Moby Grape: Naked, If I Want To
I was at the gym the other day, trying to distract myself from how much I don’t like being at the gym by thinking about something to write about. And then this song came on my iPod, with its lyrics about “fireworks on the fourth of every single July,” giving me a topic.
Moby Grape. If ever there was a name that immediately brings to mind the psychedelic era, it is Moby Grape. Despite the fact that their self-titled debut album, from which this song comes, is generally considered a masterpiece, and at least one critic has stated that it was better than any album released by their better known temporal and geographic contemporaries the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, they are all but forgotten today. (But not at Star Maker Machine.) Unfortunately, if Moby Grape is remembered at all, it is for singer/guitarist Skip Spence’s LSD induced mental illness, or for their failure, for a number of reasons, to ever record a worthy follow up. There’s also an unfortunately all-too-common history of record company bumbling, band strife and litigation, none of which is as interesting as the music.
“Naked, If I Want To” is a short, countryish song, 55 seconds long, written by guitarist/singer Jerry Miller, and it is about the irrationality of certain laws. The band released an electric version of the song on its second album, Wow, but I kind of like the original.
You’d think that such a short song by an overlooked band would be forgotten, and you would be wrong. None other than Robert Plant has covered it:
And Cat Power has done both a slow version:
And a fast version (in which she sounds more than a little like Grace Slick, who joined the Airplane after Spence departed:
In both cases stretching the song out well beyond its original concise confines.
Friday, July 3, 2015
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Well, I thought my limited interest in fireworks may have been dissipated by my sour grape juice, but, lo and behold, I learnt a new thing this week, just in the nick of time.
Tell me all you know about Darwin Day? (Sorry, that's February 12 and all about Charles.) I meant, of course, Territory Day, which is about Darwin, Australia, and was yesterday, 1st July, and which commemorates the day that the British Commonwealth gave self-rule to the Northern Territories in 1978, which seems somehow astonishingly recent. A big day up (down?) there, celebrated as 'Cracker Day', and seemingly the one day when fireworks may be set off without fear of litigation. Here's an article about this year's celebrations. So how/why do I know all this? Actually courtesy of a message board blog I belong to, the Afterword, the bereft survivors of erstwhile UK mainly music mag, the Word, largely, not exclusively, men of a certain age, sharing the bonds and bondage of music addiction, poor souls. This motley camaraderie is spread worldwide, factions existing as far apart as Oz, Sweden, Thailand and Ohio as well as in Blighty, revealing that the UK is perhaps the premier firework capital of the world, who knew, bangers banging on a nightly basis, with the slaughter of horses thereby a daily occurrence. Whereas Texas, gunworld capital of just about everywhere, comes down ever so hard if that precious powder is wasted on the fripperies of light, sound and magic, except in publicly curated display. Don't believe me? Check it out.
I guess we need a song. Searching long and hard I found one where the lyric seemed to suit the dangers, being apparently all about what happens when a firework explodes in your face. I think. Unless it's allegory. Who care's, it's a catchy Blue Oyster Cult number, from Spectres, 1977. Work it out for yourself.
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On the 4th of July, fireworks are anticipated and still their sudden shellacking ignites tremors, right before sonic boom and crack blooms into flowery light. The first time I heard My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow" was like being assaulted unsuspectingly with fireworks. Pounding snare into crashing wave of dense guitar, whammied into horrific bluesy afterglow. Viscous honey-sweet vocals are spread in the mix rather than forced on top.
MBV is called shoe gaze due to their shy, frozen live performance style, but sonically and visually, their style is more like Stargaze. The groundbreaking Dublin group's Loveless (1991) must be listened to all the way through. And turn it way up. For ultimate firework effect, close your eyes and let the imagery unfold. Although the guitarist and chief writer Kevin Shields was too fastidious to put the final touches on a new album until 2013, they did do a few shows to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Loveless. Earplugs were handed out at the doors. At the Roundhouse show in London, I counted three people collapsing to the ground, hands covering their ears in the first 10 seconds.
California's Medicine was another shoegaze band with equal amounts psychedelia and creative use of distortion. Their music is a wedding of ugly and beautiful. On stage, they're the same: members of an Otto Dix painting, although there is physical beauty behind the grotesque. In Minneapolis, 2001, during a 15-minute version of "The Pink", the gaunt drummer beckoned a cleanly-dressed young girl on stage, just curling his finger creepily. After two minutes she went up. He put his hand on her neck and pulled her into wide-mouthed French kiss. 30 seconds. Snare still snapping. Black, red, dark purple fireworks.
courtesy of JB (who should be doing his own thing here soon)
Saturday, June 27, 2015
X: The Fourth of July
LA Punks, country troubadours, rockabilly guitars, deeply rooted Americana rock. X had it all covered.
X were ahead of their time, firmly planted in punk, but expanding deep into what we now all alt-country. They were the sound of Los Angeles for a while, but their expressive, off-centered sound had a broad appeal. See How We Are is a ready-made prose poem, filled with images of stories you know and might have told about yourself.
Founder and co-leader, Jon Doe is a bit of a renaissance man—actor, singer, poet of the miseries of life. And he’s never been better than on their break though masterpiece, 1987’s See How We Are.
“The Fourth of July” is a song about dissolution and loneliness . Doe’s protagonist tells of a relationship that is fading fast but he still clings to what they had. He says he has no idea what’s wrong, but offers a full, blanket apology for whatever he’s done. It’s dark melodrama, but he uses the 4th of July motif as a way to say, whatever’s wrong, let’s forget about it for tonight and celebrate. The Mexican kids shooting fireworks below don’t care what’s happened, and really, why should they, and why should we, for that matter?
Fireworks in the air; the summer is still young; you should be drunk and celebrating late into the night like there really isn’t anything serious to worry about. The 4th of July is one of those kinds of holidays where everything should be golden and horizons untroubled. It’s always been one of the best days of any year for me. X’s take on the day might be wrapped around a tearful little lament, but it sounds great—chiming, Leslied guitars, reverbed-out drums, Exene Cervenka’s gospel-glorious backing vox.
X started much different than what they ended up as, trading trashy, rifle-shot punk tunes for something much more rock ‘n roll, full of the traditional soaring choruses, strutting and twanging guitars , always with a hint of rockabilly reverb, and Doe’s low drone playing off Cervenka’s beautiful and sharp howl. They never lost the sharp edges, but X did lots of sounds well, and to me, that’s as punk as you get—doing it the way you want to, disdaining labels and just playing it out as loud, fast and hard as you can.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
|Photo by Noel Valero|
The Lone Bellow: Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold
Most of the time, I’ve been posting at least twice to each theme, in part because I enjoy writing these things, and in part because the blog needs content. After my first post on the Reunion theme, I decided to wait until after I attended the Clearwater Festival to see whether something would spark a second post on that theme (like when Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell played together a couple of years ago). Unfortunately, I miscalculated, the theme ended between the two days of the festival, and here we are in the Fireworks theme. Which is kind of too bad, because, as it turns out, I actually found a few Reunion ideas over the weekend, starting with the fact that I spent Saturday listening to music with my wife, my sister and a cousin, sort of a reunion in and of itself, and Sunday, I got to hear old friends Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, who recently had a bit of a reunion themselves with their recent cover album as The Pine Hill Project. And after a crazy rain squall interrupted their set, on a stage hard by the Hudson River, they returned to play some of their solo work, including Kaplansky’s great, personal song entitled, yes, “Reunion.”
But I blew it, and now I have to write about Fireworks. I like fireworks. But they have to be serious fireworks—not the small town, shoot off a few blasts before ending with a nice finale type that they had for many years where I live (although they have been improving lately). No, I’m talking about the kind of fireworks that fill the sky with colored lights and make your stomach hurt from the booms.
I have a few fireworks memories, and at the risk of leaving myself without a second post subject, here are some of them, in rough chronological order.
After my junior year in college, my roommates Neal and Jon and I went to Europe. We were in Paris one evening, in Montmartre, when a crowd started to gather in front of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. We had no idea what was going on, and since none of us spoke French, if there were any posted signs, we were clueless. Eventually, someone told us that there would be fireworks that evening, for a midsummer celebration. They were pretty great fireworks, especially because they were set off directly over the crowd. The consequences of that decision were apparently not considered, because flaming paper and debris began to fall over us, which was kind of scary. I don’t think they do it that way anymore.
I remember going to Shea Stadium in the 1980s, when the Mets were, as usual, bad, and Fireworks Night meant a rare full house. (Now, they do more than one, which just seems excessive). I remember sitting way up in the upper deck a few times for the excellent pyrotechnics. There was this guy who sat up there, a heavy guy with a thick beard known as “Fuzzy,” who insisted that the airplanes that flew over Shea were “taking a big risk” flying over the stadium as the fireworks were exploding. Fuzzy was, clearly, an idiot. However, to this day, I insist on repeating “They’re taking a big risk” every time I see a plane fly overhead during a fireworks display.
Also Mets related is my third story--I was going to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River from the roof of my friend Joe’s apartment building in 1985. I remember it being quite a wild party, but even more memorable than the fine display in the sky were the fireworks at the Mets/Braves game that night in Atlanta, which we followed during the night and into the early morning. Often considered one of the craziest games ever, it went 19 innings and ended at 4 a.m. The Mets were winning 7-4 going into the 8th inning. The Braves went up 8-7 in the bottom of the 8th, and due to two long rain delays, it was near midnight when the 9th inning started. It was Fireworks Night in Atlanta, but most of the fans left, assuming that they would be cancelled due to the length of the game. The Mets tied the game up in the 9th, and it went to extra innings. The Mets scored 2 in the 13th, and the Braves tied it up again. It dragged on the 18th, and the Mets took the lead. The Braves were down to their last player, Rick Camp, a relief pitcher who was an awful hitter. Of course, he hit the only home run of his career to tie it. But in the top of the 19th, the Mets plated 5. The Braves answered back with 2 more, and the tying run at the plate was Camp. He struck out to end the game, and at 4 a.m., the Braves shot off their fireworks, scaring their neighbors.
The following year, 1986, was the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, and New York threw an enormous party. There were speeches, concerts, Tall Ships, and what was, until that time, the largest fireworks display ever in the world. I remember that it was hot, crowded, and that the fireworks were spectacular. I also remember that somehow, no one seemed to realize that the subway would be mobbed immediately after the fireworks ended, and we all moved slowly, trying to stay together, as we were herded toward the few open entrances. I remember that the train thankfully was air conditioned, and that it was so crowded on the trains that strangers sat on people’s laps to squeeze more bodies onto the cars.
My son was born in April, 1990, and I think that it was in 1991 that my wife and I thought that it would be a good idea to take him to the Fourth of July fireworks. We started by going to a barbecue restaurant on the Upper West Side, then took the subway, with Adam in his stroller, downtown, then walked over to the East River to watch. Almost immediately after they started, the kid understandably got scared and started to cry. We decided to leave and take a cab home. Of course, the traffic was crazy, and we were stopping and starting all the way home. As we got sort of close to our apartment, Adam threw up in the cab, which did not make us popular with the driver. We finally got home, threw the kid in the bath to clean of the vomit, then cleaned ourselves off. My wife still, nearly a quarter of a century later, wrongly believes that this incident demonstrated bad parenting. I think it was just a well-intentioned mistake that had no lasting negative effect on the boy, who seems to like fireworks just fine.
Finally, starting in 1996, to celebrate the university’s 250th anniversary, Princeton began to have a fireworks show during Reunions (yep, I came back to that theme anyway). The following year, at my 15th Reunion, we saw the display, which was pretty incredible. In a flashback to my Montmartre experience, flaming debris landed in some dry grass and a brush fire started, which was quickly extinguished. The Reunions fireworks continue to impress (we saw it again at the 20th, 25th and 30th). The picture above, though, is by my friend and classmate Noel Valero, from this year’s show, and it won the reader photography competition sponsored by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. (One of my wife’s pictures from Reunions, of a little baby, was chosen as an editor’s favorite.)
And while we are bringing things full circle, back to Clearwater. On Sunday, I arrived late after coaching a youth soccer game (my boys scored three at the end to win 3-2, a heck of a way to end a season), and was confronted with a choice. Toshi Reagon, who in some ways embodies the festival as much as anyone—the daughter of Freedom Singers and civil rights activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon, the goddaughter of festival founder Pete Seeger and named after Pete’s wife, she is also a political and lesbian activist and a kick-ass performer. Or The Lone Bellow, one of my favorite new Americana bands. My wife chose Toshi, and I went for the Lone Bellow, on the theory that Toshi is likely to be there next year, but I wasn’t sure that The Lone Bellow would. They really put on a great set, although it was distractingly hot. And they sang this song, which mentions New York Fourth of July fireworks, and the subway. If it only mentioned Reunions, Paris and the Mets, it really would have tied everything together, but you can’t have everything.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Not being a Yank I find it difficult associating fireworks with a summery and bright night sky, my sympathies lying more with Aimee Mann, in her wonderful 4th of July "celebration", a waste of both gunpowder and sky. But I am here to be no party-pooper. I guess I could post some wintery pyromania, to utilise our own UK-centric firework feast, commemorating the day one Guido 'Guy' Fawkes failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament, remaining a hero to this day, more, I feel, for his intent than its thwarting. (Given I was raised in Lewes, near the south-east coast of England, where this achieves some notoriety and fame; remind me nearer the time and I will.)
So my fireworks today are arguably tamer, being of the indoor variety. And you can indeed get such a thing once more, a throw back to simpler times, aka pre-HBO box sets. Deemed safe and sedate, it is hard to see the attraction now. However, back in 1986, Elvis Costello penned my featured song, the lyrics of which contain their evident danger, albeit by way of allegory, below in solo demo starkness:
Undoubtedly one of his finest, or, to detractors, finer lyrical outlays, the conveyed poignancy suits the less frantic setting, the Attractions laid off, by and large, at this stage of his career, replaced by the Confederates, an amalgam of some of the cream of U.S. session men. Here's the studio version, to demonstrate that claim.
Costello has arguably been too wordy and, possibly, too misogynistic to attract as many covers as similarly prolific writers. (Or, decent covers, let's say, as no shortage of karaoke kopyists, spitting his words out in ever more faint mimeograph.) But there are some artists who can catch his drift, intriguingly often female. Laura Cantrell, (yet another) favourite of late UK DJ provocateur John Peel, so possibly even better known in my country than in her own, succeeds with ease and aplomb, wreaking yet more angst in her mournful, keening delivery. Astonishingly, not on YouTube, so I had to make my own, with apologies for the less than galling vid.
If only for completeness, eternal/occasional E.C. buddy, Nick Lowe covers it as well, his way, with a good deal less charm.
Finally for those who are intrigued by Ms Cantrell covering Costello, here's the logical next step. the pair together, covering James Taylor:
Personally, I find it a bit of a firework itself!
Monday, June 22, 2015
Yes, the fourth is still a few days away, but the upcoming celebration was a part of the thought behind our current theme of fireworks. July 4th ... there may be reunion somewhere in your fireworks, but I'll make no further attempt at a conceit/an effort to combine these two themes. Just a fire-related thought or two to get us rolling ...
Things in the sky above use are naturally spacy (as in ether = air?). You look up. You see the stars. You see lights. You see beyond. And it's often even more awesome/beautiful when there are human-made colors and lights above your head. For example, airplanes, satellites and fireworks.
This is one of those songs that embodies the qualities of the air/the sky: As in the lyrics, as in the stars above - there is a spiral to the guitar, to the music. The song makes use of a repetition that seems to embody the motion of the stars, to lights in the sky: to the continuity of "earth, sky, sea and rain". To me, it calls to mind the roman candles of its lyrics, lights that spiral and spin through the heavens and enthrall us from below.
For some reason, this song also called to mind a realization that there is a similar effect in Midnight Mile off of Sticky Fingers - part of it is that guitar, part of it is the vocal style and part of it is the ethereal lyrics. Cf:
Saturday, June 20, 2015
Beatles: Come Together
[purchase Come Together tribute mp3]
Perhaps the greatest rock reunion that could have been but never did happen was the Beatles. I wonder what was “going on in their minds” as the Beatles came up with Get Together. By all accounts, they were pretty far from getting together (although individually, they may have been getting their s*#! together at that point in time)
The Beatles as a group dissolved at the height of their career (what better way to go out?) But, as we now know, there is much, much more behind what was visible on the surface.
That said, in the early 70s, there was hope that the Beatles would get together at least one more time. The Concert for Bangladesh … partial participation. And then McCartney going solo with and “Band on the Run” and John Lennon’s solo projects … sort of put an end to it.
10 years ago, I fortuitously caught the early days of a project titled “The Beatles complete on Ukelele”, during which period, Roger Greenawalt deemed it the right thing to do to give away every song in their project to cover the entire Beatles collection – provided the cover included a ukulele. I dutifully/religiously collected them all – visiting the website more or less every week to get the most recent addition. The project included many no-names, and a few knowns. Some really good, some not so good. Regretfully, they turned the project into a monetized endeavor after about 2 years.
The Beatles are not going to rise from their graves and perform a reunion concert, so in its place …
Alternatively, from the "uke" project: