I’d heard of the Silver Jews, but I never listened to them. I had no idea that Berman started his first band with Stephen Malkmus, who soon after started Pavement, one of the most successful of the 90s indie bands.
I like Pavement a lot, on record. I saw them twice live and didn’t think things held up. The tension that made the records strong was lost on stage. But the records are really good.
And when David Berman died this week, and I read more about him, I was sorry I hadn’t checked him out sooner. He was a satirist, a romantic of sorts (as satirists often are), and even more shambolic than Pavement. What I wasn’t prepared for when I put on American Water, his 2008 record that is generally considered his masterwork, was how much it felt like Pavement.
But I’m not here to figure out where dividing lines are. Malkmus plays and sings on American Water. Pavement was never a hit, but they were selling albums and playing lots of shows at this point. It’s hard not to imagine that Malkmus was suggesting getting a little more dynamic, putting more into the mix, whatever. I don’t know.
What I know is that American Water is a pretty good record, and my favorite parts were those that Malkmus wasn’t singing, wasn’t playing. Berman’s voice is not that of a singer, but his words are those of a lyricist who comes from poetry. They’re good! And the songs aren’t always songs, but they’re useful settings for the words and some guitar solos that can capture you for a moment, and then seem to forget why they’re there.
So, trying to figure it out I visited Pitchfork and found a near perfect record review/appreciation by a guy named Mike Powell. It was only written 19 years or so after the elpee came out, but that doesn’t matter. Listen to the album, read this review. I’m not sure how much there is to all of David Berman’s musical career, but this is a great place to start.
My buddy Les Ogilby, who plays a fantastic blues harp–on occasion with the Biletones–and is as much of a music junkie as the rest of us (Les has contributed to the site, in fact) gave me a great disc with a bunch of cool less than widely known tunes, and one of the songs on it was this fantastic cover of Louie Louie by the Flamin’ Groovies (note the drummer has a real Boris Karloff look to him, and the bassist is on a Hofner!).
As I was listening and thinking about how simple this song is, the thought brought me back to Spirit in the Sky, another simple song that was a hit, but that is flat out weak compared to Louie Louie.
One reason we know the superiority is Louie Louie I believe is the most recorded pop tune, while anyone covering Greenbaum has been crucified.
Some of what works are the words, for one thing that drives me nuts about Greenbaum’s song is the “couplet:”
“When I die and they lay me to rest,
I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best.”
To say that is third grade poetry is an insult to eight-year olds everywhere. I mean that second line could have been “I love god it’s in him I invest” or “I’ll sleep with a heavenly crest” or “I’ll be denied because of incest” or something slightly more sophisticated. Not that Louie Louie has complex words, but part of the charm is like a good rock tune, the words are garbled and subject to urban myth and conjecture providing part of the essence of how Aristotle defined what poetry should do: teach and delight.
But, then I was streaming some New Wave stuff and on came a fantastic Johnny Thunders cover of the Shangri Las Give Him a Great Big Kiss, another tune that could easily be so tawdry and awful in the Honey/Teen Angel kind of sense, but somehow the song kills both in the hands of the Shangri Las and Thunders.
Anyway, I am not sure exactly where this is going. For sure I dig both these covers and was looking for an excuse to write about them, but, again, Kiss is such a simple song (two chords for the verse, two more for the chorus) and like Louie Louie it all works so well.
Maybe someone can explain that fine line to me between genius and stupid? I do know Einstein said “the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” True words for these times.
And he explains why. He doesn’t go on too long about it, either. And I think he nails it, though he could have said more and been even more right. Like, how come all those White Stripe tunes have all those tempo changes, which mean they’re not much good for dancing or getting down to it on the bedroom floor? But this guy says enough.
Not sure it makes sense to blame Jack for this (which is growing on me after a few listens):
Tim Marchman has written something very long about The Mekons over at Deadspin (on the Concourse, whatever that is). It is a history of the band and an attempt to explain why they’re so great (and were so especially in the 80s), by discussing their elpees of that period in Tim’s order of preference.
I thoroughly enjoyed it because I learned some things about the band I didn’t know, there are good funny quotes from the band, and his song choices and clips are excellent and I enjoyed listening to them all.
On the other hand, the idea of convincing someone that a rock band is great because of the way they embody the moral ethos of failure, and embrace it like a lover or a murderer or something like that, seems kind of pretentious and beside the point. The reason a person might get into the Mekons and think about their history and the way they changed over the years and struggled with lack of sales but also wore that proudly as a badge of honor, is because you fell in love with the music. In other words, you heard a song, you went to a show, and it turned out to be one of the best shows you’ve ever seen. That’s when these other ideas start to have some importance.
I mention this because I think if you didn’t like/weren’t interested in the Mekons you might throw your computer at the wall as Marchman goes on and on, like this about the band’s album, Rock ‘n’ Roll:
“This is basically how the whole record plays out, as a very good and very bitter joke; there are reasons why many aficionados claim this is the Mekons’ best record, and why they may be right. They were certainly never tighter, more confident, more focused, or better engineered than they are here; the whole thing is just a straightforwardly great rock and roll record, which they seem to be uncomfortably aware of. It’s hard to think they meant lines like Throw another rock n’ roll song on the fire, or This song … is in a pretended family relationship with the others on this record and on the charts all that sincerely, and while they may have been mocking a gringo military fighting a rock and roll war, you know they had a little sympathy for them, too. The Mekons may not have wanted to be a great rock and roll band, but they were, and perhaps consequently, they were too honest to either moderate their view of rock and roll as an expression of imperial capitalism’s worst impulses or to take it at all seriously.”
I can’t tell if Steve Moyer is in this picture, one of those choir boys could be Follow Fashion Monkeys, but I’m going to assume Steve admired Amy Linden at some point during this tour. She tells a fine story, by the way.
The second half of this piece is Patti Smith’s review of the Stones show at Madison Square Garden on July 25, 1972. The only time I saw the Stones live on stage was during that series of shows, with Stevie Wonder opening.
But the first half tells the story of the pubescent Patti hearing her dad yowl at the TV because the greatest rock band in the world are on the Ed Sullivan show, supporting their album Aftermath, an event which apparently brought Patti to climax and caused her to reevaluate her relationship to her dad.
In other words, she creamed in Creem. Back when rock writing mattered.
What else would I be doing during the day than working and listening to KTKE? Even if baseball is on in the background, the volume is down, essentially sparing me the observations of commentators explaining what I can see for myself.
This time, the nugget from the past they hit me with was Wicked Gravity by the Jim Carroll Band
Carroll was a young poet who emerged from the New York arts scene of the late 70’s, along with Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe, with whom he apparently shared living space as the punk movement was burgeoning.
He published an autobiographical volume, The Basketball Diaries, in 1978 that dealt with his adolescence, sex, shooting hoops in high school, and drugs, specifically the author’s heroin addiction.
Largely a product of a Catholic upbringing, the young poet hit the music scene to, forming a band and releasing a decent enough first album, Catholic Boy.
The big hit from the disc was For All the People Who Died, but I always dug the cut here, Wicked Gravity a little more as a song.
Apparently this clip was posted on YouTube by Carroll Band bass player Steve Lisnley, who noted the video is from the band’s final live performance.
Carroll produced music, prose, and poetry through 2000. He passed away in 2009 at the age of 60 from a heart attack, and one posthumous volume, The Petting Zoo was released in 2010.
This month my favorite TV network, TCM, is having their annual “31 Days of Oscar” leading up to the actual awards ceremony (to which I am fairly indifferent). During that span every film TCM shows has at least been nominated for an Oscar, and most have won at least one.
TCM is a treasure trove of cinematic brilliance, with the bulk of their offerings focusing on the heyday of the studio system in the 30’s and 40’s.
One of the standards in those movies was to toss in a song. Which is why in the middle of a dark and brilliant Noir film, like The Big Sleep, we see Lauren Bacall singing at a speakeasy operated by gangster Eddie Mars (he is to this film, sort of what Jackie Treehorn was to Lebowski).
So, this morning I was working with TCM on in the background when Howard Hawks’ (who also made The Big Sleep, and my favorite Screwball Comedy, Bringing Up Baby) Ball of Fire came on.
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, the film is a great Screwball Comedy that deconstructs Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, placing the setting in Manhattan in the early 40’s, with Stanwyck playing the moll Sugarpuss O’Shea to Gary Cooper’s English professor Bertram Potts (Cooper is one of eight sheltered eggheads working on an encyclopedia).
A few other things:
Every great character actor and cartoon voice from that time are among the professors, so if you watch, you will suddenly hear Fractured Fairy Tales etc. in the back of your head.
This is the last script that Wilder and Brackett wrote before Wilder went on to his fantastic career as a director (Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, and Double Indemnity are just a few).
One thing that stuns me about Wilder is that English was his second language, yet his writing in our language is so sharp. And, if you watch Ball of Fire you will get an idea of just that. This movie is as funny and witty as anything ever put on the big screen.
One other thing I love about Wilder is the apocryphal tale of when he premiered Sunset Boulevard for a cluster of Hollywood moguls, after the film Samuel Goldwyn got up and chastised Wilder for making such a dark portrayal of the industry that made him rich and famous. What was Wilder’s response to the most powerful man in his industry, in front of their peers? “Fuck you.”
Back to the movie, as part of the set-up, Cooper/Potts takes to the streets fearing his grasp of slang is already outdated, and happens upon O’Shea at a night club (he also goes to a ball game and gets some good slang there).
O’Shea is the singer at the club, and though her singing and the song are marginal, Gene Krupa and his big band are just deadly. So is the piano player and the guy who does the sax solo. Funny too, cos playing guitar was just a minor rhythm instrument, as you can see in most films of this ilk.
Anyway, Canned Heat et al all owe their boogie chops to this great scene.
And, just for fun, after the big number, Krupa and Stanwyck reprise the song with Krupa playing matchsticks instead of drumsticks.
I packed thirty-odd discs that I felt could comprehensively meet any likely musical desire…[but] I forgot our CDs in my mother’s garage in Washington, thousands and thousands of miles away…
..I was thinking about these CDs a few months later, when once again I was being driven to the brink of insanity by an ear-shattering, 120-beat-a-minute rendition of “La Macarena,” the only song ever played on Tarawa. It was everywhere. If I was in a minibus, overburdened as always with twentysome people and a dozen fish, hurtling down the road at a heart-stopping speed, the driver was inevitably blasting a beat-enhanced version of “La Macarena” that looped over and over again. If I was drinking with a few of the soccer players who kindly let me demonstrate my mediocrity on the soccer field with them, our piss-up in one of the seedy dives in Betio would occur to the skull-racking jangle of “La Macarena.” If I happened across some teenage boys who had gotten their hands on an old Japanese boom box, they were undoubtedly loitering to a faint and tinny “La Macarena”…
…As I continued to be flailed by “La Macarena,” I took small comfort in the fact that at least no one on Tarawa had ever seen the video, and I was therefore spared the sight of an entire nation spending their days line dancing…
…What finally brought me to the brink was the recent acquisition of a boom box by the family that lived across the road… sometimes for hours at a time, and I would be reduced to an imbecilic state by the endless playing of “La Macarena.” It was hot. My novel—and this is a small understatement—was not going very well. My disposition was not enhanced by “La Macarena.” I wondered if I could simply walk across the road and kindly ask the neighbors to shut the fucking music off… and I asked Tiabo if she thought it was permissible for me to ask the neighbors to turn the music down. “In Kiribati, we don’t do that,” Tiabo [the maid] said. “Why not?” I asked. “I would think that loud noise would bother people.” “This is true. But we don’t ask people to be quiet”…
…As the months went by and “La Macarena” was etched deeper and deeper into my consciousness, I became increasingly despondent that our package of CDs would never arrive. Then, one day the stars aligned, the gods smiled, and as I rummaged among the packages I saw with indescribable happiness my mother’s distinctive handwriting. Oh, the sweet joy of it. I claimed the package, stuffed it my backpack, and biked like the wind.
“Tiabo,” I said, full of glee. “You must help me.” She eyed me suspiciously as I plundered through our box of CDs. “You must tell me which song, in your opinion, do you find to be the most offensive.” “What?” she asked wearily. “I want you to tell me which song is so terrible that the I-Kiribati will cover their ears and beg me to turn it off.” “You are a strange I-Matang.” I popped in the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head. I forwarded it to the song “Gratitude,” which is an abrasive and highly aggressive song. “What do think?” I yelled. “I like it.” Damn. I moved on to Nirvana’s “Lithium.” I was sure that grunge-metal-punk would not find a happy audience on an equatorial atoll. “It’s very good,” Tiabo said. Now I was stumped. I tried a different tack. I inserted Rachmaninoff. “I don’t like this,” Tiabo said.
Now we were getting somewhere. “Okay, Tiabo. How about this?” We listened to a few minutes of La Bohème. Even I felt a little discombobulated listening to an opera on Tarawa. “That’s very bad,” Tiabo said. “Why?” “I-Kiribati people like fast music. This is too slow and the singing is very bad.” “Good, good. How about this?” I played Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. “That’s terrible. Ugh . . . stop it.” Tiabo covered her ears. Bingo. I moved the speakers to the open door.
“What are you doing?” Tiabo asked. I turned up the volume. For ten glorious minutes Tarawa was bathed in the melancholic sounds of Miles Davis. Tiabo stood shocked. Her eyes were closed. Her fingers plugged her ears. I had high hopes that the entire neighborhood was doing likewise. Finally, I turned it off. I listened to the breakers. I heard the rustling of the palm fronds. A pig squealed. But I did not hear “La Macarena.” Victory. “Thank you, Tiabo. That was wonderful.” “You are a very strange I-Matang.”