Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BBQ/Grill: Mexican Radio

Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio [purchase]

I like it when a bunch of things come together to inspire a blog post. We’ve been kicking around the BBQ/Grill theme for much of the summer, but it never made the big time. Now, though, as we head into the unofficial end of the summer in the Northern Hemisphere where, I believe, all of our writers live, it was time. You’d think that there would be tons of songs about barbecuing or grilling, which are different things, and while there are a bunch, there don’t seem to be as many as I thought.

Being a stereotypical man, I enjoy cooking outside. For years, I insisted on using a charcoal grill, but a few years ago, I succumbed to the convenience of propane, and while the old charcoal grill sits next to its gas fueled cousin, I rarely have the patience to light the coals and wait for them to burn down to the appropriate ashy white. But, I do have the patience to use my smoker to slow cook ribs, pork butt and chicken (also, occasionally brisket, which is very hard to get right, leg of lamb, the rare Thanksgiving turkey, and even bacon and pastrami). Again, though, I opt for some convenience, using an electric smoker, rather than a wood, charcoal or pellet based contraption that has more street cred, but also takes more work. No one has yet complained about my food because my hickory, fruitwood, oak, mesquite or pecan chunks are burned by a big electric element. I also make a mean cole slaw and potato salad, and a much loved Memphis-style sauce, from a recipe I found years ago in the well-known barbecue bible, Newsday.

I’ve fired up the grill and the smoker a few times this summer, but starting on the Fourth of July weekend, it has been a bit crazier. That weekend, I smoked ribs and chicken wings and grilled chicken thighs for some friends. Shortly after that, we visited Tennessee and Kentucky and ate a bunch of really good ‘cue, which I didn’t have to cook. On our return, I kicked it into gear. Three weekends ago, we had a big family gathering at our house to celebrate a bunch of milestones, including our anniversary, my in-laws’ 60th anniversary, my father’s birthday and my nephew’s birthday. I did ribs and pulled pork in the smoker and chicken on the grill, although the most memorable thing about that gathering may well be the Tennessee whiskey and bourbon tasting. I didn’t even put away the smoker, because the next weekend was a party for our daughter, a combination late graduation and buen viaje celebration before she left for Barcelona on a one-way ticket. Not knowing exactly who would show up, and how much they would eat, we went overboard with ribs, wings and grilled chicken, along with a ton of sides and salads. And just today, I committed to a little Labor Day BBQ with some old friends, for which I am currently planning the menu (but pulled pork is pretty much a lock). As hard as it is to get everything just right, I enjoy it—the prep, the process, the eating, and, I admit, the praise.

But what song to write about? Nothing really grabbed me, until I remembered this sort-of hit by Wall of Voodoo, “Mexican Radio.” Like most of their songs, it is atmospheric and strange, and includes the memorable line:

I wish I was in Tijuana 
Eating barbecued iguana 

Research has indicated that barbecuing is an accepted way of cooking this large reptile, if not the most popular.

Which brings me to the second thread of this post. I first heard Wall of Voodoo while I was at WPRB—I remember hearing their very odd, ominous cover of "Ring of Fire" (which I thought, erroneously, was a Johnny Cash song). Readers of my work here, and pretty much anyone who knows me, is aware that my 3 and a half semesters working in the basement of Holder Hall has had an outsized influence on me, even if I didn’t go into broadcasting or music. I know that I am far from the only one that the station has affected, and it has been around for a long time. WPRB is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary in operation, making it one of the oldest college stations in the country, and possibly the oldest commercially licensed campus radio station in the nation. In connection with the anniversary, the station’s “educational advisor” (something that the station didn’t have back in my day. And get off my lawn), and others have worked hard to put together a comprehensive history of the station. There is a great blog, wprbhistory.org, on which yours truly is well represented (thanks), and later this month, an exhibit of WPRB history will be opening in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library on the Princeton campus, somewhere near where my thesis sits, likely unread by any scholars since its deposit there.

If those two threads weren’t enough, as I was thinking about writing this, I looked at The New York Times’ website and saw this story, about the fate of pink iguanas in the Galapagos Islands after the recent eruption of the islands’ tallest volcano. Because if one of those iguanas got too close to some lava, it might find itself like its long-ago eaten relative from “Mexican Radio.”

Saturday, August 29, 2015

1965: Go Now

purchase Go Now

I've said it here before: writing a post generally involves learning something new.  1965 was the year I started listening to pop/rock, but my interest wasn't particularly academic. For the most part I couldn't name the members of a band or who played what. Hence the need to research today when I go back to 65.

My weekly allowance wasnt enough to cover the cost of an LP, so my record collection was built mostly of 45s, and by the end of 65, I had probably 25 and a couple of LPs. I can recall, for example, when and where I first heard "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Eight Days a Week".

My exposure to the top hits - like most American kids of the time - was through Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, Shindig and AM radio. (FM radio listener numbers didn't surpass AM until the 1970s.) Aside from the in-dash car radio, the device of choice was a battery operated portable transistor radio, maybe with a single ear plug. It seemed to me like it was a good year for American kids.

It was also a good year for pop music. A turning point. Bob Dylan goes electric, playing a Fender Stratocaster for the first time on stage. 65 is also the year that Leo Fender sold his company to CBS. 1965 was the year that Ford began installing 8-track tape players as an option - the simplicity of a cassette that could be inserted and removed with minimal distraction was a factor in its success.

Justin Hayward is the name most commonly associated with the Moody Blues. In actual fact, the singer/guitarist didn't join the band until 66. Before then, the Moody Blues, under various names and combinations were mostly trying to get noticed. It happened in 65, with Go Now. Without Hayward.

Monday, August 24, 2015

1965: Oh Sister

Dan Bern: Oh Sister [purchase]

There was a hell of a lot of great music released in 1965.  Other writers have posted about some of it, and I hope that more posts about this music get written before the theme ends. But when I looked at a list, while I acknowledged that, yeah, there are some great songs there, nothing jumped out and said, “J. David (or whatever you real name is), you need to write about me.”

Instead, I decided to go with my first reaction to hearing the theme, which is that in 1965 my incredible sister was born. Although I was just shy of 4 years old when it happened, I do have some clear memories of the day, or at least the first time that I saw her at the hospital. And since then, I don’t think a cross word has ever passed between us.

When we were kids, we would get up early on Saturday to watch cartoons and eat cereal and Charles Chips pretzels from those big cans. And as we grew up, we always had each other’s back. My parents drilled into us from an early age that we were each other’s best friend, no matter what, and I suspect that there are still some things that went on that my parents don’t know about. Which is a good thing.

Interestingly, although we have always been close, we didn’t really share too many interests—she was not a big sports fan, we never really had the same musical taste (and music was much more important to me than it ever was to her), and history wasn’t her favorite subject—and four years (and five school years) can be a big age difference when you hit your teens. She went through some difficult times in high school while I was off in college, and in the pre-Facebook, pre-cell phone era, I wasn’t really around, and I’ve often felt bad that I wasn’t there for her, although she got through it, and turned out great.

I’ve always envied my sister because she found work that she loved and was good at, and which benefited humanity, way more than I ever did, and although her personal life hasn’t always been easy, right now she has two wonderful kids and seems happy in her personal relationship with a guy who, amusingly to me, drags her to concerts that she never would have imagined a few years ago. I’ve also envied her large group of close friends, with whom she regularly travels and socializes, although to be fair, with my borderline loner personality it isn’t surprising. Luckily for me, she lives only 15 or 20 minutes away, depending on traffic and how fast I drive, so we get to see each other fairly regularly. A few weeks ago, we were walking in town, and she and her boyfriend coincidentally stopped at the light as they drove through and were able to join us for dinner.

We’ve been able to watch her kids grow up, as she has watched mine. She babysat for my kids, and we have done the same with hers. She shops with my daughter and I’ve seen hers play soccer (and fed her dinner last night).

When I thought about writing about my sister, I thought of Dan Bern’s song, “Oh Sister.” Now, the song really doesn’t exactly fit our situation—Dan’s sister was the older one, who he credits for teaching him stuff and being there for him, and my sister is the younger one, although, to be fair, she’s taught me stuff and been there for me. And Dan’s family situation was different from ours, but the song works here for a couple of reasons. First, despite the differences, the song is about the love of a brother for a sister, and that definitely applies. And second, Dan Bern was born in……1965.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

1965: Wer Kennt Den Weg

   In 1965 Johnny Cash recorded his 1956 #1 country single "I Walk The Line" in German. Fifteen years earlier, Cash was assigned to the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile of the U.S. Air Force Security Service at Landsberg, Germany as a Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army transmissions. While his friends headed to downtown bars to pick up women, he'd often stay at the barracks playing his guitar and dreaming of the day he'd become a country music star. 

    In 1965, the same year The Beatles recorded some of their songs in German, Cash tackled his old hit.

  With his customary twang, Cash delivered the lines:  Am allerschönsten war es doch zu Haus/ Und doch zog's mich einst in die Welt hinaus /Und in der Ferne suchte ich mein Glück /Wer kennt den Weg, den Weg zurück?

  And you know what? Country music doesn't sound half bad in German.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

1965: A Hard Day's Night

   In a performance that spoofs Laurence Olivier's Richard the III, Peter Sellers recites "A Hard Day's Night" on a 1965 show called "The Music of Lennon and McCartney". The single would peak at #14 on the UK charts with Sellers doing "Help" as a vicar on the B-Side

     Just as fun is a series of outtakes from the performance. He even slips into an Indian accent that would reappear in the 1968 Blake Edwards comedy "The Party".

1965: EVE OF DESTRUCTION/Barry McGuire

This song is somehow so apposite of 1965, a gruff yet never more Dylanesque slice of protest, replete with frantically strummed acoustic guitar and brief toots of harp. For, in 1965, many truly felt we were on the eve of a self-imposed destruction, nuclear holocaust a mere button away and seeming so close. Earnest troubadours were on every corner warning of the same, anti-war diatribes billowing forth, from Bob himself to would-be Bobs aplenty. And these were no mere paranoid ideations, as there was a palpable sense that oblivion lay waiting ahead, eagerly itching in the wings for the over-eager finger of a Brezhnev (or even an LBJ). This was the year of US troops arriving in ‘Nam and occupying the Dominican Republic, the assassination of Malcolm X, the Watts riots, with fighting breaking out between India and Pakistan, between China and Taiwan, in the Congo, with coups commonplace elsewhere in sub-Sahara, in Indonesia, in Aden. Hell, no wonder folk were nervous.

It was almost an accident that McGuire came to be the one-hit wonder he became. The Byrds had been given first shout, rejecting it. Offered then to the Turtles, it was tucked away on their debut, taking a full 5 years to eventually sneak into the Billboard Hot 100 as a single. At 100. P.F. Sloan, the writer, had a successful early 60s career as a staff songwriter at publisher Screen Gems, coming to the attention of Dunhill records music mogul, Lou Adler, who put him to work penning for many of his roster, from the aforementioned Turtles to Herman’s Hermits and Jan and Dean. He was also an accomplished musician, playing guitar with celebrated sessionmen the Wrecking Crew, who would be responsible for backing, anonymously, many a more famous name and often instead of the musicians otherwise credited. (Go see.) Back to Eve, and, mid July, McGuire recorded a rough demo vocal to the backing track, laid down with Sloan, together with other wrecking Crew alumni, Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on bass. Although this was intended to be later tidied up, the demo found its way to a radio station. This all happened within 5 days, and the song became a worldwide hit, hitting the Billboard top slot within about  8 weeks. The more polished version was never made.

In 1965 I was 8. It was the year, impending doom regardless, that my parents first bought a record player, a neat little Dansette, capable of playing a stack of singles one after the other. It came with a selection of about 30 or so of said 45rpm discs, ranging from Elvis, through the Beach Boys, to the Swinging Blue Jeans, none of which were to my parents taste. However they were just the ticket for my elder sister and I can probably blame my enduring infatuation with music on this particular acquisition in the autumn of ‘65. And, of course, Eve of Destruction was one of the records and I own it still, being one of a select few I sneaked from home when my sister left for University, writing my name on each of them for keepsake. 

So what happened to McGuire? It seems he was far from the rough hewn counter culture warrior the song suggests, having been earlier a member of the uber-kitch New Christy Minstrels. (He was the singer on this, their best known number.) After stardom beckoned, he retreated from the limelight, becoming a born again Christian, refusing the play the song again for decades and only then with a bowdlerisation of the lyrics to avoid any possible offence. Sloan continued to write and to seek his own stardom, which largely eluded him, but was the subject of this intriguing song, by the arguably far more successful Jimmy Webb, who claimed his inspiration was fired by Sloan's experience.

50 years on, the world lurches on. Is the Eve of Destruction any the further? Or any the nearer? At least we are still here. Yet the song remains worth singing, as performed here by the Pogues.

Buy the original here

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Big bands: Zappa and ELO

Two classics for you in a short post before time's up for the current theme:

I've posted more than once here about FZ and still - 40+ years on - revere the irreverence of Overnight Sensation. Zappa led a band large enough at most times to qualify for our theme's (6 or more band members) limit. And more. The man composed/orchestrated for the band. I've read that he could write musical score as fast as it came to his head - I imagine a scene from Amadeus where Mozart is scribbling away as he explores harmonic options. Yes, a certain amount of drivvel emanated from Zappa's musical mind. (Sheik Yerbouti maybe?) At any rate: Big Bands idea number one: my favorite Zappa orchestral work, from Hot Rats - well, not this version.
purchase Peaches en Regalia
As I postponed, delayed and thought through the Big Band theme possibilities, I found myself wandering back in the disco '70s. Alongside Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller, there was the Electric Light Orchestra. Aka Jeff Lynne's ELO. Like many other Big Band candidates, ELO varied in size from year to year, with wind and string instruments/musicians in addition to Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan as staple/founding members.

purchase Strange Magic 


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Big Bands: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band--Land of Hope and Dreams/Born to Run

[purchase the Wrecking Ball version]
[purchase the Live in New York City version]

I was on vacation in Nashville last week and was mulling over another possible post on this theme, when my wife, daughter and I watched Jon Stewart’s last show as host of The Daily Show. The broadcast ended with a performance by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band of “Land of Hope and Dreams” which segued into the triumphal end of “Born to Run.” As I was watching, I realized that there were a lot of musicians up there playing and it became clear what I was going to write about.

First, a confession. For some reason, I didn’t start watching Jon Stewart until probably the end of the second Bush administration, and I have no real excuse. I was in the habit of watching the local news at 11, which I came to find awful, mostly fires and dumb stories, with sports and weather that I already knew from the Internet. I’m pretty sure that my wife suggested that we start watching The Daily Show, and I became hooked. Stewart, whose brother was a college classmate of mine, but who I didn’t know, and who was a bartender at the great Trenton punk club City Gardens after I stopped going there, was brilliant. Also, he is a soccer fan (and former player).

I’m not going to try to give a serious critique of the show, but it was funny, smart, and ruthless in pointing out hypocrisy, stupidity and bias in the media and politics. So many nights (and occasionally the next day, when we fell asleep during the show and watched it on our DVR), my wife and I would remark about how incredible the show’s researchers were in finding exactly the right clips to make someone look foolish, disingenuous or worse. Or how Stewart had cut directly through the crap to get to the truth. The guy legitimately changed opinions, opened eyes and held feet to fire. Whether or not you like the current office holder, when the President calls you a “national treasure,” it is pretty amazing, and not at all hyperbole. Beyond that, Stewart surrounded himself with talented performers, most, if not all of whom showed up for the finale. As a number of commentators have noted, The Daily Show alumni are exceeded in talent and success only by former Saturday Night Live performers.

Ending the show with Springsteen, a fellow Jerseyite and liberal, was perfect. On stage that night, other than Bruce, were his wife, Patti Scialfa on acoustic guitar and vocals, original E Street Band bass player Gary Tallent, long-time members Max Weinberg on drums, Roy Bittan on keyboards and guitarists Steve van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, saxophonist Jake Clemons (nephew of original member Clarence), violinist Soozie Tyrell and keyboard player Charles Giordano. That’s 10 members, a pretty big band.

The choice of songs was also right on point. “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which Stewart requested, is a song of optimism, hope, and inclusion, a vision of a better place, filled with sunlight, hope, dreams, where everyone--saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores, gamblers and lost souls—have a place. And just when you thought it was over, the band kicked into the end of “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s signature song, which, even 40 years after its release, is still moving. As Springsteen has said, “The song transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It will always do that – that's how it was built." Stewart was, at heart, an optimist, who used his brashness, sarcasm and biting wit, in an attempt to argue that the greatness of America (and the world) can be realized when informed citizens pay attention to those who want to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes so that they can take advantage of the darkness.

One article about the finale noted that Stewart brought to the show “a sense of mission. And, very simply (and hopefully), that mission was to make things better.” The article further pointed out that the finale was able “to convey that feeling of optimism without sacrificing the show’s central idea that the mission isn’t over, all in the shape of a joyous party.” But prior to the party, and the Boss, Stewart concluded the substantive portion of the show with a final rant about “Bullshit,” mostly the “more pernicious bullshit. Your premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract.” The type of bullshit that Stewart clearly believed led people away from the hope and dream of the best country or world that we could be. The rant concluded with Stewart admonishing his audience to be wary—“So I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”