Pop with a Shotgun

Unsolicited opinions and ungoverned ruminations on pop, rock, soul, funk, reggae, country, folk, disco, rap, and anything else that makes a sound

Sunday, June 07, 2009

THE WINSTONS
Color Him Father

The title song — a soothing, sunny single about the strong arms of the perfect Big Daddy — is one of the nicest things left us by 1969, but it certainly didn't augur for an exciting soul romp of a follow-up LP. The Winstons were an integrated (black and white) band of professional pickers and blowers whose credentials included stints behind Otis Redding and the Impressions, and like most (all?) highly qualified sidemen they were short on eccentricity. The sole near-exception is an instrumental, "Amen, Brother," with a modest drum break that is supposedly the most sampled piece of music in rap and hip-hop, and is said to have, of itself, spawned whole subgenres. But mostly the Winstons purvey light soul for Reno tourists, with positive messaging and sticky nostalgia ("I've Gotta Be Me," "Days of Sand and Shovels"). On the upswing from schmaltz, they manage an "Everyday People" that is square enough to recall the California Poppy Pickers covering "Back in the USSR," but fast enough to be not-bad; and a "Birds of a Feather" that bubblegums the Joe South original and winds up besting it, simply by easing up on the echo-chamber effect. But it's long reach, short gain; these guys left it all on the 45.

P. F. SLOAN
Anthology

Sloan — singer-songwriter, Dylan with a cotton-candy afro — wrote some of the choicest pop melody of the mid-60s ("You Baby," "Can I Get to Know You Better," "Where Were You When I Needed You") as well as that well-intended growl and stupefying #1 "Eve of Destruction." He was also the uncredited voice of the early Grass Roots, which started out as an in-name-only entity fronting for Sloan's demos; his is the weak voice on version 1 of "Where Were You." The main reason for spending an hour with this anthology is to hear working versions of the handful of songs later recrafted as Roots tracks, particularly "Melody for You."

TONY OWENS
“I Got Soul”

Dark obscurity from that history-turning year of 1966, a slamming, sinister tempo and high-pitched guitar backstrokes that sound like flicks of a razor. A logical pursuit of the rhythmic implications of "Harlem Shuffle," only bigger and scarier, a statement from the Godfather that makes Bob & Earl sound like errand boys. Altogether one of the most arresting soul vignettes ever to slide through the cracks of common knowledge; makes the having of soul sound like slow, sexy murder.

SLIM HARPO
“I've Got My Finger on Your Trigger”

Another hot and dangerous find: panicked-but-precise drum-horn cacophony, a rough double entendre confusing (or conflating) foreplay with gunplay, Harpo voices it like Boss Dynamite, and it fades in less than two minutes. Leaves you licking your fingers. 1970.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

JOE JACKSON
Rain

It’s less important to call it the best Elvis Costello album Elvis Costello never made than to say it is a coming back (not a “comeback”) by someone who has been threatening for a good two decades to go off into an ether of arty tinklings and overelaborate wordage, art-song crossed with poetry-lounge. Jackson's voice, always underrated, has its sour edge back, and its manic capability. The writing is Costelloesque, with songs like “Too Tough” and “Invisible Man” that are built on solid chordal foundations and elegant paths from verse to chorus; lyrics are smart and scannable without being distracting. Half the tracks don’t sustain their initial good riff or melodious promise, but the other half do.

MANDO DAIO
Never Seen the Light of Day

They are Swedish, but this sounds to me like a shake on the fierce Irish reel-rock that Shane McGowan and others brought o’er in the '80s of the last century. It’s pop in nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soft drink: there’s enough fizz to cauterize your throat, or your ears. Pogues sell out? Or non-Pogues buy in? Whichever, it has tunes and a galloping rhythmic unity, a lot of force and humor in the vocals and guts in the playing.

TED NUGENT
“Journey to the Center of the Mind”

A remake, to be found on his recent Love Grenade LP, alongside such devilishly droll titles as “Girl Scout Cookies” and “Bridge Over Troubled Daughters.” The 1968 original by the Amboy Dukes was Ted’s first (and, unless he uses his famous crossbow to kill Bigfoot, probably last) moment of historical noteworthiness, and on this blaring, bollixed redundancy he does all he can to make you want to hear it again, while making you wonder how he got it right the first time. Maybe it was the band; maybe it was the drugs they were doing and he wasn’t.

RAY DAVIES
Working Man’s Café

Davies has always been one of the few pop stars for whom one could feel any appreciable personal warmth. Not that his ego was of insignificant size, or his person irreproachable, but his musical persona bespoke a fine vulnerability combined with resilience, an acceptance of absurdity, and an insistence on the importance of small, forgotten things — not just virgins and village greens, but the average person’s average defeats. His was a compassion that skirted mawkishness: “A Long Way from Home,” “Oklahoma USA,” “The Way Love Used to Be,” “Don’t Forget to Dance.” How could you not feel for him, and imagine he felt for you?

One of many possible obverses to that is that Davies can be as musically annoying in his own way as any elder statesman with the financial and historical license to go on indulging his weaknesses forever. If Neil Young’s peculiar irritation is to squawk ‘n’ rawk over a paucity of ideas, Ray’s is to serve up echt-honky tonk stylings around observational witticisms that are neither as sly nor as oblique as you might like them to be.

That describes a good half of Working Man’s Café, though the better half of the equation is what you get up front. A barnstorming opener, “Vietnam Cowboys,” tracks the globalization and cross-pollination of junk food and junk culture with war and recession — plant closings in Cleveland connected to sweatshops in Cambodia in a kind of economic-military butterfly effect. It’s not subtle, but it is rocking, with a pirate-size hook. “You’re Asking Me” calls up classic Kinks, not as mirrored memory but as immediate effect. The verbal noise for most of the album is just fine, a fling of word porridge from which emerge quick pictures of characters like the man with the “perfect mullet hanging down his back.”

The album’s slow crash comes in the form of songs that go silly, or just start stupid and stay that way. “The Voodoo Walk” coalesces from a swampy riff stolen from “Run Through the Jungle” to a thick mass of pop-type blustering, neither vitally messy nor piquantly shaped but only sloppy, a watery mudpie of sound. “Peace in Our Time” is not the great Elvis Costello song but a bombastic plea for personal and global forgiveness. “One More Time” reiterates the right (that is, Left) opinions, fixing them in the wrong (that is, plywood-dull) music. We get the point intended, if not the pleasure.

Final score, Working Man’s Café leads us to expect a good deal more than we get. And the lack of a single heartbreaker hurts.

LEVON HELM
Dirt Farmer

Ray Davies all but invented a kind of pop song — a combination of a point of view and a sound: listening to Brit-poppers from the Jam to Arctic Monkeys, we snap our fingers time and again and say “Ah! Kinky.” Levon Helm, meanwhile, didn’t invent anything, he comes out of a tradition — an earth-folk tradition which, as drummer and vocalist for the Band, he helped extend into the rock era. Unlike Ray Davies, whom we judge on how well he does Ray Davies material, Helm will stand or fall by how hardily he tests the tradition he inherits.

Were it not discredited by association with certain manifestations of art rock and the singer-songwriter phenomenon, “song cycle” would be the term to apply to Dirt Farmer. Not to say its songs all sound alike, or even that they all feel alike. But there’s a cohesiveness that runs far deeper than lyrical continuity. Levon anchors the good band — playing drums, guitar and mandolin — on songs he learned as a boy in Arkansas, alongside new compositions in that style. Among the traditionals are the Stanley Brothers’ “False Hearted Lover Blues”; “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a Helm solo from the days of the Canadian Squires; and “Little Birds,” which Levon learned from his father and performed at the Band’s earliest concerts.

There’s the sensation here of music being extracted from hearty chests and old throats; of overall effort, musicians pulling a sound out, pushing a picture forth. Not like torture, but like it costs something (as it well might, given that Helm is a recent survivor of throat cancer); yet it sounds organic, as hard-grown and rough to the touch as bark. Most songs have a droning rhythm, insistent and low to the ground, with a minimum of syncopation or embellishment. Much of it sounds like it could have been recorded concurrent with the Band’s second album: both have that log-cabin flame flicker, that nostalgia for pioneer stoicism, and the backup vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams echo Helm’s deceased co-vocalists Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

With a few (quite successful) exceptions, Dirt Farmer songs don’t bounce or stride, they move purposefully on beats weighted by massed percussion and thickened by a moaning fiddle. Most seem pitched a key or two past Helm’s most comfortable range; he is always reaching, straining. But the pull is powerful, the strain dramatic; and the tension stays high. “A Robbery,” a song about Frank and Jesse James, has the simple, forceful line, We will burn your train . . . your damned express car, and Helm puts it over as few still singing really could.

Then there’s “Anna Lee,” in the middle of which Helm’s voice seems to breaks through layers of time, travail, cancer, and the musical-mythic associations we are likely to bring to it — and turns into something else. Namely, the voice of an 80-year-old man, a grandfather, say, dressed in Sunday suit, standing on the main street of an unremembered town 150 years ago.

As much as anything, I like the way in “Calvary” he sings down to they ground.


STRANDED — The Countdown (19)

The Best of Sam Cooke (RCA). Starting out with producer-arrangers Luigi & Luigi, former gospelier Cooke spent the late ‘50s and early ‘60s writing the first testaments of the higher soul to come: smart and versatile, with lots of charm and production value, not averse to crossing over for some nightclub sweetening. Cooke’s sense of high-school romance imagined, innovatively, that black and white teenagers had much in common (Motown would soon take up that commercial flag). As a singer he built a style out of long smooth lines embellished by little clusters of detail notes at the ends, a style that would be heard in a whole legion of singers to follow, both black (Otis Redding, Al Green) and white (Rod Stewart, Steve Perry). The Best of Sam Cooke is pure and miraculous, not a bum number on it. The highs remain airily, ineffably high (“Cupid,” “Wonderful World,” “Only Sixteen”); the back-and-forth between Cooke and Lou Rawls on “Bring it on Home to Me” is a soul milestone; and the dance tunes actually put you in a party frame of mind. And then there are the oddities. The gap between “Chain Gang”’s lyrics and its suave delivery is too broad to be countenanced by the rational mind. Similarly, the version of “Summertime” comes from a weird imaginative province that is part Hollywood and part inexplicable vision, with Cooke’s sweatless white-shirt croon spreading over a simple guitar pattern and counterpoised against a haunting female holler, a spirit signal coming from far across the fields. 1957-1962 / 1962.
——. “Another Saturday Night” (RCA). A funny tale of social damnation, and Cooke takes it seriously enough to make it credible. (Sadly, though, for this and the following entry — plus such beauties as “Good Times” and “That’s Where it’s At” — you need to supplant the classic Best of with the definitive 1986 anthology The Man and His Music.) 1963.
——. “A Change is Gonna Come” (RCA). The strings at the opening pour down like slow-motion sheets of rain in a dream, and surge at the end like a thunderous omen. Hard not hear to hear it that way today, or in 1965; clearly, it was made in the spirit of prophecy. There have been many versions of the song by many artists, including talents as estimable as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Beside the original, they mean nothing. 1965.

ALICE COOPER, “Eighteen” (Warner Bros.) The essential statement of antisocial ennui and existential crunge from the forefathers that punk would never acknowledge. It should be comical by now, but no: it’s too straight-on, too hardheaded and guileless for laughs — the thick-skulled, beer-guzzling Midwestern factory boy gets his chance to speak, and he says nothing, he says it all. 1971.

ELVIS COSTELLO, My Aim is True (Columbia). The first strike of the young punk genius, they said. The heroic malcontent’s manifesto against soul-free modernity, they said. Since the first play, it has sounded to me pinched, fussy, and irritating, a series of little tantrums. I’ve never grown to like it — except for “Welcome to the Working Week” and “Watching the Detectives,” which I loved instantly. 1977.
——. & THE ATTRACTIONS, This Years Model (Columbia). Close enough to a great rock album to pass for one — that organ dripping with mercurochrome, that furious beat, that ferocity of a brilliant punk at his sharpest moment of perception and expression, when all evils are clear and liars lose their powers of invisibility. What’s missing is love: that is, the real, living thing, or its ghost, or its promise, or its devastating absence. To be truly great, an album like a novel or movie needs a sense of what our lives are all about, and, just as no atheist may deny that God exists for some, no misanthrope can presume to show us to ourselves without confronting love as reality or myth. Costello did that — in full, with melodies, the right band and the right producer — on his third album, Armed Forces. Despite hard competition from several later releases (King of America, Mighty Like a Rose, All This Useless Beauty, the Costello-Nieve EP box set), that still strikes me as his definitive work. 1978.

COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH, “Bass Strings” / “Section 43” (Rag Baby). Creepy-crawly post-folk, high-psych nightdreams. Haunted by organ and hollowed through with harmonica, they were made to accompany, or perhaps inspire, dark acidy slitherings in Bay Area ballrooms. First released as two-thirds of an EP that was the Fish’s second release, both songs were rerecorded for their first album, but in their low-rent, small-studio, limited-release form they are more sinuous, more elegant, more on the historic spot. (By the way, I don’t know what “Section 43” refers to, unless it is the part of the US Criminal Code which permits corporal punishment of children by their parents; the song, an instrumental, isn’t giving up any secrets. Anyway, here is outtake footage of the Fish performing it at the Monterey Pop Festival.) 1966.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

PJ HARVEY
White Chalk

34 minutes long, almost entirely based on minimal piano figures (an instrument Harvey had only just learned to play). The music is wreathed in a chill feel of cold English country, and the lyrics are reminiscent of Sylvia Plath: “The Piano” has a Daddy rattling keys in the doorway, and a Mommy who is “trying to leave.” Throughout, you see Plath’s empty kitchen and gas stove. Harvey’s leads echo down long hallways, and there are ghosts on backup.

A creepy, insinuating little caprice of an album, tops in the 2007 genre of ethereal female folk-rock discoveries that included Cathy Davey’s Tales of Silversleeve, Carina Round’s Slow Motion Addict, and Stephanie Dosen’s A Lily for the Spectre.

RINGO STARR
Liverpool 8

You don’t have to love the Beatles to make it halfway through this, though it would help. But if you do love them, there’s no way you’ll find Ringo’s second consecutive non-embarrassment (after 1992’s Time Takes Time) empty of pleasure. That’s after you get past the title song, a guided tour of Fab nostalgia spots whose grope at grandeur is more than canceled out by a rack of execrable rhymes (“Played Butlin’s camp with my friend Ror-ree / It was good for him, it was great for me”). Rewatching the Anthology DVD a few weeks ago, I was struck again by Ringo’s modest wit, his forthrightness, his poise; “Liverpool 8” strikes me only as a measure of the unaccountable things people will do in the name of nostalgia. Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around — it’s okay for someone writing on the Beatles to say that, but not the Beatle himself.

There is only one unredeemable song (“If it’s Love That You Want”); the rest nestle nicely enough into a comfort zone that is plush and narrow. Producer Dave Stewart can play a Beatles cliché just like ringing a bell: the record ripples with familiar Studio One touches — orchestra clamor, backwards talk, flanged vocals, sitars buzzing in a vacuum, elfin voices and odd squiggles in every vacant crack. As for Ringo’s singing, age works its wonders on even so indifferent an instrument as his: if his voice is no longer as jaunty as it was circa 1972, it has accrued a patina of yearning that sounds just right. (Or maybe he’s only yearning to hit the note.) Ringo handles the minimal demands without great strain; on a slightly more demanding song, like the pretty, pseudo-Mexican “Pasodobles” (echoing flamenco guitar solo and all), Stewart must mix Ringo’s vocal down, ever downward, until it is pretty much just another layer of sound.

So it’s a nice piece of work. Its force of artistry won’t shake the world or even topple a trashcan, but Liverpool 8 is probably every bit as good as it can be. Which is not the empty praise it might appear: can we say the same of the last albums by, oh I don’t know, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney?

OK GO
“Here it Goes Again”

This was discovered sometime last fall. Hipsters no doubt know something more about this band than do I, who am known in the nabe as the Anti-Hipster or the Hipster Killer. But as much as I love the video posted below — check it out, you won’t be sorry — I was surprised to find that the song itself, perfectly videoless, was logging heavy time in my iPod earphones as I strode the streets of my fair city. It has clever lyrics, a great pop tune, and a band dynamic tending to the harder edge of the early British Invasion spectrum. But what really lodges the damn delightful thing deep in your sound-hole is that off-key no or oh or oh no or whatever it is that punctuates the refrain like damp smacks on a cheap piece of tin. These boys have the feel of one-hit wonders, but what a hit, what a bang-on hit.

video

STRANDED — The Countdown (18)

CLEFTONES, “Heart and Soul” (Gee). Pure adolescent goodness, and it gets an extra point for adorning the sock-hop in American Graffiti. 1961.

JIMMY CLIFF, “Vietnam” (A&M). Sweet, sad, needful at the time, not so much now. 1970.
——. The Harder They Come (Mango). As a consumer, I was always peeved by the rip-off of repeating two tracks (“You Can Get it if You Really Want” and the title song). But other than that it’s utterly without flaw. Like a lot of people, I fell in love with reggae from this record. 1972.

COASTERS, Their Greatest Recordings — The Early Years (Atco). The Coasters’ great sides — written and produced by Leiber and Stoller, but brought to something bigger than life by the agile, gleeful voices of the singers themselves — were straight off the funny pages and the serial screen, full of radio melodrama and sitcom silliness. Their genius as a music-making collective was to discover how wonderful such things could be when taken out of their contexts and placed in that of a rock record, with caffeinated beats and a sax that always sounded like a junkman blowing his nose. They told the most absurd stories in the most absurd voices, traveled the globe on worn-out shoe leather, and chased golden idols and exotic femmes like a troupe of Indiana Joneses from the South Side of Chicago. Every time they turned around, they bumped into trouble; but their pluck and their humor got them through. From “Searchin’” to “Along Came Jones,” “Yakety Yak” to “Charlie Brown,” “Down in Mexico” to “Little Egypt,” from Cell Block #9 to Smokey Joe’s Cafe, this is great, great stuff, a treasury of American humor and bubbling stewpot of post-war pop culture. 1955-1961 / 1971.
——. “What About Us” / “Run Red Run” (Atco). In the years since Marcus noted these two sides in Mystery Train as encoded racial satire and revenge scenario (A-side a tragicomic tale of have and have-not, B-side a tall tale about a monkey turning tables on its master), it’s been impossible to hear them any other way. That’s perhaps because there is no other way to hear them; it’s perhaps because there is no need. “Run Red Run” in particular is a perfect little construction of fantasy and fear wrapped up as mere fable: Uncle Remus rocks out. Run, Red, Run, ‘cause he’s got your gun / And he’s aimin’ it at your head — boogedy, boogedy, boogedy! Nothing very funny about that. 1959.

EDDIE COCHRAN, “Summertime Blues” (Liberty). It’s hard to say which is finer about this affectionate piece of teen dissent — the perfect summertime sound of it, just slightly reverberant, as if it were echoing through the lot at Mel’s Drive-In; or the way this kid who knows his life isn’t actually that bad petitions both Congress and the United Nations to get behind his grievance. For a would-be anarchist-hedonist-punk, he seems to have paid attention in civics class. This is the kind of protest music I like best of all: rack it with “School Days” and “Dancing in the Street.” 1958.

COMMODORES, “Machine Gun” (Motown). One of those great ‘70s instrumentals you heard all the time on the radio and never caught the name of. (Others: “Love’s Theme,” “TSOP,” “Frankenstein.”) I like it, but it’s hard not to wince a bit at it today, if only because the musical mimics behind “That 70s Show” have so cleverly plundered push-button grooves like this for their between-scene interludes. 1974.

CONTOURS, “Do You Love Me” (Gordy). I seem to remember disliking this long before Dirty Dancing came along to render it officially and eternally unlistenable. Hard to say what’s not there, or what’s there and shouldn’t be: it’s got punch, delight, a certain glee factor. I ought to love it. I don’t. (Though it does get a half-point for bringing what may have been the first false fade to Top 40 radio. Does “Strawberry Fields” have some of its genesis here?) 1962.
——. “First I Look at the Purse” (Gordy). A witty Smokey Robinson number that was done up in more fervent style by J Geils Band on their first LP. (Though it does get a half-point for being a very early avatar of the pure Motown sound.) Sorry, Contours: looks like it’s the kiss-off. 1962.

EARPLUG
After today, I plan to post most of my Beatle-related jottings over at a new blog I’m building with some friends, which we call Hey Dullblog. It had its origin in the flurries of emails that used to fly between us when a new or unusual Beatle story came over the wires, or when one of us wanted to share a Fab enthusiasm with the others. Now we’re posting on our enthusiasms, giving links to Beatle stories, opinionizing ad hoc, commemorating meaningful anniversaries, stumping each other with our Never-Ending Beatles Trivia Quiz Challenge, etc. We’ve got dispatches coming from both coasts, and at least two boroughs of New York! And we’re only a couple of weeks old.

My friend and the blog’s administrator, Mike Gerber — author of the Barry Trotter parody series, as well as Freshman (2006), a novel about a “fictional” Ivy League university, so funny I urinated on the first Yale alumnus I saw — has just posted a brilliant rumination on the recent passing of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It contains some bold and convincing suggestions about the role that benign little fellow may have played at a troubled point in the history of the Beatles, and of one Beatle in particular.

Those who don’t like others to have opinions, let alone express them, should stay the fuck away, thank you very much. Everyone else, though, is most cordially invited.

Monday, January 14, 2008

MADONNA
"The Beat Goes On"

A teaser from her November-slated album, computer-programmed in collaboration with Pharell. Kudos to Madonna in her race (to the death?) to stay ahead of the pop-tart brigade, but her contemporaneity fetish comes a cropper here: it announces itself from blip one as a piece of oppressive nothingness, as pleasurable as a rice-cake diet in a time of drought. I begin to hate it when Madonna prefaces an outbreak of ping-ponging robo-blips with the deadpan command: "Instrumentation." Among the things Madonna should never attempt again: rapping (remember that bit in "Vogue"?), or anything approximating an ironic tone. An artist who has made thin vocal technique and canny soullessness work in her favor should never try to sound as if she had no soul; in the deathless words of Jake LaMotta, "It defeats its own purpose."

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
"Radio Nowhere"

I wrote this a little over two years ago:

Craziness, color, recklessness, astonishment, not just outrage but outrageousness — that's what I want from Bruce Springsteen, as I want them from any artist. . . . You might say I'm asking the wrong things of the wrong person, and you'd be right — but you wouldn't have been back when Born to Run came out, or Nebraska. Springsteen needn't dye his hair yellow, or release an album of Dadaist verse shouted over industrial noise. Craziness comes in all colors, hot pink or olive drab, and an artist can astonish us by the simplest, most unassuming of means. That's what artists do.

"Radio Nowhere," the single from Springsteen's upcoming LP, is probably the closest he will ever come to taking advice from me. It's hardly industrial, but it is noisy; hardly Dada, but the rhymes rain down fast. It's the lament of an emotional Luddite inveighing against the lack of soul in our web-wired, satellite-spinning globe. He doesn't hate technology, just the way we substitute interface for interaction; to dramatize, his voice punches through a layer of not-quite-static, the backing a fast crunchy rock with distortion elements. (When was Springsteen ever distorted?)

As commentary, the single is cranky and predictable; as a noise, it's damned good. But I think what's most exciting about "Radio Nowhere" is that it reinvents that American night Springsteen has, in his best music and deepest soul, always inhabited. It's the great unending American night that is always hot even in winter, alive with voices even when there's no one around, whose sky always crackles with music and whose breezes smell of gasoline and chance. Born to Run came out of that night; Nebraska dissolved into it. His latter-day records have taken place in a dim twilight in a tired living room, expressing an intermediate funk full of borrowed voices and stale despair. "Radio Nowhere" gets him off the couch, into the car, into the dark, into the American night. We'll see if the album has the guts to stay there.

DEREK McCORMACK
The Haunted Hillbilly

This was found yesterday, near the back of an overstacked shelf in a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore on Broadway. It had a guitar-playing skeleton on the front and said this on the back:

STEP RIGHT UP!
A year ago he was the Star of the
GRAND OLE OPRY.
King of Country & Western.
And now? He can't play. He can't sing.
Hear his pitiful pleas!
Quiver to his Yellow Yodels!
What's he so scared of?
What reduced him to this sorrowful state?
A VAMPIRE!
A blood-drinking, soul-sucking fiend.
VAMPIRES LIVE!
See what they do to mortal men!
Step right up and feast your eyes on
THE WRECK WE CALL
THE HAUNTED
HILLBILLY!


All that come-on, plus an encomium inside from queer shock novelist Dennis Cooper, and Canadian critic Bert Archer saying "McCormack's an evil little blessing." It was autographed by the author. And there it was hidden in a dusty hole, peeking out at me, asking only five bucks.

Could you resist this thing? Me neither.

It's a novella that takes only as long to read as it takes to dream a bad dream; I read it in the dusk hour between sundown and blinding dark. The setting is Nashville, you're not certain when, but you'd guess late '40s, early '50s. The hero — no, the victim — is a gifted young country singer named Hank. Hank is married to a woman named Audrey, who sews his first suit and sends him looking for a shirt worthy of her stitchery. The narrator — all-seeing, all-consuming, all-perverse — is Mr. Nudie, a Nashville haberdasher catering to the Grand Ole Opry elite, who makes flamboyant stage suits replete with spangles, glasswork, rhinestones, sequins, and stylized depictions of country-associated objects (cacti, trains, guitars). The haberdasher spots the singer, and begins not only dressing him but owning him: taking pieces of his flesh and soul, and destroying those around him. You see, Nudie is a vampire, in fact a gay vampire, and possession is his game.

The book's style, suitable to its content, is stripped not just to the bone, but to the marrow. ("Hank steps out. A gasp goes up. His suit's starry. Spotlights bend off his blazer. He sings his song. The one on his suit. About being blue.") And if those character names sound familiar ... yes, there was a real country singer named Hank. His last name was Williams, and his first wife was named Audrey, and he was brilliant, a once-in-a-century changer and shaper of his form. Hank Williams died from too many pills at the age of 29, looking pale and skeletal in the dark rear seat of a limo on his way to a show. They say his corpse looked almost as if it had been emptied of blood. But he looked that way alive, too.

And yes, there is a real Mr. Nudie. Or was: he died April of last year. Nudie Cohn, born in Kiev, Russia, made suits for everyone from Roy Rogers to Buck Owens, Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy) to Robert Redford (The Electric Horseman), the Sons of the Pioneers to the Flying Burrito Brothers. He made Elvis's gold lame suit — the one worn by the King on Elvis's Golden Records, Vol. 2, as if precisely to substantiate the record's timeless headline: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong!

The Haunted Hillbilly is a conflation of fact and fiction. Just enough of the facts are misplaced, or displaced, to prevent exact correlation with the principals' received biographies, and so to leave holes, or open graves, in the spaces between known realities. For instance, Nudie had a wife named Bobbie; there is a woman named Bobbie in The Haunted Hillbilly, but she is Hank's girl. Hank Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia; the book's Hank never escapes Nashville. Hank's nemesis throughout the story is Ernest Tubb, the "Texas Troubadour," a real person, an Opry favorite — but not, so far as I know, the insanely treacherous figure depicted here. The book ends with Nudie, still on the prowl, finding and fixing on a new boy, a new idol, a new tailor's dummy (or "judy") for his rhinestone designs: a boy who says his name is Johnny Horton. Johnny Horton who had a number of hits, became a country superstar, and married Hank Williams's first wife Audrey before meeting a premature death in 1960.

The book's spookiness is in its conflations. Its Nashville is a graveyard, done up in All Souls' colors, in which ghouls and live ones, clean facts and gross fantasies copulate. Hank Williams's depleted corpse, Nudie's outrageous clothes (made partly, McCormack reckons, from such materiel as human bone fragments), and even Robert Johnson's satanic bargain (the pop myth of the sold soul) are part of the grim procession. Nudie's evil accomplice is named "Dr. Wertham," and that can be nothing but a reference to the once-famed Dr. Fredric Wertham, innovative social psychologist, opponent of grisly EC comic books, and author of the notorious anti-comics jeremiad Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Not least of the shades haunting the story is that of Spade Cooley, Hollywood cowboy, grinning bandleader, and purveyor of watered-down, radio-friendly Western swing who, beset by paranoid delusions, in 1961 tortured and beat his wife to death as his daughter watched. Judging from his crimes and his photos, Cooley had a lot more vampire in him than either Hank Williams or Nudie Cohn. (For that whole story, see the relevant chapter in Nick Tosches's Country, or see here. Note further that Cooley was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan only a few years into his sentence, presumably for sentimental reasons — one old Hollywood hand taking pity on another.)

What you have here — and it is worth picking up if found peeking from a high shelf, asking only five dollars and an hour's attention — is some kind of demon fetus pickled in a jar of Southern moonshine, the malformed spawn of Rosemary's Baby and King Death.

GLEN CAMPBELL
"It's Only Make Believe"

Glen was another of Nudie Cohn's clients, and gave the old man his unofficial benedictory with "Rhinestone Cowboy." Well, feh on that Glen Campbell. My Glen Campell is the one who shone for a few brief years (say, 1966-70) as a pop singer backed by his fellow Wrecking Crew members; who made Gentle on My Mind (1967), an album that has been a favorite since I was knee-high to a tree stump; who sang an uncredited lead on the priceless Sagittarius single "My World Fell Down" (the sole slick studio anomaly on Nuggets); and who ended his days of greatness with this piece of operatic agony, the totality of which proves his instinctive genius as a pop singer.

Positioned, oddly enough, as the opener to The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album (1970), Campbell's "Make Believe" towers over even Conway Twitty's spectacular 1958 original. The huge production is less Spector's Hollywood than M-G-M's; there is a clarity and separation, a stage-show detail to the arranging that Spector never went for. It verges on bombast, in fact it is bombast, but Campbell's voice gives it pain, drama, and desire. The thing is, his voice was objectively so limited: strained at the top register, thin in the middle. But on material that mattered to him, it was unrelentingly passionate, full of emotional aspiration. It was the sound of an ordinary man reaching for grandeur, of Joe Buck before the mirror, singing his pain, expressing fearlessly.

"It's Only Make Believe" is the perfect song for Campbell — as "You're My World" and "Crying" were perfect side-enders to Gentle on My Mind. The song is built as a struggle, a climb: the melody leads the singer inward and upward, each chord raising the stakes on the last, to deposit him at the climax of each verse at a new peak of wanting and not-having. Campbell fights to stay on top of the orchestration, on top of the song; fights to give his emotions primacy over the noise, to assert his identity over the desolation the lyrics promise. Hal Blaine said Glen had a sixth sense for how to make great pop records. He proves it here, by upping the ante on Conway Twitty in at least three ways. First, the song's orchestration and activity grow denser, more dramatic, with each verse. Second, Campbell gives the song an all-important key change — thus pitching himself in the last verse against an even stiffer struggle, his ordinary voice against even more extraordinary demands. Lastly, he makes the climax out of a single note: MY only prayer will be. Unlike Twitty, Campbell gives melisma to that note, bending it upward over the melody, hurling it atop the tumult. At that moment, the singer could either go down forever, or take every honor in the universe. Campbell gives the moment its due. It's the last bit of gut he's got to give, his last chance to beat the song and stand tall. He does it. The song ends on a burst of ecstasy, as if trumpeting the ordinary man's unexpected heroism.

A devastating, exhilarating moment: a note to break the heart, and explode the spirit. So I say it is proof of Glen Campbell's greatness. Of deep feeling, of love, of passion, of a reach for beauty to the exclusion — if only for that moment — of anything else in the world; to the exclusion of the world itself. What more we could want from a pop record, I can't guess.

ED SANDERS
Beer Cans on the Moon

And then there's Ed. The offensive discarded consumer objects of the title can say nothing worse about the travesties perpetrated on nature by man than this album of godawful hippie broadsides. By the author of The Family, no less.

ZODIAC
Directed by David Fincher

For those unfamiliar with the case (serial killings, Bay Area, late '60s-early '70s), probably pretty boring; for those who have read the Robert Graysmith book, it ranges from the fascinating to the frustrating. The best scenes and deadliest scares come in the first hour, from which point momentum and shape dribble down to an ending that snatches back a saving shred of horror from the broad black vanishing pool of a two-and-a-half-hour sit. Fincher is some kind of diabolical genius, part hateful and part possessed: his creations (Seven, Fight Club) are sparing of love, but they combine sensual disgust and chic misanthropy with a delight in movement, montage, and music. His good films are like chilled corpses animated from within by excited, unsettled spirits that push the cold skin outward, rattle the bones, convulse the limbs, promise restoration and redemption to a world painted in cadaver colors.

The use of music is occasionally remarkable. Fincher doesn't cheat: the songs are all period-appropriate, and there is nothing that wouldn't have issued from a Bay Area car radio tuned to the Top 40 in 1969, with an occasional side-dial to early album-oriented FM. A lot of the jazz and extended rock standards (not to mention David Shire's original score) run from effective atmosphere to unobtrusive wallpaper, but at least two musical juxtapositions merit mentioning. The opening sequence begins with Independence Day fireworks and ends with blasts of gunfire on Lover's Lane; musically, it begins with Three Dog Night's "Easy to Be Hard" (How can people have no feelings), and ends with Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" (Here comes the roly-poly man singing songs of love). Set against these events, the plaintive plea of the first and fearful tremor of the second speak with more clarity, terror, and implication than they ever have before — and certainly more than they ever wanted.

Not since the Turtles' "Happy Together" ended Adaptation has an ordinary song, heard so often it is no longer heard, been so infused with new emotional capability. So reanimated, if you will, with excited, unsettled spirits.

BILL JUSTIS
“Tamouré”

Crude, widescreen Hawaiianisms from some musical coalescence to which Sun Records saxophonist Justis lent at least his name, if not his talent — his precise musical contribution is difficult to divine. This 1963 hit (#1 in Australia) might have served handsomely as soundtrack schmear if cheap Honolulu romances had ever composed a subgenre on the order of gladiator films. I have an unaccountable weakness for this flavor of pre-Beatles cheese, so find it not wholly unredeemed by its own grossness; but suffice to say, it's neither raunchy nor "Raunchy." Rockers, move on.

BRITNEY SPEARS
Blackout
Anger without passion, pathos without heart, one rigidly-held attitude per song. Vocals that clearly were phoned in on a BlackBerry; tracks that sound constructed of the techno-crud that collects in the crannies of an outmoded hard drive. It's shooting fish in a barrel to belittle this. But there are a lot of fish in the American barrel, and they've been stinking up the place too long. If Blackout helps to end rather than extend one of the many pointless pop careers currently cluttering our consciousness, its value and importance will be secure.

STRANDED — The Countdown (17)

Backtrack (4)

FAY ADAMS, “Shake a Hand” (Herald). I still think I like Paul McCartney's version better, but there's no reason to trust the objectivity of that judgment. Besides, his is a rock version and does nothing to cancel out the original, which is heavy R&B, a hard charge of piano, sax, and drums. Herding all ahead is an Adams voice that is declamatory and powerful yet sounds on the verge of cracking at any moment from the weight of some ambiguous sorrow, as if she knew life would never fulfill even the simple ideal of this one song. Kudos as well to the deep-chested male vocalist who backs her up — the sound of moral support. Any deserted island could use that. 1953.

ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND, Eat a Peach (Capricorn). The blue air of "Melissa" is sweet and fresh, but the album is twice as long as it needs to be. And why would they even conceive of a "Mountain Jam" agglomerated around the motif of an especially irritating Donovan song? Give me "Ramblin' Man" and, as a highway-driving son of the Middle West, I'll be happy. 1972.

JESSIE BELVIN, “Goodnight My Love” (Modern). You can hear Belvin in nearly every smooth male soul singer who came after him, from Sam Cooke to Luther Vandross: rich enunciations and silken lines, no strain, all exertion implied in the weighting of selected phrases, dips into low register, etc. He is bliss to listen to, and the record itself is deep romance and essential '50s gorgeousness, up there with "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight" and "It's All in the Game." 1956.

BUSTER BROWN, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (Fire). There's a great opening to this, a sloppy guitar and (I think) harmonica and Buster Brown hooting. It comes from a distance, the distance of age and bad sound; the band is in the corner of a field house, playing a dance at a black college long ago. The record tantalizes for a few seconds. Then it rollicks and rolls on out before it seems to have climaxed. The record is a good time, a fine time. But it fades as it should be peaking. Then you need to hear it again to see if you missed the peak — was it that subtle, did pleasure smuggle it past you? No. You were right the first time: a good time and a quick fade. The memory is enough. 1960.

Now, where were we . . .

The Clash (CBS / UK). It's been well over a year since I did a Stranded entry, and could it be because I have been groping through the ins and outs, ups and downs of my days — and my dreams! — for some delicate, non-tendentious way of saying I simply don't like the sound of Joe Strummer's voice? It doesn't state the case to say that the Clash's best music is on London Calling, because there are other songs one would not want to be without ("Should I Stay or Should I Go," "Rock the Casbah"). But none of them are on the debut album, one of those classics-by-acclamation which I've tried and failed to make yield even a coin's worth of the riches it has heaped upon the generation of listeners before me. 1977.
——. “Complete Control” (CBS / UK). The Clash's early songs sound tin-thin to me, long on rage and short on musical realization; the band bangs away and never once shows me the stars, shines a light on me, gets inside my ear or up my ass or deep into any other vulnerable opening. As for Strummer, many believe he had a pure and essential rock and roll sound. He always sounded to me like he was choking on charred hamburger. It's hardly inconceivable that the two could be the same, but not in this case. 1977.

Fab Revelation #24
The guitar sound of Billy Swan's "I Can Help" — which always reminded me of fanning one's hand along the fish-gill vent-flaps of a metal radiator — may be an unconscious cop from "The Ballad of John and Yoko."

Greatest Record Ever?
"If I Were Your Woman," Gladys Knight & The Pips

Friday, July 27, 2007

Music can wait a few hours. Roll with me here:

1) Right now I'm reading The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood by the film critic David Thomson. It may be a great book, I'm not yet certain, but I do know that no one could have written it but Thomson — the divine Thomson who brings a scholar's rigor, a poet's language, a fan's delight, a doomsayer's doom, and a dreamer's vision to bear on what is now more than a century of American film history. He relishes scandal, appraises bodies, and anatomizes familiar works (Chinatown) and careers (Fritz Lang) only to rebuild them as marvelous sinuous, autonomous things with hidden agendas and sinister subcurrents. Through it all he runs the numbers (attendance, tickets, population, dollars, dollars after inflation) and somehow works the bottom-line mechanics, industry nut and financial bolt right into his otherwise ethereal apprehensions of art and image, mask and meaning. The book is an intellectual twister, a sensual pleasure. Nearly every page is giving me something to rethink, showing me something to resee, offering something I can use, tipping a long row of memory dominoes I didn't know was there.

2) When I moved to New York from Iowa in 1993 I lived in a bare room in a youth hostel on Claremont at 122nd Street, right across Riverside Drive from Grant's tomb. I didn't have much in the way of home entertainment beyond a six-inch television and a miniature boombox. On the TV I would watch "Late Night with David Letterman" (he moved to CBS that very fall) and "Conan O'Brien" (his first season) into the night. In those days I slept well without the aid of Ambien, and so woke early enough most mornings to turn on the boombox and hear the tag-end of "The Alison Steele Show."

Alison Steele, who was known as "The Nightbird," was a legend of New York radio. She had been on WNEW, the town's foremost "progressive" station; in 1989 she moved to the classic-rock WXRK ("K-Rock," they called it), which is where I discovered her. She had one of those lovely, vaguely smoky movie star's voices (more Lauren Bacall than Ellen Barkin), and a caressing way with the microphone. She would unspin sentences so grandiose — about sailing over the stars, commanding time and space — that no voice but hers could free them of camp, let alone render them genuinely transporting. Listening to her in the dark morning, sunrise only a suggestion of blue light over the Harlem projects, you could so easily fantasy that she was lying next to you that moment, doing the show for you alone.

Come fly with me, she said. Supposedly Jimi Hendrix wrote "Night Bird Flying" for her. She died of cancer in 1995, just two years after I came to town, and was eulogized in the Times and elsewhere with the fondness and fascination she had clearly earned long before I made her fleeting but unforgettable acquaintance.

Almost every morning, to fill in the minute before the end of her show and the start of the next, Alison Steele would play the Beatles' "Flying": a two-minute instrumental from the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, a deadpan Mellotronism, a piece of marshmallow. Steele would deliver the morning's final benedictions and vocal nuzzlings over the music, kiss you goodbye before leaving you to your day. And the first time I heard her play her show out with it, a faint but decisive thonk!! sounded in my skull. The sound came from a small paragraph I'd never forgotten, hidden in the center of a book I've mentioned before on this blog — The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner:

Although few would file it under the Beatles' Great Works, "Flying" has received more radio exposure than all but a handful of their songs. For countless disc jockeys soon discovered in this ethereal, infectious theme an ideal way to fill up those awkward odd moments before the hourly news: because there were no words, it didn't seem rude to chatter at the same time, or to phase it out mid-song.

Nicholas Schaffner grew up in New York; he mentions New York radio many times in The Beatles Forever. There can be no doubt he listened to Alison Steele. He died in 1991, just two years before I came to town and might have been able to ask him to confirm this, but I have always gone on the assumption that he wrote the above in reference to Alison Steele's show. And therefore that I am, in this way, connected on the fine thin strands of an utterly insignificant Beatles song to two of my favorite pop music people — though the three of us just missed meeting each other on the great stage of possibility that is New York City.

3) Coming right after Alison Steele on K-Rock was, yes, the dreaded, infamous, miraculous, despair-banishing and soul-sustaining "Howard Stern Show." I became somewhat of a huge Howard fan in those days; even today, when I never listen to him (got no satellite radio), I have tenderness for the memories, many of which are logged on the cassette tapes I made of his show between, my liner notes tell me, September 1993 and November 1994.

One of Stern's regulars among the "Wack Pack" of obsessive fans, besotted freaks and system-screwing busybodies was one Captain Jenks (a pseudonym, Jenks said, taken from the real name of his Army C.O.). Jenks would phone up TV and radio shows ("Sonya Live," "Larry King," "Home Shopping"), bullshit his way past the screeners and onto the air with a fake voice (often feminine) and convincing line of happy talk, and then — securely within the eye and/or ear of an unsuspecting audience — insert a shouted advertisement for Howard Stern's penis! or Bababooey!

Funny? I'm laughing this second.

Jenks would tape his media pranks and replay them the next day on the Stern show. These plays were invariably highlights of the day's broadcast, accompanied by much infectious gaiety from Howard and his crew. But Jenks often referred to the hapless hosts he'd pranked by a word I didn't recognize — it sounded like "schwants." As in, "Here's the schwants I fooled last night."

Oh, well, the talk flew so fast I didn't have time to be troubled by a word I didn't know and was probably part of some Sternian inner language known only to listeners of longer standing than myself. "Schwants" went into that bulging mental envelope containing all the references I hadn't gotten and never would.

Where it rested undisturbed for 14 years.

4) Just yesterday, reading page 172 of The Whole Equation, I saw this, regarding the career of James Cagney:

However, he complained bitterly about the cheapness and the violence of the films, and he used his kid brother Bill (who was as tough and foul-mouthed as the on-screen Jimmy we "know") to go in and browbeat Warners, especially Jack Warner, for whom the Cagney brothers kept the nickname "The Shvontz" (the prick).

What a lovely thonk!! that was! What an invisible if modest load off! Jenks was saying "prick" all those times! Larry King = shvontz = prick. Yes. I will buy that: the whole equation. What sense it made, what delicious sense — and there is no sense so delicious as retroactive sense.

5) See how memory works? A sudden, unexpected explanation of a misheard word from long ago reminds me of dark-hour radio delights I hadn't thought of in years. Alison Steele and Nicholas Schaffner, "Flying" and Captain Janks; a bare room on the border of Harlem in 1993; and people I'd have liked to meet and never will.

Time to reset those memory dominoes.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The following is a talk I delivered at the Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, last March 26. It was part of a three-day symposium called "Highway 61 Revisited: Dylan's Road from Minnesota to the World," organized by my good friend, the unpretentious academic, proud daughter of the lakeland, and all-round righteous rock chick Colleen Sheehy. The conference — which pulled together dozens of speakers, including pretty much everyone of note who has ever expressed thought on the subject of Bob Dylan — was a monumental effort of coordination, dedication, and (Dylanesque word) desire on Colleen's part. All the thanks she received before, during, and after those three days in Minneapolis were inadequate to repay her efforts. We all got to see some great speakers, engage in some lively talk, eat at fine Dinkytown noodleries, and breathe the magic air that swoops regularly off the storied Mississippi.

So: the thing below. It is, I hope, noisome without being noxious. And let me add that my talk had the honor of being name-checked in both
Time magazine and the St. Paul Pioneer Press blurbs on the conference; and that despite my dissemblings I was accused, quite correctly, of having coined the title for the precise purpose of seeing it name-checked in such prestigious annals as Time magazine and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I found out the other day this will not be included in the anthology that is to be derived from the conference. No surprise or shame in that rejection: out of the approximately 50 talks and other performances delivered, I'm certain the editors had no end of winnowing to do. But since the paper is now a free agent and unlikely to be welcomed anywhere but here, I bequeath to you my Constant Reader this poison gift, this toxic waste of an inspiration.

— Yr Blogger



HOTTER THAN A CROTCH
Bob Dylan at the Borderline of Sleaze


In November of 1972, Bob Dylan went to Durango, Mexico to play a small part in Sam Peckinpah’s Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. The production was cursed by all the expected crises, but there was one element on the set that no one saw coming. Peckinpah’s biographer, David Weddle, writes that, “The topsoil of Durango was permeated with animal manure that dried up, blew around with the fine silicone dust, and lodged in people’s lungs, causing chronic pulmonary infections.” One of the film’s stars, James Coburn, said that in Durango, “It was really cold and damp, there was wind, and a thousand years of horseshit floating around in the air.”

You believe it. Pat Garrett is a Western that has difficulty breathing. But it does breathe; and much of its beauty is in the labor of that life-sustaining repetition, the desire to breathe deeply and exhale soberly, to absorb sleaze and return humor, feeling, judgment. It’s as if the movie has decided that to embrace sleaze is one way of not just staying alive but being alive in a world of shit.

All the birds are singin' in the mornin' trees
but the birds are not singin' for me
My man did meet with a flirt on the street
gave him a case of VD

I begged him to look up a doctor and go
It broke out all over his skin
But he rubbed hisself with some dark drugstore salve
and he said it's not the VD

I been in the Army and the Merchant Marines
my dear wife long enough to know
Those little hot rashes that burn on my skin
are not the VD I'm sure


Almost from the beginning, Bob Dylan had his own line on sleaze. It’s found in that border region of overlap between body and history, sex and disease, erotic and diabolic. At irregular intervals along that border may be found the Mexican films of Luis Buñuel and the middle albums of the Rolling Stones; Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant and the demo version of Liz Phair’s “Flower”; the novels of Jim Thompson and the psychology of Melanie Klein; PJ Harvey’s first album and Hans Bellmer’s dolls; the Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf and the Naked City photos of Weegee. Or the song that gave this talk its title — “Tough Mama” from the Planet Waves album, recorded just months after Dylan returned from Durango, with horseshit still in his lungs.

Silver angel
With the badge of the lonesome road sewed in your sleeve
I'd be grateful if this gold ring you'd receive

Today on the countryside it was hotter than a crotch
I stood alone upon the ridge and all I did was watch

Sweet goddess
Must be time to carve another notch


Call me one-dimensional, but I can’t think of anything but intercourse hearing this song. In the lyrics primarily, of course, but also in the music, the varieties of energy within a single verse. It’s quite phallic how the first chords make a lunging action, then acquiesce to a rhythm that’s very bump-and-grind, very frictional, which is worked over in another line towards its release in a head-back, arms-out, orgasmic declaration of romantic release, vagina worship — “dark beauty,” “sweet goddess,” “silver angel” — then left hanging by an organ solo that’s like a sweet post-coital whistling in the dark, as the sheets dry and transcendence becomes memory.

I'm crestfallen
A world of illusions at my door
I ain't a-haulin' any of my lambs to the marketplace anymore

Prison walls are crumblin' there is no end in sight
I gained some recognition but I lost my appetite

Dark beauty
Meet me at the border late tonight


The Planet Waves album, when first released, had a set of handwritten sleevenotes that were removed from later pressings. In them, Dylan encourages any connection one cares to make between the situational sleaze of a song like “Tough Mama” and the proximate sleaze of the world outside. These notes — which read like a dirtier version of those noir vignettes that open each episode of “Theme Time Radio Hour” — describe “furious gals with garters and smeared lips on barstools that stank from sweating pussy . . . space guys off duty with big dicks and duck tails, all wired up and voting for Eisenhower.” Can’t you just hear Ellen Barkin speaking those words? It's nighttime in the big city . . .

I’ve always resisted the judgment that Dylan’s primary importance was as a poet. That implies something way too housebroken. As Monty Python had it, “Poets are both clean and warm / and most are far above the norm / Whether here or on the roam / have a poet in every home!” Dylan’s true poetics was a convergence of verbiage and voice which, at least as much as any grimy Kerouacian attitude, preferred to make itself unwelcome in the home. And as a public artist, Dylan would make himself most unwelcome not by his versifying — which from an early point drew the acclaim as well as the disdain of the most respectable poets — but largely by means of his voice.

“A dog with its leg caught on barbed wire,” said Mitch Jayne of the Dillards, and no one has ever quite gotten it better, for those who hate the voice and those who love it. One proof of the intractability of that voice is that, despite its infinite subtleties and sorrows, despite the fact that it forced new ears upon even those unwilling to listen, there is nothing like a popular acceptance that Dylan is a greater singer than, say, Christina Aguilera, the guy from Coldplay, or whatever unborn fetus is destined to win “American Idol” in the year 2027. To this day, that skanky, scrofulous Dylan voice, his basic unit of sound, has never become acceptable, never ceased being the butt of easy jokes and the one impression even non-impressionists can adequately fake.

So it’s worth remembering that Dylan’s “real” voice, his “original” voice, delivered in whispers back in Hibbing, was not the rusty, witty, punky, pointy voice of Highway 61 Revisited but a mellow voice, a ballad voice, as round and consistent as a bowl of pudding. When people who still remembered that voice heard Nashville Skyline, they invariably said, “That’s him.”

Except it wasn’t, really. What we are at first is not necessarily what we are. Obviously Dylan sang that way at first because that was his ‘50s model. Just as obviously, he then harshened his voice because that was the quickest way of imitating the blues and folk singers he discovered later on. Less obvious, maybe, is why he then pushed harshness beyond imitation into innovation, the voice into realms of raspiness undared by any white singing idol in living memory, and by precious few of the blues and folk masters he’d taken off from.

Could it be that Dylan scoured his voice to such a frictive texture because he knew that was the only sound appropriate to his apprehension of things, his harsh and excited, raunchy and humorous take on America? His suspicion that the country was rank with mendacity and rife with pockets of possibility waiting to be picked? That to thrive in America was to navigate rivers of sleaze and valleys of darkness, seeking not the centers but the borders, always the borders?

When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime too
And your gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through
Don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
and they really make a mess outta you


Aside from an aberrational domesticated phase or two, Dylan is an artist of the border. That’s what he sings about, that’s where he sings from. Within that, I’d like to posit — for my own sleazy purposes — a binary metaphor: Tijuana Bob, and Las Vegas Bob.

There are plenty of Tijuanas in Bob Dylan’s past, rough, elemental places where extremes are experienced, glimpses gotten, fantasies and satires hatched — and they all go by different names. Places like Hibbing — “way up by the Canadian border,” as Dylan said on the back of his first album. There’s Highway 61, which runs along the Mississippi, symbolic dividing line in American music and American life. There’s Brownsville, which as a Dylan border town stands, Stephen Scobie says, “between the various realms of history, fiction and myth.” There are the “border towns of despair” mentioned in the song “Dignity,” and the Juarez that witnesses the bacchanal of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” There’s “Santa Fe,” a minor Basement Tape and one of my favorite Dylan songs, a dream of a border rendezvous as full of mumbled, made-up lyrics as “I’m Not There,” and as jaunty with the freedom of escape as “I’m Not There” is heavy with the guilt of escape. There’s also Highway 61 Revisited the album, which — in its obsession with homelessness, roads, junkyards, jailhouses, God, prostitutes, romantic salvation, Mexican debauch, and flamenco guitar — is Dylan’s own Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, his gringo-south-of-the-border story.

Later on Dylan left this Tijuana of the mind, or lost sight of it, and found himself, for a time, in Las Vegas — a very different kind of border town, with its own very different style. Among those places that exist both on the map and between the various realms of history, fiction and myth, Tijuana is where hunger goes to get fed — while Las Vegas is where prosperity goes to get fat.

Once I had a pony her name was Lucifer
I had a pony her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it could of hurted her

Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
You know she got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl's gonna do to me next


∞∞∞∞∞

All right I'll take a chance
I will fall in love with you
If I'm a fool you can have the night
You can have the morning too

Can you cook and sew make flowers grow
Do you understand my pain?
Are you willing to risk it all
or is your love in vain?


The Street-Legal album is Bob Dylan in his first full flush of Las Vegas style. Lots of sex and glitz and wrenching climax, it’s a sausage grinder of entertainment. For better or worse — and you just heard some of both — Dylan comes across on this album as one sleazy S.O.B. “New Pony” is good sleaze: good riff, good arrangement, it’s got a pulse and doesn’t forget the listener has one too. “Is Your Love in Vain” is the worst kind of sleaze, not body but ego-oriented, not dynamic interaction but static spectacle, the phoniness of which makes every revelation suspect, every offering a taking in disguise. Don’t be fooled: when Dylan sings about his pain, he’s really singing about his penis.

Now Michael Gray figures, and I agree, that Street-Legal is a proto-Christian album. He also says that “Every song deals with love’s betrayal, with Dylan’s being betrayed like Christ, and, head on, with the need to abandon woman’s love.” So this sleaze factor is, for Dylan, something new: a convergence, somewhere past the borderline of absurdity, of showbiz, messianic religion, and the self-pity of the noble cocksman — Bob Dylan stars as Elvis Presley playing Dean Martin in a porno-musical version of The Last Temptation of Christ. In the Elvis tradition, there is much sex; in the Dino tradition, much sexism. Like Elvis, Dylan, whatever his avowed submission to an Almighty, is, on this stage, truly Lord of all he surveys. And like Dino, he is also a drunk in love with his own lugubriousness.

What’s missing from the sleaze of Street-Legal? What ingredient does sleaze need to stay alive, to keep flowing, feeling something, meaning something? Innocence, I would say — a sense of innocence. Of delight, of laughter, of thrills — thrills that are not cheap, but precious indeed. Often, what we regard as sleaze is only an image of innocence corrupted. The corruption contains the innocence, and vice versa. When one echoes against the other in a certain way, the walls of memory shake, and sleaze attains to the full grace of art.

If you’ve seen Atom Egoyan’s movie Exotica, you’ve seen this idea in action. A dancer at an upscale strip club wears a schoolgirl’s uniform. A well-dressed man returns night after night to stare at her performance. It turns out the stripper, as a teenager, used to sit the man’s daughter, who’s now dead. Each night the dancer and her watcher are living out a lurid burlesque of innocence, a masochistic playlet wherein sleaze determines costume and setting, and pain preys on memory.

Sleaze as a fact of life and harbinger of death runs throughout post-World War II American art like a polluted river through a factory town — tainting and transforming film, fiction, canvas, musical noise. Sleaze is kept alive and flowing sometimes by pain, sometimes by pleasure — but always by the memory of purity and wholeness it presumes, violates, reacts to in some way, the excitement and beauteous simplicity of what was — somewhere back there, back in a time none of us remembers but imagine we do. In this way, the bombastic sleaze of the old, fat Elvis is redeemed by the breakneck sleaze of the young, sexy Elvis — and all the lecherous lumbering of Street-Legal by the innocent lewdness of a minor Basement song — like this:

Take a look at me baby
(Just take a look at me baby)
I'm your teenage prayer
(You know I'm your teenage prayer baby)
Take a look at me baby
(Take a look over here baby)
I'm your teenage prayer
(I'm your teenage hair)
When it's cloudy all the time
All you gotta do is say you're mine girl
(Ohhh — )
I'll come runnin' to you anywhere
(Ohhh-ohhh-ohhh-ohhh)
Ah yeah oh you know I will
Take a look at me baby
I'm your teenage prehhhhhhhhh-ehhhhhhh


There’s something ineffable about the little exhalation at the end of that — the little ahhh — and about Robbie Robertson’s repeated ad-lib, “I’m your teenage hair.” Dylan laughs every time he says it: what could be sillier, more senseless, more innocent than that? Yet that’s the whole of adolescent sex, and it could fit on a high school ring: I am your teenage hair. The secret hidden in that perfect absurdity is this — that what turns into sleaze as we age remains the stuff of discovery for kids: the first thrill, the breathless grope, the life-changing experience. Meet me at the border late tonight, Dylan will say six years and a lifetime later to complete that circuit, consummate that come-on — but he’s older now. He’s been to Durango, he’s crossed the borderline of sleaze more than once, and the enticements are altogether darker, richer, more complicated than they were back in the basement.

Clearly it can be said that sleaze, like cholesterol, comes in “good” and “bad” forms. What’s the difference? Well, the bad, like “Is Your Love in Vain,” is essentially inert. It doesn’t happen, it merely congeals. Whereas the good kind always flows — and always takes you with it. It can take you out, like “Tough Mama”; can take you down, like “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; can take you inside, like “I’m Your Teenage Prayer.”

And, if used in a certain way, invested with a certain intent, it can even take you back — far, far back.

In 1949, Bob Dylan’s future hero, Woody Guthrie, writes a collection of songs for the U.S. Public Health Service, which is on the move against the post-war spread of venereal disease. Among Guthrie’s titles are “VD City”; “VD Avenue”; “VD Day”; “VD Gunner”; “VD Blues”; “VD Seaman’s Letter”; “VD Waltz”; and “A Child of VD.” 11 years later, Bob Dylan leaves Minnesota and lands in Greenwich Village, then returns with a bushel of songs — among them Guthrie’s clap cycle, bestowed on him by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who describes them as “those old VD songs by Woody that nobody wanted the young kids to know.”

On December 22, 1961, in the apartment of Bonnie Beecher right here in Minneapolis, Dylan records some of those songs. By far the most vivid, in text and performance, is “VD City.”

Well you've seen your bright visions of glory
where love built your cities on high
I've just seen the cold dark dungeons
where the victims of syphilis cry

They're called to the cities of sorrow
to confess all the wrong things they done
Their teardrops are meet weep much louder
then the cities blown down by the bombs

There's a street named for every disease here
Syph Alley and Clap Avenue
And the whores and the pimps and their victims
all pass on the curb from our view

Once young once healthy and happy
now a whirlpool of raving insane
Cause here in this wild VD City
nobody knows you by name

Your eyes are too festered to see here
Your body is rotten by sores
Every wind stands full of lost faces
Human wrecks pile the stairs and the doors

Must you pay your way to this city
with an hour of passion and vice
I pray that I'll not see your face here
where the millions now burn in this fire


“VD City” could be seen as a moralistic trace of the original syphilitic’s lament, “The Unfortunate Rake,” and its descendent songs of madness and physical waste: “Streets of Laredo,” “St. James Infirmary,” “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” “Insane Asylum.” But “VD City,” though it begins as pious public-service verse, ends as pure apocalyptic poetry, Guthrie’s imaginative embrace of holocaust and damnation; and while extending an ancient tradition of hellish visions from Revelations to Milton to Goya, it’s also very much post-world war, its rhetoric of atrocity touching, if not containing, the burning bodies of Hiroshima, the human piles of Dachau.

“VD City” was another name — maybe the first — for what Bob Dylan would later call “Desolation Row,” or “the border towns of despair”; “venereal disease” a less metaphorical term for “hard rain,” “idiot wind,” “highway blues,” “Memphis Blues,” “subterranean homesick blues,” “Tom Thumb’s blues,” the barren East Texas blues no one sang like Blind Willie McTell. The blues of collapse, corruption, perfidy; visionary blues that discern the fate of nations in the ruin of bodies — or for that matter, the smell of pussy in a vote for Eisenhower. From Guthrie to Dylan we go from the specific to the symbolic, the clinical to the impressionistic. But in each the scale is panoramic, the complaint a truly social disease, each man or woman a victim or witness, the conspiracy of history no longer hidden or even a conspiracy because everyone is in on it.

In cultivating his own sense of sleaze — along with his feel for loveliness, yearning, redemption, what are thought of as the higher desires — Dylan was turning over the topsoil that covered such connections, feeling the seedy truth beneath ordinary encounters — between individual and community, President and polity, Time magazine and time itself. His lyrics caught symbols in the sediment, and his dog-on-barbed-wire voice was likewise a filter of that filth, the sleazy sound of the Great Underneath.

Every major artist is that filter, that distiller of other worlds. Each one comes, in some way, to know the presence and to breathe the fumes of a thousand years of horseshit. That happens when the elements of sleaze are not despised but remade as expressive shades to evoke a congeries of sensations, experiences, nightmares traveling back and forth in time. That’s when sleaze flows, becomes a river carrying the artist and his listener across borders of emotion, metaphor, and flesh.

Bob Dylan got to this knowledge faster and straighter than most, by luring and crafting an innovative ugliness, a transformative impurity out of whatever truths he’d suspected back in the borderland of Hibbing, whatever escapes and fatalities he’d witnessed along Highway 61, standing alone upon the ridge, watching the river flow — river of sleaze, river of death, river of life.

Thank you.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

IAN HUNTER
Shrunken Heads

Hunter, whom I had the pleasure of seeing live a couple of Saturday nights ago, is in a unique class of performer: he centers a stage with the look and noise of a rock star, but weighs in with none of the arrogance. He was humorous, commanding, in roaring voice, a lot of fun. Not a shred of gut was spared in the delivery. Hunter's daughter and Mick Ronson's son came on at the end for the "Dudes" chorus, and Iggy Pop, with long bleach-blond hair, was snake-dancing in the "Reserved" balcony. Hunter looked, from the floor about 50 feet out anyway, just like he did in 1975 — or, at worst, 1983. Eternal shades, big blond blow-frizz undiminished, not a pound of paunch or any restraint of age on him. He hit the Mott classics (which I love) and solo favorites (which I mostly don't), but at least half of what he played came from his new album, and it all sounded great: well-built, left-of-mainstream rock songs of feeling and humor and observation.

But they call it "live" for a reason: sometimes a band onstage grips with two fists a feeling and ferocity it was lucky to hook with two fingers in a carpeted studio. That seemed to be the syndrome in play as I listened to Shrunken Heads with the live, crowd- and mic-drenched versions still crashing in memory. The album, the permanent document of those songs that sounded so brash and big in concert, is a piece of largely blah rock, with odd encrusted gems flinting among songs which set their limits early and stick to them. You get a few of the half-ironic Hunter shout-alongs (like "Cleveland Rocks" and "Once Bitten, Twice Shy") which, now as much as then, smack of cheese. You get, even worse, repeated dips in the shallow pool of soft rock, instrumentations worthy of Norah Jones, grooves for geezers.

It gets frustrating around the midpoint when you realize the album will probably never achieve its breakout, that it will not stun or jar you out of a fairly comfortable region of the familiarly irritating. That's when you start looking around to gather ye rosebuds while ye may: the grand chording on the verse to "When the World was Round," the album's best song, if also its least surprising; the "shrunken head" metaphor, simple, elegantly gruesome, which seems to cover all the agents of mediocrity, venality, and hypocrisy abroad in our world; the love and guts behind a post-hurricane song ("How's Your House") that is, as well as a vision of Hell, an uptempo piano roll full of near-joking lines and a laughing finish; or the title and funny lines of "I Am What I Hated When I Was Young," a raucous piece of banjo corn.

Hard to say "studio-safe" without sounding snotty or dismissive — because I loved Ian onstage that Saturday night. Oh well, it's not the end of the world. Just of an album.

MAGGIE BELL
Queen of the Night

Bell began as the main vocalist for British rockers Stone the Crows, but she truly notched her initials on rock history by backing up (or fighting with) Rod Stewart on "Every Picture Tells a Story." This 1974 solo album is noble soul-rock hysterics and sensual smoke, not terribly unpleasing, but not invariably funky, either: the material is hit-or-miss and grooves wobble. Bell has the true scratch in her throat but she can't do much to sex up songs that have been arranged with all the raunch of the "Tonight Show" band's commercial-break transitions. Notable, though, for an early version of "We Had it All," a Jagger-Richards song which the Stones didn't record for several years, until the Emotional Rescue sessions — though, with Keith singing, they did it better.

THE MIKE CURB CONGREGATION
“More Than Ever (Nixon Theme Song)"
"Nixon Now (Nixon Rally Song)”

Mike Curb had his first hit in the early '60s with a jingle for Honda scooters. In 1969, year of the constipated apocalypse, he was appointed head of MGM Records, after the movie company had decided for about 10 minutes it would be hip to have a pop label. While there, he promoted a clean-jeans, sta-prest, family-friendly collective image that was epitomized by flagship acts like the Cowsills — which move necessitated him releasing the Mothers of Invention and Velvet Underground from their contracts with Verve, an MGM subsidiary.

Around this time Curb formed his Congregation: suitably pious title for a cacophonous choir that was like the Ray Conniff Singers with bangs, or the Mormon Tabernacle with a middle-class twitch in its hip. "Burning Bridges" was their decidedly unholy hit, from the 1970 Clint Eastwood-Telly Savalas-Donald Sutherland-Don Rickles-Carroll O'Connor — enough already, it was a Dirty Dozen rip-off — Kelly's Heroes. (Disappointed lately in the intensity of your nightmares? Try watching this steaming two-and-a-half-hour heap of tank vomit and Howitzer flop.)

Having conquered the music world, Curb — encouraged, apparently, by California governor Ronald Reagan — sought entry into the political sphere. His first move in this direction was to write and produce, under the Congregation banner, campaign songs for the 1972 reelection campaign of another California son, Richard Nixon. The songs, along with Nixon's winning personality, were just the ticket. Curb ran for Lieutenant Governor of California and won. From 1979 to 1983, he acted as de facto governor in the absence of Jerry Brown, who — rather unconscionably, in the circumstances — spent more time running for President than tending to state affairs. In 1980, in between redrafting Brown's orders and vetoing his legislation, Curb found time to write and produce Ronald Reagan's campaign song. Key losses in California state politics evidently deterred him from pursuing further triumphs in the public sector. Today he has a country-music empire in Nashville and a NASCAR sponsorship. He is one version of the American dream.

But — so was Richard Nixon.

RALPH "SOUL" JACKSON
“Sunshine of Your Love”

In case you didn't know, his middle name tells you where to file this piece of mid-line not-badness. Notable mainly for two conspicuous lyric changes, both geared away from romantic abstraction and toward physical specificity. In the first, Give you my dull surprise becomes Give you my big surprise, natch. In the second, the word "tears" is replaced with the word "sheets" — as in I'll be with you when my sheets have dried up —

IRMA THOMAS
“We Won't Be in Your Way Anymore”

Yet another lost classic shakes loose from the riffled pages of this great lady's long history. A little 1970 soul heartbreak and ain't you fulla shit action for those long smoky midnight hours.

ELVIS PRESLEY
The "Lost" Album

And lost it might have stayed, without tragedy. All that merits mention in this collection — recorded in Nashville in 1963 for a non-movie-soundtrack LP never issued, though some tracks appeared as B-sides and album filler — is "It Hurts Me," a surging ballad nearly worthy of "Any Way You Want Me," with a lovely tacky piano obliggato. The balance is taken by boggy blues and pseudo-sex. Elvis's version of "Memphis, Tennessee" doesn't have anything like the guts of his later "Promised Land," though not because of the vocal (engaged but not excited) so much as a peculiarly enervated guitar riff — which of course is one of the riffs, one that even I can play competently, and that any studio pro, let alone a real live Nashville cat, should be able to slice into like a fisherman fileting a trout.

THE FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
The Flight of the Conchords (HBO)

At my mother's suggestion, we just watched the first three episodes of this musical sitcom. A New Zealand duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, perform pop parodies and oddball diversions while trying to score gigs and stay alive somewhere in the concrete wilds of Brooklyn. (Or is it Queens?) The deadpan comedy scenes (an incompetent manager, a single obsessed fan) are amusing enough, but the music videos that occasionally (but never arbitrarily) break up and into the action are the real bacon on the plate: an inspired parody of "what's wrong with the world today" songs, about people lying on the street with heads cut off and forks stuck in their legs; an absolutely ridiculous sci-fi thing involving cardboard-box spaceman suits; an "I'm not crying" brain-twister attributing ocular moisture to allergy, sweat, dust particles, rain, every imaginable cause except that you don't love me no more.

TFOTC's music is not quite like anything, except that it evokes rap, soul, techno, and whatever else it needs to; I could compare it to They Might Be Giants, except the Conchords didn't make me want to puncture my eardrums with a pencil.

Something so odd and beguiling cannot live forever. It may not live a season. But it's living now, right there on your TV every week. If you have cable. Which some people don't. That's the thing about pop culture. It takes money. Unless you want to steal it. Which some people do. But I'm not here to judge anyone. Except the musicians.

Fab Revelation #537
That virtually the whole of Oasis's worthy career sprang from a single tight and polished tap of pop musicality: "And Your Bird Can Sing." And that as well as Oasis have done what they've done over their 15-year career, the Beatles not only did it better but did it in two minutes.

That Curb Congregation ordeal reminded me of what might be the

Greatest Record Ever?
"Shenandoah," the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

No kidding: watch the end credits of Oliver Stone's Nixon if you doubt it.