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Ladies and gentlemen, Lonnie Mack!

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The death of Lonnie Mack is going to get lost amidst the rightful sadness over Prince’s demise, but I want to share a few words urging you to replay Mack’s The Wham! of That Memphis Man in between “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry” today.

The first of the guitar-hero records (this is from 1964) is also one of the best. And for perhaps the last time, the singing on such a disc is worthy of the guitar histrionics. Lonnie Mack bent, stroked, and modified the sound of six strings in ways that baffled his contemporaries and served as a guide to future players. Eric Clapton’s later take on Bobby Bland’s “Farther on Down the Road” outright swipes the version of the standard which Clapton first heard on this album.

But Mack is more than just an axe murderer. His singing is sure, full of knowing nuance, and soulful—his screams transform “Why” from an above-par breakup ballad into a run of psychic terror—and his brash arrangements insure that Wham! remains a showcase for songs, not a platform for showing off. Although Mack is a fine writer, the accent here is on songs written by others. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” (Mack’s first single and an instrumental chart smash) and Dale Hawkins’s “Suzie Q” aren’t radically reworked, but Mack imprints both numbers with enough spiraling, sputtering guitar to distinguish them from their original incarnations.

Mack envelops himself in the ballads; “Where There’s a Will There’s a Way” and the climactic “Why” demonstrate his measured, thoughtful vocal eruptions to best effect. Still, it is Mack’s guitar playing that made his career and remains his most enduring legacy. He played fast and he played lots of notes, yet on Wham! he never went on too long or ground his gears by squeezing too much into a break. Mack, who produced this album, has never been given credit for the dignified understatement he brought to his workouts. In the mid-eighties he was rediscovered, thanks to Stevie Ray Vaughan and the good folks at Alligator Records, and thanks to reissue specialists The Wham! of That Memphis Man started to get some of the attention it deserved. Give it some today.

Written by guterman

April 22, 2016 at 6:46 am

Posted in music

Support Ivan Julian

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I found out today via Richard Barone and Sally Timms that Ivan Julian, founding member of the Voidoids, contributor to both The Clash’s original Sandinista! and my Sandinista! Project, is being treated for cancer and has pretty much the health insurance you’d expect. There are two benefits shows scheduled in New York with the usual downtown luminaries (one’s not sold out yet). If you’re not in NYC, you can still donate. I just did; you should, too.

Written by guterman

April 10, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Posted in music, PSA

Buck Owens on Merle Haggard

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Many years ago, when I was interviewing Buck Owens for a project, I asked him a question I asked every country great I spoke to back then: “Hank or Lefty?” Without hesitation, in a stronger voice than he’d employed for the rest of our talk, he said, “Merle.”

Written by guterman

April 6, 2016 at 7:01 pm

Posted in music

The mystery of The Harder They Come

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Since I bought it during high school, I’ve listened to the soundtrack of The Harder They Come hundreds of times, if not more. I’ve been listening to it more than usual lately, in part because it’s also an unofficial soundtrack to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I’m currently re-reading, and in part because Eli or someone left a CD of it in Jane’s car. Anyway, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the record is that two of the outstanding Jimmy Cliff songs on it, “You Can Get It If You Really Want It” and the title track, repeat at the end. They’re not remixes or alternate version; just the same recordings. Today, nearly 40 years after my introduction to the album, I ask a question I never thought to ask before: Why? I have some theories but have been unable to discover why Island Records did that. Are there any reggae or Chris Blackwell or soundtrack enthusiasts who can help me?

Written by guterman

March 5, 2016 at 10:45 am

Posted in music

Carrie Brownstein’s Sentences Stand Out

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credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times

Most of the new crop of musician autobiographies is weak and one-dimensional: John Fogerty is still mad, with good reason; so is Kim Gordon; so is John Lydon. Two of the guys from Joy Division are still mad, without good reason; Neil Young misses some of his dogs; Patti Smith is tired from all that remembering. The most distinctive of the ones I’ve read recently is Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. As in her best Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag songs, Brownstein wrote a memoir that simultaneously shares what something feels like in real time and considers how it’s different now that she’s had a while to let those emotions cook. Anyone who regularly comes up with sentences like

“I offered to be in a band with a cute and hip-looking woman whom I admired for her ability to pull off overalls, but she wasn’t interested”

or

“We were like Fleetwood Mac without the sex or drugs or hair or songs”

or

“My attitude may have been a factor”

has a sense of humor and sense of self that serve her book well. In its way, this tough, sweet memoir is as loud and ambiguously satisfying as the best of Dig Me Out, The Hot Rock, or All Hands on the Bad One.

Written by guterman

November 12, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Posted in music, reading

When the gales of November came early

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The good news: The Detroit News has published 16 pieces about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The bad news: Only one of them is mostly about Gordon Lightfoot.

Written by guterman

November 11, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Posted in journalism, music

Roadrunner, Roadrunner!

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photo credit: Jon Bernhardt

photo credit: Jon Bernhardt

I am often at my happiest when I am at my most ridiculous. I don’t act on that self-knowledge often enough, but I did today when I spoke before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight in favor of “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers becoming the official state rock song. An official rock song? Isn’t the whole purpose of rock’n’roll to upend that sort of thing? Maybe, but politics is the art of the possible and not the perfect. So is rock’n’roll, if you think about it. Regardless of the rock’n’rollness of the setting, “Roadrunner” is as close to a perfect rock’n’roll song as you’ll find. If we’re going to have an official rock song in this weird state, this is surely it. And I got to deliver my testimony as part of a hilarious lineup of a hearing that including two bills regarding clam chowder (one as official state appetizer, another as official state dish) and acts designating, among other events, Sleep Deprivation Awareness Week, Aviation Awareness Week, and Narcolepsy Awareness Day.

Here’s my testimony:

I am here as a longtime citizen of the Commonwealth to register my support for “Roadrunner” as our official rock song. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers said all that needs to be said on the matter in four minutes and six seconds, so I promise I’ll come in way under that.

“Roadrunner” is profound and it’s profound in the way it celebrates the mundane. It makes art out of driving to a Stop and Shop, out of driving around your state late at night, listening to the radio, trying to make yourself feel better. Is there anything more American than that?

Or, to consider it another way, is there anything more American than wasting gas? “Roadrunner” was recorded in 1972, a year before the OPEC oil embargo, back when the stuff was cheap, $3 a barrel, and seemed to go on forever. Is Richman wasting gas? Or is he investing in gas? You can’t put a price on the feeling you can only get driving late at night listening to the radio.

That’s only one of an infinite number of mysteries in “Roadrunner.” I’ve got plenty more of ‘em, including one involving the Natick Mall, but I’ll just share a few reasons why “Roadrunner” is the only possible choice for official rock song.

It’s educational. Most songs only count off to 4, this counts off to 6. That’s 50% more math than most rock songs. At a time when communities are convulsing over math test scores, we should accept “Roadrunner” as a gift to the children of the Commonwealth. And, in lines like “going faster miles an hour,” it creates a whole new brand of English syntax — born in Massachusetts.

It’s for everyone. With only two chords and the occasional hint of a third, it’s a song almost anyone can learn to play. It’s been celebrated as one of about 1,000 songs that invented punk rock, but its influence goes way beyond that. It’s the only song that the jam band Phish, the electronic artist M.I.A., and punk stalwarts The Sex Pistols have all covered. If you’ve come up with something that Phish fans, M.I.A. fans, and Sex Pistols fans can agree on, you have truly captured the universal.

And it’s about triumph. You try shouting “radio on!” over and over out an open car window and not feel victorious. A little embarrassed, maybe, but victorious. Not that I would know from personal experience.

I admit it: There may be better bands from Massachusetts. There may have been better songs written and recorded in Massachusetts. But there’s no other song that so simply captures the complex delights of living in this beautiful, strange Commonwealth. It comes out and screams what no other song in the history of rock’n’roll ever has: “I’m in love with Massachusetts.”

Thank you very much.

Thank you to Joyce Linehan for making all this happen and to my friends for pointing out ways I could improve my testimony.

Written by guterman

October 20, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Posted in music, politics