Dec 282013
 

For the last few years I’ve been picking away at a memoir, of sorts, on my formative life and musical experiences. For my own edification above all else, as well as a possible guidebook to help my sons understand why their dad is weird, I am examining how these experiences and the sounds swirling around me worked together to “save me” from the hazards of childhood, to set me on the path of becoming the man and rock nerd I am today. Suburban kid‘s excellent Dad Rock thread inspired me to share a current draft of an opening chapter, some of which you may have seen or heard in earlier stages of development.

easyrider

My first music-playing device was a plastic, olive-green record player that was pleasingly textured on the outside, like stucco, nubby upholstery, or Naugahyde. Flip up the top and the plastic was beige—also textured, to better pick up smudges from my dirty hands. The turntable itself was brown, with a brown rubber mat to soften the blow of singles released from the multi-45 stem. I can’t remember for sure if the arm was brown or beige, but I remember my shaky hands were always challenged by lifting the arm and dropping the needle onto a specific album track. My beat-to-hell childhood 45s, these days crammed into my original orange vinyl box along with other singles picked up through the years, can attest to this challenge. The cord was a brown 2-pronged affair. I experienced my first electric shock on that cord when I left one of my shaky fingers slipped between the prongs as I plugged it in. Ouch!

I used that record player from the age of 4 or 5, playing “She Loves You” over and over, singing along with my speech-impeded “l” sounds (ie, She wuvs you…), through about age 15, when I’d long mastered consonant sounds. My uncle gave me my first stack of LPs as well as a box of 45s. The LPs included Steppenwolf Live, with that snarling wolf on the cover and Santana’s first album, with its sketch of a roaring lion that contained hidden figures and each Carlos Santana guitar solo deliberately articulated with a long, bended note, played high on the neck. He gave me The Band’s second album, which to this day is one of my Top 5 favorite albums ever, and about a half dozen Beatles records, including early ones through their then-recent psychedelic period, Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. A year or two later I got Let It Be and the Beatles Again singles collection, the one with them dourly dressed in black and standing in front of a big door. I didn’t know “singles collection” from “proper” release, and thought nothing of the stylistic and sonic differences between “I Should Have Known Better” and the scorching single version of “Revolution.” The band members looked their coolest in the mustachioed, sideburned photos of their psychedelic years, so I “updated” my early Beatles’ albums, drawing the appropriate whiskers on the lads and the distinctive granny glasses on John.

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Aug 052012
 


The Band — Circa 1995 — Free?

Street festivals, county fairs, ethnic celebrations…every weekend I scour local events calendars to see if there is anything remotely interesting to see around DC, especially for free. (Oh look, Weezer is playing a free show at a Microsoft store in Arlington, VA on Aug. 11th!)

Last summer, I saw The Bangles (who are still keeping it together) at a county fair. I’ve seen Al Green (fantastic), Joan Jett, Kansas (umm), Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms, Etta James, Old 97s (at an Italian Fest in Chicago!) — some good, some bad.

But the most memorable free show was seeing the 1990s version of the Band at a Taste of DC festival…circa 1994 or so. They sounded great, Danko was there, and there they were playing in front of about 500 people at some side stage.

In the spirit of season, what’s the best show you’ve ever seen for free?

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Apr 212012
 

Sounds of the Hall in roughly 33 1/3 minutes!

In this week’s edition of Saturday Night Shut-In your host, Mr. Moderator, lacks time to chat but constructs a set around some thoughts on Levon Helm and the passing of yet another member of one of his childhood faves, The Band.

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[Note: You can add Saturday Night Shut-In episodes to your iTunes by clicking here. The Rock Town Hall feed will enable you to easily download Saturday Night Shut-In episodes to your digital music player.]

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Apr 172012
 

A friend passed along this sad note on Levon Helm‘s Web site. I knew Helm had been battling cancer, and he didn’t look like the picture of health over the last few years, but it saddens me to think that yet another member of a band that has meant so much to me since childhood, The Band, is about to cross maybe the greatest of divides.

The Band’s second, self-titled album is one of the first albums my uncle gave me when I was a little boy. I played it to death and wore out the textured gatefold album cover with all the time I spent gazing at those beards, almost groping at the pictures of them recording such magical music in regular-looking surroundings. Robbie Robertson was The Genius, but Levon had the best beard—and he sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” like his life depended on it. No, that’s not right: like the South’s legacy depended on it. I still get chills every time I hear that song. As a little kid the gave me a “living” sense of a significant piece of our nation’s history. A young Yankee felt a kinship with those ancient Southerners. I still do, despite the fact that I’ve hardly spent any time in the South excluding trips to tourist traps in Florida.

When The Last Waltz was released my childhood love of rock ‘n roll was rekindled in a big way. I started learning all sorts of nerdy things about The Band that I wasn’t aware of at the age of 6, including the band members’ Canadian roots, all but Helm’s, that is. He was the real-deal Confederate of my boyhood Civil War fantasies. Watching him sing with his head cocked, his shoulders hunched, and that half-smile was a revelation. I was used to seeing Ringo happily bashing away and singing “Boys” or whatever crowd pleaser he was assigned, but Levon was something else. He brought funk and fire to The Band that never came off hokey, the way the performances of a then-peaking Southern rock hero like Ronnie Van Zandt could to a private school-educated kid from the Northeast.

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Oct 072011
 

For someone who was sooo in love with everything Elvis Costello & The Attractions, it’s amazing I never picked up the solo effort (can it be “solo” with three guys?) by the greatest backup band in the world. A high school buddy of mine had it and we derided it—probably without really listening to it with an open mind.

So, besides The Band, is there a backup outfit that has had any success on their own. Would you buy The Rumour without Graham Parker? The News without Huey? The Heartbreakers without Tom Petty?

And should I give The Attractions’ “solo” album another chance?

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Sep 162011
 

Neil Young‘s “Cripple Creek Ferry” popped up on my iPod the other day. What a great, little snapshot of a song. What’s that film-making device called, when the camera pulls back and you just know the ending credits are about to roll? I love songs that serve that role, be it at the end of either side of an album (see The Undertones‘ “Casbah Rock” as another fine example of what might be a future Glossary entry).

Anyhow, as I listened to “Cripple Creek Ferry” for the first time in probably 6 months I was reminded of yet another unfulfilled rock ‘n roll dream: to record a song with what I’ll call a Ragged Canadian Chorus. Two of my main musical colleagues over the years, andyr and E. Pluribus Gergely, cringe at this approach to backing vocals. Beside the fact that they’ve shot me down whenever I’ve suggested this approach and that we don’t have the chops to pull off such deceptively casual backing vocals, we’re not Canadian.

In my mind I initially termed the loose, dragging, community-style chorus of “Cripple Creek Ferry” the Ragged Hippie Chorus, but then it occurred to me that the next two examples I had of this style were by Canadian artists: Joni Mitchell‘s “Circle Game” and almost any song on my second-favorite album of all time, The Band’s s/t sophomore triumph. It must be a Canadian thing, because when American bands try this it either sounds like shit (eg, The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead) or is a little too smooth (anything involving JD Souther with a hand cupped over his ear). When English bands try this they sound like a bunch of paunchy guys at their local pub’s Celtic night (eg, Fairport Convention). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Canadians do it just right. I love how it sounds like a group of friends is hanging around in a booze-and-smoke–filled cabin, when the lead singer decides to play everyone his or her new song and then the friends casually feel motivated to sit up and join in on the chorus. I imagine lots of curly hair and denim, tightly fitting plaid shirts with 3 buttons undone, a thumb hitched in one singer’s front jeans pocket and another singer’s four fingers shoved down a tight back pocket. Fresh sensations of recent bed-hopping within the circle of friends hang in the air along with the pot smoke. The ritual cult-like effect of the Ragged Canadian Chorus is both soothing and slightly unnerving.

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Jul 052011
 

Dear Robbie,

First of all, Happy Birthday! I was planning to write you today regardless, but when I logged onto my e-mail this morning there was a message from Wolfgang’s Vault saluting you on this, your 68th birthday. I wish I knew where to send you a card, but this open letter I’m posting here on Rock Town Hall will have to do.

As old friends and regulars to the Halls of Rock know, I’ve been fascinated by The Band since childhood, when my relatively hippie uncle gave me your second, self-titled lp and let me listen to your band’s other albums on the 8-track player in his bedroom. He would regale me with tales of having seen you guys in concert many times over, ranking your musicianship among that of his other favorite artists: James Brown, Traffic, and Joe Cocker’s Leon Russell–led band. My uncle’s dark, exotically scented room was a wizard’s den of learning and exploration. Your albums were sacred relics.

I’d spend so many years gazing at the photos in the gatefold sleeve of that self-titled album that I felt I knew my way around what I’d learn years later was Sammy Davis Jr.’s pool house. And your facial hair and clothes, in sepia tone no less! I couldn’t wait to grow up and sprout whiskers. What was cool, too, through the lense of my middle-class, Italian-American family, was that you sported all that cool facial hair while not overstepping the bounds of stylishly long hair. Most of you were capable of cleaning up and looking stylishly hip, unlike the incorrigible freaks of the Jefferson Airplane, for instance.

Most importantly, of course, was the music. The fact that you fit the Goatee Rock standards of an Italian-American household in the late-’60s was convenient, but the wavy hair nipping at your oversized shirt collars wouldn’t have meant a thing if your music didn’t have that swing. As I gazed as the credits for your second album one thing that was unavoidable was how much you, Robbie, contributed. You’re listed as playing just about every instrument under the sun! Your bandmates play multiple instruments, but only your credits require a paragraph’s worth of space! You were the man, Robbie. I learned this as a boy, before I caught the sports bug, and the lesson was driven home when I rediscovered your music through The Last Waltz, just at the moment when my dreams of a professional baseball career were evaporating.

Damn, you cleaned up as well as would be expected for that film! Levon and Rick looked good, too, but there was no doubt who was the Bandleader. Levon was the team MVP, but you still wore the C. After the second viewing of The Last Waltz when it came out in the theaters I started saving money for a Fender Strat. I couldn’t find a gold one, like what you played in the movie, but a year later I’d saved enough money to buy a blonde Strat with a black pickguard. It would have to do. My friends and I were starting a band, and I began writing songs with an eye toward claiming the captaincy. With every half-assed song I wrote I had one eye on the C. I was too lazy to properly learn how to play guitar let alone learn multiple instruments, but that didn’t stop me from trying to pick up as many credits as possible. Backing vocals and percussion? Check. Slide guitar? Got it! Overdubbed second bass part coming out of a solo? I’m ready, if you need me! Hold a note on the organ through a few measures? I’ve got a forefinger!

I was all over your career following The Last Waltz, Robbie. Shoot, I paid to see your directorial/acting debut in Carny. I remember it not being bad, despite not being able to remember a thing about the movie. I think I spent the entire film imagining you and my favorite director, Martin Scorsese, being connected at the hip in future years for a run of cinematic masterpieces that would incorporate not only your music but appearances by The Clash. Didn’t they make a cameo in some film you and Marty worked on? I remember reading about their coming appearance and expecting a lot more. That’s OK, I told myself, there’s more to come from this meeting of the minds!

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