we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
Friday, February 27, 2015
Thursday, February 26, 2015
If you look to the left, you can see that the concept behind this theme was to write about songs that “reference warmer climes.” When we chose this theme, it was because it was freezing in the Northern United States, and we were longing for more tropical weather.
Turns out, pretty much since the day the theme started, it has been freezing cold in the American South, with snow and ice storms in places where such weather is incredibly rare, including Texas, Louisiana and Georgia. I, however, am most interested and concerned about the weather in Tennessee—Nashville, in particular, where my son and his girlfriend moved last fall. They have already seen, first hand, cold and snow that I bet they never expected, and have had to chip a layer of ice off their car. Having grown up in the Northeast, they have now experienced what it is like to live in a place that doesn’t have a fleet of snow plows standing by, or a stockpile of salt and sand, and where the drivers aren’t used to the weather conditions.
In their honor, then, is this tune from bluegrass band Lost Highway, called, appropriately, “Tennessee Snow.”
Stay safe and warm, Adam and Robin.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Bet you're expecting me to extol the merits of a good old Cornish burr, Devonian dipthongs or even just my home county of Sussex and it's own idiosyncratic twang, but, no, they haven't written songs about that (unless you mean this, God help us!) I refer, and you knew really, didn't you, to the 1985 song by Tom Petty. Strangely, as a band of Floridians transplanted to the West Coast, I never really think of them as "Southerners," irrespective of latitude, as "the South", in music at least, seems to reserve itself for the Deep South, the territories of Stax and Capricorn record companies, so Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, plus or minus parts of Texas. (If that's wrong, forgive me, but, just as you guys have quaint visions of Swinging London, so too do I about the seamy side of N'Awlins, with accents as stiff and impenetrable as a burnt hoggroast.)
Now I just love the sentiment in those lyrics, the sheer pride in belonging, into having an identity forged and formed in geography, believing the song could hold equivalent credence to other maverick nations, clinging on to their territories. "With a Scottish accent, where I come from" somehow comes instantly to mind. And the tune, too, carries a sedate majesty, tinged with just enough melancholia for the days gone by.
For such a simple song it is certainly my favourite within the Tom Petty canon, and it covers remarkably well.
So, here's Tom:
But don't you think the song was actually made for this guy?
Though, I have to say I am also very keen on this version, by Dawn Landes:
Hank Williams, "Honky Tonk Blues"
Honky Tonky Blues, purchase
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The Drive-By Truckers: The Southern Thing
The Drive-By Truckers: The Three Great Alabama Icons
For our last theme, Jukebox, I somehow figured out a way to write about the Gettysburg Battlefield. However, the connection between this theme, Songs South, and the Civil War, not to mention the war’s continuing influence on American culture as we approach the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, is certainly more obvious. Being born in, and having lived my whole life in the North, though, I have to admit that I don’t have personal knowledge of what Southerners think, and to be fair, not all Southerners, or Northerners, for that matter, think the same thing.
But what I want to start off by discussing, and I’ll get to the music eventually, is the fact that throughout the South, Confederate politicians, generals and other “heroes” are honored with monuments, school names, and maybe most egregiously, by the Federal Government with at least 10 Army bases named for generals who took up arms against the very forces that now honor them (and in other inexplicable ways). President Obama, the country’s first African-American president (whose wife’s maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was a slave) has even sent a wreath to be laid at the Confederate Memorial in the Arlington National Cemetery (on land that was formerly Robert E. Lee’s home, and which is bordered by the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway), despite a petition signed by many prominent historians urging him not to do so. To again reference petition signer Professor McPherson, “I don’t think it appropriate for a president to send a wreath honoring a group that tried to break up the United States.”
I also don’t get it. Benedict Arnold was one of the most effective American generals in the Revolutionary War until he switched sides, and did some damage for the Brits (including, interestingly, capturing Richmond, the future Confederate capital). But there isn’t a Fort Benedict Arnold anywhere, or a Benedict Arnold High School. (Yes, there are a few historical markers commemorating his pre-traitorous accomplishments, and a few that generally commemorate his achievements, but simply omit his name, but had he never turned traitor, things would have been very different.) We don’t honor Aldrich Ames or Tokyo Rose, or John Walker, Jr. or any of the Americans who have assisted Al Qaeda or ISIS. And I suspect that many of the supporters of honoring Confederate “heroes” who took up arms against Americans are the same people who still call Jane Fonda a traitor for having expressed support for the North Vietnamese government (but not actually, you know, shooting any Americans).
It’s actually pretty clear to me: Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.
And while I wasn’t there, I’m pretty confident that people like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest (who likely led a massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow and was an early leader of the Klan), and the officers and men that they commanded were “levying war” against the United States. I don’t buy the arguments made by Southern apologists that secession wasn’t illegal—it was—or that no Confederate was convicted of treason—that was an embarrassing matter of political expediency, not to mention that the 14th Amendment made it clear that anyone engaged in acts of “rebellion” had certain rights taken away.
Much has been written about the Southern “Lost Cause” nostalgia, and all of that is too much to tackle in what is, really, a music blog, so let's talk about music. There are few bands that are as committed to analyzing their Southern identity as the Drive-By Truckers (who I have written about many, many times). In fact, there may not be any other bands that do so to the degree that the Truckers do. They come by it naturally—the founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, are from Alabama, and the band is essentially centered in Athens, Georgia. But Hood has been especially vocal about the fact that his upbringing was not traditional—his father, David Hood, is a legendary Muscle Shoals sideman and producer, who appeared on countless great records with black musicians—and his family was anti-segregation when that was not the popular thing. And Athens, where he ultimately settled as an adult and where he lives, is a liberal bastion in a conservative state.
Southern Rock Opera is considered to be the Truckers’ defining album, and while it may not be my favorite (I like a couple of the later ones with Jason Isbell a little better), it clearly is the one that not only moved the band into the public eye, it crystalized their viewpoint and, for better or worse, set them up as analysts of what Hood, in “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” called “the duality of the Southern Thing.” In an excellent essay for The Bitter Southerner website in 2013, Hood discussed the legacy (and burden) of Southern Rock Opera, and defined the “duality of the Southern thing” as
being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called “Southern hospitality,” but is also known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. I talked about being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts, the ones that too often define how other people perceive us.
And that’s what both of these songs are about.
“The Southern Thing,” is a song which Hood wrote to tie the whole project together. It is, stylistically, probably the most “Southern Rock” song on the album, and it describes, with some examples, the duality that he feels as a Southerner who is proud of his identity, even if he doesn’t agree with every—even most—of the stereotypes of that identity. Better you should read the lyrics, than for me to try to summarize them.
The next song on Southern Rock Opera is “Icons," a spoken word essay about Ronnie Van Zant, Bear Bryant and George Wallace, as paradigms of the duality, and points out that there were Southerners who were against segregation and racism, just as there were Northerners who supported it. But the song is mostly about Wallace, who as the song notes was an avid segregationist and racist, yet, at the end of his career, “opened up Alabama politics to minorities at a rate faster than most Northern states or the Federal Government. And Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past, and in 1982 won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote.” Despite that, Hood consigns Wallace to hell,
not because he's a racist… His track record as a judge and his late-life quest for redemption make a good argument for his being, at worst, no worse than most white men of his generation, North or South… But because of his blind ambition and his hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the suffering of Black America. And he became a pawn in the fight against the Civil Rights cause.
Hood notes in the Bitter Southerner piece that this song is, for the most part, written from the viewpoint of his father. He also mentions that Wallace’s grandson is a big fan of the Truckers.
Interestingly, when they perform the songs live, they switch the order, which makes sense from a performance standpoint—in essence “Icons” acts as an introduction to the more rocking “Southern Thing.” Here’s a video from a 2012 show (recorded and edited by DBT fan extraordinaire “Jonicont”) that shows this—and that Hood goes way off script, to make some topical political points, without losing the underlying message.
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
OK, it's BAND SOUTH in this case, but that's allowed, and is probably a pretty good opportunity to give this bigintheUK band a buzz, not least given my equivocal and almost love-hate relationship with them. Are they known of across the pond? Somehow I doubt it, except to the core of anglophile anglophone addicts whom I know exist in no small number. But their whole identity is rooted in a dingy lacklustre version of northern England, their name being wholly ironic, marrying kitchen sink reality to luscious, silky tunes and arrangements. And thereby lies my issue, as the sharpness of the lyrics may often be missed within the sheen given to the songs, sometimes leaving a faint lingering taste of saccharine where the vinegar should be.
Paul Heaton, because they were basically his band and brand, even if ably supported by a core of regulars and a float of occasionals, formed the group in 1988, along with fellow Housemartin, Dave Hemingway. Within that earlier and quirky, shortlived group, also including Norman, later "Fatboy Slim", Cook on bass, they sent a bizarre mix of marxism and christianity to the top of the UK singles charts with an acapella version of Caravan of Love. His abiding acerbic style was well characterised by the title of their first LP, "London 0, Hull 4" , Hull being, shall we say, one of northern England's less glamorous cities.
Rather than a traditional jangly guitar based quartet, The Beautiful South started life with an altogether different vibe, with shared vocal duties between the two ex-Housemartins and the first of three subsequent female vocalists, with often lush keyboards. Songwriting duties, largely Heaton's forte, were shared with Dave Rotheray on guitar, and they hit the ground running with this song, "Song for Whoever", which neatly sets out the stall for their aforementioned sweet cynicism, the theme of the "self-serving industry of lovesongs" being a recurring motif.. The front cover, above, also gave some clue to those prepared to search beyond melodies alone. In 1991, they also won the Brit award (think British Grammy) for best video, "A Little Time", their only actual number one single, reproduced below:
Following this there followed a steady stream of successful albums, with a change of female vocalist between their 3rd and 4th, and the sound increasingly embellished by added horns. However, before Briana Corrigan left, the band managed their biggest US exposure with this, "We Are Each Other" in 1992.
Jacqie Abbot, who replaced, had a slightly less astringent style and lasted for a further six years, the sound gradually becoming more influenced by country and/or soul stylisations, which her voice suited well. Here is a good example, "Perfect 10". The group called it a day in 2000, before a desultory final incarnation in 2003, with now 3rd female singer, Alison Wheeler. Whilst the thrill had largely gone, this line-up did produce a last-gasp covers record, in 2003, with "Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs, largely successful major transformations of well-known popsongs of the past 30 odd years, and a lasting favourite of mine. Knowing we like a good cover over here on Starmaker Machine, here is a key track, Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper". Citing "musical similarities", maybe the irony of this irony being beyond them, they folded for the final time in 2007.
Interestingly, at the time of writing, Paul Heaton has reunited and put out new material with Jacqui Abbott, whilst Hemingway and Wheeler, together with some of the core erstwhile musicians, have re-grouped as The South, basically a tribute act to their old selves. One suspects that neither Heaton nor this version have each other on their respective christmas card lists..........
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Night Ranger--(You Can Still) Rock in America
Purchase: Midnight Madness
NightRanger—I’m not going to claim I know much about them, save for a little trivia (their guitarist, Brad Gillis, was one of OzzyOsborne’s ever-changing stable of guitar heroes; singer Jack Blades went on to form Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent, which made for a large part of the soundtrack that haunted all the frat parties I went to freshman year down in Carolina—Damn Yankees were huge in NC in the early ‘90s and I don’t have much else to say about that). Most importantly, they wrote Sister Christian, one of the 80s greatest rock epics. It was their most popular song, and Sister Christian went on to reclaim its greatness as the haunting musical stage dressing to one of the greatest scenes in modern cinema (Boogie Nights), and no one who’s seen the film can forget the epic drums that so perfectly suited the spring-coiled violence about to unfold.
I can't overstate this: Sister Christian—it was their greatest song. It has worked it’s earnest way to becoming one of your favorite rock songs. And it was such a strange anthem, sad and yearning, set to a rumbling take off engine thrum, and like the greatest of rock songs, can fuel not only nostalgia, but oddly slide it’s way in as an identifying soundtrack to a lot of ‘moments’, be it a first kiss, a drunken sing along, or a violent shootout/robbery gone terribly awry.You choose, but, you know I'm telling the truth...
NightRanger? Am I really talking about Night Ranger? The name doesn’t even make sense, but on second thought, my original thesis—that Night Ranger is one of those bands that it's better to not know much about—I guess I’m proving that wrong already, and we’re barely out of the introductory paragraph.
As I write this, I’ve got a Night Ranger playlist going on the youtubes…and though I started this piece with one line repeating in my head, I realize, as always, I should let the music speak for itself. If you're so inclined to recall the 80s, and the buzzsaw guitar and strident keyboard marches that made rock music so infectious, Night Ranger isn’t so bad. And trying to assign a scientific or aesthetic principal to what makes music good, what makes a particular band or song worth the cost of nostalgia, well…maybe that doesn’t need a thesis or an explanation. As always, let the music speak for itself and prove its own point.
When I saw the theme for this month’s theme of jukebox there was one line that came to mind immediately—the opening line of Night Ranger’s “You Can Still Rock in America” from their 1983 breakout album, Midnight Madness: “Little sister by the record machine...”
“You Can Still Rock in America” satisfies all the check boxes a band would need to achieve an ‘anthem’, especially for the 80s: diddley-do keyboards, cowbell and gong driven drum march, fuzzed out, metal guitar riffs and acrobatic soloing. And, don’t forget the audience-participation-ready drum and vocal breakdown. This was formula driven rock, arena ready before the tour even hit the road, but it was brilliant right out of the gate. It might have fit into a formula then, but as I sit and listen to it now, there is an earnestness, a driving kind of beauty to the music that, if I can look at it from my 43 year old perspective, reminds me of all that was good—No, divine—in what made me fall in love with rock music, which is a relationship I’ve had in my life that has truly made all the difference.
I remember when I was 7th and 8th grade, discovering good music for the first time, these guys rocked, despite what I was learning in my own, older-brother’s-record-collection-Master-Class (which, of course was the Beatles and the Stones). I had access to good music early, and my parents were very cool about buying me ‘boom boxes’ and ceding over to me their turntable. My bedroom and my pawn store bought-and-borrowed record collection was my original sanctuary, my real classroom. When I think back to my childhood, I am lucky to have an endless amount of great memories, but my best ones are of learning to love music to the LPs playing on my scratchy, one-speaker turntable. And for a long while, there was good music playing. Sadly, Night Ranger, which in my final assessment right now I will say was a great band, gave way to Hair Metal, and the overdone silliness of the LA rock scene—for a while I thought Cinderella, Bon Jovi and Dokken were the pinnacle of rock greatness…What can I say: I followed trends. The late 80s were a bad time for popular music, and my allegiance to great bands, to great music, wouldn’t be that tight until later in life. I was over eager, and perhaps I let slip a few times...bad decisions...what excuse can I plead-I abandoned the turntable for cassettes, and started listening to what everyone else was listening to. I’m not proud of a lot of what I can pull out of my old collection…
But, hang on a minute: the more I dig into what I was listening to at the time, the more I think maybe I can give myself a small break: I snatched up the Van Halen catalog in 1984 and it got regular rotation in my concert hall bedroom, as did AC/DC’s Back in Black, so…I have no real excuse for delving into bad music...I just like music. And that's where Night Ranger comes in: a bridge between the silly and the not-so bad...so I ask myself now, because back then there was no question: I could definitely rock, but now can you still...?
Maybe, “You Can Still Rock in America”?
Give it a shot. It’s cheesy, of course, in the way 80’s ‘metal’ can be, but it’s a jukebox song, and while it might be a lesser entry into the endless and everlasting fuck the rules, break down the walls, go nuts escapism anthem blast creed that tattoos the glorious history of this beautiful thing we call rock ‘n roll, it still works damn well. It’s exuberant the way rock music should be: it drives; it puts a foot to the floor, it has girls and fast cars, it's vaguely rebellious about something vaguely troubling, maybe being young, maybe too many rules. Who cares. Since when has rock ‘n roll needed something specific to rebel against, so long as you’ve got wailing guitars and a good solid beat pushing you into doing your very worst?
It’s rock n roll. It might be a little silly, and sometimes I think we need to feel guilty for loving something that might come across as dated, or too much of an era, or just to silly and earnest in what is—in this case, Night Ranger was a great rock band, full of radio friendly hooks, sugar-sweet anthems and fist in the air, foot to the floor rock. Sometimes you need a little Night Ranger, lest you start taking this whole rock thing a little too seriously. Rock music is supposed to be mindless and it should make you go a little nuts, but it should also remind you of who you used to be, before you got too old to still rock (in America…).
Bobby Fuller Four: I Fought the Law
(Slightly tangential to our theme - a related last minute entry)
|my 45 collection|
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Time for a quickie again, much as promoted by erstwhile and occasional Darius of this parish, 'cos there isn't always time for learned theses and sometimes just the song will do.
I have to admit to one big soft spot for Sweet Baby James, tho' I prefer the soft-rock addled troubadour of the 70s to his later more earnest presentation. Who can but fail to be bowled over by the plaintiveness of his vocal in this no-little self-reverential song? And if you aren't, what about :
The lovely Linda Ronstadt etches the country up a notch or two, and, if I am not mistaken, ol' JT plays the guitar on this version too. What, you want more quirky?
That's Judith Owen, occasional Richard Thompson sides(wo)man and wife, no less, of Harry Shearer. And if you want outright odd, how about this, about which I know nothing:
I guess the problem with this song, and, arguably, it's author and most well-known interpreter, is that they were, for a while, just too damn ubiquitous. But I don't care. They can do no wrong with me. (Well, except for that godawful Mexico song.........)
Nostalgia fest: Buy it! (This page covers all the above and more.)
Bruce Springsteen: Growin’ Up
In this post-Brian Williams world, I have been reading a great deal about the unreliable nature of memory. It always strikes me when I speak with old friends that I can have a strong memory of something and they don’t, or whan our memories are different, even when I know they were there. For example, when I was a senior in college, I got the opportunity to visit the Gettysburg battlefield with a group of professors and grad students, led by the eminent Civil War historian James McPherson. My friend Judith was the only other undergraduate invited. I recall that I got the invitation because I had a big car and was friendly with one of the grad students (who later wrote a book about Springsteen). I’m not sure what Judith’s in was, but she later became a history professor and worked with McPherson, so maybe there was something there. She’ll probably read this and let me know, and based on the video linked below, she has a different memory of how I got invited.
Anyway, there are things about that trip that have stuck in my mind to this day, more than 30 years later, especially walking across the field toward Cemetery Ridge as we recreated Pickett’s Charge. A few years ago, Judith contacted me to say that she was going to be participating on a panel honoring Professor McPherson, and told me that she was going to tell an anecdote referencing something that I said during that walk. And to be honest, I do not remember saying it—but it was so memorable to her that she told the story at the conference. It’s here, starting at 24:25. And I’m happy that what I apparently said got laughs from the assembled historians.
There were no jukeboxes at Gettysburg, but trust me, I’ll get there.
It was probably my 12th birthday, but I’m not sure, and I remember that someone gave me a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. which had come out earlier that year. I can’t specifically recall if I was familiar with his music or who gave it to me, and I do remember some surprise, because I know that I had never mentioned to anyone that I wanted that album. And I remember putting it on the turntable and being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words and the cleverness of the lyrics, as much as the power of the music.
No, I didn’t become a crazed Bruce fan, and it wasn’t a religious experience for me. But I have always liked his music. I’ve only seen him once, at Princeton a few years before I went to Gettysburg, and my most powerful memories of the show (other than that it was great) are that he messed up “Born to Run," and that the crowd jumped up and down so much, it damaged the gym floor. And I do think that his body of work has been consistently excellent, for much longer than most artists stay relevant.
As I said, (and have written about elsewhere) I loved the wordplay on the debut album. While the song “Growin’ Up” isn’t as thesaurus reliant as “Blinded By The Light,” it has its moments. Clearly based on Springsteen’s memories of, yeah, growin’ up, he wrote:
The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn't sail but she sure could sing.
So, what’s a “jukebox graduate”? Someone who only knows what she learned from music? Someone who wasn’t “book smart”? I’m not really sure, but it is a great phrase, and has been co-opted as the inspiration for at least two blogs (one by a former Smithie), a band and a middle school club in North Carolina.
Really, it doesn’t matter that I didn’t remember my memorable remark to Judith, or who gave me Springsteen’s debut. But both my trip to Gettysburg and that album have continued to resonate with me through the years.