Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cover of the Week 22

Ain't That Lonely Yet

Buffalo Tom was asked to do a song for a compilation to benefit an artist that I had heard of but had whose music I didn’t really know. But the Sweet Relief benefit record was for a good cause, covering the songs of an artist named Victoria Williams, who was suffering from MS, and like a lot of musicians, didn’t have health insurance coverage. The record was not only to benefit Victoria, but was to go towards a fund established to help musicians in similar predicaments.

We used the opportunity to not only help a struggling musician and take part in a team effort along with a lot of other great artists, but to also try out a potential new production scenario for our upcoming new album, what was to become Big Red Letter Day. This was right on the tail of Let Me Come Over, when the second single Taillights Fade (the first was “Velvet Roof”) was just starting to pick up a little traction at WNEW in NY and WFNX in Boston. LMCO was met with mostly yawns for the first tour in the US. We were pretty depressed until we got on a tour with My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo, and Mercury Rev. And then later, we got to Europe, where the momentum managed to survive our own version of the sophomore slump with Birdbrain. LMCO was pretty much greeted with unanimous acclaim in the UK weeklies, Benelux radio, and other media, and this enthusiasm encouraged other territories to take notice. 1992 was, as we later came to learn, was “the year that punk broke.” Our music might have been closer to Van Morrison than Nirvana, I think, but the history of the former had little to do with us while the latter’s success had a trickle-down affect for any of those of us who wore flannel shirts, had been getting lots of play on the CMJ (College Music Journal) charts, and were headlining the Town and Country in London and the Milkweg in Amsterdam, and the Loft in Berlin.

One of the many other contemporary bands with whom we did feel a particular kinship was Boston’s own Lemonheads, who started out around the same time as us. But while we were stuck in western Mass. at college, they were had a leg up on gigging in Boston clubs a bit before us. We eventually played tons of shows together, with some particularly memorable gigs at the Channel, and later in England, Germany, and Japan. Both bands were more pop/strummy-guitar-oriented than some other SST and Taang! acts (the respective labels we started out on). And we could really appreciate how fast Evan Dando was growing as a songwriter and how strongly the band was creating its own identity and sound. So we had taken notice when they went out to Los Angeles to record the great classic It’s a Shame About Ray album.

BT had been arcing toward a more classic sound than one that was “new” or groundbreaking. We were growing more confident in our writing and performance ability. As the year progressed from 1991 into 1992, all sorts of crazy unthinkable things were happening in the wake of Nirvana’s success. It was like a tipping point. Everyone that had been sleeping on each other’s floors suddenly seemed to get big promotions and raises. People that used to have 6 am slots on obscure college radio stations or had started an indie label were getting signed on to major labels as A&R reps or moving up the ladder at commercial radio stations or MTV. Everything seemed to start to get serious, like we could all really break through and make tons of money like the stars who made up our youthful rock & roll fantasies. Even LMCO had a moment in the sun, getting that commercial play. Right before the release of Birdbrain, we had signed to Beggar’s Banquet, a British label that had put out a myriad of our favorite records by bands like Bauhaus, the Fall, Go Betweens, and the Died Pretty. Beggar’s licensed out different acts through various major labels in the States. We had a deal with RCA, who oversaw LCMO and farmed us out to a tiny promo company that RCA had taken under its umbrella. The idea was that if an act achieved a certain level of success, then the grown-ups at RCA would take over the record. I believe this sort of happened with LMCO, but it was half-hearted. I think Beggar’s got pissed that the ball was dropped and were anyway moving on to another deal with WEA. If LMCO had come out 6 months later, or if there had been a sustained effort by a major label promoting it, there is little question that it would have been more successful in breaking us.

Nevertheless, we took that momentum and it kind of felt like the world was our oyster. Tours got bigger; we hired more people; bought more cool guitars and amps; we appeared on various TV shows; got publishing offers; and started playing good slots on huge European festivals. We were at Reading in 1992 (93?) when Nirvana headlined. I think we played the same day as Public Enemy and Pavement. Everything seemed to be pretty set up for us. I was just happy to not have to work a day job anymore. We had a healthy advance to record our next record. So we started chatting with various producers around the same time we had been invited to be a part of the Sweet Relief record. We talked to some truly inspiring people and had heard from Evan how much fun he had working with the Robb Brothers out at their legendary studio, Cherokee, in Hollywood. We loved, absolutely unanimously all loved that Ray record and really dug how it sounded. Up to that point, “going to L.A. to record the next record” meant “selling out,” “compromising with the label heads,” “watering down the sound,” etc. But the Lemons’ record sounded classic, warm, and fresh all at the same time. The growth displayed on that record was off the charts.

So we went out there to record this Victoria Williams song with the Robbs, to see how it went. And it went really well. We all hit it off and had a blast. There were three of them (the oldest, Dee, has recently passed away). They were madmen, albeit fantastic older guys who had lived the fast life in the ‘60s into the 80’s and were pretty done with it by the time we reached them – except for the stories; the stories remained. It had started for them as a backing band for Dick Clark on an old television show called "Where the Action Is," continued through backing Richie Nelson, Del Shannon, and up into the Manson-era, during which time they started the original Cherokee out on a ranch very close to the Spahn ranch where the Manson girls lived with Charlie. Later on, the Robbs bought the old MGM studio on Fairfax where Sinatra and other legends had recorded. At one point, during the peak of 1970s rock decadence, they had a studio built into a yacht.

In we roll, three young “college rockers” to record with these great older dudes in unbelievable shag hair-dos that they had held over from 1977. They were like a comedy team. Remember the Hudson Brothers TV show on Saturday mornings in the late-‘70s? It was three whacky brothers who were in a rock band but also did slapstick comedy. One of them was married to Goldie Hawn and they spawned the lovely Kate Hudson. Not only were the Robbs a little like them, but they knew them of course. That’s one of the things we learned from living in Hollywood for the next two months; it is more like a big town than a large city. When we first started going out there in 1989, the surrealism of seeing celebrities we hadn’t even thought of in decades set in fast and was hard to shake after subsequent stops we had made there on our tours. But living there for a couple of months, and especially working with the Robbs in the studio, we got a big dose that was like being on one of those MTV reality shows with faded stars all living together.

When the Robbs first started telling stories, they just seemed too far out to be true. I mean, there one about their dad in the late-‘70s, a recently retired and divorced Ford executive coming out to stay with them and partaking in the lifestyle for an indefinite stay, a lifestyle that shocked even the Robbs when one of them walked into the studio lounge to see dad freebasing with Ringo and Ron Wood. But as the next couple of months unfolded, we had our own taste of just how strange life can get in a music studio in Hollywood. Rick James was a constant presence. He was working on a record in one of the other two rooms while he was awaiting trial, I believe on kidnapping and torture related to crack binging. We became quite friendly with him, to the point that he felt comfortable coming in and stealing our beers from the fridge in our control room. I remember the music fading out and one of the Robbs shouting out, “Hey, Rick!” at which point Rick, startled, lifted his head quickly and whacked it bad on the top shelf of the fridge.

Lita Ford was also there most of the time, recording. She seemingly became quite smitten with Chris Colbourn, who would fawn over her collection of dachshunds. A couple of the guys from the recently broken-up Jane’s Addiction were there as well, Dave Navarro and another dude. Dave was a quiet, pretty nice guy the few times we talked. Ice Cube was in and out. And I had heard Hank Shocklee was in producing some younger, new act. I was a huge, huge fan of the Public Enemy records he had put together. One day in the lounge I was sitting a booth table chatting with who I thought was one of the kids he was producing, just making small talk for a long time, watching a game or something. I eventually steered the topic to music. “So,” I said, “you guys in there working with Hank Shocklee?” He looked at me and smiled, “Yeah, that’s me.” I was confused. “It’s your record?” I asked. “No. That’s ME,” he said. “I’m Hank.” “Oh! You’re Hank? Wow, pleasure to meet you. Big fan.” I guess I was expecting one of the dudes that looked like the entourage I had seen traveling with PE, or someone like Chuck D.” But Hank seemed so young to me at the time.

One day, while we were mixing “I’m Allowed,” we had Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Gene Simmons, And David Lynch all stopped in for visits. It was like a Fellini talk show in there. To illustrate some point he was making in a story, I think about how great a singer Gene Pitney was, at one point Simmons was right in my face singing “Town Without Pity.” I mean, it felt like the whole song. “Gene Simmons, ladies and gentleman,” we said after he left. And sure enough, like that talk show I envisioned, in walked David Lynch later on. He told me this great story about moving to Los Angeles, a story that I had once read about, involving the Denny’s on Sunset. He was telling us how broke he was and said “and I reached into my pocket and I only had one penny, one greasy little penny with a hair attached to it.” I just kept thinking, “how fucking great is this that David Lynch, who made some of my all-time favorite movies, TV, and even music, is telling me this story.” David Lynch, ladies and gentlemen, David Lynch!

We would leave after a long day to stay up at the luxurious Fairfax Suites (I forget if that’s the name or not). In my Aretha post, the most immediate before this one, I make a joke about macramé. The Suites, on Hollywood and Fairfax, really did have some dusty-ass macramé wall hangings, brown shag carpeting, and everything else in shades of burnt umber. It was between this and the Oakwood apartments, which is where the Pixies were staying. We got to visit and have fun with them one night during our stay. But Oakwood seemed just too far out, located in the Valley somewhere. We would rather rough it a bit and be central to everything. We could walk down to the studio, which is just a bizarre thing for people to do in LA, just as the stereotype has it.

We ended up having some fun nights at the Fairfax, including a night when we returned while on tour later on and had a great time rocking it all night by the pool with a band from Mexico, drinking until my eyes crossed. But for the most part, it was kind of a sad old place. John Waters’ inspiration, Divine had died there, which Chris was reminded to every day as one of those morose “deaths of the stars” tours in a hearse would roll underneath his window and announce the details to the tourists. It definitely had that sad Night of the Locusts-like sniff of the Hollywood underbelly, the at-best-faded glamour of Hollywood that Ray Davies sang about in his lines, “you can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard/Some that you recognize, some that you’ve never even heard of.” That song ran through my head the entire time I was out there. I started to re-read John Fante during this time. City of Quartz is another, though non-fiction book about LA that made me examine the environment with a greater scrutiny.

Most of the time, however, was spent just clocking in and out of the studio like going to any other job. I like to work mostly at night, but the Robbs had long settled out of the rock and roll life, had kids to get off to school and wanted to see at night and were just generally more regimented about the job. I wanted to rock and roll all night and party every day, but we were pretty much just a working class band with a job to do. We would come home fairly early and decompress, try to let the ear ringing subside, read some books, call home, (no real internet yet) and watch some television. I recall a few things I watched on TV out there.

One was the ongoing "Nightline" coverage of the horrific war in Bosnia and the Balkans. I get pretty raw playing music every night, recording all day like that. At least on tour, we had a change of scenery and other people around us. In the studio, though, it is just the three guys and the studio people – producers, engineers, etc. We were with each other the better part of 5 or 6 days a week, day and night, studio and apartment, for 2 months. And we were trying to collaborate artistically, which anyone knows can create a highly charged atmosphere. We would get lonely for those back home. Emotions start to run high. Not that one would need this context to feel deeply for the situation in the Balkans, but I remember once just sitting in my room and watching this tragedy on television and falling apart for the rest of the night, not getting any sleep. I honestly felt at the time like I might be having a nervous breakdown. It should have leant perspective to the insignificance of what we were doing and therefore make me feel less affected by my daily drama and myopic worldview. I think it indeed did lend perspective to that insignificance, but far from making me feel more balanced, it just served to tip me in the other direction, made me feel more hopeless about our detachment from real life and despondent that so much of our efforts would have so little real effect on the world. I realize that this is something a lot of people go through in their 20s and one feels that sense of self-importance that they need to be shaken from every now and again, to experience that existential dread and insignificance. This sort of personal emotional struggle probably did serve the emotional depth of the performances on the record. I don't mean to say that X led to Y, that "Bill watches bad shit on Nightline and goes on to sing well on BRLD;" I guess I mean that all that strife that we deal with as young adults gets channeled in a general way into the music/art. Thank God I didn't try to write a political anthem.

On a lighter note (this is a horrible transition, but it is time to move this blog post along), I also recall tuning in to the "Tonight Show" and catching this guy I had not heard much of. While I had heard his name, I’m ashamed to say that at that point, in 1992/3, I had not recalled having heard any of Dwight Yoakam’s music yet. His name had been stored away in the “contemporary country” closet in my mind. I had no interest in that newer Nashville stuff, as it was so formulaic, over-produced, and written with bumper-sticker sloganeering. But Dwight came out and sang this song “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” which was the new single from his hit record This Time. The song hit me deeply. I just thought it was so damn catchy and classic sounding. And Dwight’s enigmatic performance totally convinced me to run out and by the CD the next day. The irony is that the song is Dwight’s big attempt and success at crossing over into mainstream country and pop radio. The rest of the stuff on the record --- and most of his other records, for that part (which I eventually started collecting) – is based in that classic Bakersfield, California sound pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who were two of my heroes. And he had also been rooted in the LA post-punk roots scene that had hatched Los Lobos, and all those Slash bands like the Blasters, X, Gun Club, the Long Ryders, and Rank and File. I went on to catch Dwight in concert a bunch of times, all cool in his tight-ass jeans and cowboy hat brim down over his eyes. He rarely said a word.

I might have listened to This Time more than any other record while we were recording Big Red Letter Day, though I doubt it comes through on the record. In the end, we felt we made a worthy follow-up to Let Me Come Over. The half-sarcastic title – inspired by the film It’s a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey bitterly proclaims, “another red letter day for the Bailey family” -- reflected our sentiment about living in California, the sun, the optimism that is supposed to be with you living the semi-rock-star life in Hollywood and the idea that we were being pegged as destined to break though in a bigger way than we had before. Of course we were working hard for that greater success, but deep down, we knew it was pretty unlikely for guys like us and maybe deep down we weren’t sure if we wanted or deserved greater success or how much more we had in us. The cycle that began with recording that record and rolled over a year of touring, brought us some of our greatest highs but also almost brought me to my knees with excruciating lows.

Ain't That Lonely Yet

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Aretha Franklin's "Precious Memories"

I left Catholicism behind when I was 18. The schism first occurred, though, just as I was starting that sacrament known as penance, which I recall happening around 3rd grade, or 9 years old. So, let me get this straight, I thought, I go into this mysterious dark booth, kneel down and confess my sins – pretty much consisting of disobeying my parents, being mean to my siblings, and, slightly later, onanism, oh the ongoing onanism! And this priest, who was usually identifiable as one of the rasping and raging red-faced alcoholics who taught C.C.D., the religious education classes. And this guy, this sad old man was supposed to communicate with God and absolve me of my sins. Yeah, this is about the time when logic entered the equation and I started to question the whole deal.

But a lot of the reason I drifted was that it just bored me to death, sitting in that nice big neo-Gothic church of my childhood. The best part of the mass was my daydreaming, glancing around at the architecture, observing the congregation, particularly the younger and hotter female portion, and the pipe organ music. The music could, on very rare occasions, offer a little inspiration. But let’s face it; the Catholic Church was already a faded version of its historic self. In the past centuries it inspired the Masters in painting, architecture, and music. Had it retained some of that enigmatic glory, perhaps if the mass was still mysteriously said in Latin, I might have at least suspended my disbelief for a while longer. But they started their weak attempts at bring the mass down to the people, with lame folk-music masses and it only pushed me out the door faster, all that mustachioed earnest strummy monotony against the macramé’d felt-Advent-banner-background. This was a long way from Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, (or for that matter, my favorite Bach piece “So Sheep May Safely Graze”) or the Sistine Chapel.

If anything, I looked for reasons to keep me away from the dispiriting Church and did not have to look far for scientific and logical support for my rationale. People can become straight-up rational and atheistic and still find their artistic mojo. In fact, there is an interesting article in a recent New Yorker about the author Ian McEwan’s arc from a young man who accommodated new-age-y philosophy into an older accomplished author who finds inspiration in more earthly sources and less tolerant of mystical strains. Not many would consider McEwan’s work cold or uninspiring.

I like to leave all doors open, however and would consider myself, therefore, agnostic. As an artist, there is something otherworldly in moments of ecstatic music and art – whether it be intentionally devotional (raga, chanting, gospel, Sufi dervishes, etc.) or not. Just because soul music is the secular sibling of gospel music does not mean that it has taken the spirit out; the spirit is in the music and performance itself, not in the lyrics.

My wife and I went to see Reverend Al Green conduct his Sunday service in Memphis during the mid-1990s. He sang almost the whole time, pausing only briefly to warmly welcome the handful of us that were outsiders before letting himself be transported again by the amazing and powerful music. The church itself is a modest sort of mid-century building on the outskirts of town. He had this stellar band that included a Hammond organ player with two loud Leslie speakers flanking the stage. We were there for over two hours, during which he shook our hands, introduced us to the congregation, sang and sweat his heart out, while his congregants sang, danced, prayed, and even did the whole “speaking in tongues” ecstasy thing while ushers attended to them. I felt simultaneously drained and lifted up when we left. In fact, the service was still ongoing when we had to leave. I said to my wife, “if this was church when I was growing up, I would never have questioned a thing and would be there right now.” I think I might have touched the face of God that day. I’m sure there is a biological explanation for all of this, but I don’t need to know what it is; it is not relevant.

I was thinking of this all today while I was walking into work and “Precious Memories” came on my ipod. This is the version that Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland sing on the 1972 live album, Amazing Grace. The recording always almost brings me to my knees, specifically around 3:25 minutes in. This is the first of two climaxes on the recording when I feel privileged that was someone -- Jerry Wexler is the producer, of course -- was there to record the holy moment. Because that is exactly what it is. Aretha seems to be channeling the Holy Spirit here. Without exaggeration, every time I listen to this, every time, whether it be the first time in months that I am listening to it or the fourth time in a row, I am physically affected. It goes beyond shivers down the spine; it is an overwhelming experience, emotional and physical, that I can barely contain. It is literally almost orgasmic. I could only imagine what sort of freakin’ weirdo I look like walking down a bike path with my face all contorted with anguished emotion.

(Listen here)

“Precious Memories” is a traditional that gets to the heart of it, as Van Morrison sings in his own rhapsodic moments. Over a sublimely gentle ¾ pace, Aretha hums low in a call-and-answer with the Southern California Community Choir starts the lyric:

Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul

And the soul of the listener starts to flood as Aretha adds a wordless riff.

In the stillness of the midnight
Sacred secrets will unfold.

And this is the whole thing: the sacred secrets are unfolding just as the arrangement does. The gathered live congregation of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles are all aware that this calm is fleeting; the ecstasy is building. Aretha, off microphone, cues Cleveland with the first line of the next verse, “In sad hours,” and the rich husky baritone of Cleveland picks it up:

In sad hours (Aretha: Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord)
When I get a little lonely (yeah, yeah, yeah)
The truth, the real truth, the real truth of Jesus’ (thank you, Lord) (Aretha: say it, James) Love is told, oh yeah oh yes it is

The congregation and the choir are now clapping on the 2 and 3 of the waltz beat. It is building. And then it hits.

Mmmm, Jesus (they repeat His name 6 times between them) whispers

(The choir hits with a loud “yeahhhh,” which Aretha picks up’
“Yeaaaaaahhhhh I’ll be with you.” (Cleveland exclaims off mic, “SAY IT!” which sounds like he slammed his finger in a car door -- the agony and the ecstasy.)

And the arrangement stars to wind down from this first climax, only to have Aretha sing, “You know he will. We oughta sing that one more time, James.”

And they bring it back to a seemingly impossible second crescendo. “Every, every, every, every now and then you’re gonna get a little lonely.” And now Aretha just tosses words out the door and it is pure singing, one “Jesus” is all she says riffs to “Child, I’ll be. With. A’you,” pausing rhythmically between those words.

And the arrangement simmers down, the choir and congregation, who have witnessed similar moments, nevertheless sound as stunned to semi-silence as we feel as listeners. Where they were shouting, beseeching, encouraging, clapping, singing along during the song, by the end, they sound drained, offering relatively modest applause that comes nowhere near appropriate for what might be one of the greatest soul-unloading, cathartic performances captured on record.

You can hear why every rock & roll and pop star poser like Michael Bolton and Celine Dion haul out a gospel choir for some TV appearance or another; the power of a great gospel choir is undeniable. What such performers miss, however, is the force and depth of Aretha and James Cleveland, a force and depth to match that of a choir, to stand to-to-toe with and compliment a choir. Aretha’s recording here builds an arrangement that is like the architecture of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. At the start, the choir’s voice lift like arches up to the heavens, Aretha weaves her voice in and the choir dips. The, rhythm encourages the stop-start gait associated with a slow-moving ceremonial procession toward the front of the church, the altar. This holy music, like the great architecture, aspires to capture the spirit, the very essence – not the specifics – of the faith of the participants. They could be singing about Krishna, Jesus, or Allah, it doesn’t matter. What they are communicating is the passion in their souls. It’s enough to make you want to go to church.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cover of the Week 21

Taking on the sacred cow, here is my version of "You Won't See Me." Yes, by the Beatles. Sorry kids. A little rough 'round the edges, this one. Also, I will spare you my weekly ramble-nalia for now. I am sure I can tie some rant to this cover. "It was Liverpool, 1959, when I first saw four gents walk into the Cavern Club..."

You Won't See Me

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cover of the Week 20

When I was growing up, my uncle Pat (his name changed here) was the family lush on the Irish side (we grew up pretty much half Italian/half Irish, though my Irish father also had French and Russian on is side, hence the surname). The “lush on the Irish side” may seem redundant, but someone has to take the top spot. Pat is still with us. He is actually my father’s cousin and the big brother my dad never had. Pat took dad to his first Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbet’s Field, which was more or a less life-forming event for my father and, by extension, subsequent generations, who could never root for the Yankees, lest they fall over to the Italian side with his Italian father in-law.

In suburban NY, we had a lot of Italian and Irish kids, or some combo thereof. It was a constant war of influence with my parents’ two sides:

“You’re Italian.”

“No, you’re Irish. Here, wear this 'Kiss Me, I'm Irish button.”

"No, have this cannoli. Can your Irish relatives make pastries like this?"

"What color is your hair? And you think you're Italian? Don't believe 'em."

When I was in 1st grade, on Columbus Day, the Italians’ chance to reply with pride and dignity to the Bacchanalia of St. Paddy’s Day, a teacher asked all of us who were Italian to raise our hands. My mother’s voice echoing in my head (“you’re Italian”), I raised my hand. My teacher told me dismissively to lower it. She could plainly see by my pale skin and orange hair that I was not Italian. Plus, my name is Janovitz, whatever the hell that is. It certainly is not Italian. My mother sent me in with a note the next day explaining this situation and I received a satisfyingly public apology from the same teacher.

As for the Irish side, well, there was usually no mistaking that influence; it was quite evident in my appearance. But my O’Shea side had been here for generations, unlike the families of some of my friends, whose parents came over as the first generation. So a lot of the links to the old country were already dissipating into a general NY-Irish-American-ness, which as we know tends to embrace the cartoonish stereotypes and soak them deep with a lot of beer and whiskey. And songs.

Whenever we had a get-together at Uncle Pat’s (who is, himself, half-German) for whichever holiday, out came the folding wooden chairs and some Sing-Along with Mitch records. But also, out came a lot of Irish albums and tunes. These tended to be the old maudlin warhorses like “When Irish Eyes…”, “My Wild Irish Rose,” “The Unicorn,” “Turaluralura,” and, heaven help us all, “Danny Boy.” But those sad old melodies, especially as sung by a bunch of old relatives, made quite an impact.

When Buffalo Tom first went to Ireland, probably around 1990 or 1991, we landed and started out in Limerick. Down in the hotel lobby there was a gift store with cassettes for sale. They had Irish Heartbeat, by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. I bought it like the tourist I was. At least it was a cool record and not some lowest-common-denominator tripe. In fact, it turned out to be one of my favorite Van-related records. It was great to hear the Belfast Cowboy soul man hooked up and singing “Irish soul” with the trad Dubliners. I listened to it as I took my jet-lag-recovery nap. I woke up and walked out with the fellas to get some grub and a few pints. One of Tom Maginnis’ best barbs still stings to this day, “You know, Bill is actually considered a very good-looking man in Ireland.” Now this is just wrong on so many counts: a) Tom is as Irish as the Fightin’ Irish guy or the Celtics’ Leprechaun, b) Yes, Tom is handsome (though all beauty fades with age), c) Tom had not yet seen the Corrs or had forgotten Larry Mullen or would not bring the whole isle down with d) me, who is not good-looking by almost any measure, save for that by used by my Mom and wife.

Still stinging and needing something of a salve for my wounds and jetlag, we retired to the first pub we stumbled across, and there was an informal sesiun underway, with a handful of college or high school-age kids in a corner of the bar, around a table, singing all sorts of tunes, from Dylan, to the Waterboys, to traditional Celtic folk, to Van the Man and more. I was tickled to have stumbled in on this, which I later came to find out is a pretty common sight. Though my friends in Session Americana have taken up the cause here in Boston, dealing mostly in, as their name suggests, acoustic American music, and “Irish Sesiuns” take place in Irish pubs around Boston and other cities, it is still a relative rarity to hear music played informally and semi-spontaneously in America. For a rock guy first visiting one of his ancestral spots, seeing and hearing people play great music for the fun of it, because it was just part of their culture, made me wish for it more in my everyday experience back home.

Speaking of Irish Heartbeat and Session Americana, I will be playing this old ballad, which I first heard on that record, with the cats at Session Americana’s St. Patrick’s Day gig at the Lizard Lounge March 17. They play every Tuesday there, just a bunch of extremely talented singers and players around a mic or two, a table with some drinks and friends. This Tuesday just happens to fall on St. Paddy’s Day.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cover of the Week 19

In 1983 my friend, Danny and I tried to ditch this neighborhood misanthrope when he stepped into the Harbor Deli. We discussed and the decided just running, willy nilly, with no destination in mind other than “away.” Billy G. stepped out of the deli, looked left then right, saw us scattering in the back alley and chased after us. He caught Danny, who was already up to 2 packs a day by then and started pummeling him, asking loudly voiced rhetorical questions such as “what the fuck?!” and the expanded “why the fuck were you guys running?!” Stupidly, or out of loyalty, or out of stupid loyalty, I stopped and came back to try and reason with Billy, who, as I remember it, started swinging his stocky muscular arms at me. As Danny and I were reminiscing over at Facebook recently, he thought he was the only one hit. He may be right, maybe I was just such a pussy and scared into thinking I was hit as well. But I seem to remember taking at least one to the cheek. The point here, at least one of the points, is that two kids got their asses kicked by one kid, even with a pretty sizable running start.

As I have mentioned in this space already, I moved from Huntington, Long Island, New York, to Medfield, Massachusetts when I was 16. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the neanderthal bully Billy was originally from Massachusetts and his footbal coach father was what I came to know as that type that we in the Boston area refer to as a "Masshole." During these last couple of years of high school, I would often take the train back down to visit the kids I grew up with. I had been in bands in Huntington starting at around the age of 13. The very first iteration was a trio of us 13 year old boys heavily smitten with classic rock (back then it was merely “rock,” the “classic” modifier coming in the mid-‘80s) and its very popular sub-genre, southern rock. Toward this end, we chose the band name 200 Proof, y’all. Because at 13, we knew a lot about pounding down 100% alcohol. We were surely whiskey rock & rollers. But you know, sad to think back, but from the tender age of 13 it is only a mere year or two out from my actual drinking and then another year into my drinking-in-earnest.

Those intervening years are the ones that seem to change everything. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but as the years fly by, to think back on the teens, the upheaval seemed to last for decades and the bittersweet changes take on a more acute sort of agony.

The Internet has changed almost everything as well. I imagine, for example, that it is far easier to be a private detective (private detective overcoat or none) now than it was 15 years ago. Google aside, grown adults (myself included) are decreasingly private in the age of Facebook and so on. I have spent embarrassing hours playing the nostalgia game with people I grew up with but in some cases have not seen in 25+ years. And, aside from some tweaks, they are the same personalities that were forming in those years. There was about a week of commentary flowing on this one picture from a junior high Sadie Hawkins dance:

As you can see, it is daylight. In a sort of Virgin Suicides episode, a girl trying to cross the street in front of the school during the last dance held after sunset was hit and killed a car. All subsequent events were moved into the afternoon in the way that all such draconian bureaucratic school board moves make perfect sense. The guy all the way to the right in this picture, swigging the C&C Cola that we are all drinking and loved so well with our cafeteria burger pucks, was named Dennis. He and I lived a couple of houses away and met in nursery school. We remained best friends right until I switched high schools. He was working at Cantor Fitzgerald in the WTC on 9/11 and left behind a wife and toddler the same age as mine.

The posting of this photo, from 1978 or ‘79, by Danny (the second-to-last one on the right, next to Dennis and recently sprung from Catholic grammar school for a 2-year furlough before being re-incarcerated Catholic high school) brought out other such painful memories but also much hilarity. By the way, in case you have not noticed, I am the twerp in the center, pretty much wearing the same style I adhere to now.

It is photographic evidence such as this that demonstrates why the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks” hit so close to home. Clearly, I fell into the second classification, though we really wanted to be “freaks,” which was an actual social class in our town. The two warring parties were the freaks, who were refried burnouts that were the late-70s leftover lifestyle iteration of hippiedom, with flannel shirst, long hair, concert T's, and workboots or sneakers being the uniform. And there were the “hitters.” These were the flashier velour-wearing disco enthusiasts who tended to be a lot tougher. The hitters group was mostly made up of more working class kids and a lot more black kids than the freaks, who tended to come from the upper middle class. The town (which is more of a township) ran the gamut of extreme wealth up along the north shore, to the projects and poorer families in the southern, more inland part of the town. There was a lot of overlap of these groups, though, in the middle class. You could go either way – freak or hitter. Or you could just end up like the silent majority of us, some sort of wannabes that were more of a cliquey outcast sub-strata more than one affiliation or the other. In discussions with other friends who grew up in this era, I have learned that this sort of social organization was not uncommon and almost all larger suburban towns had similar classifications, “freaks” being the more consistent term while the term for the other side being the more idiosyncratically named group. Nowadays it seems kids have way to many Balkanized groups. For example, I think there are now multiple variations of goth/industrial/trenchcoat mafia…

I have already discussed in this space what the changing music scene meant back in those years. So for someone who wanted to live all the decadence of the Stones, Skynyrd, et. al. but who looked as I do/did in photo Exhibit A, the coming of Elvis Costello was a godsend. Just was we were also starting to develop enough of a sense of irony and self awareness to realize that we had to change our band name from 200 Proof to something as goofy and self-mocking as the Plastic Peach, here comes a guy actually cultivating the geeky look and writing angry but arch lyrics over a pummeling musical onslaught, but with non-ironic and tender ballads such as “Alison.” With the relative dearth of live music on TV (there was "Don Kirshner," "Cal Jam," "Midnight Special," and a few other shows) "Saturday Night Live" was a lifeline and glimpse into new music. Back then, they had everyone from Joe Cocker, the Stones, and Tom Waits to Fear, B-52s, Talking Heads and Devo. And seeing Elvis, with the big old horn-rimmed glasses, tight suit, and pigeon-toed stance was revelatory. I can indeed still be a rock star, thought I and millions of other geeks like me. As David Lee Roth quipped reacting to the negative press Van Halen got back when they started, (paraphrasing) “Well, music critics like Elvis Costello ‘cause they all look like Elvis Costello."

Elvis, along with Talking Heads, the Clash, early U2 and some others, was one of the threads that kept me connected and sane during my extremely tumultuous move from Long Island to small-town Massachusetts in 1982. It was cool to see all my open-minded friends having their musical horizons broadened back home and it was such artists as these that helped me make new simpatico friends up in Medfield, which for a small town, had some (some) really broad-minded (musically) kids eager for new records. The football players in my old town like Loverboy, Rush and pretty much any other lame act, Canadian or otherwise. But the jocks in my new town were into Elvis and the Clash. The cheerleaders were into the Violent Femmes. This would have been unheard of back on LI.

It was also right around this time that Rolling Stone magazine came out with Elvis on the cover, and his new record Imperial Bedroom came out to a lot of critical acclaim. A copy of the same magazine cover I kept on my own imperial bedroom wall for years also hangs at Q Division studios, where I spend a lot of my time. It meant a lot to us geeks who grew up to still play music in our middle age. Costello grew in leaps on this record. The lyrics felt so grown up and I felt like I was growing up too, though clearly still had a long way to go to understand these songs. In fact, for some fans, Costello got a little too clever on this record and never really returned to the primal urgency that made him great on this early records. I disagree and see IB as a pinnacle of al of the above. It stands as one of my favorites. While earlier records had us periodically scrutinizing songs like “Oliver’s Army” to learn more about Cromwell or Oswald Mosley, Costello was pretty easy to follow. This new record saw him compared to Gershwin and Porter. While I feel he later did start to gather more of a “standards” approach on subsequent records, such comparisons regarding Imperial Bedroom must have come more from the melodic/structure aspect, as the lyrics are actually as dense as Geoff Emerick’s production. Porter and (Ira) Gershwin were clever, yes, but their turns of phrase were clear and in the service of easily understood songs. Just as the Beatles, with whom Emerick had worked as a young engineer, had a previous generation digging to discover the significance of “Blackburn, Lancashire,” I wanted to know more about these “pretty things of Knightsbridge” and why “love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning.” But I definitely understood “you drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning,” all from this installment of Cover of the Week, “Man out of Time." We have been playing this at the Toad shows, but here it is acoustic.

Man Out of Time MP3

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mike Gent

Mike's Myspace

Mike dropped in on Buffalo Tom while we were in the studio the other night recording a cover for a tribute record -- more details to come later -- and dropped off his new solo CD. It has one of my favorite songs of the year so far, "Paper Knives." The title is coincidentally the name of a song I have made as a demo for Buff Tom. But they are very different songs. Mike's is up on that Myspace link, along with some other great ones from a great new disc.

Many of you are already fans of the Figgs, and/or the Gentlemen, or know him from his guitar-playing alongside us Hot Stove Cool Music diehards. He is an encyclopedia of pop music, has a hilarious sardonic sense of humor, and is a rock lifer. We were privileged to have him the last night at Toad. If you don't know Mike, let this be the tip of the iceberg for you -- go find all the back catalog Figgs and Gentlemen stuff.

Cover of the Week will be perhaps a day or so late this week. Day job interference. Real estate is busy -- believe it or not.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Cover of the Week 18

We finished up the residency of 4 Saturdays at Toad in Cambridge last night. Buffalo Tom was in the hiz-ouse for 6 songs, two debuts of new songs and some back catalog stuff. For me, it was a spectacular ending to a soul-enriching regular weekly event that helped me get through the dreariest of all months in Boston. This was not a total accident; as I get older, the winter just takes that much more out of me. It is not coincidence that people go down to Florida to die. Something about the cold and the diminishing light just saps the spirit, which as we get older seemingly has less in reserve to tap and sap even without the draw of dreary seasonal affective disorder. I don't know how my friends in Scandinavia deal with it. "Land of the Midnight Sun" in the summer does not cut it when one has an hour or two of dim daylight in January. On our trips up there in the winter, I am thankful for the few more hours we have in January here in Boston. I end up wanting to wear black eyeliner ad play all This Mortal Coil, Peter Murphy and other 1980s 4AD stuff when we play shows up there during the winter.

But it is March 1st. Spring is just around the corner, right? Yeah, well, welcome to Boston where we are gearing up for another foot of snow tomorrow. This, after a typical teaser week where temps reached into the 50s (Fahrenheit/feet/inches - sorry to those of you outside of the US who are still on the metric system; you'll catch up some day). I even had March 15 in the family pool as the date when the snow in our yard will finally melt completely. This has been a particularly brutal winter here. We have had snow cover on the ground since before Christmas. And it has not been fluffy, magical pristine white snow, with snowmen and angels and sleigh bells; we are well into the stage of half-melted, salty blocks of grimy ice, mini glaciers regurgitating remnants of trash and dog shit buried and fossilized for months, ready to be cleaned up, only to be snowed over in another foot of snow. Looks like my daughter's prediction of not seeing fully exposed ground until April 10 has a real shot. We laughed at her (as a parent, it is your duty to humiliate and squash your children when given the chance lest they grow up with an overly inflated sense of themselves) and I was carefully considering what my menu for breakfast in bed might have consisted of, me with my prediction of March 15, ha ha ha.

Sorry if this is just the same old banal tripe, complaining about the weather. I like to think of myself as a hearty northeastern man but the truth is, as all of my friends will attest, I am a wuss about the cold -- OK, just a wuss about anything, but especially the cold. I am not outdoors-ey ("I lied about being the outdoor type"), never skied, never snowboarded, need heated car seats, etc. The northern folk around the world think of themselves as a deeper breed of human, Ibsen, Chekhov, Bergman, Beethoven, Bach, Woody Allen -- none from tropical climes. But the truth is, I would rather live in a southern region somewhere. Look, Faulkner was southern! So is Dan Penn and so was Townes Van Zandt! Indeed, so was Ronnie Van Zant.

Since starting this CotW project, I have gotten quite a few surprising requests for some of my favorite songs, songs which I had on my own list to cover. This of course should not discourage you requesting types to make a donation to some charity as inspired by this blogect (wow, I am trademarking that ridiculous term I just invented). AND (not "or") don't forget to buy a Part Time Man of Rock t-shirt (see link on right). One of the songs which a couple of people have requested is one of my all-time faves, the Rolling Stone's "Winter."

From the criminally maligned 1973 Goats Head Soup LP, "Winter" is one of the handful of all Stones songs that do not feature Keith Richards on the recording. Or, at least I believe that to be the case. I have no fact-checking cuz interning for this bloject (by the way, that's pronounced "blah-ject" not "blow-ject," which might be something else altogether.) The recording apparently just started with the two Micks, Jagger and Taylor, sitting around a studio in sunny Jamaica. For a more comprehensive discussion of the song, please feel free to visit my allmusic.com song review from back around 2000. I am corny in the way I try to link these songs to current conditions, dates, holidays, or events. But I go with that flow. That's how I roll.

Damn, I just googled "bloject." I was not the first. But I am trademarking "blowject" for quite another purpose, still web-based, however.

Winter mp3.