Peru: the gods of rock

I am in San Francisco. I am in Texas. I am whirring on the back of a golf cart speeding to the closing gates of a midnight flight to Bogota. I am breathing, living, moving from one life to the next, remembering my always-on travel mantra that helps me dive full-in whenever I travel: I am that.

All of it. Everyone I see, all the idiotic things, the lamentations and prejudices, the angelic offerings and the petty short changings. The joy in the eyes of the smiling grandfather whirring along side me, on his way to a family reunion in the countryside of Colombia. The passive voice of the driver echoing- anyone else going to Bogota? Anyone?

The plane doors shut. I am asleep.

I am in Bogota. I am waiting. I am in Lima.

I am in Piura. The airport.

I am waiting for an official cab, though the gypsies hover on the other side of the curb with laments and pleas and intensity. A legit taximan with lines on his face deep like ocean trenches pulls up, helps me get my bag in the car. He eyes me with a weary friendliness through the rear view. Where are you from? He asks in Spanish.

Guess, I say.

France?

No. Guess again.

Germany?

Continue reading “Peru: the gods of rock”

The original Biggie

Tried to post this on Facebook on the occasion of Clarence Clemons’s passing. Too long. So here you go. A couple adventures with the Big Man (and just dig that Eric Meola cover photo):

Met Clarence after a Springsteen show in Detroit, ’75 or ’76, while I was at Creem. When Bruce crashed (he never was into partying), I found Clarence, who was. It wound up around 3 am with me challenging the truly Big Man, an ex-college player, to some kind of football duel. Whereupon he jovially, but terrifyingly, set up in his 3-point stance and blasted me across the hotel room.

Hung out in New Orleans in ’78, too, but sober: two of us walking down the middle of Bourbon Street. White cop confronts Clarence, accuses him of stealing a purse from a nearby bar. Pure harassment, seeing as how we had yet to enter any bar. And little choice but to take it. I’ll never forget looking up at the Big Man afterwards to see tears welling in his eyes.

Big soul, big talent and big fun and taken too soon.

Tales of Hoffman

me-with-camera-for-about-photos_550px

She wouldn’t want me telling you this — the first thing to know about Roni Hoffman is that, unlike some of us, she tends toward the taciturn. In fact, after more decades together than we’d ever admit, I’m still hearing new details of her story.

But it’s a helluva story.

Her boyfriend was among the first of the dubious breed that came to be known as rock critics. You see, back in the day, there were these things called daily newspapers and each one had a middle-aged guy who wrote about jazz and that’s who the dailies would send to cover rock concerts, often with laughable results, at least to rock fans. But along came a publication called Crawdaddy, the first real rock magazine, a year before Rolling Stone. Sandy Pearlman wrote for it. And so did Roni’s b.f. Which meant that at 17 she got to hang out with Jimi Hendrix backstage at a club in Greenwich Village, and later to attend the press conference atop the Pan Am building where, in a publicity stunt, the nascent guitar god had just landed in a helicopter. She was at the Dom on St. Mark’s Place when the Velvet Underground played, and a 17-year-old Jackson Browne opened. She was at Patti Smith’s first poetry reading, before Lenny Kaye strummed along on guitar, and then backstage at the Bitter End when Bob Dylan stopped by to pass Patti the torch as rock ‘n’ roll poet laureate.

Jim Morrison put his arm around Roni’s shoulders and a joint in her mouth. Mick Jagger just put his arm around her shoulders — though the occasion happened to be a birthday party for a raging drunk Norman Mailer, who put his hands all over her. She dined with Lou Reed at the writer Lisa Robinson’s apartment. She and her b.f. shared a house with the Blue Oyster Cult, back when those metal pioneers were called the Soft White Underbelly. She met the young Iggy and Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan of T-Rex and such monumental rock elders as Muddy Waters and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She was at the celebrated Rock Writers Convention in Memphis in ’73, where the original lineup of Big Star, Alex Chilton’s band, played their one and only gig, and on the infamous Hells Angels boat ride around Manhattan, the same year, where she got to know Jerry Garcia and Bo Diddley, both of whom performed, and where she witnessed the Angels preparing to throw overboard a smarmy young local-TV reporter named Geraldo Rivera. She was in the room when Epic signed a raggedy-ass outfit from SUNY/New Paltz called the Dictators, who would then make the first-ever punk record. An undergraduate Gary Lucas crashed on her couch, a dozen years before he captained Beefheart’s Magic Band and an over-served Lester Bangs passed out in her armchair, a dozen years before he overdosed.

Her kids think of her as their unassuming mom. Little do they know.

Roni was, and is, an artist. She paints and draws (and today also teaches painting and drawing). But she always had a camera, and knew how to use it, and at some point her writer friends, when they needed pictures, started to ask her along to interviews and concerts and parties. They liked her and knew that, unlike a lot of those ego-tripping shutterbugs, she would be, well, quiet and always get the job done. So she has a lot of unique photos. At the same time, she missed a lot of unique photos. She says that it just seemed kind of rude to whip out your camera while chatting with a new friend, even if that friend turned out to be Jimi Hendrix. But then it was precisely that sense of consideration that made writers invite her along in the first place.

Continue reading “Tales of Hoffman”

Captain Beefheart vs. Adam Flynn

gary-lucas-captain-beefheart-550

I mentioned we were going to see Gary Lucas‘s “Captain Beefheart Symposium” at the Independent, and by way of explanation — or maybe Adam asked — I added that Gary had played guitar on Beefheart’s final album. To which my punkass 24-year-old co-worker replied, “You mean, Ice Cream for Crow?”

“The fuck you know Captain Beefheart, let alone a specific record from 1982?!?”

And that’s where it started.

Talk about Beefheart and you’re talking about things way beyond music. In fact, a lot of people — some quantifiably un-square (Mr. P.) — still can’t stand the music, even if they respect the man. A lot of others never listened (but in both cases, the word “lot” must be understood in a rigorously relative context — the universe of the Beefheart-aware being larger than the universe of East River Pipe fans and smaller than the faniverse of the Pixies, whom Beefheart influenced). You’re talking about a cultural significance that derives, as much as anything, from the unreplicably delightful title and indelible record jacket for Trout Mask Replica, the deadpan comedy of (some) song titles (“A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”), even the martial whimsy of the band name, not to mention the flamboyant ravings of critics — mostly pro, but con, too — some of whom meant it.

One who meant it, Lester Bangs, had ears and eyes beyond mine and called Beefheart “one of the four or five unqualified geniuses to rise from the hothouses of American music in the Sixties” and backed it up to the hilt in many reviews and at least one profile.

Most of all, the Cap’s cultural impact derives from that moment when everyone who was, is or ever will be cool tried to listen to one of the records and failed, a few tracks in, leaving Beefheart to stand as a permanent challenge to everything musical that would come after in their cultural journey and forever cast his shadow on their cool.

At least, that was my passage. But, owing to knowing Gary, my passage continued, a forced march based on personal obligation, until one day, more than 40 years after Trout Mask, I arrived at a place where I wanted to listen to nothing but Captain Beefheart. For weeks, I reveled in the untamed words, explosive juxtapositions, fractured rhythms, defiant non-rhythms and anti-pop non-melodies, the strange, but unmistakable, Delta roots, the unexpected contemporary echoes (not just straight-up influence — Waits, Devo, Deerhoof — not just freak-flag standard-bearing, but the big and little Beefheartian choices that, consciously or unconsciously, countless modern bands make), the surprising technical sophistication serving implacably stubborn primitivism, the intensity, joy, anger, audacity, the voice. Nirvana (the state of grace, not the band)! I had arrived, cool at last.

Continue reading “Captain Beefheart vs. Adam Flynn”

Darkness redux: me and Bruce in the day

The long tail struck again the other day.

For about a decade, starting in the mid-’70s, I was an editor for a rock magazine called Creem and then a freelance writer for dozens of rock rags. The Internet, of course, was beyond imagining, and so was the idea that any of that writing would endure into the 21st century. I do have semi-carefully packed boxes of some of the mags I wrote for squirrelled away in my basement (just as my wife, a former rock photog, has semi-carefully packed boxes of photos of a bloody Iggy Pop, for example, and Muddy Waters without his toupee). But the world moved on, and so did we.

Periodically, however, a stranger will email or call and want to talk about a near-forgotten story from back in the day. The latest came from a writer in New Orleans named Ben Sandmel who’s writing a biography of Ernie K-Doe and who had stumbled on an article I had written for Creem about Bruce Springsteen. There is a paragraph or two in the story about a concert after-party where Ernie was the entertainment, and Ben wanted to know more. Anyway, he sent me the story, which I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. It’s far from exemplary — too long, too gushing, a little self-involved (thereby demonstrating all the flaws that continue to afflict my writing) — but it’s not bad, for a 24-year-old punk. And for Springsteen fans, especially in light of the imminent release of the Darkness on the Edge of Town box set and documentary, maybe even worth the slog. Anyway, I couldn’t resist posting it here, flaws and all.

One funny historical note is that there were enough people in 1978 — especially, I suspect, in the South — who seemed to think the name Springsteen, which is Dutch, was Jewish and probably spelled “Springstein,” that two of them wind up in this story of three days on the road with Bruce.
 
—–

LAWDAMERCY, SPRINGSTEEN SAVES!
Testimony from the Howling Dog Choir
(or Tramps Like Us, Baby We’re Born Again)

I walk with angels that have no place — Bruce Springsteen, “Streets Of Fire.”

The middle-aged white man who runs the biggest oldies shop in the very old city of New Orleans is ranting hysterically on the edge of tears. He has recently seen the movie American Hot Wax and senses that history has passed him by one last time.

“That’s right. I was a disk jockey in Canton, Ohio when Alan Freed was a d.j. in Akron. I was playing [n-word] records, and you know what Alan Freed was playing??? He was playing country & western! Country & western music! Then he starts playing [n-word] records and they fire him after a day. One day.

“Well, I’m sitting in this coffee shop with him afterward, and he’s stirring his coffee real slow and looking over my shoulder out the window. I says to him, ‘Alan, just look at what you’re doing.’ And he says, ‘What?’ And I say, ‘Alan, you’re stirring your goddamn coffee with a spoon! And there’s the cream and sugar sitting right over there and you haven’t put a one of them in!’

“Then I tell him that I’m just going to have to write his next contract for him and that he’s not going to get fired no more! A no-fire contract! I told him that you got to ask for what you want ’cause if you don’t, they figure you ain’t worth nothin’ anyway! And I did it! I did the contract! I did his contract! Listen to me! I created Alan Feed!!! Did you read that in the history??? Did you see that in the goddamn movie??? I said, Did you see that in that goddamn movie???”

And he falls into a little red-faced jig behind his cash register with one arm stretching forward to detain us further and the other stretching beseechingly towards the sky. All we asked was how much for a Huey Smith record.
 
—–

Several hundred miles up the road from New Orleans, in an empty, hermetically modern conference room that is acutely air conditioned against the buttery summer air, Bruce Springsteen, who’s never met the white man in New Orleans, tells me what he has been thinking about.

Continue reading “Darkness redux: me and Bruce in the day”

Sugar Pie and gumbo: the ballad of Ed Ward

··········

UPDATE: I was reminded how impossible it can be to earn a living as a writer — even if you’re as talented, knowledgeable and experienced as Ed Ward — when I found out that, after a series of broken contracts and reneged promises over the last year, Ed finds himself on the verge of eviction from his modest apartment in Montpellier, France. A Facebook fundraising page has been posted, and it directs you to a “donate” button on his tres enjoyable blog about his current hometown. I’d invite anyone who liked this story or has liked Ed’s NPR work or other journalism or just thinks it ain’t right, to give what you can. And you can re-post this story or send friends to the Facebook page. Ed has less than two weeks, until October 15, to get right with the landlord. Thanks.

··········
I was reminded of how good Ed Ward is on the way home from work yesterday listening to his story about Sugar Pie DeSanto on Fresh Air. When Ed’s on his game, which seems like most of the time these days, at least on the radio, you find yourself not just in violent agreement, but riffing along, bopping your head, gleefully exclaiming, Tourette’s-like, as his tale of this or that underappreciated cult figure, complete with mouth-watering music samples, unspools from the dashboard. It’s music criticism that comes damn close to being music. You pull in the carport, rush inside and download everything you can find by Sugar Pie DeSanto.

If you have any inkling of who Ed is, you probably know him from his longtime gig as Terry Gross’s “rock historian.” But maybe you were in Austin in the ’70s or ’80s and remember the implacable rock critic for the Austin-American Statesman, the guy who inspired bruised musicians to sport “Dump Ed Ward” bumper stickers, tongue-in-cheek or maybe not. Or if you’re really old you might remember him as a reviewer and editor for Rolling Stone when the magazine was still in San Francisco and still meant the world to people like me.

I remember him in Sausalito, post-Rolling Stone, when he was, among other things, west coast editor for Creem. I had abandoned higher education and the rock bands of New York to try the California dream I’d heard about in all those rock songs. My plan: well, I know a lot about rock music…

But, of course, I didn’t. Not compared to Ed.

It was an impossibly long-ago 1974, and I had been trolling the hills of Sausalito for days in search of an apartment near the spectacular vistas I’d glimpsed on a visit as a kid. A cheap apartment, too — if you can imagine such a place in Sausalito today. But suddenly there it was. For rent: a ground floor apartment, not overpriced, three blocks up from Bridgeway. I stopped the car. Just as I neared the front door, a burly, black-goateed, black-cowboy-hatted biker rounded the corner with a moving box. “Got it already,” he said, but, by the sound of it, he meant, “Fuck off.”

Continue reading “Sugar Pie and gumbo: the ballad of Ed Ward”

Russia: The bap

In Russia, for some damn reason, they call a restaurant a “pectopah” and a bar a “bap.” But you could certainly argue that the drinking establishment in this St. Petersburg hotel deserves a special name of its own. And maybe it’s “movie,” because that’s what the whole experience feels like.

It’s an epic movie, to be sure, as we hang most nights past 4 a.m. But putting in the hours means we get to see the whole story arc. How the hookers, who don’t look like hookers at all — in the US they’d be the most elegant ladies in the room — periodically shift tables and take turns discreetly trolling the crowd. How the smooth-as-silk manager signals to them with a silent nod that he needs their table and they temporarily move to a seating area in the hall. How every hooker has a rose-colored drink, non-alcoholic, on her table with a straw in it. Some kind of high-class red light maybe, but mostly, I think, to signal the staff.

But enough of my ogling the working girls. What I wanted to tell you about was the gangster part of the movie from last night.

Continue reading “Russia: The bap”

India: Pilgrimage

Fluorescents reflecting on the inside of the train windows make it impossible to see out as we pull into the New Delhi station around 10 pm, back from a day-trip to the Taj Mahal. So we have no clue. We file slowly out of the air-conditioned first-class car into the sticky, 100-degree heat and onto a dusty concrete platform that is nothing less than carpeted in humanity: sleeping, sitting, eating, talking, standing, lounging, smoking, cradling, shuffling, cuddling, walking and, frequently, maneuvering a large bundle of belongings, in sandals and saris and ballooning shorts, open shirts and khakis, over every square centimeter. We edge, mostly sideways, through this density toward the pedestrian overpass that will deposit us on the opposite platform that leads outside the station. We hold hands, like we never do anymore, tightly, but functionally. We’ve read about stampedes in those undifferentiated foreign places that seem exotic to gringos. We don’t talk about it. But we’re all pretty sure that one spark and people would die. And maybe some of those people would be us.

The stairs are impassable. But somehow as you lift your foot to the first step you find a toehold that you didn’t see a moment before or that wasn’t there. Like some gelatin river, the crowd haltingly, imperceptibly flows around you, even when the crowd is not moving, and you flow around the crowd. You make it to the overpass and glance back down the stairs to see who you’ve lost, maybe forever. Where’s your friend from Australia? Where’s the Indian account executive who’s been assigned as your guide? No time to do anything about it. You have to hold that hand and keep flowing.

Continue reading “India: Pilgrimage”

Tennessee: My vacation hot spot

“You’re from California, and you came to Nashville for vacation???”

Why, yes. Yes, I did. The cashier at the coffee shop asked that with a note of disbelief. But it’s true. This year vacation took me to Tennessee, namely Nashville, Memphis and whatever towns happened to separate the two (I do remember seeing a sign to turn off for Oakland, and wondered momentarily whether it was all just a dream).

Continue reading “Tennessee: My vacation hot spot”

Worst band ever

I’ll show you mine in a minute. But, first, show me yours.

And you’re not allowed to say Clay Aiken, Miley Cyrus or something silly like that. Even Vanilla Ice. Those guys don’t count. They’re awful. But they’re not really music. They’re just hula hoops. Some unholy combo of popcult ephemera and music-biz corruption. No, a worst band ever has to be something someone else thinks is meaningful. They have to be part of the actual musico-historical conversation. Gotta have, well, gravitas, even if they suck.

My son, a music scribe in his own right (and inspirer of this idea), nominates the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just to start the fire (speaking of good candidates for worst – Billy Joel). Even if I don’t entirely agree, the Peppers seem like an exemplary choice: a band that many revere, that are credited with innovation and with chops and cool and that seem to have ascended to the rock ’n’ roll canon, if not yet the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (a goldmine, I would submit, of worstness – especially in 2010) (and, late-breaking news, now including the Chili Peppers!).

But that doesn’t mean your pick has to be an old band – though you’re going to have a hard time making a case for an artist with less than ten years of output, because some of these guys wind up redeeming youthful excrescence with breakthrough work in their maturity (Justin Timberlake, anyone?). And it’s not enough to name the name, you also have to make the case. Give us a sentence or two. Help us fully grok their true awfulness.

So, nominate your all-time worst band, email your pick to worstband@dcvnext.wpengine.com before November 1, 2009. We’ll publish the top ten disses and send each winning correspondent a FREE, USED CD of Celine Dion’s My Love – Ultimate Essential Collection!!! Now for mine – except it’s too damn hard to pick just one:

Continue reading “Worst band ever”

The Ould Sod: First day off in forever, man

You know those folks who take long vacations and feel the need to explain that it’s their first vacation in five years/ten years/since I can’t remember when/since I started working here/since I got married/since I had kids/since I moved to California/since I moved back to New York. (Or, as the Hold Steady put it in “Chill Out Tent”: “…it was his first day off in forever, man.”)

Well, I won’t put you through that. I was away from the office for two weeks. And fuck it.

I also won’t try to explain that the vacation actually started out as work. Because you’d never believe that attending Hard Rock’s concert series in Hyde Park is work. Certainly not if you were there, what with the amazing VIP tent and free food, booze and service all day, not to mention guys named Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and the Killers onstage. Not to mention the after-parties.

Yeah, I won’t even try. It was work. It was fun. And it rapidly devolved into pure, stout-soaked sloth.

Continue reading “The Ould Sod: First day off in forever, man”

A conversation with Bruce Springsteen

bruce-springsteen-with-duncan

6/28/09, Hyde Park, London, backstage at Hard Rock Calling

– What’re you doing here?
– I’m working for Hard Rock… What are you doing here?
– Uh-huh…
– That was great, you goin’ up onstage with those guys [Gaslight Anthem]?
– Yeah…
– Really cool. Really fun.
– Yeah… [Hug.] Good to see ya, Bobby.

Self-Portrait with Frida Kahlo with Monkey and Parrot

This all hit me in Buenos Aires a year or so ago when I turned the corner in a museum and saw a famous painting, described in the nameplate as:

“Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot. Frida Kahlo, 1907–1954.”

I know it seems the height of philistinism, but I always read nameplates first. And, in this case, maybe because I’d seen the image on a million totebags, it was the nameplate, rather than the painting, that affected me most. And mostly because it told me I was alive at the same time as a nigh-mythical figure from impossibly remote history.

Now I’m sure it’s not a good and honorable way to respond to art (can you say “narcissistic personality disorder”?). But it did get me to wondering, who else? What other surprising historical figures from what seems like way, way back were alive — and maybe alive nearby — same time as me?

Doing the exercise, it turns out a lot of them were musicians, which is how I justify putting them here:

Continue reading “Self-Portrait with Frida Kahlo with Monkey and Parrot”

Lester Bangs & the Detroit Wheel

It is dark and it is cold in January in Detroit. Darker and colder than you’re imagining now. And you are broke. You’ve been amicably tossed, but tossed nonetheless, from your railroad flat in NYC because your childhood buddy, Mark the Shark (he of later Studio 54 celebrity), who more or less owns the place, wants his girlfriend to move in. Actually, she’s in already — they just want a little privacy. Besides, you are a few months behind on the rent, as dirt cheap as it might be, because you are really broke.

And here you are. Detroit in the dead of January.

You know John Morthland from Sausalito, where you lived for ten months, on a lark, after abandoning New York the first time and whom you had met through Ed Ward, the ex-Rolling Stone writer (now “rock historian” on Fresh Air), who gave you your start with an assignment to review Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade. John Morthland’s a really good writer and editor and an amazingly prescient musicologist who was first to discover a lot of things pop-cultural that eluded most rock critics, or at least white ones. Things like rap music (before it was hip hop), Sacred Steel and Moe Bandy. He’s in Detroit to be interim editor — interim, because John is strictly freelance or die. And you know him, it should be clarified, only pretty well, though that may be as well as most anyone knows silent, staring, inscrutably smirking John.

You don’t know Lester.

You know of him, but barely, and as much on the strength of that seemingly concocted name — Lester Bangs — as his writing.

Continue reading “Lester Bangs & the Detroit Wheel”

The Mighty Q

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.

Continue reading “The Mighty Q”

El Lay: D/C goes to the Grammys

Part I: Friday night, Grammys minus two: Return to forever.

Last time we went to Michael’s in Santa Monica they had a dress code. That’s how long ago it was. Back then, circa 1980, Roni Hofman (my missus) was having an art show at a gallery in Hollywood, and we were out from New York for the opening. Which was pretty glam, except we were also pretty broke. So our pal Sandy Pearlman — he of Blue Öyster Cult, “more cowbell” fame (hi, Sandy) — offered to take us out to the hottest new restaurant in town.

We arrive at Michael’s, and it turns out they have this dress code. Now Sandy, an uberhip music producer, has never been much for jackets, let alone ties — unless they’re Swedish paratrooper jackets. And we’ve made the trip all the way out to Santa Monica from the rockin’ Sunset Marquis, and the maitre d’ is saying to Pearlman: Sir, you’ll need a jacket and tie.

Continue reading “El Lay: D/C goes to the Grammys”

CORRECTION: Way-cool top 10 riddled with embarassing errors

I totally blew it with this year’s top 10 (see preceding post). I’m not sure how it happened. Too much angel dust at the Tipmas party? The faceplant in the Porta-Potty on New Year’s Eve? Who knows? But I wanted to sincerely apologize to all of you who count on me to deliver 100% accurate, factual, dependable musical information and who I have so sorely disappointed.

Herewith, corrections to my 2008 top 10:

Continue reading “CORRECTION: Way-cool top 10 riddled with embarassing errors”

My 2008 top 10 is way cooler than yours

Ecto Bathsheba, Groynbusters (Frilly Underthings). Take one part Arvo Part, one part Weird Al and one part Goblin Cock, mix with strong psychedelics, re-mix with grain alcohol and, voila, the greatest record ever made.

Fraidycat Freeway, Far Tortuga (Testpattern). Noise sisters from S.E. Portland go unexpectedly Americana. Echoes of the Band, Jayhawks — plus, just a lot of echo (hey, enough with the slapback, Constance!). Caveat: it’s a radical departure from Narc. But, thankfully, pretty harmonies can’t entirely mask the rage beneath: “Forest fires burn inside/Raped your swan on West Burnside.”

Blueish, Tim Hatter (Elk). Even if the last time you cried was when you were a little kid and your father took your puppy to the pound to have it put to sleep because it shit on his bed because you hadn’t housebroken it properly, Hatter has a rare gift for getting under that burnished leather emotional scar tissue of yours.

Chromium Picolinate, Barcalounge Express Dream (F-stop). It goes against every fiber of my being to enjoy these neo-Kraut Rock electron dribblers. But damned if every decade or so — just when I’ve forgotten they exist — B.E.D. doesn’t re-emerge from the Bavarian forests of Bertel Hopkins’ imagination with a blippy concoction that is to pop what Link Wray was to Connie Francis. If Connie Francis had been named Brumhilde!

Fort Wayne, The Jims (Erstwhile). Like a Rolling Stones for the ’00s, but without bass or drums. Or money. Or, well.

Schedule in the Laboratory, Esther (Archback UK). Esther is chart-topping, paparazzi-bait humongous in Limeyland, but has yet to get a break in the colonies. Too bad for us. Because her unholy marriage of Adele, Estelle, Shakira, Duffy, Robyn, Beyonce, Enya and Lulu, with a little Cher and Madonna thrown in, is guaranteed to get your Yank booty shaking — even if your Yank booty’s middle-aged, hairy and made of cottage cheese.

Tell, Not (Elemental Physics Barn). Not exactly your typical E.P.B. band. Maybe because it’s really a band, instead of a technological construct (yeah, I know, wtf?!?). The aptly-named Not is the veteran rockabilly singer Narvel Felts’ side-project supergroup with Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim Dandy Mangrum and Paul Westerberg(!). Nuff said?

Last Will and Testament, Edgewater (New York Prime). Blasting out of Brooklyn’s latest hipster hotbed, lower-west Boerum Hill, Edgewater singlehandedly returns classic rock to the outskirts of metal — in a thoroughly modern cap and gown. Best line: “I’m shivering/But you’re the one who’s cold.” Indeed.

Wayyy Out 2 Lunch, The Money (Bulbous Toe). Post-hip-hop pioneers star in a post-ecological concept album about the first manned — and, of course, womanned — mission to Venus. Full of witty metaphors (Venus is both a planet — and a ho) and artfully stoned rambles, the Money men completely redeem themselves from the execrable Arrrgggh and, if even possible, improve on the incendiary mixtape version of this released in July. A landmark achievement, up there with BrouHaHa’s PaXXX AmeriKKKana.

Bub, Kennedy Bledsoe (Texas A&M). Drew Bledsoe’s bastard son is a bitch of a country guitarslinger. His first indie release since being unceremoniously dropped — after one album! — by Capitol Nashville finds him (finally) getting back to his roots as an unintelligible drunken yowler whose lyrics are impossible to understand — but who nonetheless manages to communicate universes of deep, raw feeling. Will change the way you look at football (I think it’s football; might be foosball; might even be food or Kung Fu).

Honorable mentions: Abbatoir Bouquet, Blast Furnace (Gelding). Onomatopoiea, Arnold Dilney & the King’s Cross Poetasters (Zed). Alphabets of Undergarments, Fetch the Donkey (Itch). Telemachus Cherry, Afterparty (Too Late to Stop Now). Invitation to the Flogging, Infidelicatessen (Brackish). Dromedary Torquemada, Ian Poons (Constructive Criticism). Number II, The Fart Ark (Lawrence Harvey’s Lack of Affect).

The end

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.

Continue reading “The end”

Two words

Girl Talk.

Go out and steal it. Like Gregg Gillis did. Or just pay what you want at myspace.com/girltalkmusic (which is how he tries to get away with it). Or borrow it from somebody way cooler. But whatever you do, get Gregg’s latest orchestration of famous stolen samples from the breadth and depth of rock ‘n’ roll — that is, in the most mind-bogglingly expansive (Lil Wayne meets Nirvana meets Spencer Davis meets Metallica, Biggie Smalls, Sinead O’Connor, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Band, Ludacris, Radiohead, the Carpenters) meaning of those once electrically meaningful words.

Go.

Girl Talk, he’s called. Don’t know why. Feed the Animals, it’s called. Know exactly why. Turns out, this massively thick sonic bouillabaise does just that. Feeds the wild stuff inside that you never could think away. It will make your inner animal smile (or, better yet, bare his teeth). And it will make your inner animal drum his metaphorically arthritic fingers and tap her metaphorically arthritic toes (even if you are, in fact, old enough to have such maladies, old enough to say, for instance: “Where are all the melodies?”). And it will bust the crust on that ever-expanding nougat-y part deep down inside, somewhere between your erstwhile sex organ and your vestigial left nipple, that, once upon a time, back in 1933 (or whenever you stopped breathing), couldn’t help itself.

Do it, and your soul will get fat and happy again. Money-back-guaranteed.

Girl Talk: three words: I love you.

The Indian of the group

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).

Continue reading “The Indian of the group”

San Miguel de Allende: Toro Toro Toro

See more photos on Flickr.

One part of the sublime madness that was the royal wedding of D/C luminary Parker Channon and the luminous Rita Ribera in San Miguel was a day of amateur bullfighting.

Fifteen wedding-goers were scheduled to venture into the photogenically parched central Mexico countryside to learn how to take on a toro. Due to unfortunate circumstances involving the after-effects of nocturnal tequila, only four proto-toreadors actually showed: the groom himself, Juan Carlos “Mi Gemello” Jimenez, John “Not Jon” Stewart and this correspondent. In America, such perilous endeavors, if permitted at all (which they never would be), would be accompanied by a blizzard of insurance waivers and an irrevocable signing away of one’s life and rights. That did not turn out to be the case in San Miguel. So while we were to receive the most excellent and diligent instruction from Acacio Martinez, a retired toreador, and his toro-fighting son, within an hour we were facing the bull, gloriously free of coverage — legal or, frankly, testicular.

They did, however, encourage us to drink a margarita.

Continue reading “San Miguel de Allende: Toro Toro Toro”

Congratulations, America

It goes way beyond the election of the first African-American president, of course. It goes to a new policy in Iraq. And in Guantanamo. It goes to new regulation on Wall Street — or should that just be regulation, period? It goes to new hope for universal healthcare and environmental sanity and to a new spirit of international comity and cooperation.

But it also goes to the election of the first African-American president.

To a white boy raised to believe such a thing was not only not possible, but not desirable, a white boy nevertheless caught up as a young teenager in the dreams of the civil rights movement — only to see those dreams turn into nightmares of assasination, cities on fire, and the politics of division, whether the unvarnished race-baiting of George Wallace or the more genteel, and more dangerous, “law and order” pandering of Richard Nixon — to a white boy born the day you elected Ike, America, and who wakes up on his latest birthday 56 years later to discover you’ve elected a black man, it definitely goes to the election of the first African-American president.

So savoring tears of joy, I say congratulations, America. Congratulations, President-elect Obama. And the happiest of birthdays to me.

Thanks for nothing

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.

Squares!

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.

Continue reading “Thanks for nothing”

OK Radiohead

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.

Continue reading “OK Radiohead”

He got the beat

Next month at the Tip, Duncan/Channon’s fantabulous, soon-to-be-semi-famous penthouse lounge, we’re going to kick off a monthly speaker series. Not boring, corporate speakers or academic pontificators. Not self-promoters or product hucksters. And definitely not anyone in the advertising business. The idea, as the mission statement has it, is to get “people who matter in the world today,” folks with big ideas and deep resumes and, preferably, a well-developed sense of humor. The series is titled “Toast of the Tip,” but, more importantly, it’s subtitled: “Private conversations with people we think are cool.”

And, holy shit, did we score.

Our first guest speaker is a guy by the name of Richard Gottehrer. If you’re in the music biz, you know his name (and if you don’t, you’re not really in the music biz and/or — all due respect — get the fuck out). If you’re a true fan, you know his name because you pay attention to album credits (and if you don’t, sorry, you’re not really a true fan). And if you’re just a garden variety music-appreciating civilian, well, brace yourself. Dude’s the mack. And you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t know him before. Anyway, here’s the brief bio we put together for the invitation:

He’s a man of the future with the most incredible past. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any one who spans more ages and phases of popular music, popular culture and popular technology than Richard Gottehrer. He is a legend who has never become an oldies act, a visionary who has remained a visionary for close to half a century, a fun guy who, in a business characterized by biblical-scale betrayals, has never lost his sense of humor. He also happens to be a composer, performer, producer, entrepreneur and sage.

Continue reading “He got the beat”

Russia: it’s almost like a different country

Depending how lucky you get with your layover in Frankfurt, it’s a 14–17-hour trip from SFO to LED (the airport code for St. Petersburg is still based on the city’s Soviet name, Leningrad). So if I go on a bit much about my mid-April trip, maybe I’ve earned it. Anyway, a few things about Petersburg (as the natives call it) that you may not know:

Continue reading “Russia: it’s almost like a different country”

Notes from a rock ’n’ roll life

This is the full — really full — text, with notes for slides and music, from my, ahem, lecture (see News section) to Smolny College of the State University of Saint Petersburg in Russia on April 17, 2008. Keep in mind that it was geared for Russian students who, I was told, might not know very much about rock ’n’ roll (and if you do, don’t tell them where I lied). Anyway, I spent so much time working on the damn thing I couldn’t resist re-purposing it as a column. The complete, killer playlist follows the text.


Thanks for coming. Thanks to the folks who invited me and made up a cool flyer with my old taxi license. It’s really fun to be here in St. Petersburg with you guys.

My name is Robert Duncan, and I’m from San Francisco, California. I’m definitely not a professor, and I’m not entirely sure what I have to offer you. But I have been listening to, playing, loving, hating and writing about rock ’n’ roll for more than 30 years.

I played guitar in a band when I was 12. I left college to be the singer in a band professionally, with some minor success and mostly frustration. At 21, I started writing about music. At 22, I became managing editor of Creem magazine in Detroit, Michigan, where I worked with the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, who became my close friend. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, you’ve seen the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing Lester.

After Creem, I went back to New York City to be a freelance critic, writing hundreds of stories for Rolling Stone, Circus and just about every music magazine there ever was. Among my quote-unquote “accomplishments,” as you may have seen on that lovely flyer, I’ve interviewed Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent, War, ZZ Top, Kraftwerk, and many others I can’t remember or you’ve never heard of. I’ve flown on a private jet with Keith Richards, jammed with Blue Öyster Cult, sung to Sammy Hagar (accapella) and Liza Minnelli, but not at the same time, and have witnessed Phil Lesh, the famous bassist of the Grateful Dead, in his underwear. I’ve seen the Yardbirds when both Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were in the band. I’ve seen Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, in 1969, when they were cool. Dylan, though not in a particularly good phase. Hendrix, several times, and he was too cool. I saw the Ramones at Max’s Kansas City, before the album, and Talking Heads at CBGB’s when there were about 10 people in the room. I’ve also written three books about rock ’n’ roll.

Which is where I want to start today.

Continue reading “Notes from a rock ’n’ roll life”

Mars U.

As if I don’t have enough to do.

Now Sandy Pearlman, the man who coined the phrase heavy metal, produced the Clash’s US debut and was the one guy who could have said “more cowbell” during Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” sessions (he was also their producer), wants me to write him a cheat sheet on the Mars Volta for the music class he teaches at McGill in Montreal. I was elected because I tried to get Sandy to go with us to an MV show at the Greek in Berkeley last year, because I thought that, with his lifelong affinity for the bombastic-fantastic, he should definitely be plugging in to these guys.

But I have not a clue why I like them.

I mean, it would never occur to me to teach a college class with the subtitle “From Bruckner to Heavy Metal.” I don’t even know who Bruckner is, except for what I infer from Sandy’s rants. Sure, I like all kinds of music — rock, metal, Chinese traditional, bebop, old country. But not prog rock.

Once upon a time, at the Fillmore East, I was forced to endure a Hammond B-3 noodlethon by the Nice, Keith Emerson’s original band and progressive rock’s founding fathers, as I awaited some headliner (which, based on a cursory web search, was probably Ten Years After — speaking of noodling). And way back when I was playing music semi-professionally, I promptly quit one longtime band after they decided to cover a Jethro Tull song. (Not strictly prog, Tull was/is surely the moral equivalent.)

Suffice it to say, I hate prog.

And love the Mars Volta.

Which seems as good a place to start as any as I attempt to help Pearlman educate Canucks.

Continue reading “Mars U.”