"There were no bands greeting them at the stations..."

The opening paragraphs of Hamlin Garland's "The Return of a Private" (from Main-Traveled Roads):

The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of "vets" became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. When they entered on Wisconsin territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County.

Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple, one limped, and they all had unnaturally large, bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gayly dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight train into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, while the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferently. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.

Such a contrast between the onset of war, when an excited public rallies behind the departing troops, and the aftermath, when the public has grown weary and indifferent to their return. Reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of the closing verses of Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" ("And the band played Waltzing Matilda/As they carried us down the gangway/But nobody cheered/They just stood and stared/And they turned their faces away"), which was so brilliantly covered by the Pogues.

March 5, 2020 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

“He drove up in this little sports car, drums were hanging out from every corner.”

I love the story about Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson first meeting Neil Peart, who just passed away at 67.

“He was very tall, lanky,” said Lee. “And he had short hair. All of us had major hair. He had spent two years living in England before that. We didn’t know this. But he had just moved back home and given up his dream of playing in a rock band. And he was working for his dad’s farm equipment store. He drove up in this little sports car, drums were hanging out from every corner. He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit with 18-inch bass drums. Alex [Lifeson] and I were chuckling – we thought he was a hick from the country. And then he sat down behind this kit and pummelled the drums, and us. I’d never heard a drummer like that, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”

I had a brief Rush infatuation in high school, and owned Permanent Waves for a few years. Though my tastes moved elsewhere, I still enjoy a handful of their songs from the early 1980s. And I love hearing Maddie play “The Spirit of Radio” on guitar. 

I didn’t know Peart was the band’s lyricist, which seems somewhat unusual for a drummer. (As goes one of the jokes in fellow drummer Chris Mars’ Gratuitous Drummer Jokes collection: “Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band? A: ‘Hey guys... how 'bout we try one of my songs?’”) How fitting, then, to have attended a Blackhawks game this past week with Maddie, and sang along to “Tom Sawyer” when it was played over the PA system during a break. 

January 11, 2020 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tom Waits, American Poet

Hey Charley I think I'm happy
For the first time since my accident
I wish I had all the money
That we used to spend on dope
I'd buy me a used car lot
And I wouldn't sell any of 'em
I'd just drive a different car every day
Dependin' on how I feel

(from “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”)

November 25, 2019 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


“It’s gotta be fucking good. This is what you’ve sacrificed a lot of things for, dude, and this is what you were doing when you weren’t always there for other people, so it’d better be good.” - Iggy Pop

September 5, 2019 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


Move with me, Magdalene
I’m tired of the same old scene
Let’s go down to San Miguel
Let's go be somebody else tonight

- Guy Clark, “Magdalene”

Julie and I saw Clark perform years ago, at the Old Town School Of Folk Music in Chicago. A warm, lovely show. I’ve only discovered “Magdalene” recently, from Joe Ely’s cover version on his 2015 album Panhandle Rambler

August 31, 2019 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Berman

My ski vest has buttons
like convenience store mirrors
and they help me see
that everything
in this room right now
is a part of me
oh yeah, is a part of me
- David Berman

Last week saw the sad passing of musician and poet David Berman, who took his own life at age 52. He battled mental illness and substance abuse for much of his life, and apparently it finally became too much for him. Tributes continue to pour in for him from both the music and literary communities. It's clear that he and his art were greatly loved.

The only Silver Jews album I own is American Water (1998), which is widely considered the band's masterpiece. I'll admit that had never heard of Berman or his band before this album, and was only drawn in by the involvement of Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, who was Berman's musical partner off and on for years. But the otherwise bold Malkmus mostly kept to the background - singing backup vocals (with only the occasional lead) and playing lead guitar - and conceding the spotlight to his longtime friend Berman. Instead of being a Pavement side project (as it was often characterized back then), the focus was on Berman's rough-hewn voice and wonderful lyrics. The lyrics above (from "We Are Real") are just one small example of his gift - every song is full of similar brilliance.

That album once meant enough to me to inspire a short story, "Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues", which I wrote way back in 2008. The title is a line from Berman's "Smith & Jones Forever", and the story flowed directly from the preceding line, "They see the things they need through the windows of a hatchback." This slight nod is the best tribute I can make to Berman and his artistic influence.  

Yesterday I dug out and recharged my old iPod, and listened to American Water for the first time in years. The album is every bit as great as I remembered. Check it out if you can. 

August 13, 2019 in Books, Fiction, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

“You are living with ghosts...”

Paul Auster, in conversation with Lou Reed, first published in Dazed & Confused, April 1996:

"So many people that we've loved and cared about are not here any more, but you carry them around inside you. The older you get, the more your life becomes a quiet conversation with the dead. I find that very sad and at the same time very comforting. You know, the older you get, the more of a spiritual being you become. You are living with ghosts and they have a lot to tell you. And if you listen carefully you can learn a lot."

The conversation is collected in Lou Reed: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House, 2015). The book is very good - the interviews show Reed in his many moods, from cranky to thoughtful, but his talk with Auster was the best of all. I've never read Auster, but I admire the sensibilities he displays throughout their talk, and should probably delve into his work.

January 24, 2019 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Oh, the music download bandits of the internet had nothing on us!"

Jonathan Lethem remembers the dB's, and a completely bygone era of music fandom.

I remember rumors of records, the difficulty of locating certain records or even confirming the existence of certain records. How we interrogated record-store clerks who displayed both taste and patience, how we excavated through zines, which themselves had to be located in the blurry column inches of a zine-guide called Factsheet Five, in order to find the names of the zines that might match our particular obsessions. Nobody younger than thirty can have any idea what it is to sense a universe of music out there beyond reach, beyond touch, or to wonder what a song sounded like for years before being allowed to hear it.

December 18, 2018 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

Hüsker Dü

Robert Christgau, on Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade:

But though I hate to sound priggish, I do think it could have used a producer. I mean, it was certainly groovy (not to mention manly) to record first takes and then mix down for forty hours straight, but sometimes the imperfections this economical method so proudly incorporates could actually be improved upon. It wouldn't be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it's downright depressing to hear Bob Mould's axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.

I'm listening to New Day Rising right now at work, and lord, do I ever concur. One of my never-to-be-realized dreams is for the band's entire catalog to be remixed and reissued. The music is brilliant, but often hard to appreciate through the murk. Although, admittedly, the band would have been even greater had they been less prolific - six full-length albums (including two double LPs) and an EP, all in just six years, means they released almost every song they created. Their 1987 implosion probably had as much to do with running out of new material as Mould, Hart and Norton having gotten sick and tired of being around each other.

September 14, 2018 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


At HILOBROW, John Hilgart reflects on how the music of the obscure 1990s band Acetone got him through a difficult period in his life. The band’s history took a tragic turn (which I was unaware of until just now), making his narrative even more compelling. I know a few Acetone songs from old CMJ sampler discs, and they’re quite good. Years ago I even went on a record store quest for one of their earlier albums. But I didn’t find it that day, and the band faded from my consciousness.

August 11, 2018 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I have to listen to music while I write, and usually I play just one song at a time. I repeat it all day, often for weeks on end. Months, even. There’s one song that I replayed up to 30,000 times during the ten years I was writing The Incendiaries. I love that song and its powers; I can’t tell you its name, lest it stop helping me. By obsessively replaying a single song at a time, I can, if I’m lucky, set the pitch. It gives me a place to start. The ritual of it, the repetition, lulls and quiets my anxious, everyday self. The ego goes silent, which lets my writing self emerge, and begin to sing. Even now, months after I last edited The Incendiaries, to play the song I can’t name is to be pulled back toward my novel, into my made-up town of Noxhurst. The still, quiet voice. That’s what I used to listen for, back when I was deeply religious: the still, quiet voice of God. I’ve lost that kind of faith, but I do believe in fiction’s voice, and in spending the rest of my life, or so I hope, listening for it.” R.O. Kwon 

Wow. As much as I love music, I don’t think there’s even one song that I would want to hear 30,000 times, especially not while I’m trying to focus on writing. This author’s powers of concentration must be far superior to mine. Even with a favorite song, after only about nine or ten listenings I’d be itching to cue up something else. 

July 30, 2018 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...the endlessly renewable power of repetition, hypnosis, and frenzy..."

Peter Margasak writes a fine tribute to one of my favorite bands, the Feelies, who played here recently at the Pitchfork Festival. 

July 19, 2017 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Through its lack of creativity, slowly but surely this country changes by the men we admire. It is not difficult for people to be snookered, particularly when the most successful movies deal with superheroes — Batman, Spider-Man. These are the big franchise movies that make money. Not just with kids, but adults. So, because of lack of imagination, maturity — many people in this country wanted a superhero. And then this TV guy comes along and says what? Only I can fix it...Only I can do this..." - John Mellencamp

June 18, 2017 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Folks ask what kind of bass player I am. My answer is ‘I’m D. Boon’s bass player.’” - Mike Watt

May 25, 2017 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"It was never in my stars to be doing the same thing for ever." - Johnny Marr

November 20, 2016 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If you want to get respect, you've got to give respect. You got to be positive. You can't have no like positive/negative, positive/negative...It's not like a car battery." - Stanley Dural, Jr. (1947-2016)

September 25, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


“If I die...don’t let Bob sing.” - Paul Westerberg

March 23, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

John Lee Hooker, Alone


This week's vinyl digitization is Alone, an out-of-print 1970 compilation of John Lee Hooker sides originally recorded between 1948 and 1951. The sound is heavily rhythmic, stripped-down and raw - most of the songs are just Hooker, with his voice accompanied only by his guitar for melody and his stomping foot for percussion. And with a unique recording method, as explained in this Wikipedia entry for Hooker's first hit, "Boogie Chillen'":

To make the sound fuller, a microphone was set up in a pallet that was placed under Hooker's foot. According to Besman's account, a primitive echo-chamber effect was created by feeding Hooker's foot-stomp rhythm into a speaker in a toilet bowl, which in turn was miked and returned to a speaker in the studio in front of Hooker's guitar, thus giving it a "big" or more ambient sound.

Everything here is so good, and the sound so consistent, that it's hard to single out just one song, so I'll give the nod to "Boogie Chillen' #2", the followup to his first hit. It's a great tune, and also an example of Hooker's relentless drive to record and sell songs (his motto was "You pay, I play"), which lead him to cut dizzying number of recordings, many under pseudonyms (my favorite of which is "Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar").

I was heavily into blues from my freshman year in college through the first few years after graduation, and Hooker was my blues god. I was no completist of his work (given his prodigious output, that would have bankrupted me) and had only about a half dozen of his albums, but I listened to them obsessively, especially Alone. Like most of my blues vinyl, right after I bought this I made a cassette copy for listening in order to preserve the LP in pristine condition. My car doesn't even have a cassette player, so other than digging out my old Walkman and burning through batteries, I've had no good way to listen to my blues albums on the go, which is where I do most of my listening these days. I'm hoping this will revive my interest in John Lee Hooker, and the blues in general.

March 13, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Gear Daddies, Let's Go Scare Al


This week's vinyl digitization is Let's Go Scare Al, the 1988 debut album from the Gear Daddies, a country rock quartet from Austin, Minnesota (hometown of Spam). The album is all about small-town life, largely from the perspective of a narrator who has moved away and is looking back at the limited lives that remain there: the drunks, the no-longer-teenaged metalheads, the lonely housewives who somehow find happiness and contentment. (Anyone who is creeped out by clowns are advised to avoid perusing the album cover, especially the closeup photo on the back. I think that's frontman Martin Zellar in the circus getup.) Though I normally single out one song in these weekly posts, this week I'm going with two favorites: "She's Happy" and "Heavy Metal Boyz".

The sound of the album - released on a tiny independent label, Gark - is raw, plain-spoken and genuine, and still moves me after all this time. But then they moved to a major label, and their next album, while still pretty good, had an obvious studio sheen to it, and was clearly intended for commercial radio airplay. That really didn't happen, with only the hidden track "Zamboni" gaining any success - mostly in hockey arenas between periods, while the ice was being cleaned. They released one more album before breaking up in 1992. It looks like they get back together occasionally for one-off concerts but haven't released any new material since then. I once saw them in concert, at Metro in Chicago, where they were opening for (I think) the Connells. My friend Mike and I arrived a few minutes late, just as the band started their act. I can still remember climbing those last few steps into the auditorium and hearing the opening chords of "Don't Forget Me" echoing through the room, which was still only half-filled as the Connells fans had yet to fully arrive. Few in attendance had probably ever heard of the Gear Daddies, but for me (I had picked up the debut album a few months earlier) they were the better band that night.

March 6, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Long Ryders, Two Fisted Tales


This week's vinyl digitization is another roots rock finale, the Long Ryders' Two Fisted Tales. Like the Blasters, the Long Ryders didn't last long (three full-length LPs and one EP between 1983 and 1987), but to me they were an even more essential band. They really bridged the gap between early 1970s country/folk rock (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers) and the early 1990s alt-country revival (Uncle Tupelo, Jayhawks), and their mix of Byrds jangle and garage rock sounds as fresh today as it did when it first came out, almost thirty years ago. My favorite here is "Spectacular Fall", but there really isn't a weak song on the entire album. I've been playing guitar since last September, and have been fiddling around with two Long Ryders songs, "Wreck of the 809" (from an earlier album) and "Spectacular Fall."

From the price sticker on the back of the LP, I'm reminded that is bought this (for $3.50) at Full Cyrkle Records in Crystal Lake, Illinois. After I moved home from college, I went to Full Cyrkle almost every Saturday morning, buying dozens of rock and blues albums with what little spare cash I could find. Once a year, the store even had a Midnight Madness sale - they stayed open all night, and the later you got there, the lower the prices were. I think I went there around 2:00 in the morning - I did buy something, but I don't remember what it was. Probably not this Long Ryders album - at $3.50, it was cheap enough to buy any time - but probably some new, imported blues LP that was probably too pricey for me otherwise. But ironically, I probably haven't listened to or even thought about that blues album in years, while Two Fisted Tales has stayed with me, enough to finally convert it to digital.

February 28, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lee Dorsey, Holy Cow!: The Best of Lee Dorsey


This week's LP digitization is another best-of, this time Holy Cow!: The Best of Lee Dorsey, an out-of-print Arista Records collection of songs first recorded between 1961 and 1970. I've been thinking about Dorsey a lot lately, ever since the death of Allen Toussaint. Toussaint was the songwriter and producer of most of Dorsey's hits, and was even something of a mentor to the singer, despite the fact that Dorsey was fourteen years older than Toussaint. Their collaborations were nothing less than wonderful - Dorsey's warm, soulful tenor, the steady groove of the backing band (often the Meters, and Toussaint himself) and Toussaint's clean, rich studio production. Everything here is great, though my favorite is "Sneaking Sally Through the Alley", written by Toussaint and backed by the Meters.

I picked up this LP years ago from a cutout bin (you can see the telltale notch at the lower left corner of the cover, just below the C) at some record store I've forgotten. Safe to say that the store probably no longer exists.

February 21, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dave Edmunds, The Best of Dave Edmunds


This week's vinyl digitization is The Best of Dave Edmunds, a 1981 collection of Edmunds' best work for Swan Song Records, for whom he recorded from 1977 to 1981. The title is definitely a misnomer - a better title would have been The Swan Song Years - especially since it doesn't include his biggest hit, "I Hear You Knocking." Title aside, this is a great collection of Edmunds at his roots-rocking best, when he was still working with Nick Lowe and his other Rockpile bandmates, and before his 1980s misstep into synth-heavy pop. Everything here is strong, with my favorite being "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)", a Lowe tune that I was briefly tempted to sing with the band at my sister's wedding. (I refrained, as the song isn't terribly kind to the groom.)

It's interesting to note that of the thirteen songs on this album, Edmunds only got songwriter credit on one song (and a half-credit, at that). Edmunds has always been much better known as a guitarist, singer and interpreter of other songwriters' work. He obviously has excellent taste, especially with the covers here of songs by Lowe, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Graham Parker and others.

February 14, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

R.E.M., Dead Letter Office


My second vinyl LP to be digitized is R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office, a 1987 collection B-sides and outtakes. The album has both band originals (including the great "Bandwagon") and covers of the Velvet Underground, Pylon, Aerosmith and Roger Miller. It's probably the most fun album they ever did - with no concerns about great art or commercial success, but just letting loose and rocking out. And for such a meticulous band, it's particularly refreshing to hear their drunken version of Miller's "King of the Road", with Michael Stipe butchering lyrics and Peter Buck and Mike Mills shouting chord changes back and forth.

I upgraded my LPs of Murmur and Reckoning to CD quite a few years ago, and more recently bought their debut EP, Chronic Town, on iTunes. I've owned the Dead Letter Office LP for nearly as long as the others (according to the price sticker, I bought it at Second Hand Tunes in Evanston, where I used to sneak off to during my work lunch hour), and I'm glad to finally have it in digital.

February 7, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Blasters, Hard Line


My big Christmas gift this year was a Pyle turntable-receiver combo unit, the biggest attraction of which is its USB output. Like most music lovers who came of age up to around the mid 1980s - just before CDs got huge - I have a big stack of vinyl LPs that I haven't listened to in years. My stack (two boxes worth) ended up in the attic when my stereo system was finally stored away. Now, with my new setup, I can finally resuscitate my vinyl collection, and bring it into the digital age by ripping tunes to MP3.

After some practice runs with 7" singles (I have a lot of those, too - many more than I had remembered), yesterday I successfully tackled my first album, the Blasters' final release, Hard Line. Though critics back in the day had issues with the album, seeing it as a somewhat desperate stab at radio airplay, I think it's the strongest album of their too-brief career. (The brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, the creative soul of the band, parted ways during the late 1980s.) Sure, there's a John Mellencamp tune on there (having a Mellencamp connection back in 1985 was seen as commercial move) and the sound is heavier than their earlier albums. But the Mellencamp tune fits in fairly well, though it's clearly inferior to Dave Alvin's songs, and the heavier-ness really works for me. Their early albums sounded almost brittle at times, all trebly and thin. But Hard Line really rocks, and I'm enjoying listening to it again.

You might ask why, if I've always liked the album, why I never bought a digital copy. First, it was out of print for several decades, and never made it onto CD while I was still an avid fan of the band. (In 1985, CDs were still new enough that new releases still came out only in LP and cassette, and didn't necessarily come out in CD.) It looks like it finally came out on a small label in 2010, and on iTunes only recently. A lot of the Hard Line songs have been available in digital Blasters anthologies for a while, but I generally avoid anthologies, preferring to hear the songs in their original album context. And I'm, shall we say...frugal. I've only replaced a handful of my LPs with their digital versions, so I've always hesitated to spend extra money for a digital copy of something that I technically already own (even though it's stashed away in the attic). So making my own digital version was affordable and fun, and kept me busy for a few hours on a winter afternoon.

I plan to digitize an album every weekend for the next several months. Looking forward to it.

January 31, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Big Rock Candy Mountain"

No, it's not the famous folk song of the same name. Instead it's the immortal pairing of Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson and Built To Spill's Doug Martsch. And I'm posting this simply because it's Friday, and we all need a goofy groove.

January 22, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"We can beat them, just for one day."

From "Distopian Dream Girl", by Built to Spill:
My stepfather looks
Just like David Bowie
But he hates David Bowie
I think Bowie's cool
I think Lodger rules
And my stepdad's a fool
I was never a big fan of Bowie (I didn't even know Lodger is one of his albums, until I looked it up this morning), but can't help pausing this week to reflect on his greatness. And I'll always love "Rebel Rebel", "Heroes" and "Ziggy Stardust." Rest well, sir.

January 14, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life." - David Bowie (1947-2016)

January 11, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"No sweet deluge will come to wash your worries away." - Graeme Downes, "Stay Gone"

September 24, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

New song on the sidebar

I finally updated "Listening" over on the sidebar, with Giant Sand's "Death, Dying & Channel 5", from that idiosyncratic band's 1985 debut album, Valley of Rain. The Amazon link is less than ideal (only a 30-second snippet) but this is just a temporary fix until I find a free solution for linking to streaming songs. I still haven't found one since the untimely demise of Grooveshark.

June 14, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I wasn’t so interested in being paid. I wanted to be heard. That’s why I’m broke.” - Ornette Coleman

June 12, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It’s a powerful but low emotion."

"Of course there are a lot of regrets, and you have to let go of those. It’s a powerful but low emotion. And then there are the triumphs, which you can’t let go to your head, because then you become overly arrogant or present false humility or false modesty, which is also not too good." - Michael Stipe

It's so hard to believe that such a talented musician (one of my favorite singers ever) could just walk away from music. I hope he's finding fulfillment elsewhere.

June 5, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c78a67a7970b-pi

Two of my favorites: Howlin' Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, at Sylvio's in Chicago, 1964. Wolf is simply one of the greatest singers ever. "Smokestack Lightnin'" still gives me shivers.

(Via Chicagogeek.)

May 14, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


Farewell, Grooveshark. (I always wondered about the legality of the site. I guess this is my answer.)

May 1, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...never so deeply that he let go of the pen or the bottle..."

Here’s a belated posting of an excerpt from Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues by James Fearnley, the band’s accordion player, in which he describes the creative fervor of the band, even while on a cramped tour bus, and in particular its iconic frontman Shane MacGowan.

Shane, too, was writing. If I happened to be sitting in one of the backwards-facing seats at the rear of the bus, I could see him in the back lounge hunched over crumpled pieces of paper holding a felt pen in a clenched fist. Despite it being the end of autumn the roof-hatch would be open. The downdraught snapped the curtain in the doorway and lapped at the sheets of paper pinned between his elbow and knee. It flattened his hair onto his forehead. He’d stop for a moment and look out of the window, working his nostrils absent-mindedly as if something in one of them constantly itched. His foot tapped all the while. Then, after cuffing the paper on his knee, he’d wipe his nose with his forearm and set to again. He filled the flapping sheets of paper with large, angular letters and the margin with violent dots. When he’d finished with one of them he brushed it out of the way. The pages lay scattered. The wind pinned one of them on the floor where it shivered under the gusts from the roof-hatch.

I’d look up again and he’d be unconscious, but never so deeply that he let go of the pen or the bottle of wine he was drinking...

That passage perfectly illustrates the enigma of Shane MacGowan: the intense artistry, but also the self-abuse. Here Comes Everybody is simply wonderful. Fearnley writes with lyrical eloquence and brutal honesty. The band and especially its fans are fortunate to have had such a gifted writer in its ranks, and one who was dutifully taking notes during the band’s rise and near-fall.

August 3, 2014 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

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.

June 23, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

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.

March 4, 2014 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"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)

February 6, 2014 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"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.

February 4, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


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

January 27, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...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.

January 15, 2014 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


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.)

January 5, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"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.

January 2, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"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.

December 23, 2013 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lou Reed

My 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.

November 1, 2013 in Marshland, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)


"There's a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out." - Lou Reed

October 29, 2013 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wheatyard at Largehearted Boy

Book 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.

May 31, 2013 in Music, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)



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.

March 14, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

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?

March 6, 2013 in Art, Chicago Observations, History, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"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.

February 21, 2013 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dougher on K

Nicely 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.

January 16, 2013 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)