Thursday, July 31, 2014

John: The Ballad of John and Yoko

10 days back, in my haste to get a new theme out, I neglected to search the SMM archives: In fact, back in 2008, SMM did a "Johns" theme. That said, there are plenty of Johns that weren't then covered and still haven't been covered this time around. Before clicking "Publish" this time around, I did check back into the SMM history, and while John Lennon has naturally been covered more than once here, I could not find another link to "The Ballad".

Recorded and issued in 1969, the autobiographical lyrics relate some of the events surrounding John Lennon and Yoko Ono's honeymoon - their selection of Gibraltar for the marriage itself, their bed-in for peace, their Vienna show called Bagism.

Although the song was released as a Beatles song, the only two band members recording the song were Lennon and McCartney: it was a single session where they overdubbed multiple tracks without either George or Ringo's input. Credited to Lennon/McCartney, it is primarily a "John" song.

Bits of the lyrics upset various folks, in retrospect, the controversy likely adding to the song's place in history. "Christ, you know it ain't easy .... They're going to crucify me..." For critics who recalled a Lennon comment years earlier about how the Beatles were more famous than Jesus, these words opened up old wounds. For the Spanish dictator Franco, the words "Gibraltar, near Spain" brought about a ban of the song in Spain. And of course, there were the many others who weren't at all inclined to graciously accept Yoko's position.

After all is said and done, the song ended up at #1 in the UK for 3 weeks. Rightly so.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


John Wardle. You've never heard of him, have you? However you may well be forgiven for that, as I suspect there are few, apart from his mother and various aunties, who still call him that, as he has spent most of the last 30 plus years with the somewhat more grandiose name of Jah Wobble. I appreciate that, stateside, that may still be a name less well known, but he oughtn't to be, as he is that rarity, a true enthusiast who has steadfastly ploughed his own furrow, exploring the wider frontiers of dubby bass motifs across any number of genres, and been allowed to. The only remotely similar reference would be Bill Laswell, who has been doing the same with his bass guitar across a similar time period. (Perhaps unsurprisingly they have worked together, of which more later.)

A schoolboy contemporary of both Johns, Lydon (nee Rotten) and Ritchie (aka Sid Vicious), he was an early consideration for replacing Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols, before that particular job went to Ritchie, but he did hook up with Lydon eventually, in the first incarnation of Public Image Limited. Having been bowled over by the playing of Aston "Family Man" Barrett of Bob Marley's Wailers, reggae, and in particular, dub, was always a hefty part of his style. Indeed, he was one of the audience, apparently, at Marley's legendary Live at the Lyceum recording of 1975, along with the other hundreds of thousands who claim to have been in this small dance hall, capacity 2,100, that night.

After a clash of the usual musical differences, fuelled by substantive substance abuse issues, Wobble left P.I.L. in 1980 to start his body of solo material, coming into contact with various ex-members of Can along the way, collaborating therewith, picking up much of their freestyle experimental vibe. His first successful venture was as the bandleader of the Invaders of the Heart, which plunged the evanescent world music genre into a melting pot with dub and mystical overtones. With a central core of Wobble, Can metronome Jaki Liebeszeit on drums and current Robert Plant sidesman Justin Adams on guitar, live and studio performances were augmented by whomsoever had a broad enough palette to be involved, from pedal steel maestro B.J. Cole to the singers Sinead O'Connor, Natacha Atlas and Dolores O'Riordan. Further scuffles with drink and drugs necessitated a period away from and disillusionment with music, spending some years as a station announcer for the London Underground, where his deadpan vocal fitted the part perfectly.

1986 saw sobriety beckon and a return to music, now with a dedication encroaching on obsession, bringing his basso profundo into all and any genre previously untouched, from folk to free jazz, Chinese Chamber Music to dance/electronica. Collaborations with Bill Laswell were, unsurprisingly very, very heavy on the lower registers.

I first saw the Invaders of the Heart at Glastonbury in, I think, 1994, astonished at the prescient pulse of the band, a good decade ahead of the now routine meshing and melding of almost counter-intuitive musical paradoxities. Since then I have picked up a number of his recordings, and his discography is immense, never being disappointed if sometimes a little bemused. Somehow he has also managed to study and attain a degree in Humanities, at Birkbeck College in London, as well as write book reviews, poetry and a volume of autobiography.

Bringing him right up to date, he has recently revisited his P.I.L era work, as a duo with his erstwhile colleague therein, guitarist Keith Levene, not necessarily to Mr Lydons pleasure, he also out on the road with a similar project. And only this month he has brought out "Jah Wobble presents PJ Higgins", a vehicle to promote the eponymous Dub Colossus vocalist. I bought it last week and it is typically marvellous.

Monday, July 28, 2014

John: My Dog & Me (John Hiatt)

John Hiatt & The Goners: My Dog & Me

That handsome guy pictured above was named Strummer, after the great Joe, who died in December, 2002, about a year before his canine namesake was born. And, on Sunday, our Strummer passed away quietly, in his home, with people he loved.

I didn’t want to get him, and I didn’t want to have him, and certainly more than my wife and children, I resisted his considerable charms. For years, I took a predictably passive aggressive position about getting a dog. They talked about getting one, and I nodded and did nothing to advance the project. This strategy was remarkably successful for years, but one day, to my surprise, on a February day in 2004, I found myself in a minivan on the way to the North Shore Animal League. We looked at a bunch of dogs, none of which satisfied the selection committee (while I stood in the back, trying to remain detached). But when Adam found this little black Lab mix, with white markings, he was smitten, and his enthusiasm swayed his sister and mother. I was pretty much indifferent, although I had to admit that he was a nice looking puppy.

On the ride home, the little guy was scared, he sat on Adam’s lap, and even baptized him with piss. We got home, and were dog owners. Of course, in the traditional manner of all kids who promise to do all of the work relating to a dog, in reality, most of it fell on my wife, and to a lesser extent on me. At the time, I was working full time in New York, and my wife was home more, and cared more, so she did most of the heavy lifting.

Strummer was a good dog. He was, as could be expected from what we believe was a Lab/Pit Bull mix, very territorial. As I said on Sunday, he retired undefeated in preventing the mailman, the UPS guy and the FedEx guy from getting in the house, because he barked like crazy when they approached. In fact, he barked at pretty much anyone, or any dog who walked by the house. He especially seemed to hate these two greyhounds that lived in the neighborhood, and I used to joke that they had, as Woody Allen once said, “passed a remark” about him. But once we let you into the house, he was an affectionate and friendly guy, even though he grew to be about 100 pounds and could look pretty imposing. He loved my family unconditionally, and when my kids came home from college, he gave them an excited greeting that was something to see.

I have to admit that I kind of resented having to deal with him at times, like when it was freezing and he needed to go out, or when we needed to pay to have him taken care of so that we could go away for a day or longer. And as my kids got older and became more independent, I was not pleased about still having to worry about him. To be clear—it wasn’t the dog that bothered me, it was having a dog at all, which is a different thing, at least to me.

In March, 2013 I left my job in the city and started working from home. All of a sudden, I was Strummer’s main caretaker, which was quite a change for me. And we bonded a bit. I found myself talking to him in the quiet house, which for some reason seems somewhat less crazy than talking to no one. And at times, it wasn’t bad to come downstairs from my office to his wagging tail and hopeful eyes. Of course, sometimes he insisted on barking while I was on the phone with clients, or demanded to go outside when I wanted to do something else. And it was still a pain in the butt having to deal with taking him out during the winter, or when I was working. But we also started taking regular walks, and having Strummer gave me an excuse to explore local trails that I would never have chosen to walk alone.

Unfortunately, a few months back, Strummer hurt his leg, and the vet diagnosed him with a torn or strained ACL in his back right leg. Considering the cost of operating, the difficult rehab and his age, she advised only to give him pain meds and have him take it easy. So, the long walks stopped, and he became a bit more sedentary. He was still alert and seemed happy, if a bit hobbled, which I could sympathize with.

Suddenly, last Tuesday morning, he had trouble walking, and his “good” back leg was swollen. The vet hoped that it was just an infection, but suspected something worse. On Thursday, we got the diagnosis of lymphoma, and a bad prognosis. His condition deteriorated quickly, and a few family friends and relatives came to say goodbye. By Sunday, he couldn’t walk at all. We knew it was time to let him go, and had the vet scheduled to come to the house that afternoon to put him down. But, before that, and sitting with Adam as he did that day he joined the family, Strummer completed the circuit of life and died on his own terms. We buried him on the perimeter of the territory he guarded so jealously, with Adam, his girlfriend Robin, my wife and my parents standing by, and with my daughter watching on Skype, sadly only 6 days before she would be returning from a year abroad.

We aren’t religious people, so we don’t think that Strummer is off in some big dog park in heaven running with Max and Maggie, or his friends from day care, but I’m glad that he is no longer in pain. I know that all of us—even me—were enriched by his life and his years as part of our family. You’ll be missed, big fella.

Clearly, John Hiatt had a dog that he loved, because the lyrics to “My Dog & Me” could only have been written by someone who did. I mean, Hiatt is a great songwriter, and all, but this song has the ring of truth.