Turning 50 some eight years back almost automatically seemed to signal some unfortunate changes for me, the former youthful man. I've still got my hair, but I don't dig the silver creeping into it. Dry skin appears out of nowhere. I pluck little hairs out of my ears. Perhaps I need to take that fish oil more often, because I misplace stuff.
I should hardly be so hard on myself, however, as it was 25 years ago when my most head-scratching, unsolved mystery occurred. As mentioned elsewhere, when I worked at my second radio station, 1430AM WBRB back in Michigan, I was given a good deal of freedom in the weeknight slot, 7 to midnight. I hosted a nightly feature, which might be anything from playing different tracks by Van Morrison every 30 minutes or so to spotlighting a then-new album (one night it was Stevie Wonder's Characters, another it was Linda Ronstadt's all-Spanish Canciones de mi Padre).
Sometime in 1987 or early 1988, I decided to feature a group that's definitely not a fave rave, Jay & the Americans. They were probably selected because I'm a sucker for almost any 1960s artifact, and had recently run across their hits album that I'd found for two bucks when Peaches Records went out of business in the early '80s.
Anyway, the day the feature was to air, I got ready to leave for the station, and the album I had set aside was missing. After searching a short while, I became frantic and began looking in the most absurd locations: Was I out in the garage to get something, and left it out there? Nope. Was I in a totally mindless state and put it in the refrigerator? No, not there, either.
The mystery was never solved. Has it ever shown up in all those album crates I brought with me to Washington state almost 20 years ago? No. Just because I hate to lose stuff,
I was happy to find a Jay & the Americans anthology (on Rhino Records) that was actually a better package than the previous one; I purchased the LP a few years after that still-puzzling incident. As for the content, well...the "operatic" "Cara Mia" never impressed me--sounds corny. Their remake of the Ronettes' gorgeous "Walking In the Rain" is flat-out awful. "Let's Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)" is nostalgia and nothing more, as it's the first Jay & the Americans song I caught on the radio. For me, the group's one moment worth hearing again is the instrumental break in "Come a Little Bit Closer," as it reminds me of the E Street Band at their jolliest.
Absolutely weird--how did that record just vanish into the ether? If someone from another world summoned a copy of that album, their musical taste is worse than mine.
For whatever reason, Gina never discovered that we have a foreign language version
of PBS on our cable subscription until now (I would have found that network around 2020--you know, hindsight). She got into some of the Italian dramas, first for the scenery, next because it's her heritage, and now she's got me watching a few programs. Eventually, we realized that this is simply good television: smart, instructive and funny. Often, reading the subtitles enhances the humor; who knows why.
Take the Swedish show (or maybe it's a made-for-TV movie) "The Crown," which is about, in part, sexism and politics. Great stuff.
My favorite dialogue from what I've viewed so far: Two women in a political system dominated by men discover that they're becoming allies. Says the older one, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other."
And then a dinner, where one of the officials notes, "There's a politician born every day.
It might not be mentally demanding, but my work at the local library tires me out by the end of the day and keeps my spirits up. What a crew we have--a diverse combination of people.
Joking around while working pretty intensely is certainly possible and it happens almost continuously. I brought in a load of books from outside the other day, noted what I saw in the parking lot and started saying, "Tina Fey is in our library! She must be! There's a car out there with New York plates and it says "F-E-Y" on the license plate. She's got to be here somewhere."
"All you have to do is look for Sarah Palin," said one of my co-workers. Another asked, "what kind of car is it?"
Oh, right. Talk about challenged when it comes to vehicles--I was born in Detroit and couldn't tell you one car from another (but I host a mean all-Michigan radio show every January). "It's a blue-grey car," I laughed. "Okay, I'll go back and look."
Well, my story was shot. Even I know that Tina Fey wouldn't drive a Hyundai Accent.
Finally got to see Lincoln, as it was finally my turn on the library DVD waiting list.
Gina and I had plans to catch it on the big screen on Christmas day, but I was in the ER with double vision two days before Cmas and it botched our plans (I just got a staggering bill for that ER experience, but that's another story).
Anyway, the movie was captivating, astonishing--Gina and I took in every second of it. Did someone say it gets slow somewhere and that it's too long? They must be measuring Lincoln against the wrong kind of films.
Record Store Day was a couple of weeks ago, but this sign out on the sidewalk of one of the Olympia-area stores said a lot today:
"MP3s Suck! You get 15% of the sound. Buy LPs and CDs."
Should new books on the Beatles be discouraged?
Wouldn't blame you for thinking so--I'd agree with all detractors upon reading Andrew Grant Jackson's Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles' Solo Careers (Scarecrow Press, 2012). As a Beatles expert (you know, in the top 25 million, at least),
I happen to hold a high standard when it comes to writing about the Fab Four, in the same way I'm tougher on my fellow rock radio hosts than anyone else who DJ at KAOS radio. (Someday I'll explain the shouting match I got into with a fellow KAOS volunteer on the phone more than a dozen years ago.)
Jackson builds upon what turned out to be the strategy behind 1968's The White Album (The Beatles): Essentially the four of them in a solo setting, using the others as session players. Still the Greatest is laid out a year at a time, starting in 1970, with individual music by John, Paul, George and Ringo serving as a sort of soundtrack for each time frame. At its best, the book will remind you of some songs you'd forgotten about. Documentation of the Fabs as solo artists is something that's long overdue, but it's a blown opportunity.
The worst thing about Still the Greatest is that Jackson uses crass phrases (like "knocked up") in an effort to add punch to his rather unremarkable writing. Indeed, there are some subpar skills at work here--check the opening sentence for the entry of McCartney's "Mrs. Vanderbilt": "McCartney went on African safari with roadie Mal Evans in 1966, but whatever he was expecting to find in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1973, it was a lot worse." Where was the editor on this one?
While the book is a decent reference guide, beautifully written or emotionally moving passages are scarce. Too often, Still the Greatest is an exercise in the author's personal nostalgia, which everyone--regardless of whether they can write or not--possesses. I insist that Beatles authors demonstrate how they've been inspired by the group, and respond with a noticeable spark in their own artistry. Good luck with that.
Hunter Davies published The Beatles in 1968 and probably deserved some of the flak he got for that initial Fab Four biography, as he was pressured into avoiding the more sordid details of their personal lives. On the other hand, Davies' The John Lennon Letters (Little, Brown & Company, 2012) is a triumph, as the author has tracked down a series of cards and letters Lennon sent to friends, relatives and music business persons over the years and has grouped the artifacts into a touching, sometimes riveting chronicle of Lennon's life.
The letters have been reproduced with an accompanying, more legible text, while Davies provides some background and insight into the circumstances of each one. The story moves from student Lennon (in the 1950s) to the early Beatles, through his love affair and marriage to Yoko, and even to his final day. That last dash of the pen, to an autograph seeker on the streets of New York ("For Ribeah") gives me chills, yet when you observe the image on paper, there's also a sense of peace about the final time John would draw a cartoon of Yoko and himself and add it to the signature.
Davies has assembled cards from the Beatles' first phase of fame, where John would give out the home addresses for all four of them; very personal letters to Beatles assistant and friend Derek Taylor; an angry letter to his first wife, Cynthia; "domestic lists," where he asks someone to switch TVs at the New York apartment ("If in doubt, check with me when I'm available--don't come knocking"); and many to his cousin Liela (which he always misspelled as "Leila"). In 1979, just a year from his murder, Lennon writes from the Dakota of his Aunt Mimi, who raised him, that "I'm almost scared to go to England, 'coz I know it would be the last time I saw Mimi--I'm a coward about goodbyes."
My favorite is the letter where he's thinking of taking piano lessons because he taught himself to play with just eight fingers and is "lousy" at it: "Mimi would never let me have a piano in the house (said it was common!) She still thinks I 'got lucky': i.e, no talent."
Tension, torment, joy, humor, friendships, family connections...in just a few hundred cards and letters, a lot is said. When the content occasionally borders on merely trivial, well, it's much like pop culture itself. The John Lennon Letters is a great addition to anyone's collection of Beatles books, because it details someone so human.
"Three out of every two Americans don't understand fractions."
He's part of that "Born in 1949" club that includes so many of my all-time favorites--Lowe, Raitt, Springsteen--but I'm showing no false reverence in saying that Richard Thompson's recent Electric (New West) is easily the best thing he's done in ten years.
Thankfully, the album is not all "electric" (some of his finest acoustic playing and vocals reside here), yet the emotions are indeed electric, regardless of their setting. Producer Buddy Miller apparently didn't want to skip over any of Thompson's skills, so Electric features virtually every aspect of his immense talent: Resonant, very "British" singing, lovely unplugged songs, and his amped up, often sizzling playing. Sometimes Thompson's guitar work rides a spacious wave of sound, with that beautiful jangle that he began to perfect when he and former wife Linda were making some of the most unfairly neglected records of the 1970s (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight) and 1980s (Shoot Out the Lights). Elsewhere, Miller employs a grungier attack, where Thompson's guitar almost fights the surrounding instruments to great effect (he's not all over the fretboard; instead, he bends strings and evokes a kind of tension that sneaks up on you).
Ultimately, the songs are what makes Electric so successful. "Stuck on a Treadmill" has
a tidy, renaissance period-meets-rock structure that's quite appealing in spite of its
well-worn subject matter ("the robot looks at me as if to say, 'I'll be doing doing your job someday' "). "Good Things Happen to Bad People" pulls no punches when it comes to assessing a dubious character: "You cried the day I walked you down the aisle/and I know you've been bad...from the way you smile." The song's huge sweep and soaring harmonies--geez, I'd be bragging even if all I came up with was that sparkling riff--might have had a chance on rock radio back in the day when the airwaves provided more opportunities.
When he co-founded Fairport Convention so long ago, Thompson's instrumental prowess and choice of outside material (the group's 1968 debut included songs by
Joni Mitchell and Emmit Rhodes, after all) perfectly balanced each other. By the time of Fairport's second album (What We Did On Our Holidays), his songwriting was already approaching what the Band's Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were creating.
It's been decades since Thompson's writing moved beyond graceful, and that goes for Electric's quietest, most haunting tunes, "My Enemy" and "Saving the Good Stuff for You." The former concerns a love he may have gotten over, though a stained pysche remains. The latter reveals how earlier, horrific times may unwittingly benefit a person years later, when they've finally discovered the right partner, a message that connects with one of his biggest fans.
Although I've yet to hear the deluxe edition (two CDs), Electric grabbed my favor right away and will undoubtably be there when I'm figuring out my year-end favorite records. Richard Thompson turns 64 next week; truly, the man has not lost a step.
Commercial radio continues to decline in Seattle, as I flip around the FM dial and usually get nothing. KMTT (The Mountain) was abysmal in the last few years, playing the same three Talking Heads or Police songs as their idea of Gold, as old stuff used to be called. Now the Mountain is Classic Rock, which wears out its welcome quickly for anyone hoping for Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, Love, a Kinks tune other than "Lola," or a jam by War other than "Low Rider."
AM Radio is also less hearty, as our progressive politics station went away, replaced by a sports station that includes someone with one of the scratchiest, worst voices I've ever heard this side of Danny Bonaduce. Wait! I shouldn't have said that, because DB, the former actor from the Partridge Family TV show, is now a Classic Rock morning host in Seattle. And you thought you had problems.
Occasionally there's something fun on the dial, and the other night, the syndicated "Elvis Only" show reeled off a small fortune of early Presley hits--how about that vocal intro to "I Got Stung": "Holy smoke! Landsakes alive! I never thought this could happen to me." That kind of stuff has me pounding the dashboard in 2013 like I did when I was a teenager (scared my Mom to death then) back in my teen driving days.
Anyway, "Elvis Only" recently played an Elvis live version of Danny O'Keefe's "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." Great song, and I wondered how Elvis would be rendering the lyric, "I've got my pills to ease the pain."
Can you guess the outcome of this one? I couldn't. Answer: Presley simply eliminated that line entirely. I guess some subjects just cut too close to the bone for him.
Newish stuff that's (mostly) worth hearing:
Ron Sexsmith--Forever Endeavour (Cooking Vinyl): His consistency and subtlety are amazing, and all within a pop structure that's existed since the British Invasion (I'm thinking of the Zombies here). Canada's Ron Sexsmith had a health scare in 2011 and has returned with another terrific batch of tunes, reflective and subdued, with a kind of measured sheen that makes them easy to listen to again and again. The production comes from old friend Mitchell Froom, who has been known to overwhelm his artists, but it's obvious that Sexsmith is in charge, molding the arrangements to whatever the song calls for: acoustic guitar, boozy horns, classy motifs.
Samantha Crain--Kid Face (Ramseur): Crain's voice, so evocative and unique, is the center of attention on her third full-length album, with themes that might sound overwrought in other hands--honesty between people and staying true to yourself--yet are delicate and moving in her own. On 2010's breakthrough You (Understood), there were flashes of dissonant chords and heavy drumming, and Kid Face shows none of that. What it illustrates is an artist of high resolve that nobody seems to know. Yet.
Bex Marshall--House of Mercy (Continental Record Services): Perhaps the lack of an easy groove is the thing that's soured me somewhat on Bex Marshall's second release (issued in her native Britain last fall). Just about every arrangement is toughtoughtough without any letup, there's BM's Ozark Resonator guitar--which she plays very well--and her singing falls into a harsh delivery that vocalists like Dana Fuchs, Carolyn Wonderland and Nanette Workman are a little too relentless about. I'm comparing this to Marshall's whimsical 2008 debut, Kitchen Table, which is preferable, at least at this point in my listening experience. "Bite Me" is pretty amusing stuff, but her heartfelt "Barry's Song," just simple and acoustic, takes House of Mercy to a much-needed emotional place without overdoing it and is the gem of the record.
Erin McKeown--Manifestra (TVP): Modern pop music about deceit, elections that are purchased, and the politics of love. McKeown's singing, so light and friendly, almost contradicts what she's dredging up, yet her varied approach to styles and arrangements makes Manifesta perhaps her finest work. A second disc, an acoustic version of the album, is a good concept but a superflous result; rather than revealing demos, it merely sounds like the same album with all tracks removed except for vocal and guitar.
Mimi Fox--Standards, Old and New (Origin): Absolutely gorgeous solo jazz guitar, beautifully recorded. For Ms. Fox, "standards" can mean anything from "I Can't Get Started" to "Cry Me a River" (first popularized by Julie London, with Barney Kessel's guitar work sounding so ethereal) to "She's Leaving Home" and Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life." Fox's choice of notes and phrasing are quietly stunning throughout.
Dale Watson & his Lonestars--El Rancho Azul (Red House): Straight-up country music like you don't hear it anymore, full of humor and grace. Watson's tribute to Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two in 2011 was fun and even riveting, but El Rancho Azul is better at presenting his smooth singing to terrific effect. Why listen to hard rocking yet watered down country radio when we've got this?
Iris DeMent--Sing the Delta (Flariella): DeMent's first album in eight years focuses on the conflict she's often expressed in her music between religious faith and doubt. Her high lonesome vocal sound combines country and gospel, and she evokes her upbringing
(a mother who was a true believer) with a knack for detail. On "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," DeMent, losing her young brother, goes in the other direction, saying "God does what He wants to do, anyway"--it's something we've all felt, whether spirituality means everything, something or zilch to us. I'm still partial to her first two albums, Infamous Angel and My Life, but Sing the Delta is a welcome return.
Scott Walker--Bish Bosch (4AD): Back in the '60s, Scott Walker was part of the Walker Brothers, Americans who hit it big in England, and after that, he went off in a completely different direction, matching orchestrated pop with often morose imagery. Bish Bosch is another strange journey of sound, fury and the bizarre, moving from short to long pieces, almost violent percussion, and yes, those lyrics: "Nothing clears out a room/like removing a brain" (from "Corps de Blah"). The album demands listener involvement and I confess that I can't quite give in. "Phrasing" is the track I played on the radio, ending in Walker's agonizing cries about "a lousy life." A lousy life? No, that would be the other Scott Walker, the union busting governor of Wisconsin.