Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

A Country Genius

February 17, 2010

Another reading update.

6. Man of Constant Sorrow by Dr. Ralph Stanley.

A good friend of mine once had a dream in which I was eating a sausage biscuit and I was very proud to show him that the wrapper proclaimed it to be a “Country Genius Sausage Biscuit”. Needless to say, this became an overnight catch phrase. If there’s anybody who really is a country genius, it would have to be Dr. Ralph Stanley.

Dr. Ralph is in his mid-80s, and is still the reigning king of clawhammer banjo, as well as “what they call” bluegrass music (his words, not mine, as he doesn’t like the name). Dr. Ralph was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lincoln Memorial University in the 1970s, and apparently liked it so much that he insists on being called Dr. Ralph.

Anyway, in 2009, he finally got around to sitting down and writing his life story. From talking about milking cows to telling stories about a flatulent fiddle player (who cut, as Dr. Ralph calls it, “a real greaser”, which thoroughly disgusted a record company executive), this is about as genuine as it gets.

Dr. Ralph’s country genius, as a musician, as a writer, and just as a person stems from the fact that he is exactly who he is. There is no pretense, there is no dressing up the truth, there is only a great American life. So read his book. And go see him. When I told him I was born only a few miles down the road in southwest Virginia from his old hometown, he looked at me in wonder, and posed with me for a photo which is one of my all time favorites. And I will post it on here, if I ever remember to. He also sang “Oh Death”, just like he did in O Brother Where Art Thou, and put chill bumps on everybody. That’s a country genius, if I do say so myself.

Books: 6/50
Pages: 2,250/20,000

(another book is almost finished, which means another post…)


#41 Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen by Marc Eliot

December 7, 2009

This book, written “with the assistance” of embittered former Springsteen manager Mike Appel, is an interesting early career history of The Boss, although it does tend to focus on the struggle amongst Appel, Springsteen, Jon Landau and Columbia Records to control the cash cow which was mid-to-late 1970’s Springsteen music.

The book is interesting for its view of a very naive young Bruce, signing one bad business deal after another and later having to reap the consequences of same. I do give Eliot and Appel credit for not slamming Springsteen entirely. Most of Appel’s scorn is resolved for Jon Landau, who he definitely seems to paint as the Yoko Ono of 1975 Springsteen (although mercifully without the nude album cover). Appel is very defensive in the book about his role in helping to craft the genius of Springsteen. Ultimately, it seems to me, there is plenty of credit to go around.

I recently read that in Buffalo, at the last show of Bruce’s latest tour, he acknowledged Appel from the stage and indicated that his first album never would have happened without Appel. In fact, Appel and his son were on hand as special guests, and were apparently afforded the royal treatment. I can’t pretend that Bruce Springsteen isn’t a human being. I do give him credit for being a little quicker to recognize that fact than most of his peers and contemporaries.

Eliot’s book is interesting. It wasn’t as negative as I thought, but I do still commend Dave Marsh’s Springsteen books as the best of their type. Start there… but if you wonder sometimes if you’re getting the whole story, you might check this book out.


Bruce & The E Street Band fight the wrecking ball

November 19, 2009

Nashville, TN

Wrecking Ball
Something In The Night
Hungry Heart
Working On A Dream
Thunder Road
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Born To Run
She’s The One
Meeting Across The River
Waiting On A Sunny Day
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Two Hearts
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
Lonesome Day
The Rising

Ring of Fire
No Surrender
Bobby Jean
American Land
Dancing In The Dark
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher

There are few privileges in life that match seeing Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. OK, I lied. There aren’t any. For three hours, troubles are gone, sorrows are lightened, and there is a community of people in which you can belong. The ones screaming out the first verse of “Hungry Heart”, the ones jumping to their feet when the opening chords of “Badlands” pulse out. When the light come back up, I don’t know the people next to me. I probably wouldn’t even like them. But there we are, sharing a moment for those three hours. Amused, enraptured, taken aback, and always moving, a step or two closer to the land of hopes and dreams.

I think last night was the last of these shows I”ll see. I think it’s the third to last one that will be. Something in the mood, something in the performance just spelled “Goodbye.” It wasn’t always somber. The arena jumped and rocked and smiles were passed player to player, in the joy of the moment. But the softer moments were so tender, they seemed so meaningful that I can’t believe this is just another tour.

Clarence Clemons looked as moved and as contemplative as anyone can, when he blew away everything else with his solo on “Jungleland.” And when Springsteen came to the end of “Backstreets”, he softly, carefully echoed “’til the end”, over and over, until he built the song into a second climax.

The centerpiece of this show was a full-album outing of Born to Run. Springsteen said a few things first, talked about how this was a huge album, because he had signed a three album contract and the first two had been released and had sunk rather quickly. And they played it. Thunder Road, 10th Avenue Freezeout, Backstreets, Meeting Across the River, Jungleland. BAM. BAM. BAM. And they the survivors walked forward– Stevie Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Gary Tallent, Clarence Clemons, and the Boss himself. “These are the guys who played on the record,” he said, “Along with ‘Phantom Dan’ Federici (with a finger point to the sky on the last name).

The song that seemed to best fit the night was the opener, the brand-new “Wrecking Ball”. Ostensibly “about” the destruction of Giants Stadium, where Springsteen debuted the song, it’s not about that at all. It’s about time and age, and the distance between what we are and what we become. “So raise up your glasses and let me hear your voices call,” Bruce sang, “Because tonight all the dead are here/So bring on your wrecking ball.” Some of the dead are literal– Phantom Dan, gone too soon. Most are the selves who we were a week or a month or a year or 35 years ago. But we raised our metaphorical glasses in Nashville, and the voices certainly called. Because what was left was a monument itself. I hope we’ll hear from Bruce & The E Streeters again soon. But if not, I could never complain. Some things are destined to live longer than bricks and mortar and wrecking balls.

#38– Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

November 11, 2009

Hornby has written another one. It’s brilliant, probably the best book he’s penned since “High Fidelity” and possible even better than it, although I’d like it better if the ending had felt a bit more resolved.

We follow Duncan, who is a manic fan of Tucker Crowe, a semi-Dylan, semi-Springsteen, semi-Leonard Cohen, semi-imaginary creation of Hornby. Crowe apparently experienced a life changing epiphany in a Minneapolis bathroom in 1986 and disappeared. Duncan runs an Internet site dedicated to studying Crowe’s every belch, whimper and fart, and the new rumors of same.

I have to break off here to say that yes, this does ring somewhat true in my own life. I am an equally semi-obsessive Dylan fan. Or maybe was. I can, or at one time could, listen to a few seconds of a version of “All Along the Watchtower” and probably tell you what year it was from. Maybe what tour. Probably who was playing on it. Likely even recommend a better specimen from the same time frame. I have a box of probably over 1,000 Dylan CD-Rs under a spare bed at my house. I certainly own all his albums, I’ve read a good deal of the meaningful books about him, have seen him live something like 16 times, and have spent way too many hours driving other perfectly sane people crazy about Bob Freaking Dylan.

Duncan’s longtime girlfriend and object of his Crowe-worship-torture, Annie, tries to tolerate his obsession. When Crowe releases a “new” album of old demos, it is Annie who hears what is really going on in the music. Partially to spite Duncan, she posts a review on the website. Lo and behold, about the time a cranky Duncan is taking up with a new woman, Tucker Crowe e-mails Annie and appreciates her insight into his work.

I won’t go through the rest of what happens. Even Crowe, who is Dylanish in his inability to take responsibility for his social failures (see Joan Baez, also secret marriage and child/ren, etc), comes off as an amazingly likeable character. I usually want to punch at least one of Hornby’s characters in the face. Not this time. And if I did, it would probably be Duncan.

Again, stepping back in, there was a big “guilty pleasure” factor in this book. I would laugh at the ridiculousness of Duncan’s behavior, and then think, “well, there was that one time when I dd such and such…” and realize that I wasn’t THAT much less ridiculous myself.

This was a very impressive book. Hornby just gets the male psyche. If we can’t BE Bob Dylan or Tom Brady or Barack Obama or whomever, we have to know EVERYTHING about them, and “understand” them completely. It’s utterly pathetic. And accurate. He also gets the female psyche. I like Annie as much as I like any character he has ever written. I’m heartbroken for her failures and problems and wish that just once, he’d broken out happily ever after for her. Maybe when they make it a movie.


#36– Rock Star Babylon by Jon Holmes

November 11, 2009

Our next entry was a thin paperback I picked up based on the promise of stories (which are published with the proviso that some, all, or none of them may be true) about the deviant behavior of rock musicians. I picked up the book to browse it and learned that a common story that circulated involved Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac ingesting her daily cocaine intake by, well, having it blown with a straw to a place where the sun certainly doesn’t shine. Cheery, eh?

Jon Holmes is an Englishman with an incredibly absurd sense of humor and a penchant for constant footnotes. To say that the book is sarcastic and ridiculous is probably an understatement. It’s also a lot of fun. I’d heard some of these stories (for instance, the famous one about Motley Crue having a contest to see who could still, uhm, draw the attention of groupies despite the longest period of time with NO work of personal hygene (ie showering, brushing teeth, washing hands, etc.), but plenty of them were new to me. Even the familiar ones were told with some wonderful British contempt that I probably enjoyed them most of all. This is a fun book, and would be superb for an airplane or a lengthy wait someplace.


I join the 21st century

September 28, 2009

As a birthday gift, I got a shiny, pretty ipod classic, in all its 160 GB glory. It was advertised as holding 40,000 songs. Who has 40,000 songs, you may wonder. I think I do. Actually, I’m sure I do if you count all my bootlegs, with 973 versions of Bob Dylan singing “All Along the Watchtower”. I’m curious to see if I have 40,000 songs that are actually listenable.

Unfortunately, I’m still stuck in the 20th century on my PC, so while I have a 160 GB Ipod, I have 35 GB of hard drive space to use with it. So far, complete Dylan, Beatles and Springsteen have amounted to about 11.5 GB. For my remaining 23.5 GB, I’m thinking Jayhawks, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Buddy Miller, Tift Merritt, a bunch of jazz/blues/old country/rockabilly stuff on the Proper label, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

Whenever I buy a new PC, with a big spacious hard drive, then it truly is on. We’ll see how many times even I can listen to “All Along the Watchtower”.


Book #29- Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs

September 10, 2009

This is the first A.B. book I’ve read (after birth). Fortunately, Chuck Klosterman is basically an irrepressable smart ass who writes about pop culture in a funny, entertaining way. The book is a collection of essays. Some get a little ponderous (like his essay on Vanilla Sky), some are more than a little absurd (Saved by the Bell), and some are so dead on that you can’t help but agree (country music).

Klosterman is probably not for everybody. That said, if you’re between 25-40, have a strong interest in the pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s, and/or have strong opinions about things, you’d probably dig it. I think there’s something in here to offend the sensibilities of everybody, but also something that we can all remember and agree with. Plus, it does have a fun title.


Book 20- Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing

May 21, 2009

See, I told you more books would come. This book was hard to finish, because frankly, it’s quite bad. It’s even more frustrating than normal bad books because it was a good idea. Robert Coles, a child psychologist and master of horrifically loopy and difficult to follow writing, talks with ten “just plain folks” who happen to like Springsteen. For some reason, they can’t be active fans who go out and catch concerts. These ten give their insights into what Springsteen means to them.

Unfortunately, this is lost in a deluge of the worst writing ever. Also, the ten people sound suspiciously alike, and suspiciously similar to Coles. I’m saying either they flat didn’t exist, or they did exist and Coles talked to them, and wrote their stories in his words.

Let this illustrate how awful Coles’s writing is. Julie sometimes will read to me in the car. She started this book in the car and after awhile (maybe 10-15 pages), was kind of slurring her speech. I was a bit alarmed that she was having some sort of mini-stroke, until she finally confessed that she was literally falling asleep while reading it aloud. She put the book down and was out in two seconds.

Don’t buy this book. Don’t read this book. In fact, you maybe shouldn’t even read me talking about this book. I’m sorry for wasting your time and mine.

Book 19- Searching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick

May 5, 2009

One of the principal advantages of the blues, as an art form, is the shadowy haze from which the bluesman comes, and into which he returns. The early days of blues recordings coincide with the last peak of a truly segregated and rural American South. The music is eery and unintelligible, but practically drips with intensity and mystery. Who were these guys? Where did they (and their sounds) come from?

King among the mysteries of the blues would be Robert Johnson– a man of whom exactly two known photographs exist, who died at about age 27 from a mysterious ailment or poisoning, and who is rumored to be buried in multiple places. Johnson is another of the singers and players who is the subject of a story of a musical deal with Satan– his soul for his skills. Certainly, as Johnson wrote and sang, the stuff he had was gonna bust your brains out.

The voice is in constant flux– high and lonesome, low and growly, then almost speaking in short bursts. The guitar playing is so sophisticated that it’s near impossible to replicate. Bass, melody and chords co-existing in precision. And the song writing– “Dust My Broom”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Love in Vain”, “Stop Breakin’ Down”, etc etc etc. Robert Johnson was the real deal.

And Peter Guralnick, in this VERY short book, tries to figure out who he is. Guralnick’s scholarship is exemplary, and he is known both about what he knows and what he doesn’t know. Unfortunately, there’s not much that anybody knows. Knowing much about Robert Johnson is as impossible as knowing much about Shakespeare.

Still, Guralnick is a pro’s pro as a writer. His style is smooth and effective, and his research is top notch. Photographs accompany the text, not of Johnson, but of contemporary scenes and people, and they help to create a mental picture where a physical picture just doesn’t exist.

I recommend “Searching for Robert Johnson”. I also recommend the music, but it is likely a taste for purists. It’s creepy as Hell, folks, but it IS the blues, and swirling through the shadows of obscurity, it is history.



April 8, 2009

While having a mini-vacation last weekend, Julie and I stayed in Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s not too much going on for Tupelo, but one thing it is famous for is being the birthplace of Elvis. We went to Graceland in the middle of a snowstorm a couple of years ago. It was all so incredibly surreal, like walking through a movie set which somebody called home. The garish and overwrought nature of the place ties in neatly with the chiq early ’70s decor. Austin Powers might live there, but not you or I.

While in Tupelo, we went to Elvis’s birthplace. It’s a two room shack, which reminds me of a much smaller version of the old home place where my great aunt and uncle still live. Elvis’s birthplace doesn’t have a broken down refrigerator on the porch or random chickens wandering about, and as I say, it’s much smaller, but otherwise, it was a relative ringer.

We paid our $4 and were rewarded with a tour of the two room dwelling, from a sharp elderly citizen of Tupelo, who filled us in on the history. The house was built by Elvis’s father, and by the time Elvis was three, his father went to prison for passing a forged check, and the family could not make payments, and the house was repossessed. The Presleys then moved in with Elvis’s grandparents, until they moved to Memphis when he was 13, and into public housing.

Somehow the sparse two room shack explained Elvis and Graceland and Colonel Tom and the Memphis Mafia and all of it. You could almost see the little boy, noted by friends to generally have ill-fitting clothing, the survivor of a pair of twins, a quiet Mama’s boy, about to be dispossessed of this very shack due to an eight dollar forged check. You could almost feel the organic American dream which had to sprout– that he would be bigger and richer and able to care for his parents and that the same kids who said his name to laugh at him would say it with that mixture of awe and revulsion which marks America’s attitude toward the many facets of Elvis to this day. Blue suede shoes and white suits and peanut butter and banana sandwiches and the jungle room. It was all there. And you didn’t have to linger too long to find it either.

Our tour guide told us that in 1956, when Elvis came back to town to play a concert, the house and 15 acres of land were for sale. He told the city that they could keep the money from the show if they would buy up the land and build a park. If that’s not a self-confident, self-mythologizing streak, then what is?

Still, I’d like to think that the tiny Tupelo house is the closest thing to the real Elvis we’ll ever find. I’d like to take the positives of the story as true– that our nation isn’t an aristocracy and those blessed with talent and drive and perhaps the hand of God can flourish from a two room shack in Tupelo as well as from the largest mansions. But I guess I also have to remember that little three year old boy and all of the ones who don’t make it out. And all of the pieces of the ones who do make it out that get left behind.