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:
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:
On this date in 1978, we saw Talking Heads at the old Boarding House. This site includes an ad for the month when Talking Heads played there, and it’s interesting to see the kinds of acts that were featured.
There was Bill Kirchenbauer, a comedian/actor who the ad notes was “Tony Roletti from America 2-Night”. The Boarding House had many comedians ... Steve Martin recorded several albums there.
Next came The Randy Meisner Group (“of the Eagles”). I can’t quite make out the name of the opening act, but I think it was Caroline Peyton. If so, she was a member of a popular band in Bloomington, Indiana, when I lived there in 1971-2, named the Screaming Gypsy Bandits. I saw them open for The Mahavishnu Orchestra back then.
Right after Meisner, Brown and Coffey headlined (“Back from Europe”), once again with Peyton opening. I have to be honest, I have no idea who Brown and Coffey were.
At the end of the month, Carl Perkins showed up for three shows (“Blue Suede Shoes”, the ad informed us). The ad also notes “Comedians DOWNSTAIRS every show night”.
On the 15th and 16th of Seprember, 1978, Talking Heads topped the bill. I can’t find any information about who opened, but we saw Bobby Slayton there more than once ... this might have been one of those times. Talking Heads were touring behind their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and the show was broadcast live on KSAN. Many bootlegs have appeared over the years. Here is the setlist, with links to YouTube audio of the songs when available:
I just finished reading Music in the Air: The Selected Writings of Ralph J. Gleason. Gleason was a big part of my life, starting sometime in the 60s and going until his premature death in 1975. His television series, Jazz Casual, which ran throughout the 60s, was produced at the San Francisco NET (now PBS) outlet, and while I wasn’t a big jazz fan, the show, and its host, was hard to miss, especially in the Bay Area. Along with the countless things Gleason wrote for various magazines, he had a regular column in the San Francisco Chronicle, from before I was born until he died. We subscribed to The Chronicle for most of my life, and especially once Gleason started covering the local rock scene, I never missed a column. I remember getting as a birthday present a book by Gleason, The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, which was a mishmash of recycled columns and interviews with each member of the Airplane. Gleason was already in his 50s when that book came out, and it was always clear that he wasn’t the same age as the musicians in that world, but his presence was strong in the Bay Area rock scene, and his writing was never condescending ... he didn’t write from above like the jazz expert he was. With Jann Wenner, he co-founded Rolling Stone, which at first seemed like a local paper. Again, Gleason’s regular columns in RS were mandatory reading at my house.
For all of these reasons, I looked forward to this anthology of Gleason’s writings, edited by his son, Toby. And it doesn’t disappoint. The range of Gleason’s work is evident by looking at the four sections into which the book is divided: “Jazz and Blues”, “Folk, Rock, and Pop”, “Comedy”, and “Politics and Culture”. That last section is almost superfluous, given how often politics and culture are part of most things Gleason wrote. The jazz section is most informative to me, especially his pieces on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And I was happily surprised to find many passages still exist in my memory, like the time Duke Ellington gave Nixon four kisses, “One for each cheek”. Or the moment in his essay on Hank Williams where Gleason refers to San Pablo Avenue as “possibly the longest main street in the world”. I’ve always remembered that line, without always remembering where it came from, so it was fun to see it was yet another way Gleason was part of my life. (Since 1987, I’ve lived less than half-a-mile from San Pablo Ave.)
Gleason was so much a part of my life in those years that I was surprised when a friend, Peter Richardson, in a review of this book, wrote he “didn’t know anything about the Ralph J. Gleason cult until I began researching my 2009 book on Ramparts magazine.” Pete, like myself, is a Bay Area guy (as he says on his blog, he was “Bred and buttered in the East Bay”), and I’m only a bit older than he is, plus he knows the local culture as well as anyone. (Suffice to say that at this point, he knows more than I do about all this stuff.) I suppose some of this is age-related ... I don’t expect my kids to know all about Ralph Gleason, or even to know who he was. (When I was directing American Studies senior theses at Cal, a student came to my office one day ... I think she said I’d been recommended as someone who might be able to help ... I no longer recall the exact family relationship, but she was, if memory serves, one of Ralph Gleason’s grandchildren, and she decided to write about him because she realized she knew very little about this man who was both famous and a family member.)
Music in the Air includes many examples of Gleason’s liner notes for albums. (The list of such notes is endless ... a highlight in the book is the notes for Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, Davis having a long-time relationship with Gleason. To this day, I remember Davis’ contribution to a large obituary section in Rolling Stone on Gleason’s death, a section featuring numerous heartfelt comments. Davis was brief and to the point, and for that reason, unforgettable: “Give me back my friend.”)
Here is the Jazz Casual featuring John Coltrane:
Postscript: After finishing Music in the Air, I happened on an interview with author Jack Hamilton, who has a new book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imaginary. Book looks quite interesting, but what caught my eye in the interview was this:
Pitchfork: Ralph J. Gleason, who co-founded Rolling Stone, comes up a lot in the book. The quotes you utilize are blindsiding—endless “other”-ing, almost no self-examination. My favorite is when he writes about the “magic rhythmic power” of Santana’s rhythm section, presuming they could only be accessible to people with a direct line to Latin America’s “savannahs and inland plains.” Your respond: “The 'magic rhythmic power' that Gleason extolled was provided by Michael Shrieve and bass player Douglas Rauch, both of the savannahs and inland plains of San Francisco.”
Hamilton: [laughs] Yeah. I realized at the time I was coming down fairly hard on Gleason. I definitely don’t feel like I unfairly demonized him or anything. He was an elder figure who had come to rock as a longstanding jazz critic, and who in those early years was a really influential voice because he had that prestige. He was really seen as a critical authority on music. That Santana material is from Rolling Stone; he also wrote a lot [about rock] in the [San Francisco]Chronicle.
Another essay that he published in The American Scholar in 1967 was called “Like a Rolling Stone.” It’s this interesting, bizarre intellectual and artistic manifesto on rock music—in 1967, when this is a fairly early concept, the idea that rock is art. The amount that race figures into it, these quotes where he’s trumpeting white creativity over what he sees as black music selling out. One thing that came up a lot while I was writing the book was that notion of selling out, whether or not a black musician is making music that’s “black” enough. No one’s ever said that Dylan or the Beatles aren’t white enough.
The “Like a Rolling Stone” essay can be found in Music in the Air.
Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.
She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”
One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")
I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.
Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:
“Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.
“One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.
“Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”
“Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”
“Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.
“Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.
Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:
If the link works (it does now, but there’s no guarantee it will always be there), you’ll see that while the 13th Floor Elevators were apparently the headliners, Grace Slick was the drawing card. It probably says something about those days that I couldn’t find any info about the actual concert, but it was easy to find the poster.
This is the moment when I have to decide how much I need to explain. I only have a few regular readers, but a good portion of them weren’t even born in 1966, and I don’t know if the three bands on the bill are known these days. So I’ll assume they are new to most folks.
Sopwith Camel was a San Francisco band that suffered from not fitting into the “San Francisco Sound”, whatever that was. They were the second S.F. band to sign a record contract, and ... well, let’s quote from their website:
Because the Camel shared the same label and producer (and similar musical tastes) with the Lovin' Spoonful, most people thought they were from New York. Their friends in San Francisco groups "accused us of being sellouts. That's absurd; back in those days, we were all looking for hits. It's just that ours was the first." The Camel's big return to San Francisco met with disaster. "We were headlining over the Airplane and the Dead. The Dead did one of their long, long sets, and by the time we were on, we were only able to do three tunes before the cops pulled the plugs before curfew. We took it to be a sign of some sort."
That first hit was “Hello, Hello”, which hit #26 on the charts. The single hadn’t been released in August of 1966, which may explain why they were on the bottom of the bill. It was their only hit. For some reason the original is nowhere to be found on YouTube, so here they are in 2011:
The Great Society were the spawning ground for one of the best artists from that period. They had actually released a single for Autumn Records (owned by the legendary Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue) earlier in 1966 that went nowhere. A story goes that Sly Stone, a producer for the label, gave up on the band after they spent (depending on who is telling the story) 50 takes on one of the songs without getting it right. Less than two months after the concert that is the focus of this post, the female lead singer left the band, taking two songs with her, with the result that Jefferson Airplane, with Grace Slick, recorded their own versions of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. Here is The Great Society’s version of “White Rabbit”:
There is a reason The 13th Floor Elevators headlined. They already had a hit single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”. They were out of Austin, Texas, and had been together less than a year in August of ‘66. Of all three of these bands, The Elevators are the most influential. Singer Roky Erickson has lived a rough life, but he is a truly unique artist. Here is their big hit, on American Bandstand ... this song still packs a punch, even 50 years down the road:
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.