Saturday, May 31, 2003

Live Music 

Living in Maine has separated me from the live music performances of my favorite bands. Somewhat "alternative" bands seem to skirt around the state - we get Godsmack and 50 Cent, while anyone I want to see goes to Montreal, Burlington, and Boston (which is the closest of the three, but I hate going there). It didn't help when the only venue for anything edgy closed a few months ago. Luckily, Portland has a decent local scene which I am starting to explore.

Wednesday night my wife and I went to see a friend play at an open mic in town. It was a singer/songwriter folk-leaning venue, and the open mic participants were pretty much in that vein. Our friend got things started on his 12-string guitar and I was hooked. I forget when I haven't been out for a while what live music does to me. His 12-string had such a beautifully sweet resonance - I just felt it's pull, some nameless victim of the Piper of Hamelin. I don't talk much at shows - a word or two between songs, a knowing smile to my wife when a band plays a favorite song. I gravitate toward the center, trying to find where the music connects with me. The experience of live music is an intoxicant to me, it makes me feel alive and centered, attached to now. It's weird, but I often feel slightly apart or out of sync. Recorded music helps me with this, but live music pulls me and holds me squarely in place like an anchor. After a show I am usually more energetic, engaged and comfortable with myself. I can't explain it, but even the memory of music can help ground me - a song will hold my mind long enough that it's residual energy let's me focus on the world.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Looking at the Ceiling 

I remember days and weeks of my life spent laying on my back, holding an album, cassette or CD cover, just listening. Not reading or typing emails or letters, not surfing the net, not even talking to friends except in the three to five seconds between tracks. Just listening, experiencing the music. Recently, I took the time again to just listen, to hold the music foremost in my mind, letting other thoughts drift and fade, a meditation on melody and harmony.

I let Yo La Tengo's Summer Sun drift over me like a slight breeze, wispy clouds of guitar and keyboard washes. "Beach Party Tonight", the opening track, a pastel wash study of "Detouring America with Horns", the song that brought Yo La Tengo to me in 1992. The vocals are so far back in the mix as to just be another cloud, twisting, reshaping and reforming thousands of feet above. "Little Eyes" is another gust of wind, not forceful but determined. For some reason I hear The Replacements circa Tim or Pleased to Meet Me in this song. Westerberg on valium.

"Nothing But You And Me" is interesting, but fails me. My mind drifts off the music, the center cannot hold. The piano figures prod me like my sister next to me in the backseat, trying to get me to lash out, to get myself in trouble. I think of this, waiting to be drawn back - "Season Of The Shark" reins me in. It sounds like a cover, a reinterpretation of something that came before. It reminds me of "From A Motel Six" as a bossanova, weird little casio drumbeat cha-cha-cha-ing below the mix, hollow and false. As the album continues, it feels more and more a reaction to May I Sing With Me.

"Today is the Day": a guitar, bending simple notes, a bluesman at the end of the line, to weak to pull a solo, just a single note repeat, a mantra of growing old when the pyrotechnics of the past are gone, but the spirit is pure. The repeated driving references of the lyrics remind of sitting in the back seat, leaning on the window and finding that point where your reflection disappears as you approach the glass. I remember riding in the back and picking a point slightly ahead, letting my eyes follow that point until it disappeared behind my field of vision. Instead of the blur of passing grasses or fields of corn, that point would stay clear like a photograph until it blew by, out of reach.

Another song of motion: "I will go if you say you'll go, do you want to go? I won't talk at all, but I'll go for a ride," begins "Tiny Birds". Rarely do you hear the movement of the hand on the frets, here it seems necessary. I can't shake the idea of a polished lou barlow song, Yo La Sebadoh? No flow, no segue, into the Bacharach keyboard of "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float". Such a sweet song, about familiarity and love, the shared moments and private language of familiarity. Is this the true theme? - so far the songs sound familiar, the voices hushed or twined like ivy long clung to trellis and ledge, the pace unhurried - frenzy is past, the passion subtle and deep, a sweet rich taste that lingers like a sugary maple candy.

What's this? "Georgia vs Yo La Tengo" - bad, simple, insulting. Is this the ultimate private joke, or is this for real? I hope to never understand this, this, abomination, of simple drumming, bad lounge piano and faux "freak out" synthesizer twiddling. Almost four minutes, my mind has left this behind...

The bass line for "Don't Have to Be So Sad" grabs my ear. Simple seeming, strong and good. More lounge piano - da, da, da da, da. Now lower - du, du, du du, du. My brow is furrowing, questioning. "Winter A Go-Go": Georgia holds the center again, over a xylophone-like sound - literally bad vibes, "I can't keep from wandering", indeed. I'm thinking of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, how that album snuck into my consciousness, pushing thoughts around, rearranging my fibers. This is not doing that, it's pushing at me, keeping me at arms length as it goes on. "Moonrock Mambo" continues this with more bad piano figures, "Like a Chunky or a Charleston Chew, Like shoe crab soup or chicken stew, Like Cinderella's other shoe." I want to care, I do. I can't. I put down the CD case and leave the room. I go blow my nose, stretch my arms out behind my back and feel my back crack, I wait and hope.

Bleeps, satellite sounds - promising. Wait, no, piano chords ... trumpet ... flute? Georgia anchors as always, but everything is falling, spiraling down, miasmatic noodlings, so arch, so deep. "Let's Be Still" - if only! I squirm, restless. Voices, heavy echo, multi-tracked, "Passing time so carelessly (? - hard to follow, too layered)." Appropriate lyrics for this "jam session" Covering and exploring Sun Ra on the Nuclear War EP has bled through here - echoing guitar, trumpet lines not dissonant just disconnected, flute playing "thick as a brick" (Tull reference intended), not transcendent and free like Conference of the Birds. I pick the case off the floor - over ten minutes of this? This is not the glory that is "Night Falls on Hoboken". Bmm, ba bm, bmm, bmm - piano chords of endless misery.

I persevere and reach my reward, a coda of Big Star's "Take Care". Georgia sings over steel guitar, so unadorned, open and vulnerable, almost stumbling at the start. Alex Chilton's lyrics find a new home and voice here, "This sounds a bit like goodbye, In a way it is I guess. As I leave your side, We've taken the air. Take care, please, take care." So sweet and soft, as the steel guitar bends upward, a hopeful note to end.

I sit up, blinking. She had me at goodbye.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Spring Dreams of Springsteen 

Had me a dream about the Boss. Not a "sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of my head" kind of dream, but one of seeing Bruce and co. in concert. I've never been a huge Springsteen fan - I appreciate him more than I like him per se. Yet I would still go see him if someone where to donate a couple of tickets. Regardless, the dream was peculiar because Bruce and the E Street Band were doing a full show of covers. It was weird - it was Bruce giving props to artists that influenced him, like Dylan and Guthrie, and artists that are his contemporaries and younger. It was weird hearing him sing Van Morrison's "Madame George", and Talking Heads "Blind"; though Clarence Clemons ripped the sax section Stax style, and Little Steven took the bridge - "No sense of harmony/No sense of time/Don't mention harmony/Say: What time is it?"

He played for hours, and the set peaked with a cover of Billy Bragg's "She's Got A New Spell." He sang the first verse just accompanied by his own electric guitar; rocking back and forth, legs splayed wide on the balls of his feet, leaning into the mike with each line, teeth clenched, singing out the side of his mouth. He revved up to the end of the first verse: "Something you don't understand/Something you cannot command" - quick look over his shoulder to the band - "That's how I know" - and Clarence played the riff on his sax - "She's got a new spell" - Max lays in with a snapping snare, Nils and Little Steven smile - "Yes, that's how I know" - Three guitars, bass, drums, piano, organ and saxophone hold court, Little Steven, Nils and Clarence step to mics - "That she's got a new spell". The song becomes a boogie blues, raw and pre-cambrian in essence. Terrifying, hypnotic, true.

I was shaking when I awoke - it was visceral, my gut feeling the reverberation of bass, drum and guitar feedback, the clapping of tens of thousands, the roar and vibration of the arena itself. I rubbed my eyes, held myself, arms crossed and grabbing shoulders. It was real. I knew somewhere this had happened, would happen, was happening as I dreamed. Reality bent, and Springsteen tore me down.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Elvis of Letters 

William S. Burroughs & Gus Van Zant.
"Burroughs Break" - echo guitar and drum loop.Added layers, layered and added.Burroughs on repetition:The last time I was in George.I couldn't find George.Arf Arf.Cut up and down.Forwards and back."Word is Virus" - Word begets image and image IS virus.Image/ima/ima/image/image IS virus.Loop cut repeat form cut loop form repeat.Wo/wo/be/be/ge/ge/wo/wo/virus."Millions of Images" - Layers of noodling/noodle/loop/techo/loop/ guitar with heavy reverb.Long dead (now dead long and gone) Burroughs,voice scratching & visceral,clawing/cloying with echo. "The Hipster Be-Bop Junkie" - Repeat and slow loop and distort,sample and begin.There's a junk gesture marks the junkie like the limp wrist marks the fag.They all looked like junk.A dirtier boulevard of broken needle wounds vitriol and despair anger spit and spite."Waiting For The Man" as truth not lullaby negatives of hope Images,that's what I eat.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Kiss My Shades 

Not to sound like I only like The Smiths or something, but I do want to note that today is the 20th anniversary of their first single. "Hand In Glove" is a somewhat disturbing little tale of a very possessive lover, willing to lay down his life for love even in the face of a knowledge of the likelihood of failure. Interestingly, the single version (available on Hatful of Hollow) starts with a fade-in, which seems incongruous with Marr's aggressive guitar, and Rourke and Joyce's chunky rhythm. The version on the self-titled debut album is the same recording, sans fade-in. The b-side, "Handsome Devil", was recorded in studio at the BBC for the John Peel show. "Handsome Devil" matched the aggressive band performance of "Hand In Glove", but instead of being somewhat disturbing it is forceful and overt:
I know what hands are for
And I'd like to help myself
You ask me the time
But I sense something more
And I would like to give
What I think you're asking for
I'll be honest; neither are near the top of my list of favorite songs by The Smiths. Not that you asked, but here's today's top five (they do change, regularly):

5."Unhappy Birthday", from Strangeways Here We Come. Wonderful chorus: I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday/I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday/'Cause you're evil/And you lie/And if you should die/I may feel slightly sad/(But I won't cry)

4. "Half A Person", Louder Than Bombs. First heard this in the fall of 87 around my 15th birthday. With the lines: Sixteen, clumsy and shy/I went to London and I/I booked myself in at the Y ... W.C.A./I said : "I like it here - can I stay?/I like it here - can I stay?/Do you have a vacancy/For a Back-scrubber?" I had no choice. It cried out to the sad, alienated, sensitive teen inside me.

3."What She Said", Meat Is Murder. What she said:/"I smoke 'cos I'm hoping for an/Early death/AND I NEED TO CLING TO SOMETHING!" Meaning in a cruel world..

2."How Soon Is Now?" Meat Is Murder. The most recognizable of their songs, remade many times (think the TV show Charmed), used to sell automobiles, danceable (Soho's "Hippy Chick"), timeless.

1. "Cemetry Gates", The Queen Is Dead. Literate, humorous, pretentious, catchy as shit. See title of entry below for a quote.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

'Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn 

I suppose in a different time I would have worn frilly shirts, read Shelly and pondered the fate of Ozymandias whilst skipping jauntily through fields of lavender and natural wild grasses. Instead, I listen to Stuart Murdoch and bemoan the fact I look like shit in a cardigan sweater. Ah, sweet nerd of happiness! Morrissey, Morrissey, wherefore art thou Morrissey? Eh, Stevie?

I had a point here, really. I took the Guardian "Lit Pop" quiz and got a ten out of ten. What do you get for a comment from the Guardian, you don't ask? You get this:
Born to be Wilde
Congratulations. You are a literary genius. You clearly have spent far too many warm summer days indoors writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg. Go out and get some fresh air and buy a Gareth Gates record. (and if you don't know what we're talking about, you're a lot less sad than us)
I scratched my head. "Ask", I said. But Gareth Gates? Quick, check with the All Music Guide. Seems Master Gates came in second in the UK's Pop Idol competition, and became the youngest person to ever have a #1 UK hit with a cover of "Unchained Melody". I am so uncool! How did I not know this! Plus, according to his official website:
Gareth's pure talent and his courage at overcoming his stutter had won him a place in the nation's heart and a record contract.
Good for him. He's the next James Earl Jones.

So, I guess I was less sad than the Guardian quizmeisters, but no more. I now know who Gareth Gates is, and my misery knows no bounds.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003


This is The Devil's Radio, where music is discussed, distilled, dissected and destroyed. Broadcasts are infrequent, and no warning is given, no quarter expected. We do things differently here, and make no apologies for whatever is played. Everybody smiles, everybody smiles...