On this Easter Sunday of Passover weekend, we should all be grateful for the latest resurrection of Terry Adams — he of the perennially passed-over NRBQ, America’s greatest cult band.
His new album’s called Holy Tweet. And while it’s not out till the end of the week, it got a sweet review from Ben Ratliff in today’s Times, and you should definitely plan on appending it to your music collection. And even if you don’t grok it at first, even if it seems too silly or too poppy, too accessible or even too willfully obscure, you’ll eventually discover that you’ve not only had a good time, but learned something. And then you’ll see the genius of Terry, the Hohner Clavinet-slapping heart of the Q.
I’m not the first to tout NRBQ — Elvis Costello left out the “cult” part when he called them “the best band in America” and Penn Jillette said they were the “best band in the world” — but I could’ve been. My life has crisscrossed theirs at odd intervals for 40 years.
NRBQ (which stands for New Rhythm & Blues Quintet/Quartet) were a Next Big Thing when their first self-titled album came out on Columbia in 1969. On the other hand, I was just another NBT-aspirant, nose to the glass of New York’s 48th Street music row, when I first encountered the band, parading in self-consciously single file down the opposite sidewalk. Even the way they walked seemed unique and, I would soon discover, uniquely Q.
“Disneyland for music fans,” I call it, which is why I’ve been faithfully attending South-by-Southwest since 2005. Mostly I’m a fan of rap, hip-hop, DJs, electro-pop and punk. And there’s lots of it at SXSW — along with just about everything else, from indie rock to classic rock to folk, soul, metal, country and more.
Husband Serg and I beeline to downtown, where the action happens. Thanks to our suitemate, Thuggy Fresh, we get into the VIP area of IODA’s party at Emo’s Annex, where we’re greeted with tall cans of ice cold Lone Star. Welcome to Austin!
No matter what you think, it’s not a sign of age. I’ve been devotedly reading the New York Times obituary pages since I was a lot farther from kicking the bucket than I surely am now. My long-lived mother, who also reads the obits every day, calls them “the Irish funny pages,” evidently because the Emerald Islanders carry an innate affinity for tales of the recently departed. So perhaps, being half-mick, that’s where I get it.
Just to clarify, I’m not merely a connoisseur of individual obituaries. My first assessment, as I flip from the headlines to page 32 (or thereabouts) each morning, is of the whole page, the morbid gestalt. And that is based on the quantity of the day’s obits, the quality of the memorialized (a function of their celebrity, historical prominence, quirky expertise and the like) as well as the interplay of the different stories. And once every year or two, there is an obituary page that really stands out — a juxtaposition of unusually compelling biographies or simultaneously dead celebrities or stories that perfectly dovetail with your own interests. Or just some really good writing.
And sometimes it’s a single story so epic it carries the day by itself. And frequently, I’ve noticed, those are about World War II combat veterans. My all-time fave is of a US bomber pilot who was just about to drop his lethal load on Germany when he himself was accidentally bombed from above by one of his own compatriots. The explosions almost destroyed the plane — and him — but, bloodied and broken, he continued on to his target and then managed to head home, where he survived a spectacular crash-landing. It’s cinematic heroism of a sort we lily-livered contemporary paper-pushers can barely imagine. Tragedy, and a little bit of comedy, too. And, as obituary, unbeatable.
News of the death of Jimmy Carl Black seems as good an excuse as any to re-visit the extraordinary (and that doesn’t necessarily mean good) group of which he was a famous part. I’m talking about the Mothers of Invention — what later came to be known as Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, after its single most famous part.
In truth, I didn’t even remember what Jimmy Carl Black played (drums). But I did remember what he said, the words unspooling from that hangdog face with a goofy, ironic earnestness: “I’m the Indian of the group.”
Even more, I remembered what he wore, especially, second from right, above, on the Mothers’ We’re Only In It for the Money album. A high-waisted, scoop-neck dress.
Of course, they were all in drag, with aggressively girly outfits beneath thinning hair, scraggly beards, or, in Jimmy’s case, trademark puffy eyes, goatee and long, black, 1940s-wavy locks. They stared at the camera, scowling or sincere or slightly discombobulated — but never mugging or laughing. And, in drag or out, they easily took the prize as ugliest band in the world (and that does necessarily mean good).
If there was one guy I’ve held close to my miserly little rock snob heart, lo, these 75 years, it’s Napoleon Culp.
You don’t know him.
Though even I didn’t know him until this morning, when to my shock and dismay the digital New York Times informed me of the passing of a 78-year-old gospel and R&B singer from North Carolina who was born Napoleon Culp, but performed as Nappy Brown.
You don’t know him either.
And isn’t that the point? He was my secret. My invincibly winning gambit in the compulsive bloodsport of musical oneupsmanship. The one name I could reliably whip out in a crowd, and nobody would know.
Sure, John Goddard knew who he was. And the first time I walked into Village Music, John’s jampacked, soon-to-be-legendary little record store in Mill Valley, and saw a new album by Nappy Brown in the “Artists We Really Like” bin, I was staggered. In those days before Google or iTunes, I had not only assumed no one knew Nappy, but that he had already taken my secret (his existence) to the grave. (And, of course, in those days before Google and Wikipedia, I also had no idea of Nappy’s long-gone ‘50s glory days.)
But Goddard — well, he’s so cool he had a copy of my book in his store for 20 years. Literally, one sad, permanently unsold copy of The Noise (and I never said a thing, btw). John is part of that .001% who know Nappy Brown — along with every other musician you think no one else knows. I mean, I would never consciously compete with Goddard. But that’s not really a problem because like a lot of hardcore record nerds he doesn’t turn up at very many social occasions. And now, alas, his store is closed.
Anyway, Nappy Brown.
I’m ready to sign on.
I’ve never quite shared the ardor. But I’ve long been fascinated by the socio-musico impact of these guys. More than just a fave rave of a certain demographic (thirty-something males?), they seem to represent to those fans — 80,000 of whom turned out in Golden Gate Park last night — some sort of watershed, a defining moment. A musical moment, for sure, but one that also goes well beyond.
A Beatles for their times.
And if you’re as suprised by that notion as I was (maybe not, 35-year-old dude), trust me. It’s based on unassailable empirical data — mostly close observation of guys like Joe Oh and Mike Lemme.
But let’s talk about Lemme.
For sure, Radiohead goes beyond the musical for this guy, a designer by avocation and trade. And you get what he’s “hearing” when you see the show. Where other bands load up on the latest in technological fidelity, the highest of def, for their video projections, Radiohead is cool enough and smart enough to understand that to go forward technologically, to refresh the whole concept of video projection at this point in the game, is to go backwards.
Ellas McDaniel is one of the handful of guys who invented the thing we now call rock ’n’ roll. If there’s a band in creation that hasn’t played his enduring beat, we’ve never heard of them. And with his cowboy hat, custom box guitar and sexually insinuating lyrics, he also helped invent the persona of the rock ’n’ roll badass. So it was only appropriate that, when Bo Diddley headed off to rock ’n’ roll heaven two weeks ago, Hard Rock, which owns so much of his stuff (including his first, homemade guitar, pictured above), put out a tribute ad. This is it, conceived and created by D/C.