music friday: sweet soul music

It's the anniversary of Arthur Conley's death. He died 14 years ago today. He seems destined to always be remembered as a One-Hit Wonder, that hit being "Sweet Soul Music". Conley was taken under the wing of Otis Redding, who helped put together "Sweet Soul Music". He seemed to be an ideal mentor for Conley, but he died in a plane crash later that year. Conley career floundered. Ed Ward tells the story:

In the mid-'70s, Conley abruptly moved to London. That proved expensive, so the next stop was Brussels, which he found too hectic. He then headed to Amsterdam and changed his name to Lee Roberts. Nobody knew Lee Roberts, and at last Conley was able to live in peace with a secret he'd hidden - or thought he had - for his entire career - he was gay. But nobody in Holland cared.

"Sweet Soul Music" was "based" on a Sam Cooke tune, "Yeah Man" ... "based" as in a lawsuit resulted in Cooke's name being listed a co-composer.

The horn introduction borrows from the theme for The Magnificent Seven:

Here is Arthur singing his hit in 1967:

Finally, here's Bruce Springsteen, who has performed "Sweet Soul Music" many times. The video quality is poor, but the audio is fine, and this one is dear to my heart, because it's the only time I saw him play the song in concert. 1988:


music friday: solo lou reed in the 70s

I had a serious Lou Reed obsession in the 1970s. Saw him several times, the first being in late 1974 on the Sally Can't Dance tour (a show I wrote about here) ... I think the last time I saw him was in 1989. Some of this was lingering Velvets love. I'd been a fan of theirs since the first album, but I was 13 when it was released and living on the other coast, so my love of the band came from their records (and their infrequent appearances on FM radio), not because I lived the life or saw them in concert. My favorite of his 70s albums was Coney Island Baby. I had a homemade Coney Island Baby t-shirt ... my wife made it for me:

Coney island baby

When we were first married, we had a hand-me-down record player ... I think it only played mono, and the stylus was awful, so it probably ruined a lot of vinyl. I played Berlin over and over, then I played Rock and Roll Animal over and over ... after that, we might have finally gotten a good stereo. Once we started going to see his shows in earnest, I saw him a couple of times at Berkeley Community Theater (Rock and Roll Heart tour and New York tour), and a couple more times at the Old Waldorf, a showcase club where you could buy "dinner seats" and sit right up against the stage ... it was then that Robin decided Lou's hands looked like her grandfather's from Iowa. I especially liked the band that turns up on Take No Prisoners. I'm not a big fan of the album, but the band sounds like my memories of a Lou Concert. I never saw the Velvets, and I never saw the great band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders (although Fernando was in the band for several of the shows we saw), so I'm sure I missed the best, but that late-70s band as good.

Here are six Lou songs from the 70s. I'll give a special shoutout for the last three. "Coney Island Baby" remains my favorite Lou Reed Solo track ever, for the way his voice breaks at the end as he says "Man I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you." "Temporary Thing" feels like a lost classic to me ("Where's the number, where's the dime and where's the phone?"). And "Street Hassle" is his magnum opus ... even has an appearance by Bruce Springsteen.

You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it
You know, it's called bad luck


music friday: happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

This blog turns 15 years old today.

I was 48 years old when I started.

The first music post (second post overall), from that first day on January 6, 2002, had a picture of Robin I called “The Cowgirl and the Cactus”, and a link to the Bruce Springsteen song, “Used Cars”. There was no apparent connection between Robin and the song.

Here is what I wrote on the occasion of the 14th birthday:

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

music friday: shout

I’ve been posting music videos on Facebook for my cousin, and he recently responded with a great old Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. Sister Rosetta was one of the first big gospel music stars, and her willingness to crossover to mainstream audiences meant she was a seminal rock-and-roller, which some thought wasn’t appropriate for gospel music. To my ear, her music was always gospel, no matter what she added (her guitar is always great, as you can see here):

The Isley Brothers had a hit in 1959 with one of the most durable songs in rock and roll, “Shout”. The fervor and call-and-response structure identified it as gospel, but they weren’t singing about the Lord. This was sex.

“Shout” has been a part of American music culture ever since, with perhaps its most famous appearance being with “Otis Day & The Knights” in Animal House:

And it still gets played today:

music friday: bruce, sleater-kinney, and a promised land

My two favorites are on my mind today. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s 67th birthday, which he is marking with the release of his autobiography, Born to Run. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney have announced a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco.

In 2002, we saw Sleater-Kinney for the 8th time. It was the second time we’d seen them at the Fillmore. It was, in fact, exactly 14 years ago today. Which, as you might have figured out, meant I saw Sleater-Kinney on Bruce Springsteen’s birthday. And they did me a favor: they played “Promised Land”.

Someone named Han Q Duong had a website devoted to S-K back then, and he wrote after I commented on this show, “I'm glad they played Promised Land for him, as his entire blog is pretty much entirely Sleater-Kinney and Bruce Springsteen, with a little bit of the San Francisco Giants mixed in.”

When I got home that night, I had to post something to the blog before I went to sleep:

they played promised land

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

More later, I gotta go to bed.

Theirs is a sped-up version, with highlight moments for all of them. And, as Michael Tedder said, “Weiss is playing the harmonica while drumming on this, because there’s nothing Janet Fucking Weiss can’t do.”

The date on this is September 25 ... close enough:

And then there’s this, one of my favorite photos:

corin bruce

throw me back to 2005

On this date in 2005, we saw Bruce Springsteen on the Devils and Dust tour. At the time, I wrote:

Next up was the weirdest version of "Reason to Believe" in history. He stomped his foot for a drum, played harmonica, and sang into some oddball mic that distorted his voice beyond recognition, so even someone like me, who knew it was coming, didn't recognize the song until it was almost over. Try to imagine Captain Beefheart singing Delta blues from the bottom of a swamp ... it was downright scary sounding.

Here he is performing it a month later, to give you an idea:

Two years later, it had morphed into this stunning version:

Seen a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch
He's lookin' down kinda puzzled pokin' that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open he's standin' out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough that dog'd get up and run
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me
Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe

music friday: bruce springsteen, "sherry darling", the river

I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s recent concert that we attended in Oakland, part of his “River Tour”, wherein he plays the entire River album in order. There is a lot of talk these days about how fragmented our listening habits have become. We don’t listen to albums anymore, we just hit shuffle play and let the software choose from a million different songs. Maybe you have a favorite artist ... say, in my case, Bruce Springsteen ... and you have a playlist consisting solely and entirely of every song Bruce has ever recorded. I’ll listen to that playlist, but when I do, I’ll use shuffle play. The result? Let me do an experiment, I’ll shuffle that playlist and see what comes up.

There are close to 500 songs on the playlist. For this particular shuffle play, we start off with “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, a favorite track of mine from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Next comes “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), one of the outtakes that ended up on Tracks. Then the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, from the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert in 2009, with Bruce joined by John Fogerty.

That’s followed up with the “Detroit Medley” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. Finally, closing out the first five songs is “Blood Brothers”, recorded in 1995.

You get at least a glimpse of what makes Bruce “Bruce”. Cover versions of 60s rock classics, an acoustic track, and two lesser-known tunes. Nothing from his most famous albums, nothing that’s one of his hits. But all of it is recognizably Bruce Springsteen.

The artist is the only thing that brings this disparate material together. Those five songs do not resemble an “album”, or even an EP. An album has its own coherence. At least, that’s how it used to be. It might still be true, but the audience doesn’t necessarily treat it as such.

What I thought while listening to the Oakland show was that Bruce was forcing us to return, not just to 1980, but to a time when an album was an album. He has played many River songs in concert over the years ... to use one example, at the show I saw most recently before Oakland 2016, he sang “Hungry Heart” and “The Ties That Bind”, separated by several other songs, of course. This tour, though, we got it all, track by track, in order. Just like we were listening to the album.

Well, if we were listening to the album with 35+ years on us. Clarence and Danny are gone, Jake and Charles and Nils and Soozie (and sometimes Patti) are with us. The crush of nostalgia lies heavily over the concert, to be sure. But as an experience in hearing an album, it was different.

“Sherry Darling” had an interesting history. In the old days, Bruce was always tossing a few new songs into his shows. At the famous Winterland concerts in 1978, he played “Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank”, even though he was touring behind Darkness and The River was two years away. So we knew those songs before they ever turned up on an album. “Sherry” was another of those songs ... while he didn’t play it for us, he trotted it out enough times that we heard bootleg concert versions.

When The River was released, I was wary. Darkness on the Edge of Town was indeed dark, and in fact that fit well with my personal experiences of the time. But I also knew that my favorite parts of his concerts were the joyous ones. “The Ties That Bind” was the first track on The River, and it was good, but I feared the darkness was returning. So when “Sherry Darling” was the next track, with its goofy lyrics and pseudo-crowd noises, I was so happy I could cry.

You’ll note from the above video that in 1978, Bruce wanted the crowd to make noise (“fraternity rock”), but he couldn’t expect anyone to sing along, since the song had never been released. In 2016, though, it is expected that we will know the words, and we will sing them:

We are hearing the song in the context of the original album. But we can’t replace the newness of those first times we heard those songs in 1980. Bruce approximates the experience of listening to an album, but nothing more. And there’s the added fact that some of the most noteworthy performances on this tour have been non-River songs, like his tributes to Bowie and Prince, “Rebel Rebel” and “Purple Rain”.

bruce #36

I normally save the setlist junkie stuff for the end, but this time, we can learn something from examining the setlist.

Last night, Bruce played 35 songs, including the entire album The River, which has 20 tracks.

In October of 1980, my wife and I caught five shows in a week on the River tour.

Of the songs we heard last night, 18 were songs we heard at every one of those five shows. Another 5 were songs we heard four times. One we heard three times, one we heard once. So we heard 25 of last night’s 35 songs at least once on the 1980 tour, most of them all five nights.

Of the ten songs from last night we never heard in 1980, seven came from The River era or earlier (including “Shout”, which I assume Bruce and the band knew back in 1980, whether they played it or not).

Of the three remaining, one was from Born in the USA, two were from The Rising.

My point in all of this? This tour is centered on The River album. But there are 15 other songs, and 12 of them could have been played on the 1980 tour. Bruce hasn’t just revisited The River; he has revisited the 1980 tour.

Now, there are a lot of Bruce fans who didn’t catch him in 1980, for whatever reason, so I’m speaking only of my wife and I ... and all the other people from back in the day. There was very little last night that we couldn’t have experienced in 1980 ... for the most part, we did. Which makes last night’s concert arguably the least-adventurous of all the 36 Bruce shows we have attended since 1975. Ignoring for a moment the more than 35 years since The River Tour, what we saw last night was effectively our 6th River Tour show.

Of course, the above makes it sound like we had a bad time. But that River Tour was one of the most memorable times of our lives. The E Street Band probably plays “better” now than they did back then. Bruce still has remarkable energy ... not as frantic as he used to be, but there aren’t a lot of 66-year-old rockers who can still put on a 3 1/2 hour show without flagging. Amazingly, five of the people on stage were also on stage in 1980, and the “new” folks are wonderful. Soozie Tyrell isn’t given enough to do on this tour, but her violin is welcome when she gets to play it, as are her backup vocals. Same goes for Nils Lofgren, who did his trademark whirlybird solo and added his lovely backup vocals. More important for this tour are the two “replacements”. Charlie Giordano has more chops than Danny Federici ... he’ll never replace Danny as an original, but they lose nothing on keyboards with Charlie in the mix. And in one of the great twists of fate, Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons is a great sax player in the Big Man mode, and as my son noted, he is fully integrated into the band at this point, playing Clarence’s famous solos while adding his own personality to the mix. (He’s also the baby of the group ... in fact, Jake was born the year The River was released.)

You’ve got great songs played by a great band, a crowd wired for a great time ... why ask for more?

A few extra notes:

Bruce no longer sings in his higher range. He did his falsetto once, but mostly, he rearranges songs to avoid those high notes. If you weren’t expecting them, you wouldn’t notice ... other than that, Bruce is in fine form, and hey, Tony Bennett rearranges his songs, too.

There was a couple in front of us who danced and hugged and kissed the entire show. Afterwards, I had to ask them how old they were ... it would have been too perfect if they were 27, like my wife and I in 1980. They were a couple of years older, but it was fun seeing people younger than everyone on stage having such a great time.

A friend was sick and couldn’t attend. She offered her tickets to anyone who could make the show on short notice, saying she didn’t want money, just wanted to know the tickets got into good hands. Mission accomplished ... a true Bruce Community Moment.

(On the darker side, another friend got last-minute tix and found at the door that her tickets were fake. The person who sold those fakes is not in the Bruce Community.)

I often measure Bruce shows by how often I cry. But this time, I kinda knew where that would be focused. Many fans have never seen him play “Drive All Night”, and they were guaranteed to get it on this tour. We saw him sing it almost every night in 1980, but never since. It is a favorite of mine. Even though I not only knew he would sing it, I knew when it would come (he was playing the album in track order), I lost it when the first notes came. To make matters worse, in the middle, he threw in a bit of “Dream Baby Dream”, another favorite, and quite appropriate. Was it the highlight of the evening? It was for me.

Finally, the last of the setlist junkie stuff. We heard three songs that were new to us at Bruce shows: the River outtake “Meet Me in the City” that kicks off the show, “Fade Away” (the only River song we had never seen), and “Shout”, an oldie we’d missed in the past. “Born to Run” remains the song we’ve heard the most.

Oh, and “Rosalita” is my favorite Bruce song, but I don’t need him to just walk through it. He played it at the first ten shows we saw, but it’s more rare since. The one time since those early days that I was really delighted came when he pulled it out at the Pac Bell Park concert. Last night’s version was great fun, goofy and sloppy just as it should be. I’m glad it was there.

music friday: here comes the river

Sunday, Bruce Springsteen’s “River” tour comes to Oakland. At this show, he will play the entire album The River. In 1980, we took our only extended Bruce vacation, seeing him in three cities in two states, five shows in seven nights. He was touring behind The River, of course, so we saw him perform those songs night after night. For some reason, he never played “Fade Away”, so we’ll have one “new” song on this tour. Along with anything else he tosses in.

This will be my 36th Bruce show, dating back to 1975. Robin missed a couple of those. Bruce’s first tour since this blog began was The Rising Tour in 2002, and I took that time to write about my experiences with him over the years. Here is what I wrote about The River album:

The River

We all grow up eventually, even Steven Rubio and Bruce Springsteen, but it always struck me as odd that someone with as much adolescent energy as Bruce Springsteen also always seemed older than his years. If he was 30 when he made The River, he sounded lots older on songs like "Point Blank" and lots younger on songs like "Sherry."