Horace Silver: The Cape Verdean Blues (The Cape Verdean Blues, 1965)

Horace Silver was one of the greats, a jazz innovator who made music that was as fun to listen to as it was to think about. He co-founded the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey, in the process becoming one of a handful of players and composers who could lay a claim to inventing hard bop.

Silver died toady at age 85, and I miss him already. That stuff above is why he was important, but when I think about my connection with his music, his significance to jazz doesn’t really enter into it. I love what his mind did with the basic ingredients of bop. He wrote some astonishing melodies, and his arrangements were always clever and thoughtful. On his best-known tracks, like “Song for My Father” and “Sister Sadie,” he used his horn sections to play tightly written tunes that sounded casual and free, a little like a conversation where everyone’s on the same page about something.

He got that sound from listening to jam sessions at his childhood home in Connecticut. His Cape Verdean father would have friends over, and when they played together, it was mixed with people talking, and the playing was loose. He only ever once directly referenced his paternal ancestry in a song title, on this track, and he gave the song an insistent rhythmic pulse that pushes along the horns a little more strongly than he might have a few years earlier.

This is maybe not the best track to illustrate it, but Silver was an amazing piano player. This song features some of his great rhythm playing; he could play percussive and funky, but he could also pull back to reveal a lighter touch. His 1959 LP Blowin’ the Blues Away features some of his most inspired solos, and some of the playing on that record is just about as good as jazz piano gets.

Silver was, like most jazz vets, a constant mentor to younger players, having himself been discovered by Stan Getz. Louis Hayes, Hank Mobley and Blue Mitchell all learned on the job in his band; I don’t think it’s an accident that each player was himself immensely lyrical.

Silver lived a good, long life and was musically active for most of it, though his legacy was sealed even before he recorded this song. I’m sure I’ll be listening to him a lot over the next few days.

The Four Tops: “I’ll Turn To Stone” (Reach Out, 1967)

I was thinking about the Four Tops earlier today, mostly because this song was stuck in my head. First, the Frou Tops did something kind of amazing: they were a group with the exact same four members—Obie Benson, Lawrence Payton, Levi Stubbs and Duke Fakir—from the moment the group was founded in as the Four Aims in 1953 all the way to 1997, when Payton died of liver cancer and Lawrence Payton, Jr. stepped in to fill his spot. 

Today, Fakir still tours with a group called the Four Tops, though the other three have all left us. But nearly 50 years as a group is a feat—has anyone else done that? You could argue that because they usually weren’t the authors of their material the group had less potential for friction and strife than a lot of bands, but I don’t think it makes much difference. It’s not as though they didn’t have their ups and downs. 

For one thing, they went from ‘53 all the way to 1964 before “Baby I Need Your Loving” gave them a hit and a national profile. They were just another hard-gigging group trying to pay the bills before that; when they first joined the Motown roster in 1963, they were assigned to the marginal Jazz Workshop imprint and spent most of their time doing backing vocals for other artists. 

The Holland-Dozier-Holland team put them on the map—“Baby I Need Your Loving” was just the first in an amazing run of hits that made them legitimate stars in the mid-to-late 60s. And then Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown with an acrimonious battle, and suddenly the group was adrift. They were huge in Britain, but second to the Temptations in the US, and for a while they were getting kicked cover versions of other people’s hits. Their takes on “Walk Away Renee” and “If I Were a Carpenter” are fine, but they’re several notches below “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and the record-buying public agreed.

They had a last hurrah at Motown in the early 70s, making the Still Waters Run Deep LP with Frank Wilson and scoring a giant hit in the UK with “A Simple Game,” on which their backing band is the Moody Blues, but they didn’t follow the label west when it left Detroit in 1972. Their ABC LPs are mostly pretty good, and their disco-era LPs on Casablanca yielded a few minor hits, but the group was mostly forgotten by general audiences at that point. They spent the rest of the career essentially as a legacy touring act.

During their biggest hit-making years, when H-D-H were still at the helm, they recorded a ridiculous number of amazing songs that were never even released as a-sides. “I’ll Turn To Stone” is one, squirreled away on the Reach Out LP. It’s pretty much what I think of when someone says “Northern Soul.” 

This song moves so easily it’s hard not to imagine a roomful of kids in Wigan moving right along with it. The Four Tops’ alternate history begins with this, “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “I Got a Feeling” and “I’m Grateful,” and you can keep digging from there. I sort of wonder if Jeff Lynne heard “I’ll Turn To Stone” in ‘67, because a little more than ten years later, he wrote a song for ELO that seems to nod to it. 

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, 1962)

Yesterday was John Coltrane’s birthday, though I didn’t realize it until a friend of mine posted a scan of the original sheet music from “A Love Supreme” on Facebook last night (and then I saw a thing on my Tumblr feed when I checked it this morning). 

As it happens, I listened to Ole yesterday, just by coincidence. That album is something like a pivot to his spiritual jazz phase, and I really like it a lot, but here’s my thing with Coltrane: as much as I love A Love Supreme and Ole and most of Kulu Se Mama, I really think he was at his best as an interpreter of ballads.

I’ve read a lot of fan thoughts on Coltrane recently, and a lot of critical writing about him, too, and this is not a common opinion, form what I can tell. He is most often praised for his innovation, and especially for his dense “sheets of sound” style of soloing, which he took to some pretty out-there extremes on records like Om, Ascension, and Interstellar Space, albums that I don’t enjoy listening to at all.

On the other hand, listen to him on this collaboration with Duke Ellington. It seems like an improbable pairing at first blush, and in many ways it is—they represent different eras and schools of jazz. Ellington mostly worked with large ensembles and was a competent but unspectacular instrumentalist. Coltrane worked in small combos and was a virtuoso. Both were visionaries—one for the band, the other for his instrument.

But it worked. The two played this session as a quartet session, with some tracks featuring Coltrane’s regular bassist, Jimmy Garrison, and regular drummer, Elvin Jones, and others featuring bassist Aaron Bell and drummer Sam Woodyard (Woodyard was in Ellington’s band). This song, oddly, features Bell on bass and Jones on drums, but they’re mostly just staying out of the way.

Ellington does what he does well on the piano, playing a memorable, airy theme not that far off from Money Jungle's “Fleurette Africaine,” which may be his finest moment as an instrumentalist. Meanwhile, Coltranedoes something he was extremely talented at, which was taking a recognizable and rather simple melody and coming at it from a dozen different angles, taking it apart so he can look inside of it and show its essence (the version of “My Favorite Things” on the album of the same title is the crowning achievement of this approach). His tone here is supple and gentle and basically sublime. 

When Coltrane played a million miles an hour, that level of control he had was always evident, but the level of control was also one of the things that was foregrounded. You were, in part, listening for it. The music had a “damn” factor, as in “damn, what did he just play?”

"In a Sentimental Mood" does not have the damn factor, and it doesn’t need it. The control he has over what he’s playing is amazing, but you have it start analyzing it to even notice it. I think it’s sort of interesting that, for me, the music that Coltrane presented as though it was tapping into some thread of the universe (Om, Ascension, etc.) is the stuff that sounds the most man-made, while stuff like this is the music that feels like it’s a part of the air and always has been. 

Different strokes for different folks, of course, but that’s the Coltrane I love most. 

The Chambers Brothers: “Time Has Come Today” (The Time Has Come, 1967)

I remember the first time I heard this. The circumstances weren’t special—I was sitting in my room, listening to the radio, waiting for WAQY to get through the same Eagles and Led Zeppelin songs they played every day and give me something that wasn’t in the regular rotation. I did this almost every evening while I put off doing my homework until the last minute. 

Then this came on. 

That opening, with the echoing cowbells, the simple but effective guitar fanfare, and finally the drum fill that blasts us into the first verse, immediately struck me as different. They had a spooky, ramshackle quality to them that wasn’t common on classic rock radio, and that first verse…. I was hooked. 

The four Chambers Brothers, George, Willie, Joe and Lester, has been performing for 15 years by the time this song came out. They originally toured as a gospel-folk quartet, then went electric after Dylan’s controversial show at Newport. Drummer Brian Keenan rounded out the new, electrified Chambers Brothers, and they developed a raw psychedelic soul sound, of which this song is the absolute apex, though they have a ton of other great tracks, and they have several albums well worth listening to. 

That’s Willie or Joe singing lead on this song (I’m not positive which), and it’s his performance that turns the song into a comment on the tumult of the era. He sounds completely swept along on the tide of the song, spitting out the words as though this is his only chance to say it. This is even more pronounced when the song recapitulates a the very end. 

The psychedelic breakdown, with the deceleration, wobbly percussion overdubs, and wild build-up, is the instrumental complement to that performance.

In  way, this song is everything we were supposed to learn about the 60s—turbulent, psychedelic, exploratory, a little bit out of control. I think the fact that the guitarists aren’t anything like virtuosos (Willie and Joe had only recently begun playing electric) helps a lot. They briefly allude to “The Little Drummer Boy” while the drums go crazy in the background, but otherwise, it’s pretty much just ragged jamming.

This is, in the end, a song I just don’t think I could ever get tired of. It does too much too well and captures a feeling in the process that never seems wrong. 

The Deviants: “Deviation Street” (Ptooff!, 1967)

This weekend brought news of the passing of Mick Farren, the great music journalist/musician who was among the earliest of rock’s many gadfly characters. In my various travels on the web. I’ve run into a lot of acquaintances who seemed to know him for his writing; I know him primarily for his music, and especially for his groundbreaking 60s band The Deviants.

The track above, “Deviation Street,” is a mix of ripping garage rock, spoken word and musique concrete that nicely prefigures Farren’s career as a music writer. It’s music-as-music-criticism, in several ways. 

First, there’s the melting, creepy psychedelic passage after the opening riff where Farren sneeringly describes a jive-talking CIA agent giving drugs to hippies, slapping the flower power scene upside the head and using their own sound to do it. Second, the rock portion of the song, part of which is covered in dubbed-over applause, seems to be a sort of oblique take on The Sonics’ “Psycho.” Finally, there’s the most obvious bit, where a tiny snippet of “Manic Depression” can be heard in the background as an Underground dweller credulously shouts “wow, it’s, like, simulating the acid experience. 

In 1967, this kind of thing was uncommon—it’s like the Mothers of Invention with the Dadaism replaced by pure venom. To say that the Deviants were a preview of punk isn’t an exaggeration. They even made their album independently (albeit with the financial backing of a rich friend) and sold it themselves until Decca heard it and signed them. 

Farren dipped in and out of music over the years, cutting some solo records and occasionally reconvening the Deviants or working with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. He wrote for International Times and NME, publishing nearly two dozen novels along the way. You can catch his well—known rant about complacency in rock music “The Titanic Sails at Dawn” here

Farren went out with his boots on, dying on stage last week. 

The Doors: “Light My Fire” (The Doors, 1967)

Somewhere in the middle of last week, Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors, died of cancer. I wasn’t able to follow the coverage. I barely had time to eat this past week—no food and no sleep is a combination with peculiar effects, to say the least.

But as I kited in a daze from engagement to engagement and task to task, Manzarek stayed back there in my mind, and I threw a few Doors songs on my laptop so I could listen to them as I worked to knock out the last bits of a first draft. They’re on my iPod, so they shuffle past every now and then, mixed with other things, but I haven’t sat down and listened to “Crystal Ship,” “End of the Night,” “You’re Lost, Little Girl,” “Break on Through,” or “Waiting for the Sun” intentionally in quite a long time.

Last year (I think; it feels like five years ago), I did a series of posts on the Doors, including a couple where I asked people what they thought of the band. Doug at Life’s Grand Parade described them as “Baby’s first rock band.” It’s a funny way of putting it, but it’s not untrue, really. The Doors aren’t anyone’s end point; they’re a band you walk through to get to other things, a sort of training ground for listeners who want to get into farther-out stuff but still want that tether to the blues and the sharp chorus, and the frontman with charisma. 

Which is not to say they don’t have merit as their own thing. The way people use them isn’t theirs to control, and the Doors were, at heart, a band with ideas at a time when ideas carried a great deal of currency in rock music. Some of those ideas were fantastic, some not so much, but it adds up to a fascinating whole body of work. The Doors were exactly as awesome as you thought they were in high school, and exactly as terrible as you thought they were in college. 

Jim Morrison is, for obvious reasons, thought of as the voice of the band, but when I listen to them, I really hear four voices; three of them are just speaking through instruments. Sometimes, there are other people in the room—Clear Light bassist Douglas Lubahn, the odd oboe player—but it’s really these four guys, who have read a lot of philosophy and beatnik road stories and tried out meditation and obtained degrees they aren’t using, trying to make sense of all that in the form of songs. 

Ambition of the kind the Doors poured into their music is risky. As the Field Music song says, “them that do nothing never make mistakes.” The Doors have been punished by critics for ages for going out on a limb and often failing to come back with the kind of results that the post-punk world says are okay. Their earnestness, their belief in what they were doing, has become a sort of concrete wreath for them in certain circles, circles where the response to that is to criticize the ego inherent in thinking you’re doing something special.

But if any artist ever made and sold art without just a little bit of ego invested in it, I have not heard of that person. Little things like me writing this and putting it out there have dribs and drabs of ego attached to them—writing a suite in which you proclaim yourself the lizard king in front of lots and lots of people is different only by degree. 

Ray Manzarek was hardly a passive partner in all of the Doors’ creative excesses; he was Morrison’s equal creatively, just as responsible for the sound of the band and the occasionally wooly-headed poetry at the heart of the songs. His organ gave the music its essential color, whether he was playing it clean as he did here, on “Light My Fire,” or covered in weird distortion, as he did on “Waiting for the Sun.” 

The Doors’ debut came out in January, 1967, before every other boundary-shattering landmark album that came out that year, and it moved the goalposts, not just with “The End” drawing its Oedipal fantasy and sitar-based guitar tunings out past ten minutes, but also with all that confidently deployed philosophy and instrumental interplay. Manzarek’s solo on “Light My Fire,” as long as a lot of pop songs of the era, is a pretty strong step toward progressive rock, jam bands, and the importation of jazz principles to rock. If nothing else, a whole lot more people heard it than the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West.”

Manzarek did other things—produced The X, guested on Echo & the Bunnymen and "Weird Al" Yankovic tracks, etc.—and they all come up in the obituaries I’ve been catching up on this week, sometimes to fill out the story, and other times in what seems like an attempt to prop up the story with credentials more acceptable to publication’s audience. Which is fine—you have to play to your people, I guess.

I’ll miss Manzarek. I liked his playing a lot, and I think his most famous band was important and necessary and good, even when the ideas got a little off the rails. I love that the Doors were willing to go out there and act like they were shamans tapped into some deep well of philosophical knowledge. I love that they took themselves seriously doing silly things. I love that I loved them, then hated them, then came to like them again as I worked through all the ways that music gets tied up with your self-identity when you’re in your 20s. I love that they’re the kind of band that some people adore and others loathe. I love that this song still sounds this good so many decades later.

RIP, Ray. Your band made things a little more interesting.

The Shangri-Las: “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” (Red Bird RB 10-008, 1964)

Writer/producer Shadow Morton died on Valentine’s Day. This is the first song he ever wrote or produced.

Morton wasn’t really a songwriter in 1964, but he wanted to be one, and the fact that he’d never put a note down on paper didn’t stop him from visiting the Brill Building, where his old girlfriend, Ellie Greenwich, worked as part of a very successful writer/producer duo with Jeff Barry. He told them he’d written a bunch of potential hits.

Barry saw through it and challenged him to bring in a demo. I don’t imagine he thought he’d hear anything like this. Barry and Greenwich knew something about teen drama and writing hits. They’d been working with Phil Spector since 1962. They wrote “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “Baby I Love You,” four songs that essentially defined the girl group sound, at least until The Supremes broke big a couple of years later.

So Shadow Morton, still known as George at the time, left the Brill Building and drove to the beach. With seagulls calling outside, he sat in his car and wrote “Remember (Walking in the Sand).” The Shangri-Las were singing in clubs after a couple of flop singles and had no record contract at the time, and he convinced them to cut a demo of the song with him (Billy Joel, working sessions in his pre-Atila days, played piano on the demo).

I’m trying to picture Jeff Barry listening to this in his office the following week. It wasn’t this exact recording, but it must have been clear how great it was, so Barry must have felt odd knowing that this guy who had obviously been bullshitting him a few days earlier had made good on his claims. Regardless, Barry got Morton and the Shangri-Las contracts with Red Bird, a little-remembered but amazingly successful label where Barry and Greenwich were the lead producers.

"Remember" got to #5, and it launched the Shangri-Las to sudden stardom. This song really gets me—it is uncommonly dark for its time. Morton had taken the big drama of the Spector-produced girl groups and twisted it into detailed, harrowing melodrama. The girl narrating this song is distraught over losing her lover, man she has not seen for a year and who has now sent her a letter telling her he’s found someone else. What a jerk.

In Mary Weiss, Morton found the perfect actress to deliver his lines—she nails the desperation of the prechorus, sputtering “let me think, let me think/what can I do” with utter desperation as the chord sequence spirals down three beats at a time.

And then the gulls come.

This would be a brilliant song in almost any arrangement, but the thing that always sticks with me most is the seagulls that creep into the chorus, which is weirdly the quietest part of the song. They start out way in the background, but they get louder as the chorus goes on, and the effect is chilling.

This is not some sunny beach scene—it is pretty much that awful, hot-feeling kind of headache you get when you realize things have gone terribly wrong and there is nothing you can do about it, transformed into music. Possibly, it’s the same feeling Morton had as he left the Brill Building knowing he had no songs with which to answer Barry’s challenge.

What you do with panic makes a big difference to the kind of life you lead. If it swallows you whole, as it appears to do with this song’s poor narrator, it may be the end of you. But if you can harness it to spur creation, as Morton did, it might lead to something great.

Morton rode high for a few years as a writer and producer in the mid-60s, then had a fair amount of success during the 60s/70s transition years producing hard rock and proto-prog bands, including Vanilla Fudge, whose biggest hit was a grotesque heavy rock version of a girl group hit (the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”), and Iron Butterfly, who played their infamous 17-minute version of “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” at Morton’s urging as he pretended to fix his mixing board (he was actually recording them without telling them).

He left music in the 70s and never really made a comeback. Unlike Phil Spector, he never did any legacy productions with John Lennon or the Ramones, and unlike David Axelrod, he never became a vogue household name or reliable sample fodder. But he did help make some of the best records of the 60s, and this is one of them.


Donald Byrd: I’ve Longed And Searched For My Mother (I’m Tryin’ To Get Home, 1964)

For an album called I’m Tryin’ To Get Home, Donald Byrd’s tenth LP as a bandleader is for the most part remarkably celebratory. Like its predecessor, A New Perspective, it combines threads of cool jazz and gospel to create a seamless and singular sound. A few years later, Quincy Jones took this same kind of sound, dragged it further out of church and shot it into orbit on his great Walking In Space LP, but here it still has a strongly organic feel.

In the middle of all this joyous, wordless singing and upbeat jamming, though, is this song, “I’ve Longed And Searched For My Mother,” which is… I don’t know what you’d call it. A cosmic funeral march, perhaps. It twists the ebullience of the rest of the LP inside out, and for all its very intentional drama, it’s really a devastating piece of music.

Byrd takes the sound he’d developed and pulls it apart, strand by strand, isolating one female voice and setting her away from the background singers. The others may be there, cooing at the fringes, but she is alone. He has the saxes playing at the very bottom of their range, where the tone is naturally rougher and less even, and he keeps his own trumpet muted at the outset, calling out from the distance. When he finally takes a solo, he doesn’t sing out—he sings inward. His trumpet sounds exhausted but determined.

It’s a modern tone poem. It doesn’t tell a story with a concrete beginning, middle and end, but it does nevertheless tell a complete story, taking you on a journey of ache.

Albums like this make me wonder why I don’t hear more about Byrd as a bandleader. He’s widely respected as a trumpeter, but the LPs he made under his own name aren’t usually considered must-hear entries in the jazz canon unless you’re already in deep. I suspect some hardcore jazz heads never forgave him for the records he made in the 70s with the Blackbyrds, a fusion group he assembled from among his best students as he was teaching music at the university level. It’s also awfully hard to make a dent in jazz’s front line when it’s populated by guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Dizzy Gillespie.

Regardless, the guy was a fantastic leader with lots of great, creative ideas, and exploring his catalog reveals some amazing stuff, from his hard bop days in the 50s all the way through the Blackbyrds. His roughest fusion record, 1971’s Ethiopian Knights, is a favorite of mine.

I’ve loved this song for years, but there’s a reason I chose to write about it today.

Byrd was born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II in 1932. He grew up in Detroit, was a music major at Wayne State University, and went on to a brilliant and prolific career leading his own bands and playing with Coltrane, Art Blakey, Lionel Hampton (while he was still in high school!), Herbie Hancock, Paul Chambers, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins and others. He was one of the last people to play with Eric Dolphy before the woodwind player’s untimely death from insulin shock.

And he taught his craft generously, to students at Oberlin, Rutgers, Howard and half a dozen other schools. He’s still going today at 77, living in New Jersey.

And as for me, I just moved to the Detroit area so my wife could teach at Wayne State. And there is something about this piece of music that matches the journey of Byrd’s home city over the last five decades. Detroit’s population peaked in 1950. Things were already changing by the time Byrd recorded this fourteen years later—the ‘67 riots weren’t the beginning of the end like we’re often told. They were a step along the way.

And of course, you’ve seen the photos of abandoned homes and factories, and the vacant lots, and you’ve heard about the white flight and the hollowing of the city’s core. But I’ve been around this place a little now, and I can tell you it’s not all bad. The suburbs and the city still have their backs turned to each other, and there’s a lot to be done, but the thought of doing it makes Detroit an uncommonly exciting place to be these days.

And that’s the bit I left out of my description of the song above—the edge of hope. It has the ring of a long, exhausting journey that hasn’t reached its destination yet. You don’t know where else it will take you, but the future just might carry you home. And that’s something to look forward to.

Donald Byrd passed away last week, and I’ve been wanting to do a proper remembrance post. Re-sharing this will have to do for the moment.

The Troggs: “I Can’t Control Myself” (Page One POF 001, 1966)

Troggs vocalist Reg Presley died today after a bout with cancer. He was 71.

Back in middle school, we had a music appreciation class, and there was a program of old songs cut together in a big medley marketed under the title “Rock On!” that we all learned to sing in unison. “Wild Thing” was one of those songs, and I remember even back then thinking that it sounded so much rougher and uglier than the other stuff in the program. 

Years later, during college, I was sitting in my dorm room listening to the cut-price Troggs compilation I’d just bought and I realized what the primary difference was: on their early recordings, The Troggs had no cymbals. Check out “I Can’t Control Myself.” The drums are just thudding snare, tom tom and kick. There’s no ride dividing the pulse, no crash for accents, just Ronnie Bond’s raw pounding to back up the basic chords and Presley’s lascivious vocal, which was too much for a lot of radio stations in its day. 

The Troggs formed in Andover, England as the Troglodytes, a fitting name for their sound. they got picked up by the manager of the Kinks and shortened it, then joined the Kinks as progenitors of a basic sound you could legitimately call a precursor of punk. Both bands moved on quickly, but once the genie was out of the bottle, it wasn’t going back in. 

The Troggs got some cymbals and made the pop gem “With a Girl Like You,” their only UK #1 (“Wild Thing” topped the US chart), then slid sideways into something like psychedelia with “Night of the Long Grass” and “Love Is All Around.” By 1969, they’d fallen to the back of the pack and called it quits. 

The members stayed in music, though, and they reunited less than a year later to toil in obscurity, making albums sporadically. The final one was an unlikely 1991 collaboration with members of REM called Athens Andover, which I used to see in used bins, though I’ve never heard it. 

Presley had to finally leave music two years ago after his lung cancer diagnosis, but otherwise, he stuck at it his whole life and left some great stuff behind. Press play on that primal yowl one more time. 

Beacon Street Union: “May I Light your Cigarette” (The Clown Died in Marvin Gardens, 1968)

Beacon Street is one of the major avenues of Boston, running from the base of Beacon Hill, near the Massachusetts state capital through Back Bay and Copley Square into Brookline, past Boston College and out to Newton. During my freshman year of college, I once rode the entire length of it as the passenger in a Jeep being driven way too fast by a person whose idiocy knew much greater depths than I’d yet discovered. 

It’s a beautiful road, though, to the extent that roads can be beautiful. It runs through the entire urban transect, from lanes shadowed by tall buildings to full-on suburbia and small remnants of the pastoral Boston hinterland of old. Beacon Street Union was a Boston band, sometimes cited as one of the early Bosstown Sound groups; I should note that I don’t really think the Bosstown Sound was a real thing. It’s more a name people cooked to try and apply coherence to a bunch of pretty disparate-sounding bands. 

They all went to Boston University, and their music ranged from pretty ordinary rock and roll covers and standard-issue beat to much stranger stuff. The Clown Died In Marvin Gardens, the second of the two albums they released in 1968 (they released a third in 1970 under the name Eagle after moving to New York) is a weird jumble of all their tendencies. Side one features a Doors-y waltz, a chamber pop oddity, a jarring and not very good cover of “Blue Suede Shoes,” a hint of funky soul, and some gestures toward psychedelia.

Flip it to side two, and you were confronted with this. “May I Light Your Cigarette” is a plain odd soundscape-and-spoken-word piece that’s as unsettling as anything else I’ve heard from 1968. John Lincoln Wright’s nonchalant delivery makes the vocal sound structureless at first, but it keeps coming around to the same beats, there are hidden internal rhymes all over the place, and it turns out to have a well-considered organization.  It’s followed by a wild, 17-minute version of “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

"May I Light Your Cigarette" resonates with me in a way that’s hard to describe. All that wobbly guitar and the unpredictable rise and fall of the vocal remind me a bit of walking through Boston at night in the winter, with the wind hard in your face and your collar up on your cheeks. There’s a very specific image of smokers on a sidewalk that comes to me when I listen to it—I see the red brick facades of the portion of Beacon Street that runs through Back Bay as they shiver and draw in the smoke.

I must have witnessed that exact scene a hundred times in the four years I lived in Boston, so it’s no stretch. The sidewalks of Boston are wonderfully busy places. Its skyscrapers aside, Boston has managed to maintain a human enough sense of scale that the streets are usually filled with people walking where they need to go. That’s one of the things I miss about it. I haven’t been back in eleven years, and I haven’t found another city quite like it.

Liner Note

Weirdly, the deceased clown on the album cover is the same clown that appears on the cover of The Doors’ Strange Days