Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cover of the Week 68

No big essay/diatribe/rant this week. I've been mostly in negativeland and do not wish to sew bad vibes. I do enough of that. And anyway, I wrote a bit about the author of this week's cover, Jesse Winchester, back in this post.

Buy the damn record for chrissakes.

I also have a great version he did on a Live From Mountain Stage record.

Here is all I have to say about this song in particular: I think every married guy I know feels like this. I guess I know of no one currently stuck in an unhappy marriage. The first time I felt like this, I was 20. I married her. I didn't mess around trying to find other options.

Seriously -- the best choice I have ever made. Everyone who knows me will surely attest to the veracity. And it was pure luck.

Bless Your Foolish Heart mp3

Sunday, January 24, 2010

(non) Covers of the Week 66 & 67

Man, it's been a bad week. Seeing Scott Brown take over the Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy for over 40 years was tough to watch. But it was also inevitable, I suppose.

Boston is not completely unique in this respect, I suppose, but as an outsider (I have only been here for over 27 years), I have always had a hard time squaring this politically liberal state with the small-minded parochialism on display everywhere from the archaic blue laws keeping stores closed on Sunday (now relegated to the past. But you couldn't buy any alcohol in the state until only recently) and bars closing at 2, to the seemingly walled-off neighborhoods that constituted the city -- Italians here, Irish there, African Americans seemingly nowhere...oh wait, there, they're over there. I find that my friends from New York have this sanctimonious attitude, as if New York did not have similar boundaries. But there is no escaping the fact that the mix in Boston is simply whiter on the face of it, outside of the neighborhoods and in the downtown and Back Bay areas. Watching a game in Fenway Park is almost like going to a game in Salt Lake City, except that many of the white faces are actually dabbed with splotches of red on big boys named Fitzy and Sully.

And it is not like growing up in the suburbs of Long Island was far more progressively illuminating than the suburbs of Boston. But at least in my NY hometown we had lots of black, Jewish and other kids aside from Irish and Italian. Sure, they largely stayed within their own groups. But in the town I moved to in Massachusetts, there was maybe one black kid, a handful of Jewish kids, but mostly Anglo, Irish, and Italians. And the suburb seemed a lot more conservative than the politicians that were leading the state.

Boston-area Democrats are mostly the holdover from the days when northern big cities all elected Democrats to represent them, the urban, the working class. The voters understood they were voting in their best interest. Well, that explains municipal and even state elections. But the voters in Massachusetts have always voted Democrat nationally as well, with few exceptions. They have also been by and large amongst the most educated in country. So we had the highly educated professional class (many folks who come to the elite universities in the area historically end up staying) voting consistently with the working class.

Socially, however, these sides have not been without their clashes. Though slightly cartoonish, Good Will Hunting gets at this dynamic pretty well. The busing debacle of the 1970s is one extreme example, if I may continue my simplistic generalization. More mildly, when we first moved to the densely populated working class city of Somerville (bordering Boston and Cambridge), we were called "Barneys" (pronounced "bah-nees") by locals in corner bars (pronounced "bahs"). The etymology of this particular insult goes something like this: When Cambridge started to get too expensive for college kids and other bohemians, they started moving out to Somerville. The locals took exception and referred to Harvard Yard as "Hahvid Bahnyahd." Barnyard begot "Barneys." So any outsider moving into Somerville was labeled a Barney. In turn, early pioneers affectionately referred to their new stomping ground as "Slum-erville." And now I see things like this cool joint a block up from where I used to live. Man, there was nothing going on there when I was living there. Just some half-decent BBQ at Redbones, the Somerville Theater and some true dive bars like my landlord's Sligo Pub. Now it's Irish pub this, thai food that, martinis and jazz over here, and brunch there. We could never find decent brunch anywhere back then!

The term "Mass-hole" also gained prominence around this time. It was used mostly by outsiders to describe rude, or worse, violent drunken yob locals. These are the guys that yell at you in traffic as they cut you off, "what ah you, retahted, big guy? Let's GO!"

I don't know him personally either, but, yeah, it seems to me that Naked Scotty Brown could be one as well. There is plenty of evidence (and here). Oh, and here. You have to love an "up from the bootstraps" "family values" guy who happened to have been raised by a welfare mother -- who, along with his father, were married three times each. Nothing like the zeal of a convert!

But mostly, as with New York, Chicago, and other big northern cities, the various parties (non-political, that is) coexisted and voted together. Until a charming young socially liberal outsider Harvard aristocrat named Bill Weld ran for governor against a mean old socially conservative bastard named John Silber. I, like many, all of a sudden found myself voting for a fiscally conservative Republican for the first time. I mean, Weld seemed pretty close to Bill Clinton in almost every way to me back then. I had no love lost over Clinton either.

But while this can be limited to "self interest," one also has to consider how the greater good contributes to one's own best interest. This is big picture liberalism 101.
But I am sure I voted against my best interest in the long view. So how can I blame people for voting for someone like Naked Scotty Brown? Weld opened the gates for Cellucci and -- God, help us all -- Mitt Romney.

But for the seat that the Liberal Lion held all those years? I blame Brown's opponent (let's not mention her name since she saw no need to promote herself) and the Democrats in general more than the voters. This whole "in your best interest" thing seems to confirm the image the alienated voters have of holier-than-thou Democrats, as the GOP successfully drives social wedge issues between the average joe and the "liberal elites."

The bottom line, though, is I think voters let themselves be swayed by surface images and vague notions of "sending a message" from a legacy of liberalism that has contributed no small part in Massachusetts being among the top states in education, health, employment, technology, art, literature, and overall quality of life. These are the reasons I list for myself when in the middle of a cold gray January, I ask myself, "why do I live here again?" I could never live anywhere that is historically politically conservative. So that rules out most of the warm states. And yeah, roots -- family and friends and a band, music scene, cultural resources, history, the Red Sox, the Cape, etc., all kept me here. I love it here. I still laugh at all the weirdo Boston quirks. I still don't know if I am a New Yorker or a Bostonian, which must seem odd to people. But of anywhere between 8-10 regulars at my poker game, none of us are from Massachusetts originally. Few people in my neighborhood are. And, anyway, there are assholes everywhere. The proportions seem to seesaw from time to time. That might be one of the bigger lessons I learned from all those years on the road. These are the sentiments that came out in the Buffalo Tom song "Thrown" from Three Easy Pieces.

And then there was the Supreme Court decision, which I won't get into too deeply. I think of myself as being an absolutist on First Amendment issues. But I do not see how being able to spend unlimited funds as a corporation = speech. I need to read the decision closely, but either way, I think the results will be disastrous. Every individual retains the right to free speech. But was the provision faulty enough to bar opinion pages of incorporated newspapers and filmmakers from engaging in legitimate political debate as well as deep-pocketed special interests (on both sides) and the potential threat they pose to the democratic process? Was the baby being thrown out with the bathwater via McCain/Feingold? That is often the case with seeping regulation. But it seems like a conveniently narrow interpretation along poltical lines. Ultimately, the prospect of the results of this bum me out. And it is not made easier when I think I might be hypocritical when wanting to limit the amount of money in politics. I have no problem in regulating arms under the Second Amendment. "Well regulated militia" having the "right to bear arms," and all that. Of course, it does not say "all arms to be developed over the century." And speech can not physically harm someone except in extreme cases in the old "yelling fire in a crowded theater" sawhorse. And of course, that's illegal.

On top of it all, I was mostly home sick, a cough, a sore throat. And it was a cold ugly winter week. I was able to get to a short set Buffalo Tom had this past week, but then took a turn for the worse. This morning was the first time I could speak without coughing or pain shooting to the back of my skull. So when I had the opportunity to play guitar and sing at the kitchen table, I took it. Forgive me if I go astray...

A couple of lesser-requested Buffalo Tom songs, one from Smitten, the other from our first LP. I look as spent as I feel in these. The home concert/bed head series continues. Maybe it's time to take the act out of my own kitchen and into yours. Get out of my dreams and into my car.



Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cover of the Week 65



Author at a younger age at Graceland


I get the feeling that the crowd-pleasers of these covers and non-covers so far have been the songs from the not-so-distant past - alternative rock songs from Buffalo Tom and our most immediate influences or contemporaries. At least, that is what I get from the more vocal feedback. Clearly, though, this is a labor of love for me and I do it more for my own pleasure than anything else.

I would venture to guess that most people don’t have an Elvis Presley cover high on their list of requests. I think for people younger than me, those born after the mid-1960s, Elvis is almost nothing but a cartoon. His influence is too far removed. I am old enough, however, to remember Elvis alive and still sort of relevant, certainly still active. I remember seeing "Aloha Via Satellite" as a kid and wearing out the 8-track resulting soundtrack my mom had. Elvis was probably her favorite performer from the time she was an adolescent. We had numerous 45s from when she was a kid and multiple greatest hits collections.

And the musicians I loved as a kid -- Zeppelin, the Stones, the Who, Beatles, Creedence -- they all named Elvis as perhaps their deepest influence, along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. Elvis turned a lot of the rock & roller kids onto the blues originals.

I wrote to start of Part II of my Exile on Main St. book:

One of the records I owned when I was a kid was a 45 I inherited from my mother, who was a big Elvis Presley fan. It was “Teddy Bear” backed with “Loving You.” Since I was a kid, “Teddy Bear” obviously received a lot of spins on my portable record player. But it was really “Loving You” with which I became infatuated. Looking back, I realize how odd a song that is for a young child to focus on. Written by Brill Building legends Leiber and Stoller, it is an extremely intimate song in content, sound, and performance. It’s highly charged and romantic, with a traditional Tin Pan Alley ballad structure and melody. But in the hands of Elvis, it’s a slow-burning, ultra-sexy, slow dance number. What captured me early and often, however was the vibe of the record; the heavy, haunting sense of atmosphere. It feels like it was recorded at 3:30 AM. Presley sounds like he is slow dancing with a girl after all the guests have left a party or a club, the lights are low, overturned drinks and empty glasses and full ashtrays cover every surface. The piano is impossibly behind the beat. An upright bass pulses slowly, quietly, but insistently. The Jordanaires coo softly in the background. Elvis seems like he can barely raise his voice above a mumble and when he does, the results are striking and highly charged, spine-chilling... He sounds as if he is tipsy, drunk even, but totally in control. Presley is within the song and more romantic than sexual, but it could comfortably sit next to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” on a compilation. While I could have had little comprehension of the content of the song at such a young age, I had an instinctive awareness of the power, the undeniable force of the feeling simmering there.

My obsession with the song has been life-long and constant. I also wrote about it for Allmusic.com

Here is a picture of my mom and dad at a party in a basement. I had never seen this specific picture until I was cleaning out my uncle's house. But I had seen others from the same period, like the one below it, which is from my grandmother's basement, from their engagement party. A lot of time was spent in basements in the 1950s/early '60s.






Maybe it was these pictures coupled with listening to the records that got me in this mindset. As a kid, you start putting whatever puzzle pieces together that you can find.

Mark Feeney wrote about the contemporary perception of Elvis and his legacy in the Boston Globe (Elvis at 75: Can We Ever Again See the Performer, Not The Punchline?) about a month ago. I had just been ruminating on this around that time, thinking about covering an Elvis song. I have some friends, the husband is about my age. They named their son Presley. The King would have been 75 this year. I remember my friends and I were hit pretty hard when Elvis died. We were not yet old enough to think of him as a joke. What happened to his life is tragic, the result of the same sort of insular echo-chamber bad advice that allowed Michael Jackson to spiral downward. But for those who think music started with the Clash, know this: Joe Strummer was huge on Elvis. You should definitely start with the Sun recordings, but Elvis’ greatness continued right up through the RCA years and dots many of his movie soundtracks. His Memphis LP and comeback special also display the talent that remained.

John Doe recently covered the country version of “A Fool Such As I.” But like most songs Elvis recorded, it will forever be an Elvis song for me.

So here I try for more of an impressionistic version of the vibe rather than a replication of the song "Loving You."

Loving You Mp3

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Else Do You Need?



Check out Jesse Winchester on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle. Jesse might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some my find him too straightforward or sentimental. To those I say: hey, there’s no accounting for the taste of such cold-hearted wretches like you who can’t recognize brilliant songcraft when it is staring you in your sad old bitter face. So go and pull out your Nitzer Ebb records and have a good time.

Look at the faces in the crowd. Look at my girlfriend, Neko Case, tearing up. Look at Elvis’s face. One of the greatest songwriters of our generation is sincerely humbled. As well he should be.

Now, Elvis is one of my favorite all-time songwriters. And I think he should get a Nobel Prize simply on the basis of forming this new television program (which I have only seen clips of, by the way, as my cable company wants to charge me $14 more a month to get this “tier” of programming) where he provides a wide audience for someone like Jesse Winchester. But Elvis has often seemed to let his cleverness, his words, and his concepts get in the way of good pop songs over the years. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for pushing boundaries and ambition, and the wish to write something that moves the head as well as the heart. Costello perfected that delicate balance for many years and still pulls it off more times than not. Waits is a pro at this. Dylan still manages to hit it from time to time, but now his brilliant lyrics are often backed by a 12-bar blues crutch.

It is extremely difficult to write a simple, beautiful song -- lyrically and melodically -- like this Jesse Winchester example. And Jesse has done so repeatedly. I’m only a recent fan. Look for “Little Glass of Wine,” or “Foolish Heart.” I would not be surprised to find out that Nick Lowe turned on Elvis to Jesse, but Elvis has apparently long had an amazing deep record collection, so perhaps not. Lowe has always done a good job with the above-described balance, as has Elvis, delivering the goods since “Alison.” But, like Tom Waits, Nick Lowe has been a guy who seems to get better on his later records. Sure, I loved the early catalogs of both of them, but as with Tom, Nick’s later records -- I’m talking about those from the past 5-10 years even -- leave me breathless.

So, if you don’t like that sort of thing, there is nothing I can do to win you over from the side of evil to the side of good. After all, I was told last night by a bunch of musicians, in the dressing room at Hot Stove Cool Music, things like “you must not like music,” and “everyone likes those first two records at least. How can you not like it? What’s not to like?” This was, of course, in response to my admission that I have never liked any Van Halen. Don’t start listing songs. I do not like them. I don’t hate them; I simply found nothing in any of it to enjoy. My brother Scott agreed with me, as did a few older musicians, who might have been more reluctant than I to alienate themselves at first, but sheepishly came around eventually. Who was on the side of good and who on evil in that situation? I feel like I stood with the Force in that instance Hot Stove Cool Music is a big tent.

*****

As is well known by now, the danger of having a blog, and of the internet in general, is the impulse to comment, write, and/or post something can be fulfilled in a matter of seconds and sent off to view with the push of a button. Like this video, for example. A friend of mine, Brendan Gilmartin, posted it on Facebook (sorry, I forgot who you were that did me the favor) and I react here. Immediately. Everything is instantly publishable. And for an impulsive personality like mine, this poses potential pitfalls that can easily end up as nagging regrets. In the past, I might get ginned up and make an off-color remark at a party, wake up with a throbbing head and queasy stomach at the crack of noon the next day, and slowly work my way into making an apologetic phone call or two. But after some Alka Seltzer, an afternoon on the couch watching some NFL game in which I have nothing personally invested, and a roast chicken dinner, the faux pas or sore feelings from the night before would quickly be receding in the rear view.

I don’t mean to imply that I am about to rail off on anything or anyone; I am certainly not. In fact, I am about to get all mushy. Again. You see, the perils of instantaneous modern mass communication also offerw the potential for one to pour his heart out, straight, no chaser.

I have been involved with Hot Stove Cool Music for nine of it’s ten years. We held the 10th anniversary event last night. In those early, pre-2004 World Series says, I never thought it would be more than a one-off, then two-year thing, and so on. But as a result of those first couple of years, I got drawn in seemingly forever -- by the charity, by the music, by it’s Boston-ness, and, most of all, by the bonhomie of the people involved in making it happen -- musicians, managers, baseball writers, baseball players, club managers, actors, bartenders, fundraisers, guitar techs, wives, husbands, kids...

I brought in my then-relatively-new buddy, Mike O’Malley early in those first few years. He immediately became MC and chief auctioneer. He is so good at what he does, that various Red Sox and the Red Sox Foundation tap him for virtually every event that they have. He flies out from his home at least a dozen times a year just to help on these charitable events. Friends of mine who watch him in this milieu never fail to remark to me how impressed they are at how he handles these things, as well as all the glad-handing and promotion before and after the actual shows. He works extremely hard. Imagine, for example, flying in on the red-eye only to have to sit and listen for two hours to the braintrust who typically make up the “talent” on wacky morning radio shows.

And yet Mike never fails to thank me -- thank me -- year after year, for bringing him into this organization. And that pretty much summarizes HSCM. Jeff Horrigan, Mike Creamer, Kay Hanley, and Peter Gammons constituted the foundation on this thing in year one and remain at its heart. Creamer does most of the heavy lifting -- from the bulk of the booking of music, to arranging the venue, comp tickets, car services, hotels -- everything to who is out of beer in the dressing room. But there are so many other folks who come back year after year to lend a hand. Egos have rubbed over the years, some people have joined, some have left. Often it is merely attrition. Sometimes it is a difference in opinion, philosophy, or vision. Rarely is it a heavy conflict.

The astounding thing about HSCM, though, is how few people have left the fold. It is like the mafia. You can’t get out that easily. It is heartwarming to see how much of a close group of people it is, how much we look forward to seeing and playing music with each other, hanging with each other’s families, etc. And we are fully aware of less charitable views of the event: we’re just a bunch of the same crusty old Boston rockers playing behind a baseball writer/commentator, baseball players and general managers strapping on guitars, the same group of people year after year, etc. Am I more known as a sideman for Peter Gammons than for my Buffalo Tom-acity? I don’t think so, but it is not an absurd question. Who cares? Seth Justman, keyboardist and principal songwriter for the J. Geils band certainly seems not to care about such trivialities. Can I tell you what a thrill it is for a rock & roll lifer, a deeply committed fan, to play and sing “Must of Got Lost” while one of the song’s authors is playing organ? I got to do so in practice and soundcheck and then Mike O. came in and shattered everyone with his lead vocal on the song last night.

The J. Geils Band! Seth Justman! A man who knows a thing or two about writing a classic, simple, beautiful song. A man who knows soul, the blues, roots, and pop songcraft. Though, you would not know it was him, lurking there in the shadows. In fact, when Mike came in to rehearsals to sing the song the first time, he brought it. Knocked it out of the park -- which is a good thing for him because I was having such a great time singing it that if half-assed it (which he never does with anything), it was going to be mine. When we finished, I remarked at how great he sang it and, most impressively, while one the song’s authors stood right next to him playing organ. It soon became apparent Mike had not made the connection. I still don’t think it would have fazed him. Maybe it would have made him more nervous. But no one else would be able to see it. Mike comes in and owns the situation. He sells it.

Seth is not going to intimidate anyone. Until they know who he is, perhaps. But he is one of the sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. And that’s why he fits right in to a band led by Peter Gammons. Mike Gent, Ed Valauskas, Pete Caldes, Phil Aiken, Paul Ahlstrand...you’re not gonna form a band with more heart than that. Generous of spirit and truly great musicians, I am humbled repeatedly.

We have a great time and , more importantly, have raised and continue to raise a boatload of money -- well over $3 million and counting -- for organizations like the Jimmy Fund for pediatric cancer research; the Home For Little Wanderers; the BELL Foundation’s Red Sox Scholars; and more. Anyone who has a problem with this is probably the same guy slagging off Jesse Winchester.

Straw man? Perhaps. Hopefully. I wish.

And part of our mission is to encourage bringing new blood into the event each year. How many such events have had such disparate acts as Low Anthem (last night -- I love them); For Peace (hip hop); James Taylor; Dropkick Murphys; Juliana Hatfield; John Legend; Pernice Brothers; Nada Surf; Lori McKenna? Last night, the band State Radio was probably responsible for selling at least 75% of the tickets, at $40 a pop. When I took the stage with my aging fellow “Hot Stove All Stars,” I looked over a sea of 20-something faces, all of whom seemed open and eager to hear all of the music being played. That warmed my heart. Maybe the day will be soon where we have grown this brand to such a spot where we can walk away and leave it to the youngsters. Believe me, I would love to have someone else take it over from us, build it, and get the same love we get from it.

But that would mean saying goodbye. None of us want to let go. I do think the House of Blues might have been too big a venue. And we always have post-game chats where we try to think of ways to make improvements. And we are always open to suggestions. Maybe we take it back to the beloved Paradise. Maybe it keeps growing. I know we need to get more ball players committed to showing up like they used to when the thing was lousy with the “idiots” of yesteryear. Maybe some of us old-timers will walk away for good someday. Just not yet. We’re having to great a time.

“Never thought about tomorrow/Seemed like a long time to come.”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

(non) Cover of the Week 64

Some folks requested this one over at Facebook. Had a few minutes, so here you go, a bonus non-CoTW. I was a bit more dolled up than the "Porchlight" clip in below post.

Friday, January 8, 2010

(non)Cover of the Week 63

My friend Vincent T. -- the close friend of my recently deceased Uncle Vince -- called me this morning and let me know that Vince's cell phone is still on. He was not the first to try it. But he and others who have called it told me the same thing: It was therapeutic to hear his voice again.

I have not brought myself to call it yet. His voice is still clear enough in my head. But I have checked in and, recently, posted something on Vince's Facebook page. I have also posted something at the memorial site set up by the funeral home. And when I was down in Miami, though his computer had been taken in by detectives looking for whatever they could find (story here, and here, for those of you wondering what I am talking about), I started thinking more about the digital footprint we are all leaving. There's a voice, there are emails (I came across some funny fan mail and responses printed out, between Vince and Augusten Burroughs, e.g.), there are home pages, blogs, Amazon reviews, and so on. They are all still floating out there, perhaps forever.

I would like to say I have drawn some sort of conclusion, profound or otherwise, from this. But I think it simply is. And that hits us on some deep level. I mean, the shallowness that we associate with this digital culture, what we feel is fleeting and disposable, ends up to be very much the opposite. We are leaving bits of ourselves all over the place for others to stumble upon or actively seek out after we are gone. Sure, a Facebook page is not the same as leaving, say, the library of William Shakespeare (whoever "he" was) or catalog of John Coltrane behind as a legacy. But it is a lot more than the few crumpled and yellowed letters, photos, and press clippings of those who passed before 1990 or so.

There was a recent gag from the Onion about future "archeologists" discovering the lost civilization of Friendster. This is not so far-fetched.

This all got me thinking of a line I wrote and sang in 1990 or so, on the song "Porchlight," which was written around the time that the burgeoning technology of "voice mail" was becoming more mainstream. This was one of those "written from the road" tunes, as Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade used to joke about bands coming back to record their first records after being on tour for the first time. We had a beeper/voice mail system in place for personal calls and business calls, to be reachable in the days before cell phones, email, etc.

The line is, "Your voice got smaller 'til I realized it was gone."

The voice is only another trace, a ghost that lingers.

*****

So, for this week's cover, I cover Buffalo Tom's "Porchlight." And as a change, I do it live from the breakfast table this morning. You can see I really dolled myself up for this brunch concert. Buffalo Tom has played this live only rarely. Tom Maginnis does not like drumming to it for some reason. We have not quite figured it all out. We played it as a request of Jon Stewart on his final T.V. show in the 1990s, well before he took over and redefined the Daily Show.






Vince and John, Bolinas 1970

Monday, January 4, 2010

My Hero



I don't care how self-serving this is, I am re-posting this because it makes me happy.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Old BT photos

For those of you not on Facebook, here are some links to galleries of old photos I recently scanned:


Facebook 1



Facebook 2


Facebook 3