There is something a bit unsettling about learning that Charlotte Caffey, who joined The Go-Go’s early in their history, was born the same year that I was. I can’t believe one of The Go-Go’s is as old as me ... I can’t believe I was ever as young as The Go-Go’s are in my mind when I think of them. Caffey was a bit older than her band mates, which may explain at least a little of all this. She was asked to join the band because she could actually play her instrument.
For The Go-Go’s, Caffey wrote “We Got the Beat”. The original version appeared on a Stiff records single:
The band re-recorded it for their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, and here is where I admit I’m never too sure about which version is which.
Among the many other songs Caffey wrote, she and Belinda Carlisle wrote “Skidmarks on My Heart” on the first album:
With Kathy Valentine, she wrote the title song from their second album, Vacation:
From the third album, Talk Show, Caffey and Jane Wiedlin wrote “Turn to You”, written about Caffey’s ex-boyfriend, baseball’s Bob Welch:
Later, Caffey was in The Graces with Meredith Brooks (“Bitch”) and Gia Ciambotti (Bruce’s “Other Band”). “Lay Down Your Arms” was their biggest single, co-written and sung by Caffey:
Finally, Caffey and fellow Go-Go Jane Wiedlin co-wrote “But for the Grace of God” with the singer, Keith Urban:
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:
Dylan has written a lot of fuck-you songs over the years. This song begins, poking a stick at Miss Lonely, and then the chorus hits and we think, yes, I've been feeling like that for a long time, without a home, a complete unknown. And suddenly we no longer identify with the singer ... we realize he's singing about us. And we sing along on that chorus, asking ourselves and everyone else in the audience, how does it feel? I've felt a connection to the complete unknown since the first time I heard this song. It isn't masochism, it's just a recognition of community. When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. This isn't "Positively 4th Street" or "Idiot Wind" ... this is a national anthem.
Early in his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes:
In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.
Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.
He is describing the first time he saw Elvis Presley on TV. He was two weeks shy of his 7th birthday.
Born to Run allows us to see what drove Bruce from a very early age. We’ve heard the stories in bits and pieces over the years, but seeing them in one place, chronological, has a special impact. It turns out many of those stories he used to tell on stage about growing up were true. Bruce Springsteen was a misfit who found his calling in rock and roll music. And for many reasons, all of them discussed in this book, Bruce was the guy who did indeed make it. Writing about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam:
In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing behind Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.... I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well ... one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or worse, a commonness, and I always would.
There is an undertone throughout the book that tells us Bruce knows for many of us in his audience, he is that god. And he never downplays the role his big ego played in his career. But it feels legitimate when he deflects such thoughts, standing up not for the gods, but for the journeymen.
Most of the pre-publication things I read focused on his fight against depression and anxiety. This does indeed take up a sizable portion of Born to Run, especially in the last third, when he finally stops and takes stock of where his life has gone. This is vital, crucial material ... knowing that our hero fights against the same problems we all do matters more than perhaps it should ... and Bruce pulls no punches in talking about his battles. He had promised us a real, warts-and-all picture of his life, and he delivers. In those sections, I was reminded of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, which described how debilitating life on the road became for her. You wonder how he was able to continue making music during those times.
And the music ... the book has three parts. The first takes us through his childhood, up until his first two albums have been released in 1973. The second section goes through the most vital artistic period of his career, from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love. The third and final section seems appetizing, kind of like watching the E Street Band play music from the “Other Band” years. But the final section is also the shortest. While we get several chapters about the making of Born to Run, while all of the subsequent albums through Tunnel of Love get detailed treatment, suddenly the book shifts. Part of this is the shift in his life ... once he pairs up with Patti, things are better, and as their three kids are born, life seems worth living in ways that perhaps hadn’t been true before that.
The third section, and the first chapter of that section, is called “Living Proof”, and begins with the birth of his first child. The next chapter is devoted to Patti, then to the firing of the E Street Band, LA riots, a marriage and a honeymoon, another child, and then, finally, comes “The Other Band”, which gets one short section in the “Going to the Chapel” chapter. He briefly names each of the band members, says of the subsequent tour “It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times.” That’s pretty much it. After the in-depth look at each of his albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town are barely mentioned. This is a period where, musically, we know too little, and I was looking forward to this part of the book, so I was disappointed to see it dismissed.
In fairness, much of that final section is about his depression. While he writes a bit more about albums like The Rising, none of his work of the last nearly thirty years gets too bogged down in details. The first two sections are so engrossing, the third becomes a bit of a letdown, at least in the discussion of music. And this might speak to his musical career ... while he has made some fine albums since Tunnel of Love, with a few classic songs, what makes him still excitingly relevant is the passion that remains in his live performances. He has inched closer to being a nostalgia act, except when you play with the fervor of Bruce and the E Street Band, you are caught up in something far greater than mere nostalgia.
He also has an interesting way of always finding the best in people. We learn that Danny Federici was a handful, but in the end, he played the organ with heart and that’s what mattered. His first manager famously screwed him over, but Bruce also insists that he believed in Bruce when no one else did. Even his father, with whom Bruce has the most complicated relationship, becomes a more sympathetic figure in the end. And when there are problems, Bruce often puts the blame on himself. His first marriage goes by in a flash, but he has nothing but good things to say about his wife, and puts all of the negativity on himself. As for Patti ... well, it reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own wife. He fucks up, she sets him on the right track, she doesn’t take shit but she is always there for him, and even when she is hard-headed it is in his best interest. If the first two thirds of the book are about reaching to the gods of rock and roll, much of the final third is about his wife the red-headed goddess and their three offspring. It isn’t dull, especially with the freak outs and therapy sessions and psych meds, but it’s as if the music takes a back seat.
And you know what? He deserves it. He gave so much of himself to rock and roll, in the process enriching the lives of so many of us. He’s earned a break.
Except he can’t help himself, so he keeps giving. As he says in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”,
Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop I'll be on that hill with everything I got With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost For wanting things that can only be found In the darkness on the edge of town
He finally sees past the darkness, but he still has it in his bones.
Near the end, he tells about an operation he had not that long ago, a story that sums up the above. Over the years of giving the proverbial 110% on stage, he’d developed cervical disc problems. The surgery sounds scary, especially for a singer:
They knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked!
And his voice was fine, a few months later. But this is where it gets good. He heads back on tour “with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.”
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: