music friday: once i was

Tim Buckley was prolific. By the time he died of an overdose at the age of 28, he had already released nine albums, and I’m not counting the inevitable posthumous releases that always accompany the death of a musician. (Not that there haven’t been plenty of those, including SEVEN live albums since his passing.) Musicians know who he is, as do fans of late-60s folk-rock, but for most people, he is known, if at all, as Jeff Buckley’s dad.

Buckley was an adventurous musician, who often went in new directions with each album. His second, Goodbye and Hello, is considered by many (i.e. me) to be his best, but by his fourth album, Buckley had integrated jazz into his music, and by his fifth album, Lorca, he jumped into the deep pool of experimentation, losing a lot of his audience in the process. Greetings from L.A. was a bit of a return to accessibility, but it was too late. (I’m not making a value judgment here ... granted, I mostly lost track of him over the years, but he was committed to his art, and his later works have fans to this day.)

Goodbye and Hello is a seminal work of 60s psychedelic folk (or, as AMG called it, “Psychedelic/Garage”), and as such, is unsurprisingly one of my favorite albums. I admit that in 2016, some of Goodbye and Hello sounds a bit silly and dated (like that’s a bad thing!). Song titles like “Hallucinations” and “Phantasmagoria in Two” are indicative. But the propulsive backing on “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” is hard to resist, even as the lyrics (“O Flying Flying Fish, please flutter by my door”) are charmingly clunky::

The pinnacle of this style in Buckley’s music came on his next album, Happy Sad. “Gypsy Woman” occupies, to my ears, the perfect spot between the folk-rock of his beginnings and the more experimental work to follow:

But this post is titled “Once I Was”. This quiet song, from Goodbye and Hello, holds a special place in my heart. Once long ago, I listened to it after the departure of a loved one, someone I thought I’d never see again. And ever since, “Once I Was” is my go-to song for such moments.

And sometimes I wonder
Just for a while
Will you ever remember me?

robert johnson, the king, and the president

Today marks the anniversary of the death of The King, Elvis Presley. I consider him the most titanic pop culture figure of my lifetime. I remember where I was when I heard the news of his death. I wrote my honors thesis for my bachelor’s degree on Elvis. It’s not unusual that I think of him every August 16.

Robert Johnson was one of the crucial artists in the history of American music. He recorded somewhere between 40 and 60 tracks in 1936 and 1937, before dying at the age of 27. He is mostly known today as the writer of many songs made famous by rock musicians, most notably the Rolling Stones (“Love in Vain”, “Stop Breaking Down”) and Eric Clapton (“Crossroads” with Cream, along with many others, including an entire album of Johnson songs). This is a fairly ordinary tale of a great black innovator being co-opted by white artists, although at least the Stones are arguably at Johnson’s level. Suffice to say that for many, Robert Johnson is the greatest of the early bluesmen, which is to say one of the greatest progenitors of rock and roll music. The Post Office even put him on a stamp back in 1994.

I think often of Robert Johnson. I don’t play him as much as I play Elvis, or the Rolling Stones ... there is an intensity to most of Johnson’s music that doesn’t lend itself to casual listening, so I need to be ready to sit down and allow Johnson to force me to pay attention. I don’t include him on many mix tapes for the same reason. Of course, this does not mean his music is poor ... on the contrary, it is evidence of how vital it remains.

Here’s the thing. Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938. Elvis died on August 16, 1977. Yet I feel like today is the first time I realized that coincidence. I was alive when Elvis died, maybe that’s why I remember it. But while I know that Johnson died, and the reputed circumstances of his death, I’ve never attached a date to it.

And that says something about how we think of black artists. If anyone was as important a music figure as Elvis, it was Robert Johnson. Yet on August 16, Johnson is forgotten under an avalanche of Elvis nostalgia.

“If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is not Johnson’s greatest song. (As with all great artists, my idea of which is the best changes regularly, with “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail” always at or near the top.) But it has the greatest title, one that makes every other blues title seem minor in comparison. This isn’t “if my baby came back to me”, or “if I could just get out of this town”. No, this is Johnson imagining he has the power of God itself. (It is Johnson’s version of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” ... Johnson's title was purposeful. The lyrics are not nearly as fantastical, just Johnson bemoaning the loss of his woman.)

An as example of Johnson’s influence, here is my favorite cover of his songs, performed by Mick Jagger:

And finally, this brief clip of “Sweet Home Chicago”, first recorded by Johnson, here with the President of the United States on vocals:

music friday: rob sheffield on bowie

I love Rob Sheffield’s books. His first, Love Is a Mix Tape, was an explicitly autobiographical memoir, a moving and beautifully written story about his life and subsequent marriage with Renée Crist, who dies unexpectedly. He tells this story by blending in a series of mix tapes, which suggests the direction his next books would go. The second book mentions Duran Duran in the title, the third is about “the rituals of love and karaoke”. It would be hard to find two subjects that interest me less than Duran Duran and karaoke, but I loved both books. I love that they continue his use of memoir to illuminate broader topics, such that by the time I finished the books, I had a much deeper understanding of those things I had thought were uninteresting.

What makes Sheffield’s books work is that while he is a central character, his presence is used to illuminate the world around him. Some writers (myself included) tend to turn everything into a story about myself, but that’s not what Sheffield accomplishes. Instead, he uses his personal connections in the service of his subjects. It’s quite a skill, one I wish I could master.

Sheffield loved David Bowie, and when Bowie died, Sheffield’s heart was broken. He says his latest book, On Bowie, “is a love letter to Bowie ... a thank-you for the beautiful mess he made out of all our lives.” Reading this, I realize that on some level, every book Rob Sheffield has written is a love letter of sorts, and that provides a lovely structure for whatever he is writing about. In one moving passage, he writes about hearing Bowie had died. “I thought about waking up my wife to tell her. But I wanted her to sleep one more night in a world that had Bowie in it.” In those sentences, we feel how important Bowie was in people’s lives, but also how Sheffield’s personal response includes the desire to protect his wife for a few more hours.

Here’s the thing: we learn a lot about Rob Sheffield in On Bowie, just as we have in all of his books. But, more than that, we learn a lot about David Bowie. Sheffield’s critical analysis of Bowie’s work is idiosyncratic ... of course it is, it should be, he’s not trying to put a canon in concrete. By attaching his own life history with Bowie, Sheffield stands in for the fans, and that helps a non-believer like me appreciate how Bowie and his fans fed off of each other. The biggest implication is always there ... substitute your own favorite for Bowie, and you’ll recognize a lot of what Sheffield goes through over the years. But by working with the memoir structure, Sheffield always brings those larger implications back to the specific story of David Bowie.

I recommend every one of Sheffield’s books: Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love & Karaoke. If you are just starting, read them in order, although if you are a Bowie fan, you’ll want to read that one first. But trust me on this: Rob Sheffield has never written a book that was less than wonderful.

Here are a few of my favorite Bowie songs. I only scratch the surface ... another use for On Bowie is to uncover hidden gems from Bowie’s recorded work. Me, I’m a greatest-hits kind of guy when it comes to Bowie ... well, I also love The Man Who Fell to Earth, one place where Rob and I do disagree. These are in no particular order, probably chronological although I’m not checking. “Stay” would be atop my list.

Suffragette City

The Jean Genie

Rebel Rebel

Young Americans


Modern Love


Bonus track:I Got You Babe

music friday: anger

I sure do know a lot of nice people. And all of them post on Facebook. I don’t like to rain on their parade ... everyone should find joy. But I don’t think happy people ever stop to think how oppressive it can for those of us who are not always happy, to be force fed niceness. So here are some angry songs I like to listen to when it gets too nice out there.

Green Day, “Basket Case”. Sometimes I give myself the creeps.

Tonio K, “H-A-T-R-E-D”. Oh, yes I wish I was as mellow, as for instance Jackson Browne. But "Fountain of Sorrow" my ass, motherfucker, I hope you wind up in the ground.

Miranda Lambert, “Kerosene”. Forget your high society, I'm soakin' it in kerosene.

John Lennon, “How Do You Sleep? Those freaks was right when they said you was dead.

DMX, “What’s My Name?”. I'm not a nice person. I mean I'd smack the shit out you twice, dog, and that's before I start cursin'.

Marianne Faithfull, “Why’d Ya Do It? Every time I see your dick I see her cunt in my bed.

Fear, “I Don’t Care About You”. Fuck you!

Drowning Pool, “Bodies”. Let the bodies hit the floor.

L7, “Shitlist”. I write a list of all you assholes that won't be missed.

2Pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”. My .44 make sure all y'all kids don't grow.

(To be honest, none of the first nine come close to the last one.)

alice bag, violence girl: east l.a. rage to hollywood stage, a chicana punk story (2011)

While Alice Bag is listed as the author of Violence Girl, the author’s name is arguably only applicable in the second half of the book. The selling point is the name ... there are people who know the name Alice Bag who don’t know her name at birth was Alicia Armendariz. But Violence Girl begins with the story of an East L.A. Chicana, and very gradually moves us through Alicia’s life until she adopts the Alice persona.

It’s not exactly two books in one, because Alicia’s memoir does a great job of showing how she became Alice. Still, those readers who come to Violence Girl hoping to read about the L.A. punk scene in the late-70s may be surprised to find it takes 140 pages before Alicia graduates from high school.

Those pages are vital, though, because we learn how Alicia’s childhood helped form the person she became as a punk grownup. Importantly, Bag’s background as Latina and woman automatically expands our vision of L.A. punk as a haven for suburban white boys playing hardcore punk. Alice Bag’s music was informed by the Mexican music she heard as a kid, as well as the glam rock she favored. But what dominated the sound of The Bags was the violence referred to in the title, for Alice Bag steamrollered her way through live performances, singing with an angry passion that made lyrics irrelevant. And the roots of that violence lay in her upbringing in a home with an abusive father. While there is clearly a social context for L.A. punk as a whole, and The Bags in particular, Violence Girl, in taking us through the transformation from Alicia to Alice, shows the personal aspect to Alice Bag’s stage presence.

It’s a sign of the quality of the book that, even if you are antsy to get to the punk stuff, the story of Alicia’s childhood is interesting and insightful enough that it works not just as a prelude to what is coming, but as a standalone memoir of growing up Chicana. Of course, once we get to punk, Bag’s I-was-there story telling draws us right in. Bag’s writing is more functional than elegant, but that is especially appropriate when she talks about forming bands and bonding with the community of local punks. That community forms the heart of the second half of the book, and when the community begins to struggle (drugs play a big part), we feel it because Bag has made us appreciate the liberatory experience that precedes the downfall.

An extended epilogue, where Bag goes to college and travels to Nicaragua as a teacher, is a believable continuation of the story we have been told. And Alice Bag has never gone away ... her memoir may end in the 80s, but Bag lives on, as activist and archivist. She is living proof of how the transformation that accompanied punk can influence throughout a person’s life.

music friday: 1972

The conventions reminded me that I first voted for president in 1972, so here are ten tunes from that year.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side

Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain

Curtis Mayfield, “Superfly

Steely Dan, “Reeling in the Years

The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There

The Rolling Stones, “Happy

Spinners, “I’ll Be Around

Lyn Collins, “Think (About It)

Edgar Winter Group, “Frankenstein

music friday: thirteen

We recently began watching a series called Thirteen, which revolves around the re-appearance of a woman who had been kidnapped thirteen years before. At one point, an old friend gives her an iPod with a bunch of songs from the time she missed out on, which inspired this, one song from each of the 13 years the fictional character was captive.

2003: OutKast, “Hey Ya!

2004: Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out

2005: Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone

2006: Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy

2007: Amy Winehouse, “Rehab

2008: M.I.A., “Paper Planes

2009: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind

2010: Cee Lo Green, “Fuck You

2011: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep

2012: Taylor Swift, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"

2013: Miley Cyrus, "We Can't Stop"

2014: Kendrick Lamar, “I

2015: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk

music friday: "post"-punk

Elisa Salasin drew my attention to a list on Paste Magazine, “The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums”. In the accompanying article, they note that they are picking from the period 1977-1987. I have always been far more a fan of punk music than of “post”-punk music, although such labels are always problematic, and I like plenty of post-punk artists. So, working backwards, #46 on the list, Germfree Adolescents by X-Ray Spex, is a great favorite of mine, but 1) it came out at the beginning of their self-imposed time frame (1978) and 2) I never thought of X-Ray Spex as “post” anything. They are one of my favorite punk bands, and I have no idea what they are doing on this list. Again, I should just get over being picky about labels.

At #31 is Crazy Rhythms (1980) by The Feelies. In my mind, The Feelies aren’t punk, or post-punk. Perhaps this is because I loved them most later in their career ... my fave album of theirs is Only Life from 1988 ... maybe they were less punkish by then?

And so it goes. The B-52’s debut album at #26? Another band where I never thought of them as punk or post-punk. Hüsker Dü, perhaps my favorite band on the list, at #18 with New Day Rising? That is my favorite of their albums, too, but if Hüsker Dü isn’t just plain punk, who is?

My dissociation from the list is exemplified by the top two. #2 is a Smiths album, and while I have no idea if they are post-punk, I know I never connected with them or Morrissey. Meanwhile, #1 is Television’s first album, which I love, and once again, I have no idea where the “post” in this punk album is.

The truth, which I don’t want to admit to myself, is that post-punk is when I started missing out because I was “too old”. In many ways, that’s nonsense ... I was only 34 in 1987. But I have created a large, even excessive, number of Spotify playlists, and one of my favorites is “Punk 1975-1980”. After punk, I loved many new artists, but I was no longer part of what could conceivably thought of as a community of genre fans. So I don’t make much of a connection to a post-punk list. (I should be honest ... in the 80s, my favorites, besides Hüsker Dü, were Bruce Springsteen and Prince, neither of whom come close to punk, post or otherwise. Also, my favorite music has always been from the 60s or 60s-based, no matter how modern I pretend to be.)

Here are some songs I love from the albums on that Paste list.

X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours! (I’m cheating, this was originally a single that got added to CD editions of the album Germfree Adolescents.)

The B-52’s, “52 Girls”.

Magazine, “Shot from Both Sides”.

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize”. (I am required, whenever I mention this song, to quote my favorite lyric: “Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”)

New Order, “Blue Monday”. (Another cheat, this single was added to U.S. CD releases. It is, in fact, the biggest-selling 12” single of all time.)

Violent Femmes, “Add It Up”.

Gang of Four, “Anthrax”.

Television, “Marquee Moon”.

music friday: black cat just crossed my trail

Happy birthday to Starbuck!

Starbuck on toilet

Duke Ellington, “The Opener”.

Jeff Beck, “I Ain’t Superstitious”.

Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, “Track in ‘A’ (Nebraskan Nights)”.

Cat Power, “I Found a Reason”.

Cat Stevens, “Miles from Nowhere”.

The Stray Cats, “Stray Cat Strut”.

The Kelley Deal 6000, “When He Calls Me Kitten”.

The Rolling Stones, “Stray Cat Blues”.

Janet Jackson, “Black Cat”.

Tom Jones, “What’s New Pussycat?