Rock and Roll Never Forgets #1

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Recent visits from old friends:

  1. Willie Nile at City Winery Boston, 12/29/18

There were a bunch of these guys, Willie, Elliott Murphy, David Johansen, Bruce before he became mega-famous, where if you lived in the tri-state in the late 70’s and were interested in rock and roll at all, you knew them and loved them. It was back when the radio would play such stuff, and I remember if I heard Willie’s “Vagabond Moon” I’d be doomed to spend the rest of the day singing it to myself, usually in an even more exaggerated Dylan-esque inflection than Willie. (I tried this out the other day and it still holds true.) We were certain they would all go on to be superstars.

Well, we know now that except for Bruce they didn’t, but as I’ve remarked previously it does the heart good to know that some of them are still out there rocking away despite it all: the record company ripoffs, legal problems, band problems, substance abuse problems. Willie put on a terrific 2-hour nonstop show, and a measure of how good it was is that I recognized one song in the first 45 minutes but still enjoyed myself. Bass-drums-guitars, a few piano ballads, rousing choruses…this still, miraculously, works! I wish more people did it.

The best of the new, a bit-too-politically-conscious for my taste songs was called “Children of Paradise.” He did “Sweet Jane” and a rocking version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as the last two songs in the set, both great. He had enough of a sense of the moment to play a rocking version of “Auld Lang Syne.” He was generous but not over-generous with giving his much-much younger band solos, and brought on an old bandmate who lives in the area to play on a few songs. The old bandmate looked like someone’s accountant but wailed on guitar. And I got to show my son that a 70-year old guy with talent and attitude and I assume a good physical therapist (those kicks!) can still bring it. Not dead yet!

2. “Big City Cat,” Steve Forbert (memoir)

Steve was another one of those late seventies tri-state area legends, and it’s funny looking back that we didn’t think twice about hearing “Going Down to Laurel” or “It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” alongside the Ramones or Talking Heads on the radio. In this book, which I devoured over Christmas week, Steve writes about hearing those bands and loving them, feeling like he deserved a place at that and not just the folk music table, going down to CBGBs and auditioning. You feel like Steve, even after the record company ripoffs, legal problems, etc. recounted here, still feels like he deserves that place, has never not felt it.

The trajectory of the book is escape from Mississippi, immediate NYC buzz, too early stardom with “Romeo’s Tune,” never being able to match that success but continuing to persevere. Steve spends a fair amount of time providing back story on what went wrong. Blame is spread around and he takes a fair share himself but frankly I came out at the end thinking that the real problem was probably the alcohol issues he sideswipe mentions pretty frequently. So many of those what-turned-out-to-be-bad decisions sound like they were made in drunken fits of petulance or grandiosity: “I know what I’ll do, I’ll fire my whole management team and start over!” “The producer of my best-selling album is getting too much credit that should be mine, no way I’ll use him for the followup!” “I could wait and put out an album with twelve strong songs on it but no, the ones I have are good enough to rush out now!”

Which is to say, although I enjoyed the book, I came out of it liking Steve Forbert less. Still love “Alive on Arrival,” and still think he’s written wonderful songs since that should have been heard more (“Search Your Heart,” “Lay Down Your Weary Tune Again,” there are a lot of them). Still would check him out the next time he comes through town. Don’t think I’d want to have a beer (or six) with him.

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2018 Favorites

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Girls girls girls, as (either) Elvis might say!

This was undoubtedly and delightfully the year of the 20-something woman, sad or smartaleck or (my favorite) both at the same time. The latter half of Disk 1 features my picks but there could have been five more of them on here. Sorry, Lucy Dacus, Soccer Mommy, Eleanor Friedberger, Waxahatchee, and others!

My song of the year is “All My Shades of Blue” and my album of the year Jeremy Messersmith’s “Late Stage Capitalism” (I probably should have found room for the other song from it I love, “Happy”).

Lots of old friends turned in stellar work this year but perhaps I will split the Hey I Recognize That Guy! award between John Prine and Paul McCartney (because, you know, McCartney needs more awards).

My saddest song of the year, Roseanne Cash’s “Not Many Miles to Go,” isn’t even sad but rueful and wise so we will temporarily rename it the song that makes my chest hurt award. That voice!

Finally, I offer my newly-minted Zeitgeist award to Titus Andronicus for “Real Talk” because we may in fact be in for a real big storm.

So remember, “Two-faced bitches never lie/Therefore I never lie,” and in that spirit of good faith I offer:

Disk 1

  1. Purple Hearts, Jeremy Messersmith
  2. Love You So Bad, Ezra Furman
  3. Bad Luck, Neko Case
  4. Roman Cars, Buffalo Tom
  5. Real Talk, Titus Andronicus
  6. Nobody, Mitski
  7. Running, Ryan Downey
  8. Breathless, William Prince
  9. Leave It Alone, Amanda Shires
  10. Future Me Hates Me, The Beths
  11. Paying Off the Happiness, illuminati hotties
  12. 2 Cool 2 Care, Anna Burch
  13. Sin Triangle, Sidney Gish
  14. Oom Sha La La, Haley Heynderickx

Disk 2

  1. All My Shades of Blue, Ruen Brothers
  2. It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts, Tracyanne & Danny
  3. Sweet Dew Lee, Belle and Sebastian
  4. The Joke, Brandi Carlile
  5. Beyond, Leon Bridges
  6. Slow Burn, Kacey Musgraves
  7. People Get Old, Lori McKenna
  8. Everybody Knows, The Jayhawks
  9. Confidante, Paul McCartney
  10. Stripping Paper, Elvis Costello and the Imposters
  11. Not Many Miles to Go, Roseanne Cash
  12. Summer’s End, John Prine
  13. The Carny, William Prince

“Angels We Have Heard On High,” The Monkees

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I feel about the traditional Christmas songs the way I feel about most classical music and hardly ever feel about rock: sure, great, but not really made for me. There will always be something other about these proclamations of devotion set to gorgeous melodies in 18th-century England or 19th-century France. You admire them but they are so vast it’s hard to get any footing.

My favorite is probably “O Holy Night,” which captures some of that Christmas stillness I’ve mentioned here before, all hushed and held back until the vocalist (and it seems like every vocalist with the vaguest interest in the holidays has covered this one) lets loose for “fall on your knees” or “oh night divine.” I like the Nat King Cole version best but as with many of these old carols pretty much anyone can do a credible job, from Perry Como to Mariah Carey. At some point whoever’s singing is beside the point.

Which may be why I’ve been partial this particular holiday season to this version of a traditional carol, lyrics originally from France and rewritten by an English clergyman in the 1860’s, tune from a hymn dating far before that. Verse 1 is an amazed OMG as a group of shepherds describe the miraculous singing of angels they have heard celebrating the birth of Christ. In verse 2 an interlocutor urges calm: take a breath guys and run this by me again?  And in the final verse the shepherds throw up their hands: sorry, you’re just going to have to come hear for yourself.

On the Monkee’s new, charming, uneven Christmas album, bassist Peter Tork takes an unadorned approach, plucking on a banjo while singing along in an everyman voice. The vocal is halting; it needs to wait for his fingers to find the notes. It sounds like something he was practicing in the studio before the recording session started but exactly because of that spontaneity and obvious effort it captures some of the original awe, especially during the world’s most modest melisma on the word “Gloria.”

Shepherds probably would have sounded a lot more like this than like, say, Davey Jones. Knowing you’ll never sing like an angel shouldn’t stop you from trying to tell others what they sound like.

“Thirteen Years,” Alejandro Escovedo

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It’s not the end of the year but here’s a year-end song: a reflection on choices made, connections missed, time passed. “Thirteen years I’ve followed you,” the song begins, though it’s never clear what being followed: a girl, a career, a dream. All of those.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation is the right one: a traveling musician, playing shows from San Francisco to New York, making a thousand decisions and fulfilling a thousand obligations along the way (“Oh, man, another college radio interview?”) but still feeling like he’s not making any progress, and all the while missing the person he left at home, and wondering if they’ll be there when he returns.

That works, and the details fit, and maybe the song even started out in the writer’s mind on that note of self-pity. The finished product feels like it’s stalking bigger game. The “you” the singer addresses shifts: sometimes its the thing being followed, sometimes its the lover left at home. Perhaps in those 3 AM moments when we most question how we’ve ended up the person we are and where we go from here those sorts of distinctions melt away: a promise is a promise is a promise. But breaking promises is as human as breathing and trying to keep a promise you no longer believe is is one of the worst kinds of dishonesty.

The singer in this song hasn’t broken his promise, though, not yet. He wonders if he should; he wonders if the aching feet are worth it. Perhaps he longs to be promise-free, at the same time he knows our promises are our best selves, whether we can deliver on them or not.

So, a rock and roll “What I Did For Love,” although the song, a cello-laden ballad with a beautiful melody, is more rock and roll by attitude than sound. Call it chamber pop and sequence it next to Lou Reed when he’s in a contemplative mood, but not on New Year’s Eve, which should be for celebration, not reflection. Don’t worry, there’ll be time for reflection. Those 3 AM moments can hit you any time of day.

“Yesterday When I Was Young,” Roy Clark

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At my cousins’ apartment in New York City, I was in the bedroom talking about Bobby Sherman. My cousin Lucy was trying to explain why he was so good. She said it was part his voice, and part the songs he sang, but mostly his personality. She played me one his songs as she showed me a picture from one of her magazines. “You can see it, right?” she said. “You know he would be so nice, if you met him and talked to him.”

My brother and my cousin Eileen were in the bedroom, too, watching television. Eileen yelled to turn it off when Lucy played the Bobby Sherman song, even though Lucy played it really low so it wouldn’t bother them. I wondered if it would have been worth having to share a bedroom with my brother if it meant we could have our own TV in there.

“I think my friends would beat up any boy who wore that necklace thing,” I said to Lucy, as I looked at Bobby Sherman’s picture in her magazine.

Lucy tsked. “It’s called a choker. And it looks good on him. You’re just making fun.”

We heard the door of the apartment open, which meant our Uncle Mike was home. We all went to the kitchen to say hello. We knew Mike would be mad if we didn’t.

Our mothers were in the kitchen with their friend Ed, who lived in the building with his sick mother. We’d been hearing their whoops of laughter from the bedroom. Ed was the kind of person who could make anyone laugh.

Uncle Mike nodded hello to us all, pulled a chair from the kitchen table, turned it backwards and sat down. “How are you doing, Mike?” Ed asked.

“I’m doing fine. Kind of beat. Long day.”

Uncle Mike was supposed to work as a bartender. But even I knew he had strange hours for bartender. Sometimes he worked in the middle of the afternoon, sometimes the middle of the night. Whenever we visited Lucy and Eileen, he was always just showing up. He never came along when my aunt and cousins visited us in Monroe.

“You all staying over tonight, Eileen?” Uncle Mike asked my mother.

“Yes,” she said quickly. “Just for the one night. If that’s okay.”

Everyone always acted like this around Uncle Mike, kind of nervous. Which was funny, since Mike was a short, wiry guy, not someone you’d expect people to be scared of.

“That’s fine,” Uncle Mike said, and stood up abruptly. “You know, I think I’m going to take a shower and a nap. I really am beat.”

“We can leave…” Ed began.

“No, no, stay,” Uncle Mike said. “You know me. I can sleep through anything.”

Uncle Mike walked over to the refrigerator, got himself a beer. He paused for a second in the kitchen doorway. “Okay then, enjoy it, anyway” Uncle Mike said, and laughed to himself.

That was another thing about Uncle Mike, he was always saying weird little things that made no sense to me but he thought were really funny.

Once the shower water started running everyone calmed down. We kids went back to the bedroom. Our mothers and Ed began telling stories again.

About a half hour later I had to go to the bathroom. “Hey,” a voice called out as I passed the living room. “Hey, Chris. Come in here for a second.”

It was Mike. He was in the living room with the lights out, sipping on his beer. I came in, sat on the far end of the couch.

“You like music, don’t you?” he asked.

I said yes, although I didn’t know how he’d know if I liked music or anything else. We never talked much.

“I heard this on the radio today. I had to go out and buy it.”

He took a 45 record out of a plastic Korvette’s bag. “Just listen to this.”

He put the record on the turntable. It started out with guitars that sounded like the country music my father listened to, but then a deep, sad voice began singing words that were nothing like any country music I’d ever heard:

Yesterday, when I was young
The taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game
The way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame….

As I sat on the couch listening, I watched Uncle Mike. He stood at the record player, his ear dipped toward the speaker, getting closer and closer as the song went on. It was like he wanted to crawl inside.

“Isn’t that great?” he asked, when it ended.

“It’s really good.”

He nodded. “Let’s listen again.”

He restarted the record. Again, he listened with fierce concentration. At the end, he shook his head, then looked up at me as if waking up from a dream. “You don’t want to be here,” he said. “It’s okay. You can go.”

As I walked away, I heard him cueing up the record again.

I went to the kitchen, where there was light. Ed was telling another story. Aunt Julie was laughing, my mother was laughing, which wasn’t something she did very often. Ed paused long enough to say, “Lose your way somewhere, Chris?” which made everyone laugh even harder. Then he picked up right from where he’d left off.

I sat down at the table. I was relieved to be back here, away from Uncle Mike and that dark living room. This was where I belonged. But then how to explain how badly I wanted to hear the song Uncle Mike had played for me again?

RIP Roy Clark. Never much of a Hee Haw fan but I’m sure it made a lot of people very happy.

“Beyond,” Leon Bridges and “Leave It Alone,” Amanda Shires

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This week: two newish songs about ambivalence.

Which is by the way a word I first encountered in Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train,” when he referred to Randy Newman as the “master of ambivalence” or “poet of ambivalence” or some such. I had to look it up. To this day I’m not sure how it applies exactly to a song like Randy’s “Old Kentucky Home,” which seems pretty singleminded in its skewering its target…though whether that target is rural life or songs about rural life is an interesting discussion. And while we’re on the subject, did you happen to catch Greil’s recent article about how the new Bob Dylan “Blood on the Tracks” outtakes aren’t really any good despite how good they sound? Recondite even by his own high standards!

But I digress. So: ambivalence, “mixed feelings over mixed drinks,” in Tom Waits’s clever phrase. Soulman Leon has finally found a woman who “might just be (his) everything and beyond” (he even throws in a second “beyond,” she’s beyond beyond!) but he’s not sure if he’s getting, well, beyond himself.

An argument for that could be made: he is already projecting marrying her, having kids, having her as his eternal companion in the afterlife. That’s a lot to take on!

But he’s also reluctant about being reluctant: “Do you think I’m being foolish if I don’t rush in?” he asks us. Sorry, Leon, you’re going to have to answer that one yourself.

Which he does, by the end of the song, admitting to himself he’s in love but casting it in terms of “giving up.” That checks the boxes in my definition of ambivalence much better than Randy Newman did.

Love the strummy guitar, the background vocals, the multitrack main vocal. Sounds great on the radio. Bound to show up at many future weddings.

Amanda Shires multitracks her twangy voice on “Leave It Alone” too, and sets it against an almost techno drum-machine bed. I love it, but don’t think it would sound good on the radio.

No nicer way to put it, this is a song about being in heat, infatuated, obsessed…but not doing anything about it. It’s not clear in the context of the song why she doesn’t do anything about it. She talks a lot about what she intends to do about it, but it’s all future tense. There is a touch of Leon’s fear of intimacy–“Careful, you’re getting too close”–but she is also envying the clothes the song’s object is wearing (no gender specified, let’s say guy to avoid labored constructions like that) for their proximity to his body. She can’t leave it alone–“it” being him, or maybe lust itself–but it’s unclear why she would have to. Just go for it, Amanda!

Some great images in here: the hands in places they’ve never been because they have a mind of their own, the noise of the guy’s nerves like question marks, the words they are not saying like swarming bees, the neglected fish tank green in which this either hopeful or doomed encounter is taking place. If they make it to morning, Amanda says, that fish tank green will turn into cold blue. Again, and notwithstanding some of the jagged relationship songs on the rest of the album, it seems a chance worth taking.