to other languages, Python is built into OS X so you don’t have to install it, and how can you dislike a language with metasyntactic variables (spam and eggs) that clearly came from Monty Python?
Best of all, Python is a strong learning language. MIT uses it to teach people how to think like programmers. You can download the course text, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning With Python, to get a sense of how Python is a useful vehicle for starting programming. Python is also used as the entry language for my alma mater O’Reilly’s useful and entertaining Head First series for new programmers. Python is a powerful scripting language for web apps, but for someone who intends to be a journalist first and a programmer second (or tenth), it’s just a smart way in.
I am far from a professional programmer. Folks hire me because of my editorial and consulting skills, not because I can code kickass regular expressions (I can’t). But learning how to program lets me understand a problem from more sides and makes it more likely that I can help a company figure out how to solve it. Learning how to program has helped me and I hope it helps you too. I also hope this answers the question of how to become a journalist/programmer adequately; I’m going to point people who ask me that here from now on.
Even if you’re a journalist who never wants to write a line of code professionally, you can become a better digital journalist if you understand the technologies without which no one could ever experience your journalism. And the best way to understand is to do. One of the aspects I enjoyed most of the Robert Fripp talk I wrote about at the top of the post is that it captures the joy of learning something, getting better at it, and mastering it. While I was finishing this post, I heard the Roches’ “Hammond Song” coming from another room once again. But my daughter wasn’t listening to the Roches anymore. She had mastered the song and now she was singing it herself.
I’m no fan of the Doors — Owen’s and my paragraphs on them in the intro to The Worst add up to one of the few parts of that book I still like — but Marcus is the guy who wrote Mystery Train and Invisible Republic, so I read when he writes a book about them. Marcus hasn’t changed my opinion of the band’s built-for-condemned-Econo-Lodge-cocktail-rooms music, but he did crack me up, something the Doors never did (intentionally). At the end of the short chapter about “The End,” the most theatrical of the band’s solemn, unfriendly songs, Marcus slips in a perfect reference to the Firesign Theatre, my favorite comedy troupe other than my kids. A whole volume of The Doors is a bit much, but anyone who can find room for the Firesign Theatre in Jim Morrison, territory that should repel the Firesigns’ welcoming humor but in Marcus’s hands fits perfectly, is a writer I will follow anywhere.
This will be short.
One of the few good things about death is that it shuts you up. Death is both incomprehensible and inevitable; it’s hard to capture that terrible combination in words. So last night, when the first reports arrived that Clarence Clemons is dead, I did what I often do when I’m trying to figure out what I’m thinking: I tried to write. I thought about his great early triumphs like “Kitty’s Back,” his defining numbers like “Jungleland,” his move to a new sound starting with “Bobby Jean” and climaxing in “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the roles he played onstage. But nothing came out of my fingers. It was time to think and listen, which I’ll do today as well. Today I’ll keep my mouth shut, I’ll be grateful for his work, I’ll celebrate Father’s Day, and I’ll live.
A while back, I accidentally friended on Facebook Bill Wyman, the former bass player for the Rolling Stones, instead of Bill Wyman, the rock critic, the person I meant to connect with. (I wrote about the latter Wyman on this blog late last year.) Didn’t seem like good karma to unfriend the guy who played bass on “19th Nervous Breakdown” and several dozen more of the greatest songs in all rock’n'roll so I stuck around. Mostly his Wall offered tour dates, although he would occasionally touch on photography, archaeology, his books (did you know he wrote seven?) and setting scores.
Recently on his wall he turned to a regular topic for him: his assertion that it was he, and not Keith, who wrote the glorious riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” He mentioned that the inspiration was “an obscure Chuck Berry single I had called ‘Club Nitty Gritty.’” (He may have mentioned this in Stone Alone, the only one of his books I read, but it was really long and it was only a seven-day-limit library book so I probably read it too quickly and I don’t remember.)
I won’t wade into Wyman’s claim about authorship, but I do want to go on a bit about Chuck Berry’s “Club Nitty Gritty.” There are two reasons it’s obscure (Wyman is surely right about that). One: it’s not very good, a lazy list of dances that could turn Alvin Ailey into a wallflower. Two: it appeared as the last track on what may be Chuck’s worst-ever record without a song about his ding-a-ling on it: Golden Hits, a 1967 collection of mediocre rerecordings of his early hits, plus “Club Nitty Gritty” buried at the end as a booby prize. So the song’s not very good and it deserves its rarity status. Only deeply committed Chuck Berry fans (like these guys) would have heard it. And it does boast a riff that could be an antecedent of the brutal “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” theme. Whoever pulled that riff out of the air took something shapeless and built a universe out of it.
The lessons here? You can find inspiration anywhere, not only in canonical classics but in trash. And pay attention. The next piece of crap you hear may make your career.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a 30-year-old song by the British post-punk band Joy Division, is in the air. Or, at least, it’s in my air. Yesterday a colleague posted a video of it to his Facebook page. Last week a friend sent me a clip of a live version of Arcade Fire and U2 attacking the song. Peter Hook, the bass player on the original, is touring with a new band that’s playing pretty much all Joy Division songs. (I contributed, too, with this silly excuse for a post on BoingBoing back in October.) And this morning I happened to be listening to yet another version of the song while I checked on the news and learned that one of Bernie Madoff’s sons just killed himself the same way Joy Division singer Ian Curtis did. Not quite a trend, I know, and the dots connect only in my idiosyncratic head, but everyone’s head is idiosyncratic and isn’t that what blogs are for sharing anyway?
Why does this song have such a hold? I don’t cherish most Joy Division songs the way I do much of the 1980s work of New Order, the smart, austere band that emerged out of Joy Division after Curtis hung himself. Although drenched in punk, much of Joy Division’s work was grandly overdramatic (think Jim Morrison with a better rhythm section), but on “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the band transcends pretty much every limitation. Sure, it picks up added weight when we learn what Curtis did to himself while love was tearing him apart, but the song doesn’t need any rock’n'roll myth to burn into your memory. The lyrics are pretty clear: routines bite hard, ambitions are low, resentment rides high, emotions won’t grow, and all that happens before the first verse is over. By the time the song reaches its peak — Curtis singing “Desperation takes hold” with corrosive resignation — you’re so far into the song that you don’t even notice its grip tightening around you.
Musically, the record is that rare of-the-moment British pop song from 1980 that doesn’t sound dated. The song breaks open with a jagged bass line, an ethereal synthesizer both soars over Curtis’s singing and mocks it, and drummer Steve Morris introduces that astounding snare-shot overdrive move that every ’80s band, from the Pretenders to Modern English, U2 to the 10,000 bands that tried to be U2, picked up on, eventually turning it into a cliche, almost as bad as Auto-Tune is nowadays. But on “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the innovation is fresh. The whole damn song is. It’s a tale of romantic disintegration put across with an energy that makes something new out of the singer’s hopelessness. Thirty years later, there’s still nothing like it.
Eric often sends me links that crack me up, so my first response Friday afternoon when I saw he forwarded me a parody response by Mick Jagger to Keith Richards’s recent autobiography was to prepare for a good laugh. The alleged response, called “Please allow me to correct a few things,” is, in fact, written by ace rock critic Bill Wyman, who has the novelty of sharing a name with the Stones’ two-decades-gone original bass player. Wyman, who once received a legal demand by the bassist to change the name he was born with, seemed uniquely positioned to write a cutting fake retort.
Then I began reading and realized this was No Joke. As a longtime Stones devotee (read Late night thoughts about the greatest rock’n'roll band in the world for one recent example), I’ve often wondered what the surviving original members really think about each other, how they work together, what their work means to them as they’re aging. Wyman has clearly spent way too much time pondering this, too. I’ve never talked to Mick, but Wyman’s faux-Mick response feels true to my imagined Jagger. The tone of the essay veers from hurt to self-righteous, apologetic to withering, the voice always taut. Fake Mick hates Keith as much as Real Keith hates Mick; this essay shoots down RIchards’s book Life but doesn’t forget to point the gun inward from time to time.
Yet, more than anything else, Wyman’s version of Jagger is full of love for Richards, regretful that money, drugs, and narcissism tore them apart, grateful for what they had together before they devolved into mere business partners. He knows how much he owes Keith (“Without him, what would I have been? Peter Noone?”) and how Keith’s work can still touch him, no matter how far they’ve both fallen (“When a song is beautiful–those spare guitars rumbling and chiming, by turns–the words mean so much more, and there, for a moment, I believe him, and feel for him.”) This is idealized stuff. It’s unlikely that Real Mick’s response to Keith’s book, if there ever is one, will be as tough-minded and vulnerable. Wyman conjures up the Stones as we want them to be at this late age, but even we diehards know that’s just our imagination running away with us.
UPDATE: Wyman has written a postscript to his terrific piece.
UPDATE 2: BoingBoing has reprinted this post.
The Call had pretty much everything a rock’n'roll band would want: a taut and original sound, support from masters (the Band’s Garth Hudson, who you’ll see in the first video clip below, was a de facto member of the band in the early ’80s), and, in Michael Been, a distinctive and original songwriter and singer who could take on matters of the heart and politics with similar authority and surprise (vocal similarities to David Byrne didn’t hurt, either). What the Call didn’t have, unfortunately, was hit records, although that didn’t stop Been from having a long and diverse career, including a small but important role in The Last Temptation of Christ and having one of his songs (see second video clip below) made the theme song of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. (I worked briefly with Been in ’91 when I wrote the liner notes and helped compile a set of the band’s best work for Mercury.) Been died on Friday, of a heart attack, at a rock festival in Belgium, where he was serving as the sound man for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a group that features his son Robert.
Been has fascinated me for years: for the quality of his work, for his ability to continue doing engaging work even after it was clear that he was not going to be the rock star he deserved to be, for his kindness and openness when we worked together, and for his ability to unite, in a fashion, his personal and professional worlds by working with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He seemed, from a distance (we spoke maybe three times in the past decade), a full man despite his being a credible rock’n'roller, something none of us see all that often.
“The Walls Came Down”
“Let the Day Begin”
UPDATE: The free download is over. Thanks for participating.
A few years ago, I produced The Sandinista Project, in which 36 performers each covered one song from The Clash’s Sandinista! It was a fun and crazy project. Last summer, on Joe Strummer’s birthday, I made the record free for a day. The free download was a great success although what I learned from the experiment was more mixed.
I’ve been having a wonderful time on Boing Boing during my guestblogging residency and I’d like to say “thank you” by making the record free again, for a limited time. Instead of making it free for one day, which slowed the hamsters running the guterman.com servers to a crawl because everyone downloaded at once, I’m going to make the record, along with digital images of the packaging, available until midnight U.S. eastern time on Sunday night, so you’ll have plenty of time to download this before it goes away.
Well, sort of. Lydia is in the cast of Madame White Snake, an opera that will have its world premiere in Boston this evening. And, in the City of Boston, today is Madame White Snake Day. Happy Madame White Snake Day, everyone.
Of course, for people of a certain age, as Jane just pointed out, when you read the term “Whitesnake,” you think of only one thing: Tawny Kitaen on a car hood.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to future generations for the ’80s.
If you followed my TED coverage last week (or if you’ve talked to me since I’ve come back), you know that one of the great pleasures of the conference for me was the string quartet ETHEL: agile, imaginative, energetic, surprising. The afternoon after the event ended, I met Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s artistic director and viola player, in the lobby of my hotel and told him to his face how much I love his band. (Am I allowed to call a string quartet a band?)
After we got the fanboy stuff out of the way, Ralph and I talked for a bit about string quartets and rock’n'roll. Conversation bended toward The Juliet Letters, the 1993 collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Then and now (I listened to the set again after it was reissued in 2006), I find The Juliet Letters arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring moments here and there (more from the Brodskys than E.C.).
I do enjoy, however, some of the other songs the unlikely quintet played to fill out their shows, particularly a brittle take on Costello’s “Pills and Soap” and, especially, their version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” On that classic, Costello’s singing is, more or less, as mannered as it was in general for that project, but it finds a place in the strings, gliding between the instruments, eventually soaring above them with one facile but still perfect “you” at the end.
On the flight back to Boston on Sunday, I listened to Pet Sounds, a record that has kept me good company on long trips before; it’s one of those albums that doesn’t seem to have a physical place so it feels apt when I’m in some container above the world, nowhere near anyone I love, not really anywhere at all. I was half-asleep from my last night at TED and half-surprised when “God Only Knows” appeared midway through the set. I’ve never been a member of the Beach-Boys-were-as-great-as-the-Beatles cult, but what a record Pet Sounds is, even after you have heard it 500 times. On songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” lushly produced but still insular, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” whose strings carry it between a Phil Spector teenage symphony and an almost unbearable expression of yearning, it feels like you’re listening not to the sound someone made in a studio but the sound inside someone’s head. There’s enough humor and drama and unexpected reversals in the two-minute song “Pet Sounds” to fill a pretty good novel, and it doesn’t have any words, just feeling. Pet Sounds is all emotion on the edge of repression, just barely expressed and the more powerful for it. It’s masterful pop music. I bet it made Costello and the Brodskys feel grounded after their more abstract journeys.
Listening to Pet Sounds got me thinking about another version of “God Only Knows” that I treasure:
Petra Haden is, wrongly I think, sometimes considered as a purveyor of novelty: her best-known recordings are a capella recordings of classic pop songs, among them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” all of The Who Sell Out, and “God Only Knows.” They’re formidable technical achievements and enjoyable to listen to regardless of whether you know that every sound is generated by a soulful human voice. We hear the original the way she heard it and we hear parts of the original that we didn’t hear until she brought them to our attention. Something new in a faithful version of an overplayed classic: that’s a gift. And, if you buy my argument that Pet Sounds is a record happening inside someone’s head, what could be more right than a precise, robust version of “God Only Knows” in which one inspired person overdubs herself over and over and over and over and … ? She makes us hear familiar songs in new ways; she makes us feel one of the most familiar pop songs of the ’60s in a new way.
… you may need to spend a few minutes with some of the hottest music ever broadcast via a television:
The more you find out about someone, the more interesting that person turns out to be. Jim Duffy is a perfect example of that axiom. I met him when he was an ace copyeditor for The Industry Standard and begged him to join us on our quixotic post-Standard attempt at independent publishing.
But that’s only part of what he can do. He’s a smart, swinging, surprising pianist, bandleader, and songwriter. He’s recorded two records, the fine Side One and the new, even better Mood Lit. He was kind enough to contribute a smashing version of Mose Allison’s “Look Here” to The Sandinista Project, a great performance also included on Mood Lit if you’re one of the billions on the planet who has yet to buy or steal The Sandinista Project.
As you’d suspect from such a tasteful player and writer, he has great taste in other people’s music too. He was the first person to direct me to Dengue Fever, a band who longtime readers know I rave about, and he has another recommendation, The Black Hollies. Let’s let Jim make the case:
The Black Hollies, from Jersey City, may have a misleading name. They don’t sound like the Hollies, but they do sound like the Yardbirds, or the early Kinks, or the pre-Tommy Who. They stepped out of a time machine, from the era when bands had long hair but still wore suits — 1965 or ’66, but not ’67. They’re young-ish guys, too, playing vintage gear. My girlfriend Amy and I first saw them as an opening act, and they were way better than the headliner.
We’ve gone back to see them a couple of times, and they put on a tight, well-put-together show, one song right into another, and they have a lot of good tunes. In fact, on their first album, Casting Shadows, I like every single track.
So, first of all, check out the Black Hollies. Second, even in this era when so much music is available for free, if I like a band, I want to buy something, and I don’t think I’m alone.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw them play an early set, and the cover charge was very low. And they wailed. They played a set that gets you rocking and puts a smile on your face. When the set was over, I wanted to buy something. So I’m at the merch table, talking to the guitar player (I don’t know these guys at all), and he, very wisely, starts talking and talking about the band’s wares, how they make their records and so on. So I buy the band’s new album, Softly Towards the Light, on vinyl, for $10. And it’s a fine record.
What’s the point? In this day and age when music is given away for free, and when there’s so much of it that you can’t possibly get to it all, then when you find something you like, you don’t mind paying. Or at least I don’t. I’d rather pay for something, to feel like I’m supporting it or participating in making it happen, in some small way.
Not a very original observation, but a data point, at least.
Keep ‘em comin’, Jim.
The Internet is awesome. For example, the Internet is how Jim Allen found me. Jim is a terrific songwriter and singer (one example, another one) in NYC whose honky tonk version of “Lose This Skin” was one of the first covers I received for The Sandinista Project. It came at a time when I doubted whether the record would ever happen. His faith in the project helped me rekindle mine in it and I’m still grateful.
Jim also, I’m embarrassed to say for him, has been known to follow my Twitter blatherings. My tweets, like most everyone else’s, try to capture a moment, either in a physically or emotionally descriptive way. Several months ago, my status was merely “waiting for Lydia.” It was mundane, I tapped it on a device while I was sitting in the car waiting for child #2 to emerge from a choir rehearsal, and I promptly forgot the three words. Jim, however, is one of those writers who can turn nothing into something, and shortly after that night he wrote me to let me know he had composed a song called “Waiting for Lydia,” title inspired by the tweet. I can’t post the song yet (it’s not done, Jim says, although I’m not sure I agree), but I really enjoy it. Someday you will too.
I bring this up not merely to thank Jim, although I’m happy to do that here. I’ve got two other points: (1) Always pay attention. You might be able to develop good art out of the most mundane material, and (2) Something good can come out of the Internets, people!
Two nights before Christmas, I went to see Eli perform for his peers in a theater called The Black Box. (Yes, I had to ask one of his cronies, “Where is the Black Box?” I sounded like a David Lynch character.) Eli was wonderful, of course; he and a few dozen of his buddies played a pair of Arcade Fire covers that were as big and loud and over the top as you’d want from a big band of high school friends playing Arcade Fire covers. I went to The Black Box to hear Eli and I enjoyed his performance a great deal.
But it’s not his performance that’s still front of mind the better part of a week later. That dubious distinction belongs to the last band that played to those of us in the audience who lasted the full three-and-a-half hours. They were a trio who smashed big holes through a pair of Talking Heads songs, “Psycho Killer” …
… and “And She Was.”
In the spirit of being honest that I hear is important on the bloggernet, I must acknowledge: the band didn’t learn half the words or half the chords of those two songs, and they didn’t take the time to recruit a bass player. They were sloppy. They were, on the whole, not very good.
Yet I must also proclaim: I loved them.
I loved them for the attitude and excitement and affection for music that they brought with them to the performance in lieu of talent and rehearsal. They were smiling, laughing, playing hard (poorly but hard), unsure how to play the songs but absolutely certain that they were going to have a great time bashing these sturdy songs within millimeters of their lives. I’ve seen great bands seem to enjoy themselves onstage, I’ve seen great bands seem like they’d rather be getting prostate exams than performing, and I’ve seen thousands of bands in what I imagined was every possible permutation of engagement. But the other night was the first night since the early heydays of punk and rap that I saw a bunch of amateurs as free and in love with not only what they were doing, but the possibility of what they were doing. It was going to be over in a few minutes, they knew that. No one was ever going to ask them to do this again, they might have suspected. But while they were out there they were going to be as alive as any band could be, standing on chairs, falling to their knees, not caring whether the other members hit their cues. They were there to be loud. They were there to connect. And they were there to play music by Talking Heads, a band that broke up before these kids were born.
Talking Heads have been on my mind and my headphones lately. They’re my favorite person‘s favorite band, and early this year we were lucky enough to see David Byrne perform some wonderful new songs, like this one …
… some classics, like this one …
… and reanimate some more obscure songs I didn’t think enough of the first time around, like this one.
And now, to bring a few strands of my life closer together, here’s an amateur video of the lead singer of my wife’s favorite band playing with a band my son adores, singing a song that has made me fill up more than once:
Happy new year, everyone! May it be full of music and people who make you feel something.
Chuck Berry is the greatest lyricist in the history of rock and roll. His unprecedented synthesis—blues (especially the jump-band variety), country, and swing funneled through his wry, nonlinear mind—extended ideas about what the new teen form could encompass. Berry took over rock and roll moments after its birth, and anyone who has subsequently picked up a guitar with the desire to write a rock’n'roll song that described real life knows that Berry provided most of the tools. He also coined the word “motorvatin’,” which counts for a lot.
His Chess recordings have a bit of fluff toward the end (Owen and I have already weighed in on “My Ding-a-Ling”), but not much. Those records showcase Berry in his prime, all train-track guitar lines and images of “coffee-colored Cadillacs.” Berry’s prime musical foil is his St. Louis compatriot Johnnie Johnson, a pianist with a blues background whose rhythmic style was so flexible and skeptical that it influenced Chuck’s fret work, not to mention his lyrical world-view. Piano and guitar hop over each other throughout this set, like grinning duelists. Detractors often claim that Berry’s songs “all sound the same,” but they’re referring only to the jump-start guitar introductions that were Berry’s duck-walking trademark—though even those were immediately distinguishable to seasoned fans. There’s a tremendous variety of styles on his Chess tracks: Listen to “Havana Moon,” “School Day,” “Dear Dad,” and “Have Mercy Judge” and hear a performer able to thrive in blues, rhythm and blues, straight rock’n'roll, and his own fusion of them all. The only thing that’s the same is the high quality.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry alternated between adult and teen topics as surely as he moved from adult to teen beats. Sometimes he could call up lines like the hilarious hyperboles in “No Money Down” (by the end of the song, he has an entire furniture store installed inside his new car) that rang true and immediate to both. Berry’s conversational singing is a major part of his appeal—everyone can understand what he is singing, although some couplets like “it’s way too early for the Congo/So keep a’rockin’ the piano” (from “Rock-and-Roll Music”) have defied attempts at explication for half a century.
Berry presented himself as a guy next door with a penchant for pungent and detailed singing, writing, and guitar-playing. He always considered himself an artist (he allowed none of the usual “It’s junk because it’s for kids” crap), and the most amazing thing about his wildly imaginative work is that there’s no condescension. Although the kids in the audience couldn’t comprehend the singer’s child-custody anguish in “Memphis,” Berry wrote the tune in such an open-ended way that everyone could be included. Everyone could be included: that’s Chuck’s genius in a nutshell.
Eli and I have fantasized about a full-band-with-horns version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” We never got around to it and now it’s too late: Idolator reports that Kelly Clarkson, of all people, is performing such an arrangement of the song live. Yet another reminder that a good idea isn’t nearly as important as acting on your good idea.
“They took a light from a honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye,” Carl Perkins howls on “Honky Tonk Gal,” one of his many amazing performances on The Classic Carl Perkins, a stellar five-CD boxed set that includes all his recordings for Sun Records and those shortly thereafter. (I just pulled out that box for the first time in many years.) With such a line, Perkins neatly encapsulates rockabilly’s concerns and fears.
Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country-and-western, is all about conflict—between rural and urban, between barroom adventure and home comfort, between the headfirst sin of Saturday nights and the heartfelt repentance of Sunday mornings. The honky-tonk gal Perkins adores is both his joy (she’s hot stuff and knows it) and his pain (she’s no longer a demure housewife). She’s the conflict of rockabilly personified.
Perkins treats this dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would: He blazes out fiery riffs and drives through the quandary in fifth gear. He’ll deal with the consequences of his rampage tomorrow. Even lost in the thrill of taking his Gibson guitar for an unexpected joyride, he knows that somewhere down the road there will be a price to pay. Rockabilly is about release, but its release always has limits—that’s the form’s country birthright. That’s also what makes Perkins, a pure rockabilly performer then and always, different from Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison, rockabilly cats who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted themselves. “You could never take the country out of Perkins,” veteran Sun-reissue compiler Colin Escott wrote in one of his many expert liner-note essays, pinpointing what set Perkins apart from Presley and what prevented him from achieving Elvis-like success. Presley, for all his indisputable greatness, sold out for pop success in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal countrypolitan settings, never surrendered.
This massive set has no fluff. Perkins’s gracious, quavering tenor carries some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are “Turn Around,” his first professional recording, and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing,” the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis in post-Hank Williams country music. But Perkins’s meat is his rockabilly, “Blue Suede Shoes” and all that, in which he repeatedly drives full speed to the edge of his world, leans over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knows he must, pulls back and carefully heads home.
“Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge,” top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him a long time ago, in suburban Massachusetts. “It’s the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid’s stuff compared to it.” Yes, but Setzer and the many legions who adopted pompadours in the late seventies discovered the music and the accoutrements, not the culture. It’s no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly is Gene Vincent’s leer and Eddie Cochran’s shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. The Stray Cats, since reduced to beer commercials, can afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn’t have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock and roll, had no such romantic alternative.
Yet on “Dixie Fried,” his greatest uptempo composition, Perkins comes as close as any rockabilly performer to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashes like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale chronicles; his voice dances with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. “Let’s all get Dixie fried!” he screams, shattering any pretensions to caution, or civilized behavior. The violence escalates and the song smashes to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have the gleam of the honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye is fixed on home, where he prays his honky-tonk gal has returned.
Sure, Paul Kelly’s influences keep popping up. Kelly sometimes seems like a rock-critic-invented mixture of Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Graham Parker, Bruce Springsteen, and a half-dozen other significant white male rockers, but this is not why he is so little known in the U.S. (I don’t think that Post, one of his early records, ever came out Stateside. Please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong.) Maybe his eclectic arrangements (Kelly seems to be a big fan of Sandinista!) and leanings toward literature (he named an album after a Raymond Carver story) have seemed forbidding to many. Yet there is nothing dense about Kelly, a Woody Guthrie fan who aspires to similar plainspokenness. His gestures and observations are tiny, unexpected, perfect motions.
Post is Kelly’s third album. He normally records with a band, once called the Messengers. Before then its members answered to the Dots and the Coloured Girls, but Post is a solo acoustic album that emphasizes the dark side of life. Before you start yelling Nebraska, know that the pessimism here is more specific than the broad-minded Springsteen would ever allow. (Also know that Kelly gives himself the marvelous luxury of occasional accompaniment, however spare.) Many of the songs here are lyrically grounded in the first stages of recovery from drug addiction. “White Train” and “Blues for Skip” are explicitly about heroin, and all sorts of junk—drugs and otherwise—thwart the soft vocalist throughout the record.
The soft singing is never intended as quiet comfort. The singer in “Adelaide” rethinks his childhood, all detail and foreboding (“Dad’s hands used to shake but I never knew he was dying/I was thirteen, I never dreamed he could fall”), and when he stumbles into the present as if it is a bad dream, he tosses off lines like “I own this town” to convince himself that someone is listening to him. In “Incident on South Dowling,” a junkie helplessly watches his lover overdose before him, and then he ponders the layout of the tiny apartment they shared. Precise observations, punctuated by tragedy.
The meanest song on Post is its truest. A self-satisfied rock-god-in-training sings “Look So Fine, Feel So Low,” the tale of an up-and-comer living off the kindness of an innocent (“She buys me things/She wants to take care of me/And all I gotta do is sing, sing, sing”) while a millimeter under the surface he detests her (“She’s so easy to impress/When she asks me dumb questions/All I gotta do is say ‘yes, yes, yes’”) for his predicament. Kelly’s character signs in a voice so drenched in derision he is oblivious to his inhumanity. The title lines are attempts to show remorse, but the kid is kidding. What the kid doesn’t know is that revealing himself ensures his eventual eviction. He looks so wise, but he’s really a fool. These deceptively complex characters are the folks Kelly wants to write about, and their multidimensional nature is part of why their stories don’t ring on radios from coast to coast. Kelly subsequently rerecorded rousing full-band versions of many of the songs on Post, and those takes are often exhilarating. They’re great performances. But on Post, they’re revelations.
Everyone in my family is a fan of Ida Maria, especially Lydia (1, 2) and me (3). As someone who wants to hear new music from her I was delighted when she tweeted recently that she was “sunburned and ready for The Last Tour Ever with Fortress Round My Heart.” That was the good news. The bad news is that this last tour behind her debut is a package tour helmed by the pointless Perez Hilton. Oh well, I figured, in these days of there not being any record industry anymore, you accept help from anyone.
That tour came through town on Monday. Lydia and I couldn’t go, for a variety of reasons, and I’m glad we didn’t. Turns out, as laid out in Idolator, that she abandoned the stage early on in the set, came back after a delay to deliver an apology, most of one more song, another apology, and left again for good. She is now off the tour.
This seemed like a typical flameout from someone who’s toured too much. Nothing new to see, just move along. But then I saw a video of part of the truncated show (start watching it at 2:33):
This performance of “Keep Me Warm,” even as viewed in a tiny YouTube window, is hard to watch. It’s dark, deep, discomforting, and terrifying. She’s crying, she is desperate to sing but sometimes can’t, and after the punk-rock-guitar-break-in-the-middle-of-a-ballad part she is so far gone she holds notes so long you fear they will never end. Her singing is so loud, so raw, so hard for her to do but it’s all she can do until she can’t even do that anymore, that you feel some relief when she finally gives up, although in her apology at the end you know relief is the last thing she’s going to feel for some time.
People who love rock’n'roll sometimes think about authenticity, wondering: was that real? did that feel real? Of course, we consider authenticity in the context of performance. Rock’n'rollers on stage aren’t being real; they’re on a stage, performing. Sometimes they may really feel what they’re doing, but it doesn’t come across that way. Sometimes they may be bored or distracted, but they’re such pros that the performance feels authentic. Either way they’re on a stage, performing. I suspect what I find most poignant about this clip is that I’m watching a terrific performer trying to perform, trying to turn whatever she’s feeling into performance, but she can’t. What we see is something real, someone in trouble.
Couldn’t sleep last night when I wanted to. Eli’s got an afterschool job, so he’s working late on homework and I don’t want him to be the only one in the house still awake. Thought I could work or write for a bit, but I wound up watching part of Shine a Light and I wrote the following:
It’s almost embarrassing how exciting the opening of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” still is at this late date. The greatest rock’n’roll band in the world, ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones.
I’m not delusional. I realize, as I write this in 2009, that the Stones, the great Rolling Stones, haven’t released a thrilling album since Some Girls (31 years ago) and they haven’t released a good one since Tattoo You (29 years). I also realize that Mick and Keith and probably Charlie care only for themselves and their bank accounts. They’ll whore themselves out for any product and they’ll put out any piece of crap, cut any corner, to make another unnecessary buck. All evidence suggests that they’re creeps. To which I respond: So what? The sound of Keith’s guitar and Charlie’s drums and Mick’s harp is smarter, slyer, truer than anything anybody can say in words. They’re as full of life and potential as a screaming newborn. I believe that. As people, the remaining Stones stand for no one but themselves — and sometimes even that seems like too much work for them. But when that guitar and those drums lock in, even on one of the many crappy songs from the past quarter-century, that primitive genius Keith playing exactly the wrong note at exactly the right moment, it’s something to believe in.
I mean that. I’m sure I would detest the members of the Stones if I spent much time with them, but I feel as close to their music as I do with almost any person. And I do have fulfilling, intimate friendships; I’m not looking to music for something I can’t get in real life. Even when the Stones don’t believe in what they’re doing (1981-present), I do. The sound of “Street Fighting Man” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “When the Whip Comes Down”: that’s what makes life worth living. The novel I’m trying to write (i.e. the novel I should be writing this very minute) is the story of people who know that or who are afraid of what it might mean. All these people made a choice whether they were going to live normal lives or go into rock’n’roll. Decide one way and you can’t go back. The people who said “yes” to something different feel paralyzing self-doubt on an ongoing basis. They fantasize what it might be like to live like civilians, but for all their protestations they know there’s nowhere else for them, nothing else -– except for love, for some of them, sometimes -– worth bothering to believe in. When their work or their lives dip, it’s because they’ve lost their faith in those guitars and those drums. Same with Mick, Keith, and Charlie.
Ethan Lipton is a wonderful songwriter and performer, one of those sly guys who seem to be entertaining you but in fact is moving you. New York magazine calls him the city’s best lounge act but that captures only part of what he can do. I first heard him at a Pop!Tech back in ’05 and promptly begged him to appear on that Sandinista thing.
Lipton and his band want to record a new album on the Jill Sobule plan: his fans fund it. So, I urge you to follow this two-step plan:
You won’t regret it.
Last week I reported that I “just came up with a reissue/tribute idea that could be even less commercially successful than The Sandinista Project.” I’ve done some research and realized there’s no way I’d be able to pull off the new project, so I’m about to move on. But, before I do, I thought it might be fun to share what I had in mind.
In 1976, John Fogerty, the genius behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, recorded his third solo album, Hoodoo. It was a diverse album, ranging from the classic Creedence sound to very of-the-moment disco. For a variety of reasons, both aesthetic and commercial, the record was pulled at the last minute, and Fogerty began the first of his two long silences, not releasing any new music until 1985. I didn’t hear a bootleg of Hoodoo until just before Fogerty’s Centerfield comeback, and it is one weird record. “You Got the Magic,” for example, which snuck out as a single before Fogerty and/or his label put the kibosh on the full album, mixed Fogerty’s usual approach with a production approach that anticipated whole chunks of Saturday Night Fever. There are some low points on the record, but at least two of the cuts — the ballad “Between the Lines” and the rocker “On the Run” — rise to a level with his best work.
This was my idea for bringing Hoodoo back to life: a 2-CD Hoodoo Project set. The first disc would include the original Hoodoo and some non-album Fogerty recordings from the period; the second would be a Sandinista Project-style re-do of the nine cuts on the record, by nine different performers. The package would accomplish two goals: bring to light an unreleased, half-forgotten record (disc 1) and show how strong the songs are when placed in unexpected new settings (disc 2). Seemed like a fun project, a chance to turn on people to something they hadn’t heard, might even come together faster than the four-years-from-idea-to-release Sandinista Project.
But no. Turns out Fogerty still hates either that record or that time of his life, and even if I could get the rights to the record from whoever/whatever owns it now, I’d never want to force out an unreleased album over the objection of a performer who wanted it to stay unreleased. So it’s on to the next thing. Ninth-generation copies of the unreleased record remain available via the usual dubious online sources, and I think I’ll still be able to live a full life even if the country-punk version of Hoodoo‘s “Marchin’ to Blarney” I hear in my head never comes out. Onward!
When I’m not working or blogging or trying to live my life, I steal some time to work on my fiction. I use a fine program called WriteRoom that makes a computer writing environment much less distracting than the Microsoft Word norm.
The developer of WriteRoom has written an iPhone version of the program. I don’t use it as much, but it has been the subject of an fascinating price experiment. I bought WriteRoom.iPhone soon after it came out, for $4.99, but since then the developer has been testing different price points, with conclusive results:
08/20/2009 9 @ $4.99
08/21/2009 4280 @ Free
08/22/2009 7166 @ Free
08/23/2009 4901 @ Free
08/24/2009 88 @ $0.99
08/25/2009 56 @ $0.99
08/26/2009 119 @ $0.99
Looks like strong evidence for Chris Anderson’s contention that there is an enormous difference between almost free and free, even as Joshua Benton has noted that anyone who can afford an iPhone or an iPod Touch likely can risk 99 cents on an app without falling into a lower tax bracket.
I’ve got my own story to tell about free. As regular readers of this space know, last week I made The Sandinista Project available for free for roughly one day. The record went up at 12.01am on Friday and came down around 9am on Saturday. Here are the stats:
Total number of views of the page with the download link: 17,664 (13,834 Friday, 3,830 Saturday)
Total number of completed album downloads: 7,577 (6,772 Friday, 805 Saturday)
This is not what traffic is usually like on my blog, as this traffic report from WordPress makes embarrasingly clear:
The day of making The Sandinista Project free flattened my traffic for every other day this month. (Thanks to boing boing and others for pointing to it, by the way.) Indeed, the 7,577 free album downloads exceeded the number of physical albums we sold in the two years since the record came out. I’m not sure how many legit digital albums we sold via iTunes, Amazon, etc., but much of that business is in single tracks so I suspect the digital full-album sales were negligible. It’s hard to figure out how many unauthorized copies are out on the Net, but the week before the download experiment, I checked the numbers on Pirate Bay and two other prominent torrent sites and extrapolated at the very least 6,000 torrented copies. So, between the free authorized download last week and the free unauthorized downloads of the previous 28 months, most of the copies of The Sandinista Project that people are listening to weren’t paid for.
Yet people are listening to it. In the week since the free download, more than 300 of them wrote me to either thank me or complement the work. The trolls came out, too, but we all know what to do about them. So … there is some audience of people who want this music. They just don’t want to pay for it. For this project, that was not a big problem. We weren’t expecting to get paid, and what little we did make we intended to give away. It was, I guess, an art project. We weren’t doing it to make a living. We were doing it to get heard. Mission accomplished.
But what if The Sandinista Project was intended as a money-maker? The success of the free download suggests that there is an audience interested in the work. A popular policy nowadays is to give away something of value in the hope that it will serve as persuasive marketing for something that is for sale. A free download of this record could have been a come-on for a concert, associated merch, or some high-end physical version of the same product. Not sure how well that would work. Let’s use the WriteRoom.iphone example: when the price rose from zero to 99 cents, downloads all but stopped: the worst day at the free price was 4,280 downloads, the best day at the cheap price was 119 downloads, and let’s not forget that a typical day at the original price of $4.99 was 9 downloads. There is no substantial business there.
Thanks to the lethal combination of breakthrough technology, changes in consumer expectations, and industry-wide incompetence so overwhelming that a business school could build an entire degree program around it, I suspect the existing music industry is too far gone to build a business out of a we’ll-give-you-something-for-free-and-then-sell-something-else-to-you model. The attitude at traditional entertainment companies, that we’re the geniuses and the tastemakers and you’ll buy what we tell you is good, is nearly the opposite of the Net’s relatively bottom-up approach to popularity. There will still be some very popular performers who can sell more than a million copies of a traditional album in physical or virtual form, and there will be many, many indie performers who can garner a devoted audience on the Net while covering some subset of their expenses. But for those in the middle, neither superstars or hobbyists, people who want to make a living as musicians, the current model offers little. Giving something away and hoping someone will pay for something else somewhere down the road looks more and more like a business model that’s both cynical and hopeless. The fat, spent music industry needs a punk rock of business models the same way it needed punk rock in the mid-1970s. And, as with punk, none of the incumbent powers will be the ones who figure it out.
UPDATE: The free download is over. Thank you for participating.
Happy Joe Strummer’s birthday
Joe Strummer of the Clash would have been 57 today. So today seems like a good day to give Clash fans a present.
It’s been two years. Does anyone remember The Sandinista Project?
In May 2007, Abe Bradshaw and the crazy geniuses at 2 Minutes 59 Records let me put out a borderline-insane track-by-track tribute to the Clash’s Sandinista!, with a different artist performing each of the album’s 36 songs. (You can read Abe’s version of the origin myth here.) We received mostly positive reviews from publications ranging from The New York Times to Pasadena Weekly, although someone told me that Robert Christgau hated it. More important, it was a great experience: I got to work with many of my favorite performers and create something.
The Sandinista Project is free for a day
The Sandinista Project didn’t set any sales records. Indeed, the number of copies distributed by unauthorized file-sharing sites was greater than the number we sold. We didn’t undertake the project to make ourselves any money (it was a charity record) so I didn’t mind that it was available everywhere for free. That’s the record biz nowadays. But it did bother me that so many of the versions available on torrenting sites (yes, I downloaded a few; depressing research) sounded like crap. They were encoded at low bit rates and sample rates, sometimes there were digital skips, and there was never any packaging. Guys, if you’re going to steal from us, at least make us look and sound good. Please.
To rectify this situation, for one day only, we’re offering, without charge, 256K versions (in M4A format, which works in iTunes and elsewhere) of every song on the record, as well as one bonus cut and PDFs of the CD booklet and packaging. So now, if you decide to steal this, it won’t sound quite so bad. You’ll still be stealing, but you won’t be stealing junk. And hurry up: this is a 24-hour offer. At midnight Pacific Time tonight, I’m taking down the big file.
UPDATE: The 24 hours is over; thank you all for participating.
Tim Krekel died today. He was a magnificent songwriter, singer, and guitarist. His career extended back to Crazy Love for Capricorn in the late 1970s, but I met him in the mid-1980s when he fronted The Sluggers, part of the Praxis family, that genius cluster of performers and entrepreneurs in Nashville who casually invented the next few generations of American rock’n'roll. Two of his songs for Jason and the Scorchers, “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Greetings from Nashville,” stand among the most exhilarating and hard-headed American rock’n'roll I’ve ever heard. They will last as long as people care about music: i.e., forever.
One of the great pleasures in making The Sandinista Project was reconnecting after a long, long time with performers I knew back when I made a meager living on the outskirts of the music industry. Tim was one of the first people I asked to contribute to the record, and he responded promptly with one of the collection’s standouts: a swamp-soul reworking of “Version City” (M4A format). The performance captures Tim’s deep knowledge of many kinds of American music (I got goose bumps the first time I heard the horns kick in), his original take on anything you could throw at him, his humor, and his knockout guitar and arrangements. He was an artist and a gentleman, a rare combination.
Back in December, I tried to make this happen. Tonight, I finally did. Visual proof:
One of the many reasons I produced The Sandinista Project was to show how The Clash’s music, decades after the demise of the band, could go in new places. Looks like I wasn’t the only one with that idea:
A new wave of Latin stars is paying homage to The Clash in a concert featuring versions of their songs put though a blender of salsa, reggae, Mexican and other flavors. “Spanish Bombs: A Tropical Tribute to The Clash” debuted at London’s Barbican Theater this week. Backed by a 15-piece band complete with horns, congas and cantina-style accordion, guest singers tore through a repertoire of Clash favorites from “London Calling” to “Guns of Brixton” in true fiesta spirit.
(Source: Reuters, This Is Radio Clash, Latin-Style. Thanks, Owen, for letting me know about this!)
Music this thrilling and ambitious can’t help but live on, evolve, and inspire new generations. The future is unwritten!
Most important for my stateside friends, this last version is available in the Lower 48 at reasonable prices. Get Ida Maria’s Fortress Around My Heart, which was my record of the year last year and is looking to duplicate the feat.
After five years of selling DRM-crippled music, Apple is trying to get out of that business — except Steve Jobs and Associates want their customers to pay for the company’s strategic mistake. Even worse: it used to be that you could repair your broken files one at a time for 30 cents each. Now, as that imposing, solitary “BUY” button makes clear, regular customers of the iTunes Music Store can make up for five years of Apple’s music-selling mistake only in one expensive swoop. Wouldn’t Apple gain more goodwill (and, in the long term, more money) if it simply liberated files that its loyal customers had paid for already?
I know many Apple products have astonishingly good hardware and software design. But does that make up for the company treating its customers this way?
Regular readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of Ida Maria. It turns out that she’ll be playing two shows in New York in January (Jan. 15 @ Mercury Lounge; Jan. 16 @ Union Hall). I hope to go.
But there’s a catch. Aside from Maura Johnston at Idolator, who I’m sure will be at the shows without any problems, the only person I know who’s as big a fan of her as I am is my daughter, who will be a week shy of 13 the week I.M. is in New York and, no matter how she presents herself, no competent bouncer will let her into a 21+ show.
So I’m turning to the Internets. People: how can I get my Lydia in to see Ida Maria? Jane suggests I could arrange to get Lydia into the sound check. That’s an excellent idea, and I have a few almost-as-good ones I’ll try. I’ll contact the clubs and Maria’s management shortly.
But, first, I’d like to harness some collective intelligence. Internets, can you help us? What should we do? Can you help us?
A couple tweets recently from Officemate Sean got me thinking about this great record. Also, I’ve been thinking about Write Articles, Not Blog Postings, a smart essay from Jakob Nielsen that advocates smarter, longer text entries online. Since I’m microblogging anway, it makes sense to think long on the blog. I appreciate Nielsen for another reason: my rarely updated website stole its design from his frequently updated one.
Anyway, here goes:
In late 1977, 22-year-old British songwriter and singer Elvis Costello played his first dates in America. Those early performances were short and furious: “Revenge and guilt,” he told early interviewers who demanded his motives. Their shows climaxed with the guitarist and his band, the Attractions, drenches their audiences in waves of feedback as they vacated the stage. “I’m not angry,” Costello sang on his debut album My Aim Is True. That was a lie.
The mainstream American pop audience first heard Costello during a Saturday Night Live performance in which he halted a familiar song and ordered the Attractions to start “Radio Radio,” a damnation of American radio that assured his longtime blackballing from it. The pair of albums that followed, the punk-inspired This Year’s Model and pop-deconstruction Armed Forces, established Costello as a resourceful songwriter who dissected domestic and political strife without anesthetizing audience or issue and his Attractions as a fiery yet tasteful unit that could attack reckless rockers and caress carefully constructed ballads with equal aplomb.
Following some drunken stupidity that for many years was all most American pop listeners knew about him, Costello then spent the better part of a decade scrambling for a niche, even though even an indecisive Costello has merit. The 1980 Get Happy!! was a sketchy tour though physical and moral expatriation with Stax-filtered soul; Imperial Bedroom (1982) wove an astonishing, ambitious collage of late-Beatles pop landscapes. But then, as if that expansive idea had claimed all his ideas, Costello traded wordplay for facility and his accompaniment, once terse and unforgiving, deteriorated into dilettantism, hopping among genres with the discretion of a sailor on leave. It wasn’t a complete fall; the personal venom and political acuity of early Costello occasional slipped through the cracks of his crumbling career.
In 1984, after Costello had completed recorded his most desultory album (not-too-subtly titled Goodbye Cruel World), he embarked on a solo tour and reclaimed his career. He shed the Attractions, whose lush backup had dulled what straightforward melodies and narratives he still conjured. He followed that tour with a short jaunt backed by the Attractions, but made clear that he had one foot out the door. “I was a fine idea at the time,” he sang on one of his new tunes. “But now I’m a brilliant mistake.” He got divorced and remarried and put the Attractions on hiatus. Then he recorded the album of his life.
Performers make different noises when they think — or fear — that no one is listening. King of America was the sound of a zombie coming back to life, or a life in fear of turning into a zombie. He identified the “kingdom of the invisible” in “Little Palaces” as the place where Prince William may reign one day, but that was where all these characters lived. Every line on the album was sung by narrators terrified that they will disappear, certain only that they don’t matter. No one worried about the world falling apart because they were convinced that it had already. The rockabilly “Glitter Gulch,” on surface a light poke at American game shows that ended with the winner taking up with the hostess, railed against the crassness in any relationship: “He climbed upon his honey and he covered her with money,” Costello spat. Amid these ravages, there was a hovering love (“I’ll Wear It Proudly,” “Jack of All Parades”) that never quite landed — but its proximity made the pain nearly bearable. The music was a lanky foundation, loose yet precise. Built around the core of Elvis Presley’s last band, here dubbed the Confederates, they squeezed inside the songs, nourishing them instead of inflating them. Several years after Almost Blue, a tentative and rather obvious set of C&W standards, Costello was finally able to incorporate the personal moral profundity of top-drawer C&W into the public ethical demands of his most lasting work. Child ballads, Chicago blues, waltzes: everything fit in, commented on other elements, and enhanced one another.
Costello produced the record with T Bone Burnett, another hyperverbal/cynical performer looking for a way to unclutter his mind and his music, and the combination resulted in as honest and direct an LP as Costello will likely ever record. They knew that embellishment would have been superfluous. The songs on King of America justified themselves without any of the insular alterations that a studio-weary Costello later employed to deflate some of his finest Nineties compositions. The distances — between performer and audience, between song and arrangement, between performer and song, between born name and jokey stage monicker — that have always fascinated Costello, even on many of his stronger outings, are almost totally absent on King of America, replaced by a singer and guitarist obsessed with paring away, telling a truth. Costello still loved words too much not to tinker with them; hence such lines as “Like a chainsaw running through a dictionary,” from “Our Little Angel,” an ominous country ballad, built around James Burton’s pointed, graceful guitar nudges. But this time Costello wasn’t hiding behind words.
To complete his public rehabilitation, Costello cast off on a wacko tour featuring him in a variety of configurations, some profound, most amusing. For the final encore of the tour’s last show, Costello chose “Poor Napoleon,” a slight, funny song about impotence from Blood and Chocolate, the rush-recorded-but-half-great reunion with the Attractions. As the tale reached its conclusion, the instruments stopped emitting notes and started shooting out distortion, until the noise turned painful. The feedback still filled the theater after the band left the stage for good and the house lights went up. Costello had brought both his band and his audience back where they had started, with noting resolved.
(This is a reworking of something I wrote long ago — late 1986, I think, for The Nation, which accepted it but never published it. A revised version of it appeared in one of my books. Reading it now, I realize I was lucky enough to have written about Costello at his peak.)
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.
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:
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?
Radical Mormon Cult Financed By Selling Of Bob Dylan Bootlegs (Idolator). Not actually true, but what a headline.
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).
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.”
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”
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.
My birthday is coming up soon (tomorrow). Like most stressful events in my life, I’m medicating it with music. So I’ll jump on the “favorite album for every year of your life” blogmeme.
I’m following the draconian rules: no reissues, only one album per performer. And I’m adding two more: no thinking about this for more than 15 minutes, no live albums.
1963 (first full year I was alive), The Beatles, Please Please Me
1964, Lonnie Mack, The Wham! of That Memphis Man
1965, Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
1966, Otis Redding, Otis Blue
1967, Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
1968, The Band, Music from Big Pink
1969, Wilbert Harrison, Let’s Work Together
1970, Derek and the Dominoes, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
1971, Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells a Story
1972, The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
1973, Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
1974, Firesign Theater, Everything You Know Is Wrong
1975, Toots and the Maytals, Funky Kingston
1976, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Heat Treatment
1977, Never Mind the Bollocks, It’s the Sex Pistols
1978, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Hearts of Stone
1979, The Clash, London Calling
1981, X, Wild Gift
1982, Ted Hawkins, Watch Your Step
1983, Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues
1984, Jason and the Scorchers, Fervor
1985, Paul Kelly, Post
1986, The Costello Show, King of America
1987, Prince, Sign o’ the Times
1988, Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation
1989, Mekons, Rock ‘n’ Roll
1990, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory
1991, Guitar Paradise of East Africa
1992, Lucinda Williams, Sweet Old World
1993, Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
1994, Hole, Live Through This
1995, Steve Earle, Train A’Comin’
1996, Beck, Odelay
1997, Murmurs, Pristine Smut
1998, Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue
1999, The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
2000, Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP
2001, The Strokes, Is This It?
2002, Red, Hot + Riot
2003, Dengue Fever
2004, can’t think and my 15 minutes is running out
2005, Amy Rigby, Little Fugitive
2006, see 2004
2007, Junior Senior, Hey Hey My My Yo Yo
2008 (so far), Ida Maria, Fortress Round My Heart
Whew. I hope I got the years right. Argue in the comments, friends.
Burning Spear, Garvey’s Ghost (classic album reheard in the car on the way home from work yesterday)
Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey was stirring and heady, a broadside for what was then a little-known way (in this country, anyway) of hearing reggae. The cover photo of the trio leaning at odd angles in front of wood planks seems shot beside a slave ship, and singer Winston Rodney turns righteous drama into joyous keening. Joe Strummer’s ideas about expansive rhythms started here.
Indeed, the album’s instrumental counterpart, Garvey’s Ghost (1976), solidified the idea of dub as a rhythm zone or a kind of sound playing-field that can be endlessly revisited and revised. The tracks eschew the rough-hewn top melodies of the straight version and zoom in on its low-profile countermelodies. Echoed horns dart in and out of focus; Rodney’s vocals are rarely as audible as they are in the original LP, deployed only to underline a mood that the instruments are already conveying, especially the pained cries on the fervid “I and I Survive”; and rhythm guitarist Valentine Chin anchors the beat as drummer Leroy Wallace dances around it. Producer L. Lindo (a.k.a. Jack Ruby, not the Dallas club owner) places Robbie Shakespeare’s and Aston “Family Man” Barret’s sturdy bass figures as far up front as he can stick them without letting them fall out of the speakers.
At its best, dub shines light on aspects of songs that the original version sometimes gave short shrift. Garvey’s Ghost, along with records from Big Youth, King Tubby, the great Lee Perry, and others, helped set the style for the whole dub sweep that followed and still influences such hip-hop mixer-producers as Arthur Baker and Public Enemy’s Terminator X. Garvey’s Ghost means to make its listener feel cramped inside the slave ship along with the band. When they get to their final “Resting Place,” they mean us to remain uneasy with them too. The sound you hear is the galleon sinking.
(Consumer note: Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost used to be available together on one compact disc. Don’t know if they still are.)
(Update: They are, but they’re expensive.)