Wednesday, November 15, 2017

All The Fixings: Pecan Pie



Golden Smog: Pecan Pie
[purchase]

Getting older mostly sucks. I’m sore, I take medication, I have to watch my diet, and on and on (actually, I just can’t remember everything about getting old that sucks). One good thing, though, is that I now enjoy foods that I never thought that I would like when I was younger. So, hello, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, nuts of all kinds, beets, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, and yogurt. Sorry, broccoli and seafood, I’m still not there (notwithstanding the one oyster I gulped down at Husk in Nashville, a restaurant everyone should try to go to), and I don’t expect that to change.

Pecan pie always looked kind of gross to me. You had these huge nuts that looked like tiny brown brains entombed in some sort of sticky goo. Usually, it was easy to walk right past it to something with chocolate, lots of chocolate. Because chocolate is what desserts are supposed to be. I’m not sure when my opinion changed, but it turns out that pecan pie is not just good, it is amazing. Sweet, smoky and what turns out to be the perfect ratio of goo to crunch. And sometimes there’s bourbon in it. And sometimes there’s chocolate. And sometimes there are both bourbon and chocolate.

The song “Pecan Pie,” is by Golden Smog, the so-called alt-country supergroup that I have written about at length here, and there, so I won’t repeat myself. It was written by Jeff Tweedy, and was originally rejected from Wilco’s first album. Unlike some of the other songs on Golden Smog’s debut, Down By The Old Mainstream, which rock, “Pecan Pie” is more folky and stripped down, with acoustic guitars and mandolins. I’ve seen it described as being about dessert and longing, and that’s about as good a description as I can think of. At the end of this goofy performance at a high school benefit in 2013(!) you can hear Tweedy, a pretty fair songwriter, remark that it is the best song that he has ever written, although you can’t always take him seriously. Nevertheless, he has been known to play it at both Wilco and solo shows (sometimes with Golden Smog friends), so clearly, he enjoys it.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday, at least for me, who was lucky enough to grow up in a family that got along. (And were, and still are, all politically pretty close in our beliefs, mostly preventing fights at the table.) In fact, when I was a kid, I lived up the street from my aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle, and my uncle’s brother’s family also lived in the neighborhood. There were 9 kids, and all of us considered (and still consider) ourselves cousins, even though that wasn’t completely true. We would have huge Thanksgivings, with the three families, plus grandparents, and I can’t remember ever having any real stress.

Of course, over time, Thanksgiving morphs. People move, grow up, marry, divorce and die, changing the dynamic. I remember having to alternate spending Thanksgiving with my parents or my wife’s family, which then merged into a single affair, now at our house. My son has started to alternate years with his fiancée’s family, and a divorce has forced a nephew and niece to only be available every other year. My daughter lives in Spain, and last year was the first Thanksgiving without my father. And this year, my in-laws are not coming, because my father-in-law finds the travel too difficult (so we are bringing them leftovers on Friday). So, it will be a small-ish group getting together next Thursday, for good food, drinks and conversation.

My wife will be making a chocolate pecan pie. All will be good with the world.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

All the Fixings: Let’s Turkey Trot

Little Eva: Let’s Turkey Trot

[purchase]

Ian & the Zodiacs: Let’s Turkey Trot

[purchase]

Back in the days when I moderated here, I would have defined our new theme as “All the Fixings: post songs about items on the table at Thanksgiving.” So we might get songs about cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie before we are done, but the meal centers around the turkey, so that must be our starting point as well. I will be looking for the ultimate version of Turkey in the Straw for this theme, unless someone else beats me to it, but let’s begin with a look at the state of the music industry in 1963.

It would prove to be a year of major upheaval. Four lads from Liverpool would come to the United States, and begin to change the sound of popular music forever. But the year began innocently enough. In February, Little Eva released her third single, Let’s Turkey Trot. Like The Locomotion, it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Little Eva got her start by babysitting for the couple, and they thanked her when they heard her voice by writing hits for her. Like The Locomotion, Let’s Turkey Trot was an attempt to launch a dance craze, but that part never happened. The Turkey Trot was a real dance, and, as Little Eva sings, it would have been danced by Little Eva’s grandparents, to ragtime music. The dance was briefly popular in the years leading up to and through World War I, but it was considered risqué. There was eventually a church led campaign to wipe it out, and the fox trot wound up being both more acceptable and more enduring. So I am not sure why Goffin and King thought the turkey trot should live again, but the British invasion halted that idea. Let’s Turkey Trot reached # 20 on the charts, but that was a disappointment after Little Eva’s earlier success.

The song was popular enough to inspire cover versions, however. Jan and Dean’s version was not one of their better moments. But the cover by Ian & the Zodiacs has something to tell us about pop music in 1963.The band was as talented as many of the merseybeat bands who followed in the wake of the Beatles, but they never caught on, except in Germany. One problem was that they were never able to get green cards to perform in the United States, which kept them from gaining traction here. They also may have been hurt by the fact that most of their material consisted of covers. Still, the Beatles did plenty of covers of American hits in the beginning, so I offer this version of Let’s Turkey Trot as a glimpse of what the song might have sounded like if the Beatles had covered it.

Finally, I wondered what the dance itself looked like. For the answer, I had to dig up this clip fromNCIS:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Train: Silver Train

Purchase Silver Train: The Rolling Stones  or Johnny Winter


Goat's Head Soup, by the Rolling Stones, came out in 1973 and marks the next to last entry into what I believe is one of the great artistic and creative runs by any band, ever.

This string of greatness started in 1968 with Beggar's Banquet, wherein the band left behind the psychedelic niceties of the Flower Power era and emerged from that silliness as full fledged rock n roll roughnecks, carrying on switchblade sharp and full of  ballsy, cock-sure swagger on their next five albums. Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Goat's Head Soup gave way to the  glorious finale, It's Only Rock 'n Roll. The Stones cemented greatness with these albums; aspirations of pure genius, despite, or perhaps because of, the chaos in the world around them. Their reactions to the madness of the Viet Nam era, their own bad habits and the darkness they sought out through their own arcane desires and misguided investments into the under world of substance abuse--all of it comes out in these albums. And the legends, even if it's only that--legends--make the accomplishment of these albums even more astounding. Lesser mortals would have faded long before approaching anything quite as grand as the Stone's '68 to '74 run.

To have produced such greatness, so many amazing rock songs, sounds and words that were iconic almost as soon as they were pressed to vinyl and will remain so, for as long as rock 'n roll is rock 'n roll? It's amazing, akin to the New Testament of the Bible of Rock. Prophetic and significant, timely and vital still. Fresh blood still runs in the grooves of these albums and will continue to be an influence on music in perpetuity.

One of my favorite tracks off Goat's Head Soup is the 6th track, "Silver Train". It's almost an afterthought, after an opening set of five utterly iconic songs ("Dancing with Mr. D", "100 Years Ago", "Coming Down Again", "Heartbreaker", and "Angie").  It's a guitar boogie, with a harmonica/train whistle warning sounding throughout, as if telling you to get off the tracks. The guitars chug and slide, playing havoc off one another, but it's Ian Stewart's piano, building from a rhythm check into something that threatens to derail the whole song into a beautiful chaotic wreck that moves this track at such a fevered pace.

In researching the song, I didn't realize that the title was a reference to Johnny Winter, the albino guitar king, who, after hearing a demo of the Stone's version, recorded "Silver Train" himself and released it on Still Alive and Well. His version came out just a few months prior to the Stones', and it is pure jam, too.  Johnny Winter is best known for "Rock n Roll, Hoochie Koo", which is really kind of nuts, when you listen to what he did on the guitar and hear how hot he could light up a fret board. Too bad his genius is often relegated to getting lazy football fans our of their seats on game day...



I give you both versions today. I've had my acoustic in Open G for a few weeks now, working hard at learning "Tumblin' Dice" (off Exile), but I'm going to give "Silver Train" a go, as well. Nothing better than learning from the best...


Friday, November 10, 2017

TRAIN: LAST TRAIN TO LHASA/BANCO DE GAIA

I was slow to get on the techno train, electronica/dance a difficult ask of my guitar shaped ears. Half the battle was getting my head around the genres, so many and various seem the sub-stations, from techno to dubstep, deep house to psy-ambient, slimewilt to naughtystep, I just get bogged down in the detail. But it seems there isn't much ever explored on this site, perhaps a giveaway to our ages, or maybe the still lingering lip-service to not including anything too recent, as was the unwritten rule in the downloadable mp3 days of blogging. But the truth is that I love much of it and have taken it and all it's labels I don't understand to my heart, even if the only dancing I do is in the car, whilst driving.


This guy, Banco, or Toby Marks to give him his given, is one of my favourites, ploughing his furrow of world music sample-based soundscapes for some, gulp, near 30 years. His amalgam of afro and reggae, middle-eastern and pan-european folk musics, underpinned and over layered by dense percussion and dubby bass-lines, never fails to lift me. In a truth I find extraordinary, but maybe unsurprisingly, and like so many in electronic dance music, he started his musical odyssey in a heavy metal band, as the drummer. Then, following a move to Portugal: Banco de Gaia is portuguese for Gaia's bank, Gaia being the earth mother and personification of all life in greek mythology, he invested in a digital sampler, just as the rave culture was sweeping mainland europe, having been swept out of his homeland by police crackdown and legislature. The track I have featured here is from an early release, remaining his best known piece of music, subject to numerous remixes and revisions in the intervening years. The rhythm is unmistakably and intrinsically that of a train, carried along with a panoply of Tibetan sounds. Or Tibetan sounding sounds. It was a 1995 UK independent album chart topper and has found it's way onto innumerable compilations of both straight world music and dance music ever since.

Marks has continued to produce music, usually self-produced and released on his own label, a true cottage industry. He has also toured solidly, both as a DJ with decks and, more recently, as a live band. I was lucky enough to catch him in that former guise at Bearded Theory music festival last spring. And terrific it was, I still having no idea "how" he, or any other musician reliant on computers and decks does it, fitting it all together so seamlessly and seismically intricate. Detractors say it is cheating, all pre-recorded ersatz spontaneity, but it so isn't, lacking only an explanation of how I can know that. (If you are a detractor, go bite on your prejudice and experience it in a live setting. You may even become converted.)

Have some live, the same tune, by the band:


Explore!

Train: Talking Vietnam

[purchase]

Our fearless leader made it clear when announcing this theme that we should consider all of the meanings of the word “train” when posting. I’m always game to try jumping the tracks, so I wanted to write about something other than a mode of transportation before this theme left the station. Now, I know that they say that people don’t want to know how the sausage gets made, but here are some behind the scenes secrets about how I (and I suspect most of the writers here) approach a theme. First, you hope that something jumps out at you immediately. Failing that, you pore over your music collection hoping for inspiration. Finally, there are sites that allow you to search for words in song lyrics. That’s how I decided to write about Phil Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam.”

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War recently, and I’m still in the relatively early years of the conflict—at the point that the United States is poised to go all in, and send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight a war that most of the American leadership privately believed was unwinnable. So, writing about a song about the war made sense. I also wrote my senior thesis back in the Stone Age about television’s coverage of the war, so it is something that has interested me for years. I was almost 14 when Saigon fell, and was against the war, but was just a few years too young to really have remembered the details of the fighting or the protests. But by the time the US involvement ended, I was certainly aware of what was going on. Another thing about writing these posts is that I do research.

Turns out, Ochs’ “Talking Vietnam” is considered to be the very first protest song that specifically mentioned Vietnam. It was released in 1964—months before the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which was probably the first time that a significant number of Americans found out that our country had been involved in that obscure, far away country for years.  In fact, a slightly different set of lyrics to the song were published in Broadside's September 20, 1963 issue! So, it is pretty remarkable that Ochs was already so pissed off, and so well informed, that he could write such a powerful, detailed protest song.

The first stanza of the song is:

Sailing over to Vietnam, 
Southeast Asian Birmingham. 
Well training is the word we use, 
Nice word to have in case we lose. 
Training a million Vietnamese 
To fight for the wrong government and the American Way. 

Ochs recognized that while at that point, the American mission was officially “training,” in a war, trainers by necessity fight alongside their trainees. In 1964, Ochs also already recognized something that took our leadership years to understand—if they ever did—that the South Vietnamese government wasn’t at that time, or ever, one that in any way inspired its people. And while the failure of the war was, of course, caused by many different things, I think that there is a fair argument that the lack of a government in the south that had the loyalty of its people was the root cause that doomed anything that was tried.

Stanza three:

Well the sergeant said it's time to train 
So I climbed aboard my helicopter plane. 
We flew above the battle ground 
A sniper tried to shoot us down. 
He must have forgotten, we're only trainees. 
Them Commies never fight fair. 

Again, Ochs points out the disingenuousness of the position that the American soldiers were there (at that point) for training, not combat.

The final mention of training is in the next stanza:

Friends the very next day we trained some more 
We burned some villages down to the floor. 
Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide, 
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide. 
Threw all the people in relocation camps, 
Under lock and key, made damn sure they're free.

Again, Ochs is somewhat prescient, referring to soldiers burning villages. Clearly, this was not unknown, but it wasn’t until 1965 that Morley Safer’s report on CBS showing this actually occurring became a sensation. Of course, American troops remained for another decade.

As a student of history, I believe that the world today is affected by the past. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how this country is still dealing with issues from the Civil War, and how the whole world is still affected by World War I. I also think that you can draw direct lines from the Vietnam War era to problems that we are facing today.  Remarkably, Phil Ochs seemed to see it coming before almost anyone else.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Train: Train in Vain


The Clash: Train in Vain
[purchase]
Back when the original wave of punk rock was hitting the US, I took to saying that punk would die off when the musicians learned to play their instruments. I was not completely right. Bands like the Sex Pistols literally died off when members succumbed to drugs. There were also those who stubbornly stayed with the style long after they were capable of more, and their music began to sound less and less authentic. But when I was right, we got vital and amazing music from people like Johnny Lydon, and we eventually got two tone ska. And we got the best of The Clash. The Clash never lost their rebelliousness, continuing to make the music they wanted to, and in complete disregard to market dictates. Their monster hit with Rock the Casbah was taken by some as a sell out, but I view it more as the marketplace catching up to them than the other way around. Before that happened, however, there was Train in Vain. The song comes from the album London Calling, which has many of the band’s best songs of political and social criticism. But Train in Vain has a classic theme for its subject: a relationship gone wrong. In the hands of The Clash, the song was propulsive rock, and very powerful. But there were other ways to hear it.

Annie Lennox: Train in Vain
[purchase]
Annie Lennox heard classic R&B. Her version became one of her biggest songs as a solo artist. It reveals a singer with legitimate chops as a soul shouter. She displays a grit here that was never a part of her vocal style with the Eurythmics, although their late rock experiments hint at it. This arrangement has a synth horn section that is little more than an idea, gone almost as soon as it appears. I would love to hear an old school R&B version that uses a live horn section all the way through the song.

Dwight Yoakam: Train in Vain
[purchase]
You could say that Dwight Yoakam brought a punk sensibility to country music when he debuted. He has always delivered high energy performances on his albums. Here, he blends his Bakersfield-inspired sound with bluegrass, to great effect. Now, Train in Vain has banjo and mandolin solos, and it all works beautifully.

Smocking Flamingo: Train in Vain
[purchase]
It was to be expected that there would be at least one Jamaican version of Train in Vain. The Clash, as they branched out from punk, were inspired by both ska and reggae, and their work in these genres was almost certainly a major inspiration for the two tone ska movement. Smocking Flamingo is a reggae and ska instrumental jam band, and the song suits them perfectly.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Train: Train of Angels/ JoeSatriani



Joe Satriani's Train of Angels has the driving force of trains.
It has the driving force of Satriani's guitar style.

The Internet [world] agrees: Satriani is more or less immediately recognizable, Having heard him once, most every one can identify him when then hear him again. his web site says he's " the most recognizable guitar voice of his time". Maybe so.

I am always in search of music that is legally free. I equally follow sites that legally publish media that may not be advertised as free - but, because of the vagaries of the rules governing "free", end up being legally free. As a result, I was surprised [and impressed] to find the above link to some of Satriani's works available for free online.

There are several other bands who embrace [some form of] free distribution of their work. [I've hit on the Grateful Dead again and again here], but each new discovery makes me feel better. I likewise share mine - but I do covers, and that's nowhere near the same as giving away originals.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

TRAIN: DOWNTOWN TRAIN/ROD STEWART

WhaaaaatTF? Surely a serious muso (sic) site like this wouldn't mess up so big time as the above heading? Rod bloody Stewart, fer chrissake... But hang on, hold that thought for a moment. And of course I know it isn't the original, but, whisper, it's better, an unpopular viewpoint, but still mine. Plus  it came at a time when there was still, just, a smidgeon of credibility in the Stewart cache. I think it initially appeared as a new song on the 'Greatest Hits' compilation of 1989, one of the first CDs I ever bought. A massive worldwide hit as a single, it probably introduced the name of its writer, Tom Waits, to many and certainly then to me. Like many, I then sourced the original, finding Waits' voice a step too far for my sensibilities, a situation that remains to this day, no matter how hard I have tried. But Stewart glides his rasp effortlessly through the sweeping chorus, deservedly winning the Grammy for best male vocalist that year, the richly layered backing pepped by Stewart's one-time boss, in his eponymous group, Jeff Beck on slide guitar.



So what is it with Stewart, a man whose music I had earlier loved, both with the Faces and alone? If 'Greatest Hits' was one of my first CD purchases, 'Sing It Again, Rod' had been one of my first on vinyl. My generation had been endeared of his boozy and shambolic persona, with the uncanny knack of both having a way with his own words and music, and being able to pick plum covers. The rot had seemed to set in with his transatlantic crossing, SWIDT, to be with Britt Ekland. As ever is the way, the fickle british uber-fans took umbrage with his fame and fortune and left him to their wives and girlfriends to enjoy, whose patronage lingers to this day, as my elder sister can testify. The odd gem could still be cherry-picked from his catalogue: the boy could still know a good song when he heard one, although that tolerance became ever more strained by his discovery of the great american songbook. Was he the first rocker to plough this lucrative furrow? Though I doubt we would have been spared Mr Dylans's forays into similar territory, I can think of many who might not have had that thought had Stewart, or his bank-manager, not had that thought first. ( I lie awake in dread of the forthcoming Seal tux'n'tapdancing travesty 'Standards.')

So, too, what is it with Waits, a supremely talented songwriter, whose songs, when covered by other voices, I adore? Am I alone in finding his corncrake throat-clearing anaethema? I sometimes think I must be, my friends and peers all seemingly in awe of him and his deranged Charlie Chaplin meets Charles Bukowski image, with his musical arrangements more of the foundry than the footlights. Or do I troll? (No, which is why I also include, for balance, or proof as I call it, his version of 'Downtown Train' below, with a couple more to take away the taste.)


Everything But The Girl


and Mary Chapin Carpenter



Get some versions here.
Me? I'm heading back under my bridge.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Train: Somewhere Down The Crazy River

 
Robbie Robertson: Somewhere Down The Crazy River
[purchase]

Writing for three different music blogs often results in crossover posts. I wrote about The Jam here recently, and have just submitted a piece about another Jam song to Cover Me. And I recently wrote about The Last Waltz at Another Old Guy, so I guess that I have Robbie Robertson on my mind.

Strangely, though, this song popped into my head, despite the fact that its title doesn’t have the key word in it, and would seem more appropriate for a Boat theme. And yet, it works.  It took Robertson 11 years before he released his first, self-titled, solo album in 1987, and tried to stretch beyond the Americana sounds that he played for so many years with The Band. The album was produced by Daniel Lanois, who was also working with U2 and Peter Gabriel at the same time, and all of the members of U2, as well as Gabriel and members of his band all appear on the album. Lanois’ typically dreamy, atmospheric sound pervades the album.

“Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is an odd song. Robertson only sang lead on two Band songs, and Levon Helm has claimed that Robertson’s mic was off during the Last Waltz concert (and the Internet rumor mill has his mic off during most Band shows), so it is not Robertson’s singing that he will be remembered for. According to Lanois, he secretly recorded Robertson telling a story about hanging out with Levon Helm in Arkansas, fishing with dynamite on hot nights. Because that’s apparently what one does. Meanwhile, Robertson was fiddling with a Suzuki Omnichord, which Lanois also recorded, and he superimposed the storytelling over that, creating the basic tracks for the song. In between the spoken word parts, which have a sort of Tom Waits feel, Robertson sings, perfectly well, I might add:

Catch the blue train
To places never been before
Look for me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river
Catch the blue train
All the way to Kokomo
You can find me
Somewhere down the crazy river
Somewhere down the crazy river

In each case, the second “Somewhere Down the Crazy River,” is sung, somewhat distorted, by Sam Llanas of The BoDeans. Also featured on the track are fine bass playing and drumming by Tony Levin and Manu Katché, both of  Gabriel’s band (among other things). And Bono is somewhere in the mix, too. It is curiously compelling, which is a tribute to the combination of Robertson’s charismatic, deep voice, his storytelling ability, Lanois’ production and the talent of the musicians. And despite its unconventional sound, it was released as the album’s first single, and was successful.

The video for the song (above), was directed, like The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, whose infatuation with Robertson’s face was still in force. Robertson’s lust interest is played by Maria McKee, at the time the lead singer of the pioneering “cow-punk” band Lone Justice, who were a mid-80s “next big thing” that never happened. Which in itself was sad, since McKee’s voice is incredible (and her solo career never went anywhere, either). She sings on a different song on the album, and one can only assume that she was chosen to be in the video for her looks. When asked about her “acting skills,” McKee was quoted as saying: "... what did I do, I was just being licked by Robbie..."

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Train:Locomotive Breath





purchase [Locomotive Breath]


I confess that I was old enough to be in the demographic of those who purchased the Monkees <Last Train ...>. No excuses: that (and many others like Aretha and the Temptations and the Box Tops) was how I got into "pop". But I wasn't writing @ SMM  back in 2009 when a variation of the train theme came around once afore. There were posts galore - like pages and pages of posts!

But even back then, despite their best efforts, the SMM team couldn't exhaust the <train> theme.
Before I get to Aqualung's Locomotive Breath, it's worth pointing out that the chug-chugging locomotive motion is a staple of rock, not far removed from the "twist", that arm & leg flailing dance style that generated such fear about lost generations gyrating to evil music. It must not have been lost on Ian Anderson when he and his wife penned Locomotive Breath.
(Let's not go deeper into the Spanish etymology behind "loco")

One reviewer pointed out that there are few songs that truly capture the energy of the train: the massive engine that pulls heavy metal wagon after wagon over hill and dale (and the men that feed the beast inside a la John Henry) Louis Jordan's Choo Choo Ch'Boogie is a great song and it gets us part way there towards the train experience but it lacks the weight/heavy that Jethro Tull brings to bear.

Locomotive Breath takes it a step further. In reality, there's always Ian Anderson's style: nearly breathless chugging that emulates the true choo-choo of the locomotive the song names.

Aqualung itself is a fine album in many ways. It was the album that made Jethro Tull big, and Locomotive Breath was one of the charting hits. That's not to say that their albums Stand Up and Benefit weren't pretty good, but it was Aqualung that turned the corner for them.

There is a snippet of an interview with Ian Anderson at SongFacts' page for the song and a link to the full interview which you might read if you want to go deeper.

Whatever Anderson's original intentions for the album, and however the band finally recorded the song, the train effect is ... effective. The flute as a vehicle and in particular, Anderson's breathy flute style is well-suited to the locomotive metaphor.




Sunday, October 29, 2017

Train: God’s 9:05

J Shogren: God’s 9:05

[purchase]

Our new theme may be deliberately ambiguous, but it gives me the perfect excuse to share a favorite train song. We have a rule here at Star Maker Machine that a song must be at least five years old. It must have stood the test of time, and shown staying power. So I could not share this one last time we looked at trains, because it was too new at the time. That is no longer the case, so here it is. J Shogren has one of the most wonderfully sly senses of humor of any songwriter I know. Here, he imagines that we all board a train to the afterlife when we die. We hand in our tickets, most of us, and the train is either an elevated train or a subway, with us having no choice in the matter, usually. But Shogren imagines such a train being boarded by two characters from legend, John Henry and Casey Jones. Such men would never be content to simply wait and see where such an important train would take them. Their training, you might say, would give them more options than that. So it’s a stretch, I admit, but there is another way the song could be said to fit our new theme.

J Shogren is an artist I discovered for my old music blog, Oliver di Place, and I am happy to say he has become a friend since. He has one of the most extraordinary bios of anyone, musician or not, that I know of, and I encourage you all to seek out that information. You may ask when you see it if it is just an elaborate tall tale, but I researched it, and it is all true. I will leave the details for you to discover, in hopes that you will also find more of his music.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Listen: Hear Me Lord



purchase [Silver Linings]

Time's just about up for the <listen> theme and I confess I haven't found the time to go as deep as I had hoped for this one and I still have to put up the next theme. I could have left it for our traditional <leftovers> theme after Thanksgiving, but .. no. So, I'll take a page from the early days of SMM when many posts weren't much more than: "Here's one for you."

There are famous quotes that say "you hear but you do not listen."
There are others that say "You listen but you do not hear."
Is this any different from the dichotomy between seeing and looking?

I guess it is fair to include a song that includes "hear" but not the listen of the current theme.
Heck ... any song that includes Bonnie Raitt is OK any time.

This one sounds a bit like Paul Simon from Graceland.
Hear Me Lord from Raitt's 2002 album Silver Linings was written by Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe and you could do worse than to head off down that path for a listen or two.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Listen: Stop, Look and Listen/Jeff Beck



purchase [ Blow By Blow]


It may have been Beck-Ola that turned me on to Jeff Beck but I can't really single out a particular piece from the album that has stuck with me. On the other hand, my copy of the 1975 Blow By Blow 33RPM album probably had worn out grooves from being played so much. It's no longer in my possession to check.

<Stop Look and Listen> from the "Flash" album almost a decade after Blow By Blow wouldn't be in my list of Jeff Beck favorites. The song just happens to fit our theme and Beck hasn't had much written about him here.

I actually saw him in concert ... must have been about '72, in Philly.

Listening to Beck again after a few years, I am struck by how eclectic he is: there are elements of all sorts of musical styles.

Beck has paid his dues: one of the Yardbirds, almost one of Led Zeppelin, known by all in the field, played with ... you name him/her.

ConsequenceOfSound has a raw review of his latest =- after a 6 year absence. You might enjoy checking it out. I did.

The album from whence Stop, Look and Listen comes (Flash, from 1985) is noted as a time when Rod Stewart re-united with the Jeff Beck group. (Come again? Rod Stewart and the Jeff Beck Group? Guess I didn't know that!) The <Flash> album itself has various other curiosities on it: covers of "Wild Thing" and "People Get Ready" Beck himself [apparently] didn't particularly care for the album, but it did pretty well on the charts.

But maybe my favorite Beck:

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Listen: Are You Out There



Dar Williams: Are You Out There
[purchase]

Dar Williams is about 6 years younger than me, and grew up about 12 miles as the crow flies from me (or about 25 miles driving, on a route that takes you virtually past where I am writing this). Which is a long way of saying that we both lived in the New York area, at roughly the same time. Meaning that we had pretty much the same choices of radio stations to listen to, growing up.

I’ve written ad nauseam about how I became a music fan, and how important for me it was to listen to the radio as a teenager—mostly WNEW-FM—until I headed off to college and WPRB. That was how you learned about music then, for the most part, and where the DJs were people like you who really cared about the minutiae, about the trivia, about the connections, about good segues, about the music. And also, in those days, the DJs, and musicians, were not reticent about talking about politics and other issues, because the radio stations weren’t run and programmed by some conglomerate devoted to creating a uniform, sellable product that sounded the same wherever you happened to be.

So, when I heard this Dar Williams song, about the importance that listening to the radio had to her, it clearly resonated with me. In preparing to write this piece, I found a bunch of live videos of Dar performing this song, often with her introductions included. She sometimes talks generally about the power of radio to introduce listeners to music, and always mentions that the song was inspired by her listening, in her teenage years, to WBAI, a radical, left wing station probably best known for having played George Carlin’s Filthy Words routine in 1973, which resulted in an iconic Supreme Court case that defined the government’s ability to regulate obscene and indecent material on the airwaves. Williams talks about how the station’s discussion of all sorts of conspiracy theories made her think, and the music opened her mind. In addition, there are references in the song to WRSI, 93.9 “The River,” a station in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she was living when she wrote the song (and which is also, I must add, the home of Smith College, the alma mater of my wife and daughter, where I was last week to attend the groundbreaking for the school’s library renovation).

For me, WBAI was something that I respected, but never listened to—too much talking, not enough music for me, but the song is really universal, at least for those of us who grew up obsessed with radio (and are still obsessed). I’ve long been a fan of Williams as both a songwriter and singer—she was probably one of the first artists that WFUV got me hooked on, her appearance at the Clearwater Festival in the 90s was the main lure for my family to attend our first one, and her song, “When I Was A Boy,” was a family favorite, reminding us of our daughter as a child, around the time the song was released.

Dar, and Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, joined together in Cry, Cry, Cry a few years back, but after one album and some touring, they went their separate ways, for the most part, reuniting last summer at Clearwater for a fun, if sloppy and under rehearsed set. They are back now on the road for a mini-tour, which will be stopping in Tarrytown this weekend, and my wife and I will be there, despite having to fight our way through the Halloween parade and block party right by the Music Hall.

Listen: Listen to the Lion



Purchase Van Morrison's "Listen to the Lion" or from the masterful St. Dominic's Preview

Van Morrison's "Listen to the Lion" is an 11 minute epic, a magisterial hymn. Orchestral, blooming with strings, a shower of cymbal and piano trills and delicately teetering guitars that flash like lightning over the seesaw vocal line, where words and utterances of grunts, guttural inflections and non-verbal cadences and tones--so much more than "ohs" and "ahs"--sound equally poetic.

No one but Van Morrison could deliver a song like "Listen to the Lion." For all that I said above, hallmarks of Van's music from the 60s and 70s, plus the poetic vibe of a transcendental troubadour delivering soulful, heartfelt reflections on one's place in the mystic lacework of the universe, there is something special, yet utterly intangible, about his music.

"Listen to the Lion" shouldn't really work--it has none of the snap jazz kick of say "Moon Dance" or the dirty swagger of Them's "Gloria" or "Here Comes the Night". But, like much of what he did on that incredible string of 1968's Astral Weeks to 1973's Hard Nose the Highway, the music doesn't so much defy as transcend classification. There's pop, soul, jazz, folk--a veritable jukebox of genre and sounds. (Van Morrison was--is--if nothing else, a master of soul.) Yet, to me, there was always something indefinable in Van Morrison's music. How did he create such off-center harmonies, singing with a vocal delivery like the rise and fall of a mad hatter on the run?

Van Morrison's music, from a certain period, is like the amalgamation of everything good about music, perhaps what God would have envisioned when He invented the idea of music. Everything is there: a fleet of musicians playing an array of instruments that only rarely make it on to a rock record. The vocalizations are incantation, repetitive like a grand soul singer, and he always manages to cast a spell with that stuttered, off-track floating delivery.  He rises from despair to joyousness, carrying emotion on a wing in the air, and while a phenomenal writer, he needs little more than a few repeated phrases to create a poetic image rich in tone and as colorful as a painted masterpiece. The brilliance in "Listen to the Lion" is in it's breathlessness. A hushed masterpiece; an epic ballad of an imagined diaspora, a payer to a higher being, calling the soul to a journey that has no true destination. An evocation of something spiritual and beautiful that is unnamable. An invocation of the animal soul inside us, growling to be released.

"Listen to the Lion" is visceral, beautiful, a prayer sung rather than spoken.  Proof of a thesis I didn't know even existed: That vocals are far more important than words.             

Thursday, October 19, 2017

LISTEN: TO THE MUSIC/DOOBIE BROTHERS

This has to be one of the most magical bits of riffing in music, I sooooo love this simple sounding casual wrist action, as patented by the Doobie's Tom Johnston, singer and guitarist, of many, in the early incarnation of the band, as well as the writer of this song. It was clearly a sound he enjoyed, as it reprises often in other songs, notably the big early other song they are famous for. And, does it remind you of anything? Let me give you a clue, here's Nile Rogers explaining his style. But that doesn't matter, so glorious a sound it is, in any hands.


But it isn't just the guitar, it is the subtle appearances of what sounds like some mandolin after the first chorus, the banjo slowly leaking through during and after the second, and all the flanging/phasing effects so beloved of the time. (God, I miss flanging. Or is it phasing......) Did I say it had two drummers? Surely the first two drummers on a big hit single in history. Or my memory It is the sound of joy on a plate.

Over to Johnston, who later explained his inspiration, in a never more 70s way:

"The chord structure of it made me think of something positive, so the lyrics that came out of that were based on this utopian idea that if the leaders of the world got together on some grassy hill somewhere and either smoked enough dope or just sat down and just listened to the music and forgot about all this other bullshit, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian and very unrealistic (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time." 

Who could argue with that?

I always felt a bit sad about the Doobie Brothers, this earlier raw and less polished aspect of their sound sometimes a little airbrushed out by the smoother Michael McDonald years. Sure, a terrific and gifted singer and interpreter, but why were my beloved hippy band singing philly soul, something I couldn't embrace until a new century beckoned. Did Johnston feel the same? Having started the band and been the main focus, from their tentative start in 1970, breakthrough album, 'Toulouse Street', in 1972, from which this song comes, he left in 1975, nominally from a hospital bed, suffering from what was called road stress. Actually a duodenal ulcer. But the die had been cast, the band slowly seeping in soul and smooth jazz music sounds ahead of that, as ex-Steely Dan-ner Jeff Baxter joined the band. With Johnston in hospital, his Dan alumnus, McDonald, was invited in. (I accept this may be a slightly unfair stance to take, one part of the Doobie style always being the contributions of all, but the Johnston bits were my favourite. )

Since then Johnston has been in and out of the band a couple of times, initially rejoining a near-original line-up in 1989, stimulated by an almost accidental reunion of the by then legion of ex-members available two years earlier. Officially he remains, with Patrick Simmons, singer and guitarist, alongside him at the beginning, and the only permanently present member during the band's on-off history. I guess, for me, they are the two true siblings of this fraternal band. (Is here the place to state I once thought all these contemporaneous bands of brothers just had funny american names, imagining, as well as Mr and Mrs Doobie and their sons, so also Mr and Mrs Burrito, let alone Mr and Mrs Freak, that most hirsute of families? Thought not.)

Back to the song, such is the catchiness of the beat that it is no surprise it captured a few covers. However, fascinatingly, both the two I enjoy most come, arguably, from artists who probably picked up and on the band in their blue-eyed soul phase. So, the Isley Brothers (who were):


and Candi Staton:



I still prefer the original. Here!

Listen: Listen Mr Bilbo

Pete Seeger: Listen Mr Bilbo

[purchase]

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party was the one that welcomed racists. One such was Theodore Bilbo, Senator from Mississippi from 1935 to his death in 1947. Bilbo was one of the most important Southern racist senators that Roosevelt courted to win passage of his New Deal programs. Bilbo boasted of his membership in the Ku Klux Klan, and he promoted segregation and Jim Crow laws throughout his career. Listen Mr Bilbo was written by Robert and Adrienne Claiborne in 1946, the year of Bilbo’s last Senate campaign. Robert Claiborne performed with Pete Seeger, so that would be where Seeger learned the song. I have not been able to find a recording of the song by Robert Claiborne, if there even was one. Bilbo had by this time made himself the face of Southern racism, and of bigotry more broadly. Claiborne’s song is a reminder of how important all the people Bilbo hated were in American history.

Peter Paul and Mary: Listen Mr Bilbo

[purchase]

By 1990, when Peter Paul and Mary recorded Listen Mr Bilbo, Theodore Bilbo himself was largely a forgotten figure, but the attitudes he embodied were still very much with us. So they sang the song as Listen Mr Bigot, but they kept the original title. Where Pete Seeger kept the arrangement simple, just him and his banjo, Peter Paul and Mary created a musical setting that reminds us of the cultural contributions made by minorities, especially black musicians. The song has eerie echoes in our situation today, so it may be time for someone to make a new recording of it.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

LISTEN: Listen to Her Heart


Purchase Listen to Her Heart

I'm still grieving over the death of Tom Petty, so, though I've written about him many times, there's got to be a place in our blog for a mention of the Heartbreaker's "Listen to Her Heart."

From 1978's You're Gonna Get It!, "Listen to Her Heart", more so than any other early Heartbreaker's track, helped contribute to the new wave label that clung to the band for so long. And for good reason: the chiming, chorus-drenched guitar, working in a groove over tub drums and the tranced out vocal lines all do sound...modern.  It's a great tune, driving and unique, an FM radio rocker from the AM era, a stadium-style anthem that bounced as hard as it grooved. I've always loved the fade out on the song, where Campbell's guitar lead and the Tench's piano line compete in a crescendoing melody, winding up, then fading out entirely, in that sad way that a great song is one that you wish wasn't so short, though it's compact brevity is part of what makes it so great to begin with. A staple gun shot of a track.

Apparently, Petty wrote the song in response to Ike Turner hitting on Petty's wife. I'd never heard that, but between Wikipedia and re-runs of VH1's Behind the Music, you can learn a hell of a lot...


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

LISTEN: TO THE RADIO/NANCI GRIFFITH

Spoilt for choice, really, songs about the radio abound all over, and it is the immediate word association I link to listen, watching or touching the radio seeming always a bit pointless. Let alone smelling. But there are only a few that go as far as to spell it out, and Nanci came up top of my pile this morning.



And I've been wondering what's been happening to Nanci Griffith of late. For a time, in the 80s, she was huge over here, well, as huge as what-was-then-country-and-is-now-americana got in the UK at that time. She seemed to be forever touring her neat little ankle socks off, perhaps taking advantage of the local enthusiasms, playing venues such as the Birmingham Irish Centre on more than one occasion. (Come to think, there has always been a hibernian appetite for twangy guitars and half her band were from Ireland, so maybe the clue is in the name of the hall.) I snapped up all her early records up until suddenly I reached peak Nanci, round about the brace of covers albums she put out, somehow feeling she had lost her muse. The truth, it seems, is more prosaic, she was losing her health, with breast cancer, treated successfully, and a prolonged spell of what was (euphemistically?) called writers block. There have been sporadic records this century, but her innocent sparkle seems anachronistic now. But then, hell, it was a delight, her quirky introductions, all in look at li'l ol' Texas me high school prom voice, giving me as much delight as the songs. I strongly commend her 'One Fair Summer Evening' live opus from 1988 to catch that flavour at its sweetest, just one stir ahead of saccharine.


So this song, 'Listen to the Radio', what about it? Well, it's from her 8th record, 'Storms', the one where she was being groomed slightly away from her folk-country hybrid into a hoped for wider appeal, with a more easily consumed and slightlier (slighter?) AOR sensibility. Produced by Glyn Johns, the alchemist of the early Eagles output, and without a fiddle or a steel guitar in sight, it was initially dissed by the purists, but I have to say its legacy has lasted longer than its forbears. It sounds good to these ears, my delight heightened as I read the names of Bernie Leadon, Albert Lee and Jerry Donoghue amongst the contributing musicians. The lyrics are typical Griffith, harking back to west texas backroads, nostalgia tinged with regret, loneliness never far away, but :
                                           
                                           When you can't find a friend  
                                           You've still got the radio  
                                           When you can't find a friend  
                                           You've still got the radio …,

words with which I can relate with ease. So my days by the radio were an oceanwide away, a room in a shared house in London, south of the thames, but, 10 years later, settled in Birmingham, I could remember well the feeling. Do people still listen to the radio in this way, I wonder? I know I don't, beyond an occasional catch of the morning news in the car. Are there now songs about Spotify playlists, or YouTube channels? Perhaps there are.

Go on, then, listen to the radio.......

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Listen: Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Sharon Clark: Do You Want to Know a Secret

[purchase]

The first word of this song is also our new theme: Listen. I can think of a number of great songs for this theme. Perhaps that is because songwriters feel a certain degree of insecurity. They come to a point where they feel they must ask us to listen to their work, regardless of how popular they may be at the time.

Certainly, The Beatles should not have had that problem. The whole world was listening, even in the early part of their career that this song comes from. On the other hand, ask any random group of people to make a list of Beatles songs, and Do You Want to Know a Secret will come pretty far down the list. The song is a fairly simple pop love song of the sort The Beatles once excelled at. Heard today, those “doo da doo” backing vocals sound pretty hokey. In part, however, that is because the later musical innovations of The Beatles made such devices all but obsolete. Indeed, I listened to many versions of this song to prepare for this post, and no one keeps the doo da doo’s.

Do You Know a Secret is not covered that often, and it seems to present a challenge to many who have tried. True, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas had a hit with it the same year the Beatles version debuted, but that early cover does not add much to the musical conversation. I listened to very unfortunate club, pop, jazz, and new wave versions that just completely lose track of the song. When I did find hints of where to take the song, it was in the world of jazz. Still, Sharon Clark, who is far more of a secret than she should be, is the only one who I heard who finds the way to make the song her own. Her small band Brazilian tinged version gives the song a sensual intimacy that is suggested by the lyrics. The doo da doo’s become a piano line that works perfectly with the song’s tropical groove. The vocal, if you are going to do the song this way, needs to be quiet but passionate, and Clark delivers beautifully.

Friday, October 13, 2017

True Stories: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down




purchase [The Last Waltz]



Who was Virgil Caine? Quora notes that there is a town called Virgil in Caine county Ohio, but the leads to Mr Caine seem to peter out at about that point.

Robbie Robertson (song credits) appears to have gotten help from Levon Helm (from AR) with the historical data for the song. The events are certainly true: the desolation at the end of the Civil War, the Danville-Richmond train that provided the life-blood of the Southern effort... and more. General Stoneman's tearing up the train tracks contributed to the North's victory. From there on, you have to begin to take sides. Robertson likely would not have done so, being Canadian. That much may not be said for many others today who would still make something of an issue best left to historians.

Back when The Band recorded this song, no one was offended that they/Levon Helm sang his heart out about a story that (you can't sing like that if you don't feel it!) carried lots of meaning. I wish I knew what it is that has perverted our perceptions in the ensuing 45 years.

Forget rejoicing in historical fact (yes, it happened), and certainly put aside attempts to see the other side of the coin (or everyone seeing things your way). Heck, forget about letting your kid discover the next block over: you'll be hauled in for endangering your own kid by letting him walk alone to the park. Fuggetaboudit singing about something so divisive as the Civil War. Sheesh.


I side with none - lived in NC, but consider myself a Northernern for the most part  - that's Northerner as in WA. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for something else if the [wo]man spoke wisdom. And it don't mean that I think  the South was wrong across the board.

Don't know if you were around then, but The Band - when they were high in the charts - were great - in the mid 70s. So great that Dylan toured with them as his band. (Not all that shabby). But the Band were also a powerhouse on their own. Their 2nd album <The Band> includes this song and was part of the <Americana> theme of the album, which included others such as Cripple Creek and Across the Great Divide

The audio mix is superb: harmonica as a weaker instrument sounds like it should, the piano hammers a loud, powerful accompaniment and the vocals soar above the rest. One of their best.

edited later to include the original:



Thursday, October 12, 2017

TRUE STORIES/IT'S ALL TRUE - TRACEY THORN



So here is a quandary for you, both the above are Tracey Thorn and both the above are the song entitled 'It's All True', so it must be. But which one is true for you?
OK, so this is a deceit, but one worth sharing, the two songs being so clearly one and the same and so clearly different. The first is, had you not gauged, the remix, by one Martin Buttrich, (no, me neither) actually came in the year ahead of the second, in 2006, the 2nd, Tracey's "own" version appearing on her 2007 solo record, 'Out of the Woods'. As a boomer from the last century I confess to not always getting the cult of re-mixes. Sure, yes I can enjoy them, as with this, but, as someone who likes to own my music, as shiny black plastic, or smaller silver discs, I can't keep up. With myriad versions and reinterpretations being pumped out willy-nilly, do I want to have them all? This particular song, according to the excellent trainspotter site Discogs, had 16 versions alone of the single, each or most with numerous and differing remixes.
I suspect I miss the point; music for me is a an immersive experience. For the dance floor it is probably a means to the end, for the dancing, for the experience, being even entirely ephemeral to and for the moment. So it is for streaming, for hearing and for disposing, not for listening. (The fact I listen to dance music in the car proves beyond doubt I am not the intended audience.)

Tracey Thorn was the singer, with her husband, Ben Watt, in the hugely accomplished 'Everything But The Girl', who emerged as bedsit jazz in 1984 to drum'n'bass melodicists 12 years later. The connection was always Tracey's honeyed vocal, making her latterly girl to go for any number of electronica projects, most notably Bristol's Massive Attack. She has retired from live music, by and large, to be, initially, carer to her ailing husband, then as mother to their children. (Incidentally, he is now much better, having recovered from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a very nasty auto-immune disease that nearly killed him, and now has a solo career as well, albeit with occasional live appearances.) As well as music, she has also written a couple of well-commended books, one her autobiography of performing, the second around the art of singing. (Should any of this sound familiar, yes, I have written about her before.)

Let's finish with some more truths, sung by Tracey, but written by Stephen Merritt, of  the Magnetic Fields, this time about love, possibly the most powerful truth we ever, any of us, if we are lucky, experience.


Music and Books, go get

True Stories: The Eton Rifles



The Jam: The Eton Rifles
[purchase]

I’ve never written about The Jam, which on one hand is surprising, because they are an amazing band, with great songs, who were on top of their game back in my WPRB days (and very shortly thereafter). On the other hand, though, they are a band that were much bigger in England than they ever were in the States, in part—if not mostly—because they often wrote about specific British issues and sensibilities that didn’t directly resonate here.

“The Eton Rifles” was written by Paul Weller in response to a news account about a street brawl that took place in Slough, in 1978 between “Right To Work” marchers and the upper class students who were members of the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, colloquially known as the Eton Rifles. The marchers were unemployed, and the march was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, and they were being jeered by the Eton students. Apparently, the marchers took exception to the taunting from the rich kids, and wanted to teach them a lesson. But the students were in better shape, and routed the workers, leaving them beaten and bloody.

Weller, who was trying to write more political songs, seized upon this clear example of the entrenched class system’s oppression of the working class to write a powerful song that clearly was sympathetic to the workers and mocked the posh schoolboys to make a point about the worsening divide between rich and poor. Although the song was written about a specific time and place, its message about the class divide is sadly still resonant on both sides of the Atlantic.

I saw The Jam in May, 1982 at the Trenton War Memorial with a bunch of my WPRB friends. It was probably one of the last shows that I saw as an undergraduate. What I remember most about the show was that it was fucking loud. At that point, the band was moving away from its harder edged sound and incorporating more Northern Soul influences, but without abandoning the strong working class political message. Apparently, Weller’s insistence on changing the sound resulted in the band’s breakup later in 1982, and the other members of The Jam, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, didn’t speak with Weller for decades.

In 2008, the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, an Etonian, somewhat inexplicably picked “The Eton Rifles” as a favorite song, stating, “I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. . . I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs." Weller, a bit dumbfounded (gobsmacked?), responded: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don't know. He must have an idea what it's about, surely? It's a shame really that someone didn't listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really." Of course, our country has examples of conservative politicians misunderstanding lyrics.

Interestingly, the background vocals, credited to the “Eton Rifles Choir,” were a bunch of random people hanging around the studio. They were recorded in the same room that Phil Collins used to create the famous drum sound used in “In the Air Tonight.” Also, there’s a subtle swipe at The Clash in the lyrics, because Weller thought that they weren’t really as committed to the revolution as they claimed.

True Stories: The Way



How the time flies—October, already? For those of you living in normal climates, you are probably starting to see changing leaves and cooler temperatures. Hope so. I live in the desert now, so I wake each day to varying degrees of scorching hellishness. Luckily, I have music to ease me though the weather until the inevitable winter cool off. I listen to a lot of country now that I live in the desert, as the landscape—varying degrees of sandy browns and beiges—just seems to fit. 

Which, in a roundabout, trying to force a connection kind of way, brings us to my song choice for this week’s theme—true stories.  Here, then, is a desert song—a Texas band doing a Texas song with a vaguely Eastern cosmopolitan swing, that oscillates over a funky piano line set to a tin drum lifted from a scratchy 78” vinyl, that climbs up and down the scales, a wandering, ballad that hides a truly sad story beneath that finger-snap veneer. Fastball’s “The Way” was a mega-hit in the late ‘90s, a staple of alt-radio for years. It remains their only real hit, and can serve as an apt definition of the term ‘one-hit-wonder’: “Hey, who was that band that did that song, you know, the one that goes like…” 

I always thought "The Way" was an interesting song: musically, it was unique to the alt-explosion sound of the late 90s, most of that being Pearl Jam rip-offs like Creed and Stone Temple Pilots, or worse, pop-punk with the substance and energy of a rubber ball in a dwindling up down up down up down 3 minute shuffle. You remember 90s radio—it was full of do nothing bands, sandwiched between  the stalwart sounds that will always be “the 90s”. Fastball, on this track at least, sounded as if they were channeling a much earlier era, mono, AM radio scratch and pop, some slick haired crooner making blinky eyes at a starlet, as they both flit around in the herky-jerky sped up motion of an early “talkie.” The vocals start out in a strange mono, with an AM radio scratch and pop track starting the song, and the guitar is simultaneously spit-fire modern and married to nostalgic bygone pop hooks, winks included, but not for irony’s sake. 

“The Way” was a unique track, probably better than a lot of what was getting spun on alternative radio at the time, but it was easy to overlook that: like a lot of good songs, the less is more commandment was violated to a shake your head in shame degree and “The Way” went from fun and quirky to goddamn annoying. I'm talking about being overplayed: “This song again? Turn it!” Which is too bad—Fastball has a lot of really interesting music, but for the average mainstream listener, their knowledge of the band stops at “The Way”—me included. I started doing a deep listen to write this article and what struck me most was how bad radio can be for an artist. “The Way” was a massive crossover hit for the band, which was great for them, but it was their only one. Radio didn’t touch Fastball after 1998, yet here they are, still cranking out music. I suppose the death of radio, while drawn out and painful and pretty much unending, is sad, but it’s given way to musical libraries has enabled people to listen to music like researchers, in pursuit of deeper truth. Thank you, Spotify, for making my musical life such a richer, more fulfilling experience.

Back to “The Way.” Disguised behind that rich piano march and sunny-sounding disposition, is a true story, one that is a mysterious tragedy. The song does what fictional re-creations do best: takes a story with few details, and imagines what led to the one part of the plot that we know: the end. Frustratingly clueless as to the who, the why, the what, the denouement can be haunting if we can’t connect the exposition to the rising action and follow it all along the plot arc. This story in particular is a tragic one: Lela and Raymond Howard were an elderly couple from Saldano, Texas who disappeared June 29, 1997 after leaving their home bound for a festival a mere 15 miles away. They were found two weeks later, in Arkansas, over 500 miles from their original destination, both dead in their car, at the bottom of a ravine. The original article chronicling their disappearance appeared in the Austin Statesman and while the story is tragic, Fastball’s Tony Scalzo turned the tale into a sort of mystic fairy tale of two people hitting the road and finding happiness by leaving all they know behind. In the song, the couple doesn’t die, but ends up in a kind of ethereal, other world happiness, having discovered that freedom that comes with enlightenment, or stumbling on a path to a place where nothing real is real anymore.  It speaks most directly to the fantasy of just ditching the keys and walking off into a metaphorical sunset. Sadly, those kind of wandering off to nowhere stories, in real life, never end well. The real life protagonists of this story were elderly and ill: Lela was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Raymond was recovering from recent brain surgery. Worse yet, they were stopped twice by police on their odyssey—once for driving without their headlights on, once for driving with the high beams on, but neither police officer knew they had been reported missing and sent the couple on their way. 


The search for the Howards stretched out over much of the southwest and included 11 states. The story went from local to national and was featured on the big network morning shows . In their home, it was reported that the couple had laid out clothing, as if to pack, and unplugged the television. However, they had left everything behind, including their cat, who was named “Happy”. The author of the original article stated that: “The Howards were in their 80s and both had been exhibiting cognitive impairments, so the scene in the house didn't seem to bode well. When I found out the cat they left behind was named 'Happy,' the melancholy spoke for itself.”  What made things worse as they were sighted multiple times in that first day, not just by the police, but by a coffee shop attendant and someone at their local Walmart. It seemed, they were lost, but they weren't really lost. It is sad to think that perhaps they were wandering, perhaps they weren't lost, in that traditional, panicked sense of not knowing where you are, but worse, not knowing where to go. Maybe that singular sense of desperation hadn't kicked in and they were on their own adventure? 

When the Howards were finally found, as I said, it was at the bottom of a ravine, where Lela had driven the car off a cliff, but the wreckage was obscured by vegetation. Raymond was still in the car; Lela had made it out of the crash, taken her purse and gone over to Raymond, and apparently tried to remove him from the car. She then walked away from the wreck and made it a short distance before succumbing.The crash had occurred on that first night on the road, which strikes me as even sadder. All that time, missing, but already gone.  And the song’s refrain, “Where were they going without ever knowing the way”, while cheery and happy go lucky when set to a tune, takes on an entirely different sense when you look at it as question that can’t really be answered in real-life. Where were the Howards going? How had they been allowed to keep going? And what were those last moments like? Were they happy, out there on the road, feeling a little of that giddy freedom that comes from being on the road, on the move; or were they lost and driving endlessly on to the hope of being found, that awful sense of panic that we get when we don't know where we are, tugging at their already frail constitutions? Part of me thinks: I'm glad they were together. I hope they knew that and were happy, and that they never really knew they were lost. 


Sunday, October 8, 2017

True Stories: The Death of Silas Deane

Pinataland: The Death of Silas Deane

[purchase]

Pinataland is a musical project headed by songwriter Dave Wechsler. Wechsler seeks out historical curiosities for his song subjects. The Death of Silas Deane is a fine example. Silas Deane is a largely forgotten figure in the history of the American Revolution. That is probably not fair in light of what he accomplished. Deane was sent by the Continental Congress on a secret mission to France, to obtain supplies and funding for the revolutionary cause. Officially, he was sent as a private merchant, because France could not openly deal with a nation that did not exist yet. So you could call Deane a spy in that sense. He was successful, and the support he obtained was vital to the victory in the battle of Ticonderoga. Along the way, however, Deane befriended Benedict Arnold before he turned traitor, and Deane also acquired a powerful enemy named Arthur Lee. Eventually, Lee was able to exploit the connection to Benedict Arnold and the secrecy of Deane’s dealings to ruin Deane’s reputation. By the time Deane embarked for the last time for his home in the United States, he was in failing health, and he died on board the ship not long after it departed.

This is where it gets interesting. Most historical accounts cite Deane’s failing health as the cause of his death, but it was also the subject of what may have been an early American conspiracy theory, which alleges that Deane was poisoned. Pinataland take the uncertainty over the cause of death as the starting point for their song. Wechsler imagines a dying Deane wondering what may be killing him. The lyrics also reference the fact that Deane accomplished his mission without knowing a word of French. The whole thing is given a musical setting that I would call carnival Americana. A mostly acoustic rock foundation is decorated with occasional bursts of gypsy jazz and even klezmer. It sounds like it should be chaotic, but the band not only makes it into a coherent whole, but they also succeed in making it work emotionally. The song honors the seriousness of its subject, but it never musically succumbs to despair.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

TRUE STORIES: BACK O' THE NORTH WIND/BRIAN McNEILL

True Stories inevitably conjures up, at least to me, the wide and wonderful world of trad.arr., of broadsheet ballads and bards, distributing the events of the day in song, all the news that's fit to sing. OK, I accept that veracity may on occasion be debatable, particularly if the spirit world is involved, maidens becoming ravens and back again, fairies chasing fleeing horsemen, all of that, but a lot are based on the received wisdom of the day.

Brian McNeill I have mentioned the once, seemingly his only appearance in these pages, one-time fiddle (and other stringed instrumentation) powerhouse of Scotland's mercurial Battlefield Band. During and since his time with said band: he left in 1990, he has been far from idle, writing a couple of detective novels, putting out 12 largely solo records, as well as a handful with and as a member of fiddle supergroup, Feast of Fiddles. O, and lest I forget, the short-lived Clan Alba, the 2 drummer, 2 (bag)piper, 2 harps, bass, fiddle and guitar behemoth, set up by Dick Gaughan and doomed to near obscurity, courtesy the odd behaviour of their distribution company, the story of which would make a song in itself.

Back o' the North Wind was McNeill's 4th solo project, and the 1st after leaving Battlefield. It is a song cycle based on telling the true tales of those scots who elected to seek their way across the atlantic, seldom by choice. In his own sleeve notes he writes:
     "Over the centuries they (the scottish people) seem to have been prey
      to a perpetual outward force, pushing them to all parts of the globe.
      If it's a wind, then it's one that has many names, some harsh -
      poverty and persecution - and some hopeful- betterment, restlessness,
      a desire to know what's over the next hill, the next ocean."
And thus, in a variety of styles are portrayed the true stories of the celebrated and those not, from  Bonnie Prince Charlie's saviour, Flora McDonald to McNeill's Uncle Jim, from John Muir, conservationist and founder of Yosemite, to Andrew Carnegie. Here's the song about John Muir:


I remember thinking this a wonderful album when it came out, in 1991, thinking it would make a great show. I was thus both delighted (and disappointed) to learn that it had become such, an audio-visual show, of which I had been earlier unaware.

McNeill is still out there and on the road. He has for some years curated saturday afternoons at the venerable Cambridge Folk Festival, in a showcase for new scottish artists and any other of the performers passing by at that time. I recall a phenomenal set in which he played alongside Larry Campbell and David Bromberg, trading acoustic licks at 100mph. He is unimposing figure, greying now, his noteworthy girth barely contained by his trademark  braces, just, I think, visible in this clip, which shows his gentler side and the mastery of one of his many instruments.


For a more detailed background to this hero of mine, here's a an excellent documentary/showcase in the From the Artists Studio series.

Get Back O' The North Wind here