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.

Wild Carnation

IMG_8393wtmkOne of the fun things about letting iTunes shuffle mode curate these entries is that sometimes it’s going to pull in a band from out of left field, just because the random number generator happens to glide to a stop in that particular slice of my collection. That’s part of the fun of going to live shows, too: There’s always more music out there that I didn’t know about, just around the corner from some of my existing favorite bands.

I’d seen the Feelies live many times before I even discovered that their bassist, Brenda Sauter, had her own band, Wild Carnation, which she helped start in the early ’90s while the Feelies were on their decade-and-a-half hiatus. And it took a couple more Feelies shows before, hanging around the merch stand and with all five of the band’s extant CDs already at home (plus those by spinoffs like Wake Ooloo and Yung Wu), I spotted a Wild Carnation disc for sale and decided I might as well give it a try.

For what I’m guessing was the ten bucks I put down, it was well worth it. The album I picked up was their second, Superbus from 2006, and it grabbed me immediately with its first track, “The Road to Bielefeld,” which has a Feelies-ish vibe as you’d expect, but even brighter and warmer, thanks in part to some lovely organ (Farfisa? I’m terrible at identifying organs, and the liner notes don’t say) and mid-era-R.E.M.-ish production. Sauter’s voice, usually consigned to harmonies in the Feelies, is both sweet and full of character, reminding me a bit of another singer/bassist, Fontaine Toups from Versus. (Who had her own solo band for a while, which I’ve yet to hear but which I already love for its name: the Fontaine Toups.) It’s all enough to land Wild Carnation in that zone of band that I don’t immediately think of as one of my favorites, but which I’m happily surprised to listen to whenever I remember to do so.

It’s music like this that reminds me why I go early to shows to stand through opening acts, which are usually unmemorable but occasionally produce revelations (latest in this category: Girls on Grass, who I only caught the final four songs of and who were playing only their second show, but whose mailing list I immediately asked to be added to), why I enjoy digging through Misc bins at record stores, why I listen to freeform stations like WFMU and and shows like Radio Free Song Club and Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, which will sadly be coming to its conclusion after almost half a century in another few weeks. I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but I find there’s no significant correlation between overall popularity and how much I’m going to like a band; while I certainly listen to my share of popular music (just see the list at right), I’m just as likely, or unlikely I suppose, to like a musician laboring in relative obscurity. As much as I’ve tried, I can’t identify what it is that makes me decide a band is a keeper — all I can say is I know it when I hear it.

And I can’t say what other people are going to think, either. Look, here’s a video of Wild Carnation playing live that’s only been viewed 84 times. Is that because they’re a hidden gem, or because I’m one of only a handful of people they’re ever going to appeal to? I guess it’s really all the same thing, depending on your perspective. If you like them, you’ll know it when you hear it.

Tom Petty

tompettyThere are some musicians who don’t so much arrive in your consciousness as you suddenly realize they’ve been there all along. But with Tom Petty, there are a couple of moments that made him leap from “guy I don’t mind hearing on the radio” to “guy I listen to of my own volition and pick to sing at karaoke and consider dropping $100 on tickets to go see.”

The first came when I was working as a production editor at Working Woman magazine, which during the week or so each month when the magazine was going to press was a job big enough to require two people. My co-pilot at the time was a hilarious guy from Oklahoma named Brian, and we quickly bonded over our mutual musical tastes. One month, Brian presented me with a surprise gift: He’d bought a Tom Petty boxed set as a present to himself for completing a round of chemo for the leukemia he’d been fighting on and off for years, which meant he didn’t need his Greatest Hits single-CD collection anymore, so would I like it?

Wikipedia tells me that Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits has gone 10x platinum, so odds are that you don’t need me to tell you about it. But still: It’s one of those albums that the minute I had it, I didn’t know how I’d lived without it. Just about every song is a classic, and the whole collection is just varied enough that re-listening never becomes tiresome. (It remains my go-to road trip CD.) And it’s a great reminder that Petty has managed to take classic Top 40 guitar rock and … elevate it? Perfect it? One of those, or both.

The second moment arrived a few years later, when my friend Matthew was helping to produce my band’s album (okay, he was mostly showing us how to use dynamic compression in Cool Edit Pro so we could burn better CDRs, but it sounds more impressive the other way) and mentioned that one of the best-produced albums he knew of was Tom Petty’s solo album Wildflowers, which Rick Rubin (yes, the Def Jam guy with the crazy beard before its time) had helped make into a stripped-down, intimate beauty. I didn’t know this album at all beyond the single “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — which mostly got attention at the time because radio stations forced Petty to release an edit that bleeped the line “let’s roll another joint” — but it turned out to be another can’t-miss selection, with terrific songs including the title track, “You Wreck Me,” “Cabin Down Below,” and the positively demented “Honey Bee,” which features one of my favorite over-the-top Tom Petty lyric sequences:

She give me her monkey hand
And a Rambler sedan
I’m the king of Milwaukee
Her juju beads are so nice
She kissed my third cousin twice
I’m the king of Pomona

Tom Petty and Neil Young are very much linked in my mind, not just because they occupy a similar folk-rock-turned-up-to-11 musical space, but because both start with classic rock forms and subjects and go off at oblique angles. A remarkable percentage of Tom Petty songs are about “girl, you’re so beautiful, and I can show you a better life/can wait for you if I have to/had to leave you,” but they manage to do so in a way that transcends triteness, or at least conveys the depths of emotion behind the trite. If there was a third defining Tom Petty moment for me, it was when I first heard Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby’s cover of “Walls,” which I’d somehow missed on its initial release, and which is one of the sweetest love songs (lost/unrequited category) ever written.

I still haven’t managed to see Tom Petty live — he played a set of shows at the Beacon Theater a couple of years back that I really wanted to go to, but they sold out in seconds (or at least Ticketmaster insisted they did) and I don’t love him so much that I was ready to spend $150 on StubHub. For some reason I never went to see him with Brian — in fact, I never went to any concerts with Brian, turning down his offer to go see Neil Young at Madison Square Garden because I was fed up with arena shows. I’m sorry I didn’t go, and not only because Brian’s been gone for over 15 years now, as that moment when he bought the Tom Petty boxed set turned out to be the high point in his fight with leukemia. I wish he were around for me to thank, and to chat with on Facebook about classic rock favorites, and to say something to him when he’s distracted so he can respond with his favorite Oklahomaism, “You did what behind the barn?” Not too unlike Tom Petty, he was a superficially simple guy whose complexities ran deep. You want to appreciate those people while you can.

Talking Heads

theadsI have a clear memory of the origin story here: In my Sociology 101 discussion section at UC-Berkeley, a classmate showing off the new LP of Stop Making Sense that he’d just bought. Or she. Or maybe it was a poster for the movie? Okay, not entirely clear, but at least I know where I was when I first became aware that I should be paying attention to Talking Heads.

I probably should have been paying attention years earlier, of course, but I was in no state to do so. They didn’t play Talking Heads songs on the rock radio stations I listened to (the band was still considered new wave, which was only played on “modern rock” stations like WDRE), and the clips that had shown up on MTV — mostly “Once in a Lifetime” — were too weird to appeal to me. I mentally filed Talking Heads away with Devo and the Buggles: people in weird outfits playing some kind of futuristic music for self-conscious effect, maybe entertaining to flip past on TV but not something I’d actually want to buy and listen to.

Stop Making Sense changed all that. Once I was back in New York (Berkeley didn’t take), I went to see the film at the Waverly Theatre, the Greenwich Village indie outlet that survives today as the IFC Center. (Other movies I’ve seen there include both Speed and Howl’s Moving Castle. It occupies an odd but important place in my personal cinematic history.) It is, needless to say, a great movie, and in it Talking Heads reveal themselves as a great band: coming on stage one by one, until finally making up the nine-person “big band” that they toured as in their later years; and running through everything from stripped-down straight ahead rock like “Thank You for Sending Me and Angel” to full-on polyrhythmic weirdness like “Crosseyed and Painless.” (The latter may in fact be my favorite Talking Heads song, though there are lots of candidates.) Add in David Byrne’s clever art-rock design touches — less the big suit and dancing with a lamp than the giant screens displaying surreal random-word aphorisms — and it was Village Voice-reading first-year college student crack.

My love affair with Talking Heads only latest a few years, but it was torrid while it lasted: I quickly bought up all their albums, and listened to them more than anything else during my college years. I even wrote a paper for my “Revolutionary Societies” sociology class that managed to cite, in addition to the usual Marxist theorists, David Byrne’s companion book to the very strange Talking Heads album (and even stranger movie) True Stories. (I got an A on the paper, so either Byrne managed to hit on some universal truths, or I did a really good job of selling it.)

For all that, though, Talking Heads were a bit of a musical dead end for me. I went on to listen to Tom Tom Club as well, and Bernie Worrell’s presence in the big band led me to discover Parliament/Funkadelic, but other than that, not much else: I still don’t own any Brian Eno or Adrian Belew albums, and most of the rest of my college listening habits remained firmly in ’70s trad rock territory (Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Yes). Though really, Talking Heads were kind of an evolutionary blind alley themselves in a way: They were the antithesis of the Velvet Underground “spawned a thousand imitators” model, and by the end they’d seemingly written themselves into a musical corner: When they came out with Naked, their final album, it immediately struck me as either the future of music or a complete experimental train wreck, and almost 30 years later I still don’t know if I could tell you which it is.

I do wish that I’d been hip enough to new music in high school to catch on to Talking Heads at least a few years earlier, if only because then I might have seen them at their legendary Stop Making Sense concert at Forest Hills Tennis Center, or even their equally legendary show at the Dr. Pepper Music Festival in Central Park in 1980. (The prospect of me having seen them at CBGB’s at age 12 or so is unimaginable even in a hypothetical alternate universe.) Aside from giving me memories and some props to impress fellow music fans, with, though, I doubt it would have made all that much difference in my ultimate musical trajectory. Talking Heads were an outlier in every way, and were destined to reside alone in one corner of my music library, cherished but unique. Not that that’s a bad thing at all — I could probably say similar things about some other bands.


freakwater2It was the mid-’90s, and we were all just discovering what was starting to be called “alt-country,” which mostly meant a whole lot of punk rockers who’d discovered that it could be just as effective to turn off your amps and focus on acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, just like the DIY musicians of the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s had done. Pete insisted that I had to listen to one particular band, a pair of women from Louisville who sang old-timey songs about dead babies and betrayal, accompanied by guitar, banjo, upright bass and some stunning harmonies. He was particularly enamored of a song called “Crazy Man,” with its tale of family dysfunction (“I have met your momma and she’s crazy too/You got more from her than just your eyes of blue”), which was fun to play and sing ourselves. (It wasn’t long after this that Pete and his friend Marianne and I formed our own alt-countryish band. Our version of “Crazy Man” was enthusiastic, let’s just leave it at that.)

Once I’d started picking up Freakwater albums, though (my first acquisition was at a live show at the Mercury Lounge, purchased from a band member at the lip of the stage), I was more drawn to “Gone to Stay,” a country song about a familiar topic — untimely death — but with an unexpected lyrical twist:

And there’s nothing so pure
As the kindness of an atheist
A simple act of unselfishness
That never has to be repaid

That stopped me in my tracks. It still does, really.

I had stumbled upon the true magic of Freakwater, which was that as gorgeous and unexpected their vocal interplay, as talented their musicianship, as uproarious their stage banter, they are absolute lyrical geniuses. In particular, not to disparage Janet Bean in the slightest (her “Cloak of Frogs” is a thesis-worthy trove of layered metaphor), but Catherine Irwin soon became one of my absolute favorite writers of any kind, someone who has inspired me in my own work to choose words with incredible care, because they have incredible power. (The Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks is the other lyricist I’d put in this category.) Check out this lyric from “Good for Nothing,” off of 1999’s End Time:

Forgive and forget are words that never slid across my tongue
Revenge like a fleeting Christmas morning I knew when I was young
Put the toys back in their boxes
Let me tear the ribbons off them just once more
Inside my little box of bones a ray of light shines
Where I’m slowly keeping score

There’s an awful lot going on there, an entire short story’s worth of character development and emotional backstory. Or you could drop the needle just about anywhere on their sublime 1998 album Springtime and hear … you know, I tried finding various snippets of lyrics to quote, I tried listing some of the subjects explored in the songs (Muhammad Ali and his experience with racism, the long legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the ways in which working-class solidarity has foundered on the evil genius of modern capitalism), but some things just work better in context. You can listen to the songs yourself by clicking those links, or you can take my word for it that all of these expansive ideas, and more, are handled deftly and brought down to personal size, even while being plumbed for unexpected depths. As Irwin explained later about the care that she takes in writing her songs, “As a fiendish NPR listener, I’m aware that it’s easy to be heavy-handed, particularly about something that you’re really passionate about.”

(She explained that to me, in fact: That line is from an interview I got to do with Irwin on her 2002 solo tour, an interview that ranged from the Amish and the Wobblies to authenticity and elves, and which still makes me think, and crack up laughing, all these years later.)

Freakwater has only released one album in the last decade and a half, and they tour infrequently — rumors of a 2013 tour with members of the Mekons, to be called the Freakons, sadly turned out to result in only a couple of shows, including one at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival — but they recently headed into the studio to record some songs, which hopefully will mean an album and live shows sometime in 2015. As Irwin memorably said at another time, “If I had a master plan, it’d be trying to get people used to the idea of frumpy middle-aged losers singing music.” It may not be one big union, but as missions go, you could do much, much worse.

Neil Young

Neil-YoungThe notion of being “introduced” to Neil Young seems ridiculous: In the 1970s, his music was always in the air, and on the air. On rock stations like WPLJ and WNEW (which all the cool kids listened to), and even Top 40 stations like 99X (which I listened to until it switched formats to disco and then the cool kids and Dr. Johnny Fever shamed me into listening to the rock stations), they were always playing songs like “Heart of Gold” and “Ohio” and “Southern Man” and “Like a Hurricane” and that one with the line about “Johnny Rotten,” whoever that was.

At some point, I’m pretty sure, my friend Chris, who wasn’t one of the cool kids but had a lot of surprisingly cool musical tastes, brought over a copy of Live Rust, the live album recorded on the tour for Rust Never Sleeps, the album with that song with the Johnny Rotten reference. (Rust Never Sleeps, I would find out years later, was also recorded mostly live on a previous tour, but was considered a studio album, while there was also a movie called Rust Never Sleeps that was of the concert that on record was called Live Rust. These was just some of the many things about Neil Young I would have to puzzle out in coming years.) It was pretty cool: There were a bunch of sweet acoustic songs I’d never heard, like “Sugar Mountain” with its lyrics about not wanting to grow up; and then a bunch of rocking electric songs I’d never heard, like “Cortez the Killer,” with its lyrics about brave and strong Incas and the European conquerer who came to slaughter them and, for some reason, a woman who still lives there and “loves me till this day.” And there was some bizarrely fascinating banter, like a reenactment of the scene in the film of the Woodstock festival (which I’d never seen, but would soon enough) where someone announced from the stage, “Maybe if we try real hard we can stop this rain! NO RAIN! NO RAIN!”

Something was happening here, and what it was wasn’t exactly clear.

More information became available a couple of years later, when Neil played a show at the Beacon Theater, an old movie palace that was only a few blocks from my house growing up. I would see pretty much anyone halfway interesting who played at the Beacon (I later went to a show by GTR, a deservedly short-lived band featuring Steve Howe from Yes and Steve Hackett from Genesis, which will not be showing up on this site under any circumstances), so Neil Young was a no-brainer. I’d only been to a couple of concerts ever at this point, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this: Neil, alone on stage, wandering among a few guitars and a piano, searching his pockets for the right harmonicas and singing songs from all over his discography, and some from off the map entirely. After playing the then-unreleased “Too Far Gone,” he quipped, “If I’d known you’da liked it that much, I woulda put it on the record.” It was enough to make me a fan for life, even if bits of it were kind of weird.

Okay, more than kind of weird. The acoustic set was just the opening act, it turned out: After a little over an hour, Neil left the stage, and returned with a full band in the rockabilly guise under which he’d recorded his recent album “Everybody’s Rockin’.” While it wasn’t exactly bad, it was also a puzzling encore to what had been a folk-rock master class.

Thirty years later, my feelings haven’t changed much. One can’t exactly have a love/hate relationship with Neil Young — it’s more like love/bafflement. I’ve since followed him through some of the greatest albums (and shows) I’ve ever heard — just last week I took part in a Facebook debate over which of his 1970s albums, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere/After the Gold Rush/Harvest or On the Beach/Tonight’s the Night/Zuma, might be the best three consecutive albums by any artist — and some of the worst as well. (This is a man who in complete seriousness released an entire album of nothing but guitar feedback. Eat that, Lou Reed.) Sometimes it’s impossible to separate out which is which, as in possibly my favorite Neil Young lyric of all time, from 1975’s Tonight’s The Night:

It’s too dark to put the keys in my ignition
And the morning sun has yet to climb my
Hood ornament

A lyric that only Neil Young could get away with? A lyric that not even he should have tried to? Is there a difference?

After a stellar solo show at Jones Beach in 1989 (accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith and with a special guest appearance by Bruce Springsteen), I went years without seeing another Neil Young show because they were always at the Enormodome. Finally, in 2012, I went to see him during his maybe-final tour with Crazy Horse; I hated it. (I can’t say how much was due to self-indulgent feedback solos, how much to the self-indulgent record he was then touring, and how much due to it being at the Enormodome.) A year later he played solo at Carnegie Hall and I skipped it; I later saw a video of it and he was terrific. Most recently, in the last year he has divorced his wife of 36 years, started dating Daryl Hannah, and written and recorded an entire album about it, using an orchestra and a vintage microphone that once belonged to Barbra Streisand.

There is no excusing this kind of thing; there is barely any understanding it. It is all part and parcel of what makes Neil, as he loved to say of others in Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating biography of him, Shakey, an “inneresting character.” There’s a recording of a Neil Young show from 1971 in which he pauses in the middle of playing “Sugar Mountain” to explain that he initially wrote 126 verses to the song, and purposely left in the absolute worst one, “just to show what can happen.” Whether that’s true or just a story that his muse told him sounded good at the time, it’s about as Neil Young a concept as you can get.