Friday, April 3, 2020


John Hiatt is just terrific, one of the best, if not in sales, certainly in terms of influence and output, up there, in my book, with Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. When he's good, he's very, very good and when he's bad, well, I haven't encountered that yet. And Bring the Family, the album from which this song comes, is possibly one of his best, positively enhanced by the backing band on hand. Backing band? O, just Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. And yet it was born out of near desperation, a banknote or so away from ruin. Alone in the Dark, the feature song of this piece, epitomises the tight but loose feel of the disc, and is often overlooked amongst some of the other goodies on board. The lyrics may reflect a differing loneliness and a differing dark from these dangerous days, but the mood sure fits.

Ahead of this time, Hiatt had been a slogging workaday singer-songwriter, starting his career as a pen for hire. When Three Dog Night hit the top 40 with one of his, a recording contract beckoned, although, over the ensuing seven discs, scattered across various labels, more money came from royalties recouped, as the likes of Roseanne Cash and Willie Nelson recorded his songs, than he made from his own originals. Even the mighty Geffen label tried and failed to break him. This was arguably not helped by Hiatt being a drunken cuss who hadn't endeared himself to label bosses. So, newly sober, with a bunch of songs he had lost faith in, straits were indeed dire. Luckily the maverick UK label Demon still believed in him, and could offer a threadbare budget to record them. (The story of Demon makes for interesting reading, established by the earlier team behind Stiff records, Radar and F-Beat.)

Bring the Family, released in 1987, is a joy, from start to finish, the four musicians laying down a lean muscle honed from their collective road and studio experiences, Hiatt's holler a celebrant to his limited range: who needs more notes when you can do this much with these? Plus the songs, ten gems that can crack open a smile just from memory. Even if you don't know them, you know them, and even if you do, even over know them from the myriad cover versions of many, the freshness and vitality of the originals stand head and shoulder over most of those. It is hard to believe the whole project took only four days, Lowe sharing a motel room with Hiatt to keep costs down, Cooder delaying his departure a few hours as the final song was hastily written.

Neither the schedules of the four musicians, nor, then, the budget could allow this line-up any time on  the road. True, Hiatt rounded up some likely culprits, including perhaps the only man who could reasonably ever deputise for Cooder, bayou slide master, Sonny Landreth, and they hit the trail.  Following in the slipstream of Bring the Family, this crew, the Goners, produced a second deal breaking LP for Hiatt, Slow Turning, only a whisker away from being as good as its predecessor, being merely excellent. Hiatt was on a roll, with these and his next seven records all making substantive waves in the Billboard chart.

But the dream team were not done. In 1992 the diaries of Hiatt, Lowe, Cooder and Keltner finally realigned, and they went back into the studio. This time a band, Little Village, also the name of the sole studio offering, having ditched the earlier, and better, working title of Hiatus, and this time a pooling of resources, rather than just a backing band for Hiatt. The songs were all co-writes between the four, and whilst Hiatt sings the majority, Lowe took lead on two, Cooder on one. Perhaps there was too much hope, but the lightning failed to strike twice, and it was a deeply disappointing set. Nick Lowe later said they were given too much time. The subsequent tour was a little better, live sets testifying to that, allowing a presentation of some Bring the Family favourites, as well as scattering of Cooder's solo repertoire. One could sense a simmer of "sibling" rivalry, maybe some resentment that Hiatt was drawing more focus over Cooder's own sense of entitlement. It all ended, apparently, in tears.

Hiatt remains on the road, as do his former compadres, occasionally sharing a bill with one or another, all now senior statesmen and rightly so. Hiatt's recent work is, in my opinion, still of top quality and can stand close to the height of this period. Give him a go.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Alone: Spotify Playlists For The Current Situation

Like most of us, I'm working from home these days, and generally am staying at home, except for the occasional trip for food or walk to get some needed exercise.  Luckily, I'm stuck at home with my wife, so I have someone to talk to who I happen to love.  But, like many of you, I've been looking for ways to connect with friends and family.  So, I've been engaging a little more than usual on Facebook, for one thing.

But I've also spent a good part of my downtime trying to foster online engagement among my fellow members of the Princeton Class of 1982.  I'm the class secretary, among other things, and so I've been posting information to our class Facebook group and through emails.  But most notably, with a few classmates, we've been creating online gatherings.  The first one, last Sunday, was keyed to our class' unofficial holiday, "'82 Day," which falls on the 82nd day of the year.  The last few '82 Days were celebrated with gatherings of classmates around the country, but this year we moved online through the now ubiquitous Zoom platform.

The event was a huge success, despite a few technical glitches.  Nearly 150 classmates participated, and we had a panel discussion about the coronavirus featuring a doctor, a journalist who has been covering the virus for months, and a classmate who wrote his senior thesis on the 1918-19 Influenza epidemic.  Other doctors, including one who works at the CDC, also contributed.  To keep things light, we also had a Hollywood studio executive discuss things to watch while stuck at home, and a prominent astrophysicist give us pointers on things to look for in the night sky.  All of whom are classmates.  We're shooting to have similar gatherings every two weeks.

In addition, I discussed a few playlists that I had created to circulate among the class (although I later posted them on Facebook and elsewhere).  Keeping the "82" theme, I called them "COVID-82," and they each contain 82 songs.  It's pretty clear why most of the songs were put on the list, although a few of them are a little outside the box.  And I was focusing really on the titles, not the lyrics.  But people seem to like them.  Each of them have a bunch of songs that would fit this theme, so rather than try to pick one, I'm just going to share them here.

Enjoy--and there are more playlists coming!

Sunday, March 29, 2020


purchase [Alone Together]

Up until about 30 years ago, I had a 6-foot-long collection of 33 1/3 RPM LPs purchased between 1967 and 1978. I wasn't listening to them and my better half pushed to have them disappear: they were given away to a local radio station. All except for about 1 foot's worth.
If you know your history, 30 years ago is when the SONY Walkman appeared on the market, and the LP collection was duly re-populated with hundreds of cassettes. Slightly less space consumed, but no less unruly.

The 50 or so that I kept included original copies (well used) of classics like Sgt. Peppers, Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love, Blind Faith and Clapton's first solo ...

And Dave Mason's first solo album <Alone Together>. Even if I don't actually spin them any longer these days, I would never get rid of Dave Mason's Alone Together. For the music, and for the archaeological value of the copy I have: it's the marbled vinyl version with the hang-on-the-wall cover. Not the "anniversary edition", it appears to be worth a "bit" more than I paid for it at Tower Records in downtown Philly in 1970.

Mason had gone off on his own following his on-agin/off-again stint with Traffic, and all songs on the album were written by him. Apparently part of his frictions with Traffic stem from writing material that he wanted the band to perform/conform. Out on his own, he became free to do his thing his way.

There are critics that weren't altogether impressed ("more potential than realization" and "trivial lyrics"). Over his later career, I wouldn't argue with the trivial lyrics argument, but I have always felt that the album's sequence - from start to end - worked well as a "whole". Even today, there aren't any songs that I would skip over/fast forward to the next in line. That makes it a bit tough to pick the one that best suits our "Alone" theme. Let's try these 3 (selected lyrics that seem to me to highlight <alone>):

Cant Stop Worrying:
Who am I talking to it's just myself

Waitin on You:
Well there's no one that I can believe no, no
It's all because I couldn't see
That the best friend that I have is me

Look At You, Look At Me:
But I'm happy just to be a part of all I see


Actually, I am neither isolating, much, nor even distancing a whole lot, bar maintaining the antisocial 2 metre rule. I am purportedly front line. But not, as yet anyway, the trenches of ICU and the emergency room, touching washed and wiped wood, given my day job is a primary care physician. As yet I am not seeing the sick, as in C-19, not knowingly, anyhow, my role being to keep the show on the road for the rest: the old, those with chronic conditions, those with new acutes of other origin. And the worried. Lots of those, often struggling with how the new societal expectations inflict upon them, upon their loved ones and their livelihoods. We "see" each other on the phone, on-line and by e-mail: it is remarkable how much can be done remotely. Sure, some greater level of risk assessment, a constant coin flipping in the air, but it is, anyway, largely what we do, sift the grey of the majority into the black or white of algorithms often more intuitive than proscribed. Antibody testing for me and my colleagues is promised, the sooner the better.

Warren Zevon has been a frequent cipher on these pages. I see I have already written about him, so this ain't the time to reprise the old terrific songs/nasty guy schtick, but he seems to have songs for the moment, any moment. Splendid Isolation jumps out as one for the now. OK, this wasn't written from any experience thereof, it was more a desire to attain it. How many of us at the moment, I wonder, wished we might have been more careful in our wishes ahead of lock-down? Cos we now have all the time to do do those things put off until we wished we had more time. So, how's the garden looking, those shelves in the kitchen, playing the piano, learning a language? To be fair, I am aware that these are the things many actually are belatedly turning to, whilst many others frantically scour the social media for anything and everything, anything other than to stop and take stock. Maybe that's harsh. My i-phone tells me of a stratospheric rise in my own i-time, but I confess to a little seeping in of ennui. Do I really need to check the news and the updates every other minute? Once or twice a day being arguably enough, say ten times for expediency's sake.

So, back in 1989, Zevon was quite the ticket. The song comes from his eighth album, Transverse City, a big budget endeavour to regain the high ground of his earlier work, as he drifted within turmoils of his recurring personal life crises, booze, drugs and relationships. The supporting cast was stellar: Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, jazz keyboard maestro Chick Corea, Little Feat's Richie Hayward and guitars scattered between Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Neil Young and David Gilmour, fer chrissakes.... On the song itself, only Shakey from the above list appears, on backing vocals, the guitar duties being handled by erstwhile Tom Petty associate and current Fleetwood Mac-er, Mike Campbell, no mean slouch himself. The lyrics are typically the Zevon mix of the erudite and the snarky, referencing both the painter Georgia O'Keefe and Michael Jackson, with sufficient room to ascertain that, yes, he probably would like some time alone and off the treadmill. The album bombed against the expectation invested, Virgin records promptly dropping him from their roster, echoing the dumping of him by Asylum in 1982, following album number six, The Envoy.

Whilst I enjoy  the studio version of the song, I confess to a greater love for the live solo version on Learning to Flinch, his twelve string guitar a glorious shimmer, alone on stage seeming a better setting for the song. Indeed, given the decidedly variable content of, frankly, much of his output, some killer and more filler, it is this album too which I return as often as any.

I finally point you to the direction of Enjoy Every Sandwich: the Songs of Warren Zevon, a 2004 tribute album, songs performed by friends and family. The bemusing album title comes from an interview with the already dying Zevon, when, in response to a question asking as to the lessons he was learning about life in death, gave an answer around having not earlier understood the need to enjoy every sandwich. Gulp. Here the song is tackled by Pete Yorn, perhaps unfairly better known for his musical collaborations with Scarlett Johansson, than for his own eminently serviceable fare.

Here's a slew of versions. Sure, I commend them, but, in these trying times, however much solace there is in recorded music, spare a thought for the musicians still trying to eke a livelihood from their muse, performing home concerts on the various platforms. Let's support these artists too. If there hasn't yet been a new version of this song, I guess it can't or won't be long. Go search Bandcamp.