Chuck Berry, music critic
I just love this: Chuck Berry reviews classic punk records. (Click image for a closer view.) I particularly like his take on "I Am the Fly" and "Unknown Pleasures" ("Sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago.") and his open job offer to Dave Edmunds. Not to mention the self-referential tone of many of his comments.
Wolf in White Van
Yes, another John Darnielle post...Darnielle's lyrics have always been very literary, and several years ago he published his first work of fiction, a novella for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (which I have not yet read, but intend to grab the first time I see it in person). Now he's about to further solidify his writer credentials with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which is coming out in October. Really, really looking forward to this.
"I mistrust words, but I say the Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years; the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years; the Information Revolution is taking only decades. If we use it, and use the brains God gave us, we may be able to pull this world together before the weapons (which foolish scientists have made possible) put an end to the human race."
- Pete Seeger (more Seeger postcards here)
"Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?"
Sorry to be a pest about the Mountain Goats again, so soon, but I just came across this quietly devastating song, "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?"; although the song appeared on the album The Sunset Tree, this version was recorded in 2004 for a John Peel radio session. I've mentioned here before how literary John Darnielle's lyrics are. To me, this song is a tiny little novel, all in itself. Just listen to the words and I think you'll agree.
"Minnesota"As I've mentioned here many times before, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite songwriters. His lyrics are sharp, vivid and truly poetic, and when performed solo on acoustic guitar his songs are particularly evocative and moving. Here is his song "Minnesota" (recorded in 2000 on WFMU).
Seeds came in the mail today from Holland
And the language on the package is wonderful and strange
All sorts of flowers that grow upon the earth
Goodly colored, gloriously arranged
I circled the house and I scattered them around
I let the water sink down into the soil
Stared a long time at the residue
Blood, milk and oil
My god, the humidity is something else again
Our shirts are soaked clean through
The house is throbbing and the heat keeps coming
And I keep looking at you
And you're singing in Dutch to me
I recognize the song
It seems so old, so fragile
And I haven't heard it so long
We may throw the windows open later
But we are not as far west as we suppose we are
Hot wind coming off the water
Sky gone crazy with stars
While we stay here we imagine we are alive
We see shadows on the wall
There's something waiting for us here in the hot, wet air
Sweat, water and alcohol
Just the old love, rising up through the wooden floor again
Just the old blood, asking for more again
"...his origins make themselves plain..."
Peter Guralnick, from Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians:
At sixty-three, Ernest Tubb is something like a mirror image of these fans. Although his hair is still dark and he continues to hold himself erect in his turquoise suit, white Stetson, and gleaming brown boots, the once-lean frame has filled out, and the bags under the eyes, wattles under the chin, and slow crinkling smile all give him the look of the plain hard-working men and women who come out to see him. It is almost as if, having cheated fate once when he escaped the bleak West Texas farmland on which he was raised, he has only met it in another guise on down the line, as his origins make themselves plain in the worn weathered features, the honest creased roadmap of his face.
I'm revisiting Lost Highway for the first time in at least twenty years. I first picked up the book specifically for its profiles of blues musicians (Howlin' Wolf, etc.) back when I was really into blues, though I had (and still have) little interest in country music. But Guralnick is such a marvelous writer that I even enjoy his profiles of country musicians immensely.
I absolutely love this cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by June Tabor and Oysterband, at the 2011 Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Tabor and John Jones are two of my favorite singers, and though I loved their 1990 collaboration Freedom and Rain, I hadn't heard from them in a long time. So nice to hear their voices together again. By the way, I was aware of the Joy Division original but had never heard it until just now, after I looked it up online. Though I don't think the original has aged terribly well - very dated, borderline-cheesy new wave - Tabor and Oysterband's rendition sounds timeless and beautiful.
(Via Steve Himmer.)
"We were scared, as we didn’t know what to do – I think some of our best music came from that."
I just came across an interesting 2008 interview with Paul Westerberg in the UK music magazine Uncut, which is presented as his commentary on most of the Replacements' albums and Westerberg solo albums. This is from his comments about Let It Be:
Writing songs like "Androgynous" and "Answering Machine" wasn’t difficult - I’d been tinkering with stuff like that early on. Presenting them to the group was. It was hard getting across the idea we should just put the best songs on the record, even if there wasn’t always a place for Bob to have a hot lead. Bob was the hard one to get to acquiesce. So the breakthrough LP ended up putting the chink in the armour of the idea of us as a four-piece rock band.
Bob Stinson's presence seems to hover over every one of Westerberg's responses. Clearly he hasn't gotten over Bob's death, and probably never will.
"I have the blues pretty badly as you can see, from this graph in back of meeee."
I'm greatly enjoying a revisit to Great Pop Things, the comics alternate-reality history of rock and roll written and illustrated by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (a/k/a Jon Langford of the Mekons), which appeared in alternative weeklies during the 1980s and 1990s. That panel above is from Morton and Death's reinterpretation of the early days of the Rolling Stones, and is a pretty solid example of the full collection. Of course the narrative veers wildly from actual history, but the satire still cuts deep as the authors gleefully puncture the pomposity and self-mythology of rockers again and again.
Lou ReedMy story collection Where the Marshland Came To Flower wouldn't exist without Lou Reed.
The genesis of the collection came to me on my morning train ride into work, sometime during 2007. As the Rock Island District train slowed for one of its stops on the far South Side, the canned intercom voiced intoned, "Next stop, Washington Heights." Though I had ridden that train and heard that announcement many times, that morning it immediately reminded me of Reed's song "Halloween Parade", and its offhand reference to "a crack team from Washington Heights." For years, though, I misheard "crack team" as "crack tune", which I assumed was some street name for a crack addict. (Tune as in Loony Tunes, or someone who's loony on crack.) It wasn't until I later checked the lyric sheet that I discovered my error, but by then I had already begun writing a story about a (presumed) crackhead on a late-evening train who disrupts a conversation between two suburb-bound businessmen.
As that story (which ultimately came to be called "Disappearing Into the Night") developed, I began to contemplate a bigger project: a collection of stories, each set in a different Chicago neighborhood and each inspired by the fourteen songs on New York, Reed's great 1989 album on which "Halloween Parade" appeared. Although my subject matter was entirely different from Reed's subjects (nary a transvestite or drug addict in sight), at first each of my stories included a specific line or two of Reed's lyrics. During subsequent editing I relaxed the use of explicit quotes, and instead merely paraphrased most of the inspiration lyrics. The one notable exception to this is the final story, "The Bells Will Ring For You", the title of which is a direct quote from "Dime Store Mystery", Reed's elegy to Andy Warhol that concludes New York. Besides that quote (the full line of which was "At the funeral tomorrow, at St. Patrick's, the bells will ring for you"), I also kept the Catholic church reference, though I translated the New York St. Patrick's to Old St. Pat's on Chicago's West Side, where my protagonist, the devout Ed Cullen, made daily confession for decades. Despite the removal of most of the explicit lyrical references, my Marshland stories are still very much responses to Reed's songs on New York - sometimes confirming his ideas, but sometimes refuting.
Beyond being the inspiration for my book, I'm grateful to Lou Reed simply for the decades of great music: bold, daring, compassionate, perceptive and brutally honest lyrics, delivered in his unmistakeable sing-speak voice and usually backed by that most basic of rock and roll instrumentation: two guitars, bass, drums. Though I deeply admire his work, I am far from a Reed completist - I own just three of his solo albums and one Velvet Underground album, and am only casually familiar with half a dozen others; the one upside to his passing is that it has driven me to seek out more of his work, and there's plenty there with him having been so productive for so long. But most of his music that I've experienced endlessly amazes me: New York, the angry portrait of his hometown; Magic and Loss, his ponderous reflections on dying and grief; Legendary Hearts, the unappreciated 1983 gem ("Betrayed" still gives me shivers, twenty years after I first heard it); The Velvet Underground and Nico, the audacious VU debut. Incomparable songs from scattered albums: "Sweet Jane, "Rock and Roll", "Turn to Me", "New Sensations", "Set the Twilight Reeling", "Caroline Says." And his 1996 concert at the Rosemont Theater remains one of the best I've ever seen.
For me, Lou Reed is a constant reminder to be fearless, original, non-complacent. To accept people for who they are instead of who you want them to be. To refuse to accept the status quo or anything less than the best from yourself. For those reminders, and that thrilling, thought-provoking and vital music, I will forever be indebted to him. Rest well, sir.
Quote"There's a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out." - Lou Reed
Wheatyard at Largehearted BoyBook Notes is a long-running series at Largehearted Boy in which writers discuss music's role in their books, either as part of the narrative or as a soundtrack to the writing process. Given my passion for both literature and music, and being a big fan of the blog, today I'm totally stoked by the appearance there of my piece on the music in Wheatyard, specifically R.E.M, Morrissey, fIREHOSE, the Feelies and Guided by Voices. Before I started writing the piece, I thought music was only incidental to the narrative, but the more I thought about it, the musical references really reflect the main characters' personalities and subtly but meaningfully impact the plot. Many thanks to David Gutowski for accepting and running this piece.
This week I was pleased to discover that my office building stands on the former site of the Chicago recording studio of pioneering jazz label Okeh Records, where Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five cut all of their sides. Alas, my building only dates to 1987, so Satchmo's spirit doesn't exactly stalk the halls. And I haven't been able to find a photo of the old building.
Boy's gotta have it.
What a fantastic bit of local ephemera: a tape box cover from Chicago's Universal Recording Studios, circa 1960. Music-related, vivid artwork, and a Bertrand Goldberg-designed building that still stands. What's not to love?
"Your 83 year old grandmother called..."
I don't know if this note is real or not, but if so, that is one awesome grandma. David Berman is the borderline-genius behind the Silver Jews.
Dougher on KNicely done: Sarah Dougher reviews Mark Baumgarten's Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. Dougher is a former K artist, so she brings more perspective and insight than most reviewers could. Seems the author might have dwelled a bit too much on Calvin Johnson and the earlier years of the label, at the expense of other K contributors and the label's last ten years, though the book does sound good overall.
Scruffy the Cat, Tiny DaysScruffy the Cat's Tiny Days, one of my favorite 1980s albums, is now (briefly?) available as a free download from a longtime fan. I assume the band is okay with this - the album has been out of print for ages - since one of its founders, Stona Fitch, is linking to that blog post from his Facebook page. Go grab this great album now, before the lawyers from the record label start sharpening their knives.
Once, there was greatness here.
The McClelland-Marx SummitTed McClelland insulted  1980s pop star Richard Marx online, which irritated Marx so much that the two eventually held a sort of summit meeting at a neighborhood tavern in Rogers Park. Here's McClelland's pre-summit assessment of Marx:
Richard Marx — author of the 1980s pre-prom ballad "Right Here Waiting," the 1980s prom ballad "Hold on to the Nights," and the 1980s post-prom ballad "Endless Summer Nights" — was not just far outside my musical tastes, I thought he was ear cancer. I was convinced Richard Marx was a poor man’s Kenny Loggins who had written "Hold on to the Nights" after consulting with a marketing team who told him the cassingle could be sold to 18-year-olds at tuxedo rental stores and dress shops.And his opinion of Marx didn't exactly change after meeting him. Funny piece, well worth your time.
 That is, Marx felt insulted. The comment wasn't an insult. Truth hurts, baby.
"I can't imagine any writer coming up with something that's pure character."As I've mentioned many times, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is one of my favorite songwriters. To me, his songs are narratives that truly qualify as literature - it just happens to be literature in 3-minute segments that is set to music. (Of course, he's also a published author.) Here he talks to Willamette Week about creating characters in his songs.
Any character that you come up with is equal parts yourself or people you know, for the most part. Characters are in a large part yourself as you imagine yourself in lived situations. I can't imagine any writer coming up with something that's pure character. I think that's the most interesting thing about writers of science fiction. They're dreaming up people that are not human at all. But I think when you write, you end up talking about yourself and other people you know no matter how hard you try not to.Though I shy away from fiction that is explicitly autobiographical, I also realize that most protagonists in fiction are based at least partly on the writer, and that only rarely is fiction purely fictional.
"It wasn’t like...'Oh, I’ll try to write a shitty power ballad to make some money.'"
This sounds great: I'm Now, a film documentary of the great but under-acclaimed Seattle band, Mudhoney. Julie is a long-time fan (so much so that in 1993 she named her new kitten Mudhoney, later shorted to Mud) and though I didn't really follow any of the Seattle bands during the grunge era, I later developed a genuine appreciation for the band. Sounds like they've always done things on their own terms (witness the Mark Arm quote above), which of course is exactly how it should be for everyone but unfortunately is a very rare occurrence.
And on a marginally related and completely gratutious note, check out my short story "Freewheeling", which was published at Dogmatika in 2006 and imagines a fanboy's reaction to the Mudhoney's brief breakup.
"I think of him as a friend I never knew."Over at The Weeklings, Janet Steen writes a lovely tribute to Elliott Smith, who passed away nine years ago this week.
The odd thing about pregnancy and childbirth is how close they can feel to death at times. In that pregnant or postpartum condition, there is an almost mystical understanding of the fragility of life and of the spectacularly fine line between a heart beating and a heart stopped. There is such slippage between those two states and yet we go on most days not thinking about it at all. I was still in a slightly dreamlike awareness of this at the time that I heard about Smith.I feel the same way about Smith, as a friend I never knew. (Same with the late Mark Sandman.) But Smith's sudden death didn't devastate me as it did his older fans, since I wasn't very familiar with him at the time and didn't first get into his music until months later. But I've quickly been catching up ever since, and it's been a truly rewarding experience. There is a pervasive sadness to Smith's music, but also just enough hints of happiness and optimism to keep listening. I wish I knew about him sooner - though I'll always have his recorded music to savor, I would have loved to see him perform in person. The solo acoustic concert bootlegs I've heard are pretty wonderful in their intimacy.
Leo Covers ParkerI finally updated the "Listening" section of my sidebar, with Ted Leo's solo cover of Graham Parker's "Passion Is No Ordinary Word." I was quite pleased to hear this song, since from the very first time I ever heard Leo, I've thought how remarkably similar his voice is to Parker's. The song is yet another example of Leo's impeccable taste in covers. I wonder what Parker is doing these days - haven't heard anything about him in a long time.
(Via Largehearted Boy.)
This Sunday, August 12, my daughter Maddie and her band, Nuclear Plankton, are performing in Minipalooza, a benefit rock festival. Minipalooza is a great program put together by West Side Music (where Maddie has been taking guitar lessons for the last two and a half years) which organizes kids into bands, who then rehearse a handful of songs every week and finally perform at the festival. There will be three kid bands performing, plus two "grownup" bands. I've heard Nuclear Plankton practice a few times, and they're really good - at Minipalooza they'll be doing "I Love Rock and Roll" (with Maddie belting out the lead vocal, with a great Joan Jett snarl), the Beatles' "Come Together", the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" and the Surfaris' "Wipeout."
Minipalooza should be a lot of fun for the whole family (all-ages show!), cheap ($5 cover), and for a good cause - the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It's at Live 59 in Plainfield (16108 Route 59, between Renwick Road and Fraser Road), starting at 2 PM. If you happen to be in the area on Sunday afternoon, please consider attending. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!
Ozzy Osbourne, Neanderthal
The main thing that separates Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens, as with Ozzy and the music journalists, is language. Human beings, alone amongst animals, communicate with discrete units of vocabulary in infinitely recombinable variation, giving them a survival advantage in the long-term evolutionary sense, but not necessarily equipping them to optimally appreciate contemporary music.
Burian (Burn Collector) is my favorite zinester, though I haven't read anything of his since he left Chicago. Might be time to reacquaint.
Good stuff: Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie.
However, it's not what Woody did in the 1940s that still riles people in these parts. It's what his followers did in the 60s that made Woody a pariah in his home state. For Woody was the original singer-songwriter, the first to use his voice not just to entertain, but to ask why people should remain dirt poor in a country as rich as the US.
It was Woody's words that prompted the young Robert Zimmerman to leave his home in the Iron Range of Minnesota and head for New York. Changing his name to Bob Dylan and singing as if he came from the red dirt of Oklahoma, he inspired a generation of articulate young Americans to unleash a torrent of criticism against the complacency of their unequal society. The fact that Woody was a hero to that generation of long-haired freaks ensured that he and his songs would remain largely unsung in Oklahoma.
On a separate note, Guthrie's long-lost novel House of Earth will be published next year. Belated honors for a great American.
Oh my god, Def Leppard is totally ripping off...
...um, Def Leppard.
In order to cut the label out of its earnings, the band has gone back to the studio to re-record its most popular tunes, producing what it calls "forgeries" -- note for note reproductions of the original studio cuts.
Fight the power, you multi-platinum-selling colossus!
I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith over the weekend, including burning an retrospective disk for a friend. The brilliance of Smith's music and the tragedy of his life make such a compelling mixture that I can't help being drawn in, again and again. I didn't start listening to Smith until after his death, the shocking suddenness of which dove me back into the one song of his I owned, "Rose Parade", from an old CMJ Music Monthly sampler disc. I had never listened closely to the song before that, but after revisiting its near-perfect combination of melodicism, gritty street-level lyrics and pensive sadness, I was hooked.
After that I dabbled in a few free mp3s at the Paste magazine site, then bought either/or (with the proceeds of a check from, fittingly enough, a class-action lawsuit against the major record labels for price fixing), then got a burned copy of XO from a friend at my previous job, and finally received the posthumous collection From a Basement on the Hill and the utterly excellent Figure 8 as gifts. (I still haven't picked up the first two albums or the from-the-vaults collection New Moon, and I'm not sure if I ever will. The four albums that I own are so richly fulfilling that I don't feel much need to be a completist.)
For several years now I've had my eye on Matthew LeMay's XO, his short study of that album from Continuum's endlessly fascinating 33 1/3 series. I've never seen the book in person, but have had it on both my Powell's and Amazon wishlists, hoping someone would gift it to me. (I'm impossible to shop for, so when anyone asks I just point them to my wishlists.) But no luck there. So this afternoon, being a beautiful day in the city, I took a stroll over to Reckless Records on Madison to browse the short shelf of 33 1/3 books they stock. I didn't remember seeing XO during my previous visit, but this time, there it was. After paging through, it looked really good, and so I parted with some of my mad money (a small fund reserved for just such a small occasion) and bought it. The combination couldn't be more perfect: Reckless (whose Lakeview store I used to haunt for endless hours during my first city stint), literature and Elliott Smith. I almost couldn't not buy the book.
XO is probably my favorite Elliott Smith album. For me it perfectly bridges the gap between the indie-troubador strumming of either/or and the glorious power-pop of Figure 8, and beautifully encapsulates Smith's formidable artistic talent. I'm really looking forward to reading LeMay's book, preferably with the album playing on my iPod. And possibly a handkerchief to cry into.
Hey, with Bitch Magnet, Temporary Residence has already reissued one of Sooyoung Park’s bands’ bodies of work. And Seam are a fantastically underrated band — over the course of three albums for Touch & Go, they did the anguished loud/quiet/loud thing better than almost anyone. But there’s also a host of music from them that’s now out of print: from their debut album Headsparks to their final single "Sukiyaki," also featuring a fine cover of David Bowie’s "Heroes."
The Problem With Me and Are You Driving Me Crazy? are both excellent, and highly recommended.
Chris Mars and drummer jokes
Replacements drummer (and later solo musician, now visual artist) Chris Mars is, somewhat perversely, an avid collector of "drummer jokes." His Bar/None bio includes some of them, including this favorite of mine:
Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band?
A: "Hey guys...how 'bout we try one of my songs?
His solo debut, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, will always have a special place in my heart.
Stumbling over the Mats in downtown Joliet
Last Friday, while driving home from the train station, I was stopped in traffic waiting for a river drawbridge to reopen. It was a warm day and I had the window rolled down, as did the twentysomething guy in the next car. He was cranking his stereo, rocking out to a song that I had never heard, though the band sounded vaguely familiar. The singer reminded me of Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, but the song rocked harder and more raggedy than any of his solo work that I'm familiar with. I finally turned off my radio, trying to hear the song more clearly. The only words I could discern was the phrase "temptation eyes", which was repeated enough times to be, I hoped, its title.
So when I got home I googled "temptation eyes", with the top results being the 60s folk-rock band The Grass Roots, who apparently did the original. But I figured the raucous version I heard couldn't have been by that band, so I then scrolled down further in the results and found that the song had, indeed, been covered by the Replacements. It was a previously unreleased outtake from the Let It Be era, and was recently released as a bonus track on the reissued edition of that great album, which to my mind was the Replacements' best. Over the weekend I streamed the song several times on Grooveshark, and love it. Since I already own the original album, I'll probably download just the bonus tracks soon.
This discovery pleased me on two levels: one, to stumble on unknown songs from the heyday of one of my old favorite bands; and two, the fact that there's actually a young guy out there (probably not unlike myself at that same age) who rocks out to Mats outakes that are almost thirty years old. So there's still hope for today's youth. Thank you, Cass Street Bridge.
Irish March revisited
This month I'm once again reading nothing but Irish fiction, starting with William Trevor's Felicia's Journey. (I got a late start, not diving in until I finished my previous book. I might extend Irish March a week into April.) Though I love Trevor's prose, at forty pages into the book there's still mostly been backstory - I'm really ready for the narrative to finally move forward. After Trevor, I'll read either Anne Enright's The Gathering or Kevin Barry's City of Bohane.
And of course I've been listening heavily to my Pogues albums this week. Though I own their first four albums, only If I Should Fall From Grace With God has earned full-album-download status on my iPod, with just selected tracks from Peace and Love, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and Red Roses for Me. Corned beef and cabbage is also on the menu at home tomorrow night, though I might skip the Guinness for some Two Brothers or Bell's that I already have in the fridge.
Too weird: Former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton celebrated his 53rd birthday last weekend in Chicago, at a show by local Hüsker Dü tribute band Hüsker Düdes. He's still rocking the curlicue moustache, isn't fond of Bob Mould's memoir ("Bob's book is a work of historical fiction.") and, to my surprise, is back in music - though hopefully with more congenial bandmates. Rock on, Greg.
February 15Post-Valentine's blues? None for me, but if you have them, then commiserate with my favorite Valentine-aftermath songs: Billy Bragg's "Valentine's Day Is Over" (from The Peel Sessions) and the Crabs' "February 15th" (from What Were Flames Now Smolder).
You never forget your first.
It recently occurred to me how, with bands and musicians that I've discovered in their mid-career and later, it's the first album of theirs I hear that remains my long-term favorite. No matter how great their other albums are, it's the first that stays with me. The most prominent examples are R.E.M.'s "Reckoning", Sebadoh's "Bakesale", Lou Reed's "New York", Dumptruck's "Positively", the Replacements' "Pleased to Meet Me", Hüsker Dü's "Flip Your Wig", Built to Spill's "There's Nothing Wrong With Love", and the Mekons' "Rock and Roll." There must be some sort of mental imprinting going on. At mid-career or later, despite there already being a broad body of work to experience, it's the first-heard one that really sticks. When I've been listening to a band from the very beginning (like the Vulgar Boatmen, Uncle Tupelo and Vehicle Flips), it's more understandable that I would glom onto that first album and love it to death, especially with the band not yet having a second album to distract my attention.
The only major exceptions to this first-heard rule are the Pogues ("Peace and Love" was the first, "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" is the favorite), the Feelies ("Only Life" the first, "The Good Earth" the favorite) and Pavement ("Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" the first, "Slanted and Enchanted" the favorite). Obviously not a hard-and-fast rule, but there still seems to be something to it, at least for me.
I finally updated my Listening section over in the sidebar, with "In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul" by New Zealand legends The Clean. Not sure whether or not the title is a Beatles reference, though probably not, since the song isn't particularly Beatlesque. Regardless, good stuff. Enjoy.
Sometimes my iPod is a genius
Usually my iPod is an idiot. The shuffle mode is often baffling - from nearly 1,600 songs, it seems to get into ruts where it repeatedly serves up songs from an artist for which I only have one album. For months it was on a Little Walter kick, picking one of his songs from Confessin' the Blues every day or two while much better-represented artists would go weeks without being heard. And lately it seems fixated on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, again from just one album.
But on rare occasions the iPod's selections seem almost sublime. This morning it played, in order, Television's "Guiding Light", Galaxie 500's "Way Up High" and Yo La Tengo's "Pablo and Andrea." Television to Galaxie 500 to Yo La Tengo - such a wonderfully natural progression, almost perfect. Okay, so the Velvet Underground would have been a better fit than Television, but still, this is a dumb machine we're talking about here. I remain impressed with the choice of that troika of bands, even though I'm sure the iPod will be baffling me again soon.
Yesterday I finished the second draft of my new story collection, Where Once the Marshland Came to Flower. Though the title is a nod to a line to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make (each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood), the impetus to my collection was a single line ("and some crack team from Washington Heights") from Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade." That line came to mind one morning five years ago as my train approached the Washington Heights station on Chicago's South Side, and as it stuck with me I began to imagine a collection of Chicago stories, with each inspired by a song from Reed's New York album. The book would never have existed without Lou, and particularly that great album, and even more particularly that memorable song. So in Lou's honor, here's the song:
Lou Reed, "Halloween Parade"
Southern boys just like you and me
By now the word has gotten around that R.E.M. is breaking up, after 31 long and mostly fruitful years together. I'll readily admit that the band hasn't been a constant in my life, as my tastes and theirs have shifted here and there, and that they haven't made an album that's meant much to me since Automatic for the People, which came out in 1992. Still, they were a big part of my college years, though only intermittently since then. But I'm still staggered by the shimmering brilliance of the first three albums (Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning), and if no album of theirs has totally floored me after that, each had several songs that lodged in my brain and wouldn't budge, even now. I'm very glad that the band is going out on its own terms, and has the good sense to realize that it's the right time. I'll be forever grateful to them, and many of their songs, from "You Are the Everything" to "Gardening at Night" to "King of Birds" to "Perfect Circle", will always be with me.
So farewell, gentlemen. Rest, reflect, and take your time figuring out what comes next. Because there will certainly be a next for each of you, if not all together. But meanwhile, stroll through your garden, smell the roses, and count every one of those hundred million birds.
This is simply lovely: Mark Olson and Gary Louris (of the Jayhawks) and Victoria Williams performing "Lights."
Hornby and Springsteen
At my friend Tim Hall's webzine Undie Press, Mark Cashion discusses putting together a chapbook that weds the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" and Nick Hornby's essay (from his Songbook) about the song. This installment is Part 1 of 2 (with the conclusion coming next month) and though it ends on a downer, a quick look back at the opening sentence implies that everything turned out just fine. Hurray. And Hornby sounds even cooler than I had imagined.
Phil Alvin, Unsung Stories
July 4th always gets me thinking about American music, which yesterday had me delving into old Blasters videos on YouTube (including, of course, "American Music"). Which then lead me to looking on iTunes, just for the hell of it and expecting to find nothing, for Phil Alvin's first solo album, Unsung Stories. The album has never been released on CD - it came out in 1986, or just before the era when all new releases automatically came out on CD. (My guess is that the album probably didn't sell particularly well, and Warner Brothers simply cut its losses and didn't bother with a CD release.) I've owned the vinyl LP since around 1988 and have always loved it, enough to seriously consider digitizing it in recent years since I figured the record company would never do so.
Imagine my thrill, then, to actually find Unsung Stories on iTunes yesterday! Within seconds I was bopping along to "Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn", singing all the lyrics by heart despite not having listened to the LP in years. The album is a terrific slice of Americana, with Alvin reinterpreting a great bunch of old standards with backing by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (on "Someone Stole Gabriel's Horn"), Sun Ra and the Arkestra (on several tunes, including the fantastic "Old Man of the Mountain"), various members of the Blasters, as well as several solo-guitar tunes and an acapella version of "Death in the Morning" with gospel singer backup. The joy and energy that Alvin brings to these dusty old songs makes this album an absolute delight, and one which I can't recommend any more highly. Do check it out.
"Hitler reacts to Metallica recording with Lou Reed"
Beauty. Favorite line: "And I own White Light/White Heat."
(Via Boing Boing.)
The Mountain Goats
As much as I love that Elliott Smith cover of George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" that was over in the sidebar, it was there for over a year and needed to be replaced. So now it's the mysterious, haunting "Your Belgian Things" by the Mountain Goats, from a 2004 radio session on KEXP.
I just read a pretty wonderful piece at The Atlantic by tMG's John Darnielle about the genesis of the song "Dance Music" that I highly recommend. "So this is what the volume knob's for" - wow.
Dubious record reviews from Archive.org
Following on my lost stories discovery yesterday at Internet Archive, I made three more unexpected finds. During the late 1990s I wrote three record reviews for Green Mountain Music Review, a one-man shop operated by the mysterious J. Laramie. Sometime this century the site disappeared, and even the Google webpage cache brought nothing, and I feared the reviews were lost - I didn't even have a hard copy, having written them on an office computer from two employers ago. Have no fear, Internet Archive to the rescue:
The Outnumbered, Surveying the Damage
Various Artists, Suburbia (soundtrack)
Various Artists, The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc
I had a lot of fun writing record reviews back in the day, and even toyed with launching my own music site (dubbed Hearing Voices, after the Galaxie 500 song), which I created a beta version of but never launched. Seeing the reviews is a pleasant glimpse back at the person I used to be. And still am, to some extent - after reading that review again, I might even burn some Suburbia tunes on to my iPod, where Outnumbered and Lounge Ax tunes already reside.
The only thing I want that shines
Is to be king, there in your eyes
To be your only shiny thing
- Tom Waits, "Shiny Things"
John Darnielle, the once and future author
John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats (one of my favorite songwriters, and whose best songs are perfect little fictions in themselves) talks about his not-so-forthcoming debut novel.
The other main difference between making Mountain Goats albums and writing a book for Darnielle seems to be the pace. An astoundingly sharp and prolific songwriter, Darnielle is finding it far more difficult to wrap up his second literary production.
"I'm working on it really slowly, and at this point, I expect to finish it when I'm 80 or something because I'm being really meticulous about revising it and am really ambitious about it," he explains.
I've already marked this down on my to-read list...for 2147. I'll be 82 then, and hope I'll still be coherent enough to read it. His 33 1/3 book Master Of Reality remains on my wishlist, despite my ignorance of almost all things Sabbath.
(Via Largehearted Boy.)
What I listened to on my way to work today
The iPod shuffle-played the following for my walk from train to office...
Giant Sand, "Fields of Green"
Terrific song (admired recently here) that has me seriously considering getting reacquainted with Howe Gelb's eccentric genius. In other words, I'm thinking of buying my first Giant Sand album since 1994.
Yo La Tengo, "(Straight Down To) The Bitter End"
Second-best song on Electr-O-Pura, after the gorgeous "Pablo and Andrea."
Scruffy the Cat, "Bus Named Desire"
From the band's final album, Moons of Jupiter, which in retrospect seems like a stab at commercial success for the band (produced by Jim Dickinson, it's significantly smoother than Tiny Days, my favorite of theirs). Sadly, that success eluded them, and they broke up shortly afterward.
Tom Waits, "2:19"
Waits gutbucket blues at its finest, from Orphans. Fortunately the title refers only to a train, and not to the song's running time - two minutes and nineteen seconds would be cruelly brief for a song this rich.
"So I’ve kind of pulled a John Lennon house-husband thing."
Magnet Magazine has an interesting interview with lo-fi icon F.M. Cornog, who performs under the nom de band East River Pipe. Sounds like he's my kind of guy.
How is fatherhood treating you?
It's good. But this is why it's taken so, so long to put out a record. When you have a kid, you can’t do whatever you used to do. I don't want to feel guilty or have her harbor any resentment against me. Like, "Dad was always doing music up there in his room with his stupid mini studio. That was always more important than I was." So I've kind of pulled a John Lennon house-husband thing. Although I'm still working at Home Depot, it's turned the music thing into kinda like a guerilla-war operation. I kinda peck, peck, and then I run away. Then I come back and peck, peck, peck again. Plant a few explosives on the railway, blow 'em up, then retreat into the woods.
Well, at least the Nazis haven't found you yet.
I used to have hours and hours and hours of uninterrupted time when I was in Queens and in the early years when I came out here, around the time of Gasoline Age. But ever since then I haven't had those long, long periods of time. You know, I like to be present for my family, my wife and my daughter, and spend time with them. I still love doing the music, but it really comes, I would say, second or third now. Maybe when she gets older and gets sick of me and doesn't want me around I can get back into it again.
My writing comes second or third, too, for the same reason.
During weather like this, I always think of these lines from the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York":
They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind blows right through you
It's no place for the old
Walking north from my train wasn't too bad this morning, but when I briefly turned west, the wind all but "blew right through me." I could swear I felt my forehead start to freeze solid. Thank goodness I could turn north again after only one block. In this weather, Chicago's no place for the old. Or the young either.