Thursday, April 30, 2009

(Non)Cover of the Week 26

Florida (mp3)

Out on Highway 41, the Tamiami, he pulled into off at a McDonald's because the boy saw the giant colorful play structure, an arching series of caterpillar-like tubes and slides that made it a human Habitrail. The 4-year-old boy inquired about the "playground at Mickeh Donalz," as they slowed for the red light, and negotiations with the mother started. He fancied himself as more spontaneous and whimsical than most fathers settling into middle age -- comfortably or not -- so he decided and then quickly announced, "why not" and pulled into the lot, listing, as he negotiated the other cars, the requisite details of this hour's parent-child deal being hammered out and finalized as he pulled into a faintly diagonally striped non-spot near the entrance and the second drive-thru window; No burgers or fries would be purchased; some drinks OK, the subsequent specifics would be laid out by their mother. These kids are pretty much as happy as can be 8 hours a day in their grandparents pool, with a short break at the McDonald's playground. Sure, Disney World is more fun, but that much more fun? Like, hundreds of dollars more?

After a 30-minute period during which the parents sat at a built-in table on the exterior of the shabby stucco pre-fab building in need of a new paint job, enjoying their gamboling children who were generally very well behaved and were enjoying this impromptu triumph of the will, they all lumbered back through the dining room itself, past the scattered diners, mostly elderly couples sipping coffee and having a snack or early dinner. Passing the final couple before the registers and, then, the exit, he looked down to the woman who was positively beaming with a genuine smile as the children passed before her, her eyes coming up to meet his as he smiled back, feeling a vague warm acceptance and resignation in the context of this whole trip to Florida. Each subsequent visit made him, naturally, reflect more on mortality, cycle of life and the human condition.

Out again from the air conditioning into the pleasant Florida heat coming from the midday sun and from the blacktop below. After considering potential lawsuits that might arise from possible mishaps over on the play structure -- after all, people sue over spilling hot cups of coffee on their own genital regions -- it did not take long for his imagination to run away from him. Here, in this balmy parking lot as cars speed by on a 6-lane highway flanked by never-ending plazas of Publix Supermarkets, CVS Pharmacies, strip-mall taverns and thrift shops and bric-a-brac shops and Mexican and Olive Gardens restaurants. In this failing economy, with another swine flu outbreak, wars and global warming, it was not a far stretch to envision pretty much the unraveling of civilization as we know it, starting maybe with some perceived slight or misunderstanding and escalating into a crisis as in a novel by Russell Banks, perhaps such a spark getting picked up in the wind and burning faster and closer to threatening neighborhoods like the constantly burning brush fires miles away that were at this moment filling the air with the acrid smell of smoke all the way to the coast, reminding one of the "white noise" of constant threats to illusory peace and prosperity in Don DeLillo novels. Or maybe like a Cormac McCarthy observation of society starting to come undone when people stop being polite. It would not take much more than 30 seconds to feel he could easily reach out and rip back the cheap facade of this tenuous civilization, as flimsy as this stucco McDonald's or the boarded-up amorphous-shaped commercial place across the street, a mauve-colored stucco place that was most likely another fast food joint or gas station in its better days. This did not take some sort of Matrix-level complicated method to catch a glimpse of some alternate reality; it was simpler than that. He thought that most of what we know and see and depend on is simply too flimsy and in the hands of people no more mentally developed than children. It could all be pushed over with one, maybe two hands.

His reverie started by remembering he was parked in that "illegal" spot. Was there someone to enforce this fast-food legal structure? It was not a handicap spot. Was there some private police force that was going to jump out at him. He had a vision of a flabby man in an ill-fitting manager's uniform shirt and baseball cap who could have been 20 or 40 was chatting with a tow truck operator as the rig was being hooked up to his father's Buick Regal.

"What are you doing?" he would ask rhetorically. "This is a mistake. This is our car."

And it would unravel from there, in front of his wife and children. A fight to the death. Fighting a tow truck operator and a sweaty, greasy McDonalds manager on the hot blacktop and likely getting his ass kicked. He was not able to predict how he would behave in this situation. Would he find the humor in it, as Richard Ford did in
Independence Day, when his hero was confronted by a teenage private security "officer" in his ex-wife's new gated community? Or would he go off it some sort of base-level self-protective violent episode as one of McCarthy's characters might? Most likely, he would throw up his hands and find some melancholy jokiness in it, pissed off, sure, that he had to explain to his father what had happened and deal with his still-caustic asides as he, once again, had to be rescued by the grown-up, even if he himself was now 42 and his father in his upper 60s.

I had this little daydream in the span of about 20 seconds during our vacation to Naples, Forida this past week. The city has a ritzy old part with a vital downtown center near the ocean and extreme amounts of money on display in $25 million beachfront compounds, and Bentleys and Ferraris everywhere you turn. Then one crosses a bridge and drives through strip-mall land peppered with gated golf communities for another 30 or 40 miles north toward Ft. Myers and also southeast, until one hits the Everglades. These communities vary slightly in their level of luxury, filled with retirees from all over the US and Europe. The real money may be out on the coast, but many of these people in the other highway-side communities worked hard, saved their good chunks of money, and pulled most of their nest egg out of the market before it went belly up.

My folks live in one such place and we are thankful they do. First of all and most importantly, they are extremely happy. It is not where I could see myself when I am that age, but we enjoy seeing them and luxuriate in their largess at having us share their great house, with a pool and a lanai, on a pond with a gator lurking in eye shot. They can't get enough of the kids at this age. I don't golf, as my dad does, but if I did, it would be heavenly. Our kids can spend all day in the pool, until we drag them out for lunch at a sidewalk cafe and a few hours at the beach. It is a really nice cheap vacation for us. It is not a completely soulless development; the houses are fairly modest, close together and lushly landscaped with tropical fauna, lending the place a certain terra firma and neighborhood permanence. The neighbors all seem genuinely happy and satisfied, they are all out chatting, taking walks, riding bikes, waving to each other. At night, they might drive the 20 minutes or so into downtown Naples to have a meal at some of the top-notch restaurants or, closer to home, drive a minute down to the clubhouse restaurant or bar & grill. It's a pretty great way to go out. By the look at the bar scene at one of these restaurants, with all the expensive but futile plastic surgery on display by those trying to pick each other up, some were not going gracefully, but go we all must.

And this is what retirement is. When my friend's parents told the adult children that they were retiring to Florida, the father did not cite any of the usual -- golf, beach, pool, or even weather; he bluntly announced, "we're goin' down there to die." And that is, in a nutshell, what my song "Florida" is about. I grew up going to visit my grandparents in the decidedly less-swanky retirement community called -- I kid you not -- Leisureville, in Pompano Beach. These were little cinder block houses with 2 or 3 bedrooms, screened porches, a community pool and club house built for the same families that post-war suburbs like Levittown were, only now they were nearing retirement. My grandfather was one of those returning G.I.'s, who retired fairly early after working for the New York City Department of Sanitation. When we visited, though it was a far more modest version of the situation my parents have, we were as much in heaven as our kids are when they visit. The whole deal-- grandparents, sun, pool, family togetherness, vacation time in general.

My grandfather died in 1986 and my grandmother was never the same. Her mood darkened. He was everything, her whole world. She never even learned to drive. She eventually sold her house in New York. Her body was very strong and she was in great physical health, but as the years went on, her mind started to go, and then she started to lose sight. Along the lines, she had to sell the house in Leisureville and my parents and mother's brother moved her close to my uncle, who looked after her final years. She lived along time. She's buried in the cemetery directly across the street from the big yellow cursive Leisureville sign at the development's entrance.

We left my parents Tuesday. Dad is recovering from a quadruple bypass. Mom successfully battled cancer last year. The kids sobbed as we left them. And the pool, and vacation time, and family togetherness. We're very conscious of time passing and the fact that the kids won't likely always cherish this sort of thing.

This song, from my solo record with Crown Victoria Fireworks on TV, is sort of my poor-man's "Veronica." It's about a few things, but is focused on my grandmother. At the time that I wrote it, at the end of her life, it felt appropriate to attack the song as I did in that original recording, i.e. thrashing and raging away sort of helplessly, careening out of control, screeching at the very limits of my vocal range. In reflection of this recent trip, I am picking it as one of my own to reinterpret for a Cover of the Week, giving it a more spacious and quiet reading. That opening riff actually reminds me of one of Buffalo Tom's first, if not the first cover we recorded, a song called "Blue" by the Rain Parade.

Florida (mp3)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cover of the Week 25

You and Your Sister mp3

Licking the wounds of old high school and college romances, real or imagined, I could often be found in my dorm room at UMass blasting the seminal album from This Mortal Coil, It’ll End in Tears, the collaborative effort of a bunch of artists from various acts on the 4AD record label circa 1984/1985: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, et. al. As conceived and overseen by the legendary A&R man and producer, Ivo Watts-Russell, this atmospheric album of well-selected covers, dramatically presented by some of England’s mopiest but inventive art rockers proved a potent soundtrack for an undergrad’s unrequited loves, a sonic Sorrows of Young Werther for one disenchanted by the hair metal that was taking over the popular culture when U2 was not waving its own flag back. Lying on my single mattress under a gigantic Joy Division Closer poster, the album was a salve and made my puppy love pain seem oh so artsy and tragic; I wanted to project my image as a dark Lovesong of J. Alfred Janovitz, hair down in my face, the Passion of Jean D’Arc from my Avant Garde film class and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice from my Decadence in Literature class providing a backdrop for me to act out my melodramas as the UMass meatheads and big-frizzy-haired chicks from Woburn danced to Warrant and Prince at keggers next door. Sure, I would often find myself right in there with them, but Ivo provided part of the soundtrack for my more brooding moments with his conceptual reworking of the haunting Big Star track “Holocaust,” e.g. wrung out of a Yamaha DX-7 synth as some dark Candytalk-dude baritone rang out in thin 1980s digital reverb.

Yeah, I was that close to being a goth. At certain get-togethers, I was flattered to join Chris Colbourn’s party band, a group which shall remain unnamed here to spare embarrassment to the innocent. I would sing my allotment of a few tunes, which would include the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” and, believe it or not, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Then they would move on to “Brand New Cadillac” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” They were a bizarre band. Honestly, by the time they had the old hippy bass player to sing “Who Do You Love,” there was no one in the room who was not confused. These guys played everything.

But we were all very open minded in our 20s, so that This Mortal Coil would segue easily into the Grateful Dead. And that is the beauty in Ivo’s vision in putting this collective together. He dusted off some great old art-pop, folk-rock, and other semi-obscure tunes that he picked off of some of his favorite old records collected in his days as a clerk at the original Beggars Banquet record store around London and he re-imagined them with the then-revolutionary early digital synthesizer, the DX-7, with fresh but dark electronic arrangements. And in so doing he introduced a bunch of kids like me to songs we all were embarrassed to not already know and would, in fact, sort of pretend we knew all along, like Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” Oh yeah, that's thats somg from the Monkee's movie, Head! I mean, even if you knew who Big Star was in 1984, and many of us did, it was less likely that you were well-versed in their Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers LP and less likely still that you would have chosen the halting, deconstructed “Holocaust" as a possible cover. It is an important record.

Years later, after being saved from being a goth by the other churnings in post-punk rock music on the this side of the ocean (for chrissake, I coulda been one of those sad old weirdos who to this day lament the closing Boston's "Trench Coat Mafia" dance club, Man Ray! I am thankful for all the money I saved in eye liner), I was riding in a van with Buffalo Tom somewhere in Australia when another taste-maker, the promoter Steve Pav, was playing a mix tape and this striking song came on. I recognized the voice of Kim Deal. The song was heartbreaking, Kim singing harmony with another woman. The song was called “You and Your Sister.” I asked Pav who it was. I was embarrassed to learn that it was Kim and Tanya Donelly from the Throwing Muses, as their new act, the Breeders, singing a Chris Bell song from his I Am the Cosmos record. The Breeders version was from the third This Mortal Coil iteration, Blood. I had rushed out and bought the second Mortal Coil record, Filigree and Shadow, but nothing could live up to the first record for me, so it did not have the lasting impact. Soon after hearing this Breeder’s cover of the Chris Bell song, however, I ran out and bought both the Blood record – which also did not do much for me beyond this cover – and, more importantly, the Chris Bell record, I Am the Cosmos. Bell’s record is a lost-and-found masterpiece, the kind of record that, like the Big Star records, you can not believe has existed outside of your consciousness -- such beauty, such masterful songwriting and pop perfection kept secret?

Though Alex Chilton is known better now, thanks in no small part to the song bearing his name, Chris Bell is still somewhere back there in the shadows, much like Gene Clark covered in one of my earlier posts, and dying tragically young, without the collection of solo tunes ever finding release aside from a single, “I Am the Cosmos b/w “You and Your Sister.” It must have been this single that Ivo heard. I am sure I could do better research and find out for sure, after all Ivo was part of the label family BT was part of as well. But the whole collection was not releases until 1992, mercifully, on the heroic Rykodisk. Blood was released in 1991.

The pain is palpable, inescapable on Chris Bell’s original recording, or more specifically, recordings, as there are three versions on the CD. Each of them is aching, Bell’s vocal pining as he strains at the upper end of his remarkable range. Kim and Tanya’s version is pretty faithful by This Mortal Coil standards and, as I have noted, is striking enough on it’s own. For my version, I had to lower the key; my range sounds out of control up that high. I also keep pretty true to this beautiful song that needs no cover version. I had no reinterpretation in mind. I only want to sing another song that I absolutely love.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Buffalo Tom Live

Hi -- We have just added a one-off show to try out some new material and play some of the oldies as well. June 26 at the Paradise in Boston. Tix on sale Thursday 4/16:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cover of the Week 24

Wow, can't believe we're up to 24 covers already. What do I get for the 25th? Some sort of commemorative plate?

When Buffalo Tom started touring in 1988, people -- especially people overseas - would ask us what the "scene" was like in Boston. It seemed so vibrant to someone outside looking in. They assumed we all knew and hung out with each other, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Lemonheads, Galaxie 500, Dinosaur, Big Dipper, Treat Her Right, Morphine, Blake Babies, Volcano Suns, etc. And, in time, we got to know all of those guys and become friends with quite a few. But it never occurred to me early on that there was some sort of unified "scene" as I imagined Seattle to have. Everyone from that area seemed to be on Subpop. While Boston had a couple of indie labels, there was nothing comparable to Subpop. It took time for me to see that there was indeed a "scene" (I've never liked the use of that word in this context) of sorts around Boston. I started realizing it when we would come back home and join the annual Christmas party held over at Fort Apache Studio. When J Mascis sat in on drums for the Pixies at one such party, it seemed that surely something magical was taking place. All of those bands and many more had that one thing, and sometimes only that thing in common: we all recorded at Fort Apache with any combination of enignieers/producers Sean Slade, Paul Kolderie, Gary Smith, Tim O'Heir, Lou Giordano (and earlier -- Joe Harvard.)

It didn't take long for bands outside of Boston to notice and imagine what recording in Boston at Fort Apache must be like. Eventually bands like Uncle Tupelo were driving in to Boston just to record there. And it was a clubhouse and unifying element for a lot of us. For BT, recording at Fort Apache was one of the most important, if not the most important steps we took starting out. We had done some demos in project studios, but this was the 1980s and people in studios still had this "clean" and "pro" mentality. It was intimidating to be in these places, even cheap ones, with the clock running and our hourly rates creeping up. We had no idea what we were doing.

Tom Maginnis had played in a band with Tim O'Heir, who had started producing and engineering recording sessions at the original Fort Apache, which was in a very raw space in a rough part of Roxbury. It was very punk rock. We started recording demos with him that eventually became the basic tracks for our debut record. As we started soliciting interest and more money from Megadisc Records in the Netherlands, and SST here in America, we booked some more sessions, eventually taking on J Mascis, who had recorded some Dinosaur stuff there, as another ear in the studio. J, also introduced us to Sean Slade and soon enough we had a record to release. The beauty was that the studio was run by great people who were in bands, not dudes who just thought of themselves as "producers" or engineers. These guys were musicians first, and they were all bright, funny, and had great taste. No one was trying to capture an '8os radio-friendly sound; these guys were pioneering a hairy post-punk aesthetic. I remember walking in for the first time and seeing this great old poster of Iggy Pop smashing 45s with a hammer and thinking this was the place for me.

They let the artists lead the way, everyone learning from each other as they went. If Mascis wanted to bring on an ancient Marshall plexi, turn it up to 10, blast his earphones even while he wore earplugs under them, so be it. In any other studio, the engineers would have had a conniption. They would have questioned the logic of turning up amps so loudly when they were close-miked. It would have been akin to those white-lab-coat-wearing engineers the Beatles first encountered when they entered the studio; musicians over there, engineers over here, musicians play, engineers control the sounds. Fort Apache was different. No one really knew what they were doing and so a good time was had by all. The engineers always allowed all the room artists needed to flights of fancy, ill-advised or truly inspired. Sure, we might have blown out an expensive monitor when, under a haze of sweet smoke, a producer had the idea of turning up a microphone so hotly in order to record a door creek but then slammed the door and blowing out everyone in the control room. But there were also innumerable times when one idea led to another and all made it onto records, the non-stop percussion take on "Velvet Roof," e.g., when we all just grabbed anything we could shake and stood in the live room around a mike or two, playing all the way through a few takes of the song until we were laughing, panting, and sweating profusely.

Eventually, Fort Apache opened a new outpost in back of Rounder Records in Cambridge. There was an overlap of the two facilities until all operations became centralized at the Cambridge studio. Later still, a new studio was built around the corner in Cambridge. But it was the second iteration, in the old Rounder studio where most of the great records were recorded and mixed. It was this place that brought in many bands from out of town, including Hole and Radiohead. The latter recorded some of Pablo Honey there, I believe, and then had Paul and Sean mix The Bends there.

Pablo Honey did not really grab me as a listener. I even thought of "Creep" as one of so many alt-rock novelty one-hit wonders that seemed to be slipping in to the newly empowered alternative radio format in the early 1990s. But we had crossed paths with Radiohead and they were really nice guys. I remember chatting for a while with Thom Yorke when we were both making appearances in Canada's music video station, Much Music. And then they released The Bends and I was finally taken by the music. I was geared up for the release of OK Computer and not only did it not disappoint, but I was awestruck. It remains one of the most important records from the 1990s for me. It still holds up and the songs and sounds are timeless.

This is a faithful cover of the beautiful Radiohead song, "No Surprises." I wrote a song synopsis for in the early-2000s. Re-reading it, it appears to not be one of my sharper essays. But it gets at my feelings about the song.

No Surprises cover

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Part Time Man of Rock T Shirts

Kids -- What's it gonna take to get these babies moving? See the link over on the right. Is it design? Price? What's holding back all but the most dedicated from purchasing? You name it, I will make it happen. Testimonials from those lucky consumers who have chosen to do the right thing and buy one of these would be great to see as well.

Keep the love flowing....B

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cover of the Week 23

I've been on a bit of a Mott the Hoople kick this winter. This one became a bit of a residency anthem at Toad this past February. This is obviously a solo version as opposed to the Crown Victoria version. Like a lot of guys who grew up in the '70s and '80s, "All the Young Dudes" (written and produced by Bowie) was one of my anthems, and "All the Way from Memphis" was ever-present on the radio growing up. It was a bit of a thrill when Buffalo Tom had the chance to record a Peel Session with Dale Griffin, drummer of Mott, producing. Everyone warned us -- wincing when we mentioned who would be producing -- that he could be the very definition of curmudgeonly. And the session had a bit of an arc. He was coldly polite when we arrived and set up. He left the studio and returned when we were ready to roll. he seemed to like the music and warmed up to moderately friendly as the session continued, but he turned on a dime to icily nasty when we started to push our luck with overdubs on what was supposed to be a "live" session. He had everyone at the BBC studio flinching, from the tape op to the tea boy. Griffin had the nickname "Buffin" in the group, apparently, and is referenced in this week's cover.

All of these Covers of the Week fall into the "songs I wish I had written" category. But "Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)" has a particularly poignant resonance for an old rock & roller like me. The lyrics are self-explanatory. Ian Hunter, who always seemed to write with an acute awareness of time passing, heavy on nostalgia (Listen to "Saturday Gigs," e.g. which could have been an even more apt Toad Saturday night residency anthem), writes/sings about the unraveling of his band. It is simultaneously arch and a bit ironic ("Buffin lost his childlike dreams") and sincere ("so what the hell, I can't erase the rock & roll feeling from my mind.")

I envy all of those who get to see the Mott reunion in London this fall. maybe I will hop a plane over!

Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Unreleased Buff Tom

Things were slow over the winter, so I went into the vaults, almost literally; we have a bomb shelter built into our house. Well, that's how it was described to us when we bought it in 2005. The house was built in 1942 and we are only a couple of miles from what used to be an air force base. It is this steel and concrete-walled foundation under a breezeway that sits between our garage and the house. It is really just a room off the basement. I use it to store music equipment and road cases. Recently, I have found it useful as a vocal/isolation booth to do some night recording for the Cover of the Week project and demos for BT -- to not wake the rest of my family as they sleep.

Anyway, I have this chest of drawers in there that has old tapes -- cassette demos and DATs, mostly. When things were slow and dreary this winter, I finally had a chance to comb through some of the old DATs. And we will be posting some stuff at Kevin has already posted an unreleased song called "Blake" that Chris sings. I believe it was an outtake from Sleepy Eyed. I would have guessed that it would have found its was onto the Besides record, but it seems not.

Also posted is a cover we recorded of Simon and Garfunkel's "Only Living Boy in New York," with lead vocals from Tom Gorman, who was the guitarist in Belly. He was hanging out with us playing keyboards before Phil Aiken came into our world. At the time, we were trying out new directions and ideas before what became Smitten. We rented a house for a winter or autumn week down in Chappaquiddick, a small island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard known for an ill-fated night involving Ted Kennedy. Let's stay on topic, people. We set up some digital recording gear and ran through demos and covers, some of which did make the Besides record, like the cover of the My Bloody Valentine song, Cupid Come.

We should have a handful more songs to post over there. Keep checking it.