Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Memoriam: Ray Manzarek

The Doors: Light My Fire (live)

Ray Manzarek, the Doors' keyboard player passed away in  May 2013.

Granted, the Doors' lead singer- Jim Morrison - commanded top billing during their heyday; it was Morrison who drew the crowds, but, without Manzarek's keyboard, the Doors would not have been the same. At his passing, his ex-bandmates said, "... there was no keyboard player on the planet more appropriate to support Jim Morrison's words", and "[he was] ... totally in sync with you musically".

Krieger, Densmore and Manzarek individually rarely rank high on today's musicians' lists of <the best>. It's generally as a band that they get the credit they deserve for laying some of the paving stones of today's rock music. Morrison is remembered for his "outre" style/personality; the rest of the band .. for being members of the Doors [right place/right time].

Manzarek - along with Krieger - continued playing after The Doors disbanded. We see him touring/performing until fairly recently: into his 70s. But check out the linked video from '68, where he bangs out a major part of the song on a primitive piano [extra credit points if you can name the keyboard brand?] At this time, Morrison appears not to have not yet hit his "prime/stride" - you can see that he is almost there, but not quite yet. Ray is doing most of the work. Clearly, however, Morrison is showing his (shortlived) potential.

Monday, December 30, 2013

In Memoriam: Charlie Chesterman

The Law: King Size Cigarette  
Scruffy the Cat: My Baby She’s Alright
[purchase a tribute/benefit album]

2013 saw its share of famous musical deaths, with Lou Reed probably considered the most significant. I find it more interesting to highlight some of the lesser known members of the musical community who passed on, and this year, in fact, I’ve already written about two, drummer Joey Covington and singer/songwriter Jason Molina (and I wrote somewhere else about Reed). I have a few ideas, and my schedule will dictate how many of them actually get written.

But I’m going to start with someone who I may have met, who has been in bands with people I knew in college, and whose death most of you probably missed, Charlie Chesterman. Although he lacked broad, mainstream recognition, Chesterman was an influential and respected musician. His obituary in the Boston Globe stated that his “dynamic performances as a singer and guitarist with the roots-rocking Scruffy the Cat were legendary.” Chesterman was a pioneer in that amalgam of punk, garage and roots music that became known as alt-country.

Chesterman was from Iowa, and eventually became the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter for The Law, an early punk band that helped to create a central Iowa scene. I’m sure that I never would have heard of The Law, in the pre-Internet era, except for the fact that another member of the band, Kevin Hensley, was a couple of years behind me at Princeton, and was a WPRB DJ and staffer (under the name Billy Disease). Kevin brought The Law to campus to play gigs, and they were raw and fun and put on a great show. I may have met Chesterman during this period, but maybe not, but I was certainly impressed by his talents as a front man. Through Kevin, I own a copy of The Law’s “King Size Cigarette” single, and the “Instant Party” cassette. In researching this piece, I found out that Kevin works at a law firm that I have worked with as co-counsel. Small world.

I have to admit that I pretty much missed out on Chesterman’s next and most well-known band, Scruffy the Cat. At that point, I had graduated from college, and after a year as a paralegal, I went to law school, started working long hours as a Wall Street lawyer and met the woman who is now my wife. It was hard for me to keep up on music in those days in the same way that I did when I was in college. I was, I guess, tangentially aware of the existence of the band, which included two more people I knew in college, Stona Fitch (now a novelist and publisher) and Burns Stansfield (now a minister), but I can’t say I remember hearing them on the radio. But in the mid-1980s they were an integral part of the Boston music scene, and their 1986 EP, High Octane Revived, was the #4 EP in the prestigious Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. They were probably ahead of their time and never broke through to national popularity.

Following the breakup of Scruffy the Cat, Chesterman formed The Harmony Rockets and Chaz and the Legendary Motorbikes and also performed as a solo act.

Chesterman was diagnosed with cancer, and his popularity in the Boston music community was demonstrated by the way they rallied to raise money for him. There was a Scruffy the Cat reunion show, and the tribute album, which includes contributions from Letters to Cleo and the Young Fresh Fellows, that is linked to above (and which can also be downloaded here). He passed away on November 4, 2013.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Cajun Moon : J.J. Cale
Purchase hint....

I'll freely confess that I first came across ol' JJ through the works of one Clapton, E, Cocaine and After Midnight. I imagine the same would be true of most, but I was lucky enough to have schoolfriends with the pockets to pursue further to source, opening up dusty and windblown originals, exuding faded workwear and a consummate lack of fashion, meaning he was never quite in style. Or out, ploughing a timeless unchanging farrow of bluesy folky choogle over 4 decades, one I was happy to dip in and out of right up until his last release, 2009's Roll With It.

There seems some uncertainty as to even his real name, various stories existing, but it was probably John, initialised to avoid confusion with a certain welsh viola whizz.

Born in 1938, single-handedly he gifted his home town, Tulsa, with it's own identifiable style of music, the Tulsa Sound, most likely played in Tulsa Time, a laid back minimalist shuffle. Having failed to make any name for himself, he was on the verge of quitting when Clapton lifted his songs (and, arguably, one aspect of his own style) from him, on his 1970 recording of After Midnight. Compare it with the original . (Inevitably, there would come times when they would play it together , with this particular clip giving a snippet of each of their thoughts around it.)

Another artist who undoubtedly channels much of the same feel is Mark Knopfler, whom some accuse of basing his entire career on similar mumbled vocals with a singing finger and thumbpicked guitar over a railroad rhythm track. (Sorry, some of you are no doubt ahead of me here, so, for you, here's his version, again with Eric Clapton)
He died, aged 74, of heart failure. R.I. P. JJ, long may your legacy live. After midnight and into every day henceforward..

(P.S. I noticed in my youtube forays that frequent questions are raised as to who the omnipresent female guitarist in his live shows could be? Well, she is Christine Lakeland, his widow, who co-wrote many of his songs. I couldn't find a version of After Midnight by her alone, but the song highlighted in unmistakeably from the same lode.Go search, there are a couple of albums out there.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Holiday (Modern/Classic) Jinglebell Rock


Tanner Patrick: Jinglebell Rock
[It's at SoundCloud]

I grew up in a household where Christmas music meant Handel’s “Messiah”, played on my dad’s new stereophonic record player back in the ‘60s and we sang it in the choir (and orchestra) he conducted.  Hardly modern.  But … how do you define “modern”? Being of an age where certain folk call me a “dinosaur”, I am sensitive to definitions and interpretations of the term “modern”.
Trite as it may be, to me, “modern” Christmas music is unequivocally associated with a late ‘50s rock – no – they say it is rockabilly – hit that has maintained its status/stature as an “all time favorite” [wait a minute – all time since when?] that gets plenty of airplay during the Christmas season: Jinglebell Rock.

Popularized by Bobby Helms in the late ‘50s, we have here a SoundCloud “modern” rendition of Jinglebell Rock by Tanner Patrick, who generously shares (in the Xmas spirit) his efforts. Tanner’s got various online links you can trace to learn more: here is the FB URL: https://www.facebook.com/TheTannerPatrick

Monday, December 23, 2013

Holiday (Modern and Sad): Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Darlene Love: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

If the Band song I wrote about earlier isn’t my favorite holiday song, then maybe “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is. And I’m not the only one—in 2010, Rolling Stone chose it as the greatest rock and roll Christmas song of all time.

There are many things about this song that are remarkable. First, unlike the Band song, it is a wholly secular song. Yes, it mentions church bells, but it is not about anything religious. It is about the sadness of being separated from one’s love during the holidays. Yet despite its sad message it has become a true Christmas classic because of its exuberance. (There is a totally secular version of the song, titled “Johnny (Baby Please Come Home)” which is perfectly fine, but lacks the extra emotion squeezed out of the holiday setting).

Another remarkable thing about the song is the vocal performance by Darlene Love.  It was written for a Phil Spector produced Christmas album by legendary songwriting team Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, and it was intended for Ronnie Spector. But she reportedly failed to give the song the emotional punch that it needed, and instead, Spector turned to Love, who nailed it. One of the best movies that I saw in 2013 was 20 Feet From Stardom, about the difficulties that face backup singers, including Love. One of the most poignant parts of the film is Love’s story of hearing this song come on the radio while she was cleaning a bathroom in someone else’s house. According to Love, she realized that music was her calling, which the world can be thankful for. Although Love never became a superstar, she became a well-respected singer and actress and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

Love appeared in a revue, Leader of the Pack, featuring Greenwich's songs, which, in its early, pre-Broadway, incarnation, included Paul Shaffer as Spector. This relationship led to Love performing the song on the last pre-Christmas episode of Letterman’s show each year since 1986 (except for 2007, when a writer’s strike resulted in the showing of a rerun of the 2006 performance). Here’s a video from this year’s show featuring the 72-year old Love belting the crap out of the song, with a band of what looks like hundreds.

Not only did Love give an incredible performance on the original, the backing musicians are amazing. Spector’s trademark wall of sound is clearly in evidence, with massed background vocals from The Blossoms, The Crystals and The Ronettes, as well as a teenaged Cher. The band included members of the legendary Wrecking Crew, including drummer Hal Blaine, Leon Russell on piano, guitarist Barney Kessel, along with Sonny Bono on percussion. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of the most popular holiday songs to cover, by artists as diverse as KT Tunstall, Joey Ramone, Death Cab for Cutie, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Bublé, Anberlin and Lady Antebellum, to name but a few. Maybe the most famous cover, though, was by U2, which fittingly included Darlene Love as one of the background singers.

Friday, December 13, 2013


White Christmas: The Wailers
Purchase link

I love the incongruity of this on so many levels. Firstly the whole idea of snow in Trenchtown seems likely to be counter-intuitive, at least acknowledged within the lyrical change: "not" like the ones I used to know. Secondly, both the song and the pictures of the fresh-faced youngsters seem so far removed from dreadlocked ganga images, being far more akin to early motown with a sloppy ska bluebeat. Thirdly, anything that replaces the cheese of Bing with this happy smile is just fine by me. OK, it was very early in the career of Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, presumably the 3 vocalists, and I dare so that they seldom dragged it out in their later incarnations. Legalise It it ain't. And I'm also tempted to think their elderly aunties could listen to this and muse, disappointedly, on how it all went so wrong!!

There is actually quite a strong tradition of ska-rry eyed yuletide songs in the reggae canon, so I have dug out a couple more. Here is Ding Dong Bell by the Ethiopians and Christmas Day by Barrington Levy . You might note that the youtube publisher for each goes by the monicker of  RastaClaus85 and has put up several others.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Holiday (Modern): Christmas Must Be Tonight

The Band: Christmas Must Be Tonight

So many “modern” original holiday songs are arch or ironic, or are novelties or are overly treacly. To my mind, it is easy to tire of these types of songs, and since the holiday season comes up every year, I appreciate songs with staying power.

I make no bones about the fact that I’m an atheist, and I have discussed here and elsewhere that I was raised Jewish, so it might be surprising that I picked this song to write about. It is a simple, beautiful, low key song with a strong Christian message. Not only that, but I’m willing to bet that no member of my family—who have listened to holiday music with me over the past quarter century plus—would guess that I’d pick this song to write about.

I’m not sure if I should admit to this in public, in a blog where I purport to opine about music, but when I listen to music, lyrics are not as important to me as the overall feel of the song. I suspect that some of that comes from the fact that with many rock songs, you can’t actually understand the lyrics, and when you do, often they are less than stellar. I mean, is “Louie, Louie,” less amazing because the lyrics are impenetrable? And I know that “Stairway to Heaven” still rocks, despite the fact that it exhorts me not to be alarmed by the bustle in my hedgerow, because it is just a spring clean for the May queen. And what exactly is an American aquarium drinker, anyway, Mr. Tweedy? Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate a good lyric, which adds to my enjoyment of pretty much any Richard Thompson or Bruce Springsteen song. Just a few weeks ago, when my son and I saw Lucero, I was struck for the first time by one of Ben Nichols’ lyrics—“It was Texas, it was Tennessee/It was exes and some wannabes.” Not deep, but clever and fun.

Maybe what I like about “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” is that it just sounds like a good Band song. Written by Robbie Robertson with lead vocals by Rick Danko backed by Levon Helm and featuring Garth Hudson’s organ, it works on its own. Robertson wrote it after the birth of his son Sebastian, and it can’t be a coincidence that the song describes how a little baby boy could “bring the people so much joy.” He intended it to be a Christmas single in 1975, but the record company wasn’t interested, so it languished until the Islands album, a collection of unreleased songs and outtakes. When The Band was good, their music had a timelessness to it, and this song fits that mold, with a gravitas that never crosses the line to overly reverent (although I have seen it referred to on another blog as “kitsch.” But what do bloggers know, anyway?). There is a “rehearsal” version that was later released as a bonus track to the Northern Lights, Southern Cross album which is faster and rocks more, and is missing the organ part. It is ordinary. (Robertson also recorded a version for the movie Scrooged with himself on vocals and a synth driven backing track that is really disappointing.)

The Band never performed the song live, but Danko, who coincidentally died 14 years ago today, did at some solo shows, and based on a few versions I’ve heard on the Internet, he played it well. But there is still something about the original version that strikes a chord, and if it doesn’t pop up on my iPod during the holidays, I make sure to throw it on my computer so that I hear it a few times.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Holiday (Modern): Toyland

R.E.M. Toyland
[From the Fan Club Only Single]

   Starting in 1988 R.E.M. rewarded its fan club members with Christmas singles. Some of them contained cover songs originally recorded by such bands as Television ("See No Evil"), The Vibrators ("Baby, Baby") and Flipper ("Sex Bomb"). Most of the time they let bassist Mike Mills handle the vocals, but in 1992 Michael Stipe sang the 1903 nugget "Toyland", popularized by the adorable Doris Day in 1964.

Holiday (Modern): Folsom Prison Christmas

For the past few years, I have been the glad recipient of postings from Santastic. Although the mashup genre may not be your bag, it certainly seems to fit the theme of "modern holiday".

Granted, most music is built on "the shoulders of others" (Isaac Newton), but the Mashup genre brings the style to the fore: take a collection of other people's songs and mash them together to create something new. This is a topic I covered at least once in my own (sadly neglected) blog >> see the right side list, but the subject of mashups deserves a re-visit at this time.

My favorite of the collection this year: banabul.com/muzik/fpc.mp3
It's a mashup of "Mr President" and Johnny Cash called Folsom Prison Christmas

[I suspect you will have to right click copy/download the file even though it is Creative Commons]

See this link for much more of this genre:http://www.christmash.com/

Friday, December 6, 2013

Leftovers (Storytelling): One Time, One Night

Los Lobos: One Time, One Night

Los Lobos deserve to be considered as one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. They deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and that’s not only my opinion). They deserve to be remembered for a remarkably diverse body of work, and not just for covering “La Bamba.” My wife and I saw them last night at the Tarrytown Music Hall on their 40th!! Anniversary Tour, and they blew us away. (And opener Amy Helm and her band were also incredible).

In 2011, we got tickets to see Los Lobos at the Music Hall, and we were very excited. We had seen them back in 1987, not too long after we started dating, at The Pier in New York. For those who don't remember The Pier, it was an outdoor venue on the Hudson River in Manhattan, near where the Intrepid is now. Every summer, they would set up a stage, a bunch of uncomfortable metal chairs and a few food vendors, and for very little money, there would be great music. I saw so many great shows there, ranging from The Clash and U2 to Miles Davis, King Crimson and Jean-Luc Ponty. I saw Elvis Costello and Pat Metheny. Not to mention Stanley Jordan. At the time, Los Lobos were hot, fresh off the success of “La Bamba,” but my wife and I appreciated their other work. Even better, the opening act was The Smithereens, another great band (but not my daughter’s future a capella group).

The show was great. Both bands rocked, and we had fun. Over the next few years, we really enjoyed what Los Lobos were doing. In addition to exposing us to various forms of Mexican folk music, they also demonstrated their abilities to play rock, blues, jazz, folk and even odd experimental music. And yet, despite the consistently high quality of their music, their popularity decreased from the probably artificial high of the “La Bamba” years.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t until 2011 that we decided to go see Los Lobos again, at the Music Hall, and I know that we were excited. The opening act was blues legend Taj Mahal, and he rocked the place. Then, Los Lobos came out. And they were awful. They were missing their usual drummer.  David Hidalgo, their great vocalist/guitarist/accordion player seemed off his game and the band was lethargic. Maybe it was because it was the opening night of the tour, or because of the personnel issues, but they chose to play a set that was heavy on Spanish language songs and light on their more recognizable numbers (to an Anglo audience, at least). Which is not to say that there weren’t some good moments, but overall, we left disappointed.

Last year, the band returned to the Music Hall to perform one of their best albums, Kiko, in its entirety. We chose not to attend, and, as it turned out, Cesar Rosas, the band’s other main singer and guitarist, was out sick.

But, for some reason, when the Music Hall announced another show, with Amy Helm as the opener, we decided to give them another chance. And they really delivered. Playing a good mix of songs from their entire career, as befits an Anniversary Tour, they seemed to be in sync and having fun. Everyone was there—including their remarkable newish tour drummer, Bugs Gonzalez, who appeared to be having a blast. They ended the first set with an incredible medley—starting with “Dream in Blue” then segueing into a cover of Traffic’s “40,000 Headmen,” complete with flute, which turned into “Maricela,” before morphing into a raucous Spanglish “Más y Más.” For the final encore, they brought out Amy Helm’s band (without Amy, who had joined them earlier in the set for two songs) to replace Gonzalez on drums and Conrad Lozano on bass, and added Helm's incredible guitarist Dan Littleton to the mix for a raucous cover of The Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover.” Everyone was having fun, and about halfway through the song, Hidalgo put down his guitar and switched into the drum seat.

To me, though, the high point of the night was their version of “One Time, One Night,” which is not only one of my favorite Los Lobos songs, but is one of my favorite songs, period. The wrenchingly sad story of how life doesn’t always work out, even “in the home of the brave [and] this land here of the free,” always affects me. It made me think and actually brought me close to tears.

And in the end, isn’t that what a good story is supposed to do?

Friday, November 29, 2013


Purchase link

I'm feeling a bit stuck in this folkie groove, worried whether I should feel worried. But, do you know what? I don't. This is important. Well, I think so.

This is a song, poem, whatever, about Flora McDonald, and it is in gaelic. It probably neither rocks nor rolls, and has a choir singing on it. What's not to love? Well, try it......

The scottish band, for it is they, have legend similar to that "Scottish Play" that dare not say it's name. To invoke their name can lead, I'm led to believe, to untold harm, yet they plough their 40 year farrow, unabated, give or take an occasional change of character. This song stems from what I consider their classic period, when Donnie Munro was still fronting on blood-curdling vocals, yet he scarcely figures in this, beyond background wails. I find the goose bumps rise inevitable on this, perhaps a result of my hebridean lineage, but I can't but be affected by this piece. When my mother died, several years back, this was the obvious choice of music for her send-off, not least as she was a gaelic-speaking native of Melbost, near Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis.

This band came from Skye, I understand, another of the hebridean islands, steeped in history, real and invented. It is another world to the one I live in and know, with a poetry and presence at odds with the elsewhere world. I love it. It is my home from reality, a home from home. Fogive my indulgence. Enjoy the song.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Purchase link

No, I am not evoking "Disasters" to equate with my sausage-fingered ramblings, that's your job*, but as a sign of my gratitude to Uberdude Darius for pointing out I could sift through the leavings of years other than this. Clearly I remain somewhat of a newbie in these parts, so the choice offered thereby is immense, with all the posts I wished I could have done, before sneaking up the gangplank, now available. Indeed I may multi-post this fortnight. Be warned.

(*This is as good a time as any to hitch some link to the asterisk, pointing your eyes to the upper right of this page. If you are sick of the same old, same old, jump in and jump on. Could do better? Do it then. Can't be that hard, eh?)

OK, then, disasters...... I love a good disaster, me. No, not really, I am not taking pleasure from the world of natural, but the songsmithery, particularly in days gone by, can really hold the mind and have you there.Bear in mind, before newsprint was ubiquitous, and before video feeding killed it, the broadsheet ballad was how the news was transmitted. None of your tweets and sky news e-mail updates, if it was the top of the moment action you needed to hear about, it was down to the tavern and listen to the troubadour de jour.

Now it is true I am a bit of an unreconstructed folkie. I'm keen on ye olde folke rocke. (You've noticed?) Yeah, yeah, not everybodys cup of tea, and I try to be a little varied. But on this one I can't. This is my favourite long and drawn out dirge ever. The Albion Band were the warhorse of ex-Fairport and ex-Steeleye "Godfather" Ashley Hutchings, a varied compendium of styles and strummers over at least a couple of decades, being sometimes a bijou accoustic quartet, and at others a rumbustuous 11 piece electric storm of modern and medieval mixed. "Rise Up Like the Sun" was, for me, their tour de force, and was produced in 1978. I was also lucky enough to see this incarnation on a couple of occasions, in a London slowly coming to terms with punk rock. 2 drummers, 2 guitarists, keyboards, a horn section (including crumhorns), girlie singers and electric fiddle for starters. And the Albion Morris Men to dance onstage. Perhaps the switch to a smaller and less eclectic line-up was inevitable. The album had numerous guest vocalists,as amply demonstrated within this song, despite already having, in John Tams, one of the soundest traditional and warming voices in the genre. It is him in the later verses, with Martin Carthy, the harshly angular doyen of the male folk vocal style, in the openers. The fiddle is by Ric Sanders, long, long ahead of his part in Fairport Convention. In these days he was contemporaneously in Soft Machine. (Yes, I said Soft Machine) Guitars are Simon Nicol, never that far away from any of his old Fairport cohorts, and Graeme Taylor, late of odd chamber folk outfit, Gryphon. Also tucked into the mix is a certain Phil Pickett, on ancient reeds and brass, the afrementioned crumhorn, curtals and shawms, daylighting from his other job as leader of the New London Consort, a respected orchestra of renaissance musics on original instrumentation. Drums were Michael Gregory and the best drummer in the world, in my humble, the estimable Dave Mattacks. Yes, another deportee from Fairport, but whose session history, from Mary Chapin Carpenter, through Elton John, to Paul McCartney, makes stellar reading. Go see

I implore you to take the time and listen to the whole of the song, even if you find the bare harmonium a bit hymnal, and the vocals a bit too, um, specialist. It builds from this relatively simple beginning, through a Coltrane inspired wah-wah fiddle frenzy, thence into some guitar pyrotechnic, before returning to the baseline (bassline?) melody. I love it. You may not, but give it a try. Surprise yourself. It won't be a disaster. (I should add that, because it is a "long track", the good folk at A***** won't supply it outside the whole LP. Dare you???)

Leftovers (Heart) : I Left My Heart in San Francisco

It may be Tony Bennett's signature tune, but "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" has been recorded by thousands of artists including Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis Jr and William Hung. Most renditions are faithful to the original, which was first sung by Bennett in the famous Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill in 1961.

But Bobby Womack sped it up and spiced it up with the Southern Soul sound he was cooking up for the classic New Orleans-based Minit Records label. Womack's first two solo albums for Minit, Fly Me To The Moon (1968) and My Prescription (1969) , are fantastic.

As a Bonus: 

Here's The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band's take on the supper club classic.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Leftovers (Resurrection): Golden Boy

The Mountain Goats: Golden Boy

This is one of those songs that inexplicably has grabbed me. If you are not a Mountain Goats fan, please listen to it, and maybe it will grab you, too. Apparently, though, if you are a Mountain Goats fan, “Golden Boy” is considered the “Free Bird” of their prodigious body of work. It is a song about peanuts, and the entire moral structure of society. Both of which are important.

The Mountain Goats started in the early 1990’s as a solo project of John Darnielle, one of the more interesting and productive songwriters around. Much of their/his early work was aggressively low-fidelity—recorded on a boom box with awful sound. Yet, the quality of the songs, and their quirky, yet deep lyrics, based on Darnielle’s twisted view of the world led to a significant cult following. More recently, The Mountain Goats have become a real band, and they have abandoned their lo-fi sound for more conventional production, although their songs continue to be anything but conventional.

“Golden Boy” originally appeared on an EP released in 1998 called Object Lessons: Songs About Products, which included 5 songs by 5 bands (4 of which I have never heard of) about products, including “Grenadine” and “Honeywell Round Thermostat.” It was later included on a Mountain Goats compilation album, Ghana.

The track starts with what appears to be Darnielle telling “Paul” (presumably Paul Lukas, who was behind the Object Lessons EP) that he believes that this take is better than the one he was about to send, because “I have my boots on, which always guarantees a good showing.”

The song then begins with an exhortation to live a good life, and to follow the Golden Rule (do unto others….). This is generally good advice, but in the song, Darnielle does not suggest the moral course because it is the right thing to do, or for a general shot at eternal paradise. No, according to Mr. Darnielle, one should live a good life, specifically so that

When you die 
You’ll find Golden Boy Peanuts 
Waiting in the afterlife for you 

These must be some damn good peanuts.

Further, Darnielle warns about the horrible alternative—

There are no pan-Asian supermarkets down in hell 
So you can't buy Golden Boy Peanuts 

Clearly, the traditional fire and brimstone, ceaseless pain and suffering, etc. are nothing, when compared to spending eternity without a specific brand of Singaporean peanuts, distinguished by a

Drawing of the young Chinese farmer 
The eastern sun behind him smiling at you. 

I can’t really explain the charm of this song, but as someone who finds pretty much anything about religion to be ridiculous, maybe the idea that the reason to live justly is to assure an eternal supply of a particular brand of snack just amuses me.

Leftovers (Fiddles and Violins): Blues Rock Edition

Sugarcane Harris: Where’s My Sunshine


Papa John Creach: Bumble Bee Blues


As the unofficial keeper of Star Maker traditions, I would like to set the record straight on this week‘s theme. Leftovers week is not simply the time to revisit themes from the past year. Any theme we have ever run is fair game. So some of us may choose to revisit themes from the past year, and I may be one of them as the theme continues. But for my first Leftover, I have chosen one of our older themes, from 2010 in this case: Fiddles and Violins.

I am amused whenever I hear the term “jam band“. I grew up in the 1960‘s, and all bands I knew of jammed. It was a badge of honor, and bands that couldn‘t jam well were laughed at. The San Francisco rock bands of the time were famous for it, but so were the British blues rock groups. I can‘t think of Jerry Garcia without thinking of jamming, but Eric Clapton was just as good. It is natural to think of electric guitar players in this context, but there were jammers on other instruments too. The two musicians featured in this post both began their performing careers before jamming was common in popular music. One usually thinks of jam bands as being white, but both of these musicians were black. And both played an instrument that is not usually associated with either jam bands or, especially, with the blues. I’m talking about two fiddlers who achieved fame with rock bands of the 60s and 70s: Don “Sugarcane“ Harris and Papa John Creach.

Sugarcane Harris began his recording career in the mid 1950s as half of the duo Don and Dewey. After the duo broke up, Harris recorded with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Little Richard, and Johnny Otis. By the 60‘s, Harris had come to the notice of Frank Zappa. Harris recorded two albums with the Mothers of Invention, and several more with Zappa. This was followed by a mid-70s gig with a late edition of John Mayall‘s Bluesbreakers. Where‘s My Sunshine comes from a solo gig during the transition from Zappa to Mayall. It is more of an excuse for a jam than a song. But the quality of the jam makes up for that. Harris‘ solos are brief, as this is more of a full band effort, but his playing still shows the adventurousness that would have appealed to Zappa. At the same time, a solid blues foundation, which would have been what attracted Mayall, is also evident.

Papa John Creach began performing in Chicago bars in 1935. Blues as we know it now was still taking shape at that time, and Creach was most likely influenced by the black string bands of the day. Blues fiddlers were far more common in those days. Creach managed to stay in music for the next thirty years, but he never recorded until he met drummer Jon Covington, and became a member of Hot Tuna. Creach would go on to record with Jefferson Starship as well, before finally starting his solo career. Bumble Bee Blues hasan intro that recalls the early roots of Creach’s playing, but it soon turns into a fully plugged in electric blues number. Not surprisingly, Creach’s playing is much closer to traditional blues than Harris’. Together, they offer fine examples of the range of music that “jam bands” were making, long before anyone felt the need for the term.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Leftovers (Stage Banter): Whippin' Post

Frank Zappa: Whippin' Post

If you're going to focus on the link between Leftovers and Thanksgiving, this first post may seem out of place: we haven't yet celebrated the feast that leaves us with the days' worth of turkey. On the other hand, in keeping with the way that giving thanks carries with it a reflection back on times past, there's no reason not to bring you songs we might have posted during the year but never got around to a few days before T'day.

Flippant, irreverent, baiting, provocative, Frank Zappa had a lot to say, both on stage and off.  At times, you find his words so far off-the-wall that you're sure he can't be serious; or in an interview, his politcal views perceptive and well out in front of most of his contemporaries.

This clip could have almost gone into the "Brothers" theme: written by Greg Allman of the Brothers. Here, we've got (I believe) Bobby Martin doing some fine vocal work following FZ's intro banter and later guitar solos.

Would you all like some more-a?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

PUNCTUATION: !!!, "The Step"

!!!: "The Step"

When it comes to punctuation in music, it doesn't get any more, uh, punctuated, than the band known as !!! (or, as they have come to be known by those speaking the name, since exclamation points are quite difficult to pronounce on their own: Chk Chk Chk). And in my estimation, they chose a pretty appropriate punctuation mark, since their music is usually quite emphatic. There isn't the uncertainty that would warrant ???, the to-be-continued feeling of ..., or the ambivalent wildcard-ness of ***.

In the music of !!!, the emphasis is on the edgy, post-punk funk, influenced by the music of early Talking Heads, Gang of Four, and Can, with vocals that bring to mind some of the more subdued singing of Mick Jones in Big Audio Dynamite. The song I'm featuring here today, "The Step," is from their 2001 debut album, !!! (their latest album, from earlier this year, is the cleverly titled Thr!!!er). It features a funky guitar and percussion line that could have been lifted direct from Talking Heads' incredible 1980 album, Remain in Light. But it doesn't feel like outright thievery -- more like paying tribute to their predecessors. And arriving on the scene as the first song on their first album, one might say that it was a very "punctual" -- not just "punctuational" -- tribute.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Punctuation: Songs: Ohia

Songs:Ohia: John Henry Split My Heart

I could have saved writing about Jason Molina, who died in March, for our annual In Memoriam theme, but I figure I can write about someone else, since both of Molina’s best known bands, Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. fit the Punctuation theme.

If you are a regular reader of Star Maker Machine (and thanks!), you probably have a few bands or musicians that you just love. You know all about them, their history, discography and quirks. And I suspect that you have some artists that you like, but never really got around to getting to know in the same way. That’s the way I was about Jason Molina—almost every time I heard one of his songs, I liked it, but for whatever reason (maybe because I’m an adult now? Or because there’s so much good to watch on TV?), I never spent much time learning about him and his music.

Then, in March, he died, at the age of 39, of “alcohol abuse-related organ failure.” Yuck. Another sad loss to substance abuse. I found myself surprisingly unhappy about this, and realized that maybe I liked his music more than I thought.

Born in Ohio, Molina graduated from Oberlin College and shortly thereafter started Songs:Ohia, a solo project with a revolving cast of side musicians. The name was derived both from his home state and a Hawaiian tree. Molina mixed Americana and classic rock sounds with metal and indie influences to create his personal sound, which seems to have an underlying melancholy that, in retrospect, makes a good deal of sense.

I have a little bit of a John Henry obsession—I have about 45 songs on my iPod that reference the steel driving man—and this version is one of the best modern reimaginings of the American legend (along with, of course, the Drive-By Truckers’ version). It is an epic song, reminiscent of Neil Young’s, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” in its refusal to hurry to a conclusion and its great guitar lines.

“John Henry Split My Heart” appears on an album titled Magnolia Electric Co. and sources differ as to whether this was the last Songs:Ohia album, or the first Magnolia Electric Co. album. But it really doesn’t matter. It is a great song, by an underappreciated artist who died too young. And either way, it fits the theme.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Punctuation: fun.

fun.: All The Pretty Girls
[purchase the studio version]
[check out this version on Daytrotter]

A few years ago, probably when my daughter was in high school, she discovered that I had songs in my iTunes library from a band called The Format. To this day, I have no memory of how I got them—probably from some free online sampler, or because I had read a review about the band. I can’t say that I paid the songs all that much attention—they sounded good, so I put them on my iPod. It turned out that my daughter had, independently, discovered the band, and really liked them, so we were able to bond over that.

The Format, however, broke up, and the lead singer, Nate Ruess, who has a voice and theatricality that has reminded more than one person of Freddie Mercury, joined up with a few other musicians, notably Andrew Dost, of Anathallo, and Jack Antonoff, of Steel Train, to form a new band. They wanted to call it Fun, but according to the band, a Scandinavian death metal band already had the name, and suggested that they modify it. So, they decided to use a lower case “f” and add a period, so that they would, someday, be eligible for this SMM theme.

Fun.’s first album, Aim and Ignite was quite good, mixing pop, prog, rock and other influences into a sound that was different from most of the other stuff around. It got pretty good reviews, and had some success, including getting a song on an Expedia commercial. My daughter introduced her older brother (and her father) to fun. My son, away at college, picked up the fun. standard, and embarked on a personal crusade to promote them. Through this effort, mostly on tumblr and Twitter, he not only became part of a family of fun. fans, but began to interact with the members of the band, first through Twitter, and later meeting them at shows.

In early 2012, fun. released Some Nights and shortly after that took over the world. For people like my son, it was a vindication of their devotion to the band, and when the band was still mostly playing shows in smaller venues that were booked before their meteoric rise, they still made time to see my son. In fact, on his birthday in 2012, another member of my son’s fun. “family” was backstage at a show in Canada and videotaped members of fun. calling my son and wishing him a “Happy Birthday”. Not only that, when the album hit #1 on iTunes, the band tweeted their thanks to their fans, and mentioned my son by name. Which is pretty cool.

Personally, I liked Some Nights, but preferred the less produced sound of Aim and Ignite. Today’s song, “All the Pretty Girls,” appeared on that album, but the version above is from a Daytrotter session from 2009, recorded live in the Daytrotter studios in Iowa, and is even more stripped down. (And, if you don’t know what Daytrotter is, you should. Click on the link above and discover an incredible archive of similar live performances by a huge variety of artists, available to listen for free, and to download for a pretty low membership price).

As someone who has been a music fan all of my life, I was amazed at how social media has allowed fans to interact and relate to musicians in ways that I never could have imagined. More recently, it seems that my son’s fun. fanaticism has tempered somewhat. He now has a job that keeps him busy, and he and his girlfriend have a social life. And it appears that the increased demands on the members of fun. that come with their exploding popularity have limited their interaction with fans like my son.

But it always has been that way—you fall hard for a band, you obsess about the band, then you move on, often tucking away your feelings without totally losing them. Popular music is essentially predicated on this, and continues to provide serial opportunities to fall in love. I think that most people—at least people who care about music—maintain a catalogue of music that was, at one point, a favorite, even if they haven’t listened to it for a while. And when that music emerges—on the radio, in a random iPod playlist, at a wedding or on the soundtrack of a TV show—you remember how strongly you felt about it back in the day.

I’m willing to bet that when my son is my age now, and he hears a fun. song, however music is being delivered in 30 years, he will remember back to the end of his college years, and how he felt about the band and their music. Unlike me, when I think about the music l listened to in college, he will also remember his personal interactions with them, on social media, on the phone, and even in person. And that is also pretty cool.

Monday, November 11, 2013


96 TEARS: ? and the Mysterians
Purchase link

I was never sure where the idea that punctuation occupied an alternate alphabet came from, but it certainly seems to have been the case, ooo, well, at least as long ago as swearing. Or, rather, swearing being seen as too impolite to sully ones eyes with. Fine for ears, but even now many newspapers shy from printing all those words with "f"s and "c"s. I'm not even sure if SMM would thank me for spelling them out, especially as I mention this merely to wrest your attentions. This post is not in the least sweary or confrontational.

I remember the first time I heard this song. I was a young man in London, exploring both the city and my imagination, visiting all those places I had heard of and that sounded sufficiently outre and cutting edge to make me seem anything but the middle class mummy's boy I probably was. The ICA was one such place, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, just behind Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch. I reckoned there would be a whole lot of crazy art there, and hippies and stuff. Hey, maybe even some nudes. It was, sadly, quite a disappointment, being full of odd and rather dull exhibits to my innocent eyes. But, it did have a juke box. (I have to say that as I type I wonder how sound my memory is, wondering how likely, even if it did, is it that I would have played it, but I am sure this happened. Can anyone confirm?) And I liked the name of the song. And the name of the band. That may have almost been enough, as I was, you may already have appreciated, a somewhat precious and  precocious child, but the sound that came out the front of the wurlitzer was something so much more. Rinky dink single finger organ, snarled vocals and repetition. This was 1975 and it was already nearly a decade old. I had to have this and I eventually tracked a copy of it down, years later, in a 2nd hand record stall, when such things were on every corner.

So who were ? and the Mysterians, and who was ? himself? It seems they were all 2nd gen mexicans  from Michigan, naming themselves after a 1957 japanese sci-fi film. Originally with no vocalist, when Rudy Martinez joined them, he took on the snappy monicker of ?. "96 Tears" appeared in 1996, which was a smash in the US, selling over a million copies, launching an acclaimed career. Or not, as, like me, I guess you would be fairly hard pressed to think of the name of anything else they ever did. Hell, I can't even remember the b side, yet, through the power of wiki, it looks as if a version of the band, sans ?, lurches on to this day. But who cares, like the altogether not dissimilar "Wooly Bull" by Sam the Sham and the Phaorohs, if you had but one song that you could be remembered by, wouldn't you want it to be like them. I know I would.

I was always amazed how few cover versions were ever made, thinking it a shoo-in to be covered when the term punk rock was resurrected  from 60's garage bands to, well, 70's garage bands, albeit an ocean apart. Eventually, of course, towards the end of their classic era, the Stranglers did this version, which, however much I like the Stranglers, is distinctly 2nd division. They don't look as cool either.

Punctuation: Everything You Wanted to Know About !!!

10cc's 1978 album, Bloody Tourists, remains an all time favorite of mine even though I know, as a rock snob, I shouldn't care for anything after the implosion that sent two original members, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, packing years earlier.

If I could go back in time, would I snatch the Bloody Tourists cassette out of my teen-age hands? Not a chance! There's plenty of great music here. The UK #1 single "Dreadlock Holiday" is the best known song, but there's a stretch of Side Two that's also brilliant: "Life Line", "Tokyo" and "Old Mister Time"

Eric Stewart's  "Everything You Wanted To Know About !!! (Exclamation Marks)" isn't one of the best tunes on the album, but it mines the same sex-obsessed silliness to which 10cc often resorted ( in "The Dean And I" from the debut, "Head Room" from How Dare You! and "Shock on the Tube" from the same Bloody Tourists). 

In this case the young, virgin singer fails to perform in his first outing with a prostitute:

She had to laugh
I nearly died
Some Superstud!
There's more to this than meets the eye

By the way, 10cc was never afraid of punctuation marks. The B-side to their second 10cc single, "Johnny Don't Do It" is "4% of Something".

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Punctuation: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

CSNY: Almost Cut My Hair

What do The Hollies, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield have in common aside from the fact that they were all successful bands in the mid to late sixties? The answer, of course, is: they were spawning grounds for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (sometimes referred to as CSNY – but that moniker doesn’t highlight the punctuation necessitated by this week’s theme)

1970’s Déjà Vu, the first album with all 4, followed on the eponymous CSN album from 1969. With the exception of “Woodstock” (written by Joni Mitchell), all songs on the album were written by band members. My favorite of their albums, Déjà Vu’s vocal work showcases the height of their harmony. Sadly, throughout the band’s existence, interpersonal dis-harmony was an issue. History has it that even by the release of Déjà Vu, the band had already broken up for all intents and purposes. Dominant individuals all, right from the start, Neil Young had a contract that allowed him to pursue work with his Crazy Horse band and Graham Nash was more or less on loan to Atlantic courtesy of some David Geffen finesse.  In fact, the band’s name itself is indicative of the members’ assertiveness: no one leader, no collaborative name.

The band was equated with protest during the Vietnam war era. The song “Ohio” specifically focused on the killings at Ohio State following anti-war protests. And “Almost Cut My Hair”, waves the “freak flag” proudly. Do compare the 70’s photo at the top with the visual in the clip below: more or less Crosby's current appearance .
I'm not givin' in an inch to fear
If you're thinkin' "KKafa ... Deja Vu", you may be right:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Stage Names: David Bowie


I am pleasantly surprised that, on this, the last day of our Stage Names theme, no one has tackled David Bowie. Bowie, in my mind, qualifies twice. Born David Jones in 1947, Bowie took his stage name to avoid being confused with Davey Jones of the Monkees. And, in the course of his career, Bowie has taken on the identities of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and others. The first of these stage identities was Major Tom. Major Tom is an astronaut who begins by relishing the fame that space travel brings him. I grew up in the 1960s, and I can assure you that the Apollo astronauts did indeed receive rockstar-like adulation in their day that is hard to imagine today. But Tom also finds his experience isolating, and the alternate reality of his unearthly environment soon consumes him. He sings, “Here am I sitting in my tin can…” and it goes from there. David Bowie was a struggling unknown when he recorded the song, but his career mirrors it in eerie ways. Bowie would soon be rocketed into this same kind of fame, and he would eventually be consumed by it, and retreat into the oblivion of a serious cocaine habit.

Luckily, that is not the end of the story. Bowie was able to overcome his drug habit. He continued his musical pursuits with some wild experiments that, for a time, resulted in a string of unpopular albums. That may have been bad news for his fans, but it probably gave Bowie some distance from his fame that aided his recovery. By 1980, Bowie was able to revisit the character of Major Tom in the song Ashes to Ashes, and view matters in a way that was both rueful and a mature reconsideration of his career and life to that point. Since then, Bowie has continued to be a restless musical chameleon. Collaborators have included a list of people who little else in common: Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic, Brian Eno, Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury, and Iggy Pop, just to name a few. Albums have become less frequent of late, and there may never be another full-length tour. But David Bowie has endured far longer than Davey Jones of the Monkees, and whatever Bowie does next is sure to be worth paying attention to.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Stage Names: Blind Boy Grunt

Blind Boy Grunt: John Brown

Robert Zimmerman, better known these days as Bob Dylan, signed to Columbia Records in October, 1961. His first album sold about 5,000 copies the first year. But soon, he would become a pretty big star.

At the time, the folk music revival centered around Greenwich Village was taking off, and in 1962, Broadside, a mimeographed (!) magazine started publication. It became a hugely influential forum for folk music, including music and lyrics, as well as articles and reviews. It fostered the kind of musical debate about authenticity and the definitions and purpose of folk music that, while easily parodied, also did an enormous amount to define the sound of the era.

Broadside also sponsored recording sessions, and in late 1962-1963, Dylan recorded five songs, three of which, "John Brown," "Only a Hobo," and "Talking Devil," were released by Broadside using the stage name, “Blind Boy Grunt” (the other two were released years later). Whether Dylan did so because of his contract with Columbia or just as a goof is not clear and there is no evidence that anyone from the record company ever took any offense. And it is further obvious that Broadside did nothing to hide the fact that it was Dylan who appeared on the record. Here is a link to the issue of the magazine from March, 1963. You can see on page 3 that the lyrics to “John Brown” are credited to Dylan (as are the lyrics for “Only a Hobo” that follow). And on the last page is an ad for the album that the songs appear on, Broadside Ballads Vol. 1—with Dylan’s name prominently listed as a contributor.

Dylan’s choice of the name “Blind Boy Grunt” was likely a nod toward the blues music that he loved, and maybe was a poke at young white men who had become enamored of the blues. Interestingly, Dylan used other stage names during this era that seem to be the kind of names you would create if you were pretending to be a blues man. On a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott album, his harmonica part was credited to “Tedham Porterhouse” and his piano and vocal contributions to a Steve Goodman project were credited to “Robert Milkwood Thomas.” (OK, he also was “Bob Landy” as a piano player on the 1964 Elektra Records anthology album, The Blues Project.)

“John Brown” is a strong anti-war song, but not one that was written about the Vietnam War that would later consume the folk and rock world, and lead to some of the greatest protest songs ever. The Tonkin Gulf resolution had not yet passed, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam was at a pretty low level. Instead, the song is a more general broadside, if you will, against war. To further emphasize the meaning of the song, after publishing the lyrics, the Broadside editors included a page from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one of the great anti-war novels of all time, describing the death of a character during World War II.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Stage Names : Engelbert Humperdinck

   In the mid 60's his friends convinced Arnold George "Gerry" Dorsey to change his name to Engelbert Humperdinck, after the German opera composer from the previous century, because it sounded more interesting. 

    That's the true story... but I prefer Eddie Izzard's version.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stage Names: Leon Redbone


A look at the thesaurus provides the scholar with variations on our theme such as appellation, sobriquet, moniker, cognomen, eponym and more, each with its own nuance to the fact that it is a name, after all (think: a rose is a rose. )

There are any number of reasons why an artist might go by a name other than that which s/he was born with: the birth certificate name may sound pretty strange or worse, the manager may have said a stage name would be better, or perhaps the artist thought the stage name would convey a deeper/different innuendo.  Some artists put a considerably greater effort into obscuring their original designation, leaving fans to discuss among themselves the whyfor and wherefore.

Born Dickran Gobalian, Leon Redbone has been entertaining audiences since the 1970s. Various sources provide differing accounts of the origins of his name. Assuming that it is in fact Gobalian, I would be inclined to side with the version that puts his family roots in the Middle East (some say Cyprus). But that is actually of little matter except in an exercise like “Stage Names”. Obviously, what matters most to us here at StarMaker is his musical output.

Whether it’s on account of his physical appearance, his demeanor or his musical style, I have to second the remark that he does in fact come across as “ so authentic you can hear the surface noise [of an old 78rpm]." The man further endears himself to me because no small number of the songs in his repertoire are songs that Ry Cooder has also performed. To wit:

 Leon Redbone: Big Bad Bill

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Eh? That's not Dylan and indeed it's not. In fact the image isn't even of John Wesley Harding, but of John Wesley Hardin, no g, 1853 - 95, outlaw gunslinger and, possibly, nemesis of "Wild" Bill Hickok, referenced within the title track of  the also otherwise stage-named Robert Zimmerman's 8th studio album. This isn't about either of them, but about a latterday minstrel from Hastings, Sussex, UK, who took on this monicker for the launch of his musical career in 1988. Quite the renaissance man, one suspects he could have made a go of nearly anything, as Wesley Stace, his real name,  has written 3 novels and has a First in English Lit from Cambridge University, as well as being responsible for upward of 17 discs. In fact, had he not been offered a record deal, whilst supporting (real name) John Hiatt, he may well have got his PhD as well.

I think it fair to say I took no great shine to his initial work, it seeming a bit sub-prime Declan McManus, perhaps hindered by the use of various "Attractions" in his studio band. Perhaps this gave him his greater edge in the states, where he is better known and has been resident since 1991. My real interest was sparked by his 1999 work, "Trad Arr. Jones", a collection of folk songs initially covered by a a fellow Brit, Nic (real name) Jones, who had been tragically injured in a near career stalling road traffic accident in 1982. (I say near,as he has, remarkably, started cautious gigging again during literally only this last year or so.) Here is a song from that record, perhaps better known in another version, as "Matty Groves", by the mercurial "Fairport Convention." This showed a voice that had now some more oblique and less affected character of it's own and a willingness to ignore fashions and conventions redolent within his earlier work. Since then there has been a number of releases, often increasingly diverse in styles and statement, demonstrating a confident eclecticism, absent in his sophomore efforts. It somehow seems entirely apt that he now finds himself on "Yep Roc" records, who seem always to specialise in individuals reluctant to embrace any great degree of  type-casting, such as label-mates Dave Alvin, Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock, all real names, amongst many others.

The song  I feature above, "Sussex Ghost Story" comes from 2004's "Adams Apple", my favourite track on my favourite LP. I would have preferred the studio version, but could not find it on youtube, but this at least has the fabulously evocative string arrangement of (Richard) Gavin Bryars. Not particularly representative even of the rest of the record, I can play it time and time again, reflecting on the bleakness and the beauty in the lyric and the melody. And in case my selections are all, as ever, a touch melancholic, here's a (slightly) more upbeat song, give or take the lyric.

Ironically, to time with the year of this posting, for his most recent record he has reverted to his own name for 2013's "Self-Titled".

Finally, for those feeling unduly deprived of the expectation offered by my title, here's the "other" JWH, the song, or, more exactly, the album, but, indulge me, not that one either. Here is  folk phenomenon, real name, Thea Gilmore, with a song  from her cover to cover of Dylans's 8th. Enjoy

Stage Names: Courtney Love

Hole: Doll Parts

Sometimes, it is harder to come up with an idea when there are so many choices out there than when the theme is narrow. When you consider the universe of performers who have used stage names, it is a bit overwhelming. Kind of like the cereal aisle at the supermarket.

Instead, I decided to work backwards. I haven’t written about that many women in the just under two years that I’ve been part of the SMM family (roughly 16 of my approximately 100 pieces have included songs with prominent female vocals—sorry, Kath), so, this is an opportunity to rectify that imbalance. Also, I’ve posted a bunch of prog rock, so I wanted to go in a different direction, and although I’ve posted a bunch of new wave and punk, I haven’t really written about anything like this song.

So I decided to write about a woman who was born in 1964 in San Francisco as Courtney Michelle Harrison (although some sources state that her birth name was “Love Michelle Harrison”). As a result of various adoptions, over the years she was also known as "Courtney Michelle Rodriguez" and "Courtney Michelle Menely". And a few years ago, it was widely reported that she wanted to be known as “Courtney Michelle,” but she shot that story down.

Love’s upbringing was unconventional. Her mother was a psychotherapist and her father was a publisher and was briefly the manager of the Grateful Dead. Her parents divorced in 1969, and her father’s custodial rights were withdrawn based on allegations that he had given young Courtney LSD. Even in San Francisco in 1969, that was not a good thing. Her mother moved the family to a commune in Oregon, where Courtney struggled in school and was diagnosed with autism.

After a brief move to New Zealand, she was returned to Oregon to live with her former stepfather and friends. In what may well be one of the great “what ifs” of all time, Courtney auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club when she was 12, but her choice of audition piece, the poem “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, somehow didn’t get her the gig. A couple of years later, she was sent to juvie for shoplifting, then bounced in and out of foster homes before becoming emancipated at 16. She spent the next few years doing various jobs, including DJ, stripper and actress, while also taking college classes in Portland, San Francisco and at Trinity College in Ireland.

Starting in the 1980’s Courtney began performing, first with bands that she formed, then briefly in Faith No More, before leaving that band to form other bands and playing bass with Babes in Toyland. She taught herself to play guitar and moved to L.A., where she placed an ad looking to start a band—her stated influences were “Big Black, Sonic Youth and Fleetwood Mac.” That band became Hole.

“Doll Parts” was released on Hole’s second album, Live Through This, and was written about Love’s insecurity about her then new relationship with Kurt Cobain. The song’s rawness and simplicity masks its complex musings on beauty, love, fear and pain, much as Love’s unpredictable (to be charitable) behavior has often overshadowed her obvious intelligence and talent. The song starts with just Love’s gritty vocals and a guitar, and builds slowly to a climax, before ending with a pained vocal, cracking with emotion. It is a song that truly lets you into Love’s heart, and makes obvious her pain, her insecurity and her fear.

It is a damn good song, and was a big success for the band. While Love and Hole put out some more excellent music, to my mind, this album, and this song, was the best work she ever did.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shutdown: Allentown

Billy Joel: Allentown [purchase]

My second post for Star Maker Machine, back in 2008, was about the difference between a protest song and a political song. The song then was Deportees, by Woody Guthrie. Like Deportees, Billy Joel’s Allentown is a political song. It attempts to persuade by humanizing a situation and thereby eliciting our sympathies. In this case, the issue was the plight of the steel industry in the United States in the early 1980s. This was the first appearance of what is now the trend called outsourcing. Joel in his lyrics cites the fact that the coal to fire the steel mills of Pennsylvania was becoming harder to find and mine, but it is also true that steel companies were starting to find that they could produce steel more cheaply overseas.

Joel takes for his narrator a generation of workers without work in Allentown Pennsylvania. Because this is a Billy Joel song, his sentimental streak shows up in his idealized depiction of how the generation before the current one lived. Joel contrasts this with the shattered hopes and dreams of the unemployed steel workers at that time. They not only haven’t achieved their own dreams, they also haven’t lived up to the hopes their parents had for them. Joel doesn’t assign blame for this, but he leaves us with the feeling that, whoever’s fault this is, it is not the hard working people of Allentown.

The video also attempts to be socially relevant, but the results are mixed. It begins well enough, although the impact is somewhat blunted by the stylized way the humanity of these unemployed steel workers is depicted. But the year was 1982, and when the song reaches the bridge, all of a sudden we start seeing these dancers doing eighties music video moves. At one point, they appear to be worshiping an American flag made out of Christmas lights. Huh? The dance sequences, in short, are best ignored. Billy Joel was, in 1982, a commercial songwriter and musician, but this song shows that something bigger than himself had moved him. The video shows that his label approved, but didn’t completely understand this.

Shut Down: Last Call

I have to admit that I cannot remember ever being at a bar for last call. Which is not a joke—you know, like “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” (variously attributed to Robin Williams, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Dennis Hopper, Judy Collins, George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Timothy Leary, among others, including a comedian, Charlie Fleischer, who may have been the first to say it). It’s just that my heaviest imbibing days came when I was in college, and we almost never went to bars. Not to mention that I’m generally too, say, thrifty, to pay bar prices for a long night of drinking.

But I understand that “last call” is a big deal, because it requires you to fight inertia and the effects of alcohol, leave the cozy confines and head out into the world. Either you have to go home, or you are with someone, or you are alone, maybe disappointingly so. But you are probably drunk, and you need to decide whether to find somewhere else to keep drinking, or you have to accept the fact that the drinking part of the evening is over.

Not surprisingly, last call is a topic that is not uncommon in the music world, and we will touch on three very different songs, but not Kanye West’s “Last Call,” or Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” And because I don’t have a clever organizing principle, let’s just go in chronological order.  

Dead Kennedys: We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now

I’ve written before about the Dead Kennedys, and how their very name was a slap in the face to political correctness. In their classic “California Über Alles,” they poked fun at the supposed hippie/fascist tendencies of then (and current) California governor Jerry Brown who, in the song, somehow becomes dictator of the United States. But not long after this was released, the country actually elected conservative president Ronald Reagan, whose vision for America scared the DKs even more than Brown’s supposed “suede denim secret police.”

Thus, the band released this revised version, called “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” which starts with a lounge jazz arrangement and the lyrics:

Last call for alcohol.
Last call for your freedom of speech.
Drink up. Happy hour is now enforced by law.

While most of the most dire predictions in the song didn’t come true, some did, and I think you can draw a direct line from the Reagan presidency to the current Tea Party fanaticism that led to the government shutdown.

But enough about politics.

Hüsker Dü: First of the Last Calls

The loudest concert that I ever went to was Hüsker Dü at Irving Plaza in 1986. By far. And Dwight Yoakam opened, which was probably the oddest combination at any concert that I have ever been to. I’ve always appreciated Hüsker Dü’s ability to write poignant songs, with great melodies, while still keeping their hardcore roots. My wife, on the other hand, has trouble hearing past the feedback and screaming, and doesn’t get it.

“First of the Last Calls” is from an early EP, Metal Circus, and it definitely falls more on the hardcore end of the spectrum. But you can still hear songwriter Bob Mould’s gift for writing great riffs, in this song about a man’s losing fight with the bottle. Mould, who has struggled with various substance abuse issues, has had an impressive career with Hüsker Dü, Sugar and as a solo artist. Not to mention writing the theme song to The Daily Show (although the current version is a cover by They Might Be Giants).

Jay Bennett: Second Last Call
[download for free]

Changing things up a bit, we come to a song by another excellent songwriter with substance issues, but who succumbed to them—Jay Bennett, who passed away from an overdose of prescription painkillers back in 2009. Probably best known for his work with Wilco, and for being fired from Wilco in a scene captured in the incredible film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Bennett was in a regionally popular band, Titanic Love Affair, before joining Wilco, and had an intermittently brilliant solo career after leaving.

His talent, as a songwriter, producer/arranger and multi-instrumentalist. cannot be denied, and from all reports, he is not the only person to butt heads with Jeff Tweedy. Bennett plays all of the instruments on this song, a kind of peppy story about failed love at a bar, from his posthumously released album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air.

Good night--time to leave--drive safely, and don't forget to tip your waitress.....