Leica M8, Summilux 21mm, ISO 160, wide open.
Archive for March, 2010
What does it say about Robyn Hitchcock that his new album, Propeller Time, isn’t really new, but was recorded in 2006, and has marinated on a hard drive all the while, waiting for its dramatic entry in the world? Its recording sequenced between the live Sex, Food, Death, and… Tarantulas and last year’s Goodnight Oslo, the lovely Propeller Time comes from a week of 2006 sessions with friends like Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, Nick Lowe, John Paul Jones, and Johnny Marr. Hitchcock describes sessions taking place in his living room, and refers to it as his Basement Tapes, but this does the collection insufficient justice, because it is a wonderfully collected selection of songs, as strong, in a quiet way, as Ole! Tarantula or Goodnight Oslo.
(Though we can see that he had The Basement Tapes on his mind, as the vocal phrasing on this “studio” version of “The Afterlight” comes straight from Dylan’s “Tiny Montgomery.” Still, The Basement Tapes were late-night bashings of exuberantly half-constructed songs, and by comparison, Propeller Time sounds like Abbey Road: fully constructed folk-pop that pulls out most, if not all of the stops.)
Since the Carter Administration, since his debut with The Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock has beguiled us with canny melodies, brilliant guitar lines, and lyrics that try diverting us with entemological loopiness, but which leave a web of poignancy. To Hitchcock, overburdened with talent, with songs to spare, with so many friends willing to record with him, Propeller Time was sufficiently minor an exercise that it’s sat on the proverbial shelf for four years, and still it could blow away ninety-nine percent of the pop music left on the runway. Hitchcock lost a little steam in the 1990s, but since the early part of the last decade he’s been going strong. The Museum of Robyn Hitchcock should be a prime tourist destination for all space travelers who find our little planet.
Note: Propeller Time will be released next week by Yep Roc, but is downloadable now from robynhitchcock.com.
A reader writes:
JB – loved the RIP to Alex, it brought back memories of the Tav Falco shows and the Eighties. I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by the great man’s performance at the time, but glad I saw him. But the second bit about the dark ages between the sack of Rome and the Sistine Chapel? A brotherly rebuttal is in order.
First off, those thousand years weren’t as bad as advertised by the Enlightenment Lobby (cf. Augustine, Aquinas, Chaucer, Rabelais, Beowulf, the Kievan Chronicles, Magna Carta, 1066 and all that, the Moorish renaissance in Andalusia, Cordoba, etc. etc.) But heaven forfend, nothing decent in ’74, ‘75’, ’76? That’s not what we were thinking at the time, mon frère, as we ducked in and out of the Connecticut river valley’s woods and dales and smoking lounges. So stipulated on your point re the Stones decline (although I also remember you being pretty pumped when we saw them at MSG in June ’75), and I know you mentioned Bowie, Roxy Music, Quadrophenia, and Led Zep favorably, all true. And then there was Big Star. And then there was (just off the top of me ‘ead, and you can doubtless come up with many more):
Lou Reed (Sally Can’t Dance, Coney Island Baby, Rock n Roll Heart, Metal Machine Music!)
T-Rex (Zinc Alloy)
NY Dolls (Too Much Too Soon)
Television (Little Johnny Jewel)
The Kinks (Preservation, Act II at least)
The Who (don’t tell me you didn’t like Who By Numbers. “Squeeze Box” sounds like Chilton, fer crissakes)
John Entwistle’s Ox (Mad Dog)
John Lennon (Rock ‘n Roll)
Bob Dylan (a few bagatelles like Blood on the Tracks and the Basement Tapes)
The Ramones (The Ramones)
Patti Smith (Hey Joe/Piss Factory, Horses)
Bob Marley (Natty Dread, Live)
Toots and the Maytals (Reggae Got Soul)
Kevin Ayers (Lady June, Dr. Dream, Sweet Deceiver)
Little Feat (I know, Feats Don’t Fail me know was not Dixie Chicken, but still)
Robert Palmer (Sneakin Sally Through the Alley)
Neil Young (On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, Zuma)
Van Morrison (Too Late to Stop Now)
Clapton (461 Ocean Blvd)
Fela and Africa ‘70
And then there was the immortal Golden Earring (Radar Love, the future of rock n’ roll, I think you said at the time)
So, it may not have been 77-80, and I know you discovered Big Star for me and everyone else in our high school, but it wasn’t all Yes, ELP, ELO, Springsteen, Pretty Love Songs and Deep Purple back then, either. J And don’t forget Taxi Driver, Godfather II, Chinatown, Rancho Deluxe, Bound for Glory, Nashville, Missouri Breaks, The Passenger, Humboldt’s Gift, Autumn of the Patriarch, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Zaire, Tania and Cujo, Jerry Brown beating Jimmy Carter in 5 straight primaries, and Joe Namath’s last year with the Jets. Etc. etc. But those are another chapter in the history of the Dark Ages, aka, my misspent youth.
To which the reply: I plead nolo contendere on any reference whatsoever to Golden Earring (though am certain I never spoke in such terms…) Yes, loved the Kinks, T. Rex, the Dolls, went through a reggae phase, etc. Even went through a phase of playing Miles Davis loud (still do.) And if friend B had wanted to, he could have rubbed in the fact that I actually really liked Ron Wood’s solo albums — all the more puzzling that I would hate what he did to the Stones. And let’s not even discuss Peter Frampton.
But having caucused with the whole gang at Tulip Frenzy: yes, as much as we were able to find nuggets of good music during Rock’s Dark Ages, we stand by our statement. The period between 1974 and 1977 was a dull patch, an embarrassing patch. Bad haircuts, bad music. There were glimmers of hope, particularly with what was going on in Lower Manhattan as Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Television emerged circa ’76. (We didn’t fully “get” the Ramones with that first album in ’76… and it really took until Rocket To Russia for the Ramones to get placed in our Pantheon.) But yeah… it was a dull patch… as bad as that stretch in the ’80s until the Pixies emerged.
Gather my children and you shall hear about just how dismal the prospects were for real rock’n’roll in 1974. The Stones had peaked and were about to begin their long, nearly uninterrupted decline. Oh sure, The Who had not long before gathered themselves to produce perhaps rock’s greatest novel, Quadrophenia, and Led Zep were in full form, and with the rise of Bowie and Roxy Music, something new and powerful was in the air. But that stretch between Mick Taylor leaving the Stones and the first Clash album being released a little more than three years later was the musical equivalent of the stretch between the sack of Rome and the painting of the Sistine Chapel. And then there was Big Star.
The recollection in these parts is that Radio City was released in late winter ’74. We remember walking into a record store in Harvard Square, hearing the riff from “September Gurls” and pulling cash out of our pockets. Here at the dawn of rock’s Dark Ages came the chime of a Rickenbacker and sweet, pure vocals. There was nothing else like it going on at the time. Yes, we invoke the Byrds and the Beatles to describe Chilton and Big Star circa Radio City, but really, they were sui generis. Sure, The Raspberries had stumbled into the same quadrant, though Eric Carmen had so much less charm and talent. Maybe the nearest equivalent was Dwight Twilley, as by 1975, “I’m On Fire” would have the same combination of hooks, ringing guitar, and a pop chorus that stuck around like the last bit of flavor in a stick of bubble gum. But there was really no one like Chilton, nothing like Big Star.
The radicalism and high concept brilliance was evident even in the choice of the William Eggleston photo on the sleeve. Who knew, other than maybe John Szarkowski at MOMA, that by taking banal photos in color, Eggleston was about to transform photography? And the music? Chilton, by then in his early 20s, was like any normal young person living in Memphis — the stewpot of rock and soul — who just happened to have had a #1 record when age 16. The songs on Radio City do not have the feel of a rock star jamming and seeing what works, they have the sound of a genius sitting in his room and writing down songs, slowly. From the complex guitar figures, to the mimicry of Jimi Hendrix’s finish of “All Along The Watchtower” (on “You Get What You Deserve”), these are songs that show the acute angst of a normal brilliant teenager, which clearly Chilton couldn’t have been, since he was already a prodigy who’d been out on the road and reached commercial success while the rest of his cohort was studying Algebra 2.
Radio City was as perfectly intact as the first Clash album: one classic song after another. From the anguished lyrics in “Daisy Glaze” — “you better not leave me here…” — to his grappling to understand the world in “What’s Going Ahn,” Chilton showed the vulnerability that would damn near kill him ’round about the time he got to Sister Lovers.
But there was always a shellac covering to his sensitivity, a hardness that by the time I met him was cynicism steeped in gin. My friend Andy Schwartz had gone to see him in situ (Memphis) circa summer 1979, and found Chilton boorish, antisemitic, coasting. When he wrote a critical article in NY Rocker — Chilton had the year before been playing gigs around NY with Chris Stamey on bass, and so clearly was circulating — it created something of a PR problem. But that was later. When Radio City came out, as ostensibly worldly as someone who’d had two Top Five singles might have been expected to be, Chilton instead proved to be introspective, adolescent, vulnerable. In “Back of A Car,” he had, it seemed, the same hormonal confusion of any American kid of his era. The whole thing is really as brilliant an album as any American songwriter ever produced. Painstakingly constructed, beautifully performed by Chilton, a great singer and guitarist, with Jody Stephens and Andy Hummell on drums and bass, Radio City in its own way launched as many bands as the first Velvet Underground album.
There are other chapters that could be explored. The relationship between Chilton and his friend Chris Bell, who’d left after #1 Record, and would die ten years later after releasing the sublime single “I Am The Cosmos.” The creation of Sister Lovers. The boozy, woozy bar band phase, the Seeds covers, “Bangkok,” the lounge songs, the messy Like Flies On Sherbet, the seemingly sober recreation of Big Star later in the ’90s, and episodically in the Aughts. Jesus, even the poignancy of dying just before playing this weekend at SXSW. If the rise of the Beatles is one of the greatest stories since the birth of Christ, surely Alex Chilton is the protagonist of one of the greatest rock’n’roll stories since the birth of the Beatles. Brilliant, sad. We need Paul Westerberg or someone to do the rock opera. We need Thomas Wolfe or someone to come back from the dead and write the novel.
Sad news comes this morning that Alex Chilton, teenage pipes of “The Letter” and Box Tops fame, founder of one of the 1970s’ lone pre-punk gems, Big Star, has died.
Apparently it was a heart attack. That Alex lived to be 59 is reason to be as grateful for what we had as sad at his untimely death.
It’s hard to remember just how revolutionary Big Star’s Radio City was when it came out in 1974. Today we take for granted the blended juice of 1/3rd Byrds, 1/3rd Beatles, with a bit of Top 40 pop thrown into the mix. After all, everyone from the Power Pop bands of the early ’80s to Teenage Fanclub to the Elephant 6 consortia use the same essential formula, with maybe a Brian Wilson nod here and there.
But when Alex Chilton released Big Star’s second album, there was nothing else like it. When later what came to be known as Sister Lovers was released in 1978 (it was at first titled Big Star Third), a new dimension was added: Chilton’s deep yowling pain, his face dangling over the edge of the abyss. This was a sound that either launched, or informed, a hundred bands. In fact, when everyone went gaga over Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, no doubt a great album, some of us had a sense of deja vu, for it really was an effort at channeling the cosmic loss expressed by Chilton in Sister Lovers.
I once was sitting in my apartment when I got a call from Will Rigby of the dBs telling me that if I wanted to meet Chilton — he knew I was a Big Star nut — I should show up on the Upper East Side at a bar called The Eighties, where Chilton was playing with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. Alex Chilton playing for the Panther Burns was a bit like Willie Mays playing for the Mets. You were grateful to see him play, but it was sort of pathetic that it had gotten to this point. Anyway, I shlepped cross town — this was the summer of 1980 — and got to have a drink and a talk with Chilton, off the record. He told me that he was trying to get his act together, but there were a lot of temptations for him in Memphis. He said this while drinking his first gin and tonic before the Panther Burns’ 6:00 PM sound check. He seemed to savor no special pride in what had been created with Big Star, and took my insistence that Big Star had created at least two classic albums as almost beneath consideration. He refused to acknowledge he could be doing better than playing rhythm guitar in a pretty bad rockabilly band.
Later he released some commercial and critically successful, but for me disappointing solo albums, reformed Big Star with the Sadies — right? or was it the Posies? — to fill in on bass and rhythm guitar, and the live album they released in the 1990s was pretty good. They even put out a so-so studio album just a few years ago. But what Alex Chilton will be remembered for was the depth of his fake big-boy growl as a 15-year old singing one of rock’s great Top 40 singles, “The Letter,” and the magnificent early work on Big Star’s second and third albums.
Glad he lived to be 59. Said he didn’t amount to more. Said to think of him as a squandered talent, and I hope his life was happier in its final years.
In the Uncut Magazine that serves up heaping platters of remembrance and enigmatic quotes from The Glimmer Twins about the upcoming archaeological exhibit from Exile On Main Street, they include their wonderful monthly gift of a free CD, this time comprising bands that sound like they’ve spent as much time listening to the Stones as the gang at Tulip Frenzy. Now, some of the usual suspects are present — components of the Drive-By Truckers, Dan Baird — and yet there are some notable omissions — how can you have a compilation of Stones soundalikes without anything by Izzy Stradlin and the Ju-Ju Hounds? There are also a number of bands/artists featured that we’d either never heard of or never taken the plunge for, e.g. Deer Tick, Israel Nash Gripka. However, there are two stand-outs so worthy of breaking out of the pack that we choose to feature them here:
The Deadstring Brothers
The Michigan-based Deadstring Brothers are showcased with a song called “Houston” from their 2009 album Sao Paolo, and as an intro, it’s a pretty good reminder that in the early ’70s, the Stones were as much an influence on Southern Rock as on the culture at large. I mean, “Houston” could as easily be featured on a Lynyrd Skynyrd homage. However, the title track sounds like what might have happened if Oscar-award winner Ryan Bingham had stumbled onto the set of Performance, as it has almost perfect Ry Cooder-Keef jamming chops underneath a scratchy-voiced, hair-chested vocal. And the whole album stakes out that region between Dallas, Texas and the Butter Queen and Mick’s estate with the Rolling Stones Mobile Truck parked out front to record Sticky Fingers. Maybe throw in Big Pink in Woodstock for a full sense of the geography they cover. What a revelation these guys are! Nicky Hopkins has clearly come back from the dead to play the piano pieces, and is that Merry Clayton and Kathi McDonald on the backup vocals? Sao Paolo should have been on everyone’s Top Ten list from 2009, and here’s the good news: these guys are prolific, and promise more stuff in 2010.
The Shaky Hands
This Portland, Oregon combo come out of a different Stones tradition, and interestingly enough given their rainy surroundings, it’s not the one where they’re woodshedding in Redlands with John Phillips and Marianne Faithful’s Milky Way bar. On their 2009 release Let It Die, The Shaky Hands prove they come more out of the pop-anthemic “Start Me Up” school of Stones classicism. Remember how great that first Kings Of Leon album sounded? You’ll love these guys: tight and twisted three-chord rockers with throbbing beats and a lead guitarist who probably thinks Steve Cropper’s guitar solos had too many notes in ’em.
Thank you Uncut for turning us on to these two bands in particular.