Saturday, January 20, 2018


In 1997, when U2’s Pop was released, I was living in Austin, Texas. I had a toddler already and didn’t get out late at night very easily, but I drove to Best Buy (or was it the long vanished Circuit City?) to pick the album up when it was released at midnight. The clerks all had laminated Pop tags hanging around their necks like backstage passes, as if they were ushering in a real chart buster, but I’m here to tell you there was no one interrupting their Monday night to get an early copy of Pop but me. Right out of the gate, the record already had the aroma of a flop to it. The air was thick with it: this was not U2’s moment, rough times had arrived.

It’s hard to understand what the band was thinking, releasing an album dominated by electronic dance music (title of first single: “Discotheque”) to a certifiably uninterested, even hostile, American rock audience. If chart domination was their goal, this was a bewildering miscalculation. And no matter what the record eventually came to mean to me, I can’t deny my first impression was one of great disappointment. The album struck me as dense, lethargic, and endless. Whenever I begin to get carried away these days with a neglected-gem train of thought, I have to remind myself of this initial reaction, because first impressions are important. Maybe I know better now; but on the other hand, maybe I knew better then. And I do, even now, see unquestionable flaws in the thing. It’s too long. It lacks top-shelf tracks. The album took forever to make, and over the course of that long process its focus drifted—it was both an electronic dance album and an answer to the Britpop that was overtaking the charts at the time and rendering U2 passé. “Mofo” sounds straight out of a Bristol club, but “Staring at the Sun” is pure Oasis. Hard to make a cohesive record when you’re chasing after both Leftfield and Noel Gallagher. Not surprisingly, this schizophrenia not only weakens the record; it exposes U2’s oldest, deepest flaw—trying to be all things to all people. Their other big flaw—that they’re closet squares—also rears its ugly head. Not very reassuring when you’re hawking hip dance music.

The record sold 6.7 million copies—where their last major release, Achtung Baby, sold 18 million—and the stadium tour they insisted on played to half-empty houses in the U.S. It would take the European and South American legs of the tour not only to fill the seats but to hone the show itself into perhaps the most musically and conceptually rewarding of the band’s career. No matter how much was eventually salvaged, however, the damage was done. The record was seen as a misfire—perhaps most importantly by the band itself.

It’s U2, more than anyone, that cultivated the failure narrative. It goes like this: the Popmart tour loomed, and so they had to release the record before it was done. Another few weeks and it would have been perfect, they’ve often remarked. Consider me skeptical. It’s hard to see how a few extra weeks, after a year or more of work, would have made the crucial difference. If anything, the album feels overwrought, not undercooked. The snippets in this work-in-progress video made for the Island Records execs have an eye-opening rawness that suggests they worked too long on the eventual product. And yet, two songs were in fact remixed for their releases as singles and three more for the Best of 1990-2000 album. They are our only indications of what a longer gestation might have done for this material. Not one is an improvement, however, and the “Discotheque” and “Staring at the Sun” remixes are distinctly inferior to their Pop versions; to my mind, they amount to mutilations of the original songs.

I think U2 was borderline traumatized by the album’s relative commercial failure. So they threw it under the bus; they classified it as their obligatory dud, which every great rock artists has at some point—their Self Portrait, their Goats Head Soup. Called it “prog rock.” Apologized for it. The album was conceived during a year of downtime in the south of France, when the band learned to relax, to even party; it was supposed to reflect that carefree mood, Bono has explained, but instead felt like the long hangover. They went too far with their experimenting, we're told in hindsight, and lost the plot. There’s a fair amount of control freak in U2, and if their record was going to fail, then they’d be the first in line to explain how exactly it had failed. It was damage control presented as candor.

When they reemerged—humbled—in 2000, with All That You Can’t Leave Behind, it was a return to a conventional U2 sound—anthemic songs with big hooks, earnest lyrics, every wild hair trimmed away. More conventional, actually: even U2's most straight-arrow records from the past had had a strong sense of a band pushing itself, hard. All That You Can't was a sizable hit, and in the time since, they have never much wavered from its formula. After all, it restored them to rock royalty, which I believe is their highest priority. (Never mind that over the past decade they have fallen back out of fashion. Now what?)

Since my initial, underwhelmed reaction, I’ve come to love Pop, but only very, very gradually. Every year a little more: I liked it more in 1999 than I did in 1997, more in 2011 than I did in 2004. It has chiseled away at me for twenty years. I no longer know if my attachment to it is based on realizing better what U2 were up to—that is, that I’ve caught up to it—or based on an intense nostalgia for the era in which it was made. Since then, the rock world I grew up in has disappeared beneath my feet. Maybe I’m gathering up those stray, under-appreciated pieces of a suddenly very finite adventure.

This is the most supple, sensuous music the band ever created. The ten-minute soundscape of the DM Deep Extended Club Mix of “Discotheque” is a soft, druggy bed with pillows of soft blue pulsing light that I can lie down on and curl up in, a 3 AM sweet spot. I find this beautiful detached quality in other, similarly ambitious music from that time—Portishead’s Dummy, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Tricky’s Maxinquaye, the early Björk records. It was a supremely expressive period in music, dreamy as opposed to heroic. When I listen to a recent U2 album—anything from the past decade or more—I know I’ll never again hear anything from this band like that languid guitar on “Velvet Dress,” the perfect dissonance of the sampled Hindi singer on “Wake Up Dead Man," the nuked-up sonic rush of "Gone" and "Last Night on Earth." Or that rising bass line at the end of each verse of “If God Will Send His Angels” that is a thing of rare beauty (the chorus is a letdown—they just don’t bring the song off). U2 dismiss this record, but how could anyone ever create something like "Do You Feel Loved" and claim to not cherish it at least a little bit?

Pop is probably closer to a good record than a great one, but you hear U2’s dreams on it; and by dreams I also mean nightmares, as well as the boredom and surprise of actual dreams. Some would argue that their work in the time since then possesses a welcome discipline, and the band have rationalized their recent hit-chasing as a dedication to songs that communicate. But they are keeping their dreams to themselves.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

David Bowie: All In

The Short Version
David Bowie dropped his best album in 35 years, and 72 hours later he was dead. Christ, what an exit.

The Long Version
There had been a kind of comeback in 2013, an album (The Next Day) that was more notable for appearing out of nowhere and for being Bowie’s first in a decade than for its music, which wasn’t necessarily better than what he’d been doing on the several albums before his semi-retirement. But it was good to have a Bowie album again, and a pretty good one.

It proved to be something of a dry run for something else—Blackstar, which used a similar strategy, from secret sessions to a birthday release date, but raised the stakes. It began with an advance release of the title song. Hey, a new David Bowie single, and it’s ten minutes long: in 2015 this was not anyone’s idea of promising. I only bothered because the music video was supposed to be very weird; the song itself was almost an afterthought. But I couldn't help noticing that, against all odds, the song was great. I’d call it his best since “Ashes to Ashes,” in 1980. By the time Bowie’s 69th birthday rolled around on January 8, I was driving around town trying to find a vinyl copy of Blackstar; I had to resort to buying one online, got a free rip of the album, and listened to it all weekend. Bowie had found his way back to a good album, back to relevance. Holy shit, as Marc Maron might put it—David fucking Bowie! It looked like Bowie was at long last going to match Dylan in something: he was going to pull off the the Unlikely Late-Career Resurgence. It is the toughest thing to do. I settled in for a long reacquaintance.

On Monday morning I woke up to a text from a friend: “Bowie’s gone. Jesus.” Gone where? I got up. My daughter was brushing her teeth. "Hey, Daddy—David Bowie died." Holding her smartphone up with one hand the way people in the old days probably waved a newspaper with a big headline. Mouthful of toothpaste.

Oh. Gone there you mean.

Bowie, David fucking Bowie, he had pulled the rug out. Like he was executing the perfect con, the old grifter had directed our attention one way when the action was actually somewhere else. This wasn’t a comeback story; it had been a farewell all along. In hindsight it seems obvious—the funereal cover art for his final album (particularly the all-black LP edition), the deathbed fantasies in his recent music videos, the valedictory quality of his new lyrics, the adoption of a Lazarus theme for both a new song and the retrospective theater piece he was developing. It was all happening in plain sight. Bowie's career had, in a way, been an act of performance art, and this exit was its stunning, un-toppable ending.

It even crossed my mind that Bowie was not dead, that he had slipped away into normal life and was watching the fallout of his vanishing act. This isn’t wishful thinking of the Elvis-sighting variety; it’s just a logical conclusion—how could Bowie possibly not be appreciating this somewhere? This elegantly engineered exit is the ultimate example of his conceptual mastery and all-in approach to his art.

That week felt a little dreamlike. I’m not sure people who didn’t experience it firsthand will ever be able to appreciate it. As a traumatic reversal of gears, it may not quite be on the level of Lincoln being killed only 48 hours after the surrender at Appomattox, but for a celebrity death it had a powerful dimension of unreality to it. I think this aspect of Bowie’s death will get a little lost over the years. You kind of had to be there.

Of course, the Facebook tributes cranked up. Music journalists not even born when Bowie had already jumped the shark weighed in on the career. You couldn’t buy even the most obscure Bowie album on Amazon; everything was sold out. (If that’s what it takes to move some units of The Buddha of Suburbia, so be it.) Bowie even had his first number one album in the States. And then, a few days later, Professor Snape died, and then the dude from Earth Wind & Fire, and then Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump heated back up after the holiday layoff, and, well, you know, the caravan moved on, as it must.

Once the smoke cleared, none of the tributes really captured what, if anything, was great about Bowie. Many insisted on the man's warmth and generosity, which came as a surprise to me—I'd always detected a somewhat standoffish character. Turns out it was pretty fun to hang with DB, though. You could cruise Cold War-era Berlin with him in his Mercedes and ram a drug dealer's car, or if you were washed-up rock star he might salvage your career for you.

From an entertainment perspective, it’s not complicated. Bowie’s a big deal because we all know “Changes” and “Rebel Rebel” and Major Tom and Ziggy Stardust, in the same way that we know “Born in the U.S.A.” or “Stairway to Heaven.” They’re rock chestnuts.

But Bowie had more than the required string of hits. He was at the center of not one but two major shifts in rock music. I don’t mean he was a witness, which would already be significant. I mean he was a mover: he played a big part in making them happen at all. His first contribution was to what would become punk. Where most people were building on the pop of the Beatles or the blues-based rock of the Stones, Bowie, having already gone through that phase, looked to artists like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. He found meaningful common ground among these barely-known bands and channeled it into his early rock, including the glam rock that was a clear precursor of the English branch of punk. Where most glam now seems brittle or arch, however, Bowie’s glam records have the grit and the connection to the culture of real rock’n’roll. (The fact that this era of his work also threw a bold, if sensationalistic, spotlight on gay culture just gives Bowie another notch in his cultural belt. This was brazen stuff in the early ’70s. Elton John, genuinely gay where Bowie was dabbling, sure didn’t dare to discuss homosexuality or bisexuality, much less implicate himself in it. This is not a knock on Elton John, by the way. He had a very different audience, and when he finally did come out, he entered a long period of being the rock’n’roll version of box-office poison.)

The other shift that Bowie helped to effect is harder to name. One is reluctant to call it new wave—a label that no self-respecting band would identify with—and it’s probably giving him too much credit to say he played anything more than a minor role in the rise of electronic music. But in the middle of the decade he ditched the vamping and the pentatonic scales of traditional rock and re-emerged with a defiantly experimental, where-the-hell-are-we-heading, firmly European sound that, if anything, predicted post-punk. For all its aloof qualities, this music was the most expressive of his career. The legacy does encompass countless new wave acts, who are impossible to imagine without the example of albums like Low and "Heroes," but it finds its purest descendants in artists like Joy Division (and its offshoot New Order), Public Image Ltd., and, farther down the road, U2 and the Cure and the Pixies and the Smiths and Nine Inch Nails and Bjork and Radiohead, even Madonna.

What an ear Bowie had! Who else in 1971 was even listening to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, much less basing a whole aesthetic on their work? Who else would have heard in the Krautrock of Neu! and Kraftwerk, and the ambient minimalism of Brian Eno, a way out of the dead end of the bloated ‘70s? The genius of the preceding wave of British rock artists was to adopt the foreign idiom of American blues, to see how black music could feed into European flash and formalism. It had quite the heyday, but it devolved into endless solos and soft-headedness. Bowie took rock another step, and did it without a scene, without comrades. He always looked outside—to the Die Brücke artists, Japanese theater, the Kabbala—and, of course, rock artists like Dylan (but he seized on Dylan’s mystique rather than his chord changes). The bedrock of his very European music was American soul; the musicians on his greatest albums were black Americans: that's a very Bowie contradiction. His genius lied in his unimpeachable instincts and his uncanny trust in himself.

When I fall hard for something like U2's “Miss Sarajevo” or Bjork's "Come to Me" or Portishead's "Sour Times," this is squarely in the tradition of Bowie’s particular brand of romanticism. There may be greater artists out there than Bowie, and even a few whom I personally like more, but the sound Bowie created over forty years ago, and then hammered away at for decades like a bluesman who has nowhere else to go, is my version of roots.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife

As a thoroughly Kurt Weill-illiterate kid back in 1985, I was somehow smart, or lucky, enough to pick up Lost in the StarsHal Willner's salute to the great German modernist. As far as I can tell, Willner—a record producer who had already built similar projects around Thelonius Monk, Nino Rota, and Charles Mingus—sort of invented the all-star tribute album. We can debate whether he did us a favor here: although there have been some nice surprises in this mini-genre, it has mostly resulted in vanity projects with a vaguely public-access telethon quality. Thirty years after its release, however, Lost in the Stars is a rich and enduring work. The casting is inspired; a weird new sound is achieved. The rock and pop performers don't trivialize this music, and the many jazz and classical players are not there to "elevate" anything. Everyone simply gets down to business and creates a cohesive, irreplaceable work. In the twenty-first century, we might take this sort of eclecticism for granted; in 1985, this was borderline visionary.

Willner revisited the material in the 1990s, in a Canadian television special called September Songs, which also spawned an album. I don't like it nearly as much as Lost in the Stars. It's always disorienting to hear a take on a song one has come to love in another version, but in the cases of many of these songs I honestly feel they just aren't as good as those from the earlier project. PJ Harvey just might be the greatest rock artist of the past twenty years, and her "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" on September Songs is a good one, but of all the versions of this song I've heard, none comes close to Lost in the Stars' great rendition by Marianne Faithfull and Chris Spedding.

Weill wrote this World War II-era protest song with his old partner Bertolt Brecht. Spedding's arrangement—a piece of cabaret with a sultry rock layer—is constantly shifting and dense with detail but never too cerebral, never ornate. He doesn't overthink it. And Faithfull, who knows the ropes of Old World folk music, was born to sing this piece. For me, no other version will do. And so, naturally, I had to tab the thing.

The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife

G              Bm            G           Bm
What was sent to the soldier's wife
G             Bm      G         Bm
From the ancient city of Prague?
G          Bm                  F#    G
From Prague came a pair of high-heeled shoes,
            D                               A
With a kiss or two came the high-heeled shoes
                F#                   Bm
From the ancient city of Prague.

G              Bm            G           Bm
What was sent to the soldier's wife
G        Bm   G         Bm
From Oslo over the sound?
G        Bm       F#            G
From Oslo he sent her a collar of fur,
            D                               A
How it pleases her, the little collar of fur
           F#                 Bm
From Oslo over the sound.

G                                              D
What was sent to the soldier's wife
                G                         D
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
          E7                     F#
From Amsterdam, he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In her little Dutch hat
                F#                       Bm
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

G              Bm            G           Bm
What was sent to the soldier's wife
G        Bm   G         Bm
From Brussels in Belgian land?
G        Bm       F#            G
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
            D                               A
To have and to wear, all those laces so rare
                F#                   Bm
From Brussels in Belgian land.

G              Bm           G            Bm
What was sent to the soldier's wife
G       Bm    G         Bm
From Paris, city of light?
G      Bm         F#            G
From Paris he sent her a silken gown,
          D                             A
It was ended in town, that silken gown,
         F#                  Bm
From Paris, city of light.

G                                             D
What was sent to the soldier's wife
G                                          D
From the south, from Bucharest?
          E7                 F#
From Bucharest he got her this shirt
       G                                       D
Embroidered and pert, that Rumanian shirt
                F#                         Bm
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier's wife
From the far-off Russian land?
Bm                         Ab              Am
From Russia there came just a widow's veil
            D                               A
For her dead to bewail in her widow's veil
                F#                   Bm
From the far-off Russian land,
                F#                   Bm
From the far-off Russian land.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Notable Failures in Evolution Through the Ages

The Great Blue Cardinal
Larger than its modern-day counterpart, the Great Blue was also a superior flyer, able to reach high enough altitudes to coast on thermals and to nest in high cliff walls. Each autumn, as the temperatures plunged, enormous flocks of the Blue Cardinal would fly north. Their magnificent indigo plumage stood out gaily against the sleet and ice. This backwards migration proved to be roughly as successful as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, however, and the Great Blue’s numbers declined rapidly.

The Oblivious Fish
Shaped uncannily like a spring fly, this small fish, an inhabitant of insect-infested mountain ponds, tended to swim near the water’s surface, where it flapped jerkily back and forth for long periods of time above schools of larger, carnivorous fish.

The Wandering Ant
As opposed to most ant colonies’ carefully cultivated trails, allowing multiple workers to return to locations necessary for the colony’s survival, each member of this obscure branch of the Formicidea family struck out on its own. Rarely able to find its way back to the anthill, it was quite powerless to share the good news when it happened upon a fat dead moth or a spilled snow-cone that could have fed millions.

The Speckled Siberian Vole
Much like the oxpecker bird and the African rhino, the relationship between this tiny rodent and the snow leopard was symbiotic. Curling up in the leopard’s warm mouth, the vole ate tiny particles of debris left over from the larger animal’s meals, thus acquiring sustenance. The leopard, in turn, acquired sustenance by eating the vole.

The Dueling Wolves of Romany
A species doomed to extinction by the males' unsustainable territoriality, the alpha wolves challenged each other to duels that, in the pistol and ball era, were calamitous enough but which proved catastrophic in the grenade-launcher era.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

New and Selected Texts to My Son

Over two years in the making, soon the complete texts to my son will be officially published. Until then, we are making this selection available.

Where are you?
(Thu, Nov 17, 4:32)

Going to pick you up in a minute.
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:22)

Where are you?
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:31)

I'm in the Lucky 7 parking lot. I can see you from here.
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:33)

On my way
(Tues, Dec 3, 5:12)

On my way
(Thurs, Dec 5, 6:08)

Check the fridge if we have dijon mustard.
(Sat, Jan 4, 11:08)

no, the brown one
(Sat, Jan 4, 11:09)

Where are you?
(Fri, Jan 17, 7:20)

I'm going to pick you up in minute. Where's Molly's house?
(Tues, Jan 23, 6:18)

On my way
(Sat, Feb 4, 8:54)

(Tues, Feb 8, 3:56)

Why didn't you tell me my shirt was on backwards?
(Mon, Feb 17, 2:18)

Where are you?
(Thurs, Feb 20, 5:43)

You forgot your lunch. Where do I have to bring it?
(Mon, Feb 25, 8:23)

You guys awake yet?
(Sun, Mar 12, 10:58)

Hey, you guys conscious?
(Sun, Mar 12, 11:07)

Are you guys still alive?
(Sun, Mar 12, 11:23)

On my way
(Wed, Mar 22, 5:40)

Call your mom. She thinks you have meningitis.
(Mon, Mar 30, 5:17)

Which house is Seamus's? I'm outside
(Fri, Apr 3, 11:10)

where are you
(Thurs, Apr 12, 6:11)

I'm here. Come on.
(Fri, Apr 13, 10:42)

No, don't brush his teeth.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:33)

Dogs don't get cavities anyway.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:34)

They don't live long enough.
(Mon, Apr 19, 3:35)

Don't know. About 12 yrs.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:36)

Are you at his mother's house or his father's?
(Tues, Apr 20, 5:34)

I'm waiting. Let's GO!!!
(Thurs, Apr 22, 6:15)

No. Seems over the top to me to pay $8 to download a graphic novel you already own just because your bus doesn't leave for another 15 minutes and you're bored. Can't you just play Angry Birds instead?
(Mon, Apr 25, 3:21)

Where are you?
(Wed, Apr 27, 5:18)

No sushi. I'm getting hot dogs.
(Thurs, Apr 28, 6:07)

Where are you?
(Fri, Apr 29, 10:24)

On my way
(Fri, Apr 29, 10:25)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Satellite of Love 2000

Bono—the acquisitive lead singer of U2—seems to have a small obsession with Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love." U2 covered it for the 1992 B-side of "One" and then played it live on their world tour, where Bono would duet with the beamed-in transmission of Lou on a video screen. But he wasn't done with it. When this most dogged of salesmen somehow talked German auteur Wim Wenders into directing his original script The Million Dollar Hotel, the song became the centerpiece of the film's soundtrack, appearing in three different versions, including one sung by the film's female lead, Milla Jovovich. This song has the same sultry three-in-the-morning beauty of the entire soundtrack. It also features a dream band that includes trumpeter Jon Hassell, guitarist Bill Frisell, and overall sound guru Brian Eno. But the reason I'm writing about it is that this rendition is a quite different song than the Lou Reed version, the U2 version (which hues closely to Lou's), or the one recorded (but never released) by Lou's old band, the Velvet Underground.

The chorus on the Million Dollar Hotel version is similar to earlier versions, but hardly an exact match, and the intro and verses practically constitute a rewrite. The MDH rendition has a darker hue, due mostly to the substitution of a D-minor for the brighter A7. This minor chord takes the song into a distinctly different melodic terrain; Hassell drops a nice—very torch—melody into this space during the intro and the breaks between verses. There is also a nifty G-C-G shift, unique to this version, that echoes the three syllables of "satellite." These changes appear subtle on paper; they are not, however, when you hear or play the song. In short, it's been jazzed.

I want to make a little plug for the entire soundtrack, which is excellent, one of the better creations to emerge from the U2 camp since the heady days of Berlin and Zoo TV. Like the band's 1995 Passengers collaboration with Eno, it is not well known but is refreshingly free from all the usual obligations. (There is a wealth of great music on the album, including the very fine "Never Let Me Go," which I've also tabbed.) As for the film itself, it has been available for free on Netflix practically since they started streaming things, but when I finally decided I'd check it out, I found that it had been removed. Netflix often toys with me in this way. The upshot is I've never actually seen it. It has a remarkably low profile for a Wenders film, so I'm guessing it's not great, but when/if I ever do have the pleasure, I expect the experience will be a bit like seeing one of my own dreams, since the music is settled so deeply in my imagination. (Wenders, incidentally, also shot a video for "Stay" that I'm still trying to forget.) I should probably point out that, if the fan forums are any indication, a lot of people passionately dislike Jovovich's vocal. But U2 unfortunately has a lot of fans who gatewayed to/from U2 with Coldplay, if not Christian rock, and this is one of the many things they're wrong about, because Milla is fine.

The 'net is full of tabs for "Satellite of Love," but as far as I can tell this is the only tab for this notably different—and in some ways better—version of the song.

Satellite of Love
(words & music Lou Reed)
From the Million Dollar Hotel Soundtrack

Intro: G Dm F C

G      C      G
Satellite's gone
F              C
Up to the sky
G          C        G
Things like that drive me
F                C
Out of my mind
F                        Dm
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV

G               F
Satellite of love
C               G    C
Satellite of love
G               F
Satellite of love
C               G    C
Satellite of love

C             G      F              C
Satellite's gone
 way up to Mars

G          C        C                  F                  C
Soon it will be filled (baby)
 with parking cars
F                        Dm
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV

Satellite of love (repeat)

G            Dm          F              C
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday (repeat)

Satellite's gone
 up to the sky


Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Only Child

Besides that five-string open-G tuning everybody brings up, nine things that I learned from Keith Richards' memoir, Life:

1. His mother was from a family of seven daughters, and if you've ever wondered about the hardiness of Keith's constitution, you should know that most of his aunts are still alive.

2. London streets used to be full of animals. Keith: "When I was growing up, it was heavy fog almost all winter, and if you've got two or three miles to walk to get back home, it was the dogs that led you. Suddenly old Dodger would show up with a patch on his eye, and you could basically guide your way home by that. Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn't see a thing. And old Dodger would take you up and hand you over to some Labrador. Animals were in the street, something that's disappeared. I would have got lost and died without some help from my canine friends." (The roughly 60 pages of childhood stuff is probably the book's high point. Effortlessly evocative, it reads at times like some long-lost Dickens narrative, with asylum escapees on the heath, army deserters hiding in the woods by the Thames, a dead tramp found covered in bluebottles, street bullies, even a fatal explosion at a fireworks factory.)

3. The winter that Keith, Mick, and Brian Jones shared a flat was London's coldest since 1740. They had a pay heater—had to keep feeding it coins.

4. Keith not only wrote the bulk of the music for most of their best songs; he often came up with the lyrical angle as well: "Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter," "Wild Horses" (I could go on) are all concepts that Jagger simply—albeit brilliantly—expanded on.

5. While Mick was fooling around with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, Keith had revenge sex with Marianne Faithfull (and fled through a window when Mick came home). I've thought of Mick and Keith's friendship as fairly up and down, but the best way to describe it, for thirty years now, would be simply nonexistent. Interestingly, there are more entries in the index for Mick Jagger than there are for Keith himself. (My favorite: "Jagger, Mick and giant inflatable cock, 12-13, 485").

6. In the late '60s in the UK, if your physician registered you with National Health as a junkie, you could receive heroin pills plus an equal amount of cocaine (the idea being that the coke would counteract the opiate effect of the heroin). This was the purest heroin and the purest, May & Baker pharmaceutical cocaine. Definitely no "MSS" (Mexican shoe scrapings—Gram Parsons' term for low-grade smack).

7. Injuries sustained: finger squashed by a dropped flagstone, earring ripped from his ear as he slept, passing out after nine days without sleep and falling headfirst into an amplifier, finger burned to the bone by stray lump of phosphorous from stage pyro, punctured lung (falling off ladder), cracked skull (falling from tree).

8. When I was fourteen I found an old copy of Oui magazine in, of all places, a deer blind in the hill country of Texas. ("For the man of the world"—yeah, that was me all right.) One of the models was a dark-haired German who, in one memorable shot, drank water from a see-through garden hose. And now, all these years later I find out her name is Uschi Obermaier, a long-standing crush of Keith's. When he learned of Gram Parsons' death in '73 he was in Innsbruck; on a mad impulse he drove to Munich in the middle of the night to hunt Uschi down, although he barely knew her. He miraculously found her, woke her up, broke the news, got a single sleepy kiss for his trouble, and left. 

9. Towards the end, the book starts to simply mark time—this is his manager, this is his guitar technician, these are his neighbors in Jamaica, this is the snapping turtle Keith caught in the pond at his house in Connecticut, etc.—and it begins to sound like an acceptance speech at the Grammys. The lesson is that everybody's life eventually winds down into routine, even for an outlaw like Keith Richards. And so this is the ninth thing I learned:

When you're cooking bangers and mash, you've got to use a cold pan, no preheating. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Idaho via Coventry

"American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)" is an odd little number by Elvis Costello that's been hanging around lately. The alternate version of a King of America song and B-side to "Blue Chair," this thing stars an American vet who marries an English girl and does not turn out to be a catch. Squeeze sang about a very similar setup, and far more lucidly, in "Labelled with Love," from their Costello-produced East Side Story (1981). No one is where they belong in such stories; everyone is pining for somewhere else. The main character for some obscure reason shares several biographical details with Hemingway, from the war experience and impulsive marriages to the Havana, Florida, even Idaho settings, although the events take place just after Hemingway's lifetime and the heartbreaker in this song is absurdly identified as one Arnie LaFlamme. In the end, the atmosphere is more Graham Greene than Hemingway, but the lyric is really an excuse for trying out a few tropes, with as many shifts in viewpoint and setting as "Tangled Up in Blue." The designation of a "twilight" rendition seems as arbitrary as everything else in a song so whimsical that even Elvis calls its bluff, abruptly ending the last verse with a hasty "It would never work out," like an artist wadding up his drawing and tossing it in the wastebasket. (Damn thing isn't even on youtube. You have to go to 5:11 in this clip to hear a fuzzy live version.)

And yet, for all its flakiness, I've always liked this song. The recording has great drive, and Elvis has a lot of fun with this busker's arrangement, especially on the Sammy Davis Jr. line and in the switch-up in the final verse ("Just like me she found out..."). While tabs for the more placid King of America version of the song are easy to find, I haven't been able to locate a single set of chords for this alternate version anywhere on God's green Internet. And you know what that means...

American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)
(Elvis Costello)

G               C    G
December 1965 in Caracas
G                     A                 D
When Arnie LaFlamme took his piece of the pie
G                         C               G
When he packed up the casino chips, the IOU and the abacus
G                             D           G
And switched off the jukebox in a "A Fool Such As I"

G                                 C           G
He was a leg man who was open to offers
G                           A                 D
But he couldn't get her off his mind as he passed the tourist office
G                 C              G
And as he entertained himself singing just like Sammy Davis Junior
G           D         G
He toyed with a trip to Miami

For money like that
He could have sweet talk in your ear
Now they don't speak any English
C G    C           G
Just American without tears, just American without tears


It was an idea that he dandled on his knee and nursed it like his coffee cup
When he couldn't find any other way
It always seemed to come to him while the day was dipping down
And the sun was like a light bulb being swallowed by a clown

He took her for everything, he took her for his only one
He took her out of Coventry and over to Idaho
But the war wound that he carried home wasn't really visible
When the bullets were forgotten
She looked dowdy, down, and miserable

And she seemed to be crying for year after year
And said, "You don't speak any English
Just American between tears."

A  D A
"Arnie," she said to me, "will you turn down the radio?
    A      B    E
You haven't slept a wink since we came to Havana
A      D A
When're you gonna get the strength to go over to Florida?
E         A
All you ever listen to is 'The Voice of America'"

A                          D                      A
It was a story of a young English poppet
A                                                       B                            E
Who took up with a soldier boy and thought she would profit
A             F#m            E                   D
Just like me she found out what true love is about
A E                 A
Anyway she's in New Orleans, it would never work out
Oh she seemed to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
          D                         A   D                     A
Just American between tears, just American without tears

For you seem to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
Just American without tears
Just American without tears

Thursday, September 8, 2011

L.A. Grise

So one day in, what, 1948 or 1949, one of the studios sends a film crew out to shoot some rear-projection footage in downtown LA. Somebody had to shoot all that scenery passing by the car windows in those scenes in which some character gets behind the wheel. Encumbered by a phoniness we can no longer forgive, these scenes went extinct nearly half a century ago. Now we demand that our actors really drive, in the same way we're starting to demand that they really play an instrument (like Adrian Brody in The Pianist, or even Brad Pitt laying into Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in Tree of Life—it will no longer do for someone to simply peer over a piano at us and move his shoulders around).

But this clip. A relaxed, very un-fussy shoot—to the small crew, I guess it could not have felt more ordinary—but of course what we have here, some 65 years later, is several minutes of unposed, unaware late-40s Los Angeles going about its business. We see how people walked, how they drove (fewer cars but already plenty of smog), how they inhabited the space. And we see many homes in the Bunker Hill area that have since been demolished. (Found this comment on a blog: "all those Victorian homes bulldozed in the 60s/70s. Now Disney Hall, Chandler Pavilion, and rows of condos.") While I can understand how an East Coaster would have found this LA impossibly bare and without style, in hindsight the simplicity strikes me as serenely civilized. Already then, by the way, LA was a plenty industry-literate town: at 3:44 there is a guy with the presence of mind to wave at the camera.

A somewhat fuller account of this footage can be found on the blog of the Atlantic's rather gothically-named associate editor Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg.