[purchase the Dick’s Picks version]
[purchase the original Workingman’s Dead version]
The Grateful Dead are an incredibly polarizing band. On the one hand, you have the haters, people who dislike the jamming, the psychedelic weirdness, the oblique lyrics, the often weak studio albums and the sometimes questionable harmonies. And then there are the legendary Deadheads, for whom the band was more than just a group of musicians, who followed them around the world, obsessed over their setlists and, to this day, nearly 20 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, still follow various remnants and splinter groups.
And then, there is me (and, I suspect I am not alone). I like the Grateful Dead. I like them a lot. I think that some of their music is remarkably good, particularly their more Americana-sounding stuff, but I’m not by any means a Deadhead. Although I recognize that they were much better live than on most of their studio albums, I saw them exactly once, in 1979 (more on that later), and I have never seen The Dead, The Other Ones, Furthur, Phil Lesh and Friends, RatDog, the Rhythm Devils, or any other of the post-Dead ensembles (although I kind of regret missing Phil Lesh and his sons playing at Princeton reunions a few years ago, with Stanley Jordan sitting in, but I was having fun with my classmates at the time. You can’t do everything).
I have two strong memories that relate to the Grateful Dead. The first was from 1974, when I was a 13 year old junior counselor at Gate Hill Day Camp. During lunch, they often blasted The Dead on the stereo, usually the recently released From the Mars Hotel album, which I really liked, especially the song “U.S. Blues.” That was the summer that the Watergate scandal was coming to a head, and as a politically aware kid, I understood how Nixon had subverted the law. Later that summer, we had a resignation party, which was great. But I also appreciated the dissonance (although I wouldn’t have used that word) of the hippie, druggie, anti-Establishment Grateful Dead writing a fun, almost positive song about America, waving the flag “wide and high!”
Jump ahead 5 years, and now, I’m a college freshman. I’m roadtripping to Lafayette College to see the Grateful Dead for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time with my high school friend Chris, who was at Lafayette (and some friends from Princeton, although I really can’t remember who). Things were going well as we waited outside the fieldhouse. It was a few days before my 18th birthday, and there were things to drink and smoke, none of which were legal for me to partake in, but, hey, it was still the Seventies, man. I even saw my cousin Billy there—he was more of a Deadhead than me, and came over from Muhlenberg, as usual with a beautiful girl in tow.
It was a general admission concert, and when they opened the door, it was a mad rush to get in. People were getting jostled, knocked over, pushed. When I got close to the door, I saw my cousin standing over his girlfriend, protecting her from the crowd, and I jumped in, pressing my hands against the wall of the fieldhouse to create a safe space for his girlfriend, until we went in. You can read more about the “’tidal wave’ of overzealous fans . . . who pushed through three doors . . . “ which was like “’the sinking of the Titanic and the mad rush to get to the lifeboats’” and the other security issues that resulted from the inexplicable decision to only open three doors from The Lafayette, here (as well as the fact that the band was surprisingly punctual, clean and easy to get along with). It was hot in the fieldhouse, the acoustics were not great, and I was completely freaked out by, you know, almost getting trampled. Only a few months later, at a Who concert in Cincinnati, 11 people were killed getting into a show. My memory was that for the first set, I was unimpressed, but the second set came alive. I’ve listened to recordings of the show, and read some comments about it, and it seems that my memory in that regard was accurate. Until I heard the recording, though, I had no recollection whatsoever of what they played. And I can attribute that to lots of different things, but you can speculate all you want.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to “Uncle John’s Band,” a song I chose because it fits the theme, but it is really just an excuse for me to tell my two Dead stories. Although it was not performed that day at Lafayette College, it is one of their most popular, and was often played by the band and on the radio. It’s accessible melody and Crosby, Stills and Nash inspired harmonies make it one of the Dead songs that even many non-Dead fans appreciate. Although like most lyrics by Robert Hunter, it is hard to figure out exactly what he means, it appears that the song is at its core a reference to “Uncle John” Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, an old-time string band that also included Mike Seeger, Pete’s half-brother, and a distinguished and influential musician in his own right. Cohen, a musician, photographer, filmmaker and musicologist. married Mike Seeger’s younger sister Penny. For much, much more about the song, its lyrics and what it all may mean, take the time to read this.
The obsessive nature of Deadheads, the band’s permissive policy on taping, the fact that every show is different, and the vast network of traders (even before the Internet facilitated such things) have resulted in spirited debates over the “best” version of their songs. For “Uncle John’s Band” there are a few contenders, but one of the most popular choices is the version in the video above, from a show at the Oakland Arena on December 26, 1979 (only a few months after I saw them). The show was a benefit for the Seva Foundation, a health care charity which focuses on vision care in poor countries and Native American communities. Bob Weir is an Honorary Lifetime Board Member of the foundation.
Ultimately, the entire show was released by the band as part of the Dick’s Picks series. I lack the breadth of Grateful Dead knowledge to have any way of knowing if it is, in fact, the best version (if such a thing can even be determined). But I have to say that there is something really nice about the feel of it, the quality of the guitar solos and the harmonies, that make it special. And the band must have liked it, too, because they decided to reprise the song at the end of their last encore.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Sunday, July 20, 2014
John, eh? Big bad? B Goode? (Or even be good, Johnny*.) 99? Or should it be the still warm Winter, J, R.I.P, hoping it will be for someone. Cash, Paycheck, Copeland, and the Hurricanes? Cale, Mayall, Elton or the Dr himself? Too much choice, too much choice. So what could I think of? Why, only the same bloody thing as Darius, esteemed senior fellow SMM scriber, came up with a mere 5 years ago. D'oh! Too bad, but since when did that ever stop me? If imitation is flattery, surely plagiarism is more so? You judge.
Luckily I love a cover version, indeed collect them, so I'm not going to play this one , however brilliant it is. And it is. I might play this one, though , given its altogether simple revisiting, Winwood's voice having mellowed and matured in the decades between.
So what's my take on the song? Simples. It is no more and less a love song to beer, or more specifically, to ale, that curiously warm brown liquid we prefer on this island. Or used to. Ironically, as the never ending spew of yellow fizz seems to be slowing down elsewhere, given the surge of craft beers in the US and Australia, so the more brits are selling their palates to cheap froth, "brewed under licence". I can admire a good lager on it's home territory, but stealing/borrowing the name, and brewing a flaccid fauxsimile in a factory near Leeds is not quite the same thing. (Our american readers should not worry unduly here, Bud seems to be shit wherever it's made.) And anyway, a cold yellow beer needs something equivalently yellow, but hot, in the sky to cut it. I have been in Turkey for a week and the Efes brand hit the spot wonderfully there, but this is the United Kingdom. It has been thunderstorming since I returned. So as I type I have a trusty bottle of Old Hooky to my side from the world famous, well, in the Cotswolds anyway, Hook Norton brewery. And jolly wonderful it is too. Neither too strong or too weak. Just the thing for getting together in the country, and I am sure that Messrs Winwood, Wood and Capaldi were not unfamiliar with the fruits of this village, Hook Norton being also the name of its home.
But I ramble. Beer can do this. Lager makes you burble, but beer is a sturdier pilot. I am mentioning Traffic when I said I wouldn't, so with no further ado, I'll bet you didn't know Black Francis had turned his attention and interest to this song. Who'da thought it, with his sylph like, but nonetheless, it's true. To be honest, I was never a big fan of the Pixies in the day, but I remember when this LP came out in 2006, a little later than SMM usually prefers, and was intrigued 2 ways, firstly by the fact he was covering, OK, revamping near entirely, this song, but also that he was backed and produced by the legendary and exemplary Stax/Muscle Shoals team, producing one classy piece of work. Also includes a fab version of Ewan, father of Kirsty, MacColl's Dirty Old Town. And the, um, intriguingly entitled Kiss My Ring. It's called Fast Man, Raider Man, and is widely felt to be a follow up to the similarly eclectic Honeycomb of a year before.I highly endorse it. Clearly sold diddly, as he is back a-Pixillating as we speak.
*Why the asterisk? Just a memo to whomsoever covers Johnny B Goode to remember this antipodean oddity
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Violent Femmes: Children of the Revolution
No matter how much you think you may know about music (or anything), you don’t know everything. Not even me. (Cue loud guffawing from my wife and kids). One of the great things about caring about music, like I assume you do if you are reading this, is that you are always learning something new. Over on the other blog I write for, Cover Me, they just published a group post in which a bunch of the writers wrote about songs that they didn’t know were covers. I wrote about “Ring of Fire,” which was not originally done by Johnny Cash, but by his future sister-in-law, Anita Carter (and written by his future wife, June Carter). This song, “Children of the Revolution” is another one that fits into that category, because when I first heard the Violent Femmes’ version, back in the mists of the 1980s, I had no idea that it was originally by T. Rex. None, whatsoever.
I wish I could remember when I discovered this fact (among the many, many things that I wish I could remember), but I don’t. It is on my “covers” iPod playlist (along with a nice cover by Lloyd Cole), and I have a version of the original, but this knowledge really could have been learned at any time. And one of the great things about writing about music, even just for fun like I do, is that I (sometimes) research my pieces and (usually) learn something I didn’t already know. And you, the reader, are the beneficiary!
Violent Femmes are one of those bands who have one song that pretty much anyone knows, “Blister in the Sun,” and a couple of others that a few people know, but it is a shame that the rest of their output is mostly forgotten. This is, of course, a common thing—I was listening to the radio the other day and heard “Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman, and you could probably listen to every channel of Sirius/SM for a month and never hear another song by Thunderclap Newman (even though Pete Townshend is the bass player on the recording, under a pseudonym) (and, of course the thing that is “in the air” in that song? Revolution!! But I digress, again.)
“Children of the Revolution” appeared on Violent Femmes' third album, The Blind Leading the Naked, and it was produced by Jerry Harrison of The Talking Heads (and before that, the Modern Lovers, whose singer, Jonathan Richman was often referenced as an influence on Femmes’ singer Gordon Gano, which apparently pissed Gano off). The album is maybe a touch more commercial than their first two records, but it was by no means a “commercial” record. It did, however, break into the Billboard charts.
But “Children of the Revolution” was originally by T. Rex (a band that was very popular, but I bet you haven’t heard any song of theirs other than “Get It On (Bang a Gong)" recently). It is about the kind of teenage rebellion that was, at the time of its original release in 1972, a pretty common thing, as the youth culture became ascendant. It was not “Commie propaganda,” but in 1972, there were a lot of people who thought a lot of things were “Commie propaganda.” (Although in 1996, an interesting movie with the same name was made in Australia about the life of a fictional illegitimate son of Joseph Stalin, and it used the T. Rex version over the credits.)
Not only that, in doing my research, I found that there is an incredible version of the song, featuring T. Rex with Elton John and Ringo Starr, from a 1972 documentary about T. Rex, Born to Boogie, which was directed by Ringo. Here is the clip from the film, and if the production (and Ringo’s hair) seems a bit dated (as is the video for the Violent Femmes version), the performance is great, especially by Elton on the piano.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Play it here!
Buy it here! (Of course it's on vinyl!!)
We don't need a revolution in the summertime
We don't need a revolution anytime
what we need is someone to believe
in like a god to fall out of the sky
what we don't need is a revolution
that could blow our minds away,
tomorrow or today
You can sell me Darwin's theory
evolution got me here to where I am
i'd believe in anyone who'd promise me
the sun would shine today
or any other day
we can pray for the sun and let it shine on everyone
sunshine brings love
we can pray for the sun and let it shine on everyone
sunshine brings love
Uncertain of the irony of this appearing directly above the Airplane theory below, given I am referring, perhaps again, to the "revolution" via summer music festivals, albeit with particular reference to the UK. In a strange way, the lyrics above completely underline the point that, needed or not, it has taken/did take place. And now, is it a revolution or a ritual? Or relic?
I love festivals. As a younger man I attended as many as I could, from the Rock of Reading 1975 to the more ambitious Glastonbury 1994, the latter with my then wife and pre-teen kids, my tastes gradually turning then more to the more intimate (nominally) folk festivals. I think I finally stopped going in about 2003, my swansong being my much visited Cropredy in 2002, the annual Fairport Convention run and curated shindig, still going after many a long year. But, in a whimsy of disappearing youth, I have this year bought tickets and a tent for The 50th Cambridge Folk Festival. It is true my choice is as much based on my musical preferences as the seemliness of my age: both the stage and the audience will make me feel young, as the "revolutionaries" of the 60s and 70s have become respected elders, letting down (whats left of) their hair in like-minded company. It will feel both a reminiscence and an evolution. With Glastonbury being now on the summer privileged corporate circuit of Wimbledon and Henley Royal Regatta, mass-produced and must-do, both anaethema to me, I am hoping this will feel a nostalgic wallow in ageing counter-culture.
But what of the song? Have you listened to it? Sorry about the biker bit that precedes, it was the only link I could find to this wonderful slice of completelyoutofitstime hippy wisdom, if that is no oxymoron. It is the Cosmic Rough Riders, even the name reeking of a patchouli scented lysergia. Sounding as if from the heart of a stoned california of a quarter century ago, it actually stems from the urban mayhem of Glasgow in 2000. For some strange reason, Scotland's concrete city landscapes have always been a dab hand at producing USA-philic jangle-pop a la Byrds and similar. (Another and possibly better known example would be the wonderful Teenage Fanclub .) By the time the LP upon which Revolution in the Summertime appeared, actually a compilation of 2 earlier self-produced albums, the band had begun to implode, their singer leaving as a run of singles therefrom had begun to garnish them both notice and praise. The band actually lurched on for a number of years and several more recordings, never quite, at least for me, catching these glory days. Enjoy the Melodic Sunshine is the name of the parent record and I unashamedly promote it it a tonic to turn to, on those occasional days we get a blast of sun and summer. I'm praying that it won't rain at Cambridge.
Monday, July 7, 2014
Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock: Volunteers
[purchase] the album
got a revolution got to revolution
Come on now we're marching to the sea
got a revolution got to revolution
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall fred (motherfucker)
Tear down the walls
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now
Although the day that commemorates the American Revolution has just passed, the idea of “revolution” is not limited to the U.S.A. The word “revolution” is from the Latin “revolutio,” meaning to turn around, and in politics, of course, it means a change, usually of regime. It also is used to describe the turning of records or CD’s, those somewhat quaint media that we used to use to listen to music. So, melding the two meanings, for the next couple of weeks, we here at SMM will be writing about songs that relate to Revolution, and fittingly, we begin with a song that declares, that the revolution, like our new theme, starts NOW!
Most political revolutions have resulted in one political group overthrowing another (like the Russian or French Revolutions) (and, unfortunately, often becoming as oppressive as their former oppressors), or a colonial group throwing off the rule of colonizers (like the American Revolution) (ditto).
Marxist theory posited a “permanent revolution,” which was championed by Trotsky as a way for the proletariat to obtain power. And in our featured song, Steve Earle argues for a new, grassroots revolution to address the problems that he saw in the American society of 2004. Earle, whose message had become increasingly political, found himself excoriated by the right wing for his leftist politics. As the presidential election approached, Earle wanted to make a statement against the Bush Administration and its policies, and he recorded the album, The Revolution Starts...Now. In the liner notes to the album, Earle explained:
The Constitution of The United States of America is a REVOLUTIONARY document in every sense of the word. It was designed to evolve, to live, and to breathe like the people that it governs. It is, ingeniously, and perhaps conversely, resilient enough to change with the times in order to meet the challenges of its third century and rigid enough to preserve the ideals that inspired its original articles and amendments. As long as we are willing to put in the work required to defend and nurture this remarkable invention of our forefathers, then I believe with all my heart that it will continue to thrive for generations to come. Without our active participation, however, the future is far from certain. For without the lifeblood of the human spirit even the greatest documents produced by humankind are only words on paper or parchment, destined to yellow and crack and eventually crumble to dust.
His call to personal political revolution is made clear by the lyrics of the song:
Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now
Of course, history shows that Bush defeated Kerry in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2008 when Earle’s (somewhat reluctantly) favored candidate, Barack Obama, was democratically elected (Earle would have preferred a socialist, which, despite what you may hear from the right, President Obama is clearly not).
Whether that qualifies as a “revolution” is open to debate, I’d say. But, interestingly, Obama’s presidency has only increased the call for a revolution from the right, which in many instances has challenged the legitimacy of his election and has obstructed Obama’s agenda. Many of these more radical truth deniers have adopted the “Tea Party” moniker, drawing from the iconography of the American Revolution, although some of us think that they have more in common with another group of revolutionaries with a narrow, theistic point of view, the Taliban. It is interesting that the Tea Party movement is funded by rich capitalists who fear that continued government support of poor Americans might take away some tiny fraction of their billions, but is often championed by people who need the very government support that they eschew, making it more of an "Astroturf" movement than a real "grassroots" one.
And it is also interesting that much of the “progress” made by these right wingers has come from the kind of local action that Earle would probably approve of—taking control of school boards and local government units, and other small scale activities. Unfortunately, the result of this conservative activity ultimately has resulted in the imposition of reactionary policies, either by vote, inaction, or even through endorsement by one of the worst Supreme Courts ever. The exact opposite of what Earle was looking for, which is a shame.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Clearwater Festival, mostly for the great music. But I was happy to see that the Activist Area was fully staffed, with many groups and people dedicated to trying to change the country and the world to make it fairer, cleaner and better for everyone, in the spirit of one of Earle's idols, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi. So, there is hope.
Oh--it is also a good song.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
If you had told the young me that I’d be a huge soccer fan at this point in my life, I would have looked at you a bit dumbfounded. Unlike today, when millions of kids around the country at least try soccer, when I was growing up, in my part of the New York suburbs, soccer was a game mostly played by the children of German and Italian immigrants. In junior high school, I had played fall tennis, but when I moved to high school, there was no fall team. A friend suggested that I try out for the soccer team, because they needed big guys to play defense. So, I did.
It must not have been hard to make the team, because I was inexplicably not cut, and spent the next two fall seasons practicing and mostly watching my teammates play from the bench. Occasionally, usually when my father showed up at the games, the coach gave me a sympathy run out on the field, including one memorable stint at forward, where I had a pretty epic collision with the opposing keeper. It was fun, but when I injured my leg before my junior season, and with no real prospects to ever play for the varsity team, I hung up my cleats for what I believed was the last time. Remarkably, at my 35th high school reunion last year, I spent a surprising amount of time with my former soccer teammates.
When I went off to college, I found out that Princeton has a fun event, Cane Spree, deriving from a quaint 19th century tradition where freshman and sophomores would brawl over the use of walking sticks (really). By the time I was there, it had morphed into a day-long intramural competition between the two classes, but if I recall, varsity athletes were barred from playing their sports. Somehow, I found myself playing Cane Spree soccer, out of shape, unpracticed and frankly pathetically. And after the game, I figuratively hung up my cleats for what I believed was the last time (since I didn’t actually have cleats).
Following the flameout of the NY Cosmos and the collapse of the North American Soccer League, the soccer landscape was pretty bleak in this country through the 1980s. Then, the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which led to an actual uptick in interest. It also roughly coincided with my son getting to the age where he could join AYSO. Soccer is, in many ways, the best game for little kids to play, since they can run around and kick a ball much easier than they can hit a baseball, even off a tee, or shoot a ball into a hoop. We signed him up, and I agreed to be an assistant coach, because that’s what dads do.
I fell in love with the game.
First, I fell in love with coaching the kids and the socializing with their parents on the sidelines. I started to take coaching classes and read books and websites about coaching kids. We started attending local minor league games, and went to see the MetroStars (who became the Red Bulls). Within a short time, I found myself as the assistant commissioner of our local region, then commissioner and then area director for essentially the county. My family started going to AYSO meetings and conventions around the country, and both of my kids were enthusiastic players. My wife organized our local soccer camp, and it felt like soccer was sort of our family business. It was a great way for us to do something that we all enjoyed as a family. I even started to play in the occasional pickup game. I was still terrible, but it was fun.
But even into the early 2000s, soccer was still hard to find on television. Even with the great Women’s World Cup victory of 1999 (my family was at the opening matches at Giants Stadium), and the men’s surprisingly fine showing at the 2002 World Cup, MLS games were not easy to find, European and South American games were rarely available (at least in English), and there was no streaming available on the slow Internet of the day. Due to our soccer camp work, we hosted young, mostly English, coaches, some of whom played at the lower levels of the English system, and we were able to follow a few of their careers on the web (and still do).
In 2001, my soccer loving son decided to do an independent study project for his enrichment class on English football, and using my abilities to wrangle the myriad filesharing sources of dubious legality then available, I found enough football songs to create a CD to use as background music for his presentation. Without a doubt, the worst of these songs is the one in the video above, which commemorates the Arsenal F.A. Cup winners of 1993 (but the video features a very different group of Gunners). Really—listen to it and revel in its awfulness.
A couple of years later, our cable system started carrying what was then the Fox Soccer Channel, featuring regular English Premier League games. My son and I decided that we needed to pick a team to support. Considering that most of the US teams that we root for are generally disappointing, we felt like this gave us a clean slate to pick a good team to support. We considered Manchester United, but they were at the time in a marketing arrangement with the hated Yankees, so they were out. Chelsea was in the process of buying themselves to prominence, which we didn’t approve of. Arsenal, though—they played attractive soccer, weren’t crazy spenders, and had some wonderful players, including Thierry Henry (now the Red Bulls captain). We picked them, and that season they were The Invincibles. Of course, since then, it has been a somewhat more painful experience.
And speaking of painful experiences, a year or so ago, as part of an attempt to improve my health and fitness, I started playing soccer again. I’m still bad, but improving, and I’m lucky to play with a group of very supportive guys who don’t bust my chops about my lack of skill and fitness. My cleats are in a bag, now, by the front door, and I don’t expect to hang them up for a while.