I want to shine SPECIAL light on Dalava: The Book of Transfigurations, by Aram Bajakian and Julia Uleha. The record consists of Moravian folk songs collected by Julia’s great-grandfather and translated into English (for the CD booklet) and sung (in Moravian) by Uleha–songs that poignantly express the title theme of form-change as well as of life’s interruptions and general impermanence (so often the three are connected!). Bajakian is a versatile, imaginative, and powerful guitarist–he’s often associated with Marc Ribot, who’s surely an influence but whom he’s separated himself from with his last three projects–and he, Uleha and his band put these true people’s songs across with real commitment and a complexity of emotion. Surely one of the most impressive musical achievements of the year, and if I have somehow hooked you, get the hard copy, because the 36-page booklet is worth every extra penny.
I have been quiet of late: teaching, reading, and worrying about, then recovering from, the election have kept me plenty occupied. However, a recent visit with my fond friend and fellow music obsessive Ken Shimamoto (aka “The Stash Dauber” on Blogspot) resulted in an idea we had fun with a long while back when the Velvet Underground’s Quine box came out: reviewing something together. That something was Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, a documentary about the legendary Michigan band The Stooges. We both had high hopes (both of us have played–in Ken’s case, still plays–in bands that have covered Stoogesongs, and both of us worship the band’s best work), we both lamped it Saturday night, and we met on the Innertubes yesterday morning, afternoon, and evening to evaluate it. Below, I reproduce his transcript of our conversation, as well as cut in (in segments) the intro I gave for the film at Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri; it is no piece of scholarship–as always, with me in these matters, it is an explosion of enthusiasm–but perhaps worth entertainment and minor enlightenment to you. Thanks to the Ol’ Dauber for keeping us both focused on the light yesterday!
At the end of a week that knocked lots of folks for a loop, my buddy and Missouri teachaholic Phil Overeem and I both had the chance to view Jim Jarmusch’s new Stooges documentary Gimme Danger and put our heads together via intarweb chat to share impressions. Here’s the resultant chinwag.
Ken: I thought Jarmusch did a good job, appropriate to the material. The MC5’s story was a big story with heavy socio-political significance. The Stooges’ was a little story about young guys growing up together through music. Iggy performed the same role in this as Wayne Kramer did in MC5: A True Testimonial, which is appropriate, because Ig’s a good storyteller. I like that Jarmusch stuck to “family,” with no Dave Grohl/Slash commentaries. James Williamson and Kathy Asheton added interesting sidelights. Steve Mackay and Scott Asheton both looked ravaged and didn’t have as much to say (although I found Scott on Dave Alexander particularly poignant), but they belonged in this. I would have liked to have seen more Danny Fields, but he has his own doco now, I guess.
The big question in my mind going into this was what would Jarmusch do visually, given the paucity of footage (James Williamson told me, “Film stock was expensive and not worth wasting on us”). The synced footage from Cincinnati and Goose Lake that everyone has seen on Youtube was used well. There was some better quality vid of a performance from the Ron era without sound, and some B&W footage without sound from the ’73 Academy of Music show in NYC that I didn’t know existed. Jarmusch used a lot of photo montage, and employed animation to illustrate some stories in the same way the Beware of Mr. Baker filmmaker did. I thought the visuals supported the story well.
Phil: I can’t disagree with any of that. Jarmusch had some serious technical limitations as do so many directors trying to do similar things, and I was hoping he’d be a little more imaginative in overcoming them, but the movie seemed to swing metronomically between talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content. Plus clip-recycling and animation (which I admit I found amusing), which are like check-boxes. Also, a little light on L.A. And stretching a short story into a novel, so to speak. I enjoyed it, but it dragged a bit. I love your point about the band as family. That was a major strength of the film.
Ken: By L.A., I presume you mean the “death march” time after Raw Power. Some folks, I reckon, are disappointed there’s not more about the drugs and debauchery. I figure they can read Please Kill Me. The story I was interested in was how these absolutely typical American kids went about becoming a band, and what happened after. I liked that Jarmusch started at the end — kind of like Sunset Boulevard with Bill Holden “narrating” the story facedown in the swimming pool.
Phil: Well, I certainly wasn’t craving drugs and debauchery (I know it well), but for a general audience it’s certainly part of the story, right?
Ken: I don’t think they glossed over it. There weren’t a lot of stories, but it was acknowledged in the context of the band’s deterioration.
Phil: It seemed pretty minimal compared to the reality, to me. But not a huge deal-breaker, true. Also, how did you feel about Ig’s discussion of Bowie’s role? That combined with the stock footage of the plane taking off to Europe made an interesting statement.
Ken: I think it was fairly accurate. At that point, Bowie was as manipulated by De Fries as anybody. But he definitely gained cachet from the help he rendered to Lou and Iggy. I think Ig showed nice humility — and perhaps, self-awareness — in allowing them to skip his entahr solo career until the reformation.
Phil: I thought about that. Jarmusch was wise to just jump that (for the most part–there are a few vid clips from that time) for scope’s sake. We are agreeing for the most part on the content; I think my disappointments were technical and structural, though I too like the way he chose to open. I have been struggling with the question, “Well, how would he have done it differently?”
Ken: I’m glad it exists to bring all of that material together in a coherent way (because I hate watching shit on Youtube). And I still have my grainy Nth generation VHS of Cincinnati. I think it was important to do it while as many of the cats were still living as possible. Ron passed relatively early in the filming, but they did get some good material with him. It wouldn’t have been possible to make a great film like MC5: A True Testimonial or The Kids Are Alright because the Stooges just weren’t filmed that much. Prior to 2004 or so, no producer would have countenanced the making of a Stooges doco. Luckily, Ron told his stories lots of times to lots of folks, so his side of the story is well documented.
Phil: That, to me, was so fortunate: to get Ron’s and Scott’s takes. Also, I was very impressed with Williamson. To your last comment: yeah, that’s part of my struggle in trying to suggest a more imaginative approach–it’s just that I have put so many docs under my belt in recent years I found myself calling the next move. BUT the most important thing is to get it all in one place, coherently, with relative artistry. He did that.
Ken: I like that Ig and Scott gave props to Dave Alexander, and I found the bits on the making of the various recs to be useful.
Phil: I suppose he could have, ala Julien Temple, provided more musical context for what they were doing, instead of mostly the IMMEDIATE context of the MC5 and VU and free jazz. What about the crap that made The Stooges such a shock? I also agree pretty completely with you about keeping the commentary in the family, but it might have been nice to have a few more old dogs other than Danny to record what it sounded like fresh. Was expecting more story on the making of Funhouse, but maybe what was said was the main thing.
Ken: It’s a fan’s document, but still a more coherent narrative than The Kids Are Alright. Most of the people who will see this know the story, from Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Not to mention the Paul Trynka and Bob Matheu books. The crap — from Fabian to manufactured flower power — was addressed.
Phil: Yeah: a fan’s document. OK, maybe I disagree a little that the film is just FOR the fans. I mean Jarmusch has his own following that might conceivably not know much; there were several such in the audience. I asked for a show of hands. But Fabian was long past and flower power was waning anyway. Confessional singer-songwriters?
Ken: “Marrakesh Express.” I think you’re correct — they focused on main things. It was longer than I expected it to be. To make a movie of viewable length, excessive context is dispensible. They could have made a longer film crammed with more minutiae, but that wouldn’t have served the Stooges or the viewer any better.
Phil: I initially understood your phrase “fan’s document” as meaning “Jarmusch’s document” but you mean more than just that.
Ken: I mean a telling of the legend for people who already love the Stooges.
Phil: Yeah, I think that was what he was doing, but shouldn’t one reach a little further, at least? I am thinking now about what WAS in there that could have been cut…There will be, I am sure, the inevitable bonus material.
Ken: To your comment about going from Ig to visual, I think that’s why the animation was added — to break the monotony. The best use of stock footage I’ve ever seen was in the Howlin’ Wolf doco. But then again, in comparison, Wolf was filmed extensively. Mike Watt was his loquacious self, and reminded me of the Wylde Rattz thing that Ron talked about when I spoke to him in ’99. (BTW, I hated Velvet Goldmine.)
Phil: I couldn’t make it through VELVET GOLDMINE. Watt was a burst of energy into the proceedings, and THAT was a great example of the occasional details that even solid Stooges fans (like me) might not have known–the genesis of the reunion. That might have been widely circulated, but I missed it. Further example: the band’s decision to just stay in one place when they went on stage!!! Another highlight was Iggy serially dismissing claims that the Stooges were “rock,” punk,” etc–they just were. Surprise for me was SO much about the Five in there. I knew it would be there, but not so developed (“big brother – little brother”).
Ken: I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like. It’s like, I’d dig to see a doco about Buddy Bolden that shows his importance, but such is not possible. But I think Jarmusch focused on the universality of their experience, rather than the uniqueness, for that reason. I know the MC5: ATT filmmakers struggled with narrowing the focus. It could have been a ten hour social history of ’60s America. But I think they made good decisions, as did Jarmusch.
Phil: You said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like.” I honestly would have liked to see a stab at at least the former, and how the latter affected their legend. Thanks for giving me more ammunition!
Ken: Part of the point is that while they were “real communists,” they weren’t involved in “causes” like the Five were. And that is addressed.
Phil: Funny Reagan Republic Ig talking about communism!
Phil: Hey, I know you hate this, but what grade would you give it? You’ve moved me up to a B+. BTW, I thought the text seemed either eye-rolling (bleeding? well, I get the connection, but we didn’t see much of that) or cheap.
Ken: I don’t have the objectivity to rate this. Although I’m not close friends with these people, this feels like a movie about people I know. My expectations of it were apparently different than yours. I’d be curious to hear what a young person who was aware of the Stooges (or one that wasn’t) thinks about it. I’m glad they included Harry Partch. I knew of his influence from Please Kill Me and Velvets to Voidoids, but still.
Phil: Yeah, the Partch segment was a very pleasant surprise. OK, OK, I am coming around further. A few times I was made to rethink the Stooges music a bit.
Ken: What I loved about the Stooges was their ordinariness. The Who and the Five looked like golden gods. The Stooges looked like me and my bad acting buddies. I could imagine them sitting with us outside the deli, having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the really neat girls wouldn’t go out with us.
Phil: That last sentence connected with part of my intro, where I stole from what you told me about Iggy seeing the other three just being lowlifes and conceiving the Stooges from that. I don’t remember you using “spitting,” but I did…and polishing switchblades, which was a bit much. They looked like bad news.
Ken: The most revealing story is about the hood-type guys Ig was “friends” with coming over to the trailer and goofing on it and his family. An example of how the anger was fueled.
Phil: Also, “25 words or less.”
Ken: Key to the aesthetic. And Johnny Ramone hating the ’70 shows because they didn’t play songs he knew. They never dwelt in the past, even when they scarcely had any material.
Phil: Where do you think GIMME DANGER ranks against similar docs where the directors had similar disadvantages? You mentioned the Wolf doc and The MC5’s.
Ken: I can’t think of one where there was such a paucity of live footage. But again — as I said starting out, I think the scale and scope was right for the story. It was more like listening to a guy telling a story, with illustrations and digressions. Which is what you could do, given the available materials. I liked the voice recordings of the Asheton kids, which Kathy told me were discovered right before her int, but after Ron was gone.
To people of the Millennial generation and younger, the Stooges don’t sound unique because there are a million bands that sound “like that” now. I think the film recognizes that such was not always the case, but I don’t know how more examples or explanation would have made that point more strongly.
Phil: We are not so far apart. One point, though, that I made in my intro was that as easy as the early Stooges’ sound seemed to be to make, even THEY couldn’t replicate it when they reunited. I don’t really hear many bands sounding like them. I hear bands trying on that attack but it just isn’t as primitive, as id-rock, as natural-sounding. Sidetrack: another of my favorite moments was Iggy’s analysis of how they came to be thought of as nihilistic (kind of related to the 25-words-or-less vow).
Ken: The reason for that is they learned how to play. Scott says the first time they played “Not Right” was the take. They became more skilled players, but they were more creative when they were reaching beyond their grasp.
Phil: Well, YEAH, they learned how to play, but few bands who don’t know how sound anything like they did when they didn’t!
Ken: By the ’70s with SRB, Scott had become more of a four-on-the-floor drummer. On Funhouse, he’s reaching for Clyde Stubblefield and Elvin Jones. Not making it, but doing something unique.
Phil: See, yeah, that’s it. And out of what did that spring?
Ken: I think Iggy might have been the “pusher.”
Phil: The jazz. The Partch. Yeah, the pusher!!!!
Ken: Free jazz was in the wind in Detroit/A2 because of the Five, Sinclair, and people like Charles Moore. As for Partch: Ig worked at Discount Records.
It was quite revealing that they couldn’t get a band take on the first album unless Ig was in the live room, dancing.
Phil: That’s really the secret. The movie tells it, w/o clubbing you over the head. A-….
Ken: They literally learned to play on the road in front of huge festival crowds. Before that, they were…an art project. The reason they sounded the way they did is because they weren’t copying a established sound, they were playing over their heads with a variety of bizarre influences that they couldn’t possibly have replicated. And then they got caught up in the momentum of volume, adrenaline, and endorphin. I like your “not clubbing you over the head” remark. Just tell the story, and if the viewer is engaged she’ll figure it out.
Phil: Nice. I’m a little overmatched here.
Ken: I’ve been obsessed with this music since 1970. But you and I are different kinds of fans/listeners. I’m a “just enough” guy. You’re a “more” guy. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.
Phil: No, I get that. I think it’s related to my tendency to listen as a gestaltist. I do not know where that came from.
Ken: I don’t think more data would have strengthened the case.You studied lit theory? I’m guessing. I listen more…intuitively. Like a monkey who finds a transistor radio. First it’s magic. Then I listen to it all the time. Then it breaks, and I find…something else. That’s an interesting observation, and I guess I do tend to hear parts before the whole, if they are audible.
Phil: Nope. Well, a little [literary theory]. I listen intuitively, too, on a song by song basis. Certainly I respond and write that way. But I don’t think it’s from that. I want the whole to be better. But see that’s why I don’t think we’re so far apart. I don’t necessarily want more data…maybe different…and different structure. But you’ve brought me over.
Ken: Maybe I went knowing the limitations that existed, and so didn’t expect or want anything more. I think it was done coherently and respectfully. I would see it again. I would recommend it to another fan, or a novice.
Phil: Gear-shift: what year was it when you first played a Stooges song live?
Ken: I didn’t play Stooges music until 2004. No one I knew back then dug ’em, although some of the older cats I knew saw them and the Five at Randall’s Island in ’70.
Phil: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was a staple of my first band (’85) and “Funhouse” the climax point of my second one (’90). ‘Course, I didn’t play, I “sang”–but those were cathartic songs, especially the second. Lou [Reed] was a great model for me to be a non-singer because of his style but mostly for his verbal genius. Iggy was how to do it physically, release the id, plus…25-words-or-less made the song easy to remember.
Ken: The first Stooge song I played was “TV Eye,” sitting in with a band the night the Stooges played Coachella. Two years later, we started the Stoogeband. When we learned those songs, we started with the mistakes. I mentioned before Scott said the first time they played “Not Right” (not “Real Cool Time”) was in the studio. You can hear on the take, he plays through the break after the first verse. They left it in. We learned it. The beginnings of “Loose” and “1970” are chaos that coalesces.
Phil: Which I absolutely love.
Ken: Me too.
Phil: I guess the reason I went down this road was to try to think about how the movie worked for me just from the perspective of having been in a band of semi-reprobates who could not play (except for one guitar player). We weren’t together long enough to have learned much, but we had a reunion (minus one, with a different guitar player) that sounded like the reunited Stooges sounded compared to the original, now that I think about it. The other band: everyone could play (except me), and it was all covers, and I had anger to expel and often was altered. BTW, that reunion was just a few years ago, and the drummer and original guitarist could play very well, and the added guitarist had come out of SRV into garage punk.
Ken: I always say the MC5 worked harder, but the Stooges always won. Not then, but via historical validation. I think the simplicity of Stooge songs has given them more longevity than the Five’s with the exception of “KOTJ.”
Phil: But don’t you think that’s also due to Iggy’s visibility over the last forty years? And his being taken up as an icon? By the youth circa ’90s, I should say. I am thinking that the (for lack of a better term) grunge kids were the ones who first started to bring them up to me when I was teaching. I remember, too, a couple of videos and his Rock The Vote thing with Kate Moss.
Ken: By 2002, though, as he admitted, he was out of ideas and not selling records. The Stooges reunion was many things. One was a tonic to his career. Although I like that he gave the Ashetons a nice victory lap while they were still living.
Phil: Do not disagree. But he stayed in the public eye via the reunion and some movies and constant comparative references in the rock press, don’t you think? (Still trying to explain why the Stooges–though maybe I am just talking Iggy here–trump the Five for other reasons.)
Ken: The Five were better musos, saturated with Chuck Berry and Stones when they started. That made it harder for them to do something new. Their free jazz freakouts, all released in the ’90s, do not stand up to repeated listenings well. The Stooges were barely competent, and invented their music from the ground up as they went.
Phil: Oh, I agree. Especially about that last sentence. But I don’t think THAT’S the main reason the majority of us don’t think of them as much as we do the Stooges, though it ought to be, I think Iggy has in some ways cast shade over THE BAND–another reason for the documentary to exist.
Ken: The Five’s political aspect is harder for people to grasp.
Phil: Oh, I agree with that, too. Hell THEY had trouble grasping it, and sometimes rejected it.
Ken: Too complex. The Stooges were simple. “25 words or less.”
Phil: Hard to believe Iggy is the last man standing of the original group. BUT…BUT…do you think, say, had Iggy OD’d in ’73 we’d still be seeing the Stooges on a more important level? I don’t mean you and me, because we do, I mean rockdom.
Phil: I have thoughts about whether the movie illustrates a band-forming process that is no longer common?
Ken: I don’t think that’s changed much in the fundamentals. What’s changed is what they aspire to. There are more roadmaps/templates/models. Musicianship is generally at a higher level.
Phil: Which, ironically, can be a barrier?
Ken: Yeah. If you have a certain level of chops, it’s easier to copy somebody else (cf. our earlier discussion of the Five). There are “Schools of Rock” now. A few years ago, the Stooge band drummer and I went to one to teach a bunch of 10-year-olds how to play “Search and Destroy.” It was innaresting.
Phil: And you can’t go backwards in time.
Phil: The film really does nicely nail that.
Ken: But aesthetics haven’t changed much in the last 40 years. Even forms that were considered extreme now have conventions.
Phil: Indeed. But can you pretend to not be able to play and run smack into something fresh? Anymore?
Ken: “Pretend to not be able to play” is a concept beyond the scope of this inquiry, I think. You have the life experience that’s been dealt to you. You have all the knowledge you’ve acquired that affects your ability to express yourself through whatever medium you choose. You’re influenced by all of that whenever you try to create something.
Phil: Sorry about that! I was just thinking about the odds of really NOT being able to play and innovating. I mean, can’t musicians code switch just like folks do when they talk? Today, I mean.
Ken: A kid born in 1996 can’t pretend to be Ron Asheton in 1967. Nor would he want to be, I don’t think.
Phil: I would think “a kid” might!!!
Ken: It’s kind of like “Can blue men sing the whites?” You are the product of your time and place. You perform or express yourself in a way that mirrors that.
Phil: So you’re making me rethink the early portion of the film. Slowly pushing me to the “A” by demonstrating how MUCH Jarmusch DOES get in…
Ken: Again, I’d say that given the limitations (available resources, human attention), and the scale and scope of the story (small, human, not grand and epic), I’d say he did what needed to be done. There may be other movies about the Stooges, but this will be, um, hard to beat.
Phil: I think, having seen most of his films, I was looking for more of his stamp on it. But he ceded that to getting the story right.
Ken: Like J. Mascis ceding half of his set on the “Fog” tour to Watt (and later Ron) doing Stooge songs.
Phil: And just dealing with the band-doc conventions. Humility begets humility.
Ken: You can’t make it more than what it is.
Phil: And humility is a gateway to truth.
Ken: They were pariahs who were validated by history.
Phil: Well, yeah!
Ken: And historical validation wears the white Stetson.
THE highlight–THE HIGHLIGHT–of my last week’s listening (and that’s including Rosetta Tharpe, The Kinks, and The Electric Eels), based on a 10-point scale coordinated with my inability to quit playing the record:
Tyler Keith and The Apostles: DO IT FOR JOHNNY – 9.5 – You know what I think about a lot? Rock and roll (it used to roll) sprang from the other side of the tracks, sounded really dangerous, and skipped a lot of school, so to speak. That’s why it has meant so much to me, from the age of 13 to now, people. These days, it’s predominantly ‘burby or downtowny, makes nice (boasting credentials from the James Taylor 2.0 I’m-Sensitive-So-Lay-Me School), and studies its vinyl collection until 2 a.m. Which is why my eyebrows touch my scalp when I hear about a new Tyler Keith release. A church-raised, working-class Mississippian, Keith forged his previous bands, the Neckbones and the Preachers Kids (their records well worth your quest), into units that had too much Watts-Richards rhythmic spring to be stuck in the garage, and too much post-punk disrespect and dissonance (epitomized by Tyler’s snotty but passionate Richard Hell-goes-to-Popeye’s vocals and always-unruly guitar) to ever break college-rock. Those categories are pulverized now; it’s all a crapshoot, a REAL crapshoot, which is why you should just trust me and check out this release. Do It for Johnny is keyed to the title song, the greatest anyone will ever write about The Outsiders (and it ain’t just fandom–you might have noticed some socs vs. greasers cultural ruckus lately, or maybe not, and Tyler’s consciously tapped in), and kicks off with the class-conscious “Criminal Gene”–what current young white band of note do you know would admit to, describe fighting against, and just fuck it and give in to, such a characteristic? Like Mick, only with less care and delicacy–that’s a compliment to Tyler–he has no fear of a tough ballad to change the pace (“Dangling on a Wire”). He impressively shows off his Spanish on the narco-rocker “Vaya Con Dios” (the idea of a God’s never far from this man’s mind). He exposes imagination for the terror it really is on a sneaky, wildly rocking green-eyed monster song. He essays a less romantic, poor man’s versions of Springsteen’s “Backstreets” (the deceptively titled “Bright Side of the Road”). And he and his crack, sleazily loose band go out on a crime-beat Leiber-Stoller tribute that supports the old adage, “Tell the truth, then run.” Final temptation on the sticker? It features those time-honored tensions of–really, again, battles between–sin and salvation, youthful adrenaline and mature sedation, and class and, um, no class. It’s fully loaded, the best rock AND ROLL record of the year, available right here:
Highlight of my week’s listening–yep, that’s singular–ranked on a scale Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings forced me to use:
Jason Derulo/TALK DIRTY – 9.5 – Okay. First, the sheer dam-bustin’ daily flood of music makes it impossible to hear everything right when it comes out, so get off my ass for just now bringing this up. Second, though I was apprised of the excellence of this should-be-illegal album long ago…well, look, I am a 54-year-old white dude, and it seems of shaky grace for me to be carrying around–or actively and avidly listening to–a record that has a cover like this one (I have a habit of picturing myself in the position of artists, and I collapse in laughter at the thought of me walking in ol’ Jace’s shoes there, or through the songs). Then I found out he’s involved in those…talent shows. HOWEVER–I decided to take the plunge for gits and shiggles. I have been feeling my age and mortality of late, and maybe I was questing after a jolt. Who knows? Too, I’ve always dug black music barely more than white (that distinction is slowly being erased, and bully for that), Al Green’s my man, so, as Sam Peckinpah wrote, “Let’s go–why not?”
I am helplessly in love with this record! Each of the first four songs are augmented with fabolous, tweak-ready, ALIEN noises: Balkan Beat Box-isms, what sounds like a toy flute, synthesized trumpets (?), corny oldsters Snoop and 2 Chainz, thonkin’ bass. Plus, besides singing ok, Mr. Derulo has a sense of humor–bondage and Kama Sutra? The lyrics are mostly dumb, but when I listen to it as pure music, under the guidance of Mr. John Cage, it’s irresistible. Maybe his Haitian heritage helps?
There’s a Black-Eyed Peas moment (still, though, pretty much an up, given our times), and some yawny semi-slow ones, but–returning to a nod above–no one who dug/digs classic era Al Green has a right to scorn this. Jason does NOT have those pipes, but the package is so physically stimulating you can’t afford to miss it. Like I wrote posting the title song to Facebook, “Uncle!” Let me up! I hate strip jointz, but long live bubble gum.
Despite my extreme shyness around girls, it took me until my junior year to pull a classic adolescent move: using a song to try to communicate tortured emotions. Looking back, remembering how much music meant to me and how frequently I’d had communications issues with girls up to that point, I can’t believe I hadn’t used that tactic in fifth grade! However, I was always about 10-12 steps behind the crowd romantically—too bad, because I was usually a few steps ahead when it came to tunes.
Yet even then, when it occurred to me to maybe do a Say Anything (still a few years in the future), I wasn’t trying to seduce—I was trying to get revenge (did I mention I was an Elvis Costello fan then, too?). A very cute young lady had stood me up for a dance date, after I’d hammered enough emotional wedges under my fingernails to summon the courage to ask her out, then showed up at the dance anyway on an upperclassman’s arm.
The next Monday morning, I bribed her locker partner to let me tape something on the inside of their locker door: the lyrics to Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street”! Even though I am certain she understood the entirety of the lyrics just a little less than I did, the choruses rendered up the desired result. She cried! I saw her, right after she eyeballed the lines! Bob ‘65: “Master Prick” (at the time, though, I simply considered him “The Godhead”). She tore it down, wadded it up, threw it at me, and turned on her heel. Amidst confused fellow students, I picked up the wad from the floor, smoothed it back out, and re-read it. I didn’t have these words then, just the feeling: perhaps the gesture was a bit out of proportion to how badly I was wronged? You be the judge, but I ended up feeling guilty.
Later that year, a new student arrived from New York City. She was provocative to me for several reasons. She was the first South Asian person I’d ever met. She was smart, extremely outgoing, witty, and painfully attractive. She was extremely comfortable having boys for friends—so comfortable that, to me, it intensified her painful attractiveness. Her mom was cool and cooked amazing curry. And, most important (well, looking back across these reasons, maybe not), she really loved music, and, besides forcing anybody who came to her house to listen to Teddy Pendergrass, she’d brought a gen-u-wine “Rapper’s Delight” 12” with her from The Big Apple. By the time my junior year was over, I had Teddy and that Sugarhill Gang single memorized—a requirement if you showed up for one of her weekend dance parties.
She was also dating my immensely more sophisticated and assured best friend, of course, but being two years older than him and a year older than her, I felt that by magically transforming into a golden senior by the opening of the next school year, I might gain a level of prestige (cue up “Status Back”) commensurate enough for her to ever-so-easefully separate from my pal and—come to me. I wasn’t even worried that, should that fantasy materialize, I would have to deal with the permanent fact of her dark skin, and my parents’ discomfort with that—my mom had freaked the first time the young lady had swung by my house to hang out, begging me to consider what we would be putting our children through! My mom was already at home plate; I was just trying to get out of the damn dugout!
(It’s funny how melanin has a place in both sections of this story, testament, I think, to music’s power to guide you through superficial things. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The first semester of my senior year was already over. I’d had and discarded, without a shred of grace, a very nice girlfriend. Our Lady of The Magic Records was holding steady with my pal. She remained supernaturally charming in my presence; I suspect she knew she was torturing me, but had the good manners (and talent?) to keep me very gingerly at bay without resorting to cruelty. However, when Key Club, of which we were both members, had an overnight something-or-other to do something charitable for something-or-other, our proximity over extended time (sounds like a physics equation, and it might be, actually) was more than I could bear.
I had striven, virtually since I’d met her, to just maintain my dignity, with a 95% success rate. I had over-imbibed one night down at the creek—on, of all things, sloe gin (never sampled since, dear reader)—while watching her have a smashing time with her boyfriend, again, one my most prized pals. The party migrated to someone’s house, but, before I got there, driving, very very sadly, alone, I had to pull over at the local McDonald’s and yak into the parking lot. Otherwise, though, I had contained my mute aortal agony. I had but a few months before I would graduate and be jettisoned somewhere where I would not have to be bewitched, bothered, and beguiled by her on a daily basis—if I could just keep it together during a 16-hour sleepover/do-gooder/social Iron Maiden of a situation.
I ask you, how many of you have ever mounted a song in your brain that is someone you cared about? Note: that’s a metaphor, not a simile. The song becomes them, in more ways than one.
I know I am not alone. And I know this is not really a good thing. I’d very briefly been on the other side of the metaphor as a seventh grader, when this sparkly-braced cheerleader said that whenever she heard Paul Davis (why me, Lord?) sing “I Go Crazy” (couldn’t she have picked James Brown’s?), she thought of me. I was underwhelmed. But that memory did not come to the fore on this particular night. Since we’d been advised to, I’d arrived at the sleepover site armed with an eight-track. That’s right, one eight-track. I think I had about 20 at the time, and about 20 LPs (compared to a total of 8,900 at time of typing).
Would you like to guess what I brought?
Come on, you can do better than that! “Positively Fourth Street” was strictly last-year, baby.
That’s right! Neil Young’s Live Rust!
Already the serrated-edged musical instrument of my social destruction during basketball season! As well as a big nowhere on the cool-kid charts of early-1980 southwest Missouri!
Like Neil (you ever paid attention to his love songs?), I was not only a slow learner but also a bit (a bit?) of a romantic—in the worst sense, the sense that a romantic doesn’t really try to even learn a lesson.
But. But. No “Sugar Mountain” this time. No barkers and colored balloons. I was pushing all of my chips out, ahead of a tailwind that Keats might have respected, on the strength of one song that, from its opening, isolated guitar-bolt, wastes no time making its pledge:
Once I thought I saw you in a crowded hazy bar,
Dancing on the light from star to star.
Far across the moonbeam I know that’s who you are,
I saw your brown eyes turning once to fire.
You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye.
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but I’m getting blown away.
I am just a dreamer, but you are just a dream,
You could have been anyone to me.
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us on our foggy trip
You are just a dreamer, and I am just a dream.
You could have been anyone to me.
Before that moment you touched my lips
That perfect feeling when time just slips
Away between us on our foggy trip.
Bars? Only across the state line in Kansas for us, with 3.2 pisswater and not a lot of haze—plus she didn’t go with us that often. I always thought it was “Far across the movie”—obviously because my desire was ushered several rows away, at a safe distance. She did have brown eyes—they weren’t fiery, but they danced like licks of fire. The chorus is the meat ‘n’ taters: calm as hell, she was blowing me away without trying. That “somewhere safer where the feeling stays”? Couldn’t have been more true. That’s where I was keeping them—until I forced her, at about one in the morning at the sleepover (with an attentive audience; unfortunately, I had had more than a few moments like these, and I swear I never even saw the audience), to…well, here’s how it started:
“Hey, I got one, listen to this—this is how I feel about you, I’ve been wanting to tell you, but this is better!”
I felt triumphant within the first couple of minutes, though her face was frozen, incomplete for all time (in my memory, at least) like the Crazy Horse Monument. But she was attentive.
Then I realized: this fucking song is seven minutes long! At the three-minute mark, she started to laugh. Not charitably, either. At the five-minute mark, she was joined by the audience. At the seven-minute mark, they were in the kitchen looking for snacks. I, in grave contrast, was staring straight ahead into the abyss of the far wall, not hearing the song anymore, but the clatter of a gibbet being carefully erected. I also had another seven fucking hours of the goddam do-gooding overnighter to endure, since I’d been dropped off.
I’d like to be able to say that, in those following excruciating hours, I’d had my romanticism burned down to ash, but it would take a few more acts of self-destructive and deluded emotional arsons (and a more than a few years in a solitary wilderness without a match, or even rocks to spark) before I got it.
I did, finally, get it. At least. And, every time I put on Live Rust, I’m reminded that, inasmuch as certain blindnesses force you to construct vivid but deeply flawed worlds inside your own skull, only by pushing the worlds of your imagination into contact with the real one are you ever going to make any kind of meaningful progress. Neil, I know you weren’t really trying to communicate that, but hey.
Postscript: Last week, my wife was listening to Live Rust in her car. As we headed out to grab a bite, I’d brought Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, a signpost record for us, with me to celebrate our 26 years of being together. I started to eject Live Rust and replace it, but she, brown eyes shining, shooed me off, saying, “I love this song.” Wanna guess the song?
I first learned about Neil Young in a friend’s basement in 1978, when I was a junior in high school. My pal had reckoned that, since I loved Rush’s 2112 (ahhhh—‘70s FM radio and its tendency to showcase entire albums upon release), I would also love Neil. Neither of us were Canucks, nor did we have any special interest in or knowledge about the land geographically above us, but he insisted I come over for a listening session.
He got royally high; I abstained, having recently been gotten high, and had a couple plug wires detached from my car by my “benefactors.” It took me an hour that night to drive the five miles between the party locale and my house—but that hour allowed me to get deeply acquainted with Journey’s Infinity album, which clicked relentlessly through my eight-track player. I mention this only to assure the reader that I wasn’t in an altered state when I got gobsmacked by Decade, a perfect choice for a benighted soul such as I was. Already a Dylan fan, I’d become inured to “bad” voices, but Young? Who else has wielded such an untutored, seemingly technically deficient, yet so yearning a voice? I suppose that yearning was the first thing about him that appealed to me: I yearned to get laid, to express my difference, to connect with people, but I had no vocal, mental, or sexually social tools. Thus, he seemed not only miraculous to me, but a brother in arms as well. Also, he had a nose for injustice. My jones was (and still is) racial injustice; his seemed mostly ecological, romantic, cultural—but then there was “Southern Man”! On top of those things, dude could write a melody: “Sugar Mountain,” “Love is a Rose” and “Heart of Gold” infected my ear, but so did the equally hummable but amped-up “Like a Hurricane” and “Cinnamon Girl.” Yep, amped-up. His GUITAR! Acoustic, but especially electric, it resonated with, I dunno, my sense of my own dissonance against the harmony of the crowd.
After that basement session, Neil was soldered to my soul. That could only bode well, right? Well, you might not remember the Seventies well. In fact, Young’s music was an agent in two of the most humiliating experiences of my youth—but, friends, humiliation is the pathway to enlightenment, or should be, depending on your willingness to reflect, analyze, and adjust.
Music fans know that there are private passions and public passions. We love certain recordings (for me, one is Roland Kirk’s quiet but virtuosic and weird I Talk to The Spirits) that are so eccentric we keep them to ourselves or a very tight circle, because we don’t want them (or us) to be assaulted by the tin-eared. Others seem to communicate so directly and broadly we don’t hesitate to share—in my life I’ve found Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta (or NOLA r&b in general) to be so life-affirming as to entail no risk of rejection. In early ’79, I heard Neil’s Live Rust in its entirety on Joplin, Missouri’s KSYN, and categorized it as public—a) it was a perfect summation of Young’s best work, which had made him famous; b) it sounded like it was being transmitted from the cosmos—which I considered unweird because spacey was lingua franca in the late ‘70s; and c) it was sensitive and balls-out rockin’—how do you remember the 1970s? To my mind, Young’s top-shelf creations were ready to share in situations which demanded it. Situations, though, in which the potential for humiliation lurked.
I grew up in southwest Missouri. My elementary school (’68-’74) was racially segregated—whether on purpose or by location, I know not. My father worked with a black man who came over occasionally for a beer—I don’t think his melanin content registered with me then. My 6th grade teacher introduced me to the concept of race during a civil rights lesson. After we had read (in a precious few pages—maybe even one) about Dr. King’s accomplishments, Mr. Lawhon, a Baptist minister on the side, passed around a postcard showing Dr. King at a Communist party meeting—and labeled him an enemy of America. That was the first time I’d heard a teacher teach against the textbook; I was a natural B+ student who overachieved and competed into As, but the whole moment smelled rotten. A session with my favorite sitter (the town library) confirmed that either it was an outpost of Bible Belt Communism, or my teacher was full of shit. I put my money on the latter.
The next year fed all of the elementaries into one junior high. Along with the one ultra-hot girl who didn’t go to Columbian Elementary, black citizens were now my classmates. Unsurprisingly, that was also the first year I heard my pals toss the verbal Molotov cocktail “nigger” around—casually. My thinking was conflicted by several things. One, a 15-year-old seventh-grader named Barry Clark, Black Power Afro-pick sticking out of his puff and shit-eating grin ever-gleaming, was the reason to never miss science class, which otherwise was an endless procession of transparencies (only the notes were transparent). He was funnier than a motherfucker, and the first example I’d ever seen seen of cool. He made nothing but Fs—but he was obviously smart. His side-eyes during lecture indicated a 36-on-the-ACT social IQ. Beyond that, he provided my personal highlight of that year: we could play pick-up basketball during lunch, and he chose me as part of his three-on-three team. He was already 6’ 3” and pretty skilled; I was 5’ 10” and a basketball Pete Rose—that was probably why he chose me, but I didn’t get it then. During one of our first games, a white upperclassman on the other team took offense to my pestering defense and kamikaze drives to the basket, and clocked me, out of nowhere. Tears welling up, feeling my prestige drain away, I pushed myself up off the court only to see Barry nail the guy with a haymaker and send him down like a sack of potatoes. A principal hustled him off—he had no interest in the guy that punched me–but I was blown away: he had my back. I don’t mean to paint Barry as a saint. That year, he also lit a girl’s hair on fire with a Zippo, and he often referred to me as “Buddha-rini,” which I thought referred to my wisdom but in fact implied that I was ripe for buggering. Still, it made a difference that he was black and he kicked a white kid’s ass ‘cause that kid kicked mine.
Another thing that conflicted my thinking was a black girl a grade above me called me incessantly for a date. And she was cute! I didn’t take her up on it, but it had nothing to do with race. I was scared out of my mind about “going steady” under normal circumstances, I believed that women had no sex drive and only tolerated men’s existence, and I couldn’t process the idea of a girl aggressively pursuing me. My loss. I saw her several years later working concessions at a Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball game, and one locked-in glance brought it all back.
Two of the most important disruptors to my view of race—and to many of my peers’, who were otherwise outwardly racist—were Richard Pryor and Julius Erving. No one was funnier than Rich, no one was smarter, he was black, and you couldn’t deny it. He made Cheech and Chong seem minor leaguers, George Carlin a mere intern. He skewered white folks—and we laughed just as hard as black folks (though maybe we didn’t learn enough). The Doctor? Words do not suffice; spend a few hours on YouTube. In terms of gravity and basketball, he was as Louis Armstrong was to jazz.
By far the most important contributor to my developing view of—I’m sorry, I can’t acknowledge the word race—melanin difference was school-sponsored sports, basketball in particular. Little do I need to explain. The first adult I knew who talked to me as if I were an adult was Lee Stevens, my junior high basketball coach, and a black man. He respected my intelligence, my desire, my eagerness to be down for a program that worked. The night he coached us to a victory in Cassville, Missouri, as fans screamed racial slurs at him and our black players, changed my life. Plus, two black families, the Stricklands and the Wrights, placed their scions on those junior and high school teams, and through myriad conditioning drills and scrimmages and more wins than losses, they came to seem my own brothers. I didn’t have any reason to feel differently, though in school, for some reason (whatever it was, I felt even at the time, it was indefensible), they were never in my classes, which further underlines the significance of their being on our team.
So what does Neil Young have to do with all that? A lot. I’d come to feel very comfortable with my black peers. I thought that was great. That’s about as much as I thought. Before my ’79 senior year, a new basketball coach arrived on the scene, with new ideas. One of the coolest was that, for away games, we could take turns bringing jam boxes on the bus and playing music to get us psyched up. Long before deeply hypnotized by music’s power, I vibrated restlessly, waiting for my turn—we were chosen randomly, or I would have leapt to the front of the line. My turn came shortly after a hip KSYN programmer ran Live Rust in its entirety across the airwaves—I happened to be listening in, and I was mesmerized. I couldn’t wait to share Young’s insights, melodies, and wailings; again, the record (liked its studio companion Rust Never Sleeps) seemed, again, beamed in from some galactic room—someone could write a great article if not book on their ambiance, which flowed into Hawks and Doves and disappeared. In particular, the song “Sugar Mountain”—more so than its earlier incarnation (Young wrote it in ’64, at 19)—pierced right through my 12th grade male athlete armor to what I thought was my core:
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.
It’s so noisy at the fair
But all your friends are there
And the candy floss you had
And your mother and your dad.
There’s a girl just down the aisle,
Oh, to turn and see her smile.
You can hear the words she wrote
As you read the hidden note.
Now you’re underneath the stairs
And you’re givin’ back some glares
To the people who you met
And it’s your first cigarette.
Now you say you’re leavin’ home
‘Cause you want to be alone.
Ain’t it funny how you feel
When you’re findin’ out it’s real?
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
you’re leaving there too soon,
You’re leaving there too soon.
I couldn’t wait to share it. I thought it had to speak to where everyone was. My consideration didn’t flow to lives that didn’t fully intersect with mine (beyond school—with its mean, mean compartmentalizations—and sports). I knew (in a lazy, knowing way) that some folks’ residences were red-lined into a far corner of the town map; that some folks never seemed to be at the big town pool; that some folks were never represented at my church or the churches at which I occasionally slummed. But that knowledge is of the floating sort, that doesn’t take hold—a very American sort.
We boarded the bus. I found a seat up front, so I could aim my jam box back through space. My expectations? That all my teammates would be elevated by Neil’s flat-out nailing of their personal moment in time and execute a, yes, balletic victory on the hardwood. The Strickland and Wrights, as per usual, were sitting in my vicinity. I had speculated that, yes, they, too, probably had had their first cigarette, and had begun finding out that, yes, in fact, it was real. The bus lurched onto the highway—maybe it was on its way to Seneca, Missouri (that town’s name’s genesis then dim to me)—and, as the vehicle began to sail, I balanced my jam box on the back of my seat and pushed “Play.”
As that fragile, yearning, oddly beautiful voice occupied the bus’ temporarily quiet space, I saw particular bodies stiffen.
The Stricklands, Nathan and Jerome, looked at each other, looked at me, and were stricken with convulsive laughter. They composed themselves, kept listening, then exploded into very physical guffaws. They loudly but politely demanded I push the “Stop” button. I obliged.
Together, they launched into a witheringly sarcastic chorale. Which they repeated, ad nauseum, in wickedly wavering falsettos, for most of the rest of the trip. They may, in fact, have surpassed even Richard Pryor in their spot-on nailing of white liberal obliviousness.
I myself was not experientially or academically equipped (I use both of those adverbs gingerly) to perfectly parse Nathan’s and Jerome’s most excellent satire; I wouldn’t find out until later that the concept of “Sugar Mountain” was, for the Stricklands and Wrights—people of greater melanin content—even deeper bullshit than Neil was suggesting. I was staggered by their ridicule of my passionately and sincerely offered paean, but, really, it was the first notice I’d been given of my white privilege, long before that was a buzz word. Fuck “Sugar Mountain”–they hadn’t even had access to the fair, period. Take that how you wish.
Neil’s music’s fix on me could have ended there—but I was dogged enough to carry it into my romantic life, too.
I can’t shake mortality off my mind. I have been playing the hell out of Hag and Prince; after having recently read a book a piece about Gaye and George Jones, I’ve also been jamming those guys and scoping vids.
I must tell you: if you are a Possum fan and haven’t seen this documentary, which I picked up for $3 at a grocery store VHS sale in the early ’90s, you’re cheating yourself. It’s a very simple production (by Charlie Dick–yeah, that Charlie Dick), with somewhat corny narration, and its packaging does the product no favors. However, it is loaded with treats. Loaded
*Great clips of a happy, healthy George, just hanging out at the hacienda, joyously offering up impromptu versions of gospel (“Lily of the Valley”) and Jones (“No Money in This Deal”!!!–just a couple of lines, but holy shit!) classics on acoustic guit for the director.
*Wizened and oft-hilarious testimony from bizzers like Gabe Tucker and Don Pierce (old Starday hands) and Billy Sherrill (reminiscent of Rip Torn’s Artie on The Larry Sanders Show), and peers like Cash, Jennings, Lynn, Hall, Twitty, and Owens. I was gonna call Cash and Jennings old, but when this video was made they were my age. Or close.
*Fantastic performance clips: Jones knocking “Into My Arms Again” out of the park on The Ozark Jubilee; exchanging Cheshire cat grins with master fiddler Johnny Gimble as he defies mild hoarseness and kills on “Bartender’s Blues” (see below) and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; winding up for a somewhat disturbing mock punch during the “…as they fight their final round…” line while jocularly dueting with Tammy on “Golden Ring; and totally sticking the landing (as he was so often wont to do on last lines) while craftily moseying his way, in deeply loving fashion, through the greatest version of Hag’s “I’ve Always Been Lucky With You” anyone will ever do.
*Sobering and moving testimony from Jones on the trials and tribulations of booze and drugs, as he recalls dropping to 105 pounds (backed up by a shockingly gaunt, diminished Possum desperately working through “Someday My Day Will Come” on a country show in the mid-Eighties) and 72 points of IQ (backed up by the infamous highway patrol arrest footage you may have already seen).
Sorry to run on–but it is that good. I think I’ve watched it 20-some times. Used to do a music documentary series once a month at the high school I used to teach at. When I screened this, the audience consisted solely of me and this young kid with a special ed diagnosis who wrote and sang Hank Williams-styled songs. We sat together on the front row and didn’t speak or blink for an hour.