Monday, February 27, 2006

Heaven Is In Your Mind

There’s no general agreement about what paradise looks like. For some it’s perfumed gardens and dozens of almond-eyed virgins. For others it’s an end to the cycles of rebirth and the wheel of suffering. Or it’s a place where nothing ever happens. Some folks go in for flowing robes or gazing into the brilliant eyes of divinity. I’m not sure where Leadbelly got his conception of heaven (from the Church of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, probably), but it’s a cosmology that could win a lot of converts. This is from a record called Leadbelly Sings Folksongs. Woody Guthrie appears as a guest, among others (not here). I won’t spoil it; let me just say this: They got a lot of pancakes up in heaven.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

From Pissed To Blissed

Are you sick from stress at work? Do you have desk rage? Do you find it difficult to concentrate on even the simplest task because you are too freaked out, pissed off and worried? When you get home from work are you unhappy with the person you see in the mirror? Are you losing sleep at night? Yes? Then try listening to this.

Do you feel better now? You probably do. But if not then I, Dr. Django, hereby prescribe the whole compilation. Here, I’ll write it on my pad for you: Fatty Fatty 1967-1970 by Clancy Eccles and Friends. Oh how you need this album and a couple of Red Stripes. You might also visit the guy mentioned in Track 12.

You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. Don’t forget your co-payment on the way out.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

In Through the Muskeg

From Chicago -- the frozen lake, the great black migration, Saul Bellow, electric blues, Wilco, sausages –- point yourself farther north. And back in time, to primeval Canada, "where the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun ... Long before the white man and look before the wheel, when the green dark forests were too silent to be real."

Gordon Lightfoot is, as you know, Canadian. We’ve already touched on some other marvelous Canadians here, most notably Buffy St. Marie and Joni Mitchell, and surely a post on Ian and Sylvia is in the cards. Canadians actually have sort of a strange relationship with many Canadian artists; because of the mandated content rules that require radio and television play and show a high percentage of Canadian material, many of our neighbors to the north feel like they’ve had Brian Adams, Gordon Lightfoot and Margaret Atwood shoved down their throats. And that can’t be pleasant. But Gord, it seems to me, is a dangerously undervalued import here. Have a look at the booklet to the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder bootleg series and you can see Lightfoot jamming with the bard, dressed in a fitting fur-trader-like hat, backstage somewhere. Songs like "Sundown"and "Carefree Highway"offer a fundamentally polite Canadian twist on the got-to-ramble American male ideal. It occurs to me that Lightfoot also provides a transportation theme trifecta with the immense "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"(the implications of which are too many to try and untangle in this post), "Early Morning Rain" with its "big 707 set to go," and this next one. "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" is, among other things, a trilogy (you can sort of hear the sections). You don’t get many of them. Trilogies, I mean. It’s also a Canadian foundation myth. Another rarity. Granted, there are large intact kernels of corn embedded in the surface of this song, and it has a definite connection to the big history-telling round-up songs in "Waiting For Guffman," but greatness can also be stupid, I think.

It’s strange that America, a country so besotted with self-mythologizing, hasn’t come up with more songs about the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary generation, etc. I know, it’s not immediately the stuff of pop songs, but you’d think someone would have tried their hand at it. The best example that comes to mind is "The Shot Heard Round the World" from the School House Rock series. Coincidentally, "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy" evokes the epic bombast of Ween, who covered "Shot Heard Round the World" on a tribute record.

One other thing to mention about "The Canadian Railroad Trilogy." First off, Canada has some of the best place names. Saskatoon, Manitoba, Winnipeg, Medicine Hat. You can’t beat that shit. Lightfoot doesn’t mention any of these, but he does include lyrics on Gaspe and muskeg.

And This is Free

I'm so happy that I finally visited Chicago.

Chi Town! Yes.

Cold, clean-lined, expansive, full of surprising architecture and unusual ethnic dining. I had a delicious Swedish breakfast one morning, a delicious Austrian one the next. The sausage-eating peoples of Europe have kept their culinary identities in tact in Chicago. The lake was icy and imposing. You can tell a lot about a town by its hipsters. Let me say that, in Chicago, they are especially attentive to sartorial detail and also polite. I saw the parking garage that appears on the cover of Wilco's Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. Interesting!

But what I really wanted to know was: What's the deal with Chicago blues? I knew only this: Blacks came up from the South seeking work. Then somehow Junior Wells happened. Then Dan Akroyd was in The Blues Brothers. The End.

So I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have stumbled upon a special exhibit on the blues at the Chicago Library, where I glimpsed excerpts from a 1964 documentary called And This Is Free by filmmaker Mike Shea. I was bowled over by amazing cinema verite scenes of blues and gospel musicians rocking in the city's now-defunct Maxwell Street bazaare. Raw, black-and-white field-recording-style images of casual musical nirvana on street corners. I had to go to the special 8th floor archives and view it in full. I did. It blew my mind.

Every Sunday, Chicago's Maxwell Street was a nexus of hucksters, preachers, street mystics, snake-oil salesmen, teenage rock-and-rollers and legendary blues players. Shea captured hours of itinerant bluesman Robert Nighthawk sitting in an alley, talking shit and slinging blues with aloof power, casually stinging the air with slide electric guitar, backed by just rhythm guitar and drums. The amps are on the street, plugs running into windows. A crowd of well-tailored black dudes drink beers, teeter and groove along and yell out ("Woyk widdit! Get up on it! Shake it but don' breakit!") while sexy beehived black chicks dance in mini-skirts. A smattering of white hipsters dressed like the Velvet Underground try to look like they're not terrified. It has to be seen. Has to!

I learned later it can also be heard in full: And This Is Maxwell Street contains the complete sound recordings of Shea's documentary. It's amazing. I am a believer. A believer in Chicago. A believer in the blues. Listen to "Back Off Jam" by Nighthawk for evidence of the upside of making deals with the Devil.

More: An outdoor street scene featuring singer Carrie Robinson, prim in a white church dress, wailing on "Power to Live Right" and inspiring another woman to jump, leap, shout and dance on the sidewalk, possessed of the Holy Spirit as a crowd of onlookers claps and cries. Perhaps the most moving is a brief snippet of Fannie Brewer, an obese, blind folk-gospel singer who is almost completely inert, wedged in a door front on a chair. She sings out of the side of her mouth, barely moving except for fingers plucking the guitar. "I Shall Overcome" would make Harry Smith cry.

And This is Free is out of print on VHS, but somehow the great folks at The Video Beat! have it on DVD. Just order it, you need it. You can see some images from it here.

I leave you with the one-armed harmonica genius Big John Wrencher. Woyk widdit!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cosmic Country Cowboy #2

That’s Buck Wheat To You.

This golden AM gem sneaked inside my ear somewhere around 1973. And there it stayed, tucked away, forgotten, undetonated ordnance just waiting to explode. Which it did, nearly twenty five years later when I caught the tail end, the last, "EeeAas" of Brooks and Dunne’s cover. Even contemporary country couldn’t destroy it. Oh the mournful joy. He was lovesick when he wrote it. Oh the sunshine memories: a can of Schaefer beer, grasshoppers rustling in the dry grass, yodels issued from a transistor radio.

Yes, yodels and they break your heart with their plaintive beauty.

B.W. (born Louis) Stevenson’s recording career was a brief one. He gave it up in 1980 only to die destitute in a veteran’s hospital eight years later from heart surgery complications. Born in Dallas, dead 38 years later in Austin, he said of his life, "Well, I've never done anything but hitchhike, write songs and sing." That’s not entirely true. He served in the Air Force and worked a stint as a wrangler in Durango.

As long ago promised to Mr. Poncho here is B.W.’s version of Three Dog Night’s Shambala. Rustier and dustier than the original, I find B.W. easy to believe.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Pendant of Jerry Jeff

I remember my introduction to Jerry Jeff Walker. It was in some sort of crash pad in Fort Worth, Texas, attached to a club called The Mad Hatter. It was the early 90s, but there was an eight-track player with two Jerry Jeff tapes -- Ridin' High and Viva Turlingua. We listened to them several times over the course of the evening. I fell in love with "Red Neck Mothers," "London Homesick Blues" and "Backslider's Wine." All great songs. It was one of those times when the music fits the scene, the mood and the moment. The night got better because the owner of the club had boxes of records that he'd found at a flea market from Ornette Coleman's short-lived record label. He gave me a couple unusual albums. I got lucky.

Since then I've grown a little suspicious of Jerry Jeff. There's something too Jimmy Buffett-like about him. I suspect that he never quite got over the fact that he wasn't Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. I once got into a semi-drunken conversation about country music with Seymour Stein. I mentioned Jerry Jeff, who Stein, a serious country songwriting encyclopedia, dismissed with a look of disgust and contempt. Still, I've always loved the craggy cowboy simplicity of "Nightrider's Lament" from Ridin' High. As it turns out, Jerry Jeff didn't write this one. He did't write "Red Neck Mothers" or "London Homesick Blues" either. And I've heard that there's dispute about whether he penned "Mr. Bojangles."

At any rate, maybe it takes some genius like Nina Simone to salvage a tune like "Mr. Bojangles." When Jerry Jeff and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do it, there's no real getting around the hint of racism or at least laughing derision at the down-and-out subject of the song. But Nina had an immense capacity to inject pathos into even the most surprising places, and she gives the song some surprising dignity. This is from her Here Comes the Sun record, on which covers "Just Like a Woman" and "Angel of the Morning," among others. I can't fully recommend the record, and it should be noted that while she could wring tears from all kinds of material, Simone was also known for crassly covering whatever was put in front of her (I had high hopes for her cover of Hall and Oates "Rich Girl" on her Baltimore record, but it too disappoints.)

Barracuda Attack!

Sometimes a song just jumps out at me. That’s what happened yesterday as I was driving home from work, listening to a burn disc of my latest playlist. It was a mix, so I knew all the songs were good, but DAMN this is a perfect song. I didn’t realize its greatness until the car stereo was properly cranked. The great intro, verse, chorus, production, back-up vocals and air-guitar-worthy riffs all combine to give it a special kind of momentum rarely heard. It’s my favorite song as of the last 24 hours and it’s called I Can’t Pretend by The Barracudas. I shouldn’t have to say it, but play this record loud!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Apricot Juice and Buttered Toast

You need your headphones. You need a slowed-down pulse and a langurous attention span. You need a moment alone in the car, a seat on a park bench with the iPod, an uneventful afternoon with the shades drawn. After the party guests have left the driveway, while leaning back on the kitchen sink, a last swirl of wine in the glass, this:

"I Don't Want Him (Anymore)" by Nina Simone.

It's from Nina Simone at Town Hall, 1959. At first, it's not the right tempo for this meditative moment -- too perky, really, the ivory tickle smacking of Broadway histrionics. But stand by. Stay near. This is one of the greatest performances ever put on tape. Even on a Monday morning in the subway, all brightness and practical anxiety, this drew tears to my eyes. It's so full of unexpected poetry. And it's precisely because it begins with the flip confidence of a Broadway number, an establishing romantic posture in which Ms. Simone has given her man the sack with bravado -- I'm afraid I never loved him -- that she can now proceed to unravel for the next three minutes, lyric by lyric by lyric.

All I wanted to do was
Run my fingers through his curly locks
Mend his underwear and darn his socks
Fetch his slippers and remove his shoes
Wipe his glasses when he's read the news
Rub his forehead with a gentle touch
Mornings after when he's had a little too much
Kiss him gently when he cuddles near
And give him babies, one for every year
... so you see ...
That I don't want him, you can have him
You can have him, cuz I don't want him
Because he's not the man for me.

When the catalog of lost intimacy finally overwhelms the false bravado -- his favorite breakfast, apricot juice and buttered toast, is the final straw -- she has to let out a long, slow, painful moan, an aching loss of words where lyrics are supposed to be. It's unbearable.

If there's any question of the intensity of this performance, the ending gives it up. Freed from the final note, as if suddently aware of the spell she was under, Nina is ecstatic: Yeah! Oooh boy! Ah ha ha! Oh! Yeah!


Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Shire of Your Mind/ A Reprise

Any band that, like Lindesfarne, has two songs that reference sausage rolls is, by my calculations, a good band. Quod erat demonstratum. I’m thinking they’re talking about the British greasy spoon snack favorite and hangover cure, not some sort of lame rock rod euphemism. Either way, you get a sense for where their allegiances are. The Kinks wrote about tea. For Lindesfarne it was sausage rolls.

There’s a definite Middle Earth vibe to the guys in Lindesfarne. But they would have been the scuzzy hobbits who hung out on the smoking patio during lunch break. Squinty eyes. Radical facial hair. You imagine that they would bob their heads a lot and stroke their beards for just a little too long when someone told a good one. British hippies. Lindesfarne rocked the enchanted vocal harmonies, complete with wispy fog and a hint of peat smoke. Standing stones are implied, though they don’t get too Druidic, mostly because their warrior instinct has been blunted by too much doobage. Unlike that supremely annoying tattered pedophile character from Jethro Tull, Lindesfarne's derelict stance seems to be genuine. They don't need any codpieces or ratty trenchcoats to give you the creeps, even as they get all angelic. Talk of free love sounds kinds of icky coming from these guys. In another time, they might have been the type of young men whose amorous overtures consisted of an inappropriate eagerness to give backrubs. Musically, asymetric strumming patterns, fearless cow bell, and genuine North Country flavor make up for the occasional Thistle and Shamrock excesses.

But Lefty, who turned me on to Lindesfarne, has already expounded on the band [see archives for more on the sausage roll theme]. They're sort of like the Southern fiction writers of British hippie rock: for Lindesfarne it was all about place -- the Tyne (from "Fog On the Tyne") is a river, the band's name is a town, and Dingly Dell, is, I guess some bucolic spot too. The reason for this post is that I was reading Kyril Bonfiglioli's After You With That Pistol, the second of the Charlie Mortdecai "mysteries" recently (If you've never read or heard of Bonfiglioli, you really have to look into it. The Mortdecai books are like a cross between Charlie's Angels, P.G. Wodehouse, Lawrence Sterne and Charles Bukowski, really. A fat fornicating self-interupting sybaritic art-dealing drunk gonzo whose thuggish man servant, Jock, is like some James Cagney meets Jeeves, or one of the disturbed characters from "Upstairs Downstairs"). There's a section of the book in which Mortdecai is forced to attend a female assassins' college called Dingley Dell (Dickens wrote about Dingley Dell, too, in The Pickwick Papers, and there's a town in Mass. with that name, and one in Australia as well).

Dingly Dell is the band's third record, and you can already sense that they're sliding into an unfortunate phase. But "Poor Old Ireland" is both lovely and a little insane in a way. The song seems to be about the long hardships of Ireland, but there's some viral empathy at work: the universe suffers along with Ireland. You can get a re-issue of this one on disc, but I'm not sure I'd go in for the whole disc. It's spotty, and what's worse, the re-issue doesn't include one of my favorite things about it: the original cover (my copy was loaned to me in a stack of great old vinyl by the ever-provacative and musically encyclopedic Alan Bisbort). Is there any other band that's employed a hammock on a record cover? Must be, but I can't think of it, and surely no one has ever rocked the "two dudes in a hammock" variation so successfully. Extra points for the inclusion of the family dog (cropped out of this shot).

Monday, February 06, 2006

Two Whites Don't Make a Wrong

Last week I bought some cowboy boots in Bakersfield, Calif. How could I resist? It would've been wrong to not buy cowboy boots in Bakersfield, Calif. At least that's how you feel when you're riding around those arid oil fields and honky tonk tumbleweed flats, the fading 1950s neon signage for "Wool Growers Restaurant" paling in the dust-covered sun as you listen to Keith Urban on KUZZ 107.9.

Wanna know what's funny? The boots were made in China. They look great and fit like a champ, I must say. God bless the Chinese cobblers, channeling the ghosts of the rig workers, cow punchers, the Brokebackers. They got their ears on the rail ties, listening hard. (Poor bastards probably get a nickel an hour.) Anyway, I swung by the Crystal Palace, the club cum shrine to Buck Owens, owned and operated by Buck Owens and graced with an eight-foot titanium statue of Buck Owens, all located on Buck Owens Boulevard. (Buck also owns KUZZ, fyi.) The top picture, one of Buck's Nudie suits, is there, among the rows of window boxes holding the various historical memoribilia that make Buck Owens Buck Owens. Guitars, an actual Cadillac (a white convertible, interior designed by Nudie, including old Indian coins embedded in the paneling), and just a single window dedicated to "Hee Haw," the Hillbilly TV that destroyed Buck Owens forever but created "Buck Owens."

But this is all a way of getting to a larger point. I think. One thing leads to another: a thesis, an anti-thesis, a synthesis. iPod teaches us this every day, the serendipitous algorithm that allows Green Day to segue to Tommy James in such a way that only Joan Baez can bring true resolution, emotionally, spiritually, in real-time. I can't explain it, it just is.

Let's give it a try.

Perhaps it starts with the uncarved block, the thing in itself, the Platonic ideal. George Strait singing "Amarillo by Morning" is almost see-through (hear-through?) in its smooth lack of character, yet it sings through the bones like a white wind at dusk. I love it because it makes me think how transcendent and final it would feel to listen to this on acid while driving a white Cadillac into a West Texas sunset with a great, dear friend who is a Chinese diplomat passed out in the back seat with an empty bottle of Knob Creek cradled in his tiny hands.Next, a shadow, a meme, a reflection, the opposite of all that is certain. I found this on another blog and I'm sorry to say i forget which one, but thanks to whoever you are. I dedicate "Raising the Sparks" to Martin B., who I wish would start posting here. (Get with it, dude.) This is Michael Gira, former Swans CEO, now the main light in the Angels of Light, backed up by the mighty Akron Family. George Strait or Chinese cowboy?Finally, fission, the unexpected flash of light, a brightness that can't be looked at too directly for fear of blindness -- sunburst enlightenment. It's called Indiana, people. That's where Baby Huey & The Babysitters come from, a place where there are brothers wearing pointed toed shoes and carrying .45s. The blistering psych-soul vocals and wall of horns rap you upside the head like a set of heavenly brass knuckles. In a world of Chinese cowboy boots, a 400 lb. black man from Indiana is the only solution to the paradox of Michael Gira and George Strait wearing the same hat. Can't you see/hear what I mean? "A Change Is Gonna Come" ...

No, of course you can't.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Fuck you, you filthy (rich) hippie

I never really hated hippies until I moved to the southern suburbs of Los Angeles County. What was to hate, exactly? Hippies liked weed and peace and love and music. Why not dig that stuff? But something happened out here in South Bay towns like Torrance, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. The hippies got rich. They started smoking the most expensive weed (from Humboldt County). They started drinking the most expensive wine (from Napa Valley). They got the best cocaine. Which is all good. They’re pretty generous. So you go to their parties at their nice houses by the beach. You try to have a good time. Be social. But you can't. The problem is not just that they tell you exactly how expensive that glass of Cabernet or bag of skunk is. The real problem is they ALL have the following two albums, and they seem to ONLY have these two albums: The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. These two albums seem to be blasted non-stop from their expensive stereo systems. Speakers in every room. Outdoor speakers. You cannot escape hearing Jammin’ or Tequila Sunrise for the hundred millionth time. This is a buzz kill, no matter how many glasses of red or joints you consume. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear some CSN and/or Y to break things up.

It was after one of these parties that I truly began to understand SoCal punk. I began to grasp why South Bay bands like Black Flag and the Descendents wanted to get some distance from their rather round and bald neighbors. Even though Greg Ginn is a Dead fan, you’d be hard-pressed to hear Slip It In playing during a luau party in Redondo Beach.

Instead South Bay punks and their Orange County counterparts embraced things like Budweiser, heroin, speed, sobriety, Devo, the Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange or anything, ANYTHING other than the fucking Eagles (ask the Dude about the Eagles). I’ve met a lot of old school punks from these parts, and they all hate hippies. It’s a real us-against-them kind of thing here. This was the battleground, and the war is not forgotten.

This brings me to tonight’s selection: A fine Devo cover by the OC band D.I., who were part of the Adolescents family tree. What makes this extra special for me is that I bought this album for one reason: the song Richard Hung Himself, which is featured in Penelope Spheeris’s film Suburbia. The Devo tune is just a bonus track, but it outshines most of the preceding 8 tracks.

So anyway the D.I. record is called Team Goon and it was released about 1986. Aside from the Devo and the suicidal centerpiece, Team Goon also features some pretty entertaining cold war tunes like Nuclear Funeral and Reagan Der Fuhrer: “Reagan’s our Fuhrer/We need someone newer.” Things of that nature. Boy the 80's were rough, weren’t they? We were stuck with a conservative Republican commander in chief who seemed to love waging war in foreign lands. Good thing we’re not going through anything like that nowadays. Oh wait. Shit. Where’s my Budweiser?