MY FAVORITE MUSIC TO BREAK RULERS BY…(Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

….By which I mean the kind of rulers you can use for drumsticks if you don’t have real drumsticks….or drums.

I’ve heard there is such a thing as “air-drumming” which I guess is kin to air guitar, but, while I used to play occasional air guitar (like everybody, I hope, who doesn’t play actual guitar), I never could get the point of air drumming. I honestly hope it was all a misunderstanding and it’s never really been a thing.

And, just to be clear, I don’t do much “drumming” of any kind anymore and by “not much” I mean I can’t remember the last time I even held a ruler, let alone broke one.

But I used to do it a lot. I liked to play steady rhythm on the parts of the legs that are just above the knees, though I usually tried to keep a shelf or a wall or a chair handy for the rolls and flourishes.

Because of the knee-and-thigh element, a heavy wooden ruler was not really a good option. I imagine it would have been the same for an actual drumstick (which I wouldn’t have wanted to risk breaking anyway). I wasn’t a masochist, so beating myself black and blue held no appeal. Light plastic rulers were generally useless because they broke too easily. One good session with any of the acts I’m about to mention and, boom, crack, shatter, it was time for a replacement.

That left hard plastic. Something like this…

RULER1

Handy. Because, back in my impetuous youth, just singing, or shouting, along wasn’t always quite enough, and the pain and pleasure (i.e., the amount of damage done to me and the ruler respectively) had to be kept in a sensible balance even if I was temporarily out of my fantasy drumming head.

And, so (with apologies to Keith Moon and the Surfaris, who I could never keep up with though I sure had a lot of fun trying, and to Dino Danelli, who always lost me at the twirl), my top six ruler-breakers–the six that couldn’t be left off–in reverse order.

Drum roll, please….

#6 Artist: The Rolling Stones (1969)
Song: “Gimme Shelter”

drummer1Drummer: Charlie Watts (Honestly, I never cared whether Mick or Merry won the famous battle between Heaven and Hell at the end. I was always too busy trying to keep that weird time….no chance of breaking anything if you lost that!)

#5 Artist: The Righteous Brothers (1964)
Song: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”

DRUMMER2Drummer: Earl Palmer (For the distant thunder at the beginning of the bridge and the explosion on top of your head at the end of it…and for being Earl Palmer.)

#4 Artist: The Clash (1979)
Song: “Death Or Glory”

At the Tribal Stomp II concert.

Drummer: Topper Headon (Surely the greatest licks ever played by a functioning heroin addict..and the other great whisper-to-scream bridge.)

#3 Artist: The 4 Seasons (1964)
Song: “Dawn (Go Away)”

drummer4Drummer: Buddy Saltzman (“Instead of throwing a plate at somebody, I took it out on the drums. You had to get it out of your system.”)

#2 Artist: Sam and Dave
Song: “I Thank You”

drummer5a

Drummer: Al Jackson, Jr. (Really the entire Stax catalog,  where he used to anchor Booker T and the MGs, the Memphis Horns and the world’s greatest soul singers…all at once. But if I had to pick one…)

#1 Artist: The Go-Go’s (1981)
Song: “Can’t Stop the World”

drummer6Drummer: Gina Schock (I should probably mention that all of these numbers used to gain traction by their company on the really great albums I liked to hear them on. Closing an album (as opposed to opening one, like “Gimme Shelter”), was definitely an advantage in this little mind game. Beauty and the Beat made all kinds of breakthroughs for all kinds of reasons, none of which were more important than what I used to say under my breath, with a smile between every cut, as the second side rolled by….”Turn It Up.” I wasn’t referring to volume, just channeling Ms. Schock’s vibe as the leader of the last truly great rock and roll rhythm section….This was the closer. Every time I would bet her fastball couldn’t really get any higher and harder after “You Can’t Walk In Your Sleep” and “Skidmarks On My Heart.” And every time I would be wrong.)

 

ALL APOLOGIES (Duck Dunn and Robin Gibb, RIP)

I generally write an obit when–and only when–the passing of some prominent person affects me on a deep level and I also think I might have something worth saying that hasn’t been said in the usual outlets.

It’s been a hectic year (and it took me a while to get used to remembering to look up recent deaths on-line, as I’m not exactly a ravenous consumer of any “regular” news). That’s the best explanation I have for missing RIP’s of figures as deserving on all levels as Donald “Duck” Dunn and Robin Gibb.

Dunn was, of course, the bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, who happened to be the “house” band at Stax records, in addition to being a hugely successful instrumental act on their own (one of only two such bands, along with the Ventures, to be inducted as performers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).

Writing about the possibilities for racial harmony that were endemic to what I like to call the rock and roll revolution–and how we’ve largely short-changed those possibilities–is one of the main reasons for this blog’s existence. No one embodied that ethos more perfectly or profoundly than Dunn, a southern white man who, along with a southern black man named Al Jackson, Jr., made up what was likely rock and roll’s very greatest rhythm section (granted there is competition, but not much).

That rhythm section was planted in the very heart of what I believe is the greatest inter-racial experiment in the history of America’s cultural life…or perhaps just the history of any country’s life, period–the Memphis/Muscle Shoals soul scene of the sixties and early seventies.

That scene was where white label and studio owners and a mix of white and black songwriters and session men backing an extraordinary group of African-American vocalists, merged to provide the truest and deepest soundtrack for the nation’s moment of hope for a better day coming–and, eventually, the lament for its limitations.

It was a small scene, frankly, and perhaps a couple of dozen people at most were truly indispensable to its contemporary success and its enduring legend. Not one of those people–not Otis Redding or Percy Sledge or Sam Moore or Mavis Staples, not Booker T. Jones or Isaac Hayes or David Porter or Steve Cropper or Andrew Love, not Jim Stewart or Rick Hall or Quin Ivy….no, not even Al Jackson, Jr.–was more important than the man who tied the rhythms to the melodies at “Soulsville U.S.A.”

At least musically, the best chance for reviving “The Death of the Dream” (as Peter Guralnick’s final, epic chapter of his finest book, Sweet Soul Music, termed it), came in the dread “disco” era of the mid and late seventies.

That’s the era I grew up in and the era the Bee Gees dominated to an extent that had only been managed by Elvis and the Beatles before and has only been matched by Thriller-era Michael Jackson since.

I can’t say I was all that taken by the Bee Gees at their apex (though I love most of that music now). But they had already got through to me in their earlier incarnations, which I happened to be discovering at the same time “Staying Alive” and “Night Fever” were playing something like forty or fifty times a day…apiece.

Gibb’s brother Barry was the lead voice on most the group’s signature hits, but Robin’s distinctive quaver–always on the verge of breaking, always holding on somehow–was put to great use on more than a few, with “Massachusetts” and “Run to Me” (a co-lead) being two of the three songs (Barry’s “To Love Somebody” was the other), that convinced me there might be something to these folks even as my high school buddies were assuring me that the disco stuff wasn’t half bad if you were good and drunk by the time your girl-friend got control of the radio or dragged you onto a dance floor.

Like I say, eventually I loved the disco stuff, too. And I’m glad I got to live through one of the last moments when the dream still sparked a few embers in the ashes. Robin Gibb was as important to that moment as Duck Dunn was when the flame burned brightest.

I don’t know how they’ll fare in the next world. But they were among the precious few who earned a state of grace in this one.

Booker T. and the MGs “Green Onions” (Live)

(On a related note: While I was searching for the above, I found this very beautiful duet from Lulu and Maurice Gibb–Robin’s twin brother who passed away in 2003 just months after this was recorded. It’s appropriate to this moment, I think, and it’s one of her very finest vocals…which is saying something. Their marriage, incidentally, was from 1969 to 1973. Better then.)

 

 

MAYBE IT REALLY WAS MEMPHIS (Alex Chilton R.I.P.–Redux)

[NOTE: I’m snowed under this week so I’m posting an unpublished piece I wrote on the occasion of Alex Chilton’s passing in March of 2010.]

“Hanging out, down the street, the same old thing we did last week”

Big Star: “In The Street”

In 1975 my family was living in rural northern Florida when my sister’s oldest boy moved down from Memphis. I was in high school, he was just out, and over the next year and a half he introduced me to two significant experiences:

The first experience was a running, detailed, part-scary, part-hilarious, part matter-of-fact informal history of life on the mean streets of Memphis circa the early-seventies–what, in other words, exactly was going on when kids hung out down the street and did the same old things they did last week.

The second experience was my introduction to the radio–still vital then, no matter what you may have heard.

My nephew moved out to get on with his life in less than two years. I’m still chasing the music.

Somewhere fairly early in the chase (maybe a decade or so) I came across Big Star.

Imagine my surprise at hearing the world my nephew had so vividly described dragged out of the air and put on wax. Imagine my further surprise at finding this had been done with little–albeit telling–reference to specific detail. (Even today, when I listen to #1 Record or Radio City, I keep searching for the lines about knocking down mailboxes with baseball bats and deciding whether to toss the day’s supply of rotten eggs at houses or hookers which I know must be there right next to “bust the streetlight, out past midnight!”).

Like most great artists, though, Alex Chilton was defined as much by what he left out as by what he put in. I have no idea just how closely his (or Big Star founder Chris Bell’s) actual experiences tracked with my street-tough nephew’s (though I can say that what they did describe tracks very closely indeed). But I know it’s no accident that the feel of listening to those straight-from-the-lower-middle-class-’hood stories and to Big Star’s music were so indelibly linked.

Which is to say you didn’t have to be a survivor of a knife-fight in front of your own house (saved from four crazed white boy assailants–and on a day when you weren’t even running with Bill Black’s nephew**–when a jacket yanked at the collar came miraculously off your back and a yell from your sister came just in time for you to dodge a bowie knife thrown at the back of your head)–or on the public high school record as the fastest white boy in Memphis (which is maybe at least part of how you live to tell about these things) to catch the strange, compelling combination of alienation, fear and intimacy in Big Star’s best music.

The record of this accessibility is well-catalogued now. Among the five great American bands who built the bridge from the “garage” ethos of the sixties to seventies’ punk and eighties-to-today alternative (the Velvet Underground, MC5, Stooges and New York Dolls being their compadres) Big Star were unique in several significant ways.

They were urban but southern (which in the seventies still meant somewhat closer to a rural than industrial sensibility). They were relatively apolitical (which translated into deeply personal stances I would argue ended up being the politics that mattered most–even before taking into account how much, “I’m starting to understand, what’s going on and how it’s planned,” might mean to those of us who grew up in the shadows of Viet Nam and Watergate). They were (perhaps as a result) less openly aggressive–even the assaults were seductive. And, finally, in what was seen then as a quirky aside but spoke more and more powerfully down the years as alienation has become the national monomania, their eventual leader was the only member of those great bands who turned his back on actual–as opposed to theoretical–commercial success.

For all of those reasons, Big Star’s music stayed off the radio–and got around. And, when it had finally gotten around enough, it found–or made–relevance everywhere: in the Los Angeles of Jane Wiedlin and Vicki Peterson, in the the San Pedro of D. Boon and Mike Watt, in the Minneapolis of Paul Westerberg, in the Athens of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, in the Seattle of Kurt Cobain and, yes, in small North Florida towns, too.

Some of those artists paid direct tribute to Chilton, others may not have cared for him at all. But they and thousands like them were each shaped by environments he and his band made possible. All were children, in a sense, of a man who was famous for being cantankerous and dismissive of his own music (and of Big Star in particular).

That, too, is not unusual for artists of every stripe but it is, in a way, disheartening to contemplate in those with real, not to say monumental, accomplishments. It would be nice to believe there was some internal space to which a man who had been (as leader of the Box Tops) one of the half-dozen greatest white soul voices in rock history, a seminal producer and song-writer and a solo artist who could be great or terrible but could never, ever be accused of standing still, could repair to let his defenses down and accept how much he had meant to so many.

But he was surely right to be wary of too much adulation or self-congratulations–or any unearned idea that the past is merely a warm place to visit. One way and another, “don’t push me ’round,”–an attitude that defines a lot more about Memphis than just its music–has both created a great deal of what is most worthwhile in this world and exacted a terrible price. One way and another, the hard fight to break away from those streets which Big Star illuminated so memorably caught up with everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Burnette to Al Jackson, Jr. to Bill Black (not the mention his nephew, see below) to Chris Bell himself.

Whether it finally caught Alex Chilton–in another time and place (i.e., some years down the road in New Orleans)–is harder to say.

What can be said is that in the city where the three great cultural movements of mid-twentieth century America–blues, rockabilly and soul–found their surest footing on the way to changing the world for the better, Chilton and his Big Star brothers made a sound that was unlike anything before it and forged a way ahead that provided a framework for most of what has remained vital in white rock for nearly forty years.

Perhaps more importantly, they made–and inspired–music that has never stopped being a place where those who prefer to be not quite so alienated as the national monomania demands can still find a home.

(**Later beaten to death in Memphis. My nephew wasn’t sure of the details. Sometimes it’s safer that way.)