music friday: julia michaels

One year ago today, we saw Pink in concert (it was my sixth time). The opening act was Julia Michaels, who I knew little about. My favorite of her songs, coincidentally, is named "Pink":

I was surprised when Michaels opened her set with this song, and the audience sang along ... they knew the words. I thought Michaels was just another newcomer opening act. I was wrong. She was already known as a songwriter for artists like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Gwen Stefani. She had also already been nominated for a Grammy for Song of the Year and Best New Artist. So I guess I was a little behind the times. To quote Robert Christgau, I'm too old for that pop world (although Bob, like me, loves Billie Eilish).

Here she is singing "Pink" live:

music friday: john prine

Sweet revenge

Lots of people dying these days, and musicians seem to be especially susceptible. Each one made their mark, and the grieving of their fans emphasizes how much our favorite musicians mean to us. John Prine is the one I felt closest to. He's was in his 70s, but it was somehow still a surprise when he fell victim to the virus.

Back in the mid-70s, I had an English teacher who told me one day that my writing reminded him of John Prine. This made no sense, then or now, but I've always appreciated the compliment nonetheless. If only I had Prine's ability to write songs that touched us in multiple ways, songs that could be funny and touching and lifelike and sad all at the same time.

We saw him once ... I think it was 1991. He would have been touring behind his then-new album, the wonderful The Missing Years, which among other things won him his first Grammy. There were so many good songs, it's hard to pick a favorite. Here's one I don't think I've posted yet on Facebook:

Prine had a way of rooting the slightest fantasy into real situations, and as a wordsmith, there was no one better. He always added just enough specifics to nail a song down:

When the farmers come to town
And they spread them eggs around
And they drop their daughters down at the roller rink
Well you're prob'ly standin' there
With your slicked-back, Brylcreem hair
Your Lucky's and your daddy's fine-tooth comb
If they knew what you were thinkin'
They'd run you out of Lincoln

In 2018, he released what now stands as his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness.

Prine was always a great collaborator ... there was room for others in his songs ... which is one reason among many that his duets album, In Spite of Ourselves, works so well.

I'd say Iris DeMent was his perfect partner, except someone else was there first. Back in 1991, Prine opened for this woman, and they sang this song together, as they did so many times:

(Ann Powers always writes great obituaries. It just sucks that she has to write them so often. "John Prine's Songs Saw The Whole Of Us".)

throwback thursday: liz and jewel

25 years ago today, we saw Liz Phair and Jewel in concert.

Jewel wasn't famous yet. The 20-year-old had just released her first album, which was going nowhere. A year later they finally put out a single from the album, "Who Will Save Your Soul", which was a hit. Eventually that first album found an audience ... it sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone. But none of that had happened yet when we saw her as an opening act for Liz Phair in 1995. I remember she had a winning stage presence, and she yodeled a lot. Like Phair, she played solo that night.

Liz Phair had two albums out at the time. The first, Exile in Guyville, was so good it inevitably set her up for a downfall, at least among "hip" fans. (The great Gina Arnold wrote a "33 1/3" book about the album 20 years after the fact ... it's worth hunting down.) Exile still holds up.

For that show in 1995, she performed, like the folkie Jewel, solo, just her and her electric guitar. Honestly, back then, Phair lacked the stage charisma of Jewel. But also honestly, so what?  Over the last 15 years, I've listened to Jewel songs exactly twice. But I still listen to Liz Phair.

There are plenty of videos of the tour on YouTube, including at least one full concert, but for some reason, the quality of the videos sucks. So I'll cheat and pick a performance from later in her career.

I woke up alarmed
I didn't know where I was at first
Just that I woke up in your arms
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love 'cause he's in it?
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
You got up out of bed
You said you had a lot of work to do
But I heard the rest in your head
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas
Letters and sodas
I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend another year alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
You almost felt bad
You said that I should call you up
But I knew much better than that
And almost immediately I felt sorry
'Cause I didn't think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn't think this would happen again
Without or without my best intentions
I can feel it in my bones
I'm gonna spend my whole life alone
It's fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve

the punk rock movie (don letts, 1978)

There are various versions of this movie, with various titles, of varying quality. The one I just watched was terrible looking, a dub of a dub of a dub, all done on VHS. There is something appropriate about that.

I first saw The Punk Rock Movie so long ago it shows how old I am and how old punk is. It exists as a document of a particular place and time. Don Letts took a Super 8 camera into the maelstrom, and this was the result. Picture's bad, sound's bad, what can I say? I suppose I can't recommend it, even though it is as much a marker of its time as Don't Look Back was of the time before Dylan went electric.

The following people appear in the film: The Sex Pistols, Shane MacGowan, Eater, Slaughter and the Dogs, Generation X, The Slits, The Clash, Subway Sect, Alternative TV, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Soo Catwoman, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and X-Ray Spex.

I suppose none of these acts are seen/heard at their best, but Letts' grubby footage feels right. My favorite acts were The Slits, where you get to see what Ari Up was like on stage, and X-Ray Spex when Lora Logic was still on saxophone.

Hey, this movie is right up my alley. I've now seen it twice in 40+ years. But even I know it's mostly crap, so if you have no interest in the early year(s) of British punk, avoid this movie.

music friday: the sex pistols

Last August, I reprinted an essay I wrote for Bad Subjects: "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" It included this early paragraph:

1977: While I'm browsing in Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, the in-store stereo begins playing one of the most powerful pieces of rock and roll I have ever heard. I stand transfixed until the song is over; when it ends, I go up to the counter and ask the clerk, 'What WAS that?' He sneers at me with know-it-all superiority and says, 'The Sex Pistols.'

It was an excellent essay, if I do say so myself, discussing my life with the Sex Pistols (including seeing them in concert in 1978) and with punk in general. But there was one angle I don't think I've ever written about. The October 20, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone featured a cover story by Charles M. Young (who died a few years ago) that was extremely influential on me. It was called "A Report on the Sex Pistols: Rock is sick and living in London".

I was fascinated with this article. I don't remember if I read it before my visit to Rather Ripped ... probably yes, since my memory is that while I didn't recognize the song being played, when I was told it was the Sex Pistols, I knew who they were. Might have even thought, so that's what they sound like.

To set the article in context, the #1 album at the time was Rumours. The concerts I attended in 1977 included Dan Hicks, a Day on the Green show featuring Peter Frampton, Lynyrd Skynrd, Santana, and The Outlaws, and another headlined by Led Zeppelin (all before the article appeared), and the J. Geils Band and Rod Stewart in shows I saw after I read the article. Bruce Springsteen was already my favorite, but he had only put out three albums, and we'd only seen him twice.

It's hard to reconstruct what was so appealing about Young's article (and its subject matter). I think it was a combination of the sensationalism he described and my desire to participate in the punk culture (I was a 24-year-old factory worker). It's fun to read it now, and see references that would have meant nothing to me at the time (for instance, The Slits opened one show for the Pistols). Mostly, though, I can recall how exciting Young made a Sex Pistols concert seem:

At midnight, the Sex Pistols finally emerge from the dressing room. The crush around the foot-high stage is literally unbelievable and skirmishes with the security men immediately erupt. The ten-foot stacks of PA speakers are rocking back and forth and are dangerously close to toppling over....

Some kid has put his fist through one of the speakers and a few more have escaped the security men to stomp on wires and knock over electronic equipment. The song is barely intelligible over the explosions and spitting noises from shorts, just the way anarchy ought to sound. The crowd pogos frantically.... Still clad in his swastika T-shirt, Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I’ve ever seen. He really doesn’t do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it’s the eyes that kill you. They don’t pierce, they bludgeon.

“You’re bustin’ up the PA,” he says, more as a statement of fact than alarm, after the song is over. “Do you want us to continue?”

Several burly roadies join the security men to form a solid wall in front of the band. Rotten is completely hidden from view, so he climbs on top of a monitor and grabs the mike in one hand and the ceiling with the other for balance. Someone in the balcony pours beer on him....

Grasping a profusely bleeding nose, a kid collapses at my feet. Another pogos with his pants down.... “No Fun” is the encore and, true to its title, blows out the entire PA.

I grab a poster ... and head for the dressing room. Uncool fan that I have become, I ask for autographs. Cook complies; Jones complies; Rotten complies; Vicious asks, “Why should I?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I just wish you would. That was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen.”

Vicious thinks a moment and signs it. “Usually I don’t do this,” he says. “For some reason, I’m glad you liked it.”

The Sex Pistols concert I attended three months later is now famously considered to be awful, and the video footage agrees:

The band broke up the next day. I wrote about the concert in my "Oh Bondage" essay:

Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to my children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.

Here is the video for their first single, "Anarchy in the U.K.":

For a couple of decades, I could say I'd been to the last Sex Pistols concert, but in 1996, they went on the first of several intermittent reunion shows, thus ending my bragging rights. Here's "Anarchy" in 2007:

music friday: ian dury

On this date 20 years ago, Ian Dury died. I was never a hardcore fan, and he was never as popular in the States as he was back home. But his serious Cockney accent, which might have been a factor in his lack of popularity in the U.S., was part of the charm of his music, and he was always an excellent lyricist. A few of his songs were inescapable, even here in California.

by request: echo in the canyon (andrew slater, 2018)

Fiona Apple. The Beach Boys. Beck. Justine Bennett. Jackson Browne. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. Jade Castrinos. Eric Clapton. David Crosby. Jakob Dylan. Norah Jones. The Mamas and the Papas. Roger McGuinn. Graham Nash. Fernando Perdomo. Tom Petty. Michelle Phillips. Cat Power. John Sebastian. Regina Spektor. Ringo Starr. Stephen Stills. Matt Tecu. Brian Wilson.

That's an impressive list of artists. If you knew there was a movie featuring these performers in archival footage, with new material (including Tom Petty's last interview), and some younger artists performing songs from the originals in a special concert, and you like most or all of the above, you'd be right in thinking Echo in the Canyon must be a great movie, or at least, enjoyable for fans of mid-60s folk-rock out of LA. And yes, for an hour-and-a-half, it's enjoyable.

But it is also frustrating. As is too often the case in documentaries like this, too many songs are presented piecemeal. I might have preferred a straightforward documentation of the concert ... at least I could appreciate the performances.

The interview segments are of varying interest. Petty's last interview is great, Michelle Phillips is a delight, and David Crosby is helplessly honest (he admits he was kicked out of The Byrds because he was an asshole). Ringo's dry humor is always welcome. But there is also an odd interview interspersed throughout, where Dylan sits around on a couch with Cat Power, Beck, and Regina Spektor, and they stare at old album covers while saying the equivalent of "wow, groovy". All of those people are interesting artists, but here they are mostly dolts. Meanwhile, Dylan is such a low-key interviewer that he disappears, although in fairness that may be one reason the artists felt comfortable during the interviews.

And, as many have pointed out, there is no mention of The Doors, or Joni Mitchell, or Love (although an Arthur Lee song appears on the soundtrack album).

Oddest of all, there are clips from the Jacques Demy film Model Shop, with many of the old-timers talking about how important the movie was in showing what the Canyon was like in those days. They speak as if the film was contemporaneous with the music featured in the film, but the movie came out in 1969, while the music we see was rather specifically from the mid-60s. Buffalo Springfield broke up in 1968, The Mamas and the Papas were about to disband, Pet Sounds was 1966. They might have liked Model Shop, but that movie had nothing to do with the music we are learning about (and the movie featured the music of Spirit, who are nowhere in the film).

There are some solid performances ... big-voiced singer Jade Castrinos' effervescence is contagious. By all means, see the movie if you are a fan of mid-60s LA folk-rock. But despite its pleasures, Echo in the Canyon feels like a missed opportunity.

music friday: kalie shorr

Christgau gave Shorr's first full album, Open Book, an A, saying "Shorr is yet another smart young woman who might once have been a sharp-tongued folkie but knows Nashville is where that way of music still has a life worth living." I picked up the album ... actually bought it, even though I listen to it on streaming, because new artists need the money. It's as good as Xgau said.

Like all of us, musicians are having a tough time of it during the pandemic, especially since a lot of them live on their tour money. Shorr said on her website, "I had to postpone my tour due to a global pandemic which is not something I ever thought I would say. But, the show must go on...line. I’ll play some new songs, make some mildly inappropriate jokes, and we can forget about the madness for a bit." Last night, she streamed "The Social Distancing Tour - Part 1".

She played for half-an-hour, six songs, four from Open Book, one Alanis Morissette cover, and a new song. My favorite was "F U Forever":

You never bought me anything
Because I paid for everything
But you got me a random ring
With your tax return

You played the victim with all our friends
Then turned around and slept with them
But I know you closed your eyes
And thought about me

Looks like my abandonment issues
Got the best of me again
'Cause we should have never been together
Now I'm wearing your stupid ring
On my pretty little middle finger
So I can say F U forever, oh yeah

How can you be scared of me
When you're the one who put your hands on me
In the bathroom when our friends
Were in the kitchen

You hated when my dreams came true
'Cause they were better as just dreams to you
But what you really hated was yourself

Looks like my abandonment issues
Got the best of me again
'Cause we should have never been together
Now I'm wearing your stupid ring
On my pretty little middle finger
So I can say F U forever, oh yeah

And I believed you whenever you said
That you were older and you always knew best
I was the problem, so narcissistic
I was a child, I was a train wreck
But I'm just a mirror reflecting
And you're just an asshole projecting

Looks like my abandonment issues
Got the best of me again
'Cause we should have never been together
Now I'm wearing your stupid ring
On my pretty little middle finger
So I can say F U forever and ever

Oops, I forgot to listen to my intuition again
But that's the last time I'll ever fake it
Til I'm making myself miserable, yeah I'm so glad
That I don't have to fuck you forever

music friday: alvin lee and ten years after

Alvin Lee, guitarist/singer for Ten Years After, died on this date in 2013 at the age of 68. (Unrelated trivia: Estepona is where my grandparents were from.) We saw Ten Years After at Fillmore West in 1968, on a bill headlined by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Fleetwood Mac (the Peter Green version) as openers. This was a year before Woodstock ... more to the point, it was two years before the movie of Woodstock came out, after which Alvin Lee was the proverbial "household name":

I've always wondered about that watermelon at the end. Someone named Mark Rosenthal, who was at Woodstock, has this story, which he told to Raquel B. Pidal, after seeing the movie. Seems someone near Mark had a watermelon, and they were going to cut it up and share it. But some stoner said no, he was going to give it to Alvin Lee. They told him he was crazy, the stage was a million miles away, but he disappeared with the watermelon. A year later, Mark saw the movie, and found out what had happened to that watermelon.

Ten Years After was a major act for a few years after the Woodstock movie. Lee's guitar playing was always the center of attention, but he was also the primary composer for the band. For me, he was a better instrumentalist than songwriter. The band's biggest hit was "I'd Love to Change the World", and it sounds great ... whenever it comes up on Classic Rock stations, I have to listen. But the lyrics ... as Christgau said, "fellow seems to believe that if you 'tax the rich to feed the poor' you soon run out of rich, with dire consequences."

Everywhere is freaks and hairies
Dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity
Tax the rich, feed the poor
'Til there are no rich no more?

My favorite of all Ten Years After songs was Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball". Lee's speedy fingers are so ridiculous that they make me smile every time. The version I grew up on was from their live album Undead, but this version from 1983 gets the point across:


I mentioned Fleetwood Mac. I can't let the moment pass without giving a shout out to Peter Green, and his greatest performance, "Love That Burns":