Friday, October 2, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

How Long Can This Go On

For years, I have been haunted by Big Star’s Radio City,” and different approaches to addressing it. There are few rock masterpieces as strange, or as resistant to interpretation— from the songs’ skewered structures, to the odd production tricks employed to create unique guitar tones, everything about the album (first released in 1974) spells “quirk.” Yet, “Radio City” also balances contradictions— quirky as it is, it is also one of the most viscerally powerful rock productions of all time. The first time I heard “Radio City,” in the summer of 1995, I was disappointed— I wanted it to be as baroque and Beatles-consonant as “3rd/Sister Lovers.” It took several months to splinter itself beneath my skin— once it was there, I couldn’t get it out. “3rd/Sister Lovers” is much easier to write about— it presents a coherent narrative, and a distinct musical ambience to accompany it. As “Radio City” ricochets and careens wildly all over the place, it constantly destabilizes attempts to pin it down. One of the more obvious hinges to interpretation is, in songs like “What’s Goin’ Ahn,” the seeds of “3rd” being planted— how dead sonic spaces, pauses, push/pull tempo lurches, and general entropic sluggishness make Big Star sound dangerously close not just to disorder but to complete disintegration. Jagged edges animate and “load” the album— songs, like “Life is White,” have an abrupt and blunt lack of politeness and politesse. Big Star have mistakenly been labeled “power pop,” owing to Radio City’s most famous track, “September Gurls”— but, in the context of “Radio City,” the song’s pristine and polished formalist perfection (though even “September Gurls” is sharp and jagged in execution) is sui generis. What Alex Chilton’s modus operandi seems to be is to turn conventional pop song structures on their heads, thus unsettling expectations engendered by “#1 Record,” Big Star’s straightforwardly pop-classicist debut outing, which peaked with “Thirteen” and the now TV-famous “In the Street.” That’s the keynote of Chilton’s “Radio City” aesthetic ethos— destabilization, in its most rock-artful form. 

As has been said, “Radio City” makes for a jarring (even irritating) first listen. Chilton’s musical vocabulary, by this time, was extensive— not only is his usage of arpeggios and arpeggiated guitar runs sophisticated and complex, Chilton shows himself the equal of Jimmy Page in demonstrating mastery of electric guitar tonal ranges, owing to pick-up choices (Chilton has his own post-Claptonian “woman tone”) and microphone placement. “Radio City” is, despite its surface recalcitrance and among other things, a wonderful showcase for rock guitar playing. The tones Chilton tends to favor are trebly ones— musical shades which lean towards the “light” and sharp (set against Page’s dark-toned heaviness). It is also the case that, however ragged and jagged the album is, the songs have enough hooks to qualify as a form of (albeit deconstructive and borderline absurdist) pop— not just “September Gurls,” but the catchy verse-chorus-verse structure of “Mod Lang,” “You Get What You Deserve,” and Andy Hummel’s “Way Out West.” Chilton throws in everything but the kitchen sink, and makes as definitive and rebellious a musical statement as he possibly can. The big problem in writing effectively about “Radio City” is not the music, where Chilton’s aims are comprehensible, but the lyrics— lyrically, “Radio City” is not just scattershot, but gonzo enough that Chilton was clearly also enjoying poking fun at the deep and bathetic self-pity of early Seventies singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen. There are memorable lines hidden in this grab-bag approach— “She tells the men “go to hell”/ And where that’s at/ Is where I’m comin from,” from “She’s a Mover,” or “You’re gonna die/ Yes, you’re gonna die/ Right now” from “Daisy Glaze” (another track which hints at the imminent psychosis of “3rd”)— but a central thematic gist in “Radio City” is elusive. It’s intriguing that Chilton anticipates certain strains of allusive post-modern art by stealing song titles, which could then be seen to turn the Big Star songs into palimpsests— “What’s Goin’ Ahn” from Marvin Gaye, “She’s a Mover” from the Sir Douglas Quintet. Chilton also misspells things, ostensibly to be bratty and punkish— “September Gurls,” rather than “Girls,” “Morpha Too,” etc. The album as a gestalt reveals a cohesive Chilton persona— the rock auteur as enfant terrible, determined not only to destabilize but to destroy his audience’s preconceived notions as to what rock music could be— Piero Manzoni with a Gibson Firebird.

Radio City” is demanding, repays attentive listening, but also goes out of its way to repel casual listeners— by opening the album with an ornate but convoluted and slow-building track (“O My Soul”), Chilton ensures that his audience will either focus on what they are hearing or turn the album off. Commercially, “Radio City” was never given much of a chance anyway— released with a shoddy, haphazard distribution deal, even the presence of the radio-worthy “September Gurls” couldn’t salvage a respectable chart position for RC. It seems, to get to the heart of the matter, that there are two “Radio City” realities to deal with— how the album sounds on first listen, and how “Radio City” sounds once it is safely and ineluctably under your skin. If “Radio City” has enough of a hook in you to lure you in several times, Chilton’s jagged edges not only begin to make sense, what on first listen sounds merely blunt and disruptive reveals levels and layers of genuine emotional engagement. No other rock masterpiece album is so extreme— snide and cold from a distance, warm and passionately engaged up close. Hearing “Radio City” the right way all depends on your willingness to play Chilton’s game, as he dares you to get cranky, get bored or run away. The surface/depth tensions in “Radio City” are stark; a hunk of ice decoying as much warmth as a work of popular art can hold. By playing odd musical and lyrical angles, Chilton also decoys a firm and unshakable commitment to levels of raw passion and emotional authenticity which, more than anything else over a long period of time, are what “Radio City” evokes. Generations of Amer-Indie veneration vouch for this. 

Decoding Nick Drake

I have been listening in earnest to Nick Drake’s songs for about nineteen years; what I have noticed has led me to a distinct conclusion. If there is a certain thematic unity inhering in Drake’s lyrics, it has to do, oddly enough, with tropes which Lou Reed also employed; the dialects, street vernaculars, and movements of drug dealers, drug runners, and their minions. Few would think to connect Drake with the Velvet Underground; the difference is that where Lou Reed is direct, Drake is elliptical. It is possible to hear songs like “River Man” from Six Songs on Internet Archive many times and never quite understand what is being insinuated. Indeed, those who do not find this theory germane may choose to hear the Drake lyrics as harmless treacle. Nevertheless, a hinge is there to decoding Drake’s songs as full of drug decoy language, the manner in which dealers and “heads” double-talk to convey their messages.                                                

“River Man” is one of Nick Drake’s most beloved songs. If you listen closely to how the lyrics do or do not cohere, it is clear that open vistas present themselves in many directions: “Betty said she prayed today/ for the sky to blow away/ or maybe stay/ she wasn’t sure/ for when she thought of summer rain/ calling for her mind again/ she lost the pain/ and stayed for more.” It all counts either as baby-talk and gibberish in the manner of Donovan Leitch (Drake’s voice is strikingly similar to Donovan’s) and his “Mellow Yellow,” or extended euphemism and metaphor. If I choose to regard “River Man” as euphemism rather than gibberish, it is because the chorus enhances this impression: “Gonna see the river man/ gonna tell him all I can/ ‘bout the plan/ for lilac time/ if he tells me all he knows/ ‘bout the way his river flows/ and all-night shows/ in summertime.” The chord progression and offbeat time signature of “River Man” are foreboding, but the string arrangement by Robert Kirby elevates to recording into something as sublime as the Cambridge where, we know, Drake wrote it. The River Cam, for Cambridge dealers, was ostensibly a “decoy point”; and the all-night summertime shows a suitable venue for this sort of action. The song as a gestalt engineers an unholy Lou Reed-Donovan chiasmus, which is sharper and harder (even icier), lyrically, than Nick Drake is usually given credit for being.

I have written a long piece about similar issues around “At the Chime of a City Clock” from “Bryter Layter.” But it is also the case that the raga-influenced “Three Hours,” also from Six Songs, sticks close to lyrical theme of decoys, decoy points, and drop-offs or hand-offs: “Three hours from sundown/ Jeremy flies/ hoping to keep/ the sun from his eyes/ out from the city/ and down to the cave/ in search of a master/ in search of a slave.” That there is a master-slave dialectic between different characters in the drug-running business is common knowledge; it is a pitch-black mafia world of masters and slaves. The song is in a minor key, and as the tempo changes, and then changes back, there is the sense of lurching through a dark, forest-like space. In a strange way, Drake has more in common with Reed and the Velvets than the Doors do; Jim Morrison’s lyrics are usually wider and more expansive than Drake’s and, more than Drake, Morrison preferred the collage form to the precise vignette. On “Bryter Layter,” and other than “At the Chime,” “Poor Boy” is a wry and unusually candid self-portrait, but it begs a question which does relate more than indirectly to the themes of drugs, drug pushers, and drug running: is this protagonist a poor boy just from following his muse, or has he deteriorated owing to the fast-paced and deleterious lifestyle which follows drugs and drug-running? Where Drake’s final full album, “Pink Moon,” is concerned, I have always wondered if the phrase “pink moon” is a decoy for a specific strain of hash, pot, or acid, which was going around London or Cambridge when Drake wrote the song; as usual, there is a foreboding quality to the reference: the fact that “pink moon” is going to “get you all” could refer to a suddenly vulnerability in regard to the authorities, or if the strain is just too strong for most heads’ nervous systems.

“Parasite” and “Harvest Breed” from “Pink Moon” stride into lyrical territory so elliptical that whatever the decoy is, it isn’t particularly on the surface enough to decode. Yet, the bare-bones, haunted simplicity of the music (“Pink Moon” consists only of acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and voice) decoys in itself a state of total loneliness and vulnerability, a protagonist floating into inner space for all time; and the arc of Drake’s three major albums, to the extent that the major lyrical gist of them has to do with drugs and intoxication, represent an initiation, a climax, and then a steep fall from grace. Drake died in 1974 at the age of twenty-six, without his music having attained significant commercial success. He is now entrenched as a cult icon in rock music. As his best songs age into the new century, the underworld they expose will also be revealed and investigated; an underworld that not only flips the idealism of the Sixties over and inverts it but derails it into cacophonous and incomprehensible darkness. Drake’s best songs do take as a theme the underworld of drugs and decoy-ism; as such, the space around Drake, which lets his lyrics slide into a trough against the strength of his musical acumen, will now be filled, and Drake come into his own as a well-rounded rock artist.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alex Chilton: It Isn't That Easy

Converts to Big Star and Big Star-ism all note, as many of us noted in State College and Philadelphia (New York, I noted, was light on the Big Star), that so much of what Big Star is, is wrapped up in a sense of darkness, eeriness, and just generally being haunted. Yet Big Star’s best music has a strange glamour to it, a kind of enchantment, which makes its own eeriness (or duskiness, sometimes) euphoric. So it is with this Alex Chilton demo from the early Seventies. The intimacy here, just a voice and acoustic guitar, and what is expressed in the lyrics— deep introspection, leading to a sense of isolation and also, as later in Holocaust, self-knowledge— would not seem devastating if Chilton didn’t appear to have a certain X factor (the glamour, the enchantment) working in his favor, but he did. This would have been a stand-out track on #1 Record, which would seem to have been the natural place for it. Chilton might have forgotten it or it might have been left off for other reasons. In any case, its out now, and carries with it all the haunted luminosity that the rest of Big Star’s oeuvre does, for those with imaginations and ears to hear.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Eris Temple EP Diaspora: Band-Camp

BandCamp is another solid rock site. Here, on BandCamp, is the Eris Temple EP entire. And this portal page leads also to five songs from Ardent. Cheers. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nick Drake: Six Songs

I discovered Nick Drake in State College in the spring of ’96. I was right in the middle of my affair with Jennifer Strawser, and in a more harmonious mood then usual. By this time, the cult of Nick Drake was spreading like wildfire in the State College indie scene. I reacted by diving into a songwriting binge and churning out Drake-influenced material. Jennifer liked Nick Drake too. It was a halcyon time for a few months. As of May, I moved into a sublet on South Atherton Street. Many things got derailed for me that summer— not permanently, but temporarily— but for the rest of my time in State College (I left in late ’98), the Drake albums were one of my staple foods. Big Star and Nick Drake, in fact, were two twin towers of indie State College in the Nineties. Six Songs is just as eerily glamorous as Third/Sister Lovers is; and College Avenue in State College at night had its own glamorous sense of apparitions and general haziness, leading me to be curious what it might be like in 2015. Who sits on the wall now?

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Story of Eris Temple (EP)

By the spring of 2007, when I wrote and recorded most of the Eris Temple EP tracks, my life had changed radically from where I had been during the Philly Free School/Highwire Gallery days of 2004/2005. I had finished my MFA in creative writing and was now a University Fellow at Temple University, working towards a PhD in English literature. Because my University Fellowship offered both a stipend and two fellowship years (2006/2007 and 2009/2010), and because my first year was a fellowship year and did not require me to teach, I still had time to write books and music. The other change that spring was that I resumed my relationship with Mary Harju, after several years hiatus. Matt was ensconced at the Eris Temple in North-West Philly (52nd and Cedar), and the Eris Temple basement, where the studio was, was also large enough to hold performances in. To give some idea of how the studio looked: you would descend down a red-painted wooden staircase, into a kind of dungeon lair beneath street level. As per levels: the first, bottom level had Matt’s computer equipment and mixing board on it. Then, upsy daisy (a jump up) to the second, elevated level of the studio, which was large and square-shaped, and where the instruments where kept. Radio Eris rehearsed there, punk bands and noise-industrial bands often played as part of Eris Temple events, and this is where the instrumental portion of recording was done. That means, as those who know recording studios know, that the cables ran between the two levels, which wasn’t always comfortable, rather banana-peel-ish, but who cares. The instrument/sound-booth space had one window, even with the side-yard pavement, facing due south. The ceilings were relatively high, which offset the aura of grunge and “bunker” nicely. The floors were granite slab.

The songs I had written that spring were only a semi-hodge podge. For some reason, I was attracted to the open G tuning, made famous by Ry Cooder and Keith Richards. Salty Waves Of Blue, Rake, and Garden Wall were all written in open G. The way Matt produced Salty Waves Of Blue and Rake, the ambiance owed a lot to Big Star’s #1 Record, particularly Watch the Sunrise. I also noticed that when we recorded She Disowned My Life with Pete Leonard on drums (who had also drummed for my band The Godheads at CHS), and which was in standard tuning, the mood we caught was some rock music equivalent of the high ceilings and the granite slabs mixed together. It was an aural admixture that had Philadelphia as it looked and felt in it. USA Lite and Feel Like A Man Again were both meant to express different kinds of frustration; as halcyon as much of Aughts Philadelphia was, and as the Eris Temple in all its high-ceiling grunginess was, the Aughts were Bush regime years in the United States and all of us felt that pinch constantly, too. Feel Like A Man Again is more about the social and sexual mores of Aughts Philadelphia, and the sense I often had in the Aughts of characters and situations out of control, beyond the pale; in other words, excess. The dynamic between Aughts Philadelphia and Red America was utterly never-the-twain, and we didn’t necessarily feel, on a day to day basis, that our excesses were being mirrored anywhere else. I’m In Love With A Girl, of course, the Big Star cover, is from an earlier era when Matt lived at 11th and Webster in South Philly. I think it works as an add-on here, to an EP collection which requires some sweetness to balance a general sense of the brackish. As to why this EP took almost ten years to come out; because, as they say, shit happens. Matt and I were going to do more recording in the summer of ’07, but I was preoccupied with poetry, particularly the Dusie chapbook “Kollectiv” and getting my first chapbook Posit ready for publication. Mary and I broke up in September; my first two books, Opera Bufa and Beams, appeared that fall. Quite a year. In the Aughts, they all were.

Eris Temple (EP)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I'm In Love With A Girl (Big Star cover)

As of late ’99, when I landed at 21st and Race, Logan Square, Center City Philadelphia, Matt Stevenson lived right down the street, at 21st and Chestnut. Over the course of 2000 and 2001, I would hang out at Matt’s apartment and sometimes record. Matt’s recording set-up then was relatively primitive. As of 2002, I remained in Logan Square while Matt relocated to 11th and Webster in South Philly, to a ramshackle row-home which doubled as studio, which Matt dubbed Main Street West (for some reason), but could also be called Webster Street Studios. Matt’s set-up by them was upgraded to Pro Tools level. The studio was a large, high-ceiling’d room on the third floor, with north-facing windows. We made Ardent there in ’04; Raw Rainy Fog, done in ’02, was mostly spoken word material. What we did at Main Street West in ’03 was relatively random, including this Big Star cover, now featured as the last track on the Eris Temple EP. We also recorded a guitar-heavy version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. I specifically wanted to nail I’m In Love with a Girl because I’d had the idea of adding some delicate lead guitar and counter-melodies to what was stark and simple on Radio City. Main Street West, by then, was a kind of playpen for us, and a spirit of playful experimentation reigned, which continued into the Eris Temple years.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

She Disowned My Life

People who write, know: what you tap into when you write can be an anticipation of circumstances in your life yet to come. Turns out, I wrote She Disowned My Life in the fall of 1995, in my dorm room (322 Holmes Hall) in North Halls (the artists’ dorms on campus), in State College, Pa, while attending Penn State. Musically, I was thinking both Big Star (who I had discovered that summer via my friend Steve Kurutz) and early Elvis Costello, who liked to write, early in his career, in the key of E. What was I writing about? It seems to me, with twenty years’ hindsight, I was tapping into what was about to happen in early ’96; my first long-term relationship, almost a marriage, with Jennifer Strawser. Not to get catechistic, but did she disown my life? Sort of; we were just kids, but she was looking for a sense of intensity about her and total dedication that I didn’t always have to offer, and when we broke up in the fall of ’96 (I was “disowned”), that was one salient reason. Fast-forward a dozen years: I brought the song to the Eris Temple to record in ’07, having had it in my back pocket for an extended period of time, and booked drummer Pete Leonard, who had played in my high school band, to do the session. The day of the session I felt rather unhinged about what was going on. It sounded chaotic and messy to me. Another writer’s quirk, especially when music is involved: you can’t hear a goddamned thing when you’re too close to what you’ve just done. So, whatever I was tapping into when we were recording (probably my break-up with Mary Harju six months after), the recording was shelved for eight years. Eight years, and I finally see that Matt, Pete, and I stumbled onto a new kind of rock magic that day in North-West Philly.

On a technical note: the hippest thing about Matt Stevenson's masterful mix is how he handles the rhythm guitar track. Rhythm guitar is what leads us into the song, but soon disappears into what amounts to subtle shadings, chiaroscuro, for the remainder of the track. What dominates the sonic landscape is then bass under lead guitar, making the sort of gestures common to Radio City-era Big Star and Robbie Robertson, originally derived from gospel and classical models. The bass under lead guitar sound-scape which dominates the track (other than vocals/percussion) amounts to a unique composite; and the art, as sometimes happens, is all in what is left out. I can't not think of Prince, and the bass track being left off of When Doves Cry; I also think of the acoustic guitar tracks which weave in and out of Led Zeppelin songs, whose devotees often use chiaroscuro to describe Zeppelin records too. There's even a touch of metaphysics: the protagonist is dealing with a relationship situation abraded by a hostile and/or evanescent love interest; and the rhythm guitar track, which begins with a certain amount of gusto and disappears into a shadowy mist, doubles for this evanescent Muse.

As per the icing on the cake peccadillo: the Eris Temple studio is "underground"; beneath street level. Yet, most of the studio space consists of a room with a relatively high ceiling. What is recorded in this room thus sounds airier, more expansive, than what was recorded at Main Street West in South Philly. The Eris Temple studio space is also crepuscular, i.e. not particularly well-lit. Every major session at Eris Temple was a kind of night session. The one street-level window, in the south-east corner of the room towards the ceiling, lets in almost nothing. Physiologically, Main Street West was more comfortable and comforting; Matt's books and CDs strewn all over the place, large windows, ample lighting. The sturm und drang around the Eris Temple studio space was about strangeness, odd angles, and (often) physiological discomfort. The Eris Temple was made as a studio space to drag performances out of musicians who didn't know they it had in them. In retrospect, She Disowned My Life works that way for me. The darkness and the oddness of the place and the space pushed me to sing the song with a certain looseness and conviction I couldn't have had at Main Street West. The high ceilings allowed the whole production to resonate to its own frequency.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Leaving Me Lonely

From She Disowned My Life to Leaving Me Lonely; by the late fall of ’96, I had broken up with Jennifer Strawser and was seeing a theater major named Carrie Thomas in State College. I was also listening to a lot of early Neil Young, particularly his first solo album. I found myself amused by the parallel to Neil: writing songs for an actress named Carrie (Neil briefly married actress Carrie Snodgrass in the early 70s). So, it came into my head to write a Neil pastiche about what my time with Carrie was like. Leaving Me Lonely is, in fact, a pastiche of I’ve Been Waiting For You and What Did You Do To My Life from the aforementioned first Neil solo album. If it didn’t come up to be recorded in the late Nineties or Aughts, it is semi by accident and semi because I couldn’t find a meaningful place for it on any of my records.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Be-Bop Deluxe: Axe Victim

Be Bop Deluxe’s Axe Victim is a sickening lurch into the gutters of the music business. It’s also a rock masterpiece. Be Bop Deluxe, guided by Bill Nelson, were clearly a formative influence on Glenn Tillbrook and Squeeze, but what’s being squeezed here, via nauseous tempo changes, turgid assaults of expert lead guitar, and touring imagery interspersed with free-associative poetic similes and metaphors akin to ones employed on Third/Sister Lovers, is the sense that by 1974, Bill Nelson was just as fed up with the rigors of the music business as Alex Chilton was. That Axe Victim is a kind of aural horror movie distracts attention from how painstakingly honest it is, from the sad amps in the back of the tour van to the curvy, murderous road to Hull and back again. Axe Victim, in fact, is so intense as a rock experience, in line with Big Star’s Third, and expresses such nihilistic emptiness, in brusque, macho fashion, that it may attract a long-term audience who can only stomach the starvation and the squalor at intervals; and, indeed, Axe Victim, despite its musical and lyrical excellence, is not the kind of tune to put on endless replay, except (perhaps) on Halloween.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Band: Chest Fever

I am in a minority who feel that Robbie Robertson’s lyrics are not particularly cryptic, especially to a mature mind. “Chest Fever,” like many of Nick Drake’s tunes, is about dealers and dealing; more than that, it’s about the rigors of life as a dealer, and the potential obsolescence of such a life in the face of harsh, arbitrary circumstance. The protagonist of “Chest Fever” is not only a dealer, he also seems to be a spy; and the target of his espionage also happens to be woman who may be another dealer or a just a runner of contraband. What makes “Chest Fever” so compelling is that it captures a contradiction— this dealer protagonist is in the middle of a fateful confrontation, with both trackers and his female target, and yet the musical is so ecstatic, ethereal, and cathedral-like that it conveys an emotional impression of intense euphoria. This guy, in other words, (this is how I choose to take the contradiction) is high as a kite, even as he may die at any instant, and the revelation of his own death doesn’t scare him a bit. Like many of Robertson’s protagonists, his contradictions make him a compelling character, even as the music fills in the blanks of the euphoria he feels in denial of the situation transpiring around him.