Saturday, June 27, 2015

Fireworks: The Fourth of July

X: The Fourth of July
LA Punks, country troubadours, rockabilly guitars, deeply rooted Americana rock. X had it all covered. 

X were ahead of their time, firmly planted in punk, but expanding deep into what we now all alt-country. They were the sound of Los Angeles for a while, but their expressive, off-centered sound had a broad appeal. See How We Are is a ready-made prose poem, filled with images of stories you know and might have told about yourself.

Founder and co-leader, Jon Doe is a bit of a renaissance man—actor, singer, poet of the miseries of life. And he’s never been better than on their break though masterpiece, 1987’s See How We Are.

“The Fourth of July” is a song about dissolution and loneliness . Doe’s protagonist tells of a relationship that is fading fast but he still clings to what they had. He says he has no idea what’s wrong, but offers a full, blanket apology for whatever he’s done. It’s dark melodrama, but he uses the 4th of July motif as a way to say, whatever’s wrong, let’s forget about it for tonight and celebrate. The Mexican kids shooting fireworks below don’t care what’s happened, and really, why should they, and why should we, for that matter?

Fireworks in the air; the summer is still young; you should be drunk and celebrating late into the night like there really isn’t anything serious to worry about. The 4th of July is one of those kinds of holidays where everything should be golden and horizons untroubled. It’s always been one of the best days of any year for me.  X’s take on the day might be wrapped around a tearful little lament, but it sounds great—chiming, Leslied guitars, reverbed-out drums, Exene Cervenka’s gospel-glorious backing vox.

X started much different than what they ended up as, trading trashy, rifle-shot punk tunes for something much more rock ‘n roll, full of the traditional soaring choruses, strutting and twanging guitars , always with a hint of rockabilly reverb, and Doe’s low drone playing off Cervenka’s beautiful and sharp howl. They never lost the sharp edges, but X did lots of sounds well, and to me, that’s as punk as you get—doing it the way you want to, disdaining labels and just playing it out as loud, fast and hard as you can.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fireworks: Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold

The Lone Bellow: Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold

Most of the time, I’ve been posting at least twice to each theme, in part because I enjoy writing these things, and in part because the blog needs content. After my first post on the Reunion theme, I decided to wait until after I attended the Clearwater Festival to see whether something would spark a second post on that theme (like when Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell played together a couple of years ago). Unfortunately, I miscalculated, the theme ended between the two days of the festival, and here we are in the Fireworks theme. Which is kind of too bad, because, as it turns out, I actually found a few Reunion ideas over the weekend, starting with the fact that I spent Saturday listening to music with my wife, my sister and a cousin, sort of a reunion in and of itself, and Sunday, I got to hear old friends Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, who recently had a bit of a reunion themselves with their recent cover album as The Pine Hill Project. And after a crazy rain squall interrupted their set, on a stage hard by the Hudson River, they returned to play some of their solo work, including Kaplansky’s great, personal song entitled, yes, “Reunion.”

But I blew it, and now I have to write about Fireworks. I like fireworks. But they have to be serious fireworks—not the small town, shoot off a few blasts before ending with a nice finale type that they had for many years where I live (although they have been improving lately). No, I’m talking about the kind of fireworks that fill the sky with colored lights and make your stomach hurt from the booms.

I have a few fireworks memories, and at the risk of leaving myself without a second post subject, here are some of them, in rough chronological order.

After my junior year in college, my roommates Neal and Jon and I went to Europe. We were in Paris one evening, in Montmartre, when a crowd started to gather in front of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. We had no idea what was going on, and since none of us spoke French, if there were any posted signs, we were clueless. Eventually, someone told us that there would be fireworks that evening, for a midsummer celebration. They were pretty great fireworks, especially because they were set off directly over the crowd. The consequences of that decision were apparently not considered, because flaming paper and debris began to fall over us, which was kind of scary. I don’t think they do it that way anymore.

I remember going to Shea Stadium in the 1980s, when the Mets were, as usual, bad, and Fireworks Night meant a rare full house. (Now, they do more than one, which just seems excessive). I remember sitting way up in the upper deck a few times for the excellent pyrotechnics. There was this guy who sat up there, a heavy guy with a thick beard known as “Fuzzy,” who insisted that the airplanes that flew over Shea were “taking a big risk” flying over the stadium as the fireworks were exploding. Fuzzy was, clearly, an idiot. However, to this day, I insist on repeating “They’re taking a big risk” every time I see a plane fly overhead during a fireworks display.

Also Mets related is my third story--I was going to watch the Fourth of July fireworks on the East River from the roof of my friend Joe’s apartment building in 1985. I remember it being quite a wild party, but even more memorable than the fine display in the sky were the fireworks at the Mets/Braves game that night in Atlanta, which we followed during the night and into the early morning. Often considered one of the craziest games ever, it went 19 innings and ended at 4 a.m. The Mets were winning 7-4 going into the 8th inning. The Braves went up 8-7 in the bottom of the 8th, and due to two long rain delays, it was near midnight when the 9th inning started. It was Fireworks Night in Atlanta, but most of the fans left, assuming that they would be cancelled due to the length of the game. The Mets tied the game up in the 9th, and it went to extra innings. The Mets scored 2 in the 13th, and the Braves tied it up again. It dragged on the 18th, and the Mets took the lead. The Braves were down to their last player, Rick Camp, a relief pitcher who was an awful hitter. Of course, he hit the only home run of his career to tie it. But in the top of the 19th, the Mets plated 5. The Braves answered back with 2 more, and the tying run at the plate was Camp. He struck out to end the game, and at 4 a.m., the Braves shot off their fireworks, scaring their neighbors.

The following year, 1986, was the centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, and New York threw an enormous party. There were speeches, concerts, Tall Ships, and what was, until that time, the largest fireworks display ever in the world. I remember that it was hot, crowded, and that the fireworks were spectacular. I also remember that somehow, no one seemed to realize that the subway would be mobbed immediately after the fireworks ended, and we all moved slowly, trying to stay together, as we were herded toward the few open entrances. I remember that the train thankfully was air conditioned, and that it was so crowded on the trains that strangers sat on people’s laps to squeeze more bodies onto the cars.

My son was born in April, 1990, and I think that it was in 1991 that my wife and I thought that it would be a good idea to take him to the Fourth of July fireworks. We started by going to a barbecue restaurant on the Upper West Side, then took the subway, with Adam in his stroller, downtown, then walked over to the East River to watch. Almost immediately after they started, the kid understandably got scared and started to cry. We decided to leave and take a cab home. Of course, the traffic was crazy, and we were stopping and starting all the way home. As we got sort of close to our apartment, Adam threw up in the cab, which did not make us popular with the driver. We finally got home, threw the kid in the bath to clean of the vomit, then cleaned ourselves off. My wife still, nearly a quarter of a century later, wrongly believes that this incident demonstrated bad parenting. I think it was just a well-intentioned mistake that had no lasting negative effect on the boy, who seems to like fireworks just fine.

Finally, starting in 1996, to celebrate the university’s 250th anniversary, Princeton began to have a fireworks show during Reunions (yep, I came back to that theme anyway). The following year, at my 15th Reunion, we saw the display, which was pretty incredible. In a flashback to my Montmartre experience, flaming debris landed in some dry grass and a brush fire started, which was quickly extinguished. The Reunions fireworks continue to impress (we saw it again at the 20th, 25th and 30th). The picture above, though, is by my friend and classmate Noel Valero, from this year’s show, and it won the reader photography competition sponsored by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. (One of my wife’s pictures from Reunions, of a little baby, was chosen as an editor’s favorite.)

And while we are bringing things full circle, back to Clearwater. On Sunday, I arrived late after coaching a youth soccer game (my boys scored three at the end to win 3-2, a heck of a way to end a season), and was confronted with a choice. Toshi Reagon, who in some ways embodies the festival as much as anyone—the daughter of Freedom Singers and civil rights activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Cordell Hull Reagon, the goddaughter of festival founder Pete Seeger and named after Pete’s wife, she is also a political and lesbian activist and a kick-ass performer. Or The Lone Bellow, one of my favorite new Americana bands. My wife chose Toshi, and I went for the Lone Bellow, on the theory that Toshi is likely to be there next year, but I wasn’t sure that The Lone Bellow would. They really put on a great set, although it was distractingly hot. And they sang this song, which mentions New York Fourth of July fireworks, and the subway. If it only mentioned Reunions, Paris and the Mets, it really would have tied everything together, but you can’t have everything.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Buy Costello,
Buy Cantrell or just buy indoor fireworks.

Not being a Yank I find it difficult associating fireworks with a summery and bright night sky, my sympathies lying more with Aimee Mann, in her wonderful 4th of July "celebration", a waste of both gunpowder and sky. But I am here to be no party-pooper. I guess I could post some wintery pyromania, to utilise our own UK-centric firework feast, commemorating the day one Guido 'Guy' Fawkes failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament, remaining a hero to this day, more, I feel, for his intent than its thwarting. (Given I was raised in Lewes, near the south-east coast of England, where this achieves some notoriety and fame; remind me nearer the time and I will.)

So my fireworks today are arguably tamer, being of the indoor variety. And you can indeed get such a thing once more, a throw back to simpler times, aka pre-HBO box sets. Deemed safe and sedate, it is hard to see the attraction now. However, back in 1986, Elvis Costello penned my featured song, the lyrics of which contain their evident danger, albeit by way of allegory, below in solo demo starkness:

Undoubtedly one of his finest, or, to detractors, finer lyrical outlays, the conveyed poignancy suits the less frantic setting, the Attractions laid off, by and large, at this stage of his career, replaced by the Confederates, an amalgam of some of the cream of U.S. session men. Here's the studio version, to demonstrate that claim.

Costello has arguably been too wordy and, possibly, too misogynistic to attract as many covers as similarly prolific writers. (Or, decent covers, let's say, as no shortage of karaoke kopyists, spitting his words out in ever more faint mimeograph.) But there are some artists who can catch his drift, intriguingly often female. Laura Cantrell, (yet another) favourite of late UK DJ provocateur John Peel, so possibly even better known in my country than in her own, succeeds with ease and aplomb, wreaking yet more angst in her mournful, keening delivery. Astonishingly, not on YouTube, so I had to make my own, with apologies for the less than galling vid. 

If only for completeness, eternal/occasional E.C. buddy, Nick Lowe covers it as well, his way, with a good deal less charm.

Finally for those who are intrigued by Ms Cantrell covering Costello, here's the logical next step. the pair together, covering James Taylor:

Personally, I find it a bit of a firework itself!

Monday, June 22, 2015

fireworks: U2/Promenade

U2: Promenade
purchase [promenade]

Yes, the fourth is still a few days away, but the upcoming celebration was a part of the thought behind our current theme of fireworks. July 4th ... there may be reunion somewhere in your fireworks, but I'll make no further attempt at a conceit/an effort to combine these two themes. Just a fire-related thought or two to get us rolling ...

Things in the sky above use are naturally spacy (as in ether = air?). You look up. You see the stars. You see lights. You see beyond.  And it's often even more awesome/beautiful when there are human-made colors and lights above your head. For example, airplanes, satellites and fireworks.

This is one of those songs that embodies the qualities of the air/the sky: As in the lyrics, as in the stars above - there is a spiral to the guitar, to the music. The song makes use of a repetition that seems to embody the motion of the stars, to lights in the sky: to the continuity of "earth, sky, sea and rain". To me, it calls to mind the roman candles of its lyrics, lights that spiral and spin through the heavens and enthrall us from below.

For some reason, this song also called to mind a realization that there is a similar effect in Midnight Mile off of Sticky Fingers - part of it is that guitar, part of it is the vocal style and part of it is the ethereal lyrics. Cf: