Sky Cries Mary: “Lay Down Your Head” (A Return To The Inner Experience, 1993)
Sky Cries Mary is, to date, the only band I have ever written a letter to. I do not recall exactly what this letter said—I wrote in high school, when I was fourteen or fifteen—but it said something to the effect that I was impressed by a band that wasn’t afraid to do its own thing. There was likely some hot air about creativity and listening mostly to older music, too.
That hot air stemmed mostly from the fact that Sky Cries Mary really were pretty much the only current band I was listening to at the time, apart from Nirvana (well, and Sonic Youth, but that was because my friend loved them and played their music constantly—it wasn’t my choice). I had discovered them, as a name, on the back of a Pink Floyd tribute album called A Saucerful of Pink, which featured their cover of “Wots… Uh The Deal?”
I never owned that tribute album, but I did take a look around the Sam Goody I found it in to see if I could find an album by any of the bands listed on the back. I didn’t yet have a CD player, so I went to the cassette rack, CD tribute I didn’t intend to buy in hand. I couldn’t find any Spahn Ranch, Farflung, EXP, Nik Turner, Ron Geesin or Spiral Realms albums (these are just names I remember off-hand—today I know exactly who Ron Geesin and Nik Turner are, and have also heard Spahn Ranch), but there was an album called This Timeless Turning by Sky Cries Mary.
I bought it. Hell, why not? They liked my favorite band enough to cover one of their songs, and a relatively unknown one at that, so what did I have to lose besides ten dollars? As it turns out, I really loved it, aside from a couple of songs. It was a long album, with side two devoted mostly to weird, ambient tracks, while side one was mostly more compact songs with some pretty nice guitar work and drumming.
I got a CD player that Christmas, and one of the first handful of non-Floyd albums I bought on CD was A Return To The Inner Experience, the Sky Cries Mary album released before This Timeless Turning. It was pretty different from This Timeless Turning, but I liked it as well, and it was actually this record that made me write to the band.
About three weeks after I wrote to them, I got back a hand-written postcard from Anisa Romero, one of the band’s vocalists. She directly responded to things I had said in my typed-up letter. I thought that was really cool (I had no clue how many such messages the band might receive and appreciated the effort and thought regardless of how many they got), and even though some of the things about their music I thought were brilliant back then now strike me as a little corny, Is till think of myself as a fan.
And of course, I still do love some of those old songs. I always love it when “Vuh” or “Shipwrecked” pops up on the shuffle. And this one, from Inner Experience, still puts a charge in me. It typifies the magic that could happen when the band’s idiosyncratic ear for arranging found just the right balance of elements. This was what I loved about them—they had the imagination to put these sounds together in this way. It was out of step with what was on rock radio (and what was coming out of the rest of the Seattle scene, too), and it sounded great to me.
In 1981, Esther Gordy Edwards looked out the window of 2648 W Grand Blvd in Detroit to see a large group of British sailors standing on the lawn. They’d come to see the house, the one-time headquarters of Motown Recording Co. and the home of the Snake Pit, the studio where many of the label’s best recordings were made.
This gave Edwards pause. She’d kept a small-scale operation going at the house on Grand ever since her brother, Berry Gordy, had pulled up stakes and moved the company to L.A. Edwards was married to a Michigan state rep, George Edwards, and was a Detroit partisan who refused to go west with her brother.
Four years later, Edwards opened the two-house complex on Grand as the Motown Historical Museum. The studio and most of the offices had been preserved fairly well since the recording operation’s departure, and even before the company had taken off, Edwards had begun a collection of memorabilia—it’s a measure of her faith in what the company could achieve that she was preserving its history before it was apparent to anyone else how historically important it would be.
The irony of this is that it was Edwards who very nearly prevented Motown from happening. The Gordy family was well-stocked with business-savvy minds, and had established a lending co-op, through which family members could provide loans to each others’ business ventures. Berry had asked the family for $800 to start his record company, and Edwards was the loan holdout.
Edwards grilled her brother on his plans for days before finally agreeing to allow the loan. Berry brought her on at the label to watch its finances—she’d been tough on him, so he figured she’d be tough on the company, too. Edwards was a much bigger part of Motown’s success than that, though. She mentored artists, chaperoned the young female acts, and generally became the mother figure of the label.
The $800 investment paid off pretty well. Berry Gordy bought the house on Grand and put up his presumptuous but ultimately accurate Hitsville U.S.A. sign. The first single he issued was this one, “Come To Me,” by Marv Johnson, on Tamla 101. It blew up regionally and caught everyone at the fledgling label off guard. Gordy licensed the song to United Artists, whose re-release became a national hit—the royalties helped pay the bills while the label got its act together.
Already on this song, you can hear some of the people who would help define the company over the next few years. That’s James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin on drums, Beans Bowles on sax and flute, and the guitars are played by Eddie Willis and Joe Messina (third guitarist Robert White would join them soon). Brian Holland is one of the backing vocalists, along with Gordy’s wife Raynoma and Robert Bateman.
All of these musicians already had connections to Gordy and each other. The early years of Motown were a family affair, both literally and figuratively. When Edwards stayed behind in Detroit and left her position as label CEO, she probably knew that the company’s move to the coast spelled the end of the camaraderie and creative cohesion of the company—Motown kept having hits, but it wasn’t the same.
Edwards was devoted to Detroit. She worked with the Chamber of Commerce and Bank of the Commonwealth, as well as a foundation that assisted students with tuition to Wayne State University, among many other philanthropic endeavors. She could often be found at the Motown Historical Museum, Hitsville sign still hung above the window, and if you were lucky, she might lead your tour of the museum herself.
Edwards was 91 when she passed away last week, and it’s likely that most people will never know quite how much she did for Detroit. From everything I’ve read about her, I don’t think she’d be bothered by that.
This is the only Aerosmith song I ever liked. In yesterday’s Cold Cassette post, I mentioned some of the reasons I made tapes off the radio, but left out a big one: I recorded some of these songs because I liked them but knew I would never buy the albums that contained them, so this was a way I could have them.
I never figured I’d be posting a stream of one of them. This was 1994. Mp3s were invented in 1991, and I had never been on the Internet, though I knew of Usenet because my older friend Matt B was on it and talked about it a lot. I didn’t know what a BBS was, but he seemed to like them. Besides, modem speeds at the time were so slow that I don’t think most people had even conceived of the idea of passing music files back and forth with ease.
When I was first messing around on file-sharing services, well post-Napster in around 2004, I searched for Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and was instantly presented with numerous options for download. I chose one, and here we are. My old tape, on which the very beginning of the song is a little cut off, and the end fades into a tiny snippet of some other song’s opening guitar riff before ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” comes storming in in mid-measure, is obsolete.
Bogarting these songs away on tapes was an ineffecient way to build a library, but I really knew no other way back then. And so, there was “Dream On,” partially swallowed at both ends, sitting on a tape in a rack in case I ever needed to hear it.
I still think it’s a really good song, too. In fact, I remember being surprised to find out it was Aerosmith the first time a DJ actually identified it after playing it. It doesn’t really fit their usual MOs, i.e. power ballads and big, riff-oriented hard rock songs. It’s moody and Mellotron-y, and Joe Perry’s lead guitar part has this nice stream-of-consciousness feel, like he doesn’t quite know where it’s taking him.
It’s from the band’s debut album, and it only charted at #59 initially (the album itself stalled at #166), but became a classic rock staple when it was reissued as a single after the band hit big with Toys In The Attic in 1976. I hate to handicap a band by saying the first thing they did was the best thing they did, but in this case, I think it’s true. Plenty of people would disagree with me.
I lived in Boston for four years during college, so I knew a lot of those people. One of my instructors at school had actually loaned an amplifier to Perry back in 1971 or so. In Boston, their hometown, the band is pretty much revered. They used to own a club on Landsdowne Street called Mama Kin (it’s something else now—for a while it was the Landsdowne Music Hall. I saw Robert Fripp there once.). It was just over the Green Monster from Fenway Park, and during batting practice, home run shots would fly out of the stadium and land on the sidewalk in front of it.
Anyway, I always felt kind of weird about not liking them—they were hometown superstars. But every time I started getting warm feelings about them, I’d hear some of their music, and they’d disappear. I still like the chorus of “Sweet Emotion,” I guess, but I’ve heard all their late 80s-early 90s stuff a lot and just can’t reconcile myself with it. There’s something about “Love In An Elevator” that penetrates my usually calm and accepting exterior and makes me want to smash radios.
You can’t like everything. Was that the biggest lesson I learned from listening closely to the radio all those years? I think it may have. I learned to accept hearing the stuff I didn’t like, too, which is good training for the real world. “Dream On,” though… Yeah, that one’s still pretty good.
Bill Justis: “The Dark Continent Contribution” (Bell 921, 1970)
In 1957, Bill Justis (with a big assist from guitarist Sid Manker) had a huge hit with a song called “Raunchy” (the working title was “Backwoods”). It was the first instrumental rock and roll hit and is a clear forerunner of the surf music that would rise in tandem with rock and roll over the course of the late 50s and early 60s.
Justis didn’t really care for rock and roll, though. He’d grown up in Memphis and returned there after going to college in New Orleans. He played trumpet and sax, and had been in jazz bands during school, and now he was keen to make his living in the music business. Sam Phillips brought him into the fold at Sun Records, which of course was one of the incubators of rock and roll in the early days.
Justis may not have liked the music much, but he saw that this was the future, and though he didn’t have any other big hits after “Raunchy,” he earned his keep at the label arranging songs for Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich, among others.
Both Rich and Justis left Sun in the early 60s, but they reconnected in Nashville, where Justis had a jack-of-all-trades career in the works, producing, doing A&R work for Mercury, arranging for Patsy Cline and Tom Jones, and releasing fairly anodyne instrumental LPs under his own name. Those LPs featured his own instrumental arrangements, and first of them looked back home to Memphis for a version of Booker T & The MGs’ “Green Onions.”
So where does “The Dark Continent Contribution” fit into all this? It’s hard to tell, actually. Justis did soundtrack work in the late 70s (most notably writing the score for Smokey & The Bandit), but most bios go cold around 1970, when this was apparently recorded. It is a record strangely divorced from the era in which it was made.
It has more in common with the ambitious exotica and third stream music of the late 50s than most other studio music being made at the time, even in its title. Still, it’s a pretty spectacular piece of music, from its mysterious, atmospheric opening and closing movements to the wild orchestral jazz passage that occupies the center of the composition. That seems to be Justis himself tearing it up on trumpet in that passage.
So this is what Bill Justis, creator of “Raunchy,” was doing in 1970. And it seems to be basically a one-off project. Justis passed away in 1982, so we can’t ask him where this music came from, but I think it’s a fascinating record.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Tamla T-54149, 1967)
Yesterday, a rememberance post for Jerry Leiber; today one for Nick Ashford, half of another great songwriting duo.
That duo was Ashford & Simpson—Ashford and Valerie Simpson were together for nearly 50 years (they married in 1974 but began dating in 1963). They were successful performers in their own right during the 70s and 80s, but they built their name writing for other people, notably Ray Charles and the Fifth Dimension. They became staff writers at Motown in 1966.
Motown asked them to write duets for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and they did, sort of. The two of them had actually already written “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” when they were trying to make it writing songs in New York City.
Ashford brought the song to the Funk Brothers to cut a demo and played it for Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua, who loved it. Kim Weston, Marvin Gaye’s erstwhile duet partner, had left Motown, and 21-year-old Tammi Terrell, who had already released two solo singles for the label, was made his new partner.
It was an inspiring pairing, in spite of the gulf in age and experience between the two of them (and it ended tragically when Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms on stage, the first overt symptom of a terminal brain tumor that took her life in 1970).
When it was released, the song hit the top 20, and Ashford & Simpson had instant credibility around the Motown offices. It helped that they followed it up with “You’re All I Need To Get By,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Your Precious Love.”
Part of songwriting is understanding the tools at your disposal. If it’s you and an acoustic guitar, you learn to write for your own voice, your instrument. When you’re writing for other people, it requires you to listen, to understand that person’s instrument. Ashford and Simpson were good listeners. They picked up on the way their singers approached a melody and how they blended. Their ability to listen led to some of the finest pop singles of their era.
Ashford died Monday from throat cancer. He was 70.
Duke Ellington & His Kentucky Club Orchestra, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” (Ellington) Vocalion 1064 · Nov. 29, 1926
Blues singing was a fad just then, one which would eventually turn into the cornerstone of all American music. It was women’s music, because it was tragic, and so fit the landscape of tragic femininity which the culture found endlessly fascinating. At first limited to white women — because who would want to hear black people speak in their own language? — the music had been taken over entirely by black women beginning with Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues.” Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Gladys Bentley, Lucille Bogan, Rosa Henderson, Victoria Spivey, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, Lizzie Miles — the list went on and on, an avalanche of suddenly-discovered music that the record companies had only just now (somehow) discovered was not only available, but salable. Black people’s money, it was discovered, was just as good as other folks’.
Ellington was only a drop in the flood moving northward. If jazz originated in the South (in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, and a thousand other spots on the map of the Old Confederacy [EDIT: Trust a Westerner to get the South wrong; of course Missouri — and certainly Illinois — were never part of the Confederacy.]), it came to maturity in the North. In Chicago, where mob-run dives and hoochie palaces would take any old music for entertainment, as long as it didn’t make the customers lose their thirst or their hard-ons; in Detroit, where the factories and assembly lines provided their own unyielding rhythm against which to syncopate; in far San Francisco, where the vaudeville circuits ground to a halt and black entertainers took a few weeks at a local bordello or theater to earn a ticket back to the other side of the Rockies; and above all in New York, where humanity teemed and a black man could live the same as a prince, and in real housing too, built for the ancien Dutch aristocracy who gave it the name Haarlem, but prosperous black men and women had begun buying up blocks in the 1890s and renting out rooms to less prosperous black men and women, and — for a while anyway — it was the Promised Land that Capitalism Built.
All this traveling, all this criss-crossing the nation in search of work, or equally in search of life, of money and drink and music and pussy — was done by train, and the brains of the population, white and black alike, beat to the rhythm of the rails. The first composition Duke Ellington waxed to record under his own name (“Duke Ellington & the Washingtonians”) was called “Choo Choo,” but it was a stiff-jointed thing, a rote concoction for the dance floors which were groaning for want of tunes the children of capitalists could shimmy to, and Ellington had other plans. Not that he would ever neglect the paying public’s need for a dance, as we will see, but he was the son of a professional man and a woman who insisted on dignity in all things, and he had ambitions greater than providing a soundtrack to the follies and indecorousness of white folks.
There is a lot more to this post, and you should read the whole thing, as well as everything else Jonathan has written about Duke Ellington over at One Week One Band so far this week—he is doing a fantastic job. This excerpt nicely nails a complex moment in American history when its demographic picture was scrambling at breathtaking speed.
I wanted to reblog this one specifically because it’s one of my favorite recordings ever. It so perfectly straddles urban and rural idioms, North and South, the ragtime era and the era of the big bands and jazz. It has the feeling of a dawn and a sunset rolled into one.
When people ask that hypothetical question, “if you could go back in time and meet anyone who died before you were born,” Duke Ellington is the answer I give most often. I’d love to talk to him near the end of his life and get into that mind of his. I have the music, though—almost six decades of it, and that’s what I gather Duke wanted anyway. If you were going to access his mind, he wanted you to do it through the records or, if you were lucky, the show.
Jonathan is only covering a small but very important sliver of Duke’s output, by necessity (1926-1934), and I love his reasons for choosing to do so—the later re-recordings are, in many cases, not the best way to hear those pieces of music, and I’m glad to see someone so thoroughly covering his pre-War output.
I’ll still make the point (a point Jonathan agrees with), though, that his career remained vital and forward-thinking to his death in 1974. Some of his finest recordings came near the end, too—The Far East Suite, his albums with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, The Money Jungle (with max Roach and Charles Mingus), Afro Bossa, The Latin American Suite, A Concert Of Sacred Music From Grace Cathedral, Togo Brava Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse were all recorded between 1960 and his death.
Anyway, listen to what Jonathan is posting over there, and read what he has to say. You’re guaranteed to learn something and hear something wonderful.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton: “Hound Dog” (Peacock 1612/5-1612, 1953)
When I turned on the radio this morning, the first thing I heard was a story about the death of Jerry Leiber. Leiber and his longtime songwriting partner Mike Stoller were the creators of one of the great rock and roll songbooks.
This is one of their best-known songs, though most people don’t know this version. This is the original recording of “Hound Dog”—Leiber and Stoller were huge r&b fans and wrote it specifically for Big Mama Thornton. They were 19 when she recorded it in 1952 (it was released the following year)—Thornton claimed they’d written the song down on a paper bag.
Leiber and Stoller were East Coast kids going to school and living in L.A. when they entered the music business in 1950—they’d met at the L.A. record store Leiber worked at and bonded over their mutual love of blues and r&b. Leiber knew Stoller played piano, and pestered him about writing songs together until Stoller finally agreed.
The two were unsatisfied with the treatment given to their first few songs and produced “Hound Dog” themselves with Johnny Otis, a local r&b musician and impresario who also played drums on the track. Guitarist Pete Lewis and bassist Albert Winston rounded out the skeletal band, and they give Thornton plenty of room to work. Work she does, too, with a virtuoso’s flair. She changes up the feel, converses with the guitarist and generally wails.
The feel of the recording is miles away from the heavily produced and orchestrated music Leiber and Stoller would later make their trademark in their work with the Drifters and Phil Spector. In fact, much of the work they did through the mid-50s, after they founded Spark Records, had a certain rawness to it, even as they shifted the emphasis of their compositions to the theatricality of “Yakety-Yak” and “Charlie Brown.”
Another thing that’s miles from this track in feel is Elvis Presley’s much more famous version, which was #1 across the US in 1956 and introduced a nation to the singer’s pelvic gyrations on the Milton Berle Show. First of all, Elvis used a version of the song with lyrics altered by lounge singer Freddie Bell, which removes the innuendo and replaces it with goofball literalization: “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more,” is completely desexualized into, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Imagine what the network censors might have thought of the song if Leiber’s original lyrics had been left intact. Leiber naturally hated the new rabbit line, correctly concluding that it didn’t even make much sense. The fact that it helped make him more money than he probably ever imagined a songwriter could make probably eased the pain a bit.
Leiber and Stoller had a remarkable two-decade run as consistent hit-makers, but like many other Brill Building types, they were swept to the margin in the 70s when self-contained bands and singer-songwriters took over the charts. They stayed in music with lower profiles, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of joint interviews with the two of them over the years. I’ve always enjoyed watching them together and seeing the fluid, seemingly effortless rapport they have. Watching them talk together is almost as good as watching them writing a song together. They seemed to embrace being thought of as a unit.
Leiber suffered from health problems late in his life but was still a funny and engaging guy. I’m sure interviewers will still come calling on Mike Stoller, but it’ll be weird seeing him alone.
Hey, thanks for the mention. How much of an impact do you think Oliver Stone's movie had on our modern conception of Jim Morrison?
I think an outsized one, at any rate. A lot of people primarily know him as a person from that movie, which skews our perception of who he was. The Doors really plays up the doomed, charismatic Morrison, and sort of… purifies him. Like that bit where he gets angry about “Light My Fire” appearing in the TV ad. Never happened. He was on board with it.
Stone is, at heart, a sensationalist director, and I think in the process of centering the band’s story around Morrison’s public arc, he completely glosses over what made them a distinctive band, as opposed to a backdrop for a distinctive frontman.
I think it also shortchanges him intellectually. It’s been years since I saw it, but how many shots of him reading a book are there? By most accounts, he was a voracious reader, and he probably had read enough French existentialist writing to compose a doctoral thesis on it. And it’s not like he was some fuck-up or something. He had a film degree from UCLA. They covered Brecht on their first LP.
But yeah, I think the movie basically became the template for public perception of Jim Morrison after a certain point. Which is a shame, because the film probably reveals more about Stone himself than his subject.
I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence.
Oh wow. This is such a perfect quotation. It gets right to the heart of what makes The Doors so repulsive and so compelling at the same time.
To some degree, each of these responses describes my own feelings about The Doors.
It makes me wonder at one point I began to think critically about the band, and whether or not my thoughts about them today are informed by the negative opinions of people I know or if they’re entirely my own. I guess that’s the thing about joining communities—a part of you merges with the community, and after a while it becomes difficult to tell which parts are still all you.
This has been fun. Thanks for the responses, everyone.
My first-ever opinion of the Doors was a negative one. We were in my family’s 1984 Chevrolet Caprice Classic station wagon, driving the central Connecticut Valley, most likely on the way to New Haven from my hometown of Tolland. I was maybe six? My parents had the oldies station on, and “Hello, I Love You” was playing.
As a six-year-old, I did not have a well-developed sense of the tropes of rock and roll lyrics. The idea of instant attraction was completely foreign to me as a pre-sexual being. I couldn’t figure out how this guy could fall in love at hello. I thought that was something that took years. And consequently, I thought the song was totally stupid.
In high school, when I connected with The Doors as The Doors, and not as one song among many on a car trip, I remembered this, and wondered what I’d think of “Hello I Love You” when I heard it again. Now that I understand the stylized sexuality of it, it made a lot more sense. They’re still not great lyrics, but the weird crunch of the song has long since overtaken them to land this song in my good graces.
I didn’t really think about The Doors much from about age 19 to 27, but then a strange thing happened: I mentioned them on a message board, in passing. And then followed five posts by five people, of absolute, stunning hate, directed not at me but at The Doors. Since then, it seems like every time I bring up the band, especially in the music critic circles I tend to run in online, there is always at least one person who flat-out hates this band.
When I asked people to give me their opinions of the Doors yesterday, I wondered how many of those kinds of responses I’d get. The one up top is the closest anyone came. Thing is, I can see everything Jonathan says about the band, except for the bit about the bass player, which we’ll get to in a bit. I mean, if we’re talking about the right piece of music, I even agree with it.
What excited you in your teens is different from what excites you years later—that much is obvious. No one’s personality is static over that span of his or her life. Similarly, what excited people as new and different in the 60s sounds very different today, obviously.
I can see how, if someone loved The Doors as a teen and now sees them as horrible, past love for The Doors could be embarrassing, and consequently, this embarrassment is channeled into hate (not saying this is the case with anyone who responded yesterday, but some of the more vitriolic attacks on the band I’ve seen seem to come from this place). Which brings me to:
As someone who once loved The Doors and has since moderated that stance to liking some of their working but not all of it, I think this is actually pretty apt. The Doors are, like them or not, something of a gateway for a lot of kids into venturesome music. I think this befits their place in the history of the music.
The Doors were a progressive band, any way you want to look at them. Their debut came out in January, 1967, before Sgt Pepper, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Are You Experienced and every other landmark LP of that year. “The End,” for all its ridiculous Oedipal overkill, was likely the first time many people who bought the LP heard a rock band attempt anything so big. That LP is its own kind of landmark, and it makes sense that successive generations have returned to it when trying to find their way off the beaten path.
Obviously, what drives most people mad about The Doors is Jim Morrison. To some people, he’s the ultimate rock frontman. Obviously, he had flare as a performer. He has a certain magnetism. He also very, very badly wanted to carry on the flame of late-50s beat poetry, and here’s where he becomes problematic for many people. I think a lot of people’s disdain for this band can be summed up in nine words: “I am the lizard king. I can do anything.” Alternately, “When I was back there in seminary school,” followed by something about whipping a horse’s eyes.
But here’s a tricky question: what would this band have been without him? We have perhaps some idea, because of what they did after him, but really, you’d be talking about a different band, and, probably, not talking about them at all. Without Morrison, maybe they would have become an American version of The Nice? I kind of doubt it.
I think Morrison’s earnest quest to be like his heroes is one of the reasons high schoolers get so fervent about this band. These are, after all, the very people who are trying hardest to forge their own identities. There is probably some subconscious empathy there.
Do you know who that is? He’s the guy who plays bass on the second, third and fourth Doors albums. He was asked to join the band in 1969, but was already playing in a group called Clear Light and declined because he wanted to focus on that band.
Anyway, the band famously had no bassist, but they never made a single LP without a bass player on at least half the songs.
The Doors: “Waiting For The Sun” (Morrison Hotel, 1970)
Let’s talk about The Doors.
I like the Doors. They have music I love and music I think is terrible. In high school, I loved them—they are exactly the kind of band you like in high school. The craziness, the seriousness, the implied gravity of the post-Beatnik poetry spouted by the doomed frontman… all of that feels right when you’re in your teens. The actual substance of that poetry hardly matters at all—the important thing is that he means it.
Hearing the Doors today makes me think of high school and what I was like as a music fan back then. This is the central reason I’ve decided to excavate the cassettes I taped off the radio—to see if I can figure out how I developed as a listener and where certain changes might have taken place.
The Doors bring me back to two specific people. One is my friend Matt, who was my best friend from some time around third grade until we became slowly estranged toward the end of high school (long story—I hope to see him again some day). I have one particularly vivid memory of the two of us, listening to an LP of Strange Days and kind of freaking out over “Horse Latitudes.”
We had gone over to his house directly from a meeting of our high school’s literary magazine, at which we both read some of own poetry. His was better than mine—Matt had a really direct line to something pretty deep inside himself that came out in his writing, whereas I was always more of a stylist. He had the feeling first; I had the idea first. Anyway, if I recall correctly, these LPs had been his uncle’s (I think some were his parents’, too—there was a Carpenters LP that didn’t fit the uncle’s profile), and Matt had gone through a few of them. Strange Days was the one he chose to play for me.
I don’t think I responded much to what Morrison was saying—the poetry of “Horse Latitudes” is pretty impenetrable (what on Earth is “mute nostril agony” anyway?), but the crazily woozy soundscape that shifts around behind him while he yells was definitely my kind of thing.
The other place The Doors take me back to is the passenger seat of my friend Barbra’s Volkswagen. Barbra lived down the street from me (a little over a mile away—“down the street” has a different meaning out in the sticks), and she was two years ahead of me. I liked her a lot, not in the sense of a crush or anything, but more in the sense that I respected her and enjoyed talking to her. She was intelligent and enthusiastic and seemed to completely lack the sullen streak of a lot of the people I hung out with regularly.
There was a community service group that ran out of our school—it may have been related to the National Honor Society? Barbra was, for a year, in charge of getting people together to work at a soup kitchen in Rockville, and I was one of the regular volunteers. None of us knew much about cooking, but it was easy enough to make a few gallons of donated Annie’s Shells And Cheddar and we handled it okay. The kitchen was run by an immigrant with visa problems that were coming to a head right around the time I graduated. I hope things worked out for him.
Anyway, Barbra had three favorite bands: Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Pink Floyd. I wasn’t old enough to drive, so I caught rides to the soup kitchen with her. I remember that the radio stayed on after she turned the car off—you had to turn it off independently. But these three bands were what we listened to. We connected over Pink Floyd on the school bus before she got her license, but my feelings toward the other two bands were much more ambivalent.
I liked a lot of music by both of them but didn’t think of myself as a fan. I remember one time, when the car had been turned off but the radio hadn’t, “Touch Me” was playing, and we somehow got to talking about what we liked and didn’t like about the Doors. For me, Jim Morrison was the only thing that ever gave me problems. It wasn’t the content of his lyrics, though—it was his showmanship, for lack of a better term. I didn’t particularly like the little “yeahs” and “uhns” he threw in. But for Barbra, those were some of the best parts of the music.
I’ll not speculate on our reasons for these preferences (well, mine was simple—Pink Floyd were my point of comparison for everything, and their instrumental breaks tended to be free of vocal dynamite, so I think it turned me off because it wasn’t what I was used to), but I thought it was interesting that we saw the same thing so differently. I think it was also the first time that I ever worried I might have offended someone by disliking something they held dear.
I came around on the Doors and the showmanship issue over the next year or so. I got a bunch of their albums, and outside of The Soft Parade generally liked them. I gravitated toward their weirder tendencies—Waiting For The Sun was my favorite LP of theirs.
Weird thing about Waiting For The Sun: though it was recorded around the same time as that LP, the title track didn’t come out until two years later, when it appeared on Morrison Hotel, the band’s bluesy retreat from the experimentation of The Soft Parade. I think “Waiting For The Sun,” the song, is the Doors at their best and most distinctive—it’s because of songs like this that they get a new chance with each succeeding generation.
I have no idea what kind of keyboard Ray Manzarek is playing on this song, but that weird, distorted tone is something I’ve never heard on another record. I think Robby Kreiger’s guitar playing in 1967 and 1968 was some of the most interesting going in the rock world, and this is an example of that. His psychedelic bottleneck playing has its own kind of personality to counter the outsize persona of Jim Morrison, who here sings more like a part of the band and less like a guy trying to break out of the band.
Last night, I asked for some of your opinions of The Doors. I’ll be sharing some of those and talking about them over the course of the day as I have time.
The Aktion: “Groove The Funk” (Groove The Funk, 1975)
The Aktion were part of the legion of rock bands that formed in eastern Nigeria in the wake of the devastating Biafran War. At first they were the Actions, then Action 13, and finally The Aktion. The band began to come together in the very early 70s in Calabar, a city in Cross River State not far from the border with Cameroon, when leader Lemmy Faith and Essien Akpobio began playing together.
The group released at least one single under its first name, and two under its second, but by the time they were able to make an LP, they were the Aktion, with a lineup of Faith, Akpobio, Renny Pearl, Tony Essien, Felix Odey and the well-regarded session drummer Ben Alaka.
This is the title track from “Groove The Funk,” and it has rightly become widely regarded as one of the all-time best songs to come out of the eastern Nigerian funk and rock scene. The scuzzy fuzz riff, doubled vocals, “na na” breakdowns, and fantastic bridge (are they singing “funky liberal”?) add up to the sort of thing Afrofunk fans fantasize about, except these guys made it in real life.
After Groove the Funk was released, the band took a regular club gig in the city of Warri, but a military coup and subsequent curfew kept them from performing much, and consequently, from getting paid. Running out of money, the band struggled to keep it together. They made one more LP that I know of (Celebration, in 1977), and split in 1979. Akpobio opened a club and did a lot of production work in the 80s; he passed away three years ago. Faith also became a producer, and the others kept their musical careers going to varying extents.
There is a great book to be written on the war and the East’s ensuing rock and roll decade—I hope someone who was there gets a chance to write it.
It’s been this kind of week. You think you’re in a groove and then something happens to send you spinning off in another direction, or maybe two at once. You feel just a little pummeled and occasionally want to scream, but things are basically under control.
Ah well, everyone has those weeks. Life would be terribly dull without them. One great thing did happen on Monday night: the animal rescue I work with was approved for a special use permit to operate in Berkley, the city I live in. this means we’ll have a building in which to house our adoptable animals (mostly cats) and pet food pantry very soon. So good feeling there.
Some of the frustration has stemmed from something much lamer and more mundane: trying to learn a bit of basic PHP. HTML and CSS are easy enough, but I’ve had it with dynamic web content and have resolved to let others worry about it in the future.
Anyway, Giddy Motors’ debut album is one I often reach for when feeling harried by life. It has a perfect balance of chaos, power, unbridled id and control—you can just turn it up and ululate along. I can’t really ululate (I’m sure my cats are glad), but I can do a little mini-headbang along to this while I try to figure out what the hell I did incorrectly on these master/detail pages. I followed the damn instructions!
Anyway, it’s not as though you can actually sing along to Gaverick de Vis’ manic ravings. I mean, titling this song “Sassy” is such an understatement it’s hilarious. But yeah, when I’m working against a bunch of deadlines and have too much packed into most days, hearing a song like this that keeps it together even as it feels like it’s flying apart is inspiring.
Derek & The Dominos: “Layla” (Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
In 1970, Eric Clapton turned 25 years old. Think about that for a second. He’d already played in the Yardbirds and Cream. He’d sat in, uncredited, on a Beatles album and been through the trial of playing in a legitimate super group with Blind Faith. Graffiti around Britain said he was God—for nothing more than the way he played his guitar. His best friend was George Harrison, and oh, by the way, he was in love with Harrison’s wife of 6 years, Pattie Boyd.
He was also knee-deep in a pile of drug problems and sick of playing in the backing band of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, a band he’d joined specifically to get out of the spotlight for a bit. Actually, everyone was sick of playing in that band—by all accounts, Delaney was a hard guy to work for.
And so that band became Clapton’s new band. Keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Randle (and, early on, Dave Mason, too) became Derek & the Dominos, a name chosen because it was something Clapton could hide behind. He didn’t want people coming out to see Clapton and friends—he wanted them to come listen to his music. He didn’t even allow venues to use his name to promote the shows.
It’s hard to imagine Clapton at this crossroads today. He’s just your average legend these days, making occasional albums that young people mostly ignore and touring mid-size venues when he wants to. He’ll get on stage with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page at special events—he seems comfortable with stardom and the music he’s made. There are worse career codas.
But back then, I think he worried his own fame had become a self-perpetuating monster. People would buy records that said Clapton on the front without even hearing them first, and Derek & the Dominos became a mental experiment for him: “What will people think of this when my name isn’t on it, or they at least have to look hard to find it?”
He was pretty crushed when the album didn’t sell well on first released. It didn’t even chart in Britain. This reaction was responsible for a three-year gap in Clapton’s career that he used to collect himself, kick heroin and, presumably, watch as critics and audiences belatedly swung behind Derek & the Dominos, hailing the band’s lone album as a major achievement.
It is a great album, and the key to that is actually a guy who wasn’t in the band. Duane Allman was of course one of the Allman Brothers, and he’s all over the record playing slide guitar. Allman’s presence pushed Clapton to be better and more creative. “Layla” is easily the crowning achievement of their collaboration.
It’s a habitual choice of “greatest songs of all time” lists, and why not? That opening riff is an icon, and the two-movement structure gives the song a weird sense of profundity when in fact, it’s written from the perspective of a guy pining for his best friend’s wife—in that respect, it’s a very personal lyric for Clapton.
I used to wonder about the song’s long piano coda. It was written by Jim Gordon as a completely separate song (for a solo album he was working on), but when Clapton heard it, he made a connection between the two pieces of music. This spite of the fact that they’re completely different in tone, key and tempo.
He was right, though. If the song ended where the transition currently occurs, it would be a good song, but the coda makes it a great one by pulling back from the intensity and emotion of the main song. It’s as though all the desire and frustration of “Layla” becomes acceptance of circumstances in the second half. At any rate, I find it impossible to argue with the end product.
Back in high school, I liked it for a much more basic reason: it was long. At this point, I was dipping toes in the prog pool, and in that world, length has an odd and sort of arbitrary link with profundity, at least in the minds of many fans. I was no different, really.
I do think Clapton’s little experiment with shunning his name recognition broaches an interesting an interesting topic, even all these years later. How much of what we like is what we actually, truly enjoy, and how much of it is tied to our expectations and what we’re ready to like? If we’re ready to like something based on existing knowledge, is that readiness likely to manifest in some sort of confirmation bias, where we find everything to like about that thing and overlook its flaws?
If we’re not ready to like something (I suspect this applies to Eric Clapton for a great many indie fans), does it hinder us from liking it even though, all things neutral, we probably do like it? This basic question of the nature of liking things and fandom is one of the reason I’m undertaking this Cold Cassettes project: it chronicles my growth as a listener and fan, and I hope that it will remind me of silly biases I had in the past, and maybe expose new biases I’ve grown over the years. I hope to engage with this question a lot.
As for Clapton, I grew up with him. My dad was a fan, and I knew him as a solo artist before I knew Cream of Blind Faith or the Yardbirds or the Blues Breakers or Derek And The Dominos. I never had anything against him. There were no punks around to tell me he was a dinosaur. I still listen to 461 Ocean Blvd now and then and have “Layla” on my iPod, the ultimate repository for all my favorite music.
I’m pretty sure XTC is my iPod’s favorite band. I don’t have all the statistics together to prove it, but I hear XTC songs a lot on the shuffle, often two spaced just a few songs apart (this happens with other artists, too, leading me to believe it has something to do with the way the shuffle algorithm is written, but it seems to happen with XTC at about twice the rate of all other artists).
I have 7013 songs on my iPod (it’s a 120GB iPod classic), and 65 of them are XTC songs. 7 of these are by their Dukes of Stratosphear side project, which my iPod seems to like even more than proper XTC. That’s around .9% of the total songs on my iPod. Three artists, the Beatles (122), Pink Floyd (121) and Andrew Bird (with and without the Bowl of Fire, 67) have more songs, while both Radiohead (64) and the Kinks (61) fall just short of XTC’s total.
I loosely keep track in my head of what I hear while driving around, and over the life of the iPod, I’d say I’ve heard XTC about as often as I’ve heard Pink Floyd and The Beatles combined. My last iPod had a similar predilection. I wonder if Andy Partridge has a well-placed relative at Apple.
Anyway, I can only conclude that XTC is this little computer’s favorite band.* Hey, could be a lot worse, right? It seems to like the band’s whole catalog, too, drawing more or less equally from all their albums (I have an average of about five songs from each one on there).
I go back and forth on what my favorite XTC album is. Oranges & Lemons was the first one I bought ($5.99 at CD Spins on Newbury Street in Boston—RIP CD Spins), Skylarking is the masterpiece, Black Sea is maybe pound-for-pound the best collection of songs, and Apple Venus Vol. 1 was the first one I bought when it came out. They’re all good choices.
Apple Venus Vol. 1 always sticks out to me, though. Maybe it’s just that it’s so unique in their catalog, a widescreen production made mostly at home, and a great piece of late work from a band that came back from the dead just to release it. Sure, Dave Gregory is barely audible and those demo versions Partridge put out were superfluous, but it has an interesting character.
There’s something very organic about it, in a sort of literal way, even. A lot of the songs seem to have been written in the forest, or in Colin Moulding’s case, the greenhouse. It celebrates pre-Roman British religion, or at least the non-brutal parts of it, and imagines walking into London on roads overgrown with flowers from disuse.
"Greenman" is one of the album’s many songs that explore pagan naturalism. I think it’s referencing a common figure found carved on buildings across Britain and Northern Europe, which depict a man’s face made of or surrounded by leaves. Generally, these symbolize the growing seasons and agricultural cycles.
That’s one of the first string parts Partridge wrote for the band, by the way (Mike Batt put together the full arrangement). Dave Gregory had typically been responsible for the orchestrations on their records, but didn’t contribute any to this album, and left the band during recording.
*And yes, statistically-minded people, I do realize that XTC being the 4th most common artist on the iPod increases the odds of hearing them—I maintain that they’re still beating the odds by several miles.
The Persuaders: “Thin Line Between Love And Hate” (Thin Line Between Love And Hate, 1971)
Something made this song pop into my head just after lunch today. I don’t know what exactly—I had just had a conversation about politics, so maybe that did it.
It had been a long time since I’d heard it (I say this in a lot of my posts, I just realized; this is the downside of having a huge music collection. Stuff gets neglected.). I didn’t remember it being quite this slow, or quite so… violent?
Parsing the lyrics, it seems that he’s been bad to his wife (I’m assuming they’ve tied the knot, though maybe not), and she’s been holding in her frustration for years. And then she… does something that puts him in the hospital? In that second verse, he is literally bandaged and in the hospital. Usually, in these songs, she leaves him after he comes home late too many times. In this one, she resorts to domestic violence.
It was good for #1 R&B, #15 Pop as it turns out. It was the only time the Persuaders topped either chart, though they remained popular through 1975 or so, when they fell to the back ranks and embarked on a long career phase where they became a touring act that’s still going under the Persuaders name today, albeit with a vastly different lineup than the one that recorded this.
A lot of vocal groups have followed this path. Their stories begin as early as the 1950s, doo-wopping on the corner, the distinctive mix of voices makes their career, they last a long time with a few lineup changes, and then at some point in the 70s, they lose their standing and become a registered trademark that performers use as an umbrella for nostalgia shows. The Persuaders formed in 1969 and had a shorter creatively fruitful run as a result, but it’s still an interesting phenomenon.
I’ve never actually been drunk. The reasons aren’t complicated or moralistic or religious or anything like that—I just don’t like drinking at all. It’s more elemental than not liking the feeling, too. I’ve tried a lot of different beers and wines over the years, and I have never found one I could drink. The flavor—or more correctly, the aftertaste—just stops me in my tracks. I’ll have a sip or two on social occasions and quietly not drink the rest.
Maybe I’m just not motivated enough to get past this barrier. Regardless, I have learned during my adult life that not drinking makes you socially weird. It’s weirder still if you don’t have one of those religious or moral reasons for it (or, obviously, if you’re overcoming a drinking problem). Offering to be the designated driver usually smooths that over a bit.
The upshot of this is that I have what I guess you could call a cultural blind spot caused by the fact that I’m not familiar firsthand with alcohol’s effects on the body and mind. This makes drinking songs endlessly fascinating to me, in sort of the same way that music from other time periods and places around the world is fascinating to me—it all comes from outside my own experience and gives me a window into that experience I wouldn’t otherwise have.
One of my favorite drinking songs is Peppermint Harris’ 1951 #1 r&b hit “I Got Loaded.” I first learned this song from a slightly countrified version by Zeb Turner released the same year, but Harris’ is the original. It’s rich in the slang of the era—surely everyone knew what “juice” referred to, not to mention loaded.
On the Zeb Turner version, Turner whitens the slang by calling it “mountain dew,” which was a colloquialism for moonshine until it was co-opted for the name of a day-glo soft drink.
Mostly, though, I love how laid-back Harris (and most subsequent interpreters of the song) is as he recounts what he can remember of his tale. There’s a twinge of conscience showing through as he recalls that he stayed out far later than he told his wife or girlfriend he would be, but he’s basically had a good time, and perhaps a little better than he intended.
There are two Doobie Brothers that people tend to think of when they hear the name. One is the original incarnation of the band, which specialized in basic, r&b-informed rock. They were Californian but loaded their music with imagery from the South, and their first following came from playing in biker bars. The second is the one led by Michael McDonald and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, which abandoned all that in favor of sophisticated crossover pop that borrowed more than a few moves from Steely Dan, which both Baxter and McDonald had played in.
This song fits neither of those profiles. It’s from Stampede, the last album the band made before McDonald joined, and was written by guitarist Patrick Simmons. It’s my favorite Doobie Brothers song by miles, and possibly the most ambitious song they ever did.
I recorded it the first time I heard it. WAQY had a tape in their cart that consisted of the sound of a cavernous vault opening, followed by footsteps and a deep voice saying “deep cuts!” When I heard that, I knew to hover my finger over the record button on my little white tape deck. I could hardly believe it when the DJ revealed the artist after this song played.
There’s something uncannily modern about the sort of liquid tone of the main rhythm guitar on this. Simmons wrote his lyrics after reading “An Occurrence At Owl Creek,” which I guess they didn’t read in high school back then, but it’s basically about a Civil War soldier returning home as a ghost and not realizing he’s dead. And then at the end, freaked-out synthesizers and an orchestra tear the song open in an example of total overkill at its finest.
At the time, I didn’t particularly like either version of the Doobie Brothers (“Black Water” and “Long Train Running” aside), and I still pretty much don’t, but this song is still among my favorites. I think it may have been the first song that made me consider the fact that the hidden sides of bands (well, not too hidden—it was released as a single) could be more interesting than the hits.
The Edgar Winter Group: “Frankenstein” (They Only Come Out At Night, 1972)
This is the first song I ever taped off the radio. In fact, I started making cassettes off the radio because of this song. Because this song is AWESOME.
"Frankenstein" is a meeting of the bone-headed and geeky unlike any other. The opening drum fill and riff are the crack of bone on bone, like pachycephalosauruses smacking heads in a courtship display, and then there’s a little Zappa-lite horn arrangement and of course that amazing, lighter-baiting, not-too-technically-advanced drum solo. But it’s all a set-up for the geeky bit, where the UFO lands, and the stereo field starts shaking like jelly before the drums come back in.
Of course I had to have a tape of this. I got myself a package of 90-minute BASF tapes, which I think sell for peanuts now in the back of Radio Shack. Back then, they were something like ten dollars for six of them, and you could buy them almost anywhere. I popped that first blank one in, and waited for them to play “Frankenstein” for a few days.
I hadn’t yet developed the advanced “hit record and pause at the same time to get it ready” technique I’d use later, and I also forgot that the beginning of a tape is eternally blank, so the first time I recorded it, the opening drum fill got cut off, and I had to wait a few more days to try again and get it right.
And then I had a tape with nothing but “Frankenstein” at the very beginning. So I decided I’d better fill up the rest of it.
But “Frankenstein.” For months, I knew this song without knowing what it was. I bookmarked it in my head as “buh duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh naa” until I found out the actual title. And by then, I also knew Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride,” which I didn’t like. I figured I’d probably never actually own an Edgar Winter album (I also wasn’t sure what to make of the album’s jokey title—Winter is an albino, and They Only Come Out At Night seemed a little insulting, though I guess he was in on the joke), so it seemed to make sense to lock down this one song I loved.
I still love it. I’m not sure I still love it in the same way, though. My love for it then was rock-out love. I still have some of that. But it’s been joined by affectionate love, which I think is stronger at this point. I think the song’s total lack of self-consciousness is an endearing asset. I love that a UFO lands right in the middle, and that they weren’t afraid to do that. I love the pachycephalosaurus riff. This is the sound of my musical innocence, before anyone ever told me what was cool. Sing it with me: “buh duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh naa!”
Under my desk, leaning against the modesty panel, is a big rack of cassettes. It’s made a few multi-state moves with me now. I keep telling myself I’ll throw it away and not lug it to the next place, but I never do.
Most of these cassettes are collections that I taped off the radio when I was a teenager. I made the first several when I was 14, just beginning to listen to the local classic rock station (WAQY out of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts—I lived in Tolland, not far south of the state line). When I first learned to drive, each of the succession of salvaged radios my brother and I put in the sky blue 1985 Ford F-150 I drove had a tape deck, the better to play these cassettes on.
I made them as religiously as I listened to them. It was a way of building a record collection before I could rightly afford one, and bookmarking things to explore in more depth in the future. A glance at the tracklists of several of them reveals a lot of obvious songs (this was a classic rock station) mixed with a fair helping of what’s known in the business as “deep cuts.”
Everything is recorded from WAQY and, on some of the later cassettes, WPLR in New Haven. Here’s what I’m going to do:
Every week, I’ll post the tracklisting of one cassette, going in the order they were taped off the radio, and follow it up with an audio post about one of the songs on it. Today will be the first Cold Cassette day.
Yesterday, I went to Borders. I bought books and a few CDs and maps, all of which were marked well down from their usual sale price.
There are two Borders locations within a ten-minute drive from my house. I live in Southeast Michigan, which is the bookstore chain’s home turf. The original location is on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. I bought my Metro Detroit road atlas there on my first trip to the area, taken when we found out we’d be moving here.
Borders is dying, forced into liquidation by, depending on who you talk to, a changing media landscape or years of bad decisions and poor management. I suspect some combination of the two. The landscape has changed, sure, but Borders’ biggest direct competitor, Barnes & Noble, has founds ways to navigate the new terrain. Borders never did. In fact, they probably went in the exact wrong direction several times.
I’m not normally bothered by the failure of big corporations—and that’s what Borders was, of course—but walking under the banners announcing “everything 20-40% Off” and “nothing held back!”, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad.
The sadness has nothing to do with the specific Borders I was in (the Woodward Avenue store in Birmingham) or any lamentation that the ways I’ve always searched for and consumed media are going extinct right in front of me. The sadness is for the Borders in Manchester, Connecticut, which has been closed for quite a while.
Manchester is an old town. It was settled by Europeans in 1672 and is home to what was once the world’s largest silk mill, a now-idled reminder of my home state’s once-huge textile industry. There’s an attractive downtown strip and some beautiful old churches, but there’s not a lot of traffic going by those old storefronts now.
That’s because a few miles away, in the part of the city that I-84 runs through, a glistening retail metropolis has risen from the old golf courses and sledding hills that were there when I was a little kid. It’s a hell of seemingly indiscriminate suburban retail development, centered on the Buckland Hills Mall and radiating outward in strip malls, expensive movie theaters, big-box home improvement stores across the street from other big-box home improvement stores, and restaurants that change names with the seasons.
As a teenager, I dreaded it. The way everything lay on the land was ugly and incoherent, just like every other town across the country that’s thrown open its doors to corporate retail. It all seemed like it was trying to defy human scale and in trying instead made itself small and pitiable.
But there were two things that drew me to the Buckland retail zone in spite of how much I disliked it. One was Circuit City, which had a CD selection that rivaled a lot of well-curated city record stores. I built my music collection $9.99 at a time there.
But first, I had to start a collection. And I did that at Borders. The Manchester Borders was vast. I could wander among the bookshelves for hours, and then pass through the little alarm detectors to the music and video section and spend a few more hours. This was the first place I ever bought CDs. I used a gift certificate from my paternal grandparents to get some Pink Floyd albums just after Christmas in 1995.
I spent a lot of time in this store. It’s a distant memory now, but there was a time when Borders aspired to be the local hangout, when it presented itself locally less like a faceless corporation and more like a local bookstore. I did my first public poetry readings in the cafe (and if any of you are reading, I apologize for inflicting it upon you), and I got to know local authors and poets by going to those events and listening.
The music section had a big bin of local bands. I still have cassettes from Waltzing Matilda, Silence, and Speed the Plow, and a couple CDs by Rane and Mighty Purple. Rane used to play at the local fairs, and the highlight of their set was a jammed-out medley of classic rock hits. We all thought it was sort of subversive to be singing along to “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II” while standing on the high school football field.
You could—were invited to—sit in this store hours, reading in comfy chairs. At some point, all those chairs disappeared, the nightly events calendar became a weekly and then a monthly events calendar, the local music bin shriveled and disappeared, and the register guys I used to discuss music with, and who would actually give me their honest opinions without being condescending about it, moved on.
The last time I was in there must have been 2001 or 2002, and it didn’t feel like the same place. The remainder tables and endcaps had multiplied, they were leasing space to a stationery store, the CDs were haphazardly organized, and I felt like the store was no longer an inviting place. They wanted me to pay for my books and get out of there. Keep the line moving.
Maybe my memory of those formative years at Borders isn’t entirely accurate. Maybe it was always a faceless corporation that didn’t understand how to cater specifically to the communities it placed stores in. I don’t think that’s true, though. My memories aren’t lying to me. The Borders I loved died a decade ago or more, and now I’m hunting for bargains at the protracted funeral of the husk it left behind.
Schnitzler’s name may not be quite as well-known as some of the others in the German experimental electronic and rock music scene, but he was there at the beginning and helped make some of the first records produced by Germany’s kosmische music scene.
Many of his contemporaries came from rock, jazz and pop backgrounds, but Schnitzler was an avant gardist—he admired the work of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and brought the theory behind their work to the bands he played in.
In 1967, he, Boris Schaak and Hans-Joachim Roedelius co-founded the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in a building owned by a West Berlin theater company. There were two rooms in the venue: one painted white and the other painted black, and local musicians were invited to play essentially whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted, either on their own equipment or on the equipment present at the club.
One of the bands that frequented the club during its run from 1967 to 1969 was Tangerine Dream. Schnitzler joined the band in 1968 or 1969, and played on their first LP, Electronic Meditation. “Genesis” is the first track, and in it you can hear many of the ideas that German experimental musicians would spend the next decade thrashing out.
As Tangerine Dream recorded its debut, so too did Kluster, a group Schnitzler had founded with Klaus Freudigmann and Wolfgang Seidel—by this point, Seidel and Freudigmann had left and been replaced by Roedelius and Dieter Moebius. These three had ealier played together in a band called Geräusche (Noises).
Kluster made a few little-heard but highly influential albums before becoming Cluster when Schnitzler struck out on his own in 1971. He released dozens of albums and many dozens more private CD-Rs and cassettes, working right up to his death. He had already released two collaborative albums this year, one with Wolfgang Seidel and another with Masato Ooyama and Michael Thomas Roe.
There’s so much music to assess from his lifetime that I’m sure we’ll still be sorting through it years from now. Even without considering his formidable discography in full, though, it’s easy to see how pivotal he was to the direction of German music in the 1970s.
Fred Buscaglione: “Juke Box” (A Qualcuno Piace, 1958)
A bit of a lark to send you into the weekend. Fred Buscaglione’s “Juke Box” is on one level a song about the sweet life and on another a celebration of the new sounds that were arriving in Italy when he recorded, some of which he was partly responsible for introducing.
Buscaglione was born in 1921, and during World War II, he played in an Allied radio orchestra after being detained by the American military on Sardinia. This exposed him heavily to jazz and American pop, and he fell deeply in love with it. He also fell in love with the image of the American film noir gangster, and built his own comic version of to wield as his public persona in Italy.
In practice, this meant that he amplified both the toughness inherent to the gangster character and the weakness for a tipple and a roll in the hay with a pretty woman. He came to prominence after the war as an actor, but was a touring musician as well, and he began his recording career in 1955.
His music incorporated some of his gangster persona (he gets shot at the end of “Eri Piccola Cosi!” and talks about going to Sing Sing in “Il Dritto Di Chicago,” for two examples), but more importantly, it syncretized American jazz with Italian cafe music and embodied the youthful verve of rock and roll in spirit if not sound. The music is bashing good fun.
"Juke Box" is a hit he recorded in 1958, and it leaves behind his tough guy pose for a much more genuine expression of love for the music coming out of the new (and new-fangled) juke box down at the local cafe. He goes there with his girlfriend, where "a token [buys] happiness" from this "magical creation". He specifically mentions listening to Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine and Doris Day.
There’s a hint of Space Age technological fascination and optimism buried in there, too. It’s a kind of fascination we’ve lost and can’t really get back. But more to the point, the song is an embodiment of simple pleasure and getting out to be part of your world: “I’ll take you by the arm and lead you to a little cafe/just to listen to a song with you.”
Buscaglione only recorded for five years. In 1960, he crashed his Ford Thunderbird head-on into a truck, right in front of the American Embassy in Rome, dying at age 38.
Yesterday, I posted The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’”, which led me to listen to the full If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears LP again for the first time since my childhood.
My mother had that LP, and I know I heard it quite a bit before I turned ten. I remember the cover, with John Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot sitting in a bathtub with Michelle Phillips lying on their laps. There was a little box next to them listing all the song titles. I recently learned that this makes the LP part of the second pressing—the box was added to cover up the toilet next to the bathtub, which someone deemed indecent.
Can you imagine that? The very image of a toilet sparking controversy? I wonder what the people who got that little text box added would have thought of those Metallica “Metal Up Your Ass" t-shirts that proliferated in the late 80s? Or Millie Jackson’s Back to The Shit! cover, for that matter. I had friends who wore that Metallica shirt to school in the 90s.
Anyway, I was startled when the M & Ps’ cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do You Wanna Dance” hit the 1:20 mark, because the string arrangement that comes in there is one I know very well—from a Jens Lekman song.
That song is “Maple Leaves,” which was originally released as the title track of a 2003 EP. The song is a creatively literal take on the theme of miscommunication, and Lekman samples “Do You Wanna Dance” very effectively. I know the first time I heard it, the strings leaped out at me as familiar, but I couldn’t place them.
I’ve placed them now. They’d traveled with me from my childhood, lingering in the recesses of my mind just enough to sound familiar when I heard them again out of context. It’s neat to close the loop.
The Mamas And The Papas: “California Dreamin’” (If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears, 1965)
"I got down on my knees and I pretend to pray."
That line gets me every time. It says so much with so little and leaves itself open to a lot of probing to figure out what it really means. I wonder how it scanned in 1965, when this song was first released as a single, too.
Let’s back up a second. “California Dreamin’” is one of the most singularly bleak and haunting hit songs of its era. Though it was released in 1965, it didn’t become a big hit until 1966, when a radio station in Boston picked up on it, and it went to #4.
The song at the top of the chart when “California Dreamin’” blew up was Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.” This, to me, is a defining example of the cultural split that was occurring in the US in the mid-60s. One was a martial, easy-listening tribute to American Special Forces that in effect celebrates the valor of soldiering; the other a melancholy, desperate and aimless search for shelter in a forbidding land.
Sadler sold more and charted higher, but decades of hindsight have left “California Dreamin’” the ultimate victor—it easily casts the longer cultural shadow today, Lee Greenwood and other outliers aside. Thing is, “California Dreamin’” even stood out in the repertoire of the group that made it. The rest of the If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears LP is light as a feather compared to this song.
John Phillips had written this song in 1963, when he and Michelle Phillips were still part of a folk group called the New Journeymen, and the first version was recorded by Barry McGuire as he was riding high on the success of “Eve of Destruction.” In fact, the Mamas And Papas version was cut over the same backing track, and they brought in Bud Shank, a jazz flutist who’d played with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, to add a solo. Shank’s use of dissonance gives the song’s mid-section a simultaneously stormy and lonely feel.
There’s a level on which this song is just about wishing you were somewhere familiar, and another on which it’s basically doing what everyone does: complain about the weather. If that’s all it was aiming for, though, I don’t think they’d have gone for such a heavy sonority.
And then there’s that solo verse from Denny Doherty, where he sings about stopping in that little church for sanctuary and pretending to pray so that he’ll be allowed to stay a little longer. What’s going on there? I’ve long wondered how deeply cynical that line was supposed to be—is he going along to get along, or does he more deeply suspect that praying itself is pointless? He’s in a praying pose to create the impression that he’s pious for the preacher; this implicitly acknowledges that virtually anyone in a praying pose might simply be creating an appearance.
At any rate, in 1965, this type of irreligious notion must have sounded odd in a pop song, regardless of how much was meant by it. It’s effective in the song for the way it enhances the narrator’s desperation, and maybe Phillips meant nothing at all by it, but it makes me think every time I hear it.