by Steve Pick
In this, the 21st installment of the series writing about one album for each year of my life, we reach the point where I start buying them in real time.
In 1978, something drew me back to music in a big way after a few years of merely dabbling. I started buying records as often as possible, and I listened to the radio all the time, and I read rock magazines. Creem and Rolling Stone, mostly that year. I was learning that things were happening which hadn't happened in a long time, that rock music was saying things which mattered again, and that there were new sounds which fell squarely in the rock tradition while shattering all the rules of the day.
In addition to discovering the New Wave (in part because KADI FM played Elvis Costello and Patti Smith in heavy rotation), I discovered Bruce Springsteen, a kindred spirit albeit a horse of an entirely different color. I remember actually making the purchase of Darkness on the Edge of Town; I bought it at Peaches in Dellwood, and the clerk, a former neighbor of mine, complimented me on my taste.
I remember dropping the needle on the record and thrilling to the tom tom intro of "Badlands" before suddenly the sky opened up and the full throttle force of the E Street Band burst from my speakers. I remember playing the record over and over, knowing that this was something special, even if I didn't quite yet know why.
To this day, Darkness is my favorite Springsteen album. It remains the defining E Street template, even though obviously those guys could drop some serious science on songs dramatically different from the ones contained here. But, here we have the force of the E Street Band, the astounding invention and power of drummer Max Weinberg, the thick sound and rhythmic perfection of bassist Gary W. Tallent, the unobtrusive yet essential keyboards of Danny Federici, the array of melodic commentary from pianist Roy Bittan, the penetrating full-blown tenor sax of Clarence Clemons, and the dynamic blasts of Springsteen's own guitar (or is that Miami Steve Van Zant? I never know who plays which part).
And there's Springsteen's voice, which he pushes to extremes he never did before or again. Listen to the way he screams from the gut on "Adam Raised a Cain," or the way he sounds so intimate and well, horny on "Candy's Room," or the rich expression he brings to "The Promised Land." He sounds rawer, and he sounds more varied, as though each song required a specific new vocal approach to deliver the emotional content.
The emotional content of Darkness is pretty much a frenzy of hope and pain and drudgery and release and desire and love and passion and revenge and retreat. The characters in these songs are not simple, are not symbols but very specifically drawn human beings with complicated experiences.
"Racing in the Streets," is one of the most mocked of all Springsteen songs because of it's opening lines. "I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396 / Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor" was ripe for satire by those who thought Springsteen's songs were simply love poems to cars and girls. But the man in this song is trying to be in love with life itself - "Some guys they just give up livin' / And start dying little by little piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up / And go racin' in the streets."
The catch is, he's torn between the thrills he needs from cheating death itself - for racing in the streets isn't exactly a guarantee of safety - and the pain he knows he brings to the woman he loves, who has shut herself down to a shell of the lively girl she had been. "Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea / And wash these sins off my hands." It ain't easy to ask forgiveness when you believe the very sin you're committing is what keeps you from dying. This will be a baptism that doesn't seem likely to lead to Heaven.
Ah, well, Springsteen challenges perceptions and conventions. He sings of working class people not as heroic stereotypes, but as human beings faced with the challenge of finding meaning in life. When Springsteen sings "I believe in the promised land," at first it seems something akin to "Born to Run," when he wants to take his woman and break on through to the other side. But, there is an awareness here of a contradiction - "Blow away the dreams that tear you apart / Blow away the dreams that break your heart / Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted." Isn't the promised land itself such a dream? And yet, the song sounds so full of hope, so cocksure that the singer (and those of us who listen and sing along, either in our heads or at the top of our lungs at his concerts) can actually defeat the forces arrayed against him, and find the life he wants.
Ultimately, it is the awareness that the fight itself, or rather the experience of making a life out of the individual moments we live, which matters. "Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop / I'll be on that hill with everything I got / Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost / For wanting things which can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town." Not a simple moral, but a complex desire to wrestle with the powers that be, to keep searching til it's understood that these badlands are treating us good.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
Last week I made my way through the heartland of America headed to New York City. As is my custom I try and break up the monotony by hitting the flea markets and small record stores along the way. I was rewarded this trip with three cover, one good, one better and one is simply THE BEST!
The first is a record of sacred songs from The Chuck Wagon Gang. I thought they just served up vittles, but what do I know. The photo on the cover is so wholesome it makes Wally and the Beaver look like Hell's Angels.
The second is from an Ohio based Gospel group The Evangelaires. The description on the back tells of a vocal group that is exciting (no), artistic (certainly not), different (I don't think so) and imaginative (nope). But all these adjectives can only describe the cover. I'm assuming that they played a little dress up for the photo shoot, at least I'm hoping. Otherwise the bald guy with the lollipop, the farmer, the waiter and the old fashioned lady might want to watch there backs when the leave, 'cause the hunter and his dog are looking like they're out for blood.
This one is a crown jewel. A cover so astounding I nearly dropped it when I spotted it at a flea market in Indiana. It's The Best of The Crusaders (no, not those Crusaders). Originally a trio made up of three gospelaires that, on looks alone would be enough to feature in this blog. But The Crusaders, who by the way record in "ultra sonic sound", added the suave and sophisticated former auto racer, pro wrestler and now at 46 inches "the smallest gospel singer in the world" Little Buddy Dee. In the liner notes it says "to see and hear Buddy as he teams up with the Crusaders is an unforgettable experience". I'm sure, but this cover will definitely suffice thank you very much.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
by Steve Pick
Nearly 25 years ago, a very good friend of mine got to spend a few months living in Paris, and inevitably, she found herself wandering around in the Louvre one day. When she came across what I had always thought was the most famous statue in the world, the Venus de Milo, she suddenly burst out laughing. For the first time, she got the joke, as she had somehow lived her whole life to that point not realizing that this Venus had no arms any more.
The joke is in the second song on Television's impeccable Marquee Moon. "And I fell / Did you feel low? / No,not at all. / Huh? / I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo."
Well, it's funny, but it's not merely a joke. The song exists on the border between feeling alive and aware of a future, and empty and lost and not caring about anything. Tom Verlaine's character seems to dance across the city of New York, encountering strangers on the Bowery, actors from Broadway, and an old friend who urges him to take a needless risk. He is aware of all these things, but none of them affect him; Verlaine holds on to the memory of astounding beauty, a statue so perfect that even with all the loss it has sustained over the years, it remains an ideal of artistic excellence.
And, then there are the guitars - honestly, as great as Verlaine's lyrics are, and everything about the way he delivers them, it is the guitar interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd which elevates this album into the pantheon of greatness which it occupies. The liner notes take great pains to tell us which one plays which parts, but I've never really bothered to think too much about that. Instead, I prefer to think of the two of them melded into one mind, where rhythm guitar and lead guitar combine to create some of the most beautiful, eloquent, dirty, and hard-hitting sounds in all of rock.
I'm not a believer in any kind of God, but there is a passage in the song "Marquee Moon" which feels to me like a manifestation of the divine. It's a mysterious song, with images of darkness doubling, of lightning striking itself, of Cadillacs pulling in and out of graveyards, and of standing underneath a moon which feels like a marquee. All of this is sung, spat, delivered in Verlaine's exceptionally unconventionally pretty yet precise vocals, as one guitar chugs a rhythm, another guitar dances filigrees around it, the bass thuds in counter-rhythm, and the drums, as always on this record, are filling in astounding rhythmic details few would think of trying, let alone actually attempting.
Then, about four and a half minutes in, the filigree guitar takes off. The song is modal, and two chords alternate four measures of two beats each, giving the lead guitar enough time to slowly climb up the fretboard again and again every eight measures. But that's not doing enough justice to what happens here - there are explorations, inventions, melodic delights aplenty over the next few minutes, as the rhythms subtly speed up, the dynamics get louder, and the solo becomes more and more intense. This is the sound of searching, of attempting to find meaning, or God, or whatever profound secret one is interested in. And then, after climbing as high as possible, the piano delivers the sound of a rushing stream, and the guitar, now gently plucked with some effect pedal adding light resonance, gives the answer long sought. It is the beginning, the Word made Sound, and it brings calm to my soul every time I hear it. And then, it all starts over, the band returns to the rhythm, and Verlaine sings again, "I remember when the darkness doubled." The first verse leads to a fade-out, indicating that the answer is never enough, the quest must always continue.
Marquee Moon gives us eight songs, five of which are easily among rock's masterpieces, and the other three are merely exceptionally good. I didn't hear it in 1977 - few outside of New York and the rock critic intelligentsia of the time did. I really have no memory of discovering this record, but it had to happen sometime in the next few years. I also have no memory of ever not knowing and loving and thrilling to what more than deserves every accolade it has accumulated in all this time. If you know it, you know what I mean; if you don't, you will not believe what you have missed.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
by Joe Schwab
Keith Jarrett (renowned A-hole) picks on the audience at the Umbria Jazz Festival for taking his picture.
I would be remiss if I didn't also include A-hole hall of famer, Mr. Buddy Rich.
Monday, June 15, 2009
by Steve Pick
I started listening to FM radio in 1976, and in St. Louis, that usually meant KSHE, the rock station which dominated the local market to a degree unimaginable to those who didn't live through it. At that time, if you were under 25 years old, and you didn't wear a KSHE pig shirt, you were looked on with the same suspicion John Birch Society members viewed Hollywood actors and union leaders. You were not "one of us."
Well, I listened to KSHE, though the contrarian in me listened to rival KADI even more. My point here is I know I heard "Don't Ask Me Questions" fairly often on the radio in 1976, and I really want it to have been on the biggest station at the time, but I can't swear to it. I wasn't yet reading rock journalism, wasn't at all aware of what was bubbling up in England and New York. I do remember loving "Breakdown" by Tom Petty and "Don't Ask Me Questions" more than anything by Journey or Styx, though not so much more that I was ready to renounce the latter.
Now, I can't imagine not realizing "Don't Ask Me Questions" is a Bob Marley homage, but then, I wasn't hearing reggae as anything unusual. This was the way this song sounded (as I mentioned a few posts back when writing about Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come). And, as much as I enjoyed the song on the radio, I don't think I even considered looking for the album in stores - I certainly had no idea this Graham Parker guy had such short hair.
Eventually, of course, I shifted gears and formally aligned myself with the New Wave and Punk Rock movements. Graham Parker wasn't actually part of these, but he was on the periphery, and I grabbed all of his albums as fast as I could (easy in those days, as most of them seemed to be sitting in the cut-out bins ripe for the picking). Here was a guy with short hair, short songs, short guitar solos, and more hooks than you could hang Heidi Klum's clothes on. I played his first four studio albums to death back in the day.
Howlin' Wind is album number one (and actually, the second record, Heat Treatment, also appeared in 1976, and comes close enough to this one that I briefly considered covering the both of them as if they were a double LP). Now, I can hear the heavy Van Morrison influence which colors this record - Parker doesn't have the deep sonority of Morrison's voice, but he nicks some arrangement ideas, especially on "Gypsy Blood" and "You've Got to Be Kidding." And, having heard enough live renditions of many of these songs over the years, either in concert or on live records, the album seems a little more sedate than I remember it.
But, my goodness, it's still a great one - song for song, Howlin' Wind remains one of the most impressive debuts of any songwriter I've ever heard. Parker's skills are not necessarily in crafting complex melodies, but my goodness, he knows how to pack a punch in the chorus. Short verses, clever guitar or keyboard or horn hooks, and the catchiest, most singable choruses to come from one mind - that's the formula established here, which Parker has mixed together again and again for 33 years. I'm not saying he's ever matched his first four records, but he's never fallen so far away from those standards that you don't want to keep hearing him.
The backing by the Rumour deserves to be mentioned, as well. I saw these guys with Parker in 1979, and again with Garland Jeffreys a few years later (though keyboardist Bob Andrews had left by then), and there has rarely been a more talented and intense ensemble. You can hear the beginnings of their sound develop here - Brinsley Schwarz would step more clearly to the forefront on guitar later, and Martin Belmont would develop a rounder, deeper rhythmic approach. But already, they were in synch with Parker's songs, working the dynamics which such a repetitious style required.
Graham Parker wasn't revolutionary, a la the Ramones, whose debut album deserved consideration for representing 1976, but which was ultimately a little too cartoony, and a little less than perfect even in regards to their own role in music - the next two albums would do that. He was obviously a record collector who wanted to mix the soul, blues, rock, reggae, and country he had heard into a new and vibrant creation of his own. Still, for a conservative take on rock'n'roll, Howlin' Wind remains one of the most exciting and inventive records I know.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Euclid Records has been proud to sponsor Twangfest, the annual big tent series of concerts held in St. Louis, for years. This year, things kick off tonight, June 10, with a don't-dare-miss-it show at the Pageant. Headliner Alejandro Escovedo hasn't played St. Louis in a long time, and he remains one of the most powerful of musical performers. Also on the bill is the Hot Club of Cowtown, a delightful band of fiddling country swing, and Amy LaVere, whose sweet and sultry vocals are highly recommended.
Tomorrow night, June 11, Twangfest moves to the Duck Room in Blueberry Hill, and four excellent performers. Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys return to Twangfest after an absence of a few years, and they'll headline over country singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, the eclectic singer/songwriter Eileen Jewell, and the St. Louis act the Brothers Lazaroff.
Friday night, June 12, the Duck Room will feature the acoustic sounds of the Asylum Street Spankers, the manic soul of Andre Williams, the ethereal and incandescent rock of Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, and the pop/rock of St. Louis's own Jon Hardy and the Public.
Finally, Saturday night, June 13, Twangfest keeps the party alive with former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the roots rock of Daddy (featuring Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, and who will be playing a live in-store at Euclid Records at 4 pm), the country rock of the Deep Vibration, and the St. Louis acoustic band Theodore.
Pick one, two, three, or four nights, and tell them Euclid Records sent you. This is music that will satisfy your soul. You'll be glad to hear it.
by Joe Schwab
I love Carmen McRae. So first and foremost, nothing in this post should be construed as making fun of her. We clear?
Okay, for those of you that have not been initiated, Carmen’s career really took flight in the 50s when she recorded for the Decca label. Though most of these albums were mostly in the ballad and pop song interpretation category, her bluesy feel and daring manner clued you in to what this woman was capable of. Carmen was a musician first and a song interpreter second. Along with Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Cassandra Wilson, Nina Simone, and Anita O’Day, she was a musician’s musician. All these women were piano players (even if they rarely performed it on stage), and they really understood song structure. They could hear beyond the sound of an arrangement, and really know the true power of a song. Some, like Betty Carter, might stretch a standard, but others like Carmen were able to find the beauty in pop songs, some that dominated the charts, and others that were merely album tracks.
This brings us to our feature. Despite my love of all things Carmen, I’ve avoided this record over the years. My reasoning was two-fold. First, it was on the 70s Blue Note label, a time when much of its output was not of great interest to me (though in retrospect, Donald Byrd and Bobbi Humphrey had some good moments). Second, the songs were made up of commercial hits from the likes of Gilbert O’Sullivan et al. But when I finally listened, I found many of these tracks have a certain soul that goes way beyond interpretation. Carmen really made them her own.
The title track, “Can’t Hide Love,” is originally an Earth, Wind and Fire song. Carmen’s bluesy, talking, bitchy-type singing works beautifully with her natural feel.
Then there’s Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” a song about the power and heartache of a woman scorned. People used to wonder what the wall was Carmen up to singing a song by Alice Cooper. But after hearing her version, I can only ask, what the hell was Alice Cooper singing this song for?
While researching allmusic.com for dates and song titles on this LP, I read the short, seething review of the album by Scott Yanow who picks out these two songs in particular to say they don’t fit Ms. McRae’s style at all. Well, I respectfully disagree. Mr. Yanow, you may go on to the next blog, but everyone else should give these a listen and let us know what you think.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
by Steve Pick
By 1975, all the younger practitioners of rock'n'roll music had no memory of a time without rock. Bruce Springsteen was 26 when he released Born To Run, which means he was 6 when Elvis Presley burst into the nation's consciousness. Thus, his reference in "Thunder Road" to a radio with Roy Orbison singing for the lonely seemed as natural as his wholesale appropriation (and 64-track modernization) of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound.
Things were happening in 1975. Jon Landau had said a few years before that "I saw rock'n'roll's future - and it's name is Bruce Springsteen." Landau was two years older than Bruce, but he had grown up to rock'n'roll, and he was aware that the next exciting thing to happen was going to feature very clear, very specific nods to the previous two decades. Rock was now a form with a history, and the more aware a musician was of what had already happened, the more likely something new and exciting could emerge.
Meanwhile, down on the Bowery, the New Wave was being born. Patti Smith released Horses, with its mystical reinterpretion of Them's "Gloria," while she also punked up the Who's "My Generation" for a single. The Ramones eliminated everything but Black Sabbath's bar chord rhythm guitar and frenetic energy, while fusing melodies derived from girl groups and other early 60s pop hits. Blondie was revisiting the clean sonic thrills of all those same influences. The future was coming, and it was all of a piece with what had gone before.
The Dictators played CBGB's as well, and they produced one of my most revered 1975 landmarks, The Dictators Go Girl Crazy. Here was a band capable of matching contemporary metallic mores, while covering "California Sun" by the Rivieras, and while coming up with a Beach Boys pastiche called "Cars and Girls." The Dictators knew rock'n'roll's history, but they also thought of it all as trash, and mixed it with an ironic love of trash culture - wrestling, White Castles, drive-in movies. While "Cars and Girls" could have been an appropriate subtitle for Springsteen's album, he eschewed irony in favor of redemption and hope. As much fun as I've had over the years listening to the Dictators, it is the seriousness of Springsteen, the sense of potential and desire and delirium he provides on Born to Run, which makes the year such a watershed to me.
What more does a young man need than a woman to love, a car to take him places, and an idea that moving on through life will lead to something better? Sure, it's a myth - the women of Born to Run are defined more by their roles as accessories to Bruce than as people with hopes and dreams of their own, the cars constantly need repairs and upkeep (and in "Meeting Across the River," they don't even exist as a possession), and the truth about life is that it will always lead to something different, but different isn't necessarily better or even worse, merely a change. But the myth sounds so thrilling, especially when pumped up by Max Weinberg's incendiary drums, by Roy Bittan's melodically enticing piano, by Gary W. Tallent's dancing bass lines, by Clarence Clemons soaring tenor sax, and by Springsteen's clanging, powerhouse guitar.
Eight songs, only two clocking in over four and a half minutes, and nothing less than brilliant. "Thunder Road" sets the tone, a roaring Spector-derived monstrosity as Bruce pulls out all the stops trying to convince Mary that, unlike all those losers she's known before, he is the one who can give meaning to her life, by climbing into his car and riding into the unknown. He's breathless, excited, thrilled by the image he has of Mary by his side, and yet going back and forth between offering her an image of her future with him and deriding her past as empty and worthless. It's not the nicest of seduction techniques, but I can see why she was ready to go with him; "I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk." The whole E-Street Band is talking with him here.
"10th Avenue Freeze-Out" sounds more like the looser, slightly jazzy songs Springsteen had recorded on his first two fabulous records. Here, as on many other songs, David Sanborn of all people lends a sultry baritone sax to the mix, and Bruce sings of the ways women can knock him off his feet just by being so gosh darn beautiful. Hey, it happens, and if it leads to music this exciting, may it continue to happen.
"Night" is more of the same, only a full-tilt Spectorized rev of the E-Street engine. I remember when work was something in the way of what felt like real life, going out at night and showing off and seeing all the people who made me feel like this was the important part of the day. I remember not always knowing where I was going, but knowing that getting out and finding what was happening was simply the only thing I wanted to do. That's what Bruce is singing about here, with the apparent New Jersey caveat of driving around in his car, the extension of his soul which would find the woman of his dreams.
"Backstreets" closes out side one with a bang. It's densely packed words recall his older material again, but the first two albums, "Rosalita" aside, never punched you in the gut with the power and the passion of this song. Bittan's one minute plus piano intro is gorgeous, and then the band kicks in and Springsteen starts to sing of a time when he was younger, in love, experiencing a bit of the dream he searches for in other songs, and then he lost it. That discovery that he and his lover were like all the rest, were capable of failure, is gutwrenching, and it lends this song a sense of terror which vies with the overall sense of hope of the album.
The title track kicks off side two, and it is without question one of the glories of rock'n'roll. It's again the same theme - Bruce works by day, rides with his girl by night, and dreams of a time when this exhilaration will be all there is. But, oh, the urgency, the passion, the thrills - "I want to die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss," then "Ughhhhh!" and that rumbling Telecaster joined by Clemons saxophone as we feel the sexual excitement build, release, and then start again. This is everything rock'n'roll had been - raw, sexy, energetic, loud, thick, free - regenerated into something that sounded (and still sounds) like a fresh discovery, an experience of life's greatest moments.
"She's the One" is an interesting contrast. Here, Bruce seems to be a little afraid of the woman's power over him, a bit convinced that he might be better off without her. Is he trying to win her or trying to escape her? Either way, she's calling the shots in his life, and the Bruce Springsteen character of this album is anything but comfortable about anybody else being in control. It's the last rocker of the album, which only lets up briefly during the first six songs.
"Meeting Across the River" features a quiet, jazzy piano part, a moaning jazzy trumpet, and Springsteen inhabiting a different character, something of a loser who dreams of hitting it big (with only $2000, even in 1975 a fairly small haul for whatever it is he's going to do). He needs a ride from his friend Eddie to meet a man who will use him in some way, and pay him money which will show his girlfriend that he is somebody, and allow him to walk out on her, instead of the other way around. Springsteen has always had a gift for creating characters and situations which could easily be fleshed out into more detail, but which would almost always be lessened if they were. We don't need to know what this character is trying to do, merely how empty his gestures are. There is sympathy here, but there isn't much hope.
"Jungleland" is an epic, a far deeper, more concise and sadder take on West Side Story. For the last time in his career, Springsteen lets his arrangements stretch into cinematic (or balletic) scenarios, with musical juxtapositions, and a thrilling middle instrumental section which perfectly describes all the action we're missing from the lyrics. It's an elegy for the people Bruce left behind (or at least knew existed, even if he wasn't one of them), for the images of early rock'n'roll toughs, for the idea that the future didn't matter as much as the present. Again, Bruce Springsteen was firmly grounded in the musical and cultural experiences of his youth. At the very end, there is a wordless "woooh" which rises up and out of the despair of the song. It's not exactly a sense of hope, but it echoes the possibility of same at the end of "Born to Run," borne on the sound of doo-wop exhilaration from his youth.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
If you remember the classic early 70s hit single of "Hot Rod Lincoln" by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, you should be excited about Friday, June 26. Bill Kirchen, the man whose electric guitar chops fired up that record, will appear at 5 pm right here on our stage in Euclid Records for the next in the popular Euclid Sessions Series.
Kirchen has been releasing terrific albums of his own for years, and his songwriting has come to be as much fun as his guitar playing. He says it's "country-flavored music as well as western swing, rockabilly, bluegrass, country tear-jerkers, and truck-driving music," and there's nothing we can add to a description so accurate.
The Euclid Sessions Series is going quite well - this will be eighth live performance since the series began last Fall. The first three sessions - Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three, the Hard Lessons, and Terry Adams - have already resulted in 7" singles which are selling fast. More will be coming in July. $1 for each of the limited-edition runs of 300 copies will be donated to the New Orleans Musician's Relief Fund.
Oh, and if you want more Bill Kirchen, he'll move down the street to the Gazebo in Old Orchard for that night's Gazebo Series of concert / film pairings outdoors. He'll play down there at 7 pm.