Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Remembering the Rockman

Today was my last day of teaching for the semester. I wrapped up my course on music technology on something of an odd note, but one that I thought raised some provocative questions. We'd been spending the last weeks of the semester talking about the effects of digitization on the music industry, with journalist Steve Knopper's polemic Appetite for Self-Destruction as our guide. We've talked about the development of MP3 technology, and about Apple's successful plan of using music to market new hardware with its simultaneous promotion of iTunes and its various mobile listening devices. And we've stressed the ways in which portability has superseded fidelity as the optimal feature for music consumers.

All of this raised important questions about the connection between music technology, listening and consumption. But it left questions about music production and creativity largely to the side. So, to bring things back around, I spent a good chunk of today's class discussing the brief history of the Rockman.

Anyone out there remember the Rockman? None of my students did, which is no great shock since this thing's heyday was nearly thirty years ago when most of my students weren't born. But, the Rockman marked a pretty fascinating early instance of trying to take portable music technology and make it something useful for musicians, not only for music listeners. The name, of course, was a play on the famous Sony Walkman, but the function was singular: a portable guitar preamp designed to be played through headphones, and with built-in distortion, chorus and echo effects that were considered state of the art as guitar effects were concerned.

That the device was designed by Boston guitarist (and MIT-schooled) Tom Scholz only added to the peculiar mystique of the thing.

Personally, I never liked the Rockman all that much. I never owned one but a good friend of mine did, and it didn't quite have the quality of distortion that I liked to have. But others disagreed, and the Rockman made an impact in its day, less for its portability than for giving guitarists a range of valued sounds in a compact, affordable package.

With all the current interest in music's portability, I'm surprised more people haven't been drawn to recall the Rockman. Any time spent with the iTunes app store will show an awful lot of apps made for the new generation of portable devices that seem to try to do something akin to the Rockman, to appeal to musicians' desire for a range of ways to manipulate sound in an accessible and compact package. Luckily for me, Tom Scholz himself seems to put a lot of stock in preserving the history of his own efforts, and he's designed a website devoted to the Rockman that has a remarkable amount of information about its history. Worthy checking out for those who want to explore this unusual bit of music technology:


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

War Is Heavy Metal

That's the working title of an essay I'm writing for what looks to be a really interesting anthology devoted to popular music in the post-9/11 era. Not my usual topic, insofar as I tend not to write about things so current as the past decade, but it's given me the occasion to read up on some of the really interesting literature that's appeared concerning the cultural politics of the "War on Terror."

I'll be writing on the recurrence of heavy metal music in the soundtracks to a variety of Iraq War-related films. Earlier today I watched the first half-hour of Soundtrack to War, a fairly obscure documentary (far as I know, at least) dedicated to the place of music in the experiences of the soldiers stationed in Iraq. Michael Moore used footage from this film in his own documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. It's pretty fascinating, and has a great sequence about 20 minutes in revolving around a soldier who's into "gore metal," and is playing guitar while explaining how the music he likes is so suited to being at war. I'm taking the title of my essay from this scene, where after playing through a riff on his guitar, the guy says "War is heavy metal" and flashes the devil horns. \m/ (Is that how it goes? I'm not much for emoticons...)

Below is the link to the whole film, which is available through Google video. Definitely worth a look:


(I tried to embed the video but somehow it didn't work; the link will do for the curious though.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Keith Richards' Race Thing

Over the years I've had people question the degree to which I focus on race, or the ways in which I focus on race, in my approach to the study of rock music. Some students who take my rock history class - not all, or a majority, but definitely some - have complained in their evaluations about how much time we spend in class talking about race. I start my rock history course with lectures on blues, bluegrass, and blackface minstrelsy, and make it clear that from my perspective, rock 'n' roll is born not just from the intermingling of white and black musical styles, but from white fascination with blackness as that thing which is culturally marked as alluring and forbidden in roughly equal measure.

My book on the history of the electric guitar, Instruments of Desire, is steeped in similar arguments, and when it came out, some reviewers took me to task in the way that some of my students have done, wondering why the story of race and rock should be made to sound ridden with conflict rather than conciliation, as though music could only erase difference rather than reinforce it. I've always found such perspectives frustrating, as have many other scholars who study race. They arise out of the belief that color blindness is the best way forward, a belief that chooses to circumvent the continuing power of race rather than recognize it more directly and address it head on.

I'm now in the midst of reading Keith Richards' new autobiography, Life, and these issues have arisen anew for me. It's a great read - Richards is a good storyteller, his voice captured well by co-writer James Fox; and there are loads of revealing anecdotes that say as much about the larger context in which rock music took root in the UK in the late '50s/early '60s as they say about the specific history of Richards and the Stones.

The book opens with a rousing tale of a near drug bust in the mid '70s when the Stones were touring through the Southern U.S. In the middle of the account, though, Richards falls into flashback mode, recalling the dangers of traveling through the South in the mid 1960s as a group of long-haired Englishmen, disdained by the locals and only finding comfort on the other side of the tracks. By Richards' account, while white Southerners were bent on calling him and his band mates "girls" for their unseemly long hair, black Southerners were far more open minded. "You got welcomed, you got fed and you got laid. The white side of town was dead, but it was rockin' across the tracks. Long as you knew cats, you was cool." (p. 8)

All of which is mere prelude to a more extended riff by Richards concerning the wonders of a Mississippi juke joint for a group of white, blues-worshiping Brits. Richards' words here are worth quoting at length:

"And there'd be a band, a trio playing, big black fuckers and some bitches dancing around with dollar bills in their thongs. And then you'd walk in and for a moment there's almost a chill, because you're the first white people they've seen in there, and they know that the energy's too great for a few white blokes to really make much difference ... But then we got to get back on the road. Oh shit, I could've stayed here for days. You've got to pull out again, lovely black ladies squeezing you between their huge tits ... I think some of us had died and gone to heaven, because a year before we were plugging London clubs, and we're doing all right, but actually in the next year, we're somewhere we thought we'd never be. We were in Mississippi." (p. 9)

I've edited this passage a bit but the long version is every bit as suggestive. It's remarkable, first of all, that here in 2010 such unabashed racial exoticism is still every bit as potent as it was back in 1965 when Richards is writing about, or 40 years before that, and so on. It's also so telling that this comes within the opening pages of Richards' autobiography. These reflections are clearly meant to lay the foundation for all that is to come, for the deep immersion in the blues that Richards and his cohort experienced, for the intensive effort to reproduce the sounds they heard on records by Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and a host of others. Richards' impressions of black Mississippi don't invalidate anything that he's accomplished - indeed I'm sure in the eyes of many readers they precisely authenticate his dedication to the real, the true, the Southern blues life blood that birthed rock and roll.

In my reading, what these passages reveal is how much racial reality and racial fantasy are inextricable in the realm of rock, or popular culture more generally. I wouldn't necessarily call Richards' impressions racist, but I would observe - and more strongly, I'd assert - that his perceptions are steeped not in the "real" stuff of Southern blackness but in Richards' own search for something outside of himself with which he could identify so as to reinforce his own standing as outlaw, rebel, outsider. White men have been turning to their imagined notions of blackness for two centuries or more to fulfill similar desires, with results that have been mixed in more ways than one.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Right wing folk-rock

I'm teaching a course on suburbia this semester called "In the Burbs: Culture, Politics, Identity," and we're currently covering the role of the suburbs in the rise of the New Right during the 1960s and 1970s. Scanning the internet for source material that might liven up the classroom, I came upon the following music clip on YouTube. The singer is Janet Greene, and the song is called "Fascist Threat." It is a trip, to say the least, and not in a good way, but so fucked up I had to share:

Greene was apparently hired by an anti-Communist crusader named Fred Schwarz to provide a soundtrack to the growing far-right movement of the time. As I told my students, this stuff wasn't especially popular and with good reason, but it shows how the political right was attentive to the power of popular culture and sought to appropriate it for its own ends. The roots of the Tea Party movement, on some level, lie here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Stepping on Stage

I haven't written about it much on this blog, but I'm a guitarist. I've been playing since I was 9 years old, more or less, which means I've been playing more than 30 years now. And, I'm pretty good. A bit rough around the edges. After all, despite my music department affiliation, I'm almost entirely self-taught. I read music, but like many if not most rock guitarists I mainly play by ear. More to the point, my technique is a bit of a hodge-podge. I more or less flail about with my right (picking) hand, I can play fast staccato only up to a point before I lose my grounding, especially when I have to switch from one string to another. My left hand is more reliable and I can work up a good head of steam when I'm playing in a more legato (hammer-on and pull-off) manner. But there's a lot of imperfection in my approach, which is mostly fine but sometimes I wish it were otherwise.

Here's the thing - because there's gotta be a thing right? In all my years of playing, I've almost never been in a band, and haven't even spent all that much time playing with other people. As a musician I'm something of a lone wolf. Which is how I am in most other areas of my life, I guess, so no harm done. But, it means my playing is done almost entirely in private - my public appearances over the years have been few and far between. And thus, when I do play in public it's sort of a big deal, for me if no one else.

I made one of my rare appearances this past Saturday night. The occasion was typically Smith: the annual "Montage" concert, held during Family Weekend, when all the parents come to visit their collegiate offspring and are shown the College's idea of a good time. The concert is designed to showcase most of the main performing groups at Smith: orchestra, glee club, chorus, handbell choir (!), wind ensemble, and the many a capella singing groups. So where did I fit in? I was a guest soloist of sorts, playing lead guitar for a version of Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time," with a small rock band comprising myself, the orchestra/glee club conductor Jonathan on bass, the department accompanist Jerry on rhythm guitar, and a student named Jamie on drums. Oh yes, and the college organist, Grant, playing the giant pipe organ in the College's biggest public auditorium. Did I mention that we were accompanying the combined glee club and chorus, who provided the vocals? Does this sound as weird as I think it does?

Thing is, it was kind of a hoot, in its way. There's something so incongruous about playing lead guitar at a College event meant to boost the family spirit, and at the same time such incongruities are pretty much what I've based most of my life around. I played through my little 10 watt Line 21 amp and was easily audible above 100 unmiked voices. The audience was pretty big - I'd guess 1500 or so - and genuinely appreciative. And truth be told, I tore it up. Sure I hit a few bum notes here and there but I don't think anyone cared enough to notice. And today when I walked into class one of my students said my solo on Saturday "melted" her face, which I guess is a good thing. So, in tribute to coming momentarily out of my shell, here's some Boston for ya.

Boston · Long Time
Uploaded by efrarr. - Explore more music videos.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The State of the Record Industry

Last week, out of the blue, I started getting free issues of Rolling Stone delivered to my mailbox. I have no idea why, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so as long as they keep coming, I'll keep reading them. I'm not especially keen on the magazine's music coverage these days - they have some good writers on staff but the choices they make about who to feature betray their Boomer orientation far too much (the lead reviews in the two issues I've received thus far were of albums by Neil Young and Eric Clapton, respectively; not exactly finger-on-the-pulse-of-popular-culture choices). But, they do some of the better left-oriented political reporting to be found in such a mainstream publication, and that's reason enough to pay attention.

What has me writing though, is a piece by U2 manager Paul McGuinness that appeared in the September 30 issue, titled "How to Save the Music Business." [Addendum: After doing a bit of online research, I see that this article is an abridged version of one that appeared in the British version of GQ, which you can access here.]

I should note up front that I'm not much of a U2 fan. Sure, I have some of their albums and there is some very good music on them. But the band's - and specifically Bono's - self-righteous sense of purpose has never sat well with me. I like it when I agree with a band's politics, but I don't like people with messiah complexes and Bono has one in spades, something that came through loud and clear back when I saw the band play in 1987 on the Joshua Tree tour.

So, apparently, does the group's manager, McGuinness, who sets himself up as the man with the plan to "save" the music industry in this article. What the industry needs to be saved from, as I'm sure you can guess, is the free circulation of music that has been growing by leaps and bounds for the past decade due to the expanding reach of the internet. This is hardly news, but McGuiness tries to insist that the time is approaching when people are more willing to see that the free circulation of music has a down side that might outweigh the benefits.

McGuinness makes one salient point in this article: that "free" music isn't simply free, but relies on the availability of high-speed internet service, the provision of which is a major source of revenue for various large telecomm corporations. True enough. And he's also justified in claiming that access to free music and other similar content has been one of the major engines that has led to such a growth in the demand for such services.

Where he loses me and, I'm sure, many others who care about these matters, is in his effort to paint the music industry as a victim within this process. If McGuinness was willing to acknowledge the industry's own power as a cultural gatekeeper and a profit engine that generates a lot more income for record industry workers than for artists, his efforts would be on more solid ground. But he writes from the perspective of someone whose clients are the members of one of the most lucrative performing entities in the history of rock, who have a vested interest in the existing state of the music industry that isn't shared by those on the bottom rungs of the ladder to success.

There is an arrogance in McGuinness's perspective that's hard to miss. It's the same arrogance that I so often detect in Bono, such that even when he's speaking on behalf of something I fully support, I feel skeptical. When McGuinness asserts that "it is facile to blame record companies" for the economic dilemma they face, he just seems to be declaiming any responsibility on the part of those within the industry. He tries to make it sound like "free" music is taking money away from those who rightly deserve it, meaning the creative artists and those who serve them. But, realistically, following the logic of his own argument, it's more about one set of large corporations (telecomm companies) siphoning money away from another (record companies). Of course, even this paints too black and white a picture since in the current media environment, no major record company exists that is not part of some larger entertainment conglomerate. And where artists are concerned, the evidence I've seen suggests that they are just as likely to benefit from the free flow of musical information as they are to lose from it. For every group that loses some royalties they may otherwise have earned, there are probably five who gain access to listeners they may never have reached otherwise, which could mean more attendance at shows, more merch sales, or even sales of music that might otherwise never see the light of day.

I'm no utopian thinker when it comes to the potential of digital media. Like anything, the new technology (which isn't all that new anymore) has its ups and downs. Truth be told, I don't even download much "free" music. As I've written elsewhere on this blog, I'm old school in my listening habits. I like vinyl, I still buy lots of CD's, and I don't own an iPod or particularly enjoy listening to music through my computer. But I think the free circulation of music has benefits that outweigh the costs. The biggest such benefit is that it has brought loads of music back into circulation that had long been unavailable, and the commercial record labels would have no reason to reissue because of the lack of potential for profit. Having such an archive available, unruly and disorganized as it is, is all the justification I need not to let record industry interests dictate the flow of music.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stooges Reflections, Long Overdue

"Iggy is like a matador baiting the vast dark hydra sitting afront him – he enters the audience frequently to see what’s what and even from the stage his eyes reach out searchingly, sweeping the joint and singling out startled strangers who’re seldom able to stare him down. It’s your stage as well as his and if you can take it away from him, why, welcome to it. But the King of the Mountain must maintain the pace, and the authority, and few can. In this sense Ig is a true star of the rarest kind – he has won that stage, and nothing but the force of his own presence entitles him to it."

That was Lester Bangs writing back in 1970, in one of the best pieces of rock criticism ever to see the light of day. Back then, Iggy Pop shattered the rock and roll proscenium in ways that were unprecedented. His presence on stage was uncanny in its physicality and the audience had to always be on its toes when Iggy was on the stage due to his tendency to call people out or move from the stage to the floor and back again at a time when such things were far from ordinary.

Now, 40 years later, Iggy's stage diving isn't quite as radical as it once was. That's the price of being influential...what was disruptive is now just another part of the show. Not that it's not still a kick to see 60-something Iggy, his body withered but still lean and mean, jump head first into the crowd, or wander into the audience with mic in hand, singing while getting up close and personal, as he did several times during the Stooges recent show at the Boston House of Blues. But the charge of novelty is no longer there. The kick comes from seeing an old veteran take ownership over the moves he pioneered way back when.

On the other hand, Iggy's willingness to break the boundary between stage and floor, audience and performer, moves in the other direction as well: yeah it's cool when he leaps into the crowd, but at this point in time his more radical move may be inviting the crowd to join him on the stage. He did this when I saw him play with the Stooges at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony back in March, but then it was a crowd full of rock stars and industry moguls and while a good little crowd joined him on stage it was mostly folks like Billie Joe Armstrong and Eddie Vedder. But at the House of Blues, it was a much bigger crowd who joined Iggy when he beckoned them to come onstage for the song "Shake Appeal" (a fun song from Raw Power, not necessarily the high point of the Stooges catalog but good nonetheless). I didn't count but I'd guess maybe 50, maybe 60 people went on stage, maybe more. And Iggy sang, and he danced, and they danced too, some basking in the spotlight, some trying to hog attention, some just happy to have a moment close to the star of the show. Men and women alike, they projected a genuine air of giddy enthusiasm, and Iggy seemed happy to have the company.

To really get the subversive character of this moment in the show, though, you had to keep your eyes on the bouncer. A bouncer's job is, at root, to preserve a certain modicum of order, and that order depends on making sure the stage stays clear of all unwanted intrusions. So what's a bouncer to do when the singer invites anyone who wants to join him up on stage? In this case, the bouncer tailed Iggy like his life depended on it. Iggy seemed like he could give a fuck - although maybe this was just part of his act, who knows - but the bouncer continually pried away anyone who got just a little too close. To his credit, he kept his cool. He recognized that Iggy was calling the shots and so, damn the usual club rules, he had to go along.

The real kicker, though, came when the song was over. "Shake Appeal" came fairly early in the set, and once it was done, the show was set to go on. But first, all those dozens of people who joined Iggy on stage had to get off, and that took a good 5 minutes at least. Awkward pause mingled with weirdly casual exchanges as the lucky several wanted to get their handshake in or just say hi to Iggy, who seemed somewhere between impatient and bemused by the whole thing. As just another guy on the floor, I found it a puzzling piece of showmanship but also kind of brilliant. Sure, Iggy was still the proverbial King of the Mountain when all was said and done, but in demonstrating his power he also showed himself a figure who was still willing and able to go against the grain of expectation.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On the Radio ... Again.

I seem to be developing a minor sideline as a radio personality, thanks to local DJ Monte Belmonte of 93.9, WRSI (the River). Those who have been reading this blog might recall that earlier this year I did a series of spots for the River celebrating Black History Month. Now, I've been doing a new set offering brief snapshots of key moments in rock history, timed to coincide with the start of the new school year in this valley that is so rich with institutions of higher learning. Those wanting to hear some samples of my on-air musical wisdom can find them here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

No fun? No, fun!

September's just a day a way, school is back in session in a week. What's an academic boy to do?

Go see Iggy and the Stooges, that's what!

I'm going to see them tonight at House of Blues in Boston. I saw the Stooges earlier this year when I attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in NYC (which I blogged about below). It was awesome but they only played two songs that night. So now I'll get to see them play a whole set.

I usually don't make a point of heading out of town for shows. Chalk it up to my non-driver status. But who would I make a special effort to see if not the Stooges? I mean, Iggy's on the cover of my book fer Chrissakes! (Look to your upper right for proof.) And amazingly this Boston show is only one of three U.S. shows they're doing to lead up to their appearance at the big All Tomorrow's Parties shindig next weekend in upstate New York. Thanks to my friend and neighbor Bob Moore for providing the evening's transport. Should be a real cool time.

A more detailed report to follow in the days to come...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sifting Through Memory for a Song

Anyone who's deeply into music has those moments when you have a song that has implanted itself in your consciousness somewhere along the way, but you can't quite remember what it is. I've had this happen more times than I can count, sometimes such that my effort to figure out what the song is has become borderline obsessive. I still remember as a teenager having a guitar melody in my head that I knew I'd heard before but could not for the life of me identify. Over the course of a couple years, it would come back in my head periodically, and its source was so elusive that I almost convinced myself that I'd made it up. Then, when I bought Jeff Beck's Truth album, I realized the melody that had been haunting me all those years was "Beck's Bolero."

Today I resolved another such mystery. Like many a guitar nut who came of age in the '80s, I love the guitar playing of Michael Schenker. The platinum blond German guitarist made some great solo albums after he left the pivotal hard rock/metal band UFO in the late 1970s. His output started to go down in quality though, by the later 1980s, when he teamed up with one of those driftless frontmen that seem to have a knack for teaming up with ace guitarists, a guy named Robin McAuley. I bought their first McAuley/Schenker group album, Perfect Timing, when it came out in 1987 and then, disappointed, I stopped paying attention. But a couple songs from that album have always remained in my head even though I've hardly listened to it over the past 20-odd years.

This afternoon, after listening to some tracks from the much superior Michael Schenker Group record, Assault Attack, I put on Perfect Timing, wanting to listen to those couple songs. Thing was, while I remembered one of the choicer cuts being the first song "Gimme Your Love," I couldn't remember the other one I liked best. And I didn't want to waste 40 minutes listening to the whole album. So I started putting the needle down on track after track - yes, I own this one on vinyl - until I found the song that fit my memory.

It turned out to be the next to last song on the album, called "I Don't Wanna Lose." It's something of a power ballad, and overall the song is fairly unexceptional. But it has a dramatic guitar solo, classic Schenker, that tears the song apart and redirects it for the minute or so that it lasts until the surrounding ordinariness reasserts itself. I was glad I rediscovered it, and I'm going to listen to it again as I soon as I post this. For the curious, here it is.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Time Keeps on Slipping: Popular Music Histories

I'm chairing the program committee for the upcoming conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, U.S. chapter. I'm trying to get the word out as widely as I can, so anyone reading this, feel free to pass it along to any interested parties or post it to any relevant listservs, forums, etc. Here's the call for papers:

International Association for the Study of Popular Music, U.S. Chapter – Call for Papers.

Time Keeps on Slipping: Popular Music Histories

The International Association for the Study of Popular Music, U.S. Chapter (IASPM-US) will hold its annual conference Mar. 9-13, 2011 in Cincinnati, OH, in a joint meeting with the Society for American Music.

We invite proposals for individual papers or panels of three or four presenters. Alternate presentation formats, such as lecture/performances and roundtable panels, will also be considered.

We welcome proposals concerning all facets of popular music in the U.S. and abroad, but especially encourage submissions that address the following themes:

Canonical Histories: What aspects of the popular music past have assumed greatest authority, and why? What sort of power do canons (of music, of scholarship, of criticism) exert over the writing of popular music history?

Alternative Histories: What parts of popular music’s past have gone unrecognized? How can we re-imagine popular music history through the lenses of:
- Race and ethnicity?
- Gender and sexuality?
- Nationality and colonialism?
- Cultural hierarchy (high, low, middlebrow)?
- Bodily ability and disability?
Conversely, how can the study of popular music in historical perspective help to shed new light on these critical subjects?

Archival Approaches: What sources can we use to uncover popular music’s many pasts, and where can we find them? How are musical archives changing in the digital age?

Historical Methods: What counts as “history,” and what role does history play, in the various disciplines and sub-disciplines that comprise the field of popular music studies?

Local Histories: How can we decipher popular music’s connection to specific places at specific points in time? How can we use the location of this year’s conference – Cincinnati, Ohio – as a starting point for reflection on aspects of popular music history?

The deadline for submissions is October 1, 2010. Proposals should be submitted electronically to Steve Waksman, chair of the program committee, at iaspmus2011@gmail.com. Individual presenters should submit a paper title, 250-word abstract, and author information including full name, institutional affiliation, email address and a one-page c.v. Please send abstract and c.v. as separate MSWord attachments. Panel proposals should also include a panel title and abstract for the whole session.

All presenters at the conference are required to be current members of IASPM-US. For membership information, go to www.iaspm-us.net.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thurston, Nate and Me

Who is that charming looking man at the right of the picture? Why that's me, your humble blogger. But I didn't post this picture because it's so flattering of yours truly. It's because of the company that surrounds me.

I came across this photo and the two below a couple weeks ago when I was cleaning out my office on campus. I had almost forgotten I had them - they were sitting amidst a huge pile of papers and I probably hadn't seen them for about four years. They were taken in 2002, during my first year teaching at Smith, and they capture an occasion worth recalling.

The occasion was a poetry reading by Nathaniel Mackey - he being the African American gentleman standing third from the left in the top photo. Mackey is a gifted, awe-inspiring poet, critic and prose writer. He is one of the nation's best, and he has a deep, abiding, passionate interest in music. I got to know his work through my friend and former professor Maria Damon, who turned me on to a series of prose fiction works that Mackey had written. The books are epistolary novels, following a running, years-long exchange between an experimental jazz musician named N. and his correspondent, named Angel of Dust. They go deep into the creative processes of making music, the cultural background of African American jazz, and the perils and pleasures of making difficult, demanding art. The books are titled, Bedouin Hornbook, Djbot Baghostus's Run, and Atet A.D.. They constitute some of the best fictional music writing I have ever encountered and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Encouraged by Maria, I had invited Mackey to give a reading at Bowling Green State University the year before this photo was taken and had a great time getting to know him. A year later, by coincidence, he was invited to give a reading at nearby UMASS by Peter Gizzi, another great poet and former colleague of Nate's who had just joined the UMASS writing department. Peter is standing to the left of Nate in the photo, with his wife Liz - another talented writer - on his other side. Nate knew that I had moved to Smith, recommended to Peter that he invite me to the reading, and that's why I'm in the picture with them all.

But of course there's more to the story, because at the center of the image is Thurston Moore, co-guitarist, singer and indie-rock demi-god member of Sonic Youth. I can't claim to be friends with Thurston but he's lived in this neck of the woods longer than I have and, unsurprisingly, our interests intersect enough that we often wind up at the same events. He's had a long standing interest in various sorts of avant-garde activity and so there he was at Mackey's reading, accompanied by a mutual friend, Michael Ehlers, who is hidden in the top photo but standing next to Thurston in the one below (Michael just moved away from Northampton a year or so ago after living here for years; he was the head of the great independent free jazz record label Eremite, and put on some amazing shows here over the years before he left).

On a closing note, I need to acknowledge the photographer, who goes unseen. Her name was Lori Kemp, and she was a student at Smith during my first year. She was a non-traditional aged student (we call them Adas, for the program that admits them) with a punk rock past, and accompanied me to the reading with camera in hand. I haven't seen her for years so Lori, if by some chance you come across this post, drop a line and say hey.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

1001 baby!

That's 1001 records, which is how many I own now that I went on a bit of a spree after my last post. That's one thing about keeping a blog - writing about something can reflect what's on your mind but can also make something implant itself in your head all the stronger. After I wrote about my recent record buying experience I just kept thinking about how much I wanted to buy even more records. And so I did.

(Part of me is tempted to go off on some extensive tangent concerning how this impulse of mine is so much emblematic of consumer culture in general, the way that desire to purchase and own some thing builds irrationally, such that it seems impulsive, almost beyond one's control...but I'll leave it at that).

I made one of my periodic trips to the neighboring town of Amherst, which I do every now and then because I get sick of sitting in the exact same couple of coffee shops every day, but also because Amherst has music buying options that Northampton lacks. Specifically, in this case, Mystery Train Records.

Now, in my last post I went on about some of my mixed feelings concerning the used record selection at Turn It Up! in downtown Northampton. My feelings about Mystery Train are also mixed but for different reasons. This is a place where used vinyl remains the main attraction, which in itself makes it a fairly rare and special place. The problem is that as with so many used record shops I have visited in my time, the inventory doesn't turn over often enough. The "new" bin is always pretty well stocked but when you go into their regular stacks of old used stuff you just see the same things over and over for months or in some cases even years on end.

This seems even more true since the store moved from their old location next to Amherst Brewing Company to a new, less central location just down the street. The new Mystery Train has its charms - it's in a quaint little house tucked away at the end of a dirt driveway, kinda cool. But it also seems half the size of the old location despite there being two floors, and while I haven't asked to confirm I'm sure they keep less stuff out for browsing than they used to. Which is a bummer given how few good places there are to shop for used vinyl in the first place.

Part of the upshot of this situation is that if I'm really in the mood to buy something, as I was on this particular day, then I will often wind up buying something I only sort of want, something I've probably looked at literally 100 times before and decided that I didn't especially want or need but after so much exposure decide that maybe I'll take it after all. Of the eight albums I bought on this particular day, the one that most fits that description is Queen's News of the World. Not that it's a bad album, but like so many of Queen's albums it's a mixed bag and I already own some of the more choice cuts on various compilations. But, on this particular day it suddenly had an appeal it hadn't before, and it was decently priced at $4.50 to boot, so it became mine.

As for the rest, eclecticism was the order of the day. One thing I was happy with was that my desire to bring home a good selection (and break that 1000 records mark) led me to look a little harder in certain sections I don't always pore over. In this case that meant giving a good hard look at the Soul/R&B albums, three of which I took home with me, including Rags to Rufus by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan which has some great 1970s funk tracks. But this leads to one last bit of whining, which is that it was a very hot day and the upstairs of Mystery Train, where the regular stash of used records are kept, is not air conditioned and must have been damn near 100 degrees in there. I'll mark it as a sign of my ridiculous dedication to the task at hand that I didn't let the heat deter me.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Old Records

I just did something I haven't done for too long: bought some records - meaning vinyl. Not that it's been months and months but it's been a while. Access to used vinyl around these parts has been more limited ever since Dynamite Records closed shop last summer (about which I blogged at the time). There are other shops in the Pioneer Valley but nothing else right in downtown Northampton that has quite the standing selection that Dynamite always had. And for a transportationally challenged guy like me (read: I don't drive a car) that's a big bummer.

Another used music shop is downtown, Turn It Up, but their vinyl collection has never quite had the depth to keep me sifting through the shelves on a regular basis - they've always specialized in CD's with LP's as a sidebar. It does seem though, that with Dynamite gone they've been making more space for records in the very crowded store. I still find their selection to be more miss than hit (and always suspect that they weed out most of the good stuff for themselves before they put anything out for general consumption) but on my recent trip I scored more than the usual array of good finds, coming home with four records to add to my collection.

Of course, shopping for used records always involves some complicated decisions about what counts as a worthy purchase. The desirability of the music as music rests alongside considerations of cost and of the condition of the record (both the disc itself and its cover material). When I buy used vinyl I find myself buying things I'd never buy on CD but that I find have a certain charm in the vinyl format, and that I'm willing to bring home if the price is right. In this case, all four of the albums I bought cost a mere $2 each, and all were in decent condition (covers a bit worn in a couple cases but the records themselves in good playable shape, with the expected cracks and pops here and there that vinyl fans believe to "add character").

So what'd I buy? Here's the rundown:

Journey, Infinity. An ironic purchase in light of my last post, Journey's first album featuring singer Steve Perry. First side is pretty fine, lots of short catchy songs strung together. Second side has hit "Wheel in the Sky" and then falls into less scintillating territory, almost prog-like at times.

Bonnie Raitt, Give It Up. Her debut album from the early 1970s. I've always meant to give her a closer listen so finally made the plunge. A nice album, bluesy and mostly acoustic but with great horn accompaniment on several cuts. Almost has a Little Feat kind of vibe at times which is okay by me.

Foghat, Fool for the City. This was my find of the day. I've been looking for a good copy of this for a while, as a supplement to their great Live which I've owned since I was a kid. After one listen, I like it but Live remains my go-to album, forty minutes of unrelenting rock. (I could write a whole other post on my fondness for live hard rock albums from the 1970s, and maybe I will some time).

Chic, Risque. I haven't listened to this one yet, but it's the album that contained the absolutely classic "Good Times," and even though I already own that song on a greatest hits collection, I'm eager to hear it in the context of the original full length LP.

Having begun to catalog my music collection a few years ago, I can say with ridiculous accuracy that these purchases bring my vinyl collection up to 992. I don't know why I care but I'm looking forward to breaking 1000 before summer's over.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I'm a little slower on the uptake than usual now that it's summer, but having watched the season finale of Glee last week, I was left wondering: what the hell is up with the Journey revival that's been going on in recent years?

When the makers of The Sopranos decided to end the series in the midst of "Don't Stop Believin'," you couldn't miss the irony, but at the same time Journey was clearly used because of how much the band stands so powerfully for a certain moment in time, and also for how they are an ultimate object of derision for hipster music snobs (which David Chase and co. clearly were - and so am I, but more on that below). It was like they were saying, this is Tony's idea of a great song, but we know it's a giant ball of cheese, and the fact that Tony would hear this as a song about faith is a sign that he in fact has no future to speak of.

But when the same song appeared as one of the big hits from the first half of the first season of Glee, that irony was more or less gone. Or maybe not gone, but seriously transfigured. Yes, Glee is campy as all get out, but it's also got a strong nugget of sentimental sincerity lurking not so far beneath its glittery surface. And that mix of sincerity and camp that drives the show is what makes the Journey repertoire so perfect for its singers to sing - thus the Glee season finale featured a long, protracted medley/mash-up of Journey songs, designed to let Lea Michele flaunt her high notes for all they were worth, like Steve Perry in drag. Journey was a schlock band comprised of a bunch of serious musos, guys who could play the hell out of their instruments - and often did - but that chose very self-consciously to play to the tastes of the top 40 audience. They perfected the power ballad and created songs with lots of aural drama. Whether their music had any "real" emotion in is harder to be definitive about but in their peak years (up to the Escape album, which has "Don't Stop Believin'") they sure knew how to go for the emotional jugular.

Now, lest I let my snobbery get the best of me, I'll admit that back when the band was creating most of its biggest hits I was smack dab in the midst of its target audience, and I bought it. I only own two Journey albums - the live Captured and of course, Escape - but I played the hell out of them when I was a kid and a lot of the songs are still pretty well fresh in my mind. And with all the Journey that's been in the air in recent years, I've been moved to go back to those albums and remind myself of what's there. And it ain't all bad. I won't wax on much more about the good and the bad of old Journey, but I will state my strong affinity for one of their songs that has largely been overlooked in the current revival.

"Stone in Love" is the second song on Escape and it probably stands as my favorite song by the band. It's a good, straight, hard rocking tune - not a power ballad - but it does have a twist, in the form of an instrumental coda that ranks with the best of another melodic hard rock band of the time, Boston. As a guitarist, Neal Schon had a tendency to overplay at times but here he creates a strong melody and builds a solo around it in the song's final minute that preserves its integrity but takes enough liberties to make things interesting and indeed, push them to the next level. For the last year or so I've been playing it often - it's usually the only song I play from the album - and I always get a rush from playing along with it on my guitar.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Let's hear it for the Sound Strike. Leave it to Zack de la Rocha to spearhead a movement among musicians to boycott the state of Arizona, in protest of the state's horribly oppressive and patently racist new immigration law. Some interesting folks have signed on to the protest. Pitchfork, in their story on the boycott, name checks a good list of rap and indie rock luminaries (Kanye West, Sonic Youth, Conor Oberst) but I think it's really important to note that they're joined by Spanish language groups like Los Tigres del Norte and Cafe Tacuba. And, a big shout out to Joe Satriani, one not-so-indie rocker (at least not in his preferred style) who's willing to align himself with the movement.

Below is a link to the Sound Strike site. It has a petition on it addressed to President Obama, for which they're hoping to get 100,000 signatures.


* * *

Completely unrelated postscript: I'm watching the finale of American Idol right now, and swear that the producers have been watching too much Yacht Rock (do people know yacht rock? completely awesome video series; look for it on YouTube). Seriously, the musical guests so far have included Michael McDonald, Hall and Oates and the Bee Gees and the arrangements are about as warmed over as could be. Why am I surprised? Yet somehow I'm not amused.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A spate of recent music videos, all by female artists, is apparently stirring a bit of controversy. I wasn't especially aware of the controversy until a reporter for the daily Metro newspaper contacted me for an interview. After watching all the videos I was more impressed by some than others, but one in particular left a strong impression: MIA's new video for her song, "Born Free." It's pretty great in my opinion, but also designed to shock. Some of the violence is surprisingly graphic so those especially sensitive to such things beware but I think this is definitely worth watching:


You can read my observations about this and the other videos (by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, Erykah Badu, and Christina Aguilera) by following this link, to the Metro news story by Pat Healy. I don't especially like the title of the story (unnecessary reference to bad softcore porn), but I do rather like the way he plays my comments off of those of a "marketing strategist," makes for an interesting quasi-dialogue.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Who Shot Rock & Roll? That question is the title for an exhibit of rock photography that is currently showing at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA, after having started life at the Brooklyn Museum. Tomorrow (Sunday, May 9), I'll be leading a guided walking tour through the exhibit, offering insights on the way that photography allows us to trace a particular sort of visual history of rock, and how it allows us to reflect on the status of rock performers as public icons, on the one hand, and private individuals on the other (but whose privacy is something we want to peer into precisely because of their public stature). There are some great photos and great photographers on view in the exhibit. Here are four:

Bob Dylan on the streets of Liverpool, 1966, by Barry Feinstein

Fans outside Buckingham Palace fighting for a glimpse of the Beatles, 1965, by Central Press Ltd.

The Ramones at Eric's Club in Liverpool, 1977, by Ian Dickson.

Kurt Cobain at the Motor Sports International Garage, Seattle, 1990, by Ian Tilton.

Here's a link to info about the exhibit, and my tour tomorrow, which starts at 2 pm:


Thursday, April 22, 2010

This afternoon (Thursday, April 22, 2010) I'll be lecturing at Williams College on Iggy and the Stooges, presenting material taken from This Ain't the Summer of Love. A reporter for the Albany Times Union did a brief email interview with me to preview the talk; here's a link:


The talk will be at 4:15 in the Brooks-Rogers recital hall at Williams, if anyone is able to make it on such short notice.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Boy it's been a while since I've posted anything here. It's been a busy stretch, during which I've seen some great music. The Hold Steady played here a little over a week ago and were quite fine. Singer Craig Finn exuded way more charisma on stage than I would have expected, of a funny nervous sort, but very entertaining nonetheless. I love the fact that a band so entrenched in '70s arena rock has somehow managed at the same time to gain so much indie cred. They cop Springsteen's best moves so well they almost make me want to listen to Springsteen himself. But then when I do I'm reminded that I've never liked him all that much. Hold Steady is like Springsteen cut with a heavy dose of AC/DC and then a strong sprinkle of angst put on top. Works for me.

More recently I was in New Orleans, for the annual IASPM-US conference (that's International Association for the Study of Popular Music - U.S. chapter for those who don't know). Good conference, and nice that it coincided with the French Quarter Festival, something of a lead-in to the massive New Orleans Jazz Fest that's about to start. Last Friday I cut out of the conference early and made my way to the Festival. It was an absolutely beautiful spring day in New Orleans, about 75 degrees, sunny, and hardly any humidity (!). Spent lots of time wandering between stages and around the French Quarter. Amidst it all, two bands stood out.

The Zydepunks are, as the name would suggest, the sort of hybrid creation that would only exist in a place like New Orleans. These guys (and one gal) have the look of a modern punk band, with tattoos all over and downtrodden hipster fashion sense. But their instrumentation tells a different story: the standard rock rhythm section of electric bass and drums, but on top of which are two burning fiddle players, an accordion player, and one guy who switched between fiddle and accordion, seemingly equally comfortable with each. The sound was like great Cajun music on amphetamines and full of good spirit.

Even cooler were the 101 Runners, a heavily funky jam band-esque group that featured a great expanded lineup of two electric guitars, bass, organ, tuba, drums, conga, timbales, and three bona fide Mardi Gras Indians. I'd never seen Mardi Gras Indians live in the flesh and it was a real treat to see them in their home setting - the head Indian in this case being someone named Monk Boudreau, not a familiar name for me but apparently well known locally. In case anyone's not aware of this particular local custom, for about a century certain neighborhood groups of African Americans in New Orleans have made it a practice of donning very elaborate faux-Indian costumes for Mardi Gras, and compete to outdo each other in the magnificence of their outfits. The masquerade aspect has intermingled with the city's music and dance culture, most notably in the 1970s, when a group of Indians made a killer album in collaboration with the superlative New Orleans funk group the Meters under the name the Wild Tchoupitoulas. That album from 35 years ago was straight-up New Orleans funk with Mardi Gras Indian chants and lyrics added on top. The 101 Runners were also very funky but with a lot more rock thrown into the mix; the hairy guitarist in one of the pictures above, Anders Osborne, played some sweet slide guitar solos throughout their set. I danced, I rocked, I was wowed by the crazy costumes of Monk and his crew. What more could you want from a set of music?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I just saw the following performers play live two nights ago, in the same space, on the same stage (but not all at once, thankfully):

Faith Hill
Iggy and the Stooges
Ronnie Spector
The Hollies
Rob Thomas
Jimmy Cliff
Wyclef Jean
Eric Burdon
Peter Wolf
Chris Isaak

Was I at the most fucked up, surreal rock festival ever devised?

Sort of. I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. Never before have I attended such an event, so swank, so exclusive, so rich with music industry self-congratulations. And yes, you're damn right I felt privileged to be there, even though a part of me felt like the geek academic in the corner soaking in all the weirdness around me.

That said, the people I was sitting with were a cool bunch. Holly George-Warren was the leader of the proverbial pack, a veteran music writer who was gracious enough to invite me to contribute an essay to the induction ceremony program, which is how I got to attend the event. (I wrote an essay on prog rock, in connection with Genesis' induction into the Hall of Fame.) Also on hand were Anthony DeCurtis, longtime Rolling Stone writer; Bob Gruen, one of the great rock photographers; Ashley Kahn, who has written some very fine material on jazz history (books on John Coltrane and Miles Davis, among others); Jaan Uhelszki, one of the founding figures at Creem; Rob Bowman, a fellow academic and good guy who teaches at York University in Toronto and wrote an excellent book on Stax records; and many others who were gathered together at the "writer's table" (actually two tables, side by side). Good company indeed.

Needless to say, the highlight of the evening for yours truly was the Stooges. Iggy came out in fine form, dressed for the event in a clean white dress shirt, and duly flipped off the audience with both hands when he came onto the stage to accept the band's induction. But, as he spoke and reminisced about recently deceased former Stooge Ron Asheton and the others who've fallen along the way he seemed to get genuinely emotional and even on the verge of tears. An emotional Iggy soon gave way to the mischievous Iggy we all know and love though.

While James Williamson and then Scott Asheton gave their speeches, Iggy unbuttoned his shirt and swayed behind them, knowing he was the center of attention even in the background. It was like he was getting into character. And then, the Stooges played a too-short set that was totally killer. "Search and Destroy" followed by "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The latter was especially great, with saxophone by Steve Mackay and that awesome one-note piano line filled in by Scott Thurston, both of whom have been Stooges collaborators for almost as long as the band has been together.

Iggy jumped into the audience, which was comprised of a weird mix of rock star celebrities and music industry moguls, and while I can't say there was a palpable air of danger or anything, the band rocked the house more than you would ever have expected in a room full of folks in tuxedos. As the song proceeded Iggy was joined on stage by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (who inducted the Stooges into the Hall), then by the rest of Green Day, Eddie Vedder and a bunch of other folks from the audience and came close to generating something like real chaos. Back at the writer's table me and a couple others damn near started a mosh pit we were so excited. It was a damn fun time.

Nothing else quite matched the Stooges for sheer coolness, but I have to give props to Jimmy Cliff, the reggae star who was inducted that night. He sang three songs, all from the landmark The Harder They Come album - "You Can Get It If You Really Want It," "Many Rivers to Cross," and "The Harder They Come," the last with Wyclef Jean - and his voice sounded great. "Many Rivers to Cross" was especially awesome, like some reggae/gospel hybrid, and Jimmy was wearing some of the coolest duds of the evening, including some super fine shades.

I'm still processing the whole experience so am not even going to try to do justice to the entirety of the event (and given that I was at the Waldorf for about six hours that night, doing the whole thing full justice would take me a long time). It was a trip to be in a room with so much money and celebrity circulating, and at the same time part of the trippiness of it was how mundane so much of it was, with the overlong acceptance speeches and other things that we all know from watching awards shows on TV, except that I was there in the room. But seeing Iggy and the Stooges made the night worthwhile. If only it had been some evening in 1970...

* * *

As a sad, unrelated postscript to the above, I just saw the news on Pitchfork that Alex Chilton died today. Hero of indie rockers everywhere, Chilton made his biggest artistic mark with the much-revered power pop luminaries Big Star in the early 1970s, but had a long career that stretched back into the '60s with the Box Tops and years forward as a solo artist. I saw him play a show in the late 1980s that was charmingly idiosyncratic and packed a good bit of rock and roll punch. He will be missed. For more info and some videos of Chilton performing, click on the following:


Thursday, March 4, 2010

So I don't know what happened, but somehow it seems that Blogger made all the comments disappear from this blog. Actually, it's weirder than that. All the archived blogs say they have 0 comments but when you click on them, the comments that were there before are still there. I do not understand this problem and have fussed with my settings a good bit to no avail, so if you've left a comment before please don't think I went through and erased it. Technology be damned!

* * *

I recently traveled to Cleveland, and while I was rushing to get off the plane I forgot to bring the book I had been reading with me, so it was lost to the airline. This was a particular bummer because the book was one I was particularly enjoying and definitely wanted to keep around: Joe Carducci's Enter Naomi. The book is one of the most unique I've read about punk, and the great Southern California punk scene of the late '70s/early '80s in particular. It was also a signed copy I'd happened upon while up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Carducci had apparently done a reading not long before I passed through town.

As some readers may know, Carducci worked for SST records back in its heyday, and after leaving wrote one of the most spirited, incisive and downright cranky books about rock ever written, Rock and the Pop Narcotic. This newer book, Enter Naomi, is quite different in tone. Partly a memoir of his years with SST, it's also an effort to reconstruct the experience of one of Carducci's SST comrades-in-arms, photographer Naomi Peterson, who took many a great shot of bands from L.A. and elsewhere, did tons of SST publicity photo work, but years later died an untimely death before she even hit 40 years of age, seemingly due to years of alcohol abuse.

What makes Enter Naomi so distinctive is its reflectiveness regarding the place of women in the testosterone-fueled SoCal punk scene. Sure, there are other books detailing women's place in punk, but none that are written from Carducci's peculiar point of view, as a not-quite-feminist guy who nonetheless wants to recognize the really meaningful contribution that women made to the scene of that time and place, and also wants to be sure that people recognize the particular contributions of his lost friend who never quite received the credit she deserved. The book is chock full of great examples of Peterson's work as well as a bunch of other candid shots that document the ins and outs of SST and its peculiar cast of characters. All the more reason that I'm bummed the book got left behind.

And for what it's worth, Naomi's story particularly resonated for me because she attended my high school, Simi Valley High. She was a couple years ahead of me, enough for our paths to never have crossed, and as Carducci tells it, she felt trapped by the conservatism of Simi Valley as much as I did but found a much more interesting escape route. Naomi, I'm sorry I never knew you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I was just watching a few moments of last week's episode of Lost (not my fave show but it holds my interest), and was reminded that the show featured the Stooges' song "Search and Destroy" prominently in a scene early in the episode. When I watched the whole episode last week the song totally took me by surprise - I mean, sure, Stooges songs have been turning up in Nike commercials and such for the past few years but somehow it's still surprising when a song so aggressive and downright bad-ass shows up in such a mainstream pop culture place.

All the more interesting is the fact that the song isn't just there in the background but it's right there in the foreground during the scene in question, when the super-weird John Locke (a character who literally doesn't seem to be himself in this season's episodes) happens upon the show's bad boy character, James Sawyer, who's sulking by himself in an abandoned house drinking a bottle of liquor. An interesting mix of song and character, and one of the first times I've seen a prime time TV show use such a raw rock and roll song in a way that wasn't either tongue in cheek or doused with an aura of moral panic.

I'm very curious as to how much thought was put into the choice of song by the producers of the show. Lost isn't one of those shows where the soundtrack is usually a big point of interest - it's not like The Sopranos or, in a totally different vein, Gilmore Girls, shows where the soundtrack continually fed into the story and character development. Who decided that "Search and Destroy" should be such a centerpiece?

Monday, February 15, 2010

A few weeks ago I got an email out of the blue from an unexpected source. "Don Waller here" was the subject heading. Don Waller being a long-time Southern California musician and writer who had a hand in creating one of L.A.'s earliest and most influential fanzines, Back Door Man, and - this part is crucial - co-wrote the original version of the song that I named my recent book after, "This Ain't the Summer of Love."

In the last chapter of the book, I tell the story of how Waller was approached by one of Blue Oyster Cult's managers, Murray Krugman, at the behest of L.A. scene maven and Runaways manager Kim Fowley. Krugman was looking for material for the Cult to record, Waller laid out a bunch of his lyrics on the floor of his apartment, and "This Ain't the Summer of Love" got picked.

I was much relieved when I opened Waller's email to see that he wasn't writing to tell me how badly I fucked up the above story (for which my main source, a piece written by Kim Fowley, was admittedly sketchy). He got my book for Christmas, read it, and liked it well enough to want to get in touch. How cool is that? We've exchanged a few emails since then and he seems like a helluva good guy. Even sent me the original lyrics to "This Ain't the Summer of Love," which are quite different from the version recorded by Blue Oyster Cult.

Don also told me about a new release by his old band, the Imperial Dogs: a DVD release of video footage documenting the band's 1974 performance at Cal State Long Beach, previously unreleased footage by a band who's not well known but is definitely in the vein of early 1970s bands who were building on the influence of '60s garage rock and '70s proto-punk like the Stooges and Mott the Hoople.

I duly bought my copy of said DVD, and urge anyone reading this with an interest in the twisted, intersecting paths of metal and punk to do the same. The footage is predictably shaky: black and white video footage shot from a single camera of a gig that was decidedly high energy and unpolished. But the traces of things to come are all over the material from the moment you realize that's a flag with a swastika draped over one of the guitar amps. I've never been super comfortable with the punk affinity for the trappings of fascism, but there's no doubt that it was a crucial aspect of punk - appropriating the signs of corrupt power as a way to offend those of more delicate sensibilities - and the Imperial Dogs were clearly in on this impulse before it became more widely recognized.

There's a song called "Loud, Hard & Fast" that is indeed all of the above, and that Waller introduces with the amusing assertion, "We fuck the way we play - loud, hard & fast!" And of course there's "This Ain't the Summer of Love," the centerpiece of the band's hour-long set, here played as a 7-minute ballad that could hardly be more different than the sub-three minute polished bit of hard rock it became in the hands of BOC. Waller introduces it with a hilarious monologue accusing the hippies of having given up the rock to move to the country and listen to Carole King, and during the song's instrumental mid-section he apparently "simulates a puking OD by spitting up a fistful of blood and foaming capsules" (this according to the liner notes; because of the less-than-professional camera work you can't actually see this, but you can see Waller momentarily disappear from view and then get up wiping his mouth). No doubt a good time was had by all.

It's amazing this show was recorded, let alone that it's been issued on DVD. The liner notes are great and help to put this lost nugget of hard rock history in the perspective it deserves. You can find out more about the disc and the Imperial Dogs at the band's blog/website (where Waller also posted a nice notice about my book):


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Those who read this blog regularly might recall that a few months back I was interviewed by Monte Belmonte, the morning show host on radio station WRSI, The River, one of the more hip local radio stations. Well, Monte invited me to collaborate on a new project which is now up and running on The River and also available on the station's website. I recorded a series of artist profiles in commemoration of Black History Month, which Monte has lightly edited and set to music in a very cool radio-ready format. I recorded 22 in all. As of now, 13 are available on the WRSI website, and I assume the others will be forthcoming. Here's the link:


Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm passing the following along at the behest of my friend Kembrew McLeod, great scholar and music writer who produced the film advertised below. He's also a bit of a kooky guy in the best possible way, and so has created a video using his alter ego, RoboProfessor, to speak to some of the issues addressed at greater length in the film, which you can access here:


Copyright Criminals looks to be a wonderful video on issues surrounding sampling and current copyright laws, a crucial area that deserves all of our attention. It airs Tuesday night, Jan. 19, on PBS as part of their "Independent Lens" series so check it out if you get a chance.

Copyright Criminals examines the creative and commercial value of musical sampling, including the related debates over artistic expression, copyright law, and (of course) money.

This documentary traces the rise of hip-hop from the urban streets of New York to its current status as a multibillion-dollar industry. For more than thirty years, innovative hip-hop performers and producers have been re-using portions of previously recorded music in new, otherwise original compositions. When lawyers and record companies got involved, what was once referred to as a “borrowed melody” became a “copyright infringement.”

The film showcases many of hip-hop music’s founding figures like Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Digital Underground—while also featuring emerging hip-hop artists from record labels Definitive Jux, Rhymesayers, Ninja Tune, and more. It also provides an in-depth look at artists who have been sampled, such as Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s drummer and the world’s most sampled musician), as well as commentary by another highly sampled musician, funk legend George Clinton.

As artists find ever more inventive ways to insert old influences into new material, this documentary asks a critical question, on behalf of an entire creative community:

Can you own a sound?

Here's a link to the trailer for the film:


Sunday, January 17, 2010

What follows is not an unbiased review. Bunny’s a Swine is a local Northampton band and guitarist/singer Candace Clement is a friend and former Smith student. I like Candace and her band mates Emerson and Dustin, and it so happens that I also like the music their band plays, not just because they’re friends but because they’re good and play music in a style that I like too.

(Truth be told, I don’t always go out of my way to see friends’ bands play and don’t always enjoy myself when I do. I’ve always enjoyed music more when I have a certain detachment from the players so I can inhabit my own little space as a listener who likes to mix it up with other listeners at shows. This is a big part of the reason why I don’t interview musicians as part of my research method. But I digress…)

Bunny’s a Swine just produced its first CD, Nothing Bad Will Happen. As far as I know it’s self-released and for the time being at least, not something you can find at a store near you if you’re lucky enough to still have a store near you that sells CD’s by non-big label artists in the first place.

With two guitars and a drummer Bunny’s a Swine has the same instrumental mix as Sleater-Kinney. Like that band, the elimination of the bass gives the sound a certain thinness at times but also creates a more democratic kind of musical palette. The two guitars and the voices of Emerson and Candace interweave and overlap in ways that often make designations like “lead” and “rhythm” irrelevant. Drummer Dustin Cote isn’t super flashy and at times he’s a little bit overwhelmed in the album’s mix but he keeps a solid, steady rocking beat that lets the guitarists wander from melody to noise and back again without getting lost.

In the thank yous accompanying the disc, Bunny’s thanks Guided by Voices and the Breeders, adding that they don’t know either band personally. It’s a statement of influence and lets you know that they’re strongly informed by 1990s indie rock and lo-fi (as does the Sleater-Kinney instrumentation). But the band’s proclivity for floating bursts of guitar noise is more reminiscent of the likes of Pavement and at times Sonic Youth. If this sounds like a band that wears its influences on its sleeves, well … is that a bad thing? Not to me, at least not when those influences are great and are all combined in a way so that they’re mixed together with a lot of creativity. This isn’t an album where there’s one song that sounds like Pavement and another that sounds like GBV. It’s an album where the influences merge on every track to make for a band that is more than the sum of its record collection.

Generally speaking, the first half of Nothing Bad Will Happen is a bit slower and more tuneful, and the second half is more riff-laden and rocking. I like the riffy stuff more because that’s where my tastes lean but the opening several songs have some great moments. The biggest surprise for me, having heard the band a few times in concert, is the quality of Candace’s vocals. Usually the “second” voice behind Emerson’s, her singing has an ethereal character unlike what you usually hear in this type of rock, a quality sometimes lost in the mix at their live shows. It makes for a rich contrast with Emerson’s throatier voice, which veers between ironic detachment and an almost unhinged mania that could pass for David Yow of Jesus Lizard.

Fave tracks include opener “Moose-Cow,” which features the contrasting voices of Emerson and Candace to good effect and also has a neat cloud of delay that arises in the chorus; “Vallum Bread,” which opens with a cool guitar line; and “Hatesong/Lovesong” and “Multiple Ex’s,” where the band’s rockier tendencies hold sway. Like any good indie band Bunny’s a Swine has multiple forms of web presence; the curious can visit http://bunnysaswine.wordpress.com, which will lead to other points of interest.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My last post - the last of 2009 - was kind of a bummer, so I'm glad that things are looking up as the new year begins. They've arrested someone for the fires that were set the night after Christmas and while it will no doubt take a while for things to play out legally, it's looking likely that they got the right person. Holly and I are relieved and cautiously optimistic.


A couple years ago I began cataloging parts of my musical experience in a more thoroughgoing way than I'd ever done before. I typed out a complete list of every record and cd that I own and have continued to add to it as I make new purchases, as well as keeping count. This was mainly to satisfy my curiosity, but also serves as a sort of catalog to my own personal music archive, which isn't super big but it's big enough, and growing.

I also made a list of every concert that I've attended, at least every one that I could remember. This was a very different exercise, since it was as much a memory test as it was a means of record-keeping. As with the list of recordings, I've forced myself to update the list every time I attend a new show, which means it's easy for me at this point to look back over the list and see what I've seen in recent months and years.

I don't go out to see music as much as I used to and this past year was one of the thinnest in recent memory where seeing live music was concerned. I attended some 16 concerts this past year, barely more than one per month. Partly this was because there just weren't that many things coming through town that I was dying to see, and I've never been so inclined to go see music just for the sake of it. But of course it's also a product of now being forty-something and just being too damn busy, or too drained of energy come night time, to go out and see music on a regular basis (regular meaning more like once a week or so, as opposed to once a month).

(I should note, though, that I don't count concerts that I attended where the performers were my colleagues in the Smith music department, of which I saw maybe half a dozen or so over the past year. Those events are often very pleasurable but they also feel like work.)

That said, I did see some great shows in 2009, and it's a decently varied lot.

Here's my top five shows of the year:

1. Isis w. Pelican and Tombs. The best full-on metal show I saw this past year (and one of only two - we don't get enough of it coming through our little town), and it was a blast. I especially dug Pelican, very cool progressive/instrumental metal, short on solos but long on texture and dynamics.

2. New York Dolls w. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. I wrote about this show months ago on this blog. Given that only two of the original Dolls are still alive, this was better than it had a right to be.

3. Allan Holdsworth. First time I've ever seen him, even though I've owned some of his albums for over twenty years. Without question one of the best guitarists on the planet in terms of sheer technical ability. Sometimes it sounded like he was playing two different single note lines simultaneously, his fingers moved so fast.

4. Fiery Furnaces w. Cryptacize. Can't say I was super impressed by Cryptacize, but Fiery Furnaces were great. I'd seen them once before about six years ago, in London no less, but I think this show was better. Eleanor Friedberger is a commanding stage presence almost despite herself. Not nearly enough people in attendance though - Northampton, you should be ashamed.

5. Natacha Atlas w. Syriana. I caught this show when I was in Liverpool, due to the good taste and good graces of my friend Anahid. Very cool Arabic pop, great vocals and some decidedly slammin' percussion. Caught me off guard in a good way.

Honorable mention goes to my fave local band of the moment, Bunny's a Swine, whom I've seen on a few occasions (and even played a gig with earlier in the year, at a Smith event that also featured my so-called band the Distractions - this does not count as one of the fifteen; again, it was too much like work) and who are great. I'll be reviewing their new cd in an upcoming post.