Bettie Serveert

I’m pretty sure this one is down to Pete. I don’t think he made me a tape of Bettie Serveert’s music during the first years after we met — at least, I don’t have one floating around like the Antietam/Madder Rose tape that I all but wore out one winter — and I don’t think he loaned me a CD like the Shonen Knife and Amy Rigby albums that lived at my house for a couple of years. But the early ’90s were the time of the Great Catchup for me, and I can’t think how else I would have learned about Bettie Serveert’s great first album, Palomine, unless it was via Pete.

Pete arrived in my life unexpectedly one morning in 1990, walking in through a door at CBS Records and landing like an effusive grenade. I had just started working as a proofreader there — mostly checking liner notes to be sure that no assistant engineer’s name was misspelled in the ongoing conversion from vinyl to our glorious CD future — and as some anonymous VP had vacated their corner office, the corporate honchos decided to fill the space with a pair of low-level copy readers. Pete and I instantly started talking politics — I seem to remember we got started by discussing some ACT UP meetings he’d recently attended, though our discussions soon ranged far afield of that — and passing the time by reading copy out loud in silly voices, inventing pretend indie-rock band names (I particularly remember the mythical tour pairing Powerclown and Rainshovel, the former of which is now an actual clown-themed Iron Maiden tribute band, though the latter remains up for grabs), and trying and mostly failing to get the higher-ups to allow us to fix some of the album packaging’s more egregious errors — my favorite being the Robert Johnson complete collection that to this day contains a description of how Johnson’s “mother and brother-in-law attended his burial in a wooden coffin furnished by the county.”

And we talked music, incessantly. I introduced Pete to the Mekons. In exchange, he would introduce me to pretty much everything else.

Bettie Serveert were exactly the sort of band that seemed to be everywhere then: hailing from an unexpected part of the world (the Netherlands, though their lead singer Carol Van Dyk was born in Canada to Dutch and Indonesian parents, leaving her with an accent that is probably best described as singular), inspired by both stripped-down post-punk aesthetics and older rock traditions (guitarist Peter Visser was especially fond of, and adept at, Neil Young-esque guitar freakouts), and bearing an inexplicable name. (It translates as “Betty Serves,” and turned out to be from a photo caption of a tennis player, though to this day I’m still not sure I entirely get the joke.) It all came together in ways that felt both familiar and utterly new, something that seemed to be happening on a daily basis in rock music at the time. “Kid’s Allright” and “Leg,” in particular, remain for me two of the greatest guitar-rock songs of all time, singalong radio staples from an alternate universe.

And then, like many other bands of that era — or any era, I suppose — after their first great album, they sort of drifted off my radar. I remember hearing their followup, Lamprey, at a party (at Pete’s house, of course), and thinking it was fine enough but not groundbreaking, and then I didn’t get around to checking out their album after that. It was still a time in my life when I could dedicate myself to the relentless search for newness, and there were other bands out there to explore, especially seeing as I was still working my way through much of what I’d missed in the ’70s and ’80s.

I had almost forgotten about Bettie Serveert, in fact, when they unexpectedly showed up live on my radio on WFMU in early 2003, and it was … new. From the syncopated drum intro of “Given” to the whistles-and-power-chords explosion of “Smack” (which a couple of years later I discovered was accompanied by a hilarious video that for a while had my then-toddler son referring to Van Dyk as “Carol with the silly hair”) to the outsider anthem “Wide-Eyed Fools,” these were decidedly Bettie Serveert songs, but reinvented in new and surprising ways. Their then-new record, Log 22, quickly joined or even surpassed Palomine as my most-listened-to of their output; later that year, I slipped out from child-care duties for an evening to see them live for the first time, and was equally blown away by Van Dyk and Visser’s guitar interplay, as well as bassist Herman Bunskoeke‘s understated melodic counterpoint. (I completely forget who the drummer was on that tour; one constant in Bettie Serveert’s history has been that no drummer has lasted all that long.)

Had I now seen the error of my ways, and realized never to turn my back again on a band I’d once loved? Not quite — I did pick up those ’90s albums I’d missed, but I’m a couple behind again now, and haven’t seen them live in a few years. (It hasn’t helped that their American tours have become few and far between, though they still play semi-regularly in Europe.) But in the modern age it’s easier to keep tabs on bands, so I follow them on Facebook, reading their (often in inscrutable Dutch) posts about shows and band members’ birthdays, and make sure to check in every once in a while to see what they’re up to. There’s no telling when genius will strike unexpectedly, and I can’t depend on Pete for everything.

Mac McCaughan

When I first settled on the format for this feature — write about how I first discovered the various musicians I listen to, and let the iTunes shuffle feature pick who I would write about each week — I didn’t consider some of its unavoidable quirks. Like, what to do about musical acts who go by different names at different times?

Mac McCaughan is the central songwriter and vocalist for two different bands that are among my favorites. I could easily write at length about Superchunk: About the funny story that my friend Pete told me about Mac’s onstage response to the unexpected success of their early song “Slack Motherfucker,” about seeing them on the second stage at Lollapalooza when the chaos of the mosh pit first stole and then mysteriously returned my baseball cap, about the show where I rediscovered them 15 years later as they prepared to release possibly their greatest record yet. But this isn’t the Superchunk entry, so I can’t tell those stories.

And then there’s Portastatic, McCaughan’s side project for his (mostly) quieter (mostly) solo recordings, which I’d never heard of until spotting them opening for Yo La Tengo one year, at a show where they covered Bruce Springsteen and where I first met my friend Brandon, which would ultimately lead me to discover … but again, wrong band for this item.

Mac has released precisely one album under his own name: Non-Believers, which he issued in 2015 as an exploration of the early-’80s post-punk that, in his words, began “using keyboards and drum machines to relate through their music a disaffection or alienation.” That era of music is not, frankly, one that I ever spent much time with. And while the album had a lot of the lo-fi tunefulness and clever wordplay that marks the best of Portastatic — it started out as a Portastatic record before McCaughan decided that he needed an even more personal name for an even more personal project — and I like it okay, it’s not especially my favorite of his output. When his brief tour for it stopped in Brooklyn, I wasn’t even able to go, so I have no stories there, either.

So let’s talk about how I became a fan of Mac McCaughan, the person. It was via seeing him play with Superchunk and Portastatic, obviously. But also his ability to show up in the background of so many other musical and non-musical events: serving as co-founder and operator of Merge Records, sitting in on vibraphone and guitar and drums and whatever else was available at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show (that same one where I met Brandon, in fact), sitting in on a Yo La Tengo video (though he didn’t appear on the recorded song), tweeting about politics and music and hockey, all with the same wry-but-never-cynical wit that illuminates his various bands’ songs. The best artists touch you not just through their art, but through the way their art puts you in contact with their personalities, or at least their personas — I’ve never met Mac, but getting to see him, on stage and Twitter, has provided me with another valuable perspective on the world that I wouldn’t want to have missed, even aside from all of his great music.

In fact, I should probably go back and listen to the recording of that Non-Believers tour show that I didn’t get to attend. One of the distinctive traits of great artists is their tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it.

The Rolling Stones

It took me a long time to fully appreciate the Rolling Stones, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the Stones’ fault.

I had a weird musical childhood. My first love was the Beatles, because that’s what my parents played for me (somewhere I still have some much-battered 45s of “Penny Lane” and the like), but that was as far as they took my musical education. So when the Osmonds got their own Saturday morning cartoon show — and trading card set, just like the Beatles — I adopted them as well to make one very weird two-band favorites list.

I didn’t start listening seriously to Top 40 or rock radio until I was a teenager, and by then the Stones … well, kind of sucked. I had heard most of their hits, over and over, given it was hard to avoid them, and enjoyed them well enough as yet another of those raunchy, sex-obsessed guitar-wielding bands that suffused all of ’70s rock radio (and ’80s rock radio, which was largely backward-looking to the ’70s). But If you’d asked me at the time to name a Stones song, based on what I heard the most on WPLJ or WNEW, I likely would have come up with, say, “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” — not the worst songs in the world, but nothing to make me understand why they were considered by many to be in the same league as the Beatles as rock gods. I therefore pretty much wrote the Stones off as there being no accounting for some people’s tastes, and even as I explored the back catalog of other ’60s-spawned rock legends — the Who, the Kinks, the Doors — I never bothered to pick up any Stones albums, not counting the vinyl copy of Undercover that a friend of my parents gifted me after her young child got too interested in peeling off the stickers to see what was under them.

Thus did it come to pass that I became possibly the only person on earth to discover the Stones via the Deadstring Brothers.

This was one of those bands that I stumbled upon totally by happenstance. I was in the habit of attending Bloodshot Records’ day-long barbecue on the Saturday of CMJ’s annual music festival in New York (back when CMJ still undeniably existed), and one year, there they were on the stage at Union Pool: a crew of young folks with slide guitars and a Hammond organ and other ’70s rock staple accoutrements, led by a long-haired guy and gal who made a roomful of jaws drop with their blues-rock duets. And word came down that they were inspired not just by the Stones, not just by mid-era Stones, but by a single Stones album: Exile on Main Street.

This was a new way for me to parse the Stones: They were not a single band, but rather a series of bands, all sharing the same name, with a slightly shifting membership. (Brian Jones begetting Mick Taylor begetting Ron Wood.) As it turned out when I actually went and listened, I was at least a moderate fan of mid-era Stones (though if I had to choose, I’d take Sticky Fingers over Exile by a nose), and grew to have a greater appreciation for their Jones-era experimentation (it helped as I read more about the friendly rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones, and how each band was inspired by the other). I finally picked up a copy of Hot Rocks, the best-of-through-1971 package that I’d likewise always known about but never felt the need to own, and realized that I actually loved many of those songs that had always flitted by on the radio.

None of this will be any surprise to anyone who listened to the Stones before the age of 40 or so, which is to say most everyone. Still, it strikes me that the Stones’ late decline into relative mediocrity — something that can happen to the best of bands, mind you, especially those that don’t break up after less than a decade — coupled with a certain weird ahistoricism of rock radio that flattened an entire career into an amorphous collection of hits, stood in the way of my appreciating their particular kind of genius for far too long. I still skew way to the Beatles side of the Beatles-Stones divide (though most of the other bands I listen to are on the opposite side, if you hold to that dichotomy), but I can now better enjoy the Stones for what they were at their creative peak.

On second thought, maybe it’s the Beatles’ fault that I didn’t fully appreciate the Stones. I might’ve been better off if my first love had been the Osmonds.

The Breeders

The mists of time are very foggy on this one.

I am fairly certain that my introduction to the Breeders came via Tanya Donelly. Somewhere in the early ’90s, I became aware — I couldn’t say how — that in years prior there had been a band called Throwing Muses, and they were important or influential or interesting in some way. And that of the two sisters or cousins or whatever in that band (stepsisters, actually), one of them had left and later formed a band with Kim Deal of the Pixies.

But then, I must have been aware of the Pixies by then, too. I’m pretty sure I’d at least seen this video on MTV, which was pretty intriguing even if it wasn’t even their song. (It eventually led me to buy all the Pixies records to that point, and never led me to buy any Jesus and Mary Chain albums, for what it’s worth.) And even if it didn’t include Kim Deal singing at all. Perhaps by then I’d bought Doolittle and Surfer Rosa and heard “Gigantic“? But then I would have been more excited about the Breeders, don’t you think, without even knowing about the added draw of Donelly? Or maybe I was still under the misapprehension that the real draw of the Pixies was Black Francis’s sneering vocals?

I couldn’t say. I can say that my first Breeders album was Pod, and that it remains my favorite in many respects, even if Last Splash is objectively more polished and has “Drivin’ on 9,” my favorite Breeders song, on it. (Though that too is a cover, and never led me to buy any Ed’s Redeeming Qualities albums, for what it’s worth.) The cover of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” with that scissors percussion is twisted genius, and “Hellbound” and “When I Was a Painter” and those harmony vocals and “soup of magpies/in a pottery bowl” on “Fortunately Gone” — the complementary off-kilter sensibilities of Deal and Donelly (though Donnelly didn’t write any Pod songs and didn’t even sing all that much) somehow clicked for me in a way the band never quite did once Donelly was gone to start Belly and it was the Deal sisters on Last Splash, and how many rock bands feature sisters, anyway, and is it strange that Tanya Donelly was in two of them at one point?

Anyway, soon enough it was the Year of the Woman and Last Splash was out and “Cannonball” was all over the radio, along with Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow and Luscious Jackson, and then suddenly someone decided enough of that, because here came Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins and Candlebox and I had to stop listening to commercial radio forever. By the time the Breeders recorded a followup, it was years later and wasn’t as good as the first two and nobody much wanted to hear it anyway.

I saw the Breeders open for Nirvana at the now-demolished New York Coliseum the year they were big, though it was so crowded and the sound was so awful (“like seeing a show in the world’s largest school lunchroom,” concluded either me or my friend Pete, I forget which) that I don’t remember much other than almost getting kicked in the head by the multiple crowd surfers. I almost saw the Breeders again when I happened to be in Boston during their show for their tour for that album, but I didn’t go. Then years after that, I tried to see them play a free show in an empty public pool in Williamsburg but the line was too long, and I only got to see the last few songs while peering through a fence from the playground next door. I finally saw them perform all of Last Splash a few more years after that, and it was good and all, but I felt like I something important had flitted by, and I’d already missed it. Too bad there wasn’t more time.

Billy Bragg and Wilco

I can’t honestly remember how I first heard that Billy Bragg and Wilco were going to be teaming up for an album of a bunch of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. I do remember my reaction, which was that it was about the least likely juxtaposition that I ever expected to experience. Little did I know.

I knew about Billy Bragg, a bit, by then: I’d been introduced to him not long after I got out of college, as the British Falkland Islands war vet who’d turned into a punkish protest singer, though many of his songs struck me at the time as slightly heavy-handed and humorless for my tastes. (Though I could see where fighting a bloody war over a tiny rock covered with bird poop might turn one that way.) And I’d already seen him perform at a Woody Guthrie 80th birthday concert in Central Park, so I knew he cared deeply about the man’s music.

As for Wilco, I was more familiar with them, having read about their predecessor band Uncle Tupelo in Option magazine (those were the days when you could discover bands by reading magazines, not to mention discover magazines by scouring actual physical magazine racks), and then having been sent a cassette recording of a live radio broadcast of one of their shows by my college friend David, who was a big fan.

I knew about Woody Guthrie, too, of course, though partly by osmosis: He was Arlo’s dad, and the guy who taught Bob Dylan how to be Bob Dylan, and had a guitar with something about fighting fascists on it. I might by then have even have read the terrific biography Woody Guthrie: A Life (by Joe Klein, of all people), which not only explains the guitar thing, but also why Guthrie was such a politically important figure — the book was the first to unearth the missing verses of “This Land Is My Land” — and the multiple tragedies that defined his life, culminating in his Huntington’s chorea diagnosis and early death.

So Bragg and Wilco each performing songs that Guthrie wrote in his later years but never recorded (or wrote music to, meaning the reinterpreters had to set his lyrics to their own music) made sense in a way. Them doing so together, though, sounded bonkers.

As anyone who has heard Mermaid Avenue knows, it worked better than ever could have been expected. Bragg and Tweedy switch off singing duties, mostly, and Wilco provides the backing band. (Natalie Merchant drops in for a couple of songs as well.) Bragg’s songs are enlivened by Wilco’s musicianship, and Tweedy’s pop craftsmanship is finally freed from his wordsmithery. (There’s no shame in being a genius at hooks whose lyrics are often kind of dumb; I mean, Paul McCartney isn’t always exactly a poet, either.) And Guthrie’s late-career mental problems end up spitting out some works of bizarre genius — the lyrics of “She Came Along To Me” lurch and detour but in Bragg’s voice end up surrounding a kind of beauty, while “Hoodoo Voodoo” is utter gibberish, but sublimely so. All told, it might just be my favorite Billy Bragg album and my favorite Wilco album and my favorite Woody Guthrie album. Now that we’re entering another time when protest songs, and protest singers, are going to be needed more than ever, it’s worth noting that sometimes it’s the most unlikely approach that ends up being the most powerful. I bet Woody’s son never expected to create a Thanksgiving tradition and rallying cry for building a movement one voice at a time when he dumped one pile of garbage on another pile of garbage.

Speaking of Arlo, he was at that 80th birthday show, too, along with Bragg. I barely remember either of them, but I do remember a stunning set by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy that had about one-third of the crowd on its feet, and the other two-thirds staring blankly. But that’s a story I’ll get around to in a few more spins of the iTunes wheel.

Patti Smith

It was a long time ago, but not all that long, and I was sitting having lunch at Dojo’s, the venerable Japanese-inflected diner in Greenwich Village. I was almost certainly having the soy burger dinner (avocado on the side, burger topped with the restaurant’s trademark carrot-ginger dressing, aka “Dojo sauce,” that came with virtually everything on the menu), and I’m pretty sure I was alone, because I was paying attention to the music playing in the dining room. It was somewhat familiar — late-’70s-punk-sounding from the time when “punk” could still mean lots of things — but I couldn’t place it.

Hoping to discover something new — maybe even under the radar! — I asked my server what we were listening to.

“It’s Patti Smith,” she explained with offhanded patience, as if talking to someone just a bit slow on the uptake. Which, of course, she was.

How I’d gotten that far in life without having listened much to Patti Smith is bit of a mystery. I knew “Because the Night,” her sort-of co-written song with Bruce Springsteen (he wrote it, she rewrote it), which had been on the radio in heavy rotation when I was a pre-teen soaking up Top 40 radio. I also knew, vaguely, that she’d had a famous album called Horses, one of those iconic records I figured I’d get around to eventually, but hadn’t yet. I’d managed to wander through a lot of the neighboring territories of CBGB’s rock — for example, I’d bought the first two albums by Television, featuring Patti’s sometime collaborator/lover Tom Verlaine, early enough that I had them on (pre-CD) vinyl, and I knew that Verlaine’s song “Glory” on their second album, Adventure, was supposedly about Patti — so it wouldn’t have required much for me to follow those threads. Yet still I didn’t, thinking I wouldn’t like her music, because she was … too much a “poet”? Too associated with that one weird Springsteen hit? Too stigmatized by her painfully earnest ’80s activist anthem “People Have the Power”? I couldn’t tell you.

And so it was that I found myself at an outdoor show at Lincoln Center in the year 2008, sweating under the hot August sun. It had been a long day already — we’d shown up before noon for a brief set by Pete Seeger and his grandson, then scuttled a few yards over to where that day’s free Roots of American Music festival was taking place. There had been an all-star blues review (excellent), the X-in-country-drag band the Knitters (my main reason for going, and they did not disappoint), and something called Charlie Haden Family and Friends, which mixed some incredible session musicians (dobro player Jerry Douglas was especially memorable) with some people who seemed to be there mostly because they fit the “family and friends” moniker. Still to come, as night fell, was Patti Smith. I was hot and tired, but I figured I might as well stick around, as I’d never seen her live before. Besides, my friend Louise, who’d come along for the day, said she was terrific, so why not?

Two hours later, I was a fan for life. It wasn’t just that Patti and her band, as most of the rest of the world had already known for three decades, were brilliant performers and rock ‘n’ rollers in the most uncynical sense, or that they mixed their own songs with well-chosen covers (including, on this night, a raucous “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). It was also that Patti herself, far from the image I’d somehow developed of her, was downright hilarious, cracking corny jokes, dropping self-deprecating remarks, and generally being every bit a rock star without losing that sense of “Get a load of this, I’m actually a rock star?” When the climactic moment of her one semi-hit from Horses, a semi-cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (Van wrote it, Patti rewrote it), came along, and she forgot how to spell “G-L-O-R-I-A” — and then laughed it off — I was hooked for life. (In retrospect, she was the perfect person to stumble during her song for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize acceptance, and explain afterwards how it put her in touch with her own humanity.)

There are several Big Thoughts I can have about this origin story of my Patti Smith fandom: What sequence of events led me to miss out on her music for so long? What if I’d never invited Louise to see the Knitters (“and Patti Smith is playing, too”), and without her influence, had decided to head home after the Knitters to nurse my heatstroke? What other musicians may I have had these kinds of near-misses with, thanks to ignorance or misplaced assumptions or bad timing, and can I still look forward to stumbling upon them in the future? How much of music fandom is taste, and how much chance, and can the two be separated?

The Big Thoughts can wait. I’m mostly just glad I finally found my way to Patti Smith in time to appreciate her music, recorded and in person (I’ve seen her another four times since, including an arena show opening for Neil Young where she stopped mid-set to take off her shoes), and to introduce my son to him as well (his favorite bedtime record in 1st grade ended up being Horses). I’ve even, on certain occasions, been able to appreciate “People Have the Power.” But even when I can’t, that’s okay — if Patti Smith has taught me anything, it’s that imperfection in the pursuit of art is nothing to be ashamed of.

75 Dollar Bill

For some bands, I vividly recall the moment they emerged into my consciousness, stamped across my memory like a signpost noting, “Beyond here, everything changes.” For others, isolating how I discovered them is more of a forensic exercise.

I’m pretty sure that however I came to know about Rick Brown, it had something to do with Yo La Tengo. Rick drummed in an early-’80s band called Information, which ended up mutating into The Scene Is Now, who I first heard of when YLT covered their bananas-minimalist-epic “Yellow Sarong” on their Fakebook album, the liner notes noting only, “You can never say enough about The Scene Is Now.” (They weren’t wrong.) He also, along with his wife Sue Garner, played in a stunning panoply of below-the-radar indie-rock bands in the Yo La Tengo orbit: Run On, Fish & Roses, V-Effect, Timber, and probably a dozen others that came and went over the years. I first personally heard Rick and Sue in yet another ephemeral band, Rattle, when they opened for Antietam (who have been playing alongside Yo La Tengo since their very first show) and Dump (solo project of Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew); it was Rattle’s first-ever gig, and for all I know their last, as they’ve never showed up on record to my knowledge.

I first really experienced Rick Brown in all his glory, though, when he and Sue appeared in yet another guise — Two Mule Team — at the venerable country-punk dive bar Hank’s Saloon opening for Sloppy Heads, a band co-fronted by my friend Jesse (who I first met at a Yo La Tengo show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken when I noticed he was scribbling down the song titles as they were played so he could post the setlist to his website, and who later wrote the definitive book on YLT, Maxwell’s, and indie rock). Sue was playing guitar and singing. Rick was playing a wooden crate that he was also sitting on, which had a drum kick pedal mounted to it backwards, and which he also struck with his hands and with sticks, plus maracas and plastic trumpets and a homemade xylophone and a strange device that I later discovered was a Playskool Talk ‘n Play cassette machine jury-rigged to act as a sampler. Even if the music hadn’t been memorable — it was, ranging from edgy folk to experimental noise, at once familiar and threatening to head off in unexpected directions — the sight alone would have been.

Eventually, through the churning sea of connections that is Facebook and email lists and running into Rick at other people’s shows and having him say, “By the way, I’m playing next week,” this led me to 75 Dollar Bill, which, unbelievably, is even harder to believe than Two Mule Team. Brown arrives at each show with his wooden crate loaded with assorted implements of percussion, unloads them, then sits on it and begins to thump (and occasionally sing). His partner in crime Che Chen, whose bio describes him as a “sound artist and improviser,” plays guitar that is usually described as North African-inspired, combining to create hypnotic swirling patterns that are right on the edge between soothing and unnerving. Sometimes Sue plays, too. Sometimes Cheryl Kingan, who plays saxophone with The Scene Is Now and occasionally Antietam, joins in. Sometimes, as in last Saturday’s show that I missed because of a snowstorm, there are a huge number people on stage at once, and it’s hard to tell where 75 Dollar Bill leaves off and other bands begin. I’m still not exactly sure what they are or why (or sometimes if!) I like them, which is kind of exciting.

In many ways, 75 Dollar Bill are the perfect subject for this series, because they’re not at all a band I would have happened upon but for a string of happenstance connections — I don’t generally make a habit of listening to Mauritanian-tinged experimental groove noise rock grounded in drumming on a plywood crate. (Does anyone?) To be honest, I’m not even exactly sure when or how the tracks from last year’s much-lauded cassette release WOOD/METAL/PLASTIC/PATTERNS/RHYTHM/ROCK ended up in my iTunes; I probably purchased them from their Bandcamp page at some point. All I can say is that somewhere along the way, my mind became expanded in a direction that is headed to unknowable places — and if that’s not the definition of art, I don’t know what is.





plywood crate, maracas, shakers, bells, a drum

Jon Langford

A brief history of my Jon Langford fandom, in four live shows:

February 1998: I’d been a fan of Langford since first discovering him as the singer/guitarist/court jester/non-hierarchical non-leader of the Mekons almost a decade earlier, and had learned to expect him turning up periodically in other guises every so often (one year the bizarro-rock quartet the Killer Shrews, another the “insurgent country” pioneers the Waco Brothers, who helped launch the invaluable Chicago label Bloodshot Records). So when I saw that Langford was set to appear at the small Manhattan club the Mercury Lounge under the guise of something called “Skull Orchard,” I bought tickets without any idea what it would be.

What it turned out to be was a stripped-down version of the Wacos lineup at the time: Jon on guitar, hyperkinetic pogo stick Alan Doughty on bass, Mekons (and “Watching the Detectives“) drummer Steve Goulding, and second guitarist Mark Durante. The music, though, was something unexpected: a new series of songs that mostly eschewed the heart-on-the-sleeve politics of the Mekons and Wacos for more personal stories of Langford’s hometown of Newport, Wales, the people who lived there, and their lives of not-so-quiet desperation. It was one of those rare moments where I could feel a new compartment opening in my brain: Ah! That’s what the world was lacking. I immediately bought the album, and listened it to death.

December 1999: Langford’s next solo appearance in New York was in a seemingly unlikely venue: The second-floor café of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which ran a weekly live music series. He turned up with just an acoustic guitar and Jon Rauhouse, the accomplished multi-instrumentalist who brought his banjo, his acoustic lap steel guitar, and his infectious giggle. I was expecting either Skull Orchard songs or Mekons/Wacos tunes, and got neither: Instead, the duo unleashed mostly all-new songs that continued the personal-political theme of Skull Orchard, plus some choice covers including George Jones’ “Girl at the End of the Bar” and “Death of the European” by Langford’s 1980s dance-punk-agit-prop band The Three Johns. It was vintage Langford, and yet entirely unlike any previous vintage Langford.

I later tracked down someone who’d taped the show with a small cassette recorder, and uploaded it to the Live Music Archive, so you can listen to it in its entirety there. Almost all the songs would later trickle out over the years on various Langford albums — though some, like “Verdun,” an incredible song about Jon’s grandfather’s experience in World War I, had to wait another 12 years for release — I still maintain that they never sounded better than they do here in all their lo-fi glory.

February 2001: Our trip to San Francisco had been planned for a long while, one of a series of get-togethers organized by ifMUD, an online gathering place for fans and writers of text-adventure interactive fiction games (plus at least one robot parrot). It was only a happy coincidence that it turned out Langford and fellow Mekon Rico Bell would be playing in the basement of a San Francisco pub the night after our arrival. At 10 pm local time, which would be — gulp — 1 am jet-lagged time.

Fortified by caffeine, we turned up to find a minuscule stage and maybe 30 folding chairs set up in front of it, in one corner of a huge basement space. Credit the exhaustion or the intimate space, but the result was jaw-dropping: Langford again on acoustic guitar, with Bell on guitar and accordion, Rauhouse on his assortment of instruments, and a couple of additional guests including Waycross singer Caroleen Beatty (who’d collaborated with Langford on an album that only exists, to my knowledge, on unreleased cassette), blasting that tiny space with all the power that could be mustered by a few acoustic instruments and raw voices. I particularly remember a blistering, high-speed version of the Waco Brothers’ “See Willy Fly By” that was by far the best rendition of that incredible song about Depression-era-despair-meets-Clinton-era-false-hope that I’ve ever heard.

That memory is all I have of it, though, because no one in the room had a recording device, and so the performance was there and gone forever. A few months later, I bought a minidisc recorder and some small microphones, in large part because this one show had left me with a new commitment in my music-listening career: never again.

April 2005: By now I had come to expect the unexpected from Langford, so when I saw the announcement — a “multimedia show” at a comedy club in Chelsea — I gave up predicting, and just showed up ready to experience whatever it was. Which turned out to be just possibly the greatest creation of his entire career to date.

The title of the show was “The Executioner’s Last Songs,” which reflected the genesis of the work: A theater in Wisconsin had asked Langford for a theatrical version of the Bloodshot-all-star CD series of murder ballads that he had put together to raise money for the Illinois campaign against the death penalty. Instead, Langford had expanded it to weave together everything from his own personal history, the Mekons’ journey through punk rock and country and the corporate music world, and the story of the venerable Chicago country band the Sundowners, to the political lessons of fourth-division soccer fandom, Herbert Marcuse’s views on the culture industry, and video clips of Langford dressed as a pirate singing satirical sea shanties about barbecue pork and farts in a boat floating in a bathroom sink — just, as he noted, to “demonstrate that I am not worthy of taxidermy just yet.” Readings flowed smoothly into performances of songs from the entirety of Langford’s career and beyond, with the added talents of Pere Ubu bassist (and sometime-deputy-Mekon) Tony Maimone and the Mekons’ Sally Timms and Jean Cook, the frighteningly talented violinist/vocalist who’d begun performing with Langford as part of yet another band, the Ship & Pilot. It was moving and political and hilarious and unforgettable, and as close to a manifesto as you’re ever likely to get from an artist who remains deadly serious about never taking the deadly serious too seriously.

Afterwards, Goulding came up on stage to join in for a set of still more Mekons and Langford and other songs, playing percussion on an upturned plastic bucket and a fire extinguisher. This time I had my minidisc and microphones with me, so you can listen to the whole thing on

The last time I saw Jon Langford was last month, when he and Jean Cook and Silos guitarist Walter Salas-Humara played an entirely unamplified set at someone’s tiny Brooklyn apartment. It was joyous and hilarious and moving yet again, and on one song Langford played a drum solo on his thighs and stomach. He would almost certainly hate to be called a role model, and I would never dishonor him by calling him that, but if you’re looking for an example of how to greet a world full of injustice and pain with a raised fist and a laugh — to hold onto the dedication that, as Langford noted in the Executioner’s piece, he developed early as a fan of hapless Newport County AFC:

“Soccer in the lower ranks was not about the big victory, or big money, or big success, it was about the lack of it, of getting by against the odds, of somehow, sometime scoring one amazing heroic victory — but more often as not, not. Blind with optimism, we’d be back again next Saturday, waiting for something to change.”

If there’s a better motto for being an activist or an artist or a musician or a writer in our times, I haven’t yet found it.

The Handsome Family

creps_greenpathI’ve been trying to figure out the exact moment when I first became aware of the Handsome Family. I know it was at Maxwell’s in Hoboken around 1995 or so, and that they were opening for the Mekons, because I remember someone saying, “They’re from Chicago, Sally Timms insisted on bringing them along.” They were a three-piece then, singer/guitarist Brett Sparks with his appealingly gruff yowl, bassist/melodica player Rennie Sparks with black plastic framed glasses before those were hip and bizarre between-songs stories about animals and death, and a drummer whose name I can never remember without looking it up in liner notes. They sang dark, funny songs about giant ants and wanting a pony and inviting Jesus to your party to turn water into wine, and were generally charming and fun.

The next time I saw them was in the summer of 1998, again opening for the Mekons, and while they were still charming and fun (and Rennie’s stories had gotten even more bizarrely entertaining), they were also utterly changed. The drummer had disappeared and been replaced by a minidisc player acting as drum machine, going AWOL somewhere around the time that Brett was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, an experience that he wrote a great song about here and wrote an ever better essay about here. Rennie had by this point acquired an autoharp to go along with her bass guitar and melodica (which if you’re not familiar, is a bit like a cross between a keyboard and a gas mask) and had taken over the lyric writing entirely. And the new songs were still funny and dark, but with a new depth that clung to me for days. For example, there was “Weightless Again,” off their then-new third album Through The Trees, which compared forgetting how to approach your lover for a kiss to Indians who’d lost the ability to start fires and had to drag burning wood with them everywhere. And then the concluding chorus:

This is why people OD on pills
And jump from the
Golden Gate Bridge
Anything to feel weightless again

It was as spooky as it was true — as were songs about taking revenge on your sister’s death by snakebite by setting fire to the woods where it took place (“My Sister’s Tiny Hands”) and the impermanence of human achievement (“Cathedrals”) and just about every other song on the record, which remains an absolute classic. It was existential music, conveyed via Brett’s soothing, cautioning baritone and traditional old-timey folk music forms that I had never completely appreciated before. I went out and finally bought the Harry Smith folk anthology. I bought a melodica, and sort of learned to play it. It was the kind of effect the Handsomes could have on you.

In particular, as I mentioned briefly in my Freakwater entry, Rennie Sparks is an absolutely incredible writer, able to capture the horror and the beauty of both the natural world and the manmade world (which is really just another part of the natural world) and make it all of a piece. In Rennie’s world, the little Dutch boy takes no pleasure in being celebrated as a hero, for he knows that he’s only temporarily forestalled the coming flood. A bottomless hole in one’s backyard is both irresistable adventure and deathly lure. Octopi are celebrated and feared for their cunning ability to lure anyone to leap to a watery death. And I haven’t even gotten into her short stories, which are even more wondrous and disturbing. Just like life, only more so.

In time, I got to chat with Brett and Rennie at shows a bunch, and found them to be wonderful, non-off-putting people offstage. (Rennie even contributed a short story to a zine I edited, and later sat for a typically charming, creepy interview as well.) Two decades later, they’re still at it, having found a modicum of fame from having their song “Far From Any Road” selected as the opening theme for the HBO series True Detective
(and a modicum of financial stability — as Rennie joked at one recent show, “it means that we can pay our electric bills, and I don’t have to wear a tinfoil hat as a means of communication”), but otherwise continuing on their singular path: Their most recent album, Wilderness, features that wonderful octopus song and is one of their best in years. It’s not music that I can listen to all the time — staring into the abyss of creation is best saved for certain moods — but anything that can fill me with both laughter and foreboding is powerful, powerful stuff. And sometimes, for just a moment, can even make me feel a bit weightless again.

The Kinks

Helmfrid-sofa4_TouchedMuch like Neil Young, the Kinks were a band that I’d heard on the radio forever, but didn’t explore further until my friend Tony brought over a copy of one of their records. It was their 1980 live album One for the Road, and I should probably explain at this point why my friends were always bringing records over to my house: It’s because that’s where our pretend radio station was.

I don’t honestly remember where the idea of the pretend radio station came from, but given that we were kids prone to making up imaginary worlds (baseball teams, bionic superheroes, etc.) and it was the heyday of WKRP in Cincinnati, it wasn’t all that unexpected. The radio station, though, may have been our most fully-fledged pretend universe. We started out picking call letters by typing blindly on a keyboard, with the result being “W¢YU” — the cents sign, we decided, would be pronounced “nordic C.” We set up a boom box in close proximity to my stereo speakers, pressed record, played records, and made up whatever stories popped into our heads. (As I recall, a lot of them involved the station management pounding on the door outside, trying to fire us.) Tony was my original co-conspirator, but he soon lost interest and my other friend Chris soon stepped in, and for the next year or so we proceeded to fill TDK D-90 cassette after cassette with improvised madness, punctuated with songs from whatever music we had available. It was a big incentive to explore new (and new-to-us) music, and we eagerly pooled our collections to flesh out our imaginary playlist.

So, the Kinks. I knew probably one song off One for the Road before I heard the album, which was “Lola,” a staple of ’70s rock radio. Hearing the rest of the Kinks end-of-the-decade live oeuvre, there were a bunch more that caught my ear — “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” with its tale of the United States as a down-at-the-heels hero, “Low Budget” and its perspective on a life spent searching through the discount bins. The tales of losers and misfits were attractive to a 14-year-old sitting at home pretending to be a radio DJ, but neither Tony nor Chris had any more Kinks records that I can recall, and then a couple years later the band came out with the unappealing MTV hit “Come Dancing,” and I wandered away to other musical interests.

I wandered back, in large part, thanks to Yo La Tengo. On their 1990 Fakebook record, one of the many songs they pulled out of obscurity to cover was “Oklahoma, U.S.A.,” off the Kinks album Muswell Hillbillies. Well over a decade passed before I thought to actually obtain a copy of Muswell Hillbillies, but finally, having heard it was one of those records that slipped under radar at the time but later was revered as a classic (much like Neil Young’s On the Beach), I bought it.

If you’ve heard Muswell Hillbillies you already know this, but: Even by the somewhat insane standards of 1970s Kinks albums, it’s hard to believe that this album even exists. It’s a concept album, first of all, about urban renewal — in particular, the post-World War II planned redevelopment of London that pushed the future Kinks’ families out of their old neighborhoods and into new ones, in their case the old suburb of Muswell Hill. The songs are vignettes loosely arrayed around that theme, including songs about classic British obsessions (“Have a Cuppa Tea”), the modern pressure for extreme dieting (“Skin and Bone”), and quite likely the only rock song ever written about forced government seizure of property by eminent domain (“Here Come the People in Grey”). I’d always known that Ray Davies was witty — I mean, come on: “Lola” — but this was urban sociology, underdog narratives, and a terrific rock album all mixed into one. It may not quite be experimental enough to be the Kinks’ Sgt. Pepper’s, but it’s certainly their On the Beach.

Anyway, a big thank you to Tony, to Ira Kaplan, and to anyone else over the years who’s tried to tell me that the Kinks are something special, even if it took a while for it to sink in. I’m not sure why it took so long — it didn’t help that they’d mostly stopped touring by the time I started going to shows, or that American rock radio didn’t quite know what to do with them aside from a few hits. But we’re now listening to more Kinks around the house than ever — helped along by my son’s class singing “Better Things,” another terrific song that I’d never quite paid enough attention to at the time, in their 4th grade musical. Now all he needs is a fake radio station to play it on.