Thursday, November 28, 2013

Blues Singer (For B.D. Trail)

Reading Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful [A Book About Jazz] reminded me of this, which I wrote for my mentor B.D. Trail when I was stationed at Carswell AFB and taking courses via what was then Tarrant County Junior College on base. I think I was a better writer when I was a young man than I am today -- because I was trying to impress him. (He compared this to Vachel Lindsay; I couldn't see it.) The Dyer book might be the best about jazz I've ever read. Gary Giddins might be the best jazz reporter, but I think Dyer might be its best writer. Anyway, this was inspired by seeing Muddy Waters in 1976:

He took the stage haltingly, tentatively, on wobbling, calcified legs. He rested his bulky frame on the stool at stage center, a colossus in an incongruous salesman's polyester suit, and surveyed the scene before him like a monarch from his throne. His hands, which gingerly held the toy guitar, were huge, gnarled, calloused things, weathered by years of hard labor. His eyes, sunk deep in his ursine head, framed by deep furrows, regarded the world with a profound weariness. Behind him, the musicians were clock-punchers, automatons, rooted firmly to the boards where they stood, eyes shifting uneasily, oblivious to the drama about to play out before them. Before him, the audience drank and joked uproariously, a worldly congregation awaiting a secular exorcism. The music started and he was suddenly transformed, his limbs suffused with new strength, propelling him across the stage like some demented wind-up toy. The music lurched and rambled out of the sound system like a primordial beast, the metallic jangle and whine of the guitars its cry, the monotonous thump and clatter of the drums its pulse. He bent and strained as if under a great burden, the collective suffering of all the world's people resting on his broad shoulders. He ignored the rivulets of sweat that creased his brow and cascaded down his face, soaking his white cotton shirt. He clenched his fists and struck out at the air, railing at invisible demons. He sang, and another presence slowly overtook him, battling its way out of its prison inside the old man's body, using his voice to bellow out its masculinity.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

My life on the stage

My buddy Phil from Missouri correctly discerns that I'm experiencing a degree of nostalgia about playing in bands, and so has requested "six key moments from [my] stage experience." Another damn Facebook status repurposed as blog post.

1) I was playing in a blues band with Nick Girgenti, and incorrectly assumed that all Italo-Americans from Long Island know the form to "Mustang Sally." (After all, the Young Rascals did it, right?) When Nick, whose favorite bands are the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Pearl Jam, erroneously made the IV change (as if it were a 12-bar blues), it was reported that I could be heard yelling "One! ONE! ONE!!!" over the entire band.

2) While working at RadioShack corporate, I once made the mistake of allowing myself to get roped into playing with some other guys from work at some departmental function. I practiced with them once, and it seemed like it was going to be OK. Then the day of the event, it turned out that there were no stage monitors -- and the drummer was using electronic drums. It was a big, echoey room, too, which made it really interesting trying to stay in sync with what I imagined was the beat.

3) For a couple of months around the end of 2002, I had the privilege of playing second guitar in Lady Pearl Johnson's BTA (for Better Than Average) Band at the Swing Club at Evans and Allen in Fort Worth. Pearl's brother Ray Reed was the bandleader, and Ray didn't like to take breaks, so if you needed to take a pause for the cause, you had to find someone to take your axe. Both Pearl and her daughter Miss Kim could play guitar, bass, or drums, and I remember one occasion on which _everybody else_ was taking a pee break while Kim (on drums) and I (on bass) played something I recall as Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up" (or something damn near like it).

4) On the same Nathan Brown tour where you and Nicole saw us busking on the street, we played the 8th Street Tap Room in Lawrence, where an entire roomful of sweaty college kids knew all the words to Nathan's songs. (They still liked the cheerleading routine better.) We were so well paid that I drove back a month later, after I had left the tour, to play there again. Fun.

5) I celebrated my 50th birthday by playing a show with Stoogeaphilia, my favorite band I have ever played in, at the Wreck Room, my favorite rawk dump of all ti-i-ime. My sweetie and my friends gifted me a Hughes & Kettner amp, which they put in place of my regular amp during the set change. At a crucial moment near the end of our debut performance of "Marquee Moon," they brought in a cake and bubbles and sang "Happy Birthday." Then we finished the song. (This is on Youtube, by the way.) As we exited the club, my sweetie and I released a handful of yellow balloons -- not an ecologically responsible move, but one whose symbolism I cherish.

6) The li'l Stoogeband once played a show in the outdoor plaza adjacent to the Rose Marine Theater on Fort Worth's North Side. Apparently the police were called several times, but the acoustical characteristics of the space are such that they were never able to determine where the noise was coming from. My favorite moment from that night (besides getting sweat in my eyes during "Dirt") was watching four little boys from the neighborhood standing alongside the fence, checking us out. I wonder what they thought.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Four)

When we quit last time, my buddy Phil Overeem and I were getting ready to wrap up this lengthy foray into Lou-ology (which started here). Now we bring it home with some final thoughts, and a couple of lists (because we're list-makers).

Ken: We're all different kinds of fans, and thank goodness for that. I know lots of folks that want "all of it, not just some of it." Myself, I'm constantly trying to figure out what I can do without. Partly it's a matter of economics, but whatever the reason, I've always been this way, and as a result (plus geography, plus having done a lot of different things at different points in my life), I've missed out on some things. Lou's career trajectory makes a convincing argument for going for the whole ride with artists we dig, even if they throw us some funny curves sometimes. (That said, I don't know if there'll ever be space in my life for Metal Machine Music or Lulu.)

As I said earlier, I initially lost the thread after Rock and Roll Animal, during the phase that produced MMM and Sally Can't Dance. That was around the time I started going to Monday night wrestling at Madison Square Garden instead of rock shows, and became a jazz snob for awhile. After that, I moved to Texas, where I bounced between Dallas (where my drummer from college persuaded me to move instead of Boston after seeing the Sex Pistols, whom he said sucked, and the Nervebreakers, whom he said were great -- and was correct), the Gulf Coast, Fort Worth, and Austin; spent a very dissolute winter in Aspen, of all places, trying to make a band with some old allies from New York; wound up back in Fort Worth; moved to Memphis to open a store; got fired a few weeks after discovering my future ex-wife was pregnant; joined the Air Force basically out of desperation and spent ten years Guarding Freedom's Frontier, then another nine-and-change as a Reservist while working multiple jobs to pay my child support.

During my last active duty assignment, in Bossier City, Louisiana, I stumbled on a copy of New York at the mall and got re-engrossed after reading in Lou's liner notes, "You can't beat guitars, bass, drum." The album was like a musical counterpart to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, a panoramic view of Lou's hometown at the end of the orgy of greed that was the '80s. Sitting still for an hour to listen to it was like reading a newspaper -- in fact, one song, "Hold On," actually ran as a poem on the NYT op-ed page. And Lou managed to pull this off without losing his street sense -- the characters in "Romeo Had Juliet" and "Dirty Blvd.," say, could have come off the same block as the ones in "Street Hassle." Hearing Dion DiMucci wafting out of the chorus at the end of "Dirty Blvd." was just the icing on the cake. "Busload of Faith" and "Beginning of a Great Adventure" even hinted at a kind of cautious optimism that would have been unimaginable from Lou a few years earlier.

The last song, "Dime Store Mystery," featured Mo Tucker on drums and rendered a lyrical salute to the Velvet Underground's patron Andy Warhol, with whom Lou had broken bad years ago. Reconciliation seemed to be in the air, and New York was soon followed by Songs for Drella, a full-blown Warhol tribute done in collaboration with VU co-founder John Cale, whom Lou had fired in 1968. This was a far cry from the aura of jaded ennui that sunk much of Lou's late-'70s output and I was yet to discover The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, which I read reviews of while stationed in Korea -- my Village Voice subscription followed me around the world. What struck me the most about this music was its palpable humanity and sense of giving a shit -- not hallmarks of the Lou I remembered.

The clincher was Magic and Loss, which was unlike any rock music I'd heard to date -- a somber rumination on mortality, bone-deep with both compassion and vulnerability. These albums were music for grown-ups, acknowledging all the bits of life that we tend to sweep to the margins until we can't anymore, and it had the feeling of a lot of old debts being paid. (Try listening to "New York Telephone Conversation" back-to-back with "The Halloween Parade." If your eyes are still dry, let's just say that you and I are different kinds of listeners.) I'm 15 years younger than Lou, so I was 34 when Magic and Loss was new, and I can't honestly say I understood everything it was about back then, but over time, it's only gained stature in my estimation.

We've called this "adult rock 'n' roll," but really, it was nothing new to Lou -- he'd been doing it since the first Velvets album. It's important to remember that Lou was 25 when VU and Nico was released -- he was an adult man with a literary education who was writing to his peers, although at that point, most of his peers weren't listening. People my age, who discovered Lou as a forbidden kick in the glam era, had to grow into him, while the succeeding generations of fans, who might have seen him on MTV or caught his act at Lollapalooza, grew up in a time when other artists were building superhighways on the trails he blazed.

As huge of an impact as Magic and Loss had on me, I chumped on Set the Twilight Reeling -- which I've been listening to non-stop (back-to-back with Live In Italy) since his death -- and so missed my one and only chance to see him in the flesh (at the Bronco Bowl in '96). But Ecstasy brought me back into the fold. I bonded with my buddy Geoff from Philly over that record (previously, we'd been circling each other like panthers). Back then, he wrote, "It's everything you like about Lou, and lots of it." Bingo. There are a couple of good LPs' worth of toons in there, and it's one of the few 80-minute CDs to justify its length.

After that came the Poe trib, a live album, an orchestral Metal Machine Music (with a European orchestra, of course), the Metallica collaboration, and gigs where he played improv noise with his wife Laurie Anderson and John Zorn, as if to remind us, "I do exactly whatever it is I want to do." His legacy requires no defense. For myself, I'll just say that while there are others whom I love more, he was the rock performer of his generation who made the most music that mattered to me over the longest period of time. I have a feeling I'll be listening to the stuff of his I love until I stop drawing breath. And I'll probably be face-palming over the stuff I dismissed for as long.

Phil: So, we haven't just lost someone who can be counted on to write and play convincing rock and roll for adults -- as you pointed out, Ken, over a very long course of time--who can be trusted to "do whatever he wants to" and both exert quality control and also not be too controlling/controlled in the writing and playing, but who encourages listeners that they can write about anything! Plenty of current songwriters can convince you that a particular thing can be written about; but few if any have Lou's range, from chocolate egg creams to dominatrixes who ask you to taste the whip. And behind that -- maybe we need to get out the wading boots, but, hey, ta'i chi! -- is the affirmation of an artistic and spiritual value for all things, from the everyday to the tragically once in a lifetime. Bullshit? Probably. But what's an electronic wake for Lou Reed without an abortive stab for something out of reach?

I think the source of most of my sadness in Lou's having stepped on a rainbow is that he was the link that tied me to three of my very best friends, that, along with other musical phenomena, convinced us  that we could be in a band, that convinced me and probably them that we were not actually weird but in fact, perhaps, on to something. Of course, we still have the music--even if some electromagnetic pulse wiped out all digital evidence that Lou and the Velvets existed, and somehow all tapes and vinyl were melted down (funny how that's harder to imagine), I would still be able to hear in my mind's ear one of my favorite Lou Reed songs, "What Goes On" -- simply by virtue of having practiced and played it with those guys so many times. 

Ken: To turn out the lights on this extended ramble, we've both agreed to list our Top Ten Favorite Lou-Tunes...until tomorrow, perhaps, but we've gotta end somewhere. As Phil had the idea, he gets the last word. Here's mine:

1) I Found A Reason - From the least of the VU albums, and my favorite. When I was in English class with Don Harrison, I used to recite the talking part to this, but the line that really gets me is, "I do believe / You are what you perceive / What comes is better than what came before." I guess I love this because it's doo-wop, which I purported to despise, but had in my bones because I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the East Coast.

2) Sister Ray - Someone recently wrote that there's a certain kind of VU fan that could listen to innumerable versions of this. I guess I'm one of 'em. While I think that sonic experimentation is the least important of Lou's contributions, this song is where a lot of it took place when the Velvets were a road band in '68-'69. My fave is probably the 3.15.1969 Boston Tea Party "guitar amp tape" (which predicts Fushitusha, Les Rallizes Denudes, and legions of Japanese noise-psych bands that followed in their wake), but the one from the End of Cole in Dallas on 10.19.1969 ain't no slouch either.

3) I'll Be Your Mirror - Pronounced "I be yo' mirrah," as originally sung by Nico. I used to sing this to my kids when they were small.

4) Wild Child - From the self-titled solo debut, possibly the most Dylanesque thing Lou ever penned. And it rocks, of course.

5) Street Hassle - From the portentous arrangement to the Bruce Springsteen cameo to appearing on an album recorded in muddy binaural sound, the studio version of this did everything possible to make me hate it, but then there were those lyrics: "You know, some people got no choice / and they can never find a voice / to talk with that they can even call their own / So the first thing that they see / that allows them the right to be / why they follow it, you know, it's called bad luck." When I heard that Lou had died, this was the first thing that popped into my head.

6) Rooftop Garden - I guess this song, which closes Legendary Hearts, does approximately the same things as "My House," which opened The Blue Mask, i.e., paints an image of domestic tranquility that would have been unthinkable from the Lou of even a couple of years earlier. In place of the Delmore Schwartz salute, you get a piss-take on the Beatles. Fair exchange.

7) Perfect Day - While I haven't listened to Transformer in almost 40 years, I acknowledge that it bears three bona fide Lou classics: thisun, "Walk On the Wild Side," and "Satellite of Love." While I absolutely loathed what I perceived as the sappiness of this song when it was new, today it wins on the strength of the closing line: "You're going to reap just what you sow."

8) Modern Dance - I would recommend Loaded, the solo debut, BerlinLegendary HeartsMagic and Loss, and Ecstasy in their entirety, but that's outside the scope of this assignment. However, I'm going to take two songs from Ecstasy. This first was the one that replayed most in my head, after "Street Hassle," when Lou died. It's strange for me to say, but I don't think anybody else I listen to has written so well about adult relationships...

9) Baton Rouge - ...even if they're hypothetical ones he conjures in his head and then dismisses. Tinged, as they say, with regret, but with both eyes pointed straight ahead.

10) Who Am I? (Tripetena's Song) - Beautiful, elegiac, sad, and completely slipped by me when I reviewed The Raven. I'm looking forward to living a few more years so I can understand a bit more of what he was talking about here.

Phil: I stand by Ken in saying that, like most such lists, this one's only good for the next 24 hours at the most:

1. What Goes On -- First, I fell in love with it on 1969 VU Live: "Man, someone really believes in rhythm guitar." Then, I fell in love with it again on the third VU album, where it was both more hushed and more demonstrative. Finally, I fell in love with it forever when a bunch of other guys and I learned how to play it, and managed to perform it live a few times. In fact, when that band broke up, it seems like all my friends' other bands seemed to know how to play it, and could always invite me up on stage to do it. It's not his best piece of writing or playing, but...there you go. Ken, I always wondered if the chorus phrase was a whimsical reference to the classic be-bop/swing touchstone "Lady, Be Good."

Ken: I think Lou was definitely aware of the Sinatra version.

Phil: 2. The Blue Mask -- The lyrics are rather too much in my face (but that really isn't Lou's problem), but lord do I love caterwauling guitars, and the sheer spasmodic beauty of Reed and Bob Quine going nuts in separate stereo channels is irresistible to me. It was either this one, "I Heard Her Call My Name," or the Live In Italy "Kill Your Sons."

3. Coney Island Baby -- Sometimes I am not altogether sure I know what this song means, but the twining together of the inescapable obligation of playing football for the coach with a tender plea to a well-known differently-sexual companion of Lou's is an awe-inspiring "you can write about anything" moment that, as a former high school football player who had distinctly non-gridiron tastes, I get off on over and over. It's compassionate, angry -- the "Remember that the city is a funny place" section splits the song like a bolt of lightning -- deeply strange, and, yes, mysterious in that way that many great songs are. You can't get to the bottom of it, but you do keep going back.

4. Venus in Furs -- Even if I didn't understand English, I'd treasure it, because it sounds like -- and I've probably worn this simile out -- something that's escaped from an ancient Egyptian tomb (one something very foul was buried in -- like the "rough beast" in Yeats' "The Second Coming"), and the lyrics? Well, to me they've always been an epater le bourgeousie aimed at the Love Crowd. Fine by me.

5. I'm Set Free -- What an advanced piece of rock and roll songwriting for '68, and it'd sound mind-blowing if it just came out! It seems to describe my life process while also operating like an anthem. "I see my head laughing/Rolling on the ground" could be a Zen master-penned mantra that would help anyone evolve if adopted.

6. Street Hassle -- Certainly, one of the only successful so-called rock operas, with The Who's "A Quick One," and they have something in common: deep compassion and forgiveness. Like Ken said, Lou's then-beloved "binaural sound" preference does nothing for this 11-minute track (oh, to hear it remixed, but that probably won't happen); also, Bruce Springsteen's intrusion and faded "Tramps like us/We were born!" are corny (I loved it at the time: the motto of Brooce fans in recovery). Nonetheless, the song's a masterpiece of songwriting, arguably the apotheosis of Lou's exploration of the urban demimonde. That's saying something, folks.

7. Romeo Had Juliette -- Really, it's hard not just to take the whole album. But I flipped a coin between this and "Dirty Boulevard," as "Busload of Faith" was gaining on both of them, and I'm happy with the result. Aside from the stellar band and the rolling writing that sounds totally improvised, like you were talking to Lou on a street corner or in a coffee shop, the production is crisp and hard-assed. One of those rare records that just plain sounds great.

8. Lady Day (from Rock and Roll Animal) -- I have yet to be impressed by Berlin. The record is lugubrious in the extreme, and the writing, for my money, has little in the way of useful insights. But on this famous live recording, Lou sings like his life depends on it, and it's exciting.

9. An imaginary single: September Song/Little Sister -- Neither of these were album tracks, but Reed did a wry, self-aware, and passionate job on the former Brecht/Weill nugget on Lost In the Stars (knocking Ol' Blue Eyes out the box), and, though I can't honestly recall what loss-leader comp or soundtrack the latter was on, I think it was Lou's first outing sans Quine with his classic '80s band, and besides paying warm tribute to a real or imaginary sister (complete with twinkly bells), it closes with a killer guitar coda. Both stellar examples of The Nice Lou.

10. Rock and Roll (from 1969 VU Live) -- The ultimate statement of rock and roll's value, and the false-ending version that resumes with those bright, optimistic chord-strums is the one you want. My life was saved by rock and roll, and very notably by Lou's brand. And, to quote D. Boon, who wasn't talking about Reed but could have been, "There should be a rock and roll band on every block, man, 'cause it can happen." (Note: He said "rock AND ROLL.")

Apologies to Lou's post-New York albums, which I enjoy most for their respective gestalts. They are damned underrated and you should explore them forthwith if you chose not to follow Lou out of the '80s.


Friday, November 15, 2013

An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Three)

Last time, my buddy Phil Overeem and I talked about how we first "got acquainted" with Lou, and some general impressions of his art. This time, we get a little more specific. Phil's been listening to "Heroin," and has a bone to pick with me about a couple of songs from The Blue Mask.

Phil: On my way to work this morning, I listened to the version of "Heroin" from the Quine Tapes box and it took me back.

First version I ever heard was on 1969 Velvet Underground Live, which was the first VU album I ever bought (Northtown Mall, Joplin, Missouri, 1979 -- my mom bought me a personalized rubber stamp kit to get ready for college life -- no foolin' -- and it was the first thing I stamped...I still have it). That record and maybe Loaded were the only VU records in print at that time, and, since it was the only one, it had to do til the real things came along. I loved the drone, the flat beat, Lou's singing and conversation (I remember thinking that maybe I could sing in a band and not be terrible), the lyrics, the variety of moods, and I think it's a tribute to the band that if this still were the only record of theirs I could have, that'd be...great! I had no art training, really, so that's another point scored for it; I don't know why I responded so strongly to something so deadpan and strange compared to all else out there, and all else out there, for me, was really just a sliver: what they played on KSYN out of Joplin, which was not much. But I am getting off track here.

"Heroin" was the song that jumped out at me off 1969 VU Live: the first-person narrative, the sensationalistic subject matter, the connection to current events (still current as I first listened in 1979), the mesmerizing guitar figure, and the slow build to fury, which I didn't know was pretty neat musique concrete. I worshipped the song, immediately elevated it to my personal pantheon though I had no interest in trying the drug (as if that mattered), screamed along with it on nights when I was alone in my dorm room and pretended I could strum along with it (and boy oh boy could Lou strum electric rhythm!!! To this day, when I think that I might learn guitar, all I want to learn is VU rhythm and Hank Sr. chop-country-chords), raved about it to my friends.

Not surprisingly, when I was eventually in a band, we played it. I felt somewhat sheepish "becoming" the persona, considering how totally straight I was, but it was the musical rushing on my run that was the point for me. We were known among our small Fayetteville, Arkansas, audience as "The Band That Couldn't Get Laid (except for Don)," as the band you went to see to see if it could get through a set, if not a song, as the guys (and girls) who had so much fun playing with such bare competence that you understood, indubitably, that you could do it, and the fact that we played "Heroin" as the lead-in to a medley that concluded with "Freebird" and "Here Comes A[n Ir]Regular" underlined our somewhat conscious message that we weren't urchins from the demimonde.

Nonetheless, the song remained a touchstone for all of us, and, after I'd become an English teacher, I admired it and Lou all the more for the song's conceptual daring. By that time, I'd heard the original [kids, it took me until 1983 -- no Internet, no big brothers or friends who owned it, no mid-American used stores that had it (no one, but no one, sold that record), no labels that bent over backwards to reissue everything -- to finally get my hands on a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico, and that was even after Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, CA, ripped me off via mail order], and Mo's drums and Cale's viola made it sound even more like something that had escaped an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Ken: The studio version still reminds me of the scene in Conan the Barbarian where James Earl Jones turns into a snake in the middle of the orgy. The stewpot full of skulls and bones...

Phil: I confess: I've gone through a period during the last decade where my most intense admiration has shifted to other VU songs -- "I'm Set Free," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," and -- odd song out -- "Venus in Furs" more directly punch my pleasure buttons) and I feel a little sheepish when students ask me what I think of "Heroin," if it isn't just the best. I always feel compelled to say, "Well, it's a little over the top...." but listening to it this morning made me realize I am just trying to put distance between myself and an experience that's maybe too long gone.

Ken: I'm ambivalent about "Heroin" because my best friend during my late teen years was a junkie...long deceased now. He didn't give a rat's ass about Lou Reed, either -- Johnny Winter was more his speed. Part of what you get from a writer who looks at the seamy side of life through clear eyes is a lot of stuff that's hard to take in, and I don't think Lou ever cut his audience any slack (although I suppose, viewed from another perspective, that he never gave up titillating us with views of the forbidden). Even on Ecstasy, which winds up being a final testament of sorts (although I'm going to have to revisit the Poe thing) there was "Rock Minuet."

Anybody who thought Lou was writing autobiography need only listen to "Kicks" or "The Gun" to realize the spuriousness of that assumption (although I do believe he was doing more "fieldwork" in the '60s and '70s).

As I've said to you before, one of the things I like about Lou is having an artist whose work I admire, about whom I'm so ambivalent. I let my copy of The Blue Mask go because I'm so not into "Women" and "Heavenly Arms," but I wound up having to buy another copy because after he passed, I really needed to hear "My House" and "The Day John Kennedy Died" -- not to mention "Underneath the Bottle" and "Waves of Fear." It's kind of like what I went through as a snotnose when the 'orrible 'oo followed Live At Leeds with all the synths of Who's Next and the orchestration of Quadrophenia (which I probably listen to more than any of their other stuff now, even Sell Out). Uncle Lou made me struggle with my own response to his subject matter (even though it wasn't through discovering Transformer as a teen that I was able to outgrow the homophobia of the cultures that formed me -- my middle daughter and her friends did that).

Phil: Regarding autobiography, I've doubted Lou ever shot that stuff from early on, but, y'know, it's not so much "Heroin" that the song is really about. I gotta keep that in mind to keep loving it. And, as for my own autobio, I've never seen the stuff nor knew anyone intimately who ever used it. Again, viewing the demimonde as if it were Pluto, or a satellite gone to Mars.

Speaking of, there's some of the same "all of the jim-jims" feeling in "Satellite of Love." I like how, in the Live In Italy version, after the "Harry, Mark, and John" verse, he counters with understanding, rather than the "fuckin' piece o' trash" of Take No Prisoners.

Ken: Stephen Crane never heard a shot fired in anger, yet wrote one of the best war novels of all ti-i-ime. Lou's experience/non-experience of his subject matter is irrelevant. He opened a lot of doors in terms of what was conceivable as subject matter for rockaroll lyrics. I don't blame him for anyone's drug use anymore than I blame him for G.G. Allin. And yes, I think he'd come to a more compassionate stance over the four or five years that separate those performances.

Phil: Great point, comparing Crane to Lou artistically, though Lou was a mite closer to what he was describing. But their ends were the same, don't you think? And that's so rare...that ones as young as they. It's fucking moving.

Ken: Yes, abso. And you wonder, "How can he know that?" Like Eliot writing "Prufrock" when he was 19. I think Lou's great achievement as a songwriter was just that: encapsulating experience, and making us feel empathy for people whose experiences were very foreign to our own.

Phil: I concur completely. And that's far from the usual experience in rock and roll, lit, art, what have you.

Ken: As beautiful as the music is, I find Hunter's stately and majestic architectonics on the Animal version of "Heroin" false and inappropriate. Whereas on Mitch Ryder's "Rock and Roll," he made the music tougher, grittier, and sexier, and therefore more appropriate. I think the original "Heroin" is still my favorite, since it's the starkest. I find it interesting that by '69, he'd changed the opening line (on some versions) to "I know just where I'm going."

Phil: Regarding the much-maligned (by you and initially by me) "Women and "Heavenly Arms" on The Blue Mask. You know, I remember getting my mitts on the album the day it came out -- I had heard advance notice that Reed would be playing guitar (!) and that he and Quine would be in separate channels -- slapping it onto the turntable, putting on headphones, cranking it up...and then being discombobulated by that weird, pulsing bass in the front of the mix (which I would grow to love), the meditative tone and sound of too many of the songs (which I would grow to love), and those two  Valentine's Day cards I considered slightly atrocious, especially since they were on the same record with "The Gun," "The Blue Mask," and "Waves of Fear" (but which I have also grown to love).

Here's my take: they are musical statements of serious audacity, especially given what we all knew about Lou's bent sexual history, what we'd learned to love about the incisiveness and swervy detail of his songwriting -- they are so plainspoken! -- and what we'd had to get used to about his "singing," primarily a bored, sarcastic bitchiness (which, yes, had its pleasures). "Heavenly Arms" is sung with such an open throat, if you know what I mean, that it's hard to gainsay his sincerity; in fact, it sounds brave. Also, doubling back, I had to finally admit that, given what "The Gun," "The Blue Mask," and "Waves of Fear" deal with, they couldn't be more appropriate for an album by a fabled truth-teller trying to stare down the truth of his own wicked ways. Does that make sense?

Ken: Totally. He always makes you work for it. He's not concerned with meeting our expectations.

Phil: It's like the sun breaking through the clouds, what if those rays aren't as verbally piquant as the darker ones? You had to root for the guy. Listening to them over and over -- not because I wanted to, but because I loved the album as a whole -- I often found myself thinking of the seeming misery he endured/brought upon himself between Lou Reed and The Blue Mask. I got the sense that I was hearing a human being in the moment of liberation, which is pretty cool to get off wax, and from a guy you might expect to be skeptical about that kind of liberation.

Ken: I think as he went through life, he became open to a lot more things, which is what we tend to do, if we're fortunate. Dig the fact that he died doing ta'i chi in a beautiful spot on Long Island (talk about your "spirit of pure poetry"). I don't think he was what we might have imagined him as being from his work (and in my case, from reading St. Lester, who was writing about himself as much/more than he was about Lou). I'm thankful that when I was 35, I heard Magic and Loss and began to intuit that parting and grief are hardly anomalous events in the human experience -- a fact of which I've been hyperaware lately.

Phil: Well, you hit on something very nice there: "what we tend to do." Have any other rock and roll artists as accurately represented that? I mean, here's a former Warholite who hung around/romanced a transvestite/sexual, with a copy of the PDR slung over his jellied shoulder for the better part of a decade, who ends up, careerwise, being our mirror. Did that make sense?

Ken: Sure. Try this one: Like Malcolm X -- another literary hero of mine, who may have been the creation of Alex Hailey -- his life journey was one of constant self-reinvention. Which is to say, the most American kind.

Phil: I am definitely down with that. Another hero I share with you, except he didn't get to keep reinventing for another three decades, and we're the worse for it.

To be continued here...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Two)

My buddy and fellow fan Phil Overeem and I continue kicking the Lou Reed gong around, via the wonders of the intarweb. (We started here.) Next we each speak at some length about our first encounters with Lou's music, and go from there.

Phil: At any wake, those who show up to honor and remember the departed inevitably recall where they met the ghost of honor. Since I bought RCA's cheap profit-taking comp Walk On the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed in '77, when I was a mere 15, I've often asked myself what Reed or his fabled demimonde could really have had to do with a Midwestern beer-drinking teen a half-generation removed from the farms of Kansas, beyond serve as, uh, entertainment (a weird word when applied to Lou's work). Surely someone in the southwest Missouri town of Carthage (pop. 13,000 -- salute!) was secretly applying jelly to her or someone else's shoulder, but the point is, I didn't run into her. I ran with athletes, student government officers, speech-and-debate nerds, and tough-ass country boys and girls who lived with me out on Route 4.

So maybe it was just the novelty of Lou's strangeness? I think not; I'd been weaned on Alice Cooper, and though, unlike my mom, I knew he was a gas, because the golden age of rock journalism was already over and there was no Internet, I didn't know he (or KISS) (or The Nuge) were hucksters. I wish I could say I was that smart. But listening to that comp, and primed also by a very recent first exposure to Dylan, I did hear something new and incomprehensible that had nothing to do with sick things in cars, gods of thunder, wang-dang-sweet-poontang (well, it had a toe in that pond, but let's not think about that anatomical appendage too much), or even the denizens of Desolation Row, who, compared to Reed's characters, now seem like teasing name-drops. I am thinking of "Satellite of Love," "Coney Island Baby," "Wild Child," "New York Conversation," even "Walk on the Wild Side," which causes me to wince slightly today; each was narrated by a distinct persona -- no objective narrative here -- who seemed very different, a guy who could be  alienated from love by his girl's infidelity on an interstellar level, who knew of Genghis Khan suits, wizard's hats, transvestites, wild children--but still admitted that he wanted to play football for the coach and liked to watch things on TV.

I think it was that combination of very foreign detail and very familiar tenderness that put the hook in. Though I was a multi-sport athlete in high school, made good grades, and fairly painlessly hopped from social group to social group, I remember always having to hide both my weirdness (I took records very seriously, dreamed about sleeping buck-naked out in the woods, thought Desolation Row sounded like an improvement) and my softness (I can't remember gentleness in young men ever being encouraged). It's funny, but those songs, none of them necessarily the greatest in Lou's oeuvre -- though I will punch you if you blaspheme "Coney Island Baby" or "Satellite of Love" -- couldn't have prepared me for what was coming in five years when I was first able to hear the third Velvet Underground album, and even Loaded, where Reed's ability to plumb the complexity of city people to write songs tender, weird, and life-affirming reached an early peak. (It's crazy, but damned important, to realize that, without an Internet and most of the Velvets' records temporarily out of print, you couldn't just go buy that stuff, or click on a YouTube link.)

Ken: Agreed. You had to go hunting for stuff back then.

Phil: So, really, my first exposure to Reed and his work helped me resist being buffed down into someone smooth before I really knew that wasn't something I wanted to have happen to me. You don't have to live in Manhattan to be at risk in that way. And you?

Ken: Hmm, lemme see. I wouldn't have been as big of a music fan if I hadn't also been a reader. I first caught wind of Lou not via St. Lester, but from a Rolling Stone review of the Velvets' Live At Max's by Tony Glover, the blues harmonica player, who caught my attention by describing Lou Reed as "maybe the most advanced lead guitarist in America."

I was a pretty angry and alienated 14-year-old back in '71 -- my best friend from middle school had moved upstate the year before, and I wasn't digging high school real much. I was considered a weirdo by most of the kids in my classes for having long hair, and my only friends were a black kid (whose band I wound up joining a couple of years later, when they lost their lead guitar player at the precise moment I was getting my first electric, after bullshitting him that I knew how to play since we'd met), a Puerto Rican kid, a white kid who'd just gotten back from a year in England with his family (he turned me onto both Slade and Monty Python!), and the smart kid who didn't reach puberty until the year we graduated -- or rather, they did (I'd talked my way out of senior year and into an early admissions program at the state university at Albany, where I lasted exactly three semesters before I proved my high school counselor's original belief that I was "not college material").

There was another longhaired kid I spent two years goofing around with in the back of English class, who'd found his dad after he committed suicide a few years back. We had an ongoing argument over who was the better songwriter: I said Lou, he said John Denver. And I filled my English journals with bullshit and blather about the Stooges and MC5, modeled on St. Lester, that got me a referral to the school shrink (I also got in trouble for reading The Catcher In the Rye in 9th grade). But I digress...

Anyway, it was Lester's tandem review of Live At Max's and the debut RCA LP in Creem that really piqued my interest, and I was able to score both of 'em out of the used bin at the hipi record store that opened one town over in the spring of '72 (and where I wound up working as soon as I turned 16).

I bought Transformer when it was new, then Loaded, then the first VU album, then the third...White Light/White Heat was last, and I told you what happened with that one. It was like entering a strange new world, filled with people and ideas that it was hard to wrap my 15-year-old mind around -- although I'd seen a transvestite in W.T. Grants when I was younger, and working in the record store brought me in contact with the first flamboyantly gay person I'd ever met (who wound up achieving a measure of notoriety when he cut a punk-era record called "Death To Disco" under the rubric Jimi LaLumia and the Psychotic Frogs) and where I sold lots of disco records to the cats that used to come through the town where my store was to catch the ferry to Cherry Grove over on Fire Island. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Lou kicked open the door for gay culture in the same way as Jimmy Reed (to paraphrase Joe Nick Patoski) kicked open the door for MLK, I suppose it was a formative experience to hear songs like "Wild Side" and "Candy Says" that spoke with compassion about people with other-than-"normal" sexual identities.

I'm not generally a lyrics-first type listener, but the thing in Lou's music I responded to first was not the sonics (I was already a Stooges fan, so the first Velvets album actually sounded a little quaint to me, the way Howlin' Wolf did after listening to the Animals, Stones, Yardbirds, and Butterfield -- it took me a few years to get hip), but the words and the things he sang about. Rather than speaking in slogans or riddles like Dylan and his followers, Lou spoke plainly, put things right out there in a way that was both easy to apprehend and impossible to ignore.

I steered clear of Berlin when it was new on the basis of St. Lester's pan, which itself was based on the premise that the album was depressing! In the fullness of time, that record just sounds to me like literature set to music (and Lou himself said that he wasn't writing about anything in the Velvets that Hubert Selby et al. hadn't already written about). I think the rock audience in general was still pretty naive then (and how strange it is to think about a time when there was an entity you could call "the rock audience" -- in this age of intarwebs and social networking, when everybody curates their own information bath, we've gone beyond St. Lester's "never agree about anything the way we once agreed about Elvis" to the point where we can never agree about anything, full stop). It took us a few years to catch up with him.

On Rock and Roll Animal, Lou came down to our level, with a "normal"-sounding Big Rock band built around Steve Hunter's guitar (with which I was already familiar from Mitch Ryder's Detroit album, from whence came the version of Lou's "Rock and Roll" that every idiot band on Long Island used to play -- I was in a few of 'em). That was back when Twisted Sister (in the days when they were still billed "They're no ladies, Mister") used to advertise their "Sweet Jane" singalong. Not really germane to this discussion, but I think it's interesting the way glam became a kick for suburban kids -- boys putting on blue eyeshadow for the Bowie concert, the whole Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight movie phenom (of which both my wife and my ex-wife were enthusiasts).

Having said all that, I think when he tried to make a statement about sexual identity with "Make Up" -- "We're coming out / Out of our closets / Out on the street" -- he was strident and failed, the way I think he failed with "Women" (his "methinks he doth protest too much" song) and especially "Heavenly Arms" (you can almost hear Sylvia whining, "Lou, why don't you write a song about me?"). He's much more effective on the same subject on "Trading Up," or when he's creating a vignette of the singles bar scene on "So Alone" (Zappa was comparatively hamfisted in his attempts to lampoon same in "Disco Boy" and "Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me?"). He's even poignant when, as a single, childless old man in "Baton Rouge," he conjures a family, then blows it away like a wisp of smoke. And are there better rock ruminations on aging and death than "Who Am I? (Tripetena's Song)" -- which completely slipped by me on "The Raven," and now just might be my favorite Lou Reed song of all ti-i-ime -- and the whole "Magic and Loss" album? I'm thinking not.

To be continued here...

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part One)

I've been talking to my buddy Phil Overeem in Columbia, Missouri, about Lou Reed for about 15 years now. In 2001, he pubbed a "jam review" of the Velvet Underground's The Quine Tapes (which we penned via internet chat while listening to the box set for the first time) on his estimable and now-dormant First Church of Holy Rock and Roll website. The one time we've ever actually met in the flesh, I was busking on the street in Columbia with Nathan Brown. Phil and his wife Nicole came down and yelled inappropriate requests for VU songs, and later bought us a pizza. Since then, we reconnected via Facebook and since Lou's passing, have resumed our conversation. Ain't the intarweb grand?

Ken: White Light/White Heat was instrumental in one of my very worst drug experiences: listening to it on acid in my parents' house; a minor act of rebellion against my best bud from junior high, who liked to stack up all the Doors albums except Absolutely Live -- even a Doors fan has to have some standards -- whenever we got "experienced." What a mistake that was. I ripped the LP off the turntable and smashed it, then didn't try listening again for 20 years….I also passed on seeing Lou at a small Dallas venue in '96. Duh.

Phil: I never got the chance to see Lou. I haven't been able to feel Lou's passing. I am listening to Legendary Hearts in the truck.

Ken: I listened to '90s Lou all day today. How many people have a run like that 30 years into a career?

Phil:  Very few. Lou had three different careers, really. Maybe four. I have been aggressively turning high school kids on to Lou/VU over the last 24 hours. One of them wrote me this evening to tell me he wrote the best essay of his life to tonight while listening to the first VU album for the first time!

Ken: Cool. The work you did goes on paying dividends. At least you know about that one. I'm starting to have to envision a world where all of the people I idolized are dead.

Phil: The Live In Italy record really pissed me off because I literally dreamed how it would sound and it so undershot my Lou's barely there vocally.

Ken: He didn't have the voice to yell over a band that loud. He figured it out by New York -- "the loud soft sound." Saturated guitar tones at conversational levels. New Sensations is one I missed. Worthwhile?

Phil: Oh, man -- the first side is one of the best sides he's ever waxed: opens with a major up that should have been a hit ("I Love You Suzanne"), follows with an unflinching plumbing of marital strife ("Jealousy"), makes a pit stop at his hankering for gaming (metaphor for control) ("Red Joystick"), peaks with his version of "Lean on Me" ("Turn to Me" -- fucking hi-larious and moving) and the closer, which are about the peaks that have replaced drugs and weirdness in his life -- riding his motorcycle, hanging out in diners and playing hillbilly songs, eating burgers and cokes ("New Sensations"). No Quine, very, very crisp and solid-but-loud '80s drums by Maher, Saunders on point as usual, and Lou? Locked in, singing passionately, having fun with his guitar, and doing his version of power pop. Charming, sounds great, and it it does include some darkness, of course. Side Aft -- facile songwriting and so-so music.

Ken: While "Street Hassle" has been playing in my head for days now, I remember being very underimpressed with the LP when it was new. ("I Wanna Be Black?" No.) And after watching the Bottom Line DVD, I sprung for Live In Italy on CD (for four bucks -- I'm consistent, anyway).

Phil: I never could like The Bells. Neither did I think it was bad. Just...snoozers. Street Hassle: When I bought it at the time, I played the title song over and over and over and over. The rest of the songs sounded like I was hearing them from underwater. I tend to hold with you on "I Wanna Be Black" -- and the Take No Prisoners version is even stoopider. Bottom Line is greater than Live In Itay: I remember racing straight to it after I saw the Bottom Line video to check if maybe I turned it up louder I would find I was missing something. Didn't work.

Ken: HA! I think the NYC venue was more conducive to what Lou was trying to do than the Italian arena, where he couldn't effectively sing over the band.

Phil: Yeah, you're totally right. Lou was not designed for the arena.

Ken: A down thought, but except for Townshend and Scott Morgan, all of my personal saints are gone: Hendrix, Lester, FZ, Ron Asheton, Beefheart, Farren, Shannon, and now Lou.

Phil: Maybe you should look outside that circle...surely there's someone. Or maybe the concept "saint" is the hurdle?

Ken: Nah, it is what it is. The formative shit. Until I can find a way to be 14 again, that's the set.

Phil: I still have Swamp Dogg, Dylan, Haggard, Uncle Jam, Ornette, Cecil. I hate to think of my formative shit. Alice? Ted? KISS?

Ken: Listening to Set the Twilight Reeling at very low volume. These may be the best guitar tones Lou ever got. Interesting in the Bottom Line DVD, watching him squat down to turn up his crappy little Peavey amp when he solos. I love small amps turned up loud.

Phil: Yeah, those were some of my favorite moments, too. "Kill Your Sons" and "Waves of Fear" smoke.

Ken: "First came fire, then came light / Then came feeling, then came sight." What a perfect fucking line.

Phil:  Yes.

Ken: Another song stuck in my head: "The Modern Dance." Even though it recycles a title from Pere Ubu and a groove from "NYC Man." Watching Lou solo, he looks like exactly like I must have when I was 15...running his finger up the neck, looking for The Note. He just does it with confidence. Inspahrd by early Ornette and Cecil, he's said. Well, I guess. Thankfully, listening to White Light/White Heat no longer summons memories of my bad acid trip. In fact, the thing I notice the most about "The Gift" is that "Booker T." is really "Gloria." Wow.

Phil: Speaking of White Light/White Heat, I listened to that at ear-splitting volume in the truck this week and found myself thinking it is the most end-to-end satisfying one, from a gestaltist perspective.

Ken: I could see that. The secret, as the discount wholesalers used to say, is volume. The first album is all over the map. The third has "The Murder Mystery" screwing things up in the middle of the second side. Loaded veers between mellow and rockin'.

Phil: Exactly. Minus the gestalt and plus CD-programming, I might take the first and third. But since I don't have to, I'll take 'em all! Though I have never warmed to Max's. Even the updated, remastered edition.

Ken: Updated remastered Max's is a highly polished turd. Only so much you can do with a cassette sound source.

Phil: Have been listening to Set the Twilight Reeling cranked in the truck. It's not just that he's gone, but it sounds better than it usedta. Check that: it always sounded good -- I just don't think at however old I was then I was ready for it. Your quoting it the other day (Yesterday? They are blurring for us), sent me back to it, and I remember thinking originally that the songs were too loose and sometimes just overly corny (not including "Egg Cream" -- part of his "new/old sensations" series that reaches all the way back to VU...there's an essay there). Now, they sound wise, fun, open -- secret o' life-ish. Thanks for inspiring that choice. I also had an unpleasant experience with Take No Prisoners...patter not funny enough, too much dicking around on the songs (his Love You Live), and those girl singers were the bane of the late '70s.

Ken: What a coincidence -- except I now listen to music at a volume comparable to when I lived with my parents. To me, Set the Twilight Reeling sounds like Lou in love and having fun, but I was surprised to hear the connections with John Lee Hooker and Hendrix in his guitar playing, and the tones are revelatory. I find myself more taken with the New York-and-later stuff. The '70s discography is still a mess (from which I'll except the debut and Berlin). I found a copy of Growing Up In Public (which I had when it was new and sold) and was pleasantly surprised. I find Legendary Hearts one of the more balanced albums -- like Loaded. The second side especially feels complete. But I also loved seeing that band (secret weapon: Fred Maher) rip through "Martial Law" and "Don't Talk To Me About Work" in the Bottom Line DVD. The first LP hits me the same way, particularly the second ("I Love You") side. Growing Up also made me realize that he'd relied on a big bass sound since, at least, "Wild Side" -- definitely on the Berlin album. It took Fernando to give it a human voice, with his vibrato, harmonics and double-stops.

Phil: I remember the guitar and the overall sound being great...but I was in a "tired of Lou Reed" jag. I am prepared to say boldly that from The Blue Mask on to the end is best adult rock and roll period anyone has ever experienced, including Dylan (and coming from me, that is serious). Mistrial and maybe that unplugged live one aren't great, but they are OK. I only listened to one track on Lulu and almost threw up in my mouth. So that's almost 30+ years of engaging writing and playing almost uninterrupted.

Ken: I agree with you re: adult R&R, but who else is there? Leonard Cohen? (Nah...not rock 'n' roll.) Warren Zevon? (Dunno, haven't listened to enough.) Another underrated collaborator: Jane Scarpantoni. And yeah, I definitely underrated him for years. Fuck me.

Phil: I think you have Dylan, Cohen, Zevon, Neil, Springsteen...Townshend?

Ken: Neil is kind of a special case. It doesn't feel to me like his perspective has changed much, from "The Loner" to now (although I follow him less closely). I suspect Springsteen has matured, and I still remember two of the best shows I have ever seen (on The River tour, 1980), but I don't have the interest to see what he's been up to since, uh, Tunnel of Love. Townshend: A frustrating case, because I care more about him than the others mentioned. But not in Lou's arena. The thing is, after reading his book, I realize that he fancies himself a theatrical composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber. His current project has the same name as a high-end dentist's office here in FTW. But back to Springsteen, I'd say that the populist impulse that was implicit in his early work has certainly come to the fore. Lou's work is more personal than that (albeit opaquely so, sometimes). I compared him to Salinger and Roth, and think the cap fits. Different medium, same impulse.

Phil: Woah, dude, I listened to Live In Italy cranked, in the truck, and I am going to have to revise my opinion (always liked it, but it didn't seem explosive enough). Aside from about four songs, it really kicked my ass. I always thought the versions of "Satellite of Love," "Kill Your Sons," and "Sally Can't Dance" were the best official ones on record, but the even outside of those the guitars are pretty freaking amazing -- Quine's more unchained than I remembered -- and Lou's into several of the songs vocally. It struck me that this band is the post-punk analog to The Band...too bad it couldn't have made a few more records. Those fills on "Martial Law"! Quine answering Lou's "This is what I said..." on "Satellite." The rave-ups on "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray." The treacherous but ultimately successful arrangement of "Some Kind of Love." Played it twice in a row, man.

Ken: It really is a good representation of a great band. And Quine was tuned down a whole step, so when Lou played a D shape, Bob was playing an E. How crazy is that? There was something about that band -- they didn't have the Big Rock dynamic that all of Lou's '70s bands after Rock and Roll Animal did. Less showbizzy, more like the VU. But I think the real breakthrough came on Growing Up In Public. He stepped back from the self-hating persona and allowed his writing to become more intimate. With Blue Mask, he found a band that was better suited to this new music. If you look at the two album covers, the lettering is even the same on his name! At the same time, contrast the VU songs on Live In Italy with any live VU renditions. Lou's more of a performer in the '80s. I think there are parallels between Lou, beyond signing with RCA. I think the VU were as earthshaking, in a more subtle way, as Sun Elvis. And I think Lou spent most of the '70s being manipulated by various entities, from Bowie and Ezrin to Lester Bangs, Steve Katz, and Clive Davis. At the end of the decade, he starts to value his gifts more, and takes control of his music. Imagine if El had lived long enough to have such an epiphany, which is hinted at in the TV special and '69 Memphis sessions.

Phil: I am not muso enough to understand that stuff about being tuned down and playing shapes, but it sounds cool as hell! Elvis and epiphany: According to the research Guralnick did, everytime Elvis had one and tried to talk about it, he got ridiculed by the Memphis Mafia creeps, or -- if he found someone with an ear -- they shouldered him out. He was like a damsel in distress never rescued, a Samson who never got his head of hair all the way back in.

Ken: Back to Lou, I think the move toward a more intimate (and, dare I say, literary) form of communication continued from New York onwards, until by his last decade, he was touring without drums. I'm not sure where Lulu fits into all this -- maybe his way (like the "Metal Machine Trio") of letting us know "I still do what I want."

Phil: You needn't dare say it; it's true!

Ken: Think it's significant he put down his guitar (onstage, at least) for most of the '70s. I also believe that the commercial/critical failure of Berlin drove him to abandon such expression until Quine convinced him otherwise. From the Animal tour until The Bells, he was really just a puppet or a caricature of himself, giving the people what he perceived they wanted ("Here comes the Rock and Roll Animal...fucking junkie faggot"). Every "Street Hassle" undercut by an "I Want To Be Black." Which is not to say he didn't write some great songs...just that he stopped trusting his muse.

To be continued here...

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Apache 5, Henry the Archer, Barrel Delux

I don't get out much anymore, and I'm not convinced that since I stopped posting in this thing regularly, it's much more than a magnet for link spam. But anyway...At the Curtis Heath benefit at Lola's last weekend, I got my first opportunity to see two bands featuring people I've played music with, and then this week I got a new CD in the mail from another bunch of friends that pleasantly surprised me.

Apache 5 is the band fronted by singer-guitarist-songwriter Joshua Loewen (also an occasional Fort Worth Weekly scribe), with whose old band Voigt I first played a Stooges song in public. Since then, he's played bass in Chatterton and formed this band, which added fret magician Sir Steffin Ratliff (Bindle, Pablo and the Hemphill 7, Stoogeaphilia) on guitar two years ago, and had the misfortune to have all of their equipment stolen on the eve of their debut CD's release show. (The thieves even stole the CDs, bahstids).

Thankfully, they were able to re-equip and soldier on, and from their performance at Lola's, I can attest they've evolved into a tight, organically rockin' unit, playing songs equally redolent of garage-rock grunt and Gram-via-Stones twang. As a frontman, Josh is confident but not cocky, and he puts the songs across well. Behind him, the riddim section (Chuck Brown, bass; Austin Green, drums; and the curiously named Maui Mang on keys) provides supple, agile support, and Sir Steffin creates light as well as heat, crafting solos of impeccable melodic sense. The album they're currently working on with Britt Robisheaux will be out next year, and should be a corker.

Speaking of guys that used to be in Bindle (and Pablo, and the li'l Stoogeband), Matt Hembree and Kevin Geist -- who's been making up for lost time by drumming in three bands, although he recently let one of 'em go -- are two thirds of Henry the Archer, the stage persona of soundtrack composer Richard Hennessy. He has solo and band CDs recorded prior to hooking up with the former Bindle engine room. A new one with them is due next year.

Onstage, Hennessy's kind of an odd duck, displaying a quirky sensahumour, and he attacks the guitar the way Nathan Brown used to (he's primarily a pianist). He writes taut, peppy pop songs that have a ska/punk edge, and sings 'em in a strong, high tenor that occasionally gives way to a falsetto: imagine Marc Bolan fronting the Police. All the while, Hembree and Geist are toying with the riddim; their sheer musicality and joy in playing together are evident in everything they do.

Finally, Barrel Delux is the band formed by what was left of Hasslehorse -- that'd be bassist Ratsamy Pathammavong and singer-guitarist Vinny Pimentel -- when John Frum moved to Seattle and Ray Liberio set out to see how many bands he could play in simultaneously while working a straight and doing graphics for evabody under the Sun (including Barrel Delux).

Although it's always been Vinny's band, he sometimes got overshadowed by Mike Bandy's messy psychedelia when Bandy was on board as second guitarist-vocalist. The arrival of the steady, sturdy Atkinson brothers (ex-The Waves and Slapp Canyon Reverb Band) -- that'd be Jamez on guitar and B.B. on drums -- upped the rock quotient in Barrel Delux's unpretentious Y'allternative sound, and gave Vinny a firmer grasp on the helm. The new lineup took its time working on this material before committing it to shiny silver disc. Vinny's perfectionism paid off, and the eight tracks on Back When represent an advance over the Coat Hanger Antenna EP.

Opener "Jesus Criminey," "Hallow's Eve," and closer "Dark Eyes" are medium tempo rockers with a dark, somber undertow, which Vinny sings in a bruised but workmanlike voice -- imagine Phil Lesh fronting Blue Oyster Cult. The single "Holiday" and the title track have enough jangle and sincerity to earn them a place on Americana radio, but much more to the point is "Barrel of Fun," which juxtaposes choppy, Stones-like chording with a wailing, high lonesome guitar line. "The Outside" contrasts soft and loud passages to build and release tension, with Jamez stretching out to good effect. "Supernova" features a repeated instrumental bridge that's reminiscent of the work Steve Hunter did for Bob Ezrin. Fort Worth Sound's estimable Bart Rose did yeoman work capturing the sounds.