Saturday, November 15, 2014

Farming:Traditional Farming

Purchase [Dylan Do Re Mi]
Purchase [Bob Campbell Starvation ....]
I  have a farm - small, and of sorts. At least, farming is in my  heart and soul. I grow corn, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. I also have wild apples and am attempting various other fruit ... but my current lifestyle is that of a city man: traffic hassles, security checks, door mats ...

Recently, I have devoured (to the expense of advancement in my paying job) more than 500 free "Western" e-books - the subject of which is at least indirectly "farming" -  living off the land. That doesn't make me an expert in and of its own, but I am also putting some of my learning into practice with my corn and eggplants. Farming - in its most liberal definition would appear to mean "making a living off the land" - and I guess that includes "beeves" and sheep... making your own ... soap, candles, "preservatives ..."

This all relates to our current theme in that the best farmer does it all. In that, the "Westerns" I have consumed promote the ideology that the best of men is he who provides for himself: comfortable in the wild/on the plains, resourceful enough to provide for himself from nature, defiant in the face of natural disaster.
There came, however, in the MidWest USA a natural disaster (arguably of man's making) in the 1930s that defied expectations, hopes and prayers and was the ruin of large numbers of middle class aspirational families. They mis-managed their land/farming tech and then aspired for better by moving on/moving West.

Woody Guthrie was among those that documented this history in music: the Oakies' trek to California in search of a better life.

I bring to you relics of a previous farm life- one before the GPS guided tractor, before the ethanol fueled corn-field, before the Monsato enhanced "output per bushel".

First, Ry Cooder and friends(!) with a really great rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" (an excellent version of which you'll also find on Ry's "Into The Purple Valley"). Ry's Purple Valley packs emotion, but this one chokes me up just listening to it.

Next up, two "30's" farmer tunes that highlight the socio-economic plight of the dust bowl era: Bob Campbell playing Starvation Farm  Blues

and then Woody Guthrie himself with Dust Bowl Refugee:

And finally, lest we be left too much in the past, a nod in the direction of Bruce Springsteen, who manages to find a subtle way to merge history (such as the Dust Bowl) with the state of affairs today: the farmer's position/role hasn't changed much despite the hard years, the laws enacted to make his life easier, the world-wide lack of food .... he still "feeds us all" - and there's still the girl you long for and dream of.

Farming: Now I'm a Farmer

       From the 1974 compilation, Odds and Sods, comes "Now I'm a Farmer", a song Pete Townshend was originally hoping to include in the Tommy rock opera. Obviously it didn't make the cut. The version below was recorded in late May of 1970.

One of the charms of Odds and Sods are the liner notes. Of "Now I'm a Farmer", which he still maintains is one of the best songs he's ever written, Townshend claimed it was a song about growing marijuana:

     "'Now I'm A Farmer is from the same bale of hay, recorded at home for the EP. It's a drug song, all about the good life out in the fields growing those fantastic phallic ornamental gourds that you can use to...... to ...... to make gorgeous fruit bowl arrangements. See if you catch the immensely subtle reference to the 'Air' in this song. This track is from the period when The Who went slightly mad, we put out several records called 'DOGS', and at least one about finding 'one's inner self'. Gourds mate, that's the secret of life......GOURDS."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014



Unusually, at least for me, this post is prompting you toward an entire LP, arguably also maybe the entire solo output, of journeysmith muso Anto Thistlethwaite, one of those awkward northern English names that never look as if they are spelt right. Or ever could be. A name such as Thistlesthwaite smacks of the soil to me, and it is thus no surprise that his oeuvre is chock-full of earthy and organic delights.

His name is probably best known to 2 groups of fans, those of the Waterboys and those of the Saw Doctors, 2 different reflections of an Irish heritage, the sublime and the ridiculous, the romantic and the rowdy. (OK, chief Waterboy, Mike Scott is a Scot, but it is arguably his band and its foray into County Clare that is best known these days.) Between the formation of the Waterboys in the early 80s, through their "Big Music" phase, and their first disintegration, in 1991, by then an almost entirely Celtic inspired quasi-folk (rock) band, Anto was first on sax and later also on mandolin, harmonica and keyboards. For a recent 25th anniversary tour, reprising the various editions and volumes of Fisherman's Blues, he rejoined the ranks (and I was lucky enough to see the band when they touched down in Birmingham, U.K.) After the Waterboys, and a tour or so guesting, he became an official member of the Saw Doctors. He has also notched up a hefty range of sessional work with artists as diverse as Donovan and the Vibrators, Bob Dylan and the Psychedelic Furs, to mention a handful, as well as 5 solo albums. It is to the 2nd of these, from 1994, that I refer.

A&M were the record company of the Waterboys for some time, who were no doubt counting no few chickens as the band first began shedding members, as each departee seemed to establish further success, Karl Wallinger being the first such example, his World Party also signing to the same label. As Anto jumped ship they were likely waiting for him, an unsurprisingly similar aura hanging over each of the various alumni, raggedly sturdy vocals fronting a jangly, melody driven school of songwriting. So, getting finally on theme, Cartwheels. Throughout this record is a a rural ambience, redolent of ploughed fields and evocative of hedgerows. With input from the likes of Kirsty MacColl, Eddi Reader and Sharon Shannon, the idea of there being an earth mother is never far away, with perhaps Ralph McTell there to be the wise scarecrow, seering and sageing the ages. But other cameos include Mick Taylor, yes, that one. and Sonny Landreth, so the hint of guitar pyrotechnic, albeit with a lazy vibe, is never too far away. Here's 3 songs to prove it, the lyrics tending towards an explanation of my choice.

This last must be the only song that, I think (and it's hard to be sure) that has a spoken dedication to a tractor, at 3.46!

This is agro-rock by any exemplar. I hope you have been uplifted enough to seek it further, so here's the link!

Farming: Turn! Turn! Turn!

The Byrds: Turn! Turn! Turn!

They say that writers should stick to what they know, but I’m going to chuck that advice away and write about two things that I know and care little about—farming and the Bible.

We start with farming, the autumn harvest inspired theme for the next two weeks. I was born in Queens, New York, the son of two apartment dwellers from Brooklyn. And although I grew up in the New York suburbs, I had very little connection to the land. My father kept the windows closed, to keep the heat in during the winter and the air conditioning in during the summer. We lived on a steep hill, and as long as I could remember, my parents paid for people to come and mow our lawn, rather than have to deal with the risk of having a lawnmower fall on my father, or presumably me, as eldest child, when that responsibility would have become mine. We had some shrubs and trees on our half acre, but again, the garden guys pretty much dealt with them.

For some reason, the first time I met my future in-laws, who live on a large property in north central Connecticut, these generally considerate people (who loved and maintained their land despite the fact that in real life they were an architect and architecture professor and a children’s librarian, not farmers) thought it would be amusing to give me a scythe and send me out into a pasture. I sucked it up, cut the long grass, nursed the calluses on my hands and have a story that I still tell decades later. And, I think, got their respect.

I’m such a “city boy” that my first night in Westchester after living in Manhattan, and sleeping through car alarms, ambulances and all sorts of street noise, I woke up at first light, angry that my sleep was disturbed by unfamiliar sounds, only to be informed by my amused wife that the offending sound was “birds.” She, the daughter of the scythe owners, wanted to garden on our tenth of an acre lot, so, with my less than rudimentary carpentry skills, I built my first raised bed. Then a second, and last summer, a third. My wife enjoys gardening. She enjoys planting. She enjoys pruning, and she even tolerates weeding. I enjoy eating the herbs and vegetables that we grow, and when I “garden” it usually means picking tomatoes or peppers, and occasionally staking something up that has fallen, so that I can pick more veggies. Also, I will, on occasion, carry out specific tasks directed by my wife, like schlepping wheelbarrows of soil or mulch to places of her choosing.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!," which includes the line “A time to plant, a time to reap” was written by Pete Seeger, who based the lyrics on a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. As an atheist, I have to admit that I’m not as up on the Bible as some of my more religious friends, but like the rest of the Bible, there are disputes about Ecclesiastes’ writing, author and meaning. But it is pretty clear that its message of wisdom and enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life has been influential, and certainly would resonate with Seeger, who added the era-appropriate last line, calling for peace.

The song was first released, as "To Everything There Is a Season" by The Limeliters, a folk trio, in 1962, a few months before Seeger’s version was released. In 1963, Marlene Dietrich released a German version backed by Burt Bacharach conducting a full studio orchestra, which sounds exactly like you would think. One of the backing singers on The Limeliters’ version was a young musician named Jim McGuinn, who subsequently rearranged the song for release, as "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season),” by Judy Collins, also in 1963. McGuinn, who changed his name to Roger on the advice of Bapak, the founder of the Subud spiritual association that McGuinn was exploring, and his band, The Byrds, released the version that became a huge hit in 1965. Its message of simple pleasures, and peace, and the jangling folk-rock and great harmonies, struck a chord, and The Byrds’ version hit number 1 on the Billboard charts.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Monsters: Not Your Average Spooks...

Every year, ‘round All Hallow’s Eve, I make a point of watching some of my favorite horror films, to revive the haunting spirit. John Carpenter’s The Thing, any of Romero’s Dead films—there’s really no bottom to the treasure chest of scary flicks to pick from. Same with books—I like to go back and read some choice shorts that never fail to disturb. Stephen King, of course; Richard Matheson—those are the never-fails, guaranteed to creep you out, just like Saturday Night Fever is a sure bet to get people to do vaguely lascivious Travolta impressions.

There’s a strange comfort in scaring yourself, especially when you revisit the chills that put the real,original spook into you. It’s easy with books and movies, but when it comes to music, I always feel like the scary is always more camp than creepy. Unless you’re digging on that Scandinavian Death metal stuff, most of what classifies for horror in music is silly: Ozzy, Kiss—they freaked me out when I was little, but, really, beyond the album covers, it was all stage dressing. The Misfits, the Cramps, Bauhaus—in high school, the girls I knew who listened to those bands were way scarier than the actual music. And it seemed like a lot of the scary stuff was more image than substance—but, that’s what music is often about, sadly.

So, where do you get your scary from in music? I suppose like the more traditional medium of books and movies, the closer to life the chills, the scarier it all feels. So, I started combing the ipod, looking for ‘monster’ tunes—I kept coming up with stuff that wasn’t traditionally of the horror variety, but scary nonetheless, mostly because, well, as listeners, we can relate. What’s scarier than your girl dumping you? Or not knowing where the next paychecks coming from? Or…well, I don’t want to start down a Springsteen-esque tale of the common man’s struggle in the face of hardships life puts on him, but the best monster songs I know are the ones that remind me of what I’ve worried about, too. Empathy, the writer’s great friend, makes for some very compelling music.

 So, a few of my favorite songs about monsters—with a lot of latitude involved when it comes to that label:

 The Police; King of Pain—Synchronicity was an incredible album, genre bending like all Police records, covering a lot of musical territory, but King of Pain always stuck out for me, due to effective use of the end-of-the-world imagery as a means of equating the singer’s soul-level angst. A ‘butter fly caught in a spider’s web’, a ‘skeleton choking on a crust of bread’ or a ‘king on a throne with his eyes torn out’? The song is a catalog of nightmare images, a Lovercraftian landscape where a lonely soul walks the physic landscape of his sadness in search of any sign of happiness in a place where none exists. The repeated refrain of ‘that’s my soul up there’ perfectly nails home the crucifixion of the spirit of a man, one who is so beaten by life that he’s dubbed himself the king of pain. The song works in a strangely incongruous way: such sadness set to atmospheric, minor-key rolling groove, but then that down beat starts to work its way upwards and ends in an almost joyful crescendo. The lyrics never give way to anything brighter— our lost soul is still pinned to the sun, he’s still so lost as to have cornered the market of sadness and become the king of all the pain in the world, but, at least he’s walking you out of the darkness on an upbeat. A great song for all its radio-friendly sensibility, but a pop song this is not!
The Police, King of Pain
Purchase: King of pain

 My next entry—a twofer by Ryan Adams—again explores monsters of the metaphorical kind, that might be more comfortable being referred to as ‘personal demons’ rather than monsters. Have a little respect when your talking about feelings, man! Adams’ battles with substance abuse are no secret and he might be as well known for being a fuck up as he is for being a songwriter. His  herculean prodigiousness when it comes to turning out albums is both praised and derided, sometimes  even by his biggest fans. He’s slowed down a but, which is good, because being a fan of the man’s work became an exercise in differentiating between that old classic: quantity vs quality. And keeping track of all the work he’s done, not to mention trying to ingest it all, was a bit of its own kind of nightmare itself, to keep the motif going. But, when Adams is on, when he’s good, he’s incredible, a forerunner in the Alt-country, singer-songwriter genre. I admit to admiring his ability to indulge, to follow musical passions just put it all out there—Adams is that music geek you grew up with, who knew everything—obscure and even less well known—about music, only with the talent to back it all up. And, some of songs are staples in my personal, wouldn’t-be-the-same-without-it-playlist.

So, I offer two from his expansive catalog, one song from the brilliantly understated pair of EPs, Love is Hell, which was Adams at his raw and honest best, and one from Easy Tiger, a more rock-oriented entry.

From Love is Hell, I offer the subtle, wistful acoustic lament, I See Monsters. Written during Adams’ period of drug abuse before he got clean, the song’s actual meaning is up for some debate. The lyrics focus around the central image of a man lying in bed, next to the woman he loves, while fixating on the dark dream of an exploding Ferris wheel, 'people falling, people screaming', while he simply waits for her to wake, knowing that ‘when she calls’, he will answer. It might be about a woman he loves, it might be about waiting for his next fix, but the repeated refrain of ‘Still I see monsters’ leaves no doubt that eventually, the dream and the reality are going to merge, and our protagonist is going to wake to a very real, very scary world. He knows he can’t sleep forever and that eventually, that nightmare he keeps having is going to come true.
Ryan Adams, I See Monsters
Purchase I see Monsters

Moving on to…well, the same dark territory for Adams. “Halloween Head” is once again open to interpretation, but it’s a little less subtle in terms of pointing blame at a problem and perpetrator for life’s personal demons. “Halloween Head” finds Adams employing traditional Halloween imagery of ‘candy bags costume shops and punks in drag’ to show how his world of drug abuse has turned his reality into a dark place, one that looks more like a horror movie set than a real life. He laments the fact that he’s involved in a world he knows is wrong for him, perhaps like a repetitive nightmare, and he looks on the life he’s created for himself and calls it for what it is, angry that it ‘leads me through the streets at night…It's all the same old shit again’. The refrain of “I got a Halloween Head’ becomes, over a nice crunchy guitar groove, Adams’ lament at what he’s done to himself, and at one point, he does his best lonely werewolf howl, when he asks: ‘what the fuck’s wrong with me?’ It’s powerful because of the honest look he takes at himself, confronting the monster in the mirror, but more so for the oddly redemptive quality. There’s a bit of hope for the character, and when he joyously calls out for a guitar solo, you get the idea the good music can sometimes work to banish away the ‘bad ideas’.
Ryan Adams, Halloween Head

Finally, let’s get away from angst, and the encouragement sad songs give us to lock ourselves in our dark bedrooms and feel perfectly fine feeling all alone, because the singer wrote whatever song your are fixating on just for you—and turn up the heat a little. Sometimes, our monsters are our own damn fault, and this brings us to the ever-crunching groove-stomp of Queens of the Stone Age. A lot of what Josh Hommes and crew do could fit into the ‘monster’ category, but one track that stands out is “Monsters in the Parasol”. A slick, walking groove, gives over to a readily identifiable QOTSA dissonant breakdown, only to slide back into a tight-bang strut. As always, Hommes is crooning on about some kind of nonsense that you just know came from otherworldly influences-- QOTSA have a corner on the market of the best of crunch and funk. And the strangest lyrics. Monsters in the Parasol is a classic mover where the music takes a directly opposing route to the content of the lyrics and makes us forget to stop and listen. Which might be a good thing, because with lines like ‘the walls are closing in again, oh well’, and ‘Paul’s sister is an alien’ and something something something is ‘covered in hair’, we are dancing our way through nightmare territory here. What does it all mean? The interpretations might not be appropriate for a family-friendly blog, but the ramble of the music is enough to get you moving, perhaps double time, away from whatever kind of creeping thing—paranoia, that very scary man in drag in the video—might be catching up to you. Queens of the Stone Age: Monsters in the Parasol

What I love about music, just like books, like any art form that tries to communicate a translation of the language of the heart, is that, yeah, it really does sometimes seem to be written just about you. You know that feeling of listening to the radio and every single song that comes on is perfectly apt description of exactly how you feel at that very moment? It’s odd, but it points to the power of song, and a great song taps into the darkest and lightest stuff we have inside. Sometimes we need help looking the monster in the eyes, sometimes we need to forget all about the monsters and just cut loose, dance it up, smash a guitar. And music—good music—always helps.