Thursday, March 28, 2013

van duren

I know I’ve used this line before, but it’s especially apropos in this case.  So here goes: When people ask me what kind of music I like, I tell them I like Van Duren… There. I repeated myself. So sue me mothafuckah. But seriously, Van Duren is a fascinating cat. The information readily available on him is fairly limited, but he strikes me as a guy who fashioned himself as Memphis’ answer to Warren Zevon. Of course, if you take Warren Zevon out of LA, he ceases to be Warren Zevon, at least as we know and love him, passed out with his face down in the pavement outside the Troubadour.  Nevertheless, Zevon and Duren have similar sensibilities, which I would characterize as a compelling admixture of acerbic wit, romantic fatalism, and the kind of weirdness that could only grow out of the bizarro cultural soil of the 70s. And their actual melodies, arrangements and riffs overlap as well. Christ, they even looked similar back in the day, though Zevon was obviously the more visible of the two on the national stage.  And that’s another thing that makes Van Duren so interesting to me.  He provides further proof that white power popsters from Memphis have always been doomed to obscurity until well after the peak of their artistic productivity has passed. In the mid 70s, Duren existed within the same orbit as the Scruffs and Tommy Hoehn (with whom he subsequently recorded a few critically well received but otherwise largely unheard albums), and he even tried out for Big Star after Chris Bell’s departure. In a more just world, one where people wouldn’t have such bad taste, Duren’s debut solo record, Are You Serious?, would have made him a huge star. The tunes are undeniably poppy, but there’s a singer-sonwriter-ness to his approach that makes the music a little more difficult to pigeonhole. He wouldn’t have been out of place, necessarily, opening for Tom Petty, but neither would he fit in comfortably back stage with the Heartbreakers as they snorted lines off the firm and flawless tushies of all their young groupies. Part of it is that Duren’s music, while hooky and pleasing, is atypical. You have to work a little harder before the infectiousness sinks in.  And there’s an aspect of his whole vibe that seems detached and even a tad misanthropic.  It gives one pause, for instance, to hear him sing a line like and now the older I grow, the harder I find it to really love. It's not your garden variety pop music sentiment or something you’d be inclined to drop into casual conversation. I have that same thought all the time, and the feeling gets stronger in me every day, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna share it with anyone other than the trained professional I pay $150 per hour to sit quietly and listen to all my dark shit…



Wednesday, March 20, 2013

waddy wachtel

Waddy Wachtel has amassed an impressive resume of production and session work over the course of more than 40 years in the record business, but his career peaked in the mid 70s and early 80s, playing on so many of those troubadour cum cocaine cowboy records, music that captured the languid decadence of post-60s Los Angeles.  Linda Rondstadt.  Buckingham Nicks.  Jackson Browne. Joe Walsh.  Warren Zevon… Wachtel may be a Queens native, but his fingerprints are all over that distinctly Californian musical milieu.  And while he’s basically been a hired gun for most of his career, there are a handful of his riffs that have left an indelible mark on the brains of those of us who were glued to our radios in the 70s.


But Wachtel has a deeper (if also accidental) significance for me personally.  When I was about 11 years old or so, I flew down to Florida with my sister over spring break to visit my grandfather.  The movie shown on the flight was FM, which, best I can remember, is kind of a long  version of WKRP in Cincinnati, with some half-baked social commentary on the encroachment of the corporate profit motive in the radio business. But the plot, such as it is, is beside the point. The movie is actually little more than a vehicle to promote Linda Rondstadt, who’s given plenty of time on camera.  And since Rondstadt’s guitarist at the time was Waddy Wachtel, he is seen a fair bit in the movie as well.  …So I’m watching FM on this flight to Ft. Lauderdale, and I’m bored out of my mind because I didn’t have the appreciation for Linda Rondstadt that I’ve since gained, and my sister is sitting next to me, and we’re dreading the long weekend ahead of us because my grandfather is narrow minded and not much fun to be around, and his second wife is angry and unpleasant and has an irritatingly shrill/nasal voice that can cut through diamonds, and I’m practically falling asleep as the soporific tones of Blue Bayou wash over me, and I’m looking at Waddy Wachtel play guitar in an ugly tank top… And then it happens…   BAM!  It was as if we hit something in the air because the plane jolted upwards with a loud thud before dropping several thousand feet in freefall. Dinner trays went flying everywhere.  Bags and coats and all manner of things came flying out of the overhead bins.  All the while, Waddy is playing the opening bars to When Will I Be Loved? Passengers standing in the aisles were thrown off their feet, and horrifically loud screams filled the cabin.  I’ll never forget the sound of those screams, but somehow I also remember hearing the line, I’ve been cheated, been mistreated...  There was no question in my mind at the time but that we were gonna crash and die.  And the whole time this is happening, Waddy’s up there, projected on the screen, playing his guitar, with his long hair flying everywhere…  When the plane finally stabilized, the cracker pilot – they’re always crackers, aren’t they? – got on the intercom, and in those soothing ‘cool under fire’ tones, attempted to calm everybody down. Nothing to worry about, he said, it was just an unforeseen patch of turbulence. I’d never been afraid of flying up to that point, but I’ve been terrified ever since.  And my sister is even worse than I am.  She takes some kind of elephant tranquilizer before she gets on a plane now, stuff that’ll make you sleep through a nuclear war.

What’s funny is that anytime I hear a record that features Waddy Wachtel on guitar, I think of the time I was almost in a plane crash (at least it felt that way to me).  But someone with his track record deserves better than this, so I should also mention that he plays on Warren Zevon’s Desperadoes Under the Eaves, which is one of the greatest songs about LA ever written.  The last moments of the song still give me chills after having listened to it at least a thousand times.  As a cast featuring Jackson Browne, Carl Wilson and J.D. Souther sing the refrain, Look away, down Gower Avenue, Waddy’s guitar cries out so beautifully. And yet his perfectly exquisite tones are just barely audible as the song fades like the sun in its final glowing moments before disappearing into the Pacific...

          

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

billy squier


Billy Squier had a handful of catchy guitar-driven tunes in the early 80s.  What makes him interesting to me is how illustrative he is of the moment when FM rock radio began to decline sharply.  Squier is a lot like Tom Petty in many respects. You can think of him as Petty’s ugly little brother, cruder and harder, but equally backward looking.  The transitional tensions of the era are embedded in Squier’s music, which features plenty of crunchy guitar, but plenty of synth as well. His approach to making music was always anachronistic, a continuation of the 70s arena rock tradition along the lines of Boston, Areosmith, Foreigner, Queen…  At the same time, Squier was not completely immune to more contemporary crosscurrents. The slightly haughty pose he adopted as a performer, for instance, created an image that flirted a bit with punk.  But he was initially (and fatally, as it turns out) marketed to the meatheaded hescher crowd, guys like the freaks in Freaks and Geeks, who wanted their music to remain stuck in the traditional 70s mode of rocking out, and who resisted the more intellectually challenging atmosphere created by punk and New Wave. The fundamental – and intractable - problem for Squier was that his demographic was disappearing, and its disappearance pushed the corporate rock radio model into a protracted death spiral. The emergence of MTV only served to accelerate the decline. I can remember seeing Squier on MTV a lot in 9th grade, and he was unquestionably out of place amidst A Flock of Seagulls, Haircut 100, Thompson Twins, Culture Club… But what gave Squier at least a fighting chance was his ability to craft catchy hooks.  If you came of age during the early Reagan era and now, more than 30 years later, someone sings you a few lines from In the Dark, Everybody Wants You, or Lonely is the Night, chances are you’ll say something like, ‘Hey, that’s Billy Squier, right?  He had some good songs!’  Yes he did, and this gave the record executives the idea that they could re-fashion Squier’s image and turn him into a different kind of commodity. The new packaging was notoriously disastrous, even if the music was still quite catchy. The problem was pretty simple, or at least it seems so in retrospect: No meathead would ever wanna watch Billy Squier flit around in a pink tank top like some nancy boy on the set of Flashdance, and those with more effete and sophisticated tastes would never be convinced that Billy Squier was anything other than music for meatheads. I believe this is what’s known as a a Catch-22… I feel bad for Billy Squier. He was caught at the wrong end of a transitional period, a talented guy for sure, but also the wrong guy at the wrong time.  It’s too bad because he had a knack for songs that echo inside your brain for a long time…




Monday, March 18, 2013

eric clapton and duane allman

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is not even close to being a perfect record.  A double-album is, by definition, imperfect in my world, but Layla is especially egregious in this respect, overstuffed as it is with wanking boogie jams and boring blues covers.  And yet, the album has a vibe that makes its best music unforgettable. Clapton’s playing has never been as impassioned, and I think there are several reasons for this.  The presence of Duane Allman, for starters, undoubtedly created a friendly but intense rivalry in the studio. Regardless of his fondness for Borther Duane, Clapton would not want to be upstaged. As a result, songs like Keep on Growing, Anyday, and Why Does Love Got to be So Sad? crackle with frenetic intensity as the dueling guitars dance intricate little circles around one another. The other players on the record are also perfectly complementary, especially Bobby Whitlock with his soulful vocals and Jim Gordon, the longtime studio veteran, on drums.   …It’s fun, too, to think about how druggy and debauched the scene must’ve been at Criteria Studios in Miami. The good stuff on Layla is arguably the best stuff Clapton’s ever done, and it’s also the last worthwhile thing he was involved in. The scene at Criteria surely constituted a kind of Faustian pact, i.e. make music for the ages now on the condition that the experience will leave you completely tapped out for the rest of your creative life…

But all of this is secondary to the main driver of the music on Layla, Clapton’s romantic obsession with his best friend’s wife, Pattie Boyd Harrison.  Layla is a testament to what love can do to you if you’re not careful.  There are a handful of guitar breaks on the record – especially on I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, and the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing – where the passion and yearning seem to ooze from every bendy note. It’s almost painful to in a way because we’re hearing someone’s suffering, beautiful as it might be.  The great ones sublimate in a way most of us can’t grasp...

…I had Layla when I was a kid and liked it ok, but I only began to relate to it on an emotional level during the summer after my sophomore year in college.  I got a job working in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine in New York. Over the course of my three months there, I became insanely fixated on one of the magazine’s copy editors.  She was so cute with her short blonde hair, and unlike a lot of the others at the magazine who looked down their noses at the lowly mailroom workers, she was actually nice to me.  I thought about her all the time, and I’d go out of my way to pick up mail at her desk and drop off deliveries, the silly things some us do when we have crushes…  One day after work, a whole bunch of us – editors, clerks, writers, publicists – went to Central Park to hang out.  The magazine’s offices were right across the street at 58th and 5th. 

We walked to the Great Lawn in the steamy heat of the New York summer. I was young and had no responsibilities, really, other than showing up for my unskilled mailroom job every day.  There were always a lot of drugs circulating at the magazine.  I’d smoke a joint with my co-workers in the morning, then supercharge at lunch, and maybe re-charge again at around 3 o’clock. I avoided the cocaine that was so readily available because I feared that I’d snort it and then have a heart attack and die, like Len Bias. But I  took mushrooms fairly regularly that summer and loved how trippy they were… At the Great Lawn we all sat on a rock near the south west corner of the expanse. I don’t think they’d refurbished the lawn yet because I remember it being very dusty.  A joint came my way and I took a hit, and then another hit, and another, and another…  I soon discovered that the pot was speedy and made me feel uncomfortably self-conscious.  Somebody asked me a question and I couldn’t answer, not because the question baffled me but rather because my mouth had somehow been cemented shut.  I started to freak out.   What if I had had some kind of stroke, or some sort of weird brain damage, and I’d never be able to speak again?  My mind raced in a gazillion different directions, none of them soothing.  But I managed to keep it together enough to at least sit there and not make a fool out of myself… Just as I began to calm down, I looked out into the distance and saw two people coming towards us.  When they came into focus, I realized it was the cute copy editor and one of the writers at the magazine, a real arrogant prick who was always mean to me for no reason.  The two of them were holding hands.  All the blood rushed to my face in a hot wave of dread and grief. When they sat down on the rock with us, she practically sat in that motherfucker’s lap, and it wasn’t long before the two of them started sucking face, an obnoxiously in-your-face PDA.  “Get a room!” somebody joked.  I always remember hearing those words for some reason: Get a room.  Jokes can sting even if you’re not the target of them.  It still hurts me when I remember it now.  I’ve never felt so low in my life. I’d been thinking I’d ask this girl out on a date.  Now I realized what a deluded fool I’d been.  She’d only been nice to me because she was a nice person who stood out from all the not-nice people I had to deal with on a daily basis in my role as a piss boy…
That night, I got home at around midnight.  Somewhere along the way, my motor skills returned and I could speak again.  I went to my room, closed the door behind me, and looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like what I saw.  And then I looked at my collection of cassette tapes. Music has always been there to pick me up when I’m down.  I’d just recently read an article in Rolling Stone about Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.  The magazine had named it one of the 100 best albums of the last 20 years. I rewound the tape to the beginning, and listened through a set of headphones. She took my hand…  The music spoke to me on a profound level.  Rarely in my life has heartache felt so good and so right.  The copy editor belonged to somebody else now.  But in that moment, Eric Clapton felt like my big brother... He understood me, I felt, which was a pretty nice consolation prize...


Friday, March 15, 2013

duane allman


I dig the idea of non-racist rednecks. Rock redneckery, as it were, consists of two poles, the light and the dark, and the juxtaposition of these poles has very little to do with the quality of the music. It’s a contrast of worldviews. Skynard, for instance, may have taken exception to Southern Man, and maybe they were overly enthusiastic in flying the Confederate Stars ‘n Bars, but they weren’t racists.  There’s a genuine humanitarian and compassionate strain in what they have to say. And the Allman Brothers – especially Duane, Gregg, and Dickey Betts - were redneck hippies playing in a racially integrated band. What this means, among many things, is that they were hippies without having the pretension and self-importance that afflicted so many of their northern and western countercultural counterparts. And what could be better than that?  Duane Allman was especially appealing as an unassuming and gentlemanly hippie.  The other side of the rock redneck spectrum is reserved for the likes of ZZ Top and, most vile of all, the nooge.  I’ve never liked the nooge much anyway, so it ain’t no big thang, but ZZ Top have their share of blisteringly  rockin’ moments, which is too bad in a way because it’s hard for me to get past their love affair with George W. Bush...  …When I need a dose of benignly redneck-ish rock, I’m most likely to reach for the Allman Brothers.  Duane was a phenomenal guitarist, and Blue Sky – recorded before but released after Duane’s fatal motorcycle crash – is the Allmans at the height of their guitar-spangled excellence.  The song never fails to energize me, but it also has a somber dimension because it's a final bit of brilliance from a gentle and supremely talented soul who was taken from us at the tender age of 24.  We can’t know what Duane Allman would’ve done had he lived a full life, but the majestic sparkle of Blue Sky surely gives us some clues…



Thursday, March 14, 2013

eric clapton

With Eric Clapton, we’re talking about a staggeringly talented guitarist who in the end turns out to have staggeringly bad taste. But it hasn’t always been this way for the man whose name used to be reverentially written on subway walls.  Clapton’s abiding love and feel for blues guitar were big parts of the initial Yardbirds sound.  But I don’t really like much of that super-bluesy early Yardbirds stuff. It’s an entirely subjective thing, but for me the Yardbirds only became great when they embraced pop and fused pop song structures with the blues.  And by the time they became more poppy, Clapton had had enough and went his own way, eventually forming Cream...


The mythology of Cream as the first great Supergroup is in many ways more imposing than the quality of the output. Fresh Cream, a record I admittedly played to death in my hescher salad days, is very much in the heavy blues vein, if you like that sort of thing. Next came Disraeli Gears, much of which is fantastic, though it’s interesting to me that Dance the Night Away is both my favorite song on the album and also its least Cream-ish sounding number, having much more in common with the Beatles, Byrds, and Hollies than it does with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers…  Then we get Wheels of Fire, a bloated mishmash of excessively heavy indulgence.  As an aside, I’ll take either one of Jack Bruce’s post-Cream masterpieces, Songs for a Tailor and Harmony Row, over just about any Cream record…

When I was a kid, the first Cream album I had, ironically, was Goodbye Cream, a terrible record except for Badge, easily one of the best songs released under the Cream moniker. Badge constitutes the apex of Clapton’s finest period of creativity, spanning from Disraeli Gears, released in late 1967, through his ghost guitar playing on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, his inspired flourishes on the Blind Faith record, Let it Rain on his otherwise ho hum first solo album (mid 1970), and, finally, Derek and the Dominoes, which came out in late 1970 and is an album/project worthy of its own dedicated discussion…All told, then, we’re talking about four years of great stuff. It’s more than most of us could ever hope to achieve, of course, but then again we’re talking about someone with off-the-charts talent.  When you take his raw abilities into account, listening to the rest of Clapton’s body of work, basically 1971 onwards, is dispiriting to say the least.  How could somebody with so much ability produce so much material ranging from blandness to schlock? Part of it is undoubtedly the result of Clapton having fought alcoholism and drug addiction for so long.  Some artists can use these demons to fuel creative fire. Clapton was apparently able to do this for Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, reportedly recorded while he was not only in love with George Harrison’s wife but also in the throes of bad heroin addiction. But what happens with most artist-addicts is that they eventually just start phoning it in.  Much of Clapton’s mid 70s stuff is just corporate rock with technically perfect but completely uninspired guitar playing. Even Slowhand, viewed at as something of a return to form when it came out in 1977, is pretty unspectacular…


So ok, we can give the guy a little leeway.  A lot of people didn’t know what to do with themselves in the aftermath of the 60s.  Perhaps Clapton was no different.  But then in the 80s, he goes from blandness to being a corporate whore.  It was truly depressing to see him morph into an Adult Contemporary type of guy, doing beer commercials, wearing those huge, tasteless suits, coiffed like a character out of Miami Vice, and, most of all, just making horrible music, culminating with Tears in Heaven. I know it’s harsh to say this about a song that was inspired by the death of his young son, but it’s hard to believe that the guy performing Tears in Heaven is the same guy playing guitar here.
When you get down to it, it’s really a matter of a guy with very bad taste, or maybe a guy who couldn’t find a way to expand outward from his creative peak and basically had to reinvent himself as something much tamer and less interesting. The Eric Clapton of the 80s and 90s is a completely different guy from the one who did such amazing things in the late 60s.  It goes without saying that he’s not alone in having changed the way he changed, but of all the rock guys who eventually sold every ounce of their souls to Rock ‘n Roll, Inc., Clapton is the one who is the most gifted with raw talent.  And this is what makes his transformation so infuriating…
On those rare occasions when my thoughts turn to Clapton anymore, I focus almost exclusively on that short window of time when he was one of the greats.  My favorite section of Badge has always been the Leslie-toned guitar break, which I’m guessing is actually George Harrison playing, since he plays on the song and was so fond of the sound created by a Leslie cabinet.  The whole song is great and still stands up. But when I hear it now, it reminds me that when a guy flies as high as Clapton flew, it often means that he just has so much farther to fall… 

   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

steve cropper

I’m sure there have been many articles, books and even Ph.D. dissertations written on this subject, but it’s pretty cool that Stax Records, located deep in the heart of Memphis, was a fully integrated record label in the mid 60s.  When I say integrated, I don’t simply mean that Stax had white and black artists on its roster of talent, but rather that the label had an in-house group of session players – AKA Booker T. and the MGs – featuring both white and black musicians, who played together, and did so in the South, in the 60s. I think that’s pretty damn heroic, don’t you?  I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them. When, for example, they went out on the road as the backing band behind Otis Redding, I bet they went into certain towns where the locals didn’t take too kindly to having them all on the same stage together, and where they couldn’t all stay in the same hotels or eat in the same diners. In the clip I’ve posted today, we see them performing in Los Angeles, and in 1965, the year of the Watts Riots. I find it very inspiring and courageous. And amidst all of the social volatility and daring, we’re also talking about one of the greatest, tightest rock ‘n roll bands of all time. Steve Cropper is one of my all-time favorite guitar heroes.  I love the way his Tellie slashes, and lashes, and gets down and nasty, but not without singing so gorgeously.  And I love the way he conducts himself, the very embodiment of dignified professionalism. Southern gentility may be a flower of evil in historical terms, but perhaps it shouldn’t be entirely poo pooed.  I’m a sucker for people with good manners, who do things the right way. Steve Cropper is just such a person. He walked softly but carried a stick big enough to breakdown daunting barriers



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

nick drake

Nick Drake may be as English as Marmite, but I'll always associate his music with the sense of infinite openness and possibility I felt when I first moved to Los Angeles more than 20 years ago. I was a different guy then than I am now, but Drake’s music still has the same effect on me today, even if it’s more muted after having listened to it so carefully for so long…


I’m a bit of a latecomer when it comes to Nick Drake. I didn’t really become aware of him until I lived in England for a short while.  By then, he’d already become something of a cult figure, though somehow I’d never picked him up on my radar.  At first I wasn’t convinced. I got myself a copy of Five Leaves Left, which sounded to me like run-of-the-mill pastoral English folk, very much in the same vein as Bert Jansch and Pentangle, music I appreciate but don’t really connect with on an emotional level.  But even before I became a Drake obsessive, I recognized how amazing he was as a finger-style guitarist. If nothing else, the guy’s playing made my jaw drop…  After I moved to LA, a friend of mine recorded Bryter Layter on a scratchy TDK cassette tape for me, and I played it in my ’92 Saturn all the time as I was becoming familiar with the Southland’s endlessly vast urban/suburban/exurban topography.  From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, as the late Jerry Dunphy used to say…  I can’t quite put my finger on how it happened, but from the moment I got off the airplane and into my rental car at LAX, and then drove onto the freeway for the first time, my feeling was, I’m home…this is home…this is good.  A big part of it, I think, was the sheer size of the place, the way it swallows you up and makes you anonymous, a mere speck of dust floating in the dry air amidst the swaying palms.  This is actually what a lot of people don’t like about LA, but they tend to be folks who need to feel more connected than I do.  Los Angeles living is good if you like feeling disconnected, but not so much if you need lots of friends and can’t stand being by yourself. The place lends itself to existential anomie, which has a negative connotation in the sociological sense of the term (‘normlessness’), but can be more neutral if you think of it in the more generic sense of being an island unto yourself…  

And while I’ve grown to adore the whole of Nick Drake’s body of work, Bryter Layter is the record that’s closest to my heart and speaks most directly to the way I live here in LA.  Part of this is that it’s the music I listened to constantly during a particularly formative and tender period of my life, but I think my connection to it runs deeper, transcending time if not place. Of Drake’s three fully-realized albums, Bryter Layter is the one that has the most urban-ish feel. I’ve described it to anyone who’ll listen as a record about life and loneliness in the big city.  It’s not just the content of tunes like At the Chime of a City Clock and Hazey Jane II, but also the generally expansive vibe the album gives off with its string arrangements and baroque textures. It’s a record that only makes sense in a bustling cosmopolitan setting. One listens to it and visualizes a heroic nomad wandering the city streets at night, alone in his thoughts and self-imposed isolation. I listen to Bryter Layter now and remember that great period of awakening in my life when everything about LA was still new to me, all of it bombarding my senses unrelentingly.  And I wanted more, more and more. I couldn’t get enough of this city and its strangeness…  An infinite number mysteries and hidden treasures still remain out there today, waiting to be uncovered.  I doubt they can ever be fully exhausted, though my appetite for discovery is not what it once was. One’s enthusiasm for adventure and new experiences fades somewhat with age.  But after all these years, Bryter Layter still makes me wanna get in my car and drive up and down those long boulevards that were once bursting with so much hope and promise…


Monday, March 11, 2013

john martyn

I put John Martyn in the same group with Nick Drake and Richard Thompson.  All three are English foklies from more or less the same generation.  Thompson veered much more into rock than the other two, but they all begin from the same general point of departure.  As was often the case with folkies who lived and worked through the transition from the 60s to the 70s – Joni Mitchell probably being the most well-known example – Martyn eventually began to flirt with horribly pretentious jazzbo-ish fare, featuring fretless bass players and twee time signatures.  But for a stretch of about eight years, from the stripped down troubadour stylings of London Conversation (1967), to the last gasps of brilliance on Sunday’s Child (1975), Martyn made folk music matched by almost nobody in emotional intensity.  Sometimes his stuff’s too much for me, not in the sense of it being unpleasant, more just the depth of his longing and the way contentment, romantic and otherwise, seemed to continually elude him.  In the end, though, his amazing melodies make everything all better. And there’s also the matter of his guitar playing, which, at least in his good period, is staggeringly complex and intricate without ever falling into the trap of technique as an end in itself.  The man made some of the most gorgeous folk music I’ve ever heard, and sometimes it’s ok to have your heart broken a little bit if the experience puts you in touch with the sublime…



buck dharma

Blue Oyster Cult made music for pimply, burnt-out heschers from Long Oyland.  And this should be taken as high praise… For about a year and a half between the end of 1979 and the middle of 1981, sixth and seventh grade for me, I went to quite a few arena rock shows with my older brother, my aunt, and sometimes even my mom. I saw BOC at Nassau Coliseum, I think around the spring of 1980, and it was by far the freakiest of all the shows I went to.  My brother Billy took me.  We drove out there in my parents’ Chrysler Lebaron wagon, featuring fake wood paneling on the doors and an eight-track tape player in the dash.  I loved the BOC live album (and still do), but it doesn’t even begin to capture the pervading disquietude of the whole scene as soon as we got out of the car.  Lots of screaming and glass breaking is what I remember specifically. I also recall how scared I became when the guy in front of me on our way through the turnstile was frisked by cops and had the knife hidden in his boot confiscated.  But I had my bro to protect me, god bless him…  As we wandered from the rotunda into the main arena, we collided suddenly with an invisible wall of heavy pot smoke.  The place was consumed with the stuff.  This was in the days when drugging could be done much more out in the open.  The dudes sitting in front of us snorted something called Rush, which I recognized from the glass-enclosed counter at my local record shop, and they did what I later found out were whippets, all of it done seemingly with no fear of reprisal.  Reagan wasn’t president yet.  This was only a decade removed from the 60s.  The same behavior today would practically get you detained indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay…  As unsettling as all of this druggy teen rebellion was for me, I also found it exhilarating.  I felt like I was a part of some sort of secret and exclusive club.  I was not viewed as a cool kid in my school, more just a weirdo loner, but being amongst all this forbidden activity made me feel included in something, even if I wasn’t really an active participant.  I’d taken a few puffs of pot at summer camp and felt like the experience gave me credibility.   As confused and unhappy as I may have been during that phase of my life, I look back on my relationship to music and its youthful subcultures with great fondness… When the lights went down, the place erupted in what felt to me like an all-out rampage.  Kids shot bottle rockets across the coliseum and the smell of weed intensified.  BOC are definitely a band that live up to the dark and sinister image of their following.  The music is fucking nasty, stuff that appeals to one’s inner death-obsessed speed freak.  By the time I saw them that night, their best days were behind them.  But the first four studio albums, and especially the live, On Your Feet or on Your Knees,  are all excellently menacing, moving from heavy progressive rock in the early days to more metallic stuff later on.  And while the music has an undeniable drugginess to it, it’s also quite literate and intelligent.  It appeals to the hescher but also to the dorky guy with his nose in The Monster Manual.  I straddled those poles, a little bit geek, a little bit freak, but not really fully at home in either camp, a man without a country, then as now.  So BOC spoke to me on numerous (sometimes contradictory) levels.  ...Buck Dharma was the perfect rock antihero for guys like me.  He never looked at all like a guitar god, but then he’d lean back and play the most stunningly crunchy riffs on his rad white Gibson SG, and you’d do a double take.  Who is this vaguely chubby guy with the feathered hair parted in the middle, who looks more like a cross between Danny Terrio and a dude who works at H&R Block, than a mysteriously dark rock star?  And how does he coax such an unholy sound from that guitar?  It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, and it gives voice to a truly lost generation.  …BOC apparently wanted to be America’s answer to Black Sabbath. But they’re actually so much better than that. I don’t have a whole ‘lotta time for progressive metal these days, but BOC are an exception.  The music still has a freaky-nasty vibe, still rocks with a vengeance, and still gets the imagination running wild through dark mirrored hallways. And if you pay really close attention, you can practically still hear the windows breaking in the parking lot and smell the skunky smoke in the air…


Sunday, March 10, 2013

wayne kramer and fred sonic smith

Looking at You sounds to me like the prototype for City Slang. It’s also the ultimate blueprint for how to do hard rocking guitar music. There’s a good chance you’ll spontaneously combust if you listen to this one cranked up high on a set of cans, but the sharp burn you feel as the flames lick up your leg will be such sweet pain. Sonic Smith and Brother Wayne Kramer bring out each other’s incendiary primitivism. This has always been the most attractive aspect of the MC5 for me. The fusion of their primal energy and, in this instance, the way they pack so much all-out devastation into three furious minutes of rock ecstasy, is extremely rare in music.  You start thinking about wanting to hear the song again before it’s even fully faded out. But with so much concentrated voltage unleashed so quickly, I fear some of you may not possess the circuitry required to take in a second helping, at least not right away.  Ready yourself is all I’m sayin’…


Thursday, March 7, 2013

fred sonic smith

Tonight we bring you the marvelous City Slang, in which everything that there is to worship and adore about the late Fred Sonic Smith is congealed into one devastatingly direct blast of insurrectionary punk rock aggression.  If you dig the Stooges, Mick Ronson, Johnny Thunders, the Dead Boys, and Smith’s own MC5, then City Slang should be taken with a needle in the most easily-accessible vein in your arm.  For all their crunchy aural violence, the guitars are actually deceptively melodic, making for a tune that’s catchy as hell. The Motor City may be burning, but I'll be damned if the flames billowing out the window of that abandoned Ford plant aren't the most beautiful thing I've ever seen... I grew up listening to the MC5 but didn’t discover City Slang until quite a bit later in life, which is probably just as well as there’s no telling what I might’ve done had I encountered the song when I was 16 and had a perpetual boner popping out my jeans.  I've always admired the way Smith fully recognized the cathartic power of rock ‘n roll.  While Ronson is the undisputed King of Trash Guitar, Smith is a worthy contender to the throne. The two of them play in a way that’s ugly-sexy, if you will, like that girl who’s a little bit piggy, and a little bit mean and bitchy, but carries herself in a way that lets you know she’s a fucking freak between the sheets (though it goes without saying that you'll never find out). I recommend City Slang especially for those times when you’re feeling depressed, beaten down, defeated, frustrated, unappreciated…  Crank it up and enjoy the sensation of having all the toxic badness cleansed from your body, mind and soul. But also make sure there are no breakable objects or loved ones within your reach…



Wednesday, March 6, 2013

jack lee


There’s a warm place in my heart for artists who arrive on the scene, seemingly from out of the ether, and then disappear just as quickly, but not before making an enduring statement. I’m not necessarily talking about One Hit Wonders. A hit record may or may not make a lasting impression, and an artist who makes a lasting impression may or may not have a hit with it. This gets us into dull semantics. My point here is not to make a Venn diagram but rather to say that I have a special appreciation for those who do something good and then they’re gone, and that’s it for them.  So much of my favorite music falls into this category probably because I’m a pop guy at heart, and pop lends itself to ephemerality (is this a word?), if not disposability. Jack Lee is a great example.  The Nerves made a brief appearance in the loosely-defined (pre-punk) LA pop scene of the mid 70s, and then they vanished. The band gained little if any commercial footing, yet those who heard their music became devotees, if not to the band then certainly to their brand of stripped-down guitar pop, a breath of fresh air amidst an otherwise increasingly fetid atmosphere dominated by lumbering corporate rock (said he who just got through singing the praises of UFO, Scorpions, and Boston!). And almost 40 years later, the Nerves enjoy a cult following that’s probably 500 times larger than what they had when they were a going concern. Paul Collins and Peter Case each went on to slightly bigger things after the Nerves, while Lee more or less faded into obscurity. Among those who are at all familiar with Lee, he’s best remembered as the guy who penned Hanging On the Telephone, which was initially performed by the Nerves, and later became a chart topper for Blondie as one of the singles off of the smash record, Parallel Lines.  …My favorite Jack Lee song is When You Find Out. It clocks in breezily at less than two minutes, a case study in pop economy and directness. There’s nothing spectacular about the guitar playing, but this is precisely what makes the song so great. The chord changes are minimalistic, tight and clean, just the way I like it. You don’t have to be a wanky shredder or a modal nerd to make a bold statement with the guitar. Uncomplicated song structures with great melodic hooks are all you need. It’s so simple, yet so few people pull it off, and those who do often go unappreciated.  Jack Lee figured it out.  He said what he had to say in music, and then he went away. I really admire that.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

tom scholz


It doesn’t get more corporate than Boston, but they make it work with great tunes and an appeal to our basest instincts.  When I think about Boston, it occurs to me that they take all the things we’re supposed to hate in rock and turn them into positives.  It’s a neat trick, one that’s either very difficult to pull off, or one that nobody else has bothered to try (except maybe BTO) because it’s so simple and hides in plain sight. Much of Boston’s music sounds like a car commercial, but the car being advertised is a low-to-the-ground Camaro with a 400 HP Hemi under the hood, and quite possibly a pair of discarded panties in the glove box.  Yes, Boston is Arena Rock. So what?  “Arena Rock” in this case simply means that the sound is huge enough to leave you feeling like you got your fill of ROCK.  And it ain’t like Chinese food. You won’t be hungry again in 20 minutes. It’s more like a Big Mac. You might feel a little too sated afterwards, maybe even a bit sick, but it’s a small price to pay for stuff that sounds this good… Boston is the brainchild of Tom Scholz, whose hyper-processed guitar sound is unmistakable. You hear a few notes and you know who it is right away.  Again, it’s one of those things where, by some kind go sleight of hand, what’s usually bad becomes great. Normally, guitars that are so supped-up and filtered through tons of effects alienate the listener (or at least this listener) because the human element is obliterated by technology, which can be a bummer.  Give me natural distortion over effects any day of the week. But Scholz has a magic touch that's hard to pin down. It might simply be that, in spite of it all, he has an amazing ear for hooky melodies.  I’m not sure what it is, really, but his guitar playing sounds so lovely in its ugliness. Plus, he has a penchant for 12-string guitars, and this will always be the quickest way to win me over.   ...Very few players have the ability to make walls of processed distortion sound so pleasing.  It’s not the hippest music in the world.  It never was, not even in its heyday.  The target audience has always been white suburban heschers. But I guess there’s a little bit of that demographic in a lot of us because even at my snootiest, I’ve never been able to resist Boston’s charms…


   

Monday, March 4, 2013

michael schenker



Long ago, several lifetimes in the past, my mom would take me with her to a grocery store in Pawling, New York, where my family owned a weekend getaway home.  Going to the store with her was one of the few times when I got to see what life was like on the other side of the tracks. I remember mothers smacking their children’s faces when the kids talked back, and I recall asking my mother what Food Stamps were and why we were the only ones in the store not paying for our stuff with them. This was a million miles away from my life on Park Avenue, where domestic servants seemed to be hiding in every closet and bathroom, the kind of lifestyle where you have a maid, but you also have a woman who comes in a few times a week to do a deeper cleaning. Whenever I think about this stuff now, it reminds me how downwardly mobile I've been. If, as Engels wrote, the purpose of the family is to reproduce class relations, then our family was a miserable failure.  But I don’t really wanna talk about Engels and class reproduction.  That, too, is a remnant from a life I once lived.  I’d rather talk about UFO… One thing I remember clearly about this Dickensian grocery store I would go to with my mom on the weekends is that they sold LPs.  Weird, right?  Government cheese, Ajax, and Led Zeppelin III, all for sale under one roof...


The LPs were kept in a bin near the cash registers, and I would look at them while my mom shopped. One record the store always had in stock was UFO’s Lights Out.  Not to dwell on the topic, but in retrospect I can say that their having this particular album was another marker of their main demographic. UFO makes music that’s nothing if not blue collar.  But this class character is not the same kind of working class vibe you get with Springsteen or even Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, where there’s a certain amount of poetry and aesthetic refinement introduced into the music, which often is indicative of a gap between the singer and the world he describes in his songs.  UFO is the real fucking deal, scar-faced lads from Birmingham, and (in their heyday) one equally trashy guitar playing ubermensch from Germany.  I may be making this up in my head, but UFO’s music sounds like it could only be made by guys who know what it’s like to live amidst burned-out steel mills, who know what it’s like to stand in long dole queues…


Along with records like Foghat Live, Deep Purple’s Made In Japan, and Angel’s On Earth As it is In Heaven, Lights Out was a record I always looked at and wanted when I was at that grocery store, though I never dared ask my mom to buy it for me.  But a little while later, I bought Lights Out at a store on Third Avenue called Music Maze. Like many small record shops in those days, Music Maze also sold bongs, pornos (on actual film reels), incense, and Alice Cooper belt buckles.  I got Lights Out on the strength of its cover art alone. As it turns out, it’s ok every now and again to judge a book by its cover because I loved what I heard right away. The music was so hard rocking, and nasty, and of a forbidden world, the world of  teenagers on pot, which at 10 or 11 is what I aspired to be when I grew up. And the nice thing is that a lot of UFO’s music (not all of it, but quite a bit) still stands up.  It’s unabashedly music made for arenas, or soccer stadiums filled with rabid hooligans who wanna hear some heavy duty rock and then go flip over cars and set buildings on fire.  When you’re a young lad, and you exist in a narrowly defined and somewhat staid environment, you hear a band like UFO and the hard hitting aggressiveness is exactly what you want and need.  It's like a lightning bolt across the night sky...

There’s a lot of things I really like about UFO, but I think the biggest is Michael Schenker’s shreditude.  Shreddiness, in and of itself, is no longer something I value much in guitarists.  Shredding for its own sake bores me, which is why I’m only into metal in controlled doses.  Perhaps I have only one ball or something, but playing lightning-fast sweeps without bringing any other aesthetic considerations to the table usually makes a guy sound (a) overly clinical (i.e. lifeless), and/or (b) like he works in the stock room at Guitar Center.  But sometimes shredding adds an element of frenetic excitement, particularly if it’s approached in a way that’s highly musical.  The thing about so much of the metallic shredding you hear is that it’s not really very musical sounding at all.  It’s just a guy with decent manual dexterity, and a two-inch cock, who can play really fast. BFD. I’ll take the lumbering creakiness of Neil Young over Randy Rhodes or Kirk Hammett any day of the week.  And yet, there are a few guys who shred tastefully – aesthetically pleasing shredders, let’s call them – the best example being Michael Schenker.  I can’t really put my finger exactly on what makes Schenker different other than to say that some remarkably melodic and even intricate ideas lurk beneath the high-octane intensity of his particular brand of shred.  Intricacy is, of course, not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of UFO and Scorpions.  But what makes both bands so good is that, even as the songs drip with testosterone and bravado, the underlying tunes are surprisingly catchy. I give Schenker a lot of credit for this, especially in the case of UFO.  His feel for tight song structures comes across not only in his soloing but even more so in his super-crunchy accompaniment.  He also gets amazing tone from his Flying V, a kind of tuneful distortion that would work in any high-energy musical context…


So my advice to the uninitiated is to go out and get your hands on some UFO.  If you like your music hard, tough and loud, and if you wanna hear some shredding that actually sounds like music, these guys are just the thing.