Friday, March 14, 2008

Warsaw, Pt. 3: The Kids Are Alright

To many parents out there, Dan Zanes is a life-saver. He records music for kids that doesn't incite feelings of violence. His rock and roll pedigree, lead singer of the well-loved Boston rag tag roots rockers The Del Fuegos, is more nightlife than day care center. His albums for kids don't spring from some focus group idea of high pitched giggle shit. It sounds like a tired rock and roll singer trying to get through the day by entertaining his kids the only way he knows how.

Obviously I relate.

For several months in 2002, Cash and I were obsessed with a couple of his albums. I also knew that he lived in Park Slope and did much of his recording there. This added a sense of connection to the music for both of us. We had They Might Be Giants recording under Cashel's bedroom and Dan Zanes right down the street somewhere!

The songs he chose were very evocative for me as they were songs my mother had often sung to us on her guitar. For a woman who claims to prefer silence, she sure is a crack musician. 'Erie Canal', 'Oh Susanna', 'Wabash Cannonball'...these ancient folk songs are inextricably tied to my childhood.

The Dan Zanes recordings are loose and easy. People laugh in the background, he talks to the other musicians, it feels like a hootenanny. His voice is a bit bland which ultimately keeps these from being in the canon of great music, but it certainly kills The Wiggles without breaking a sweat.

I heard that Dan Zanes and Friends would be appearing at, of all places, Warsaw. I got tickets ASAP.

What a strange scene it was. A beautiful sunny Sunday Williamsburg morning. Still a bit bleary eyed and clutching Starbucks cups, the parents all seemed a bit sheepish, as if their split personalities were now uncomfortably facing each other in a mirror. One went out to rock clubs like this AT NIGHT and got drunk and danced and sweated and swore. The other pushed a stroller, changed diapers, tried to shoehorn everyday experience into lessons and character builiding, and wondered who the hell let them be in charge of another human being.

Maybe that was just me.

Cash was still more at ease with adults at this point. He could carry on an in-depth conversation about any number of things, but he had difficulty connecting with other kids. When we came onto the ballroom floor, the noise was defeaning. Little beings darted back and forth tackling each other, falling down, hurting themselves, hurting each other, generally creating a ruckus. If Cash had been a turtle, you'd have seen nothing but his shell.

Soon Dan Zanes took the stage. He wore a white suit and his hair semed suspended by wires. His presence was much like on the albums, relaxed, good natured, almost opaque. He had a small band with him to fill in the blanks.

The stage is raised about waist high. For a good portion of the show, Cash knelt directly up against the wood, invisible to the musicians on stage. Kids on either side of him stood on tiptoe to try and join in. Not Cash. He giggled back at me, acknowledging that he was being a goofball but still too overwhelmed to truly give over.

I feared for him at that moment. What if he was always once removed from what he witnessed? What if he never felt the ecstasy and release that I'd found through music?

After a few minutes of this, I was able to let it go. Why? I wish I could say it was out of some philosophical attitude. Nope. It hit me that Dan Zanes wasn't THAT great. The other kids would have reacted that way if they'd been at Chuck E Cheese. They were just that type of kid.

Don't get me wrong...Cash enjoyed himself and the music. But it wouldn't be until he saw John Williams at The Hollywood Bowl three years later that he would be swept away. And John Williams deserved it.

We actually had more fun wandering around Williamsburg after the show. Lesson learned.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Onomatopeia: More Morphine, Please

According to Wiktionary, onomatopeia is defined thusly: the coining of a word in imitation of a sound.

This word has always fascinated me. The idea that our language would create words that approximate the thing itself seems crude and brilliant at the same time.

Today I write about Morphine. Now, I've never taken morphine. As far as I know, the drug doesn't make a sound. So the creation of the word does not provide an example of onomatopeian influence.

But then there is the band. For the uninitiated, what follows is a brief history of one of the most unique sounds you'll ever come across.

There was a Boston blues band called Treat Her Right. They had two singer/songwriters who traded off leading the band. They weren't the kind of blues band that takes up residence at your local bar and pounds 'Mustang Sally' to death and put colorful handkerchiefs in their vest pockets. No, the vibe was much more underground rock/punk but the sound was clearly a blues sound.

If you've never heard of Treat Her Right don't sweat it. I grew up in Rhode Island and never heard of them. They broke up before they could make much of a dent.

While in college I started hearing bizarre tales about this band called Morphine. The lineup was as follows...

They were a trio. The lead singer played a TWO STRING BASS. He simply took the higher two strings off of the bass. Saxophone player. Drummer. A power trio??? With no guitar??? Only two strings??? What the hell were these guys thinking?

The lead singer/bass player's name was Mark Sandman. Sandman? Are you kidding me? He truly seems to embody the name. His music is a call to dreams.

And then there was the name. The drug morhpine had held a curious fascination for me ever since I'd played a morphine addict in a high school production of 'A Hatful of Rain'. It semed to come from ancient times. The idea of injecting myself with anything has always been abhorrent to me but I can't deny that I suffer from the romanticization of this particular drug. The music Morphine began releasing did nothing to change that.

If you've never heard Morhpine I would rather you stop reading right now and go out and purchase some of it. It doesn't matter which album you buy, they are all outstanding.

How can such limited instrumentation sound so full? Full to bursting? I've been listening to Morhpine for almost 20 years now and I still can't figure it out.

Mark Sandman died onstage in Italy in 1999. I was lucky enough to have seen them in concert while I lived in Providence in the early '90's. I saw them at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel which isn't my favorite club of all time (I've already written about The Living Room) but it is still quite special.

The lights went down so low you had a hard time seeing your hand in front of your face. Then this deep rumbling started slowly rollicking from the two strings left on Sandman's bass. The drums thundered softly behind. Then the sax drifted in on top, distorted into some strange psychic broadcast. At one point the sax player played two saxophones at once, each filtered through effects pedals so they were clearly distinct.

Now, as I stated earlier, I've never taken morphine. But this performance was narcotic. I stood there in the dark unable to move. I could barely think. It was as if simply naming themselves Morphine had given their music hallucinogenic properties.

Onomatopeia. The word 'morphine' doesn't sound like what happens in your brain on morphine but I'm pretty sure Morhpine does.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Viva Dead Ponies: Long Lost Masterpiece

While in France I picked up a copy of an album called 'Viva Dead Ponies' by Fatima Mansions. Fatima Mansions take their name from a housing project in Dublin built in the 1950's. By all accounts, the place is a nightmare.

I seem to recall having a long distance phone talk with my Dad from France where he told me where the name came from. I hadn't heard the group before I bought it so I was running blind. I do this occasionally, buying something solely on the aesthetics of the packaging. I've made a couple of great discoveries and just as many duds. This is by far the best shot in the dark I ever took.

'Viva Dead Ponies' is almost impossible to take in. Stylistically it refuses to be pinned down, '80's synth throwing itself into the gnawing buzz saw of '90's distorted guitar, Irish tenor crooning suddenly dashed upon the rocks of nihilistic punk bellow. Cathal Coughlan, lead singer/songwriter/visionary, takes us on a tour of modern Dublin and it is terrifying.

Here is a track list.

1. Angel's Delight (4:32)
2. Concrete Block (0:16)
3. Mr. Baby (2:53)
4. The Door-to-Door Inspector (4:13)
5. Start The Week (0:25)
6. You're A Rose (3:31)
7. Legoland 3 (0:27)
8. Thursday (3:38)
9. Ceaucescu Flashback (0:13)
10. Broken Radio No.1 (4:38)
11. Concrete Block (0:27)
12. Farewell Oratorio (0:59)
13. Look What I Stole For Us, Darling (3:05)
14. The White Knuckle Express (04:15)
15. Chemical Cosh (01:42)
16. Tima Mansio Speaks (0:17)
17. A Pack Of Lies (02:52)
18. Viva Dead Ponies (05:13)
19. More Smack, Vicar (0:52)

I lost my copy of the album somehwere along the line and it went out of print. Melody tracked it down on eBay and bought it for me. Someday I might have to dedicate a daily post for each of the above songs.

For now I'm going to concentrate on 'You're A Rose', 'A Pack of Lies', and 'Viva Dead Ponies'.

'You're A Rose' is reminiscent of a Bruce Springsteen song played by Duran Duran wasted in a pub. Lyrically it is filled with the kind of paradoxes that litter the landscape of the album. The singer praises his lover for being a 'rose in a crown of thorns' but as the music mounts he describes her attributes as if they are contained in some laundry list of atrocity...

'You don't mind the queues, the burning trains
The squalid, mute despair
You don't mind deceiving lovers
You ignore the stinking air
Well, now accept you're just a person
Not the touchstone, not the face
of the ages past, their grandeur
and the death-wish of the Master Race
You're a rose'

The pop majesty of the backing track makes for very strange listening. It is one of those pounding anthems of love and devotion that are the backbone of rock and roll. But look a bit closer and Cathal Coughlan eviscerates what stands for loyalty and commitment in 3 minutes of sing-along depravity.

'A Pack of Lies' uses a rolling trill of a piano riff to give us a false sense of security. As this confection bubbles, Coughlan tells the story of a dying woman seduced into a marriage by a foreigner. He brings her back to his homeland and leaves her to die chained to a railing on the ferry. Returning to her country he is now exalted and held up as a leader. The song ends thusly...

'The moral of this story is: This land's a victim-farm
Don't you ever feed a beggar here, he'll eat your fucking arm
and don't blaspheme the strong ones if you want to stay alive
Now smile and give them thanks when they say, "Here's a pack of lies!"'

All of this takes place over what vaguely resembles an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song stripped of all '70's bombast. The keyboard is ALMOST like a real piano, the voice swoons and growls, but all is contained and perfectly okay. In short, it sounds like a lie.

Except for the snippet 'More Smack, Vicar', 'Viva Dead Ponies' is the last straw on the broken back of the album. It is a desert howl funneled through a Dylanesque ghost town. As I listened, I connected it to a tradition. We'll call it the apocalyptic evil epic dirge. The Rolling Stones 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Guns 'n Roses 'Civil War'. The Bands 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'.

These songs tend to have a sort of folk song quality to them. 'Viva Dead Ponies' is no exception. Built mainly around an acoustic guitar, you picture the singer on a cobblestone street with a battered hat upturned and empty. The instrumentation sounds like a hostile invasion, as if the modern world is encroaching upon the purer artistry of another time. I'll reprint these lyrics in full...

(Retail groceries...)

Do you know how Jesus feels
when he's behind his sportscar wheel
and the windscreen glass is all gummed up with blood?
Do you know how old Jesus feels?

For he walks the Earth again
but not in Mecca or in Jerusalem
No, he sells papers and beer in a shop in Crouch End [London, England]
For he walks the Earth again

viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

I have switched the fridges off
and I will burn down this whole stinking shop
I will get drunk and I will break every little Islamical law
for I have switched the fridges off

viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

"Haven't made love for a while.
It's the best way to make a child,"
said Jesus to the disciples. He then further said, "If you can't shift this crate of Brillo pads by Friday, vengeance will be mine!"

So viva dead ponies
You're afraid to fight me
Customers--pay what you owe!
Viva dead ponies
back from the circus
They lunched with Jesus
Fire in their noses all gone, all gone...

Sadly, Fatima Mansions broke up before I could ever see them live. They released several other albums, one of which I own. But something about this album in particular strikes me so deeply that it almost defies articulation. Cathal Coughlan's voice is an ungodly mix of rasp and velvet, brass and whisper. Nothing can be taken at face value. Almost relentlessly desperate and depressing lyrically, the music counteracts those valleys with almost maniacal heights of release.

If you give over and sing along, you feel as if you are tumbling down whatever walls of Jericho surround you. Only to come face to face with a new unnamed much higher wall. Built out of material you cannot recognize.

This is one for the time capsule.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Blame It On They Might Be Giants

I distinctly remember the first time They Might Be Giants crossed my radar. They released their debut album 'They Might Be Giants' in 1986 and their first single 'Don't Let's Start' actually caused quite a sensation on late night MTV.

My friend Mike (he of the U2 front row seats and Sonic Youth concert) had a long New Year's Eve party. It seemed to last a week and I got into a bit of trouble with my parents because I was gone for 3 days. And in high school. And I had the car. Oops.

We sat at Mike's house and listened to music and flirted with whatever girls were brave enough to show up and drank beer and watched tv. We were all several sheets to the wind when the weirdest little band we'd ever seen came popping out of that mass culture machine.

An edict was then imposed. MTV would remain on until we saw the video again. People took turns 'on watch', meaning they couldn't mingle with the rest of the partygoers or go to the bathroom. They had to watch for the video of 'Don't Let's Start'.

Great song, great video.

In a seemingly unrelated move in the summer of 1987, The Replacements released their masterpiece 'Pleased to Meet Me' which contained the single 'Alex Chilton'. Leave it to The Replacements to make their catchiest most radio ready song about an obscure cult musician who had recently been washing dishes in New Orleans. If this song had been called 'John Fogerty' or even 'Peter Frampton' it would have been a # 1 smash. Thank god it wasn't.

What does this tribute to Alex Chilton by The Replacements have to do with They Might Be Giants?

Well, in late 1987, They Might Be Giants released a tribute of their own called 'We're the Replacements'. This took the idea one step further and actually had a seed of approximation in the music. It sounded like The Replacements, in a goofy funny way. Lyrically it also aped The Replacements penchant for self-reference/deprecation.

'Hey where's Tommy? Someone find Tommy, we're out on the road
Moving equipment, where's the equipment, soon we're going home
Hi, we're The Replacements!'

Replete with a guttural scream right before the chorus, this song was perfect parody in that it took its subject seriously. I was thrilled that ANYONE was paying attention to The Replacements enough to immortalize them in song. It legitimized my ravings.

Later that summer, Justin and I were roving around the grounds of his rock and roll Colonial mansion armed with his acoustic guitar and some illicit plant material. We decided that we were going to return the favor to They Might Be Giants. We set about writing a song called, if memory serves me correctly, 'They Might Be Studebakers'. If Justin still has that scrap of paper lying around with these lyrics on it I will post them eventually. We had a tune and everything but I don't think we ever recorded this lost classic.

Time passes. I learn to play guitar in France because I need to be writing songs. I move to Providence, then New York, writing all along. The Replacements have long since broken up. Even today as I write this I must acknowledge that the reason I ever picked up a guitar in the first place was thanks to Paul Westerberg.

So I wrote my own ode. It is called 'Blame It On Paul' and these are the lyrics...

Blame It On Paul

Paul called all of the shots
Paul made all of the deals
Paul was the one who planned it all
Blame it on Paul

Paul was my man
Paul was my hero I guess
But if you asked Paul why he kept me around
He'd say to clean up that fucking mess
Always saying 'Clean up that fucking mess'

It was Paul's idea
It was Paul's baby right from the start
He didn't even tell me the goddamned plan
He just told me my little part

The pantyhose were tight on my head
I could barely see at all
And when the flashing lights arrived
I couldn't see Paul at all
Couldn't scale that son-of-a-bitchin' wall

I was Paul's right hand man
I guess you could say I was second in charge
I was the one who took the fall
Now that bastard's still at large
I said that bastard's still at large

So I blame it
Blame it on Paul
I blame it
Blame it on Paul
I blame it
Blame it on Paul
I blame it on Paul

Even though there is nothing in this song about They Might Be Giants or Alex Chilton or my best friend Justin, somehow it contains all of them for me. I've played this song at various shows over the years with very little in the way of explanation and it tickles me to see it taken at face value.

Again, time passes.

Brooklyn, 2001. My ex has a condo on Prospect Park in Park Slope. I live within walking distance. Maria (my ex) decides to try and rent out the basement space to an artist in the neighborhood. She doesn't need the space, it has a separate entrance, and it is an easy way to offset the cost of the mortgage. She writes a hand made sign and puts it on the little metal fence that serves as a gate to the basement.

Who comes walking by not 10 minutes later? John Linnell, one of the two Johns of They Might Be Giants. What do you know, he lives next door and needs a rehearsal/writing space? So within an hour They Might Be Giants is writing songs underneath my son's bedroom.

What are they in the process of finishing? 'NO!', their classic album of songs for kids. Or parents. It might be their finest moment and I got an advance copy handed me by Mr. Linnell himself.

Should I have taken him aside and made him listen to all of the above? Don't let's start.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Warsaw, Pt. 2: How He Became Paul

This concert at Warsaw marked a new phase in my musical obsession. Like most fans of The Replacements, I never quite got over the break-up of the band. I am not exaggerating when I say that the demise of that band heralded the end of my childhood.

Even so, I did my best to embrace the idea of Paul Westerberg on his own. I rooted for him to become a mega-star in his own right. To my way of thinking, he deserves the kind of canonical reverence of a Dylan or a Neil Young. He is not merely good, he is important.

But even with that kind of fanhood, the shift was difficult. As the head of a gang of outlaws, he had a crazed kind of cock of the walk majesty. That energy has nowhere to go with a single spotlight. And he didn't seem interested in trying to fabricate it on his own. Which turned out to be a smart move in the long run.

I have come to love each of his solo albums. The first, '14 Songs', seemed like a good-spirited play for the top of the charts. The production was pristine, there were big ballads, rave-ups about naked girls, and even a joke song about plastic surgery. The lead single 'World Class Fad' did well, but it certainly wasn't a mega-blockbuster.

After that album came 'Eventually' which I initially did not enjoy. I can't quite put my finger on why I didn't connect with the material, but I really did not. In fact, on this tour, my ex and I went to see him with his band at Irving Plaza in New York and we left early. I'd almost had to drag her to the show and while I might have gotten into it with another big Paul Westerberg/Replacements fan, I didn't have enough interest for the both of us.

His third solo effort was released while I was in North Carolina and is called 'Suicaine Gratifaction'. This should give you an idea of the accessibility of this music. The words novocaine, suicide, gratification, and satisfaction all chopped up and remixed. At first I thought, 'That's it, I'm finally over Paul Westerberg.'

I've come to think it is perhaps his finest, but that is another story. In any case, as his fans will tell you, this album marked the end of an era for him. He'd been signed to his label by a bigwig who was forced out the day the album was mastered. This is akin to a DeMedici paying for the painting and then putting it in his attic while he goes in search of the lost continent. Paul's bid for mainstream success ended.

He went back underground and started recording songs by himself in his basement. Crude drumming, rustling papers, matches being snapped into fire, these were a far cry from the crack musicianship of the sessions players on his first couple of efforts. He played everything by himself.

With the proliferation of home recording equipment and lo-fi pop stars, this might not seem so strange these days. But for a man considered by many to be the GREATEST LIVING SONGWRITER, it is a stunning reversal of tactic. He basically treated his albums as open diary entries instead of honed and crafted short story collections. This turned some people off but it eventually was what brought me back to his fold even more ferociously than before.

These records were almost obscenely personal. You got the sense that he himself would listen to the song and know exactly what he'd been doing before and after recording it. His son can be heard babbling and banging on a keyboard. There are obvious mistakes, both in the playing and recording. Songs stop abruptly as if tape ran out. Guitars drop in and out.

All of a sudden, he wasn't even Paul Westerberg to his fans anymore. He was simply Paul.

When he came to Warwaw in 2002 on the 'Come Feel Me Tremble' tour, it was the first time he'd ever toured on his own as a solo act. No drums, no bass, no other guitar, no band. Just him and his guitar.

The show was as ragged as the albums. And as beautiful as a result. He had couches lamps and coffee tables set up onstage as if the stage were his living room. I got the feeling that it might be his own actual furniture. To hear these songs that mean EVERYTHING to me stripped of all trappings was astonishing.

There was nothing missing even though I knew most of these songs had searing electric leads or thunderous drumming. I colored all of that in myself and I'm sure the rest of the crowd did as well. The wave of voices chanting these songs threw the music back up at Paul as he played.

For his encore, he invited as many people as could fit onstage to sit with him. He sat on a ratty old couch surrounded by strangers and sang as if they'd just popped over for coffee. Melody and I weren't close enough to the stage to get up there but it didn't matter. We were included. People patted him on the back, reminded him of the words to an old chestnut that he couldn't remember, and loved him as hard as they could.

In an age of prefabricated fan/artist interaction it brought me to tears. This Midwestern shy guy with a searing talent who'd kept his fans at bay for almost two decades with a big noise that they could lose themselves to was letting himself be showered with love.

He also began a new tradition on this tour. He sat on the steps of his tour bus down the street from Warsaw and shook hands and spoke with anyone who waited. Anyone and everyone.

If the world were a just place, this wouldn't have been possible. Imagine Mick Jagger persoanlly greeting everyone who'd come to Dodger Stadium. To openly acknowledge that you have the time talk to every one of the fans who stays? That takes both humility and pride.

And that was how Paul became my favorite artist, right ahead of The Replacements, that band he used to be in.