Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lies/Liars: White Lies

Jason & the Scorchers: White Lies

There are things from my past that I think that I remember perfectly, although sometimes other people have totally different recollections. My piece a while back about my visit to Gettysburg led to a spirited discussion from my friends about what actually happened, and now I have no idea how accurate my memory of the event was.

But for this story, I know that I have some serious lapses in memory, which is probably a good thing, because it allows me to tell it without naming names, which really don’t matter, anyway. And making stuff up, which I may well be doing, sort of fits the theme. So, be prepared for vagueness.

My senior year in college, I applied to law school. I did pretty well on my LSATs, had a non-embarrassing GPA from one of the most competitive and prestigious colleges in the country, and, according to the historical records in that college’s Career Planning Office, it seemed like I would have no problem getting into my first choice, a well-regarded school located in Greenwich Village. Of course, if I hadn’t been a know-it-all Ivy League senior, and had actually deigned to speak to one of the trained counselors paid to dispense wisdom to the likes of me, I strongly believe that I would have also applied to some safer schools. But I didn’t. And when the acceptances came out, I was shut out. It was, by all accounts, the hardest year to get into law school, and I whiffed. My parents displayed less disappointment than I expected (and I still don’t know if that was an act), and after graduation, I moved back home. With the help of my father, I got a job working at a big New York law firm. That failure to get accepted, and that job, ultimately led to me meeting my wife, so ultimately, it worked out for the best, but that’s not what this story is about.

For a while, I commuted into the city with my dad, and we have some funny stories about that, too. I worked at the firm, ironically Richard Nixon’s former firm, and applied again, this time hedging my bets and ending up accepted to Fordham Law School, which turned out to be a great experience for many reasons.

Fordham, at the time, had no dorms for the law school, located at Lincoln Center, in a very expensive part of New York. Luckily, my parents were willing to help out, and through a roommate finding service, I found an apartment that was within walking distance to school, with two guys my age. It was a pretty nice apartment—three bedrooms, living room and small kitchen in a modern, high rise building. Jerry Orbach, pre-Law & Order, lived there when he was on Broadway in 42nd Street. It was an illegal sublet, though, and I wasn’t on the lease. And, it turned out poorly.

The two guys were friends, either from college or high school, and they were working—one, I think, was at a talent agency and the other might have been at a financial services company. I don’t even remember their names. They seemed nice enough, but it soon became clear that my life—getting up, going to class, coming home, making dinner and studying, then watching TV or listening to music, didn’t really jibe with their working lifestyle, which included having disposable incomes. These guys had a friend who, I think, worked for a record company or music publishing company and was an aspiring songwriter. I don’t remember his name, either, but he actually succeeded. OK-using the few facts I actually remember, I think I found him on the Internet (but, to be fair, I’m not sure if it is really him)—he has a Wikipedia page, has written a bunch of middle of the roadish hits and jingles, recorded a few albums, sued Mariah Carey for plagiarism, and even owned the baseball that Mookie hit through Buckner’s legs. And we have 2 friends in common on Facebook, one of whom is a writer for this site. So, if you want, I bet you can find him, if that is him.

During this time period, I somehow heard about Jason & the Scorchers. I feel like I read about them in the newspaper, or maybe I heard something on the radio. They were what was then referred to as “cow-punk,” a mix of country and punk that predated “alt-country” as a thing. Their second EP featured an awesome cover of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” which might be better than the original, and was, otherwise, kick-ass. My recollection is that this friend of my roommates had some way of getting the EP for me for free, and he did, which was very nice. It is possible, though, that I got it from one of my old record company contacts. I’m pretty sure, though, that I didn't pay for it.

Shortly before my Christmas break, my roommates asked me to move out, saying that they wanted a friend (that friend?) to move in. I really had little leverage, so I moved out, because who would want to be in that situation and moved back home briefly. After the holidays, I moved into an apartment in a much crappier building in a slightly sketchier neighborhood, which I ultimately shared with my good friend Bill, and where we were living when Bill introduced me to my wife. A couple of years later, Jason & the Scorchers released their first full album, Lost and Found, which was also great, and included today’s featured song, “White Lies.” Their next album, though, wasn’t so great, and they found themselves considered too country for rock radio, and too rock for country radio, because, apparently, Uncle Tupelo didn’t exist yet to kick off the alt-country/Americana revival (I know, that’s not really true). But, clearly, they were ahead of their time, and unfortunately faded into oblivion (with the obligatory recent reunion that hasn’t seemed to get much traction). Here’s a professional music writer’s fairly recent reminiscence about the band.

Did my former roommates really want their friend to move in, or did they just want me out? Was it the truth, or just a white lie? Maybe if I remembered their names, I could try to track them down and ask.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lies/Liars: Lies


Purchase JJ Cale: Lies

A quickie to get the theme rolling... one thought behind this theme is upcoming April Fool's Day: a celebration of untruths that are mostly just kidding. Somewhat lighter than the cheating and lying that seems to accompany themes of love thoughout popular music.

Probably best known as the author of "Cocaine", for the most part, JJ Cale prefered to stay out of the limelight. It is a reasonable guess that partly through a feeling of debt, "Clapton & Friends" put together a tribute album called "The Breeze" a year after Cale's death in 2013. More than one of the songs that have helped earn Clapton his fame are JJ Cale's tunes - "After Midnight" among them.

Underwhelming may be an apt desciptor for how Cale comes across. If not underwhelming, then certainly laidback. There are references to how he was one of the main forces in the Tulsa Sound style of music. He himself said that the style came about as a result of not really being able to play the Blues. Be that as it may, few would seriously argue that he wasnt influential nor that he didn't have a style very easily identifiable as his own. And that's no lie.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Brush With Celebrity: Roger Fisher of Heart

   You'd be hard pressed to find any divas in the history of Seattle rock. I can think of two nationally-known singers whose homes smell like wet dogs. Most of our best known indie rockers spent years working alongside each other in Seattle record stores. With barely enough talent to hold a guitar the right way, I've even been invited to jam with guys who have sold millions of records. Once somebody from Seattle begins to take themselves seriously, they're no longer really from Seattle.
   So I don't get starstruck as a rule. 
   And yet.
   When Heart's Roger Fisher demonstrated the riff to "Barracuda", I got chills. This wasn't just noise. It was a slice out of the most impressionable years of my youth. 

   Fisher and his brother Mike were recording the first of four albums that make up their epic One Vision series. Friends say they haven't seen the brothers this excited by a project in nearly 40 years.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brush With Celebrity: The Wallflowers

The Wallflowers: Reboot The Mission

I’ve been a fan of the Wallflowers since their second album, Bringing Down the Horse, the one that made them famous, the one with “6th Avenue Heartache” and “One Headlight” and “Three Marlenas.” I stuck with them, buying their next few albums, and enjoying them, but I had never seen them live. After the band took a hiatus, I moved on, and when they announced a show at the Tarrytown Music Hall in 2012, my wife and I decided not to get tickets. It was a hard call, but if we went to every show by every band that we liked, we would never be home, and have even less money than we do now.

The show was on a Saturday in September, and when we got back from the gym in the morning, both of us had urgent emails from my college classmate Heather, who lives in California and has many contacts in the music industry. She had mentioned to me at our 30th reunion earlier that year that she was friendly with Rami Jaffee, the keyboard player for the Wallflowers (and, among other bands, the Foo Fighters). The email asked us whether we could loan some bicycles to the band, and supply them with, as a fan of How I Met Your Mother, I will refer to as “sandwiches.” In exchange, we would get house seats.

This was a good deal. We loaned them our bicycles, but were unwilling (read—unable) to find any “sandwiches.” We drove the bicycles over to the theater and gave them to Rami, after which he, guitarist Stuart Mathis (now touring with Lucinda Williams) and opening act Mason Reed joined us for coffee at Coffee Labs.

Contrary to what we expected, they didn’t merely say “thanks,” buy us a cup of (excellent) coffee and send us on their way. Instead, we sat for, I’d say, close to an hour, chatting about this and that, and generally having a nice time. But then, it was time for them to actually use the bicycles before the show. We sat in the fourth row, and they put on a hell of a show. Afterwards, we went back behind the theater with Heather’s brother Harley (who also lives in Tarrytown) to get our bicycles back, and maybe say hi (and maybe meet Jakob Dylan). Apparently, they were surprised by the hilly terrain in our area, and were tired from the ride, but it didn’t affect the show. We didn’t however, meet Mr. Dylan.

“Reboot The Mission,” which owes a debt to The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, mentions Joe Strummer, features vocals and guitar from Mick Jones,  was a highlight of Glad All Over, the album they were touring in support of, and is wildly catchy. Although it was a good reunion album, and got generally positive reviews, it seems that Glad All Over may have been the band’s last. At least three members, including Rami, left the band in 2013, and although they did tour at least until the end of last year, no tour dates are currently listed on their website, which, along with their Facebook page, continues to promote the 2012 release.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Brushes with Celebrity: Various Turkish

Purchase "Zaman Zaman"  - Fikret Kizilok
Purchase "Ele Gune Karsi " - MFO
Purchase "Sikidim" - Tarkan

Celebrity is somewhat relative: you probably wouldn't recognize the following as celebrities, but they are all big names over here. To help make this relevant to you/this blog, I would need to define my "scope". If you have a Turkish historical perspective, you will immediately relate. Otherwise ... you'll likely draw a blank. However, I'll hope that this wont distract from the enjoyment value of the music. Turkish or not, these guys arent at all bad, and I have brushed them all, as explained below. (You might skip the Zeki Muren clip - except that it is quite a stage(d) show. The others are fairly accessible to Western ears).

Back when I was young and un-encumbered with family, I spent many a night playing guitar/singing. I couldn't do it no longer - that lifestyle no longer fits. Some of the friends I played with have gone on to become local stars and I am left with a couple of related memories. Some have gone on to the great beyond.
Fikret Kizilok passed away at a very young age and I coudn't tell you why. Here one day, gone the next. Besides being a seminal musician, I remember him as a great cook. I''ve got a dedicated/signed 33 1/3 RPM that must be worth something - and a handful of memories. I played informally with him and then, when we married, our familes got together from time to time outside the music scene.

I'll mostly steer clear of the time that Zeki Muren felt me up. (I suppose that this is one that some would gladly add to their curricula vitae). (Note: This can't be your kind of music - except that it is a classic of its type!)

Instead, I'll move on to the gents that placed me in that position. They are now the doyennes of Turkish pop. When I was single, I naturally found it easier to "hang out", and among those I hung out with were a group now known as MFO. Although I can't claim to having ever "appeared" with them, back in the 80s I regularly sat around with them and played guitar with F. I guess at one point I did play the same stage as one of their sidemen back in ... must have been '81.

I also recall a time at the airport back in the late 80s where we were in the passport line right behind Tarkan, who was on the verge of (actually international) fame. My wife remarked to my son, "Look! Tarkan!", and the celebrity turned around to receive my son's comment to his face: "I don't like that man". Ah, well -the brush paints both ways.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Brush With Celebrity: Jackie Leven

Hmmmm, confess to have been taken back a bit by this weeks topic, sleb brushing never having been part of my M.O., even, and I did, had I wanted it so to be. No, I know nobody of note and, give or take the odd meet 'n' greet and autographed output at gigs, none would ever acknowledge me a 2nd time. (OK, Dave Pegg, of Fairport Convention came up to me in Selfridges, Birmingham, accusing me of having been to school with him, which, as he is at least a decade older than me, hit a sensitive......) My stance was more at one with John Peel, radio DJ par excellence, who felt that a personal knowledge of his enthusiasms would assuredly hinder his pleasure, as their feet would be of inevitable clay. And usually were. Or are.

But this guy somehow made me feel different, made me feel I knew him, made me feel responsible, made me care. Have I mentioned him before?

Late to the game, my first knowledge of him was in 1993 or 4, I forget which. It was my first Glastonbury, and I was feeling quietly smug, as a mid 30s middle class professional, returning to a festival, near 20 years on from my last experience. With my then wife we were experiencing a belated rebirth to the joy of music, on hold since the orthodoxy of our careers and parenthood, but, this time, with 4 and 6 year olds in tow. As we put up our tent, Radio Glastonbury played this, and I was smitten. Not because of the song, though I knew it a good one, more the voice, and, it's true, the accent. As a 2nd generation scot, in lifelong english exile, I felt, and still do, the genetic memory of a lore more northern to my own.

I never had picked up on his earlier post-punk existence, latterly glad I hadn't, the drama of his subsequent years adding to the mystique

Over the years I gathered bits and bobs of his output, with, upon my divorce, this song becoming my avatar, an indulgence of some probable conceit, still never getting to see the man live. Finally, about 15 years ago my moment came. Jackie Leven was playing the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham. Sure, I expected more than the 20 odd in the audience, but, as the hours passed, became even more in thrall of this bear of a man, not only a reservoir of great songs, but of better stories. Over the next few years I caught him several times, eventually daring to approach him, getting the odd scrawl on a CD, finding him to be as pleased as I to be engaged in conversation. I guess the point is that he was as reliant on his audience as they were upon him, with a mutual respect, or at least, an acceptance that each required the other. I have no idea whether he ever recognised me, it didn't matter, but this was a man whose act depended and relied upon the interplay with an audience who understood that fact.I was shocked when he suddenly died. I miss him. I never knew him, but I miss him. Here he is, in conversation, in an interview. 

And here he is, alone, with guitar, and his always miked up tapping foot:

I have deliberately strayed from an account of his history and output, hoping these mere snippets may encourage you to delve for yourselves. Please do, but start here. Buy good and buy plenty.

Brush With Celebrity: Jean Shepherd

[purchase a book by Jean Shepherd]
[purchase some recordings by Jean Shepherd]

The inspiration for this theme was a bit that David Letterman used to do when he was on NBC, and his show was stranger (and Dave was nastier) than when he moved to CBS and the earlier timeslot. He called it “Brush With Greatness,” and they would have audience members discuss encounters that they had with celebrities, usually ending with a “writer’s embellishment,” that took the mostly prosaic events to some weirder place. For example—this brief story about selling Ted Koppel classical records, embellished to end with a heavy metal jam with the newsman.

My subject today, Jean Shepherd, would have, I think, appreciated the concept of the writer’s embellishment. Shepherd, who passed away in 1999, was hysterically funny, but he was really more of a humorist than a comedian. He was a raconteur who made his name telling stories on the radio. He was an author, TV personality and worked in movies. There is, if you look online, a pretty large cult of Shepherd lovers who maintain websites devoted to his work, and books have been written about him. If, though, he is remembered broadly today, it is as the writer and narrator of the movie A Christmas Story, which I have to admit, I didn’t really like.  The video above is an early version of the story that later became the movie.

Shepherd’s life story is shrouded by mystery and obfuscation, so although there are many sources for information about him, it probably pays to take much of it with maybe a whole shaker of salt. For example, his obituary in the New York Times, noted that he was “believed to be at least 70.” The obituary, strangely, ends with a statement from a “friend and business advisor” that Shepherd had no survivors, followed by a quote from Shepherd’s living son Randall, mentioning that Shepherd also had a living daughter. He may or may not have been considered for the job hosting the Tonight Show after Steve Allen, but instead the job went to Jack Paar. He might have been the model for the radio host in Kerouac’s On The Road. And he occasionally made public statements that were confounding. He was a man with a huge ego, who seemed to resent the fact that perceived lesser talents were more appreciated by the public. Donald Fagen has written about his conflicted feelings about Shepherd.   If this has piqued your interest about him, and I hope it has, just start Googling.

For 31 years, from 1966-1996, Jean Shepherd performed at Princeton, typically during Reunions, as a fundraiser for WPRB. As a freshman from the New York area, I was aware of Shepherd, was not really knowledgeable about his work. I guess that I considered him more of interest to my parents’ generation. But as second semester started to come to a close in 1979, people at the station started to get excited about “Shep’s” annual appearance. I was planning to stay for Reunions to perform (among other things) with the marching band, so I agreed to help out with the show, which, I was guaranteed, would be amazing.

If anything, it was better than that. Playing to a packed house of about 1,000 in Alexander Hall, in the heat, Shepherd spoke, for about 2 hours without a break, without notes. He told a long, involved story, with digression piled upon digression, before tying up neatly. And, did I mention that it was funny? Not only “ha ha” funny, but poignant, clever and thoughtful. The story was certainly based on things that happened to him, but were embellished just enough to make them amusing. It was really mindblowing.

After the show, we walked over to Holder Hall, and into our basement studio for pizza and beer (sorry, FCC), and conversation with an open mic. Shep, which I now called him, was friendly, interesting and engaging to the staff and people who called in. This was repeated at the end of my sophomore year (where I moved closer to the mic), and again, my junior year, where as program director, I was one of the discussion leaders.

By this time, it was clear to me that Shep had a photographic memory, which explained how he could deliver his shows so perfectly. He remembered my name each year and asked me about the Mets (he was an avid White Sox fan), despite the fact that I was probably one of hundreds of people he met while performing.

As a senior member of the WPRB staff who also had a car, I was tasked to take Shep to his hotel after the show and studio session (so, I didn’t drink that much beer. Really.) If you are familiar with Route 1 near Princeton, you know that it is lined with hotels of various quality, and back in 1981, it was the same, if somewhat sparser. There are nice chain hotels, and independent motels of various reputability. If the place I was supposed to drop Shep off with actually charged by the hour, I wouldn’t have been surprised. He looked at the place, looked at me, and shook his head, saying, in his sonorous voice, that he wouldn’t stay there. Instead, I drove him north on Route 1, to a nicer hotel near Newark Airport. I never heard that he sent the station a bill.

Now, if this was the old Letterman show, I’d tell you that Shep also paid for a room for me, and the next morning, the two of us flew to Vegas for a weekend of fun and excessive drinking. But it isn’t. Instead, I shook his hand and drove back to Princeton, to finish Reunions, for a weekend of fun and excessive drinking.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Where I Live (Istanbul, Turkey)

purchase Robert Johnson "Istanbul Grey"
purchase Ella Fitzgerald "Istanbul ..." (somewhere in this link)

I can lay claim to having swum from Europe to Asia and vice versa – several times. But that’s only one of the many, many perks of living in Istanbul. Istanbul is a city that straddles two continents, and the swim from one continent to the other is less than a mile in most places. My folks used to tell a story about a dowager who claimed to her Atlantic ocean-going companion (with her nose in the air), “I have crossed the Atlantic 5 times “, to which her deck-mate replied, “and I cross from Asia to Europe every day”. She lived in Istanbul.

I grew up with a fortress built in 1452 literally in my back yard – well …  across the street from our house (that’s the castle in the video that accompanies this earlier SMM post). This disconnect made it kind of hard for me to relate – or maybe for my classmates to relate to me – when I began high school in the US: I wasn’t particularly in tune with popular US culture (TV shows, sports statistics …) partly because TV didn’t come to Turkey until around 1970, by which time I was 15. My historical time frame was millennia, not the decades of US history (think: Neolithic, Helenistic ….)

Until 1973, the only way to get from the European to the Asian half of the city was to swim or to take a boat. Crossing the straits meant waiting in interminable lines for a car ferry.  Today, there are two 6 lane bridges spanning the Bosphorus and another one under construction. Yes, it can still take hours to get across the water, but that’s because Istanbul has just about the worst traffic in the world.   On the other hand, Istanbul has been rated (more than once) as one of the best places for events/action.
Ella and Bing

 A partial list of Istanbul events for March 2015 includes many local talents whose names would mean little to you as well as others you would know: Hugh Jackman, Bobby McFarrin, the London Philharmonic, Julio Iglesias – but this winter-season list doesn’t really predict the general trend. I watched Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood  a few years back (and that’s merely my choice).

As far back as Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, the city was attracting attention  - granted, not likely the kind of attention today’s local media-rati would prefer, but hey … they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. (Belly dancers are not Turkish – they are Persian). While, on the one hand, there is a major disconnect between the cultural perceptions of 21st century Turkish youth and those of their fathers/mothers, there is also the realization that local culture is irreplaceable and probably worth preserving – at least in a bell jar. Something to point to, but not necessarily to aspire to. We’d rather wear yoga pants than baggy (shalvar)pants.

Turkish popular music, for the most part (IMHO) is formulaic: pseudo pop tinged with arabesque. That said, there are rare examples of artists working outside the mainstream and creating melanges of East-West synthesis: as on some of Robert Johnsons’s recordings. There is a definite potential for cultural melange where East and West mix, and that is the major part of the attraction of Istanbul.

As we said in "our" attempt to win the 2000 Olympics bid: “Let’s meet where the continents meet.”