I GIVE MYSELF UP TO THE ROAD…THE ROAD GIVES BACK

Last week I made the four-hour drive to Monroeville, Alabama (home town of Harper Lee and Truman Capote) to meet my sister and her boyfriend for a holiday reading of Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” (which I didn’t mind telling the folks, including the actress who One-Woman-Showed the story so beautifully, was the subject of the essay that won me the Freshman English Award for 1979 at Chipola Junior College, which sits a little less than half-way between me and Monroeville). It was a lovely experience in itself–the reading takes place every year in the courthouse where Lee’s father practiced law, which was meticulously copied for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. A good time was had by all.

But, for me, the arrival is mostly an excuse for the journey. For whatever reason, I never feel any music has proved itself fully until it proves itself on the road.

Here’s what proved itself last week:

Aftermath (UK Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I’ve always loved the American version of Aftermath, always thought it was the peak of the Brian Jones years and the first time Mick had his act together for an entire album. Imagine my disappointment a decade or so back, when I managed to score all the Stones’ original UK albums at Best Buy for bargain prices (if you want to know how fast the world moves, try and imagine anything like that happening at Best Buy, or any other box store now–such experiences have gone the way of searching the 45 and cutout bins at Woolworth’s and in less than half the time) and discovered that the UK version of my favorite from the Stone’s early period was missing “Paint It Black” not to mention the perfect running order of the US version, climaxing with the eleven minutes of “Going Home” one of the all time LP closers. Plus, the great, disorienting American cover–so in tune with the album’s sound–had been re-replaced by the much more generic cover it had replaced in the first place.

Aftermath (US Version) The Rolling Stones (1966)

I listened through dutifully, of course. Then I dismissed it to the shelves, where it had remained ever since. If I wanted to hear Aftermath, I got out my old US version on vinyl.

But a funny thing happened a few years ago. My replacement CD player–in every respect but one superior to the really old one that died–was supposed to be a stop-gap until I could afford a good one. Still waiting for that day (the cheap ones that are still readily available. in places like Best Buy, don’t have a cable hookup compatible with my head-phones…which are not cheap). In the meantime, I discovered the one respect in which my newer (still not very new) player was at a disadvantage compared to my old one.

Won’t play my Rolling Stones’ CDs before Sticky Fingers. (NOTE: From Sticky Fingers on, I have everything through Emotional Rescue, but issued on the Stones’ own label, rather than ABKCO and hence playable–what this means, in practice, is that I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s Stones, about which, perhaps more later. I also have one of their later albums. Talk about things that don’t get played.)

It also won’t play my Kinks’ albums and a few others (like ABKCO’s fine Animals’ comp). Annoying. I really need to find a solution.

Meanwhile, the one place I can hear those albums (other than my computer, which I’m not fond of using as a listening station–I have enough trouble concentrating as it is!) is in my car.

And I usually listen on long trips. Which I don’t take much anymore. You know, due to being broke.

But when I do take trips, I choose the music pretty carefully. Quite often, I take things I think might deserve some sort of second chance or closer attention than I’ve been willing or able to give them previously.

This time…Aftermath.

And Between the Buttons, which I’ve never really been able to get into–and which ABKCO re-released in its American version anyway.

But first…Aftermath.

In its UK version.

Which, I learned on the back roads of southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama, is great!

I’m still not sure I can ever make the leap and completely give myself over to an Aftermath which sticks “Goin’ Home” in the middle and denies the listener “Paint it Black,” but what’s there definitely makes its own statement…and makes me want to get that good CD player real soon!

After that, I was excited for Between the Buttons. And, just like always, I stayed excited through what used to be the first side.

Between the Buttons The Rolling Stones (1967)

After that, my attention gradually wandered. Just like always. I’m still not sure why. Is it because that’s about the time Brian Jones transitioned from inspiration to “problem?” Is it merely coincidence that I’ve still never heard the followup, Their Satanic Majesties Request (their last with Jones fully on board) in its entirety? I’ll want to correct that oversight some day, but you can see where it’s not a priority when it’s unlikely I can listen to it anywhere but the car.

Meanwhile…man was Aftermath a revelation!

Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player Elton John (1973)

And I will admit that Between the Buttons was still more engaging than Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, which seemed too cute by half, starting with the almost great title. Has any piano player working a joint where he was likely to be shot at ever said “only” instead of “just?” Just asking.

Otherwise, Elton’s usual mixed bag. It did yield “Elderberry Wine” and “Midnight Creeper” which were new to me and hardly nothing. But south Alabama does not offer a lot of distractions. It’s not hard to concentrate on the music when it’s giving something back and, except for those two, and the inevitable radio classics (“Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock,” which I confess, though still fine, are not the most inevitable) I found it hard not to let my mind wander off through the pines.

Which brought me a little past the half-way point of the outward journey and this…

The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs (1988)

There was no problem with attention spans here. It’s quiet as death, first story to last. I’ve had the vinyl version for years but just recently acquired the CD. Been waiting for a chance to be alone with it. South Alabama seemed as good a place as any. The last hour of a drive to the birthplace of the author of In Cold Blood seemed as good a time.

It was almost too much. Taking in twenty of Tom T. Hall’s stories at once on a lonely stretch of southern highway with ghosts all around is like submitting yourself to three straight productions of Chekov–interspersed with a unique style of absurdist comedy, most of it of the quiet chuckle and shake the head variety, until all the moods merge in his scariest song, a tale of mass murder and the death penalty that creates a black hole even the Rolling Stones could never approach. To think he ever sang it on television is more surreal than L’Age d’Or.

it was probably just as well the outward journey came to an end just about the time “Before Jessie Died” closed things down.

As often happens, I was able to separate the journey from the arrival and thoroughly enjoy myself. But when I headed home a day-and-a-half later, I was glad I had brought something to continue the mood. Hated to leave all those ghosts just hanging about out there.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Anthology Warren Zevon (1996)

I think I probably just grabbed this one out of instinct. I’ve had it a while. I play it a lot. It goes a little slack in the middle of the second disc.

But something must have been nudging me, saying “you’ll need this.”

After Tom T. Hall and (speaking of Chekovian moods) “A Christmas Memory,” I needed it. It delivered, too, eased me right back into my Dr. Sardonicus mode, very handy for living and driving.

And then, right in the middle of that second disc that goes slack here and there (not so bad on the road, really–sometimes you can use a break from anything), Zevon started merging with Barry Seal. I started asking myself things like: Did Warren Zevon just decide at some point he was only going to write songs about Barry Seal…or did Barry Seal decide he wanted to live his life like a Warren Zevon song? it’s a legit question because, really, it could have happened either way. And once the connection was made, I couldn’t break it. The question rose, track after track: Could this be Barry? And the answer came back every time: You bet. And not always in obvious ways.

It was spooky. I’m not sure I can convey how spooky, even as it made me laugh like a loong. It’s possible I can never listen to this again. At least not without watching the movie too (whether before or after is something I’ll have to work on).

Well, you can imagine what kind of mood that left me in. The choice for the home leg was John Mellencamp or bootleg Dylan.

Bob Dylan Live 1966: The Bootleg Series Vol. 4 (Officially Released 1998)

Choice?

Come on. Barry Seal and Warren Zevon had just merged in my head. What choice?

And this is something I’ve been wanting to give a real chance, since it’s never really reached me. I never heard the famous bootleg that circulated for years, but I heard plenty about it, so being a big Dylan fan, and having been assured-to-the-point-of-annoyance by all in the know that I hadn’t really heard Dylan until I heard this, I snapped it up the minute it became available in 1998. After it did not survive the Great CD Selloff of 2002, I didn’t make a high priority of reacquiring it, but it wasn’t something I could safely leave alone, so I picked it up again a few years ago.

And had the same reaction I had the first time around, which was: Meh.

It happens sometimes. An album acquires so much mythic weight that, by the time you finally get to hear it, probably nothing could live up to the expectations generated by the intervening years.

Certainly not this….One CD of Dylan alone, breathing (as Greil Marcus would have it) ver-y-y-y-y softly. One CD of him and the band (the Hawks, soon to be the Band) assaulting their amps–and the crowd–with white noise. Plus English people shouting stuff you can’t make out without an interpreter.

But, being fair, I had never road-tested it.

And?

Sure enough, it kinda’ sorta’ revealed itself. Mostly by reversing itself.

Dylan’s real assault on his audience–the one in the hall (which, yes, we know, wasn’t the Royal Albert Hall that had been advertised all those bootleg years), and, by extension, the one beyond the hall, the one that had cheered his every move before dividing over his move to Rock and Roll–came in the “quiet” early part of the show.

That’s the part where he refuses to give anything at all. The singing is flat, even for his oh-so-sincere, folkie voice. There are no jokes, no repartee, no pronouncements, no attempt to be liked or disliked. Nothing. One song, breathed softly. Then another, breathed even more softly.

Let me tell you, divested of Dylan-being-Dylan, they mean less than you think, at least on the back roads of Alabama.

But the one thing about having the CDs queued up in the car is there’s no pause to switch the discs.

And it was only in that context that the white noise finally made sense.

Turns out, sucking all the life out of “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” was prelude, a perfect setup. One can hear why people were shocked-to-the-bone by the juxtaposition (there must have been some sense in the hall, even if only subconscious, that Dylan’s sermon-straight reading of his most sacred texts had been a form of mockery….although I grant you a really determined folkie can miss a lot).

Quiet as a mouse, moment after moment for an hour. Then this…

And then on like that for most of another hour.

At least on the back roads of Alabama, nothing could live up to that first shock wave, not even the cataclysmic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” that closes the show.

But I finally got what all the excitement was/is about.

Whether I’ll ever want to listen to that first disc again, just so I can find out if the jolt at the top of the second transcends first experience, is a question I’ll have to leave for another day.

That’s what the road is for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

LO-FI-NO-FI-RETRO-AMERICANA….ALL TRANSCENDED, ALL REDEEMED (CD Review: John Mellencamp’s No Better Than This)

John Mellencamp
No Better Than This (2010)

mellencamp1

I’m a Mellencamp fan and I’d heard good things about this when it came out, but it was only a year or so back that I acquired it. I gave it a couple of cursory listens and then filed it away as a subject for future investigation.

The future came this week and it hit me upside the head, maybe just about the time Mellencamp’s po’ boy loner–the kind of weary cliche that makes me throw up every defense I have and which no previous singer has so completely broken down–sings about the wife who takes a frying pan upside his head.

Except she isn’t his wife. She’s a woman he’s just spotted her on the street somewhere and exchanged a friendly glance with before spending a few moments describing to the listener–as if they’ve already happened–all the things he could imagine happening if that friendly glance led to matrimony and such. Naturally, by the end of the song, he’s ready to move on, leaving all the possibilities you thought were realities unexplored.

Upon the album’s release, Mellencamp got a lot of publicity out of its gimmick, which was recording the thirteen tracks he had written–every one of which sounds like a folk song or a blues pulled from the bottom of a stack of 78s no one ever heard of, let alone heard out loud–in the Sun Studio, the San Antonio hotel where Robert Johnson was recorded, and a slavery-era church in Savannah, Georgia.

As Greil Marcus and a few others pointed out at the time, the gimmick shouldn’t work but does, because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. What nobody seems to have gotten around to fully explaining (I can’t say I read every review, but I read a bunch), is just why it doesn’t feel that way, which is because it’s the boldest example of a common conceit–that rare reach that actually qualifies as something nobody pulled off, or probably even thought of, before.

Starting somewhere in the mid-sixties–maybe with the Beach Boys’ Party! LP from 1965, there have been constant attempts of reach back to a mythic past, sometimes near, sometimes distant, and imagine what might have been if rock and roll had gone in a slightly different direction. At its best, in the early music of the Band, or Party! itself, this approach could be revelatory and break open spaces that would have otherwise lain fallow. At its worst, which was most of the time, it could be soul-crushing. Somewhere in between, it could be anything from heartfelt and detailed enough to qualify as honorable, smile-inducing homage (the best work of Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids or Tracey Ullman) to earnest folk music (where I’ve always slotted the strain in Bruce Springsteen’s music that began, and peaked, with Nebraska).

Some of this music got called bold because it seemed to exist in a world where rock and roll never happened. Most of it existed only because rock and roll happened.

On No Better Than This, Mellencamp stretches both ideas past their logical extremes: In the real world, the one we actually live in, he’s a man who could never have been a star without rock and roll because no world but this one would have had him. In the world he creates on this record, he uses his real-world status to imagine–and perfect–a world not where rock and roll never happened (been done) but one where rock and roll is just about to happen. That difference, once it locks in, makes the difference. This week, starting with a casual listen that was different from my previous listenings because I put on headphones, I began to suspect something was up about midway through the first song. By the time Mellencamp closed with a wry chuckle, twelve and a half songs later, I had a new obsession, the kind that rarely happens to me anymore, because I almost never need to listen to something until I figure it out.

The leap between this and every bit of proto, in-the-moment, or retro Americana I’ve ever heard is that, in one key respect, Mellencamp remains who he is. He’s reaching back to the early fifties, not as a star-in-the-making, some great lost voice who would have taken rock and roll in a whole new direction if only some visionary producer or enlightened audience had understood his genius, but as a gifted journeyman with his own ideas about how things should be. He hasn’t gone back in time to be Woody Guthrie or LIttle Richard. He’s gone back to be Harmonica Frank or Lowell Fulson, or, better yet, a forgotten contemporary, with his own little weird niche, which may (Fulson) or may not (Harmonica Frank) one day lead to a modest career.

In other words Mellencamp has imagined the fix he’d be in if rock and roll hadn’t exploded into something that could make somebody like John Mellencamp a star.

How consciously he did this I don’t know, but sometimes–quite often really–the artist knows better than the man. This is an album that keeps asking: “What if this had been all there was?” and then supplies its own answer. Which is along the lines of: “We think we’re lucky we didn’t have to find out…but are we?”

Now you know we’re lucky (i.e. “better off”). And I know we’re lucky. And John Mellencamp sure knows we’re lucky.

But the guy on the record isn’t so sure. And for the length of this record, he stood in the place where John Mellencamp used to be.

I’m not sure any album has ever asked and answered this path-not-taken question in quite the same way before. More than thirty years into a career that could never have happened unless we, and he, have been very lucky indeed, John Mellencamp dared to raise the question of his own worth and the worth of the world we’ve made since rock and roll, with its unbounded promise, first danced out of the shadows.

And I’m going to play you a track now, but I guarantee there is no way to comprehend how exhilarating and disturbing this eerily quiet “mono” music is without getting hold of the album and finding some zone quiet enough and slow enough to absorb it whole, without interference from the modern world.

THE DEATH OF POLITICS (Segue of the Day: 3/22/16)

Well the first death of American politics anyway. Whether politics ever have more than one death to die in any given culture is, I suppose, still an open question.

I actually heard these three songs in a row on the radio a few days ago but they’ve stayed with me because they formed a heart-stopping triptych and because there’s no way to understand what’s going on now without understanding what went on then.

What went on “then” (i.e. in the seventies and eighties) was a successful attempt by the overlords to take the politics out of politics. What’s going on now, in this “turbulent” political season is an attempt, in the candidacies of Trump and Sanders, to put the politics back in. If you see the “establishments” running, then you know they understand the degree to which their lives are at stake. If you see them landing much harder on Trump than on Sanders, it’s only because Trump actually has a chance at a nomination.

What has been noticeably missing is any contemporary cultural component. The attempts of major athletes and hip hop stars to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter, for instance, have come across as the crass commercial ploys they are. One can almost see the thought balloons floating above their heads: “Wonder if this is good for my shoe contract?”

Answer: “Yes it is!”

No surprise there. Radical chic has been a big seller for decades.

And it’s not as though the cultural component that existed the last time around was some kind of unqualified success. It certainly didn’t succeed in keeping the politics in politics.

But the whole point of remembering the revolution at this point–the main point of this blog–is to recall a sense of possibility. To remember that it’s not a given for people to have no voice in their culture or their governance (and, of course, not a given that we will choose wisely should such possibilities exist again…only that the current road is the way to dusty death).

It was not always thus. And perhaps. just perhaps, it need not always be thus:

 

And the killer…now almost forgotten by the radio:

We’ll leave music’s ability to stop or recapture time, and my memories of hearing the latter on the way home from the hospital the week my mother died out of this for now. Worrying about the country seems heavy enough.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (John Mellencamp Walks the Walk)

I spent Friday night watching back-to-back PBS broadcasts of ceremonies honoring the last two Gershwin Award winners. First up was this year’s honoree, Billy Joel, being feted at Constitution Hall. Second was a re-broadcast of an earlier shindig thrown for last year’s winner Carole King at the White House.

The star of King’s tribute was King herself, equally affecting whether she was beaming at the other performers from her front row seat, giving her acceptance speech, or rocking the house.

Joel’s tribute was, er, nice.

Amongst the stuff you always have to put up with at these things, there were genuinely nice performances from Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Maines, Joel himself.

All very apropo.

And, right in the middle of all that, John Mellencamp dropped by, wearing his Down-From-the-Mountain coat, which has been hanging on his shoulders–literally and figuratively–for so long it’s apparently turned into a second skin. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t tell him from Woody Guthrie and that’s saying a little something, because Woody never got invited to this sort of thing.

Has he earned that sort of status?

Well, he was there to remind a room full of swells that the purely economic blight that settled over the land in the “go-go” eighties is with us still. I don’t know whose idea that was–Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Jehovah. But, if the point was to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of all that pomp and circumstance, somebody knew what they were doing.

There’s no way to gauge the full impact of this outside of its context: the singer striding into the hall, saying his piece, ripping the heart from underneath a song that, on record, was, frankly, as slick a piece of pure product as ever came down the pike, holding it up for all to see, then–having cut the applause in half–walking off without looking back (apparently he walked straight out of the building, because he was noticeably absent from the standard-issue big finale where everybody gets on stage at once and sings the honoree’s signature tune)

But I think this answers the question.

Yeah, he’s earned that status.

 

SEGUE OF THE DAY (10/3/12)

Presidential Debate/John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp “Pink Houses” (Live, 1987)

John Mellencamp “Pink Houses” (Live, 2001)

I work for a living, albeit mostly at home, which allows for a certain freedom regarding the nightly soundtrack.

Tonight I decided to listen to the debate between Obama and Romney while I typed.

As usual with these things, however they are experienced, I could feel the nation’s collective IQ dipping by the minute as the words alternately gushed (I think that was the Challenger Pod) and murmured (I think that was the Incumbent Pod).

Then it ended and the truest exemplars of the national Dead Brain Cell Count–the mass media–took over–dedicated, as always, to the proposition of maintaining their own champion DBCC status at all costs.

I’m a sucker for punishment so, as usual, I took a short break and went in and surfed the usual suspect channels (cable, public and broadcast in about equal measure) seeking signs of intelligent life.

Shockingly, none appeared.

Nor did anyone who could explain the concept of “Wolf Blitzer,” a continuing cosmic quest of mine stymied yet once more.

So, as usual, I shut the darn box off and put on some music.

I didn’t feel like casting about and needed to get back to work anyhow, so I just went with what was in the CD player, which turned out to be John Mellencamp’s Words and Music collection, which I fell asleep to last night (not because it makes me feel sleepy, incidentally, but just because I was plain exhausted).

First track happens to be “Walk Tall,” which is an undistinguished cut from some time after Mellencamp’s eighties’ prime.

And almost the first words out of his mouth were, “people believe what they want to believe when it makes no sense at all.”

I mean, it didn’t explain Wolf Blitzer or anything, but, in context, that line actually sounded quite profound, an effect it certainly never had on me before.

That’s a rock and roll world view for you–making sense of things even on an off day.

Or maybe I just knew “Pink Houses” was coming up next and–pushing through my vague dueling memories of its past abuse by the campaigns of those moral stalwarts John Edwards and John McCain–I would soon be healing.

Ah, election years. Nothing like ‘em.