Tuesday, March 31, 2009


In perhaps the biggest book-reading feat in my recent adult life, I finished the two-volume Elvis Presley biography by Peter Guralnick last week. All I can say is, it was a devastating experience. You can't come away from reading that much about Elvis Presley and not be a little bit obsessed with Elvis Presley. He's such a genre unto himself, it's almost pointless to try explaining how all-encompassing and metaphorical he is in American life and history, but suffice to say, more books could be written, probably are being written, and probably should be. The most obvious takeaway: He had a massive virgin/whore complex, and consequently also a bifurcated sense of America, a God-fearing Southerner of the Nixon-majority stripe who toted his collection of honorary police badges around with him in a leather bag, but also an Aquarian-age sexual libertine and man of social justice for whom jeweled bat capes, Edwardian collars and gold-plated belts were as American as apple pie. The center could not hold. It's sick, but there's no end to the pleasure in reading about a man who bedded every 16-year-old he could get his mitts on while popping enough speed to kill a horse and injecting himself with Demerol every day -- and then spending his off-hours singing gospel hymns, praying with the same 16-year-old girls and regaling anyone who would listen with stories of his dearly departed mother.

What you'll find in the video clip above is astounding, to say the least. The bass playing by Jerry Scheff, who had at one time played with Coltrane and was generally regarded as a jazzhead, is the pulsing, crazy-fingers heart of Elvis stage act. I'm pretty sure this is from one of a string of hugely successful Vegas shows he did at the Hilton. He's not yet completely insane with drugs and depression yet -- not yet spending every day in a 30-foot bed drowning in prescription pills (prescribed by his own personal Dr. Feelgood) -- but you can see the eccentric signs of coming madness, including the karate master delusions and winking self-loathing. Knowing the detailed back story allows you to see layer upon layer in every moment. Caught in a trap. I can't walk out. Because I love you too much. It's savagely entertaining. Once you get past minute 2:30, you're off to the races. Just watch.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

You Know Who's Great? Nick Lowe

[Postscript added!]

You know how some Native-Americans assigned people "animal spirit" names to honor their connection to nature? If people were assigned pop spirits instead, honoring their connection to the sacred stereo, I think I'd be He Who Digs Nick Lowe. For me, it's the whole romantic disposition, the scalpel-sharp wit, the air-tight hooks, the warm, distinct production and wide-ranging genre-hopping -- it all adds up to a kind of musico-spiritual kinship. (Not that I'm worthy, but I try to live up to the example of my pop spirit.)

This was hammered home once again when I found Nick the Nife (1982) in a vinyl bin up in New Hampshire a couple weeks ago. Funny story, that: I was in a place called Bull Moose Records, which is a regional chain started in Brunswick, Maine, in 1989. I only know this because I moved to Maine in 1989 and was wandering around the sleepy village a few weeks before starting college when I found a tiny music shop on a back street with two greasy Bowdoin grads on the floor opening cases of new cassette tapes. The store was probably 14 feet by 14 feet, carpeted, florescent lights overhead, and the sole product was cassette tapes. I remember the guys were living in the back room in sleeping bags. It was barely a store, really. I was a new kid in town but happened to have a superior attitude about punk rock and so I started up a conversation, jibber-jabbering about Bad Brains and wiling away the afternoon trying to be cool. I wanted them to like me and I bought a Sonic Youth cassette. I think I probably showed up every day for the rest of the summer, too.

Well, you know how this story ends: They have this massive chain of record stores now. And they're great shops, too, lots of vinyl, packed with bored college kids wiling away their afternoons surfing the bins. What's the Maine motto? The way life should be. Anyway, I found this amazing Nick Lowe album there and now have to listen to these three songs over and over and over and over again because they're just so damned frickin perfect.

Heart - Nick Lowe

Let Me Kiss Ya - Nick Lowe

Raining Raining - Nick Lowe

And check out the completely different version of "Heart" from the Nick Lowe/Dave Edmunds supergroup Rockpile that came out the year before, it's also sensational:

Heart - Rockpile

Finally: I also found a vinyl copy of Rod Stewart's Never a Dull Moment (1972) at a used book store down the block and was rewarded with that increasingly rare music-lovers high that junkies absolutely need to live: a song that captures that mysterious amalgam of nostalgia and triumph and hits that least-expected-to-be-hit button just when you need it hit and the way you need it hit:

Lost Paraguayos - Rod Stewart


Finale of Seem

I’ve always thought it would be hard to come up with a list of core tenets for the NPR/Murrow feature “This I Believe.” Whenever I hear the segment I think: What do I believe? These days belief is more a matter of seeming and feeling than anything else. But one thing I believe is this: the Papercuts make lovely music. The sound of the organ is pervasive. You might want to say something about being “blanketed” or “bathed” in organ, except that that sounds kind of gross. You’re definitely awash in something. It’s a little like Stereolab as conceived by Brian Jones or Lee Hazlewood, factor in Mazzy Star, factor out the futuristic French disco, and divide by a vast sun-bleached desert.

“Future Primitive” - Papercuts

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Life In This World Is But Preparation

My wife and I are pretty big fans of the films of Werner Herzog. (We might be a little too into him, actually). He always seems to have interesting music in his movies; The White Diamond comes to mind (I'd recommend that one, fer shur). The other night we watched Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which is about a German fellow who joined the U.S. Air Force during the Viet Nam War, and was shot down and taken prisoner in Laos. He eventually escaped and was rescued, and seemed to cheat death many other times as well. (Herzog based Rescue Dawn on Dieter's story--it's the Hollywood version, I guess). I realized that there's usually something that borders on sadism in his movies--he had Dieter reenact certain episodes from his trials in the jungle; in The White Diamond he has the central figure go over the death of his close friend, in agonizing detail; in Grizzly Man there's a scene in which he listens to a recording of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend being mauled by a bear, while telling Treadwell's friend she should destroy the recording. I don't know, maybe these things are cathartic or something, and maybe "sadism" is too strong a word, but it's kind of disturbing nonetheless.
Anyway, the point of this post is that at the very end of Little Dieter Needs to Fly Herzog uses some of the best music I've ever heard, so I have to thank him for that. There's this amazing footage of acres and acres of desert covered in airplanes of all shapes and sizes. It just goes on and on, and it almost starts to look like an installation (it reminded me of the character in Don DeLillo's Underworld who is working on an art project in the desert, using old Air Force planes). The music is from Madagascar, and was recorded in the 1930s. Thanks to the great Yazoo label, there's a cd that I was able to go on Amazon and order, and I had it in a few days...there's something, well, awesome but disconcerting about that... The main instrument is called a valia, which reminds me a little of the gamelan (the woman in the picture above is holding one). You can hear some violin as well. There's something about the voices that's just so moving; the harmonies are so beautiful. Both of these tunes are by a group called Hiran'ny Tanoran'ny Ntao Lo.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I’ve always been kind of suspicious of exercise. Over the years I developed a lot of elaborate justifications for my hostility. First it was some sort of logical fallacy, or bogus rhetorical leap, equating it with sports and competition. If you sort of hated the football players and wrestling dudes in high school, you could lapse into hating everything they liked, just to keep your identity in line. If they liked beer, we liked weed. If they liked Guns N Roses, we liked Black Sabbath. It was easy. If they liked exercise, we liked not. Or maybe it had something to do with my genetic inheritance. My peasant feet were made for tromping through a potato field. They never looked good in slim running shoes. And then there was the whole muscular Christianity of the gym. Physical self-improvement seemed so unaccepting of the nature of things, of decrepitude. Not to mention the seven deadly sins, which eat had its charm.

Listen to “The Jogger,” a funny anti-jogging tirade from what must have been the early days of the past-time’s popularity. It was written by Shel Silverstein, as were many of the songs on Lullabys, Legends and Lies. Bobby Bare was kind of like a cross between Roger Miller and Jerry Jeff Walker, with boozy humor on the one side and boozy something else on the other.

Qualudes again, just for fun.

“The Jogger” – Bobby Bare

“Qualudes Again” – Bobby Bare

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ohne Krimi Geht Die Mimi Nie Ins Bett (and other songs from my youth)

         This happy looking fella is named Bill Ramsey, but to my siblings and me he'll always be Uncle Bill.  He's originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and my dad has known him for the longest time.  Uncle Bill taught himself how to play piano when he was a teenager, and went into the Army in the '50s and was stationed in Germany.  He started doing a lot of playing and recording there, and eventually became a really popular singer and entertainer, singing in both English and German.  It's one of those unusual, quintessentially American stories.  He'd always send us his records, so we'd sing along with these really catchy German pop songs (without having any idea what we were saying, of course).  He had a sort of ladybug mascot he called Maria Kafer, so he would also send us things with ladybugs on them, or made to look like a ladybug (I remember a little ladybug watch with wings that opened to reveal the watch face).   He'd come to visit us occasionally, and he always struck me as one of those larger-than-life characters--great sense of humor, warm and incredibly generous.  My parents are still in touch with him (he's probably in his seventies now), and as a matter of fact they're going over to visit him this August.  Recently my brother discovered that there are some Youtube videos of him, so have a look.                    
                                                            This ties in quite nicely with a recent find at the crazy                                                                   cat lady's store, down in the small South Carolina town where
my in-laws live.  (I've written about her & her funky                  bookstore once before).  I swear, it's the oddest thing--I always find something of interest there, and tolerating the rank odors,  dust and her nuttiness is always worth it.  (Although I have to say that the odors weren't quite as bad this last time). This is a compilation of German bands from the early '80s.  I loved the title and the cover, so I pretty much decided to get it regardless of what was on it.  There's a track by Trio, who I think are pretty great (I  have one of their albums somewhere--come to think of it, where the hell is that one?!?--that has the song "Broken Hearts (for you & me)" on it, which is such a great tune).  They were the only band on the record that I knew, so that made it even more appealing.  It's a funny little record, and it must be fairly obscure 'cause I couldn't find an image of it on the web.  "Anna" must've been one of Trio's early hits, and it's kind of plodding & endearing at the same time.  I like all the noises and the woman laughing in "Zauberstab".  The third tune, I guess I just liked the lady's voice.  This is definitely a cool, weird time capsule, so if you ever come across a copy of it you should take it home and curl up with it.  You know how cuddly Germans can be.

Monday, March 09, 2009

That's Rich

Share Your Love With Me - Charlie Rich

FLASHBACK: The link to Mr. Poncho's previously-issued Rich-ness has expired, so here it is again. I wish like hell I'd remembered this for last year's Snap, Crackle & Pop compilation, but you can rest assured it will appear this year, it's just too damned good:

I Lost My Heart to You - Charlie Rich