Monday, November 24, 2014

Pilgrims & Immigrants: Wishbone Ash

Download [Wishbone Ash: The Pilgrim]

There have been several comments here recently that are fitting for our next theme: Blog contributor "A" notes survival despite anonymity (forging a new path and facing oblivion). J. David (to me) brings together farming and pilgrimages. Yasgur's farm was a pilgrimage for many: a difficult trek toward the hope of a future world. The Woodstock pilgrims set out on a journey to re-set their lives: it was a trip (in more ways than one for some) towards a new life.

The pilgrims that figure in the Thanksgiving story had little intention of returning home, although they appear to have been bound to many of their roots. Being as the pilgrims of Plymouth were not the first to settle in the new land, they were also not the first to celebrate a "thanksgiving". Recently, current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would have us believe that other Old World peoples may have thanked their lord on the shores of the New World earlier than previously recorded. His claims aside, there is evidence that earlier North American settlements celebrated a thanksgiving of some sort.

That said, the 1620 pilgrim/refugees from England via Holland had much to be thankful for. Half of them were still alive and they had a decent crop that would keep the remainder alive for the following year. It was thus that they (so the story goes) celebrated the harvest of 1621  with a feast of thanks, to which they invited their friends to partake.

It was no small feat for the Mayflower voyagers to arrive in one piece: they left once in 2 boats, returned to regroup when one boat began taking on water, cut their number, and started out again. It took them from Sept 6 to Nov 19 to cross the ocean and then nigh on 2 weeks to actually get ashore after they sighted the shores of North America. It then took them another year or so to establish a viable outpost, during which time half of them perished - all of which would certainly incline one to offer thanks.

Few pilgrimages are simple. Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, relates a relatively easy (for the 15th century) pilgrimage to the relics of Thomas Becket - there are tales of the whole spectrum of mankind that the narrator meets along the way. As bloggers "A" and J. David note, there is someone somewhere who keeps a flame burning - even today - for Thomas Becket.

There is, in fact, a flame still burning for Wishbone Ash - rewind not quite to the pilgrim fathers, but back to the 70s. As one who should have paid more attention to the band back when they were big (reaching the top 30 in the 70s), I regret not having listened more carefully back then (and as "A" says, one of the benefits of blogging here is the chance to learn/delve deeper.) My search for a <Pilgrim> song lead to Wishbone Ash's Pilgrim, nan lo-and-behold, I find myself learning more about and hearing good sounds from a seminal band that featured dual lead guitars. To my ears, it sounds -pleasantly - like the Allman Brothers Duane Allman  and Dickey Betts (edited since first post - sorry). What's even more amazing is that Wishbone Ash is still doing their thing 23 albums/40 years later.

Check it out:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Farming: Rain on the Scarecrow

Music is about discovery. Or at least it is to me: one band leads to another leads to a genre you’ve never paid much attention to until the right album comes your way leads to whole sonic landscapes that might be almost forgotten by most, but still have an avid following, a strange tribe that believes religiously in the beat. I once knew a guy who listened to Bruce Springsteen. Only Bruce Springsteen. He literally possessed no other music other than Springsteen. Now, Springsteen’s not a forgotten artist, obscured by time and relegated to the dusty crates of someone’s record collection. But, my fanatical neighbor is a great example of how music, in all its genres and sub genres and styles and sub-styles and factors divisible by style and substance and rhythm and melody and method and region and reason, survives. Not only survives, but often flourishes despite anonymity. Some of your favorite records might not be million sellers, but the place the music occupies in your heart, in your personal story, is beyond value. And there a millions of us there carrying a torch for great music that no one else knows.

For every Springsteen fanatic, there’s also a dedicated archivist keeping the flame lit for Louisiana Swamp Pop, or Cowboy Swing, or almost anything else you can think of, if you type in the right phrase in the old google machine. Which, is why the internet is such an amazing resource—the image of the last man on earth, feeding the flames of knowledge to keep information alive for the unknown future comes to mind—but the internet and the digitalization of music is doing amazing things not only for the hermits sitting on guard in the dark corners, but also for the intrepid explorers, boldly setting forth in search of new music. It’s an endless continent, and there is no horizon when it comes to seeking new sound. Music draws that kind of person to its tribe—the obsessive completist, willing to go to dark places to retrieve the strangest gem from the perils of obscurity. one who might starve in the dark just to be sure... 

And... just realized... this is starting to turn into a post-apocalyptic thriller about saving music from the Morlocks…

Truly, though, the greatest thing about music is the endless nature of it—you’ll never have enough time to get to it all, because according to Robert Earl Keen, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends…” 

So, it is a great pleasure when I type a term into Google-- say “Harvest” and “Music”--and know that I might not be back for a very long time. Which is what I love about this blog. Touching down on fresh shores, discovering artists who I've never heard, is my favorite way of getting lost. And getting lost also means hours upon hours of hearing artists I’ve never bothered with and realizing such profound thoughts like: This is great; why have I never given Buck Owens* a chance? all the way to: I knew about Vaporwave, but…damn, this is cool.  

A blog like this gives the opportunity to not only find new sounds, but reevaluate what you’ve already made judgment about because of…well, almost anything: videos, associations with bands that really are crap, the fact that everyone you hate listens to it. It’s good to reach that point in your maturity where genre doesn’t matter anymore, and you no longer have to worry about what you listen to. The discovery becomes a joy of its own and your world expands—your musical word, that is. I think about being a younger man who, due to some silly punk ethic, never gave the likes of Dwight Yoakam a chance. But now…that’s daily listening.

Which brings us to today’s post topic. “Harvest”, which I interpreted as Farming…which has turned into a nice long walk down a country road.
And on that road, I took time to listen to a lot of music, some of which I never gave a chance, and some of which I never had such an essential part of my listening when I was young and still perfectly impressionable...

Farming and farm life are country music staples, often with the ethos of being ‘country strong’ at the core of what these songs are meant to stand for. The farming motif is a good one, and spans a whole genre from being proud of the place you grew up, to parties in the barns with the farmer’s daughter. From Hank Williams' "A Country Boy Can Survive" all the way to Kenny Chesney’s "She Thinks My Tractor is Sexy," the farm and the country life is almost its own genre. These kinds of songs play to a way of life that is real, even if often idealized for the great Americana motif it carries. And, yeah, there is the undeniably great sing-along aspect to this kind of music. So, good country songs are ready-made to become iconic in our cultural understanding of music. And they are damn fun to sing along with while drinking beers. But, there’s also the more realistic aspect to songs about the country and being ‘country’. One that tries to speak to the people most likely to understand, because they've live dit.

And, I think one of the strongest songs in this genre is John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”—a decidedly stark departure from the revel of being born country and remembering your roots. The title track of his 1985 album, this was the song that launched Mellencamp finally and completely from his Johnny Cougar, more-fun-Springsteen-real-American-voice, Heartland rocker, image into a serious voice in music and a chronicler of American life on the fringes, the real America. Mellencamp has always been an amazing writer, serving up life-stories—tragic, romantic and otherwise—through his songs, in a novelistic, first-person-narrative approach. Like Springsteen, who he has always shared an unfair likening to from critics and fans, Mellencamp plies his trade and his talent through melody, but his brilliance lies in the stories he tells.

Scarecrow allows Mellencamp to do what he does best and place himself as the central character in his songs who tells the tale. "Rain on the Scarecrow" is about Mellencamp’s immediate world, the place he grew up in, that despite his money and his success, he’s never really left. He’s made a lot of money from that image of being—remaining, really—the common man, and when he sings from a first person perspective of a farmer watching the bank foreclose on his family’s farm, watching his heritage and his history and his dreams go fallow in the wake of economic ruin, it only serves to bring this plight to stark, unflinchingly real life.

"Rain on the Scarecrow" was written in response to the 1980s ‘farming crisis’ where the need for cheap food, driven by falling wages, lead to government subsidies for big Agro-business, and the rise of factory farming. In Ronald Regan’s America, this led to the sad demise of countless family farms. I remember growing up with bank foreclosures and sad auctions with farmers looking on as their lives and traditions were shuttered, parceled and sold as a ubiquitous image on the news. Mellencamp saw this first hand in his home state of Indiana, where he has always lived, even at the height of popularity, and wrote this song to chronicle the ending of a way of life for so may of his neighbors and our fellow Americans. I’ve always felt that this song did more to bring that plight to life than any news broadcast or politician’s appeal. The ability to reach across traditional boundaries and stir emotions to understanding, if not action, seems to work best when accompanied by guitar and drums. "Rain on the Scarecrow" was a wake up call for many to the realities of ‘the heartland.’ Mellencamp went on to found Farm Aid, which is still raising money to support independent farms, and it all started with this amazing song.

The album itself spawned the mega-hit, “Small Town” which solidified the real American voice motif for which he’s so known. And the album is full of great, Telecater-driven kickin' rhythm rock tracks, and yes, it still manages to be a genre-piece that speaks in the language of the heartland, of family, of small-values that make for big hearts and the goodness of simple lives. But, “Rain on the Scarecrow” stands out for its angry delivery and striking sense of indignation. Mellencamp might talk later on about the difficulties of dealing with a “A Lonely Ol’ Night”, but “Rain on the Scarecrow” hits like a right cross as an opening track and resonates long after it fades, mostly because you know that despite his raised voice, there is no solution.

The song itself is a brilliant piece of atmospherics. It starts with a sharp, loud drum line, which gives way to a lightning strike guitar lick. The rhythm—marital drums, a tolling a strident bell-rung guitar—the song opens like a summons to an execution. That ominous crack of the drums, and the haunting, twisting guitar line, gives way to an angry song, more akin to a funeral march than the opening track to a rock album.

Mellencamp tells the story of a man losing his farm because he can’t keep up with the bills and seeing his tradition and his long history foreclosed upon. The song is rife with religious imagery, from the crucified scarecrow sitting alone in the rain, to the grandmother on the front porch, lamenting over fallow crops, or a lost Eden, with a bible in her hands, ‘…singing Take me to the Promised Land.’ And he works brilliantly in the dark imagery, letting simple phrases stand on the air in dark, eerie precision: "rain on the scarecrow/blood on the plow". The imagery works in perfect contrast to the actual story of a man seeing the place he has known since he was child slipping away from him--something stark and frightening, akin to damnation, to highlight the real story, which doesn't need to rely on image to frighten.

There is no happy ending in the song—it remains an angry lament, a summons to darkness rather than a discovery of greener pastures. Mellencamp offers no solutions, makes no promises of redemption. But rather gives his adopted persona room to speak on his anger. Which is the other brilliance of the song: it gives voice to the voiceless. It’s Steinbeck-like in the way it draws on reality and uses the language of experience to tell the kind of story that needs to be heard, and much like the voices that populate The Grapes of Wrath, “Rain on the Scarecrow” serves it’s purpose of bringing what we’d rather not know about into the stark light of knowing. 

Mellencamp has gone on to prove himself a versatile, expansive artist, a singer and writer with lasting appeal and gracefully aging vision. His latest, Plain Spoken, is a sparse, acoustic affair that reflects on the realities of a man facing aging, facing mortality, and while it doesn’t tear up the landscape like Scarecrow did, there is still that abiding honesty that makes his music so authentic. Mellencamp has kept Farm Aid going, still pledged to its original intention to help those in need and I think the appeal of “Rain on the Scarecrow” is the fact that it doesn’t age—simply put: it’s an angry song, and like many angry songs, the vitality of its intention, the doggedness of its indignation and the driving anger of the guitars and drums make it insistent enough to keep speaking, every time you hear it.

Honorable mentions in the genre of “Farm” tunes:

…but, I oughta quit before I get all sad and weepy for home and my gloriously misspent Carolina days…

*I was just kidding about Buck Owens—he’s one of my favorites and he’s swinging it up in a honky tonk up in Heaven right now, if we’re lucky.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Farming: Woodstock and the Jewish Catskills

[purchase the Woodstock box set]

I was only 8 when the original Woodstock festival took place about 75 miles from my home, and I have no recollection of it at the time. Of course, a few years later, I had seen the movie and listened to the album over and over again, and I had a sense of the importance of the event to the culture. And despite all of the great music, one of the most memorable things from the soundtrack was the little speech that Max Yasgur, who owned the land where the concert was held, gave to the assembled masses (see the video above). Yasgur started off with the phrase, “I’m a farmer.”

At the time, Yasgur, the New York City born son of Russian Jewish immigrants, owned one of the largest dairy farms in the area (and had studied real estate law at NYU). After other sites for the proposed concert fell through, Yasgur agreed to lease his farm in Bethel to the promoters for $10,000 (which he hoped would cover the cost of hay he needed to buy to replace what had been damaged by the summer rain). Interestingly, Yasgur was a registered Republican who supported the Vietnam War, but was also a believer in free speech and tolerance. He not only took an enormous amount of heat from his neighbors for allowing his farm to be used for the concert, he ended up providing as much free food and water as he could to the concertgoers. Although the family sold the land in 1971, and part of the property was later turned into the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Yagur’s son Sam still lives nearby and is currently the Sullivan County Attorney. Max Yasgur died in Florida at the age of 53 of a heart attack.

The stereotype of the Jewish immigrant to New York is the Lower East Side tenement dweller, packed into tiny apartments on densely populated, pushcart lined streets. Of course, many of the immigrants did come from cities in Europe and were happy to be city dwellers in America. But many of the Jews came from farming backgrounds—think Tevye—and a number of them bought land to farm, often in upstate New York (or, like the ancestors of Woodstock performer Jorma Kaukonen, in Connecticut). By 1910, somewhere between 500-1500 Jewish farmers were in the Catskills’ Sullivan County, constituting 30% of all American Jewish farmers, mostly in the eastern part of the county. Yasgur moved his family’s operations in the 1950s to the western part of Sullivan County, where he encountered anti-Semitism.

Back in eastern Sullivan County, Jewish families like the Kutshers, Grossingers and Winarick/Parkers began renting rooms on their farms before creating the famous Borscht Belt resorts that catered, initially, to their vacationing co-religionists. By the time of Woodstock, though, the heyday of the Borscht Belt was already over, as the rising affluence of the local Jewish population, the increase in low cost airfare and the end of restricted resorts opened up more travel options. The era of Dirty Dancing, reportedly based on Kutsher’s, was on its way out.

When my father arranged for me to get a job working as a busboy at Kutsher’s during the summer of 1979, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I’d work hard and I knew that I’d make money, but other than that, I was in the dark. My parents drove me up, and the hotel, although no longer shiny and new, was large, and looked relatively prosperous and comfortable. My living quarters, though, were not—I had a room, in a building that was maybe—maybe—a half step above a sharecropper shack. I had a single bed with an old, crappy mattress, a dresser and a moldy bathroom. I’ve later been told that my mother left in tears, my siblings were horrified, and my father kept driving away and returning, before deciding to let me deal with the situation on my own.

It was quite the learning experience. I learned such important skills as lying, cheating and stealing. There were never enough bagels, or coffee cups or forks to go around, so you had to do what was necessary to serve your customers, and to hell with everyone else, because you needed the tips to make it worthwhile. I learned to deal with difficult people—my waiter, the veteran Dick White, who was demanding and had little sympathy for the college boy he was stuck with for the summer, the insane kitchen staff and most of all, the entitled diners, many of whom took the concept of “all-inclusive” to mean trying a taste of everything on the menu. I learned that the crazy amount of food being ordered meant that I could ask Dick White to order an extra steak or roast beef, and stash it away to eat after the meal, since the staff food was not so great. I learned that if I casually dropped the fact that I went to Princeton to the guests, I got treated better. I learned that it is possible, and maybe even preferable, to serve people when you are stoned, and that there were other people who did so, with varying degrees of success, on harder drugs. I learned that adults played Simon Says. I learned that if you steal a goblet or wine glass every few days, you can have nice things to drink from in your dorm room when you returned to college. I learned that if you don’t chain things to your bed, they will get stolen. I learned that I could survive this Lord of the Flies environment, and even that I could return for the Christmas to New Year’s period, freeze my ass off, get little sleep, and walk away with a big chunk of money.

I also learned that the Catskills were no longer what they had been. Back in the day, when the resorts were basically seasonal, most of the staff came up for the summer, and a large number of them were college kids. But when I was there, the hotel was a year-round operation, with full-time staff, many of them Latino immigrants, who cared little for the Anglo summer staff that augmented their numbers during the busy period. I learned that the social aspect of the summer consisted mostly of going to bars, getting drunk and smoking weed, and competing for the few women (unsuccessfully, on my part) before passing out for a few hours so that you could get to the dining room early enough to get a full allotment of bagels. Or sneaking into the Starlight Ballroom’s projection room, getting high and watching the actually pretty decent comedians and middle of the road singers that still performed at the hotel. I also read War and Peace that summer in attempt to keep my mind sharp. All I remember about the book, though, is what former Kutsher’s performer Woody Allen once said: “It involves Russia.”

When the time came to decide whether to return for another summer, I decided to find other opportunities. Although I have no regrets about my experience there.

The big Catskill resorts desperately tried to hold on long enough to see casino gambling be legalized in the area, and continued spiraling down through the 1980s into the 2000s, relying on their golf courses and other gimmicks, such as Kutsher’s hosting the All Tomorrow’s Parties rock festival. Kutsher’s is considered to be the last of the big resorts to throw in the towel, and it is the subject of a documentary. Here’s a little video about the hotel, and here are some pictures of its post-closing decrepitude. The hotel is being demolished as I write this, and the new owner, Veria Lifestyle, is planning to construct a health and wellness destination. Where, I suspect, you won’t be able to get stuffed on pickled herring, matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkes or pastrami.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

FARMING: Farmer's Daughters......

Quick submission loosely lauding the legend of farmer's daughters, usually involving buxom beauties, forever enticing the sort of man, well, any man really, of which their father, inevitably a brick shithouse of humanity, would disapprove, and the shenanigans thus ensuing. Here's 3 of my favourites:

"Anyone's Daughter," which also includes another staple of songsmithery, the judge's daughter, is from Deep Purple's 1971 LP, Fireball, and it really caught my teenage ears as it was so unlike anything else in their oeuvre, thus, as ever the awkward, I had to profess it  to be my favourite. (I was never really, or for long, a fan of the hard rock school of the Deeps, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and all that malarkey.) Listening again, as the decades disappear, it isn't even much good. Hey ho.........

Onto something perhaps a bit more authentic, "Wolverton Mountain," this being the version by Doug Sahm, from his evocatively titled Texas Rock for Country Rollers, in 1976, cementing my peculiarity amongst my peers. Actually written much much earlier and covered first by a number of different acts, it was seemingly based on a real character. Nowhere does it actually say the daddy was a farmer, but I somehow have always assumed he was at least a farmsteader. And I'm writing this piece.

Finally, here is a more innocent offering, the Beach Boys with their, at least accurately, entitled, "Farmer's Daughter." Little happens, beyond yearning, and it is short. Great vocal, though, reminding you of quite why Brian Wilson was (and is) so revered. Such a pity his voice is so shot now. But, as an excuse to shoehorn in yet another vid, until today, I had no idea that this song by Fleetwood Mac was one and the same

Purchase the Purple
Dig Sir Doug
Buy the Boys
Mine the Mac

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Farming:Traditional Farming

Purchase [Dylan Do Re Mi]
Purchase [Bob Campbell Starvation ....]
I  have a farm - small, and of sorts. At least, farming is in my  heart and soul. I grow corn, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. I also have wild apples and am attempting various other fruit ... but my current lifestyle is that of a city man: traffic hassles, security checks, door mats ...

Recently, I have devoured (to the expense of advancement in my paying job) more than 500 free "Western" e-books - the subject of which is at least indirectly "farming" -  living off the land. That doesn't make me an expert in and of its own, but I am also putting some of my learning into practice with my corn and eggplants. Farming - in its most liberal definition would appear to mean "making a living off the land" - and I guess that includes "beeves" and sheep... making your own ... soap, candles, "preservatives ..."

This all relates to our current theme in that the best farmer does it all. In that, the "Westerns" I have consumed promote the ideology that the best of men is he who provides for himself: comfortable in the wild/on the plains, resourceful enough to provide for himself from nature, defiant in the face of natural disaster.
There came, however, in the MidWest USA a natural disaster (arguably of man's making) in the 1930s that defied expectations, hopes and prayers and was the ruin of large numbers of middle class aspirational families. They mis-managed their land/farming tech and then aspired for better by moving on/moving West.

Woody Guthrie was among those that documented this history in music: the Oakies' trek to California in search of a better life.

I bring to you relics of a previous farm life- one before the GPS guided tractor, before the ethanol fueled corn-field, before the Monsato enhanced "output per bushel".

First, Ry Cooder and friends(!) with a really great rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" (an excellent version of which you'll also find on Ry's "Into The Purple Valley"). Ry's Purple Valley packs emotion, but this one chokes me up just listening to it.

Next up, two "30's" farmer tunes that highlight the socio-economic plight of the dust bowl era: Bob Campbell playing Starvation Farm  Blues

and then Woody Guthrie himself with Dust Bowl Refugee:

And finally, lest we be left too much in the past, a nod in the direction of Bruce Springsteen, who manages to find a subtle way to merge history (such as the Dust Bowl) with the state of affairs today: the farmer's position/role hasn't changed much despite the hard years, the laws enacted to make his life easier, the world-wide lack of food .... he still "feeds us all" - and there's still the girl you long for and dream of.

Farming: Now I'm a Farmer

       From the 1974 compilation, Odds and Sods, comes "Now I'm a Farmer", a song Pete Townshend was originally hoping to include in the Tommy rock opera. Obviously it didn't make the cut. The version below was recorded in late May of 1970.

One of the charms of Odds and Sods are the liner notes. Of "Now I'm a Farmer", which he still maintains is one of the best songs he's ever written, Townshend claimed it was a song about growing marijuana:

     "'Now I'm A Farmer is from the same bale of hay, recorded at home for the EP. It's a drug song, all about the good life out in the fields growing those fantastic phallic ornamental gourds that you can use to...... to ...... to make gorgeous fruit bowl arrangements. See if you catch the immensely subtle reference to the 'Air' in this song. This track is from the period when The Who went slightly mad, we put out several records called 'DOGS', and at least one about finding 'one's inner self'. Gourds mate, that's the secret of life......GOURDS."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014



Unusually, at least for me, this post is prompting you toward an entire LP, arguably also maybe the entire solo output, of journeysmith muso Anto Thistlethwaite, one of those awkward northern English names that never look as if they are spelt right. Or ever could be. A name such as Thistlesthwaite smacks of the soil to me, and it is thus no surprise that his oeuvre is chock-full of earthy and organic delights.

His name is probably best known to 2 groups of fans, those of the Waterboys and those of the Saw Doctors, 2 different reflections of an Irish heritage, the sublime and the ridiculous, the romantic and the rowdy. (OK, chief Waterboy, Mike Scott is a Scot, but it is arguably his band and its foray into County Clare that is best known these days.) Between the formation of the Waterboys in the early 80s, through their "Big Music" phase, and their first disintegration, in 1991, by then an almost entirely Celtic inspired quasi-folk (rock) band, Anto was first on sax and later also on mandolin, harmonica and keyboards. For a recent 25th anniversary tour, reprising the various editions and volumes of Fisherman's Blues, he rejoined the ranks (and I was lucky enough to see the band when they touched down in Birmingham, U.K.) After the Waterboys, and a tour or so guesting, he became an official member of the Saw Doctors. He has also notched up a hefty range of sessional work with artists as diverse as Donovan and the Vibrators, Bob Dylan and the Psychedelic Furs, to mention a handful, as well as 5 solo albums. It is to the 2nd of these, from 1994, that I refer.

A&M were the record company of the Waterboys for some time, who were no doubt counting no few chickens as the band first began shedding members, as each departee seemed to establish further success, Karl Wallinger being the first such example, his World Party also signing to the same label. As Anto jumped ship they were likely waiting for him, an unsurprisingly similar aura hanging over each of the various alumni, raggedly sturdy vocals fronting a jangly, melody driven school of songwriting. So, getting finally on theme, Cartwheels. Throughout this record is a a rural ambience, redolent of ploughed fields and evocative of hedgerows. With input from the likes of Kirsty MacColl, Eddi Reader and Sharon Shannon, the idea of there being an earth mother is never far away, with perhaps Ralph McTell there to be the wise scarecrow, seering and sageing the ages. But other cameos include Mick Taylor, yes, that one. and Sonny Landreth, so the hint of guitar pyrotechnic, albeit with a lazy vibe, is never too far away. Here's 3 songs to prove it, the lyrics tending towards an explanation of my choice.

This last must be the only song that, I think (and it's hard to be sure) that has a spoken dedication to a tractor, at 3.46!

This is agro-rock by any exemplar. I hope you have been uplifted enough to seek it further, so here's the link!

Farming: Turn! Turn! Turn!

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn!

They say that writers should stick to what they know, but I’m going to chuck that advice away and write about two things that I know and care little about—farming and the Bible.

We start with farming, the autumn harvest inspired theme for the next two weeks. I was born in Queens, New York, the son of two apartment dwellers from Brooklyn. And although I grew up in the New York suburbs, I had very little connection to the land. My father kept the windows closed, to keep the heat in during the winter and the air conditioning in during the summer. We lived on a steep hill, and as long as I could remember, my parents paid for people to come and mow our lawn, rather than have to deal with the risk of having a lawnmower fall on my father, or presumably me, as eldest child when that responsibility would have become mine. We had some shrubs and trees on our half acre, but again, the garden guys pretty much dealt with them.

For some reason, the first time I met my future in-laws, who live on a large property in north central Connecticut, these generally considerate people (who loved and maintained their land despite the fact that in real life they were an architect and architecture professor and a children’s librarian, not farmers) thought it would be amusing to give me a scythe and send me out into a pasture. I sucked it up, cut the long grass, nursed the calluses on my hands and have a story that I still tell decades later. And, I think, got their respect.

I’m such a “city boy” that my first night in Westchester after living in Manhattan, and sleeping through car alarms, ambulances and all sorts of street noise, I woke up at first light, angry that my sleep was disturbed by unfamiliar sounds, only to be informed by my amused wife that the offending sound was “birds.” She, the daughter of the scythe owners, wanted to garden on our tenth of an acre lot, so, with my less than rudimentary carpentry skills, I built my first raised bed. Then a second, and last summer, a third. My wife enjoys gardening. She enjoys planting. She enjoys pruning, and she even tolerates weeding. I enjoy eating the herbs and vegetables that we grow, and when I “garden” it usually means picking tomatoes or peppers, and occasionally staking something up that has fallen, so that I can pick more veggies. Also, I will, on occasion, carry out specific tasks directed by my wife, like schlepping wheelbarrows of soil or mulch to places of her choosing.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!," which includes the line “A time to plant, a time to reap” was written by Pete Seeger, who based the lyrics on a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. As an atheist, I have to admit that I’m not as up on the Bible as some of my more religious friends, but like the rest of the Bible, there are disputes about Ecclesiastes’ writing, author and meaning. But it is pretty clear that its message of wisdom and enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life has been influential, and certainly would resonate with Seeger, who added the era-appropriate last line, calling for peace.

The song was first released, as "To Everything There Is a Season" by The Limeliters, a folk trio, in 1962, a few months before Seeger’s version was released. In 1963, Marlene Dietrich released a German version backed by Burt Bacharach conducting a full studio orchestra, which sounds exactly like you would think. One of the backing singers on The Limeliters’ version was a young musician named Jim McGuinn, who subsequently rearranged the song for release, as "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” by Judy Collins, also in 1963. McGuinn, who changed his name to Roger on the advice of Bapak, the founder of the Subud spiritual association that McGuinn was exploring, and his band, The Byrds, released the version that became a huge hit in 1965. Its message of simple pleasures, and peace, and the jangling folk-rock and great harmonies, struck a chord, and The Byrds’ version hit number 1 on the Billboard charts.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Monsters: Not Your Average Spooks...

Every year, ‘round All Hallow’s Eve, I make a point of watching some of my favorite horror films, to revive the haunting spirit. John Carpenter’s The Thing, any of Romero’s Dead films—there’s really no bottom to the treasure chest of scary flicks to pick from. Same with books—I like to go back and read some choice shorts that never fail to disturb. Stephen King, of course; Richard Matheson—those are the never-fails, guaranteed to creep you out, just like Saturday Night Fever is a sure bet to get people to do vaguely lascivious Travolta impressions.

There’s a strange comfort in scaring yourself, especially when you revisit the chills that put the real,original spook into you. It’s easy with books and movies, but when it comes to music, I always feel like the scary is always more camp than creepy. Unless you’re digging on that Scandinavian Death metal stuff, most of what classifies for horror in music is silly: Ozzy, Kiss—they freaked me out when I was little, but, really, beyond the album covers, it was all stage dressing. The Misfits, the Cramps, Bauhaus—in high school, the girls I knew who listened to those bands were way scarier than the actual music. And it seemed like a lot of the scary stuff was more image than substance—but, that’s what music is often about, sadly.

So, where do you get your scary from in music? I suppose like the more traditional medium of books and movies, the closer to life the chills, the scarier it all feels. So, I started combing the ipod, looking for ‘monster’ tunes—I kept coming up with stuff that wasn’t traditionally of the horror variety, but scary nonetheless, mostly because, well, as listeners, we can relate. What’s scarier than your girl dumping you? Or not knowing where the next paychecks coming from? Or…well, I don’t want to start down a Springsteen-esque tale of the common man’s struggle in the face of hardships life puts on him, but the best monster songs I know are the ones that remind me of what I’ve worried about, too. Empathy, the writer’s great friend, makes for some very compelling music.

 So, a few of my favorite songs about monsters—with a lot of latitude involved when it comes to that label:

 The Police; King of Pain—Synchronicity was an incredible album, genre bending like all Police records, covering a lot of musical territory, but King of Pain always stuck out for me, due to effective use of the end-of-the-world imagery as a means of equating the singer’s soul-level angst. A ‘butter fly caught in a spider’s web’, a ‘skeleton choking on a crust of bread’ or a ‘king on a throne with his eyes torn out’? The song is a catalog of nightmare images, a Lovercraftian landscape where a lonely soul walks the physic landscape of his sadness in search of any sign of happiness in a place where none exists. The repeated refrain of ‘that’s my soul up there’ perfectly nails home the crucifixion of the spirit of a man, one who is so beaten by life that he’s dubbed himself the king of pain. The song works in a strangely incongruous way: such sadness set to atmospheric, minor-key rolling groove, but then that down beat starts to work its way upwards and ends in an almost joyful crescendo. The lyrics never give way to anything brighter— our lost soul is still pinned to the sun, he’s still so lost as to have cornered the market of sadness and become the king of all the pain in the world, but, at least he’s walking you out of the darkness on an upbeat. A great song for all its radio-friendly sensibility, but a pop song this is not!
The Police, King of Pain
Purchase: King of pain

 My next entry—a twofer by Ryan Adams—again explores monsters of the metaphorical kind, that might be more comfortable being referred to as ‘personal demons’ rather than monsters. Have a little respect when your talking about feelings, man! Adams’ battles with substance abuse are no secret and he might be as well known for being a fuck up as he is for being a songwriter. His  herculean prodigiousness when it comes to turning out albums is both praised and derided, sometimes  even by his biggest fans. He’s slowed down a but, which is good, because being a fan of the man’s work became an exercise in differentiating between that old classic: quantity vs quality. And keeping track of all the work he’s done, not to mention trying to ingest it all, was a bit of its own kind of nightmare itself, to keep the motif going. But, when Adams is on, when he’s good, he’s incredible, a forerunner in the Alt-country, singer-songwriter genre. I admit to admiring his ability to indulge, to follow musical passions just put it all out there—Adams is that music geek you grew up with, who knew everything—obscure and even less well known—about music, only with the talent to back it all up. And, some of songs are staples in my personal, wouldn’t-be-the-same-without-it-playlist.

So, I offer two from his expansive catalog, one song from the brilliantly understated pair of EPs, Love is Hell, which was Adams at his raw and honest best, and one from Easy Tiger, a more rock-oriented entry.

From Love is Hell, I offer the subtle, wistful acoustic lament, I See Monsters. Written during Adams’ period of drug abuse before he got clean, the song’s actual meaning is up for some debate. The lyrics focus around the central image of a man lying in bed, next to the woman he loves, while fixating on the dark dream of an exploding Ferris wheel, 'people falling, people screaming', while he simply waits for her to wake, knowing that ‘when she calls’, he will answer. It might be about a woman he loves, it might be about waiting for his next fix, but the repeated refrain of ‘Still I see monsters’ leaves no doubt that eventually, the dream and the reality are going to merge, and our protagonist is going to wake to a very real, very scary world. He knows he can’t sleep forever and that eventually, that nightmare he keeps having is going to come true.
Ryan Adams, I See Monsters
Purchase I see Monsters

Moving on to…well, the same dark territory for Adams. “Halloween Head” is once again open to interpretation, but it’s a little less subtle in terms of pointing blame at a problem and perpetrator for life’s personal demons. “Halloween Head” finds Adams employing traditional Halloween imagery of ‘candy bags costume shops and punks in drag’ to show how his world of drug abuse has turned his reality into a dark place, one that looks more like a horror movie set than a real life. He laments the fact that he’s involved in a world he knows is wrong for him, perhaps like a repetitive nightmare, and he looks on the life he’s created for himself and calls it for what it is, angry that it ‘leads me through the streets at night…It's all the same old shit again’. The refrain of “I got a Halloween Head’ becomes, over a nice crunchy guitar groove, Adams’ lament at what he’s done to himself, and at one point, he does his best lonely werewolf howl, when he asks: ‘what the fuck’s wrong with me?’ It’s powerful because of the honest look he takes at himself, confronting the monster in the mirror, but more so for the oddly redemptive quality. There’s a bit of hope for the character, and when he joyously calls out for a guitar solo, you get the idea the good music can sometimes work to banish away the ‘bad ideas’.
Ryan Adams, Halloween Head

Finally, let’s get away from angst, and the encouragement sad songs give us to lock ourselves in our dark bedrooms and feel perfectly fine feeling all alone, because the singer wrote whatever song your are fixating on just for you—and turn up the heat a little. Sometimes, our monsters are our own damn fault, and this brings us to the ever-crunching groove-stomp of Queens of the Stone Age. A lot of what Josh Hommes and crew do could fit into the ‘monster’ category, but one track that stands out is “Monsters in the Parasol”. A slick, walking groove, gives over to a readily identifiable QOTSA dissonant breakdown, only to slide back into a tight-bang strut. As always, Hommes is crooning on about some kind of nonsense that you just know came from otherworldly influences-- QOTSA have a corner on the market of the best of crunch and funk. And the strangest lyrics. Monsters in the Parasol is a classic mover where the music takes a directly opposing route to the content of the lyrics and makes us forget to stop and listen. Which might be a good thing, because with lines like ‘the walls are closing in again, oh well’, and ‘Paul’s sister is an alien’ and something something something is ‘covered in hair’, we are dancing our way through nightmare territory here. What does it all mean? The interpretations might not be appropriate for a family-friendly blog, but the ramble of the music is enough to get you moving, perhaps double time, away from whatever kind of creeping thing—paranoia, that very scary man in drag in the video—might be catching up to you. Queens of the Stone Age: Monsters in the Parasol

What I love about music, just like books, like any art form that tries to communicate a translation of the language of the heart, is that, yeah, it really does sometimes seem to be written just about you. You know that feeling of listening to the radio and every single song that comes on is perfectly apt description of exactly how you feel at that very moment? It’s odd, but it points to the power of song, and a great song taps into the darkest and lightest stuff we have inside. Sometimes we need help looking the monster in the eyes, sometimes we need to forget all about the monsters and just cut loose, dance it up, smash a guitar. And music—good music—always helps.