Catch as Catch Can (August 20-26, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Hot ‘lanta

This show, besides being engrossing, entertaining, enlightening, and (sorry, no “e” word) challenging, can’t be beat for music. I know you likely know this already, but at least I have finally arrived at the club. It was exerting its influence a week ago, then this week sent this supposed aficionado diving deeper into Florida man Little Beaver’s repertoire, heading to the outskirts of Curtis Mayfield’s just-post-accident work, and seeking to explain Death Grips to my spouse (and convert us both, as I still sit on the fence).

Driven! Driven Driven Driven! To School!

I began teaching last week, and even though it’s a mere five miles round-trip to campus and back, across a week I close-listen to a considerable amount of music. I have referred to the old ’93 Ford Splash as “The Lab” on this blog before; it’s where I really, really study a piece of music, because when I’m in the house I’m extremely likely to be buried in a book or grading or planning or doing a bit of house-husbandry. This week’s “Lab” highlights were as follows:

William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook–Look, there’s never been a jazz violinist as dynamic as the late Billy Bang. Parker’s the leader, Hamid Drake’s the drummer, and they are farrrrrr from slouches. But, particularly with the very, very present recording on this Thirsty Ear release, Bang illustrates why the world misses him sorely by ranging across country hoe-down, deep blues, Middle Eastern conjure, mischievous dissonance, and uncategorizable invention. Check it:

John Lee Hooker: The Legendary Modern Recordings–I’ll be honest. I’d only ever programmed around the song selection here to get to the iconic stuff before I just let it play mid-week, and was taught by the master not to do that kind of shit no more. I’d always assumed “Down Child” was just a Hookerian knock-off of the great Sonny Boy Williamson track, which I adore. Um, wrong.

Elvis Costello: Get Happy!–I don’t listen to EC much these days, but I hear he’s ill, and I like to keep such artists in my heart, at least for awhile. He was very important to me at 17: I liked words a lot, he liked words a lot, and could sling them; my heart was underfoot more than occasionally, and he’d identified this thing called “emotional facism.” In short, I was not alone. Critically, this album usually gets ranked pretty low compared to its three predecessors, but you know the deal with critics. I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas when it came out, and it spoke to me like (rather, unlike) a college advisor. This one was mysterious to me then, though, and thus I loved it; now it is plain as day to me, and thus I love it (plus somewhere in the distance he hears The Possum, a mental malady we share):

Oh, yeah, school: here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs my students shared, our first day in class, as songs everyone should listen to.

Death

A couple of friends have stepped on a rainbow of late, and at the end of the week a truly magnificent former student, still much in the bloom of youth, was snatched suddenly by an aneurysm (my sources say).  I know it’s irrational, but the fact that he doesn’t get to be here doing good things and treating humans well while others get to be publicly (and apparently unstoppably) egregious on an hourly basis just twists my fucking knickers. Then things got a bit dark. Then I reached for something–a couple things–old, strong, and loud to hold off the gloom.

Hint to those of you mourning: it works. For awhile. But that might be all the time your mind and heart need.

Hot ‘Lanta Stays Hot

By week’s end, I was still being sent on excavational errands by the got-dang show. I’d worked my way through Little Beaver’s catalog, then my eMusic download subscription came up (sorry, that site sucks and I’m about done with it) and, as usual lately, I was having trouble finding something to buy. Then this–very much carrying on the work of Little Richard and Pat Todd–appeared under the “You might also like…” banner:

I did like. Buoyant.

The Pool

The pool was the first place where music became a regularly active force in my life. I’d shared an essay draft Thursday with my new Stephens students (who, by the way, are awesome and full of music love and ideas for learning) about how my town pool jukebox revolutionized my mind while it was babysitting me:

Phillip Overeem

English 107

Personal Essay (Draft)

August 22, 2018

The Pool

            The city pool was my babysitter when I was a pre-teen. I learned to swim early, I loved the sun, I loved those high boards that the 21st century deems unsafe, and, I admit, I loved chasing girls around. More than anything, though, I loved the jukebox. At that time—the early 1970s—I didn’t own a turntable, and hadn’t become aware of the radio, so a trip to the pool meant a dive into the American Top 40 as well as the deep end. I could neither sing nor dance, but I had ears, and, living in a small town, I heard something spinning off the juke’s 45 RPM records that sounded more alive than anything in my house, neighborhood, or school. Something more alive, and very different.

The only trouble was, the liveliness and difference wasn’t present in every song—not by a long shot. One had to wait for it, or rather, keep one’s ears pricked for it, since one was usually screaming, doing back flips, illegally running, or trying to set personal breath-holding records, especially when one was 12. Generally, what one would tend to hear was something like this (the reader will have to imagine instrumentation and rhythm as “vivid” as these lyrics, likely scribbled in three minutes by Bread’s David Gates):

Baby I’m-a want you
Baby I’m-a need you
You’re the only one I care enough to hurt about
Maybe I’m-a crazy
But I just can’t live without
your lovin’ and affection
Givin’ me direction. 

Or might one prefer this gem of deep thought by the band Lobo?

Baby, I’d love you to want me
The way that I want you
The way that it should be
Baby, you’d love me to want you
The way that I want to
If you’d only let it be.

Well, one might. In fact, at my city pool, many did, so many that, in my sleep, I was hearing those grade-school-love-notes-set-to-sappy-music on a loop. However, I could endure 10 straight plays of either of those songs if the 11th song went a little something like this, fromDonald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan (reader, try to put a sing-song melody under these words):

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart
Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home.

Wait a minute? What’s this “little wild time”? How do you “scare yourself”? Why the heck is it so important that Rikki not lose that dang number? And why does the singer sing it in sinister fashion? I could think for hours about that and not get bored—or get to the bottom of the song. The vocabulary wasn’t Shakespearean, but the situation was a bit complex, especially for a sixth grader. The song was interesting. It was one of several on the box that taught me that life is interesting, and that curiosity about it was fun. I wasn’t exactly getting that in school.

            Don’t get me wrong, though. The attraction wasn’t just about the lyrics. Sometimes my ears could easily wade through 20 songs’ worth of Velveeta cheese to catch just a snippet of a record with pretty ho-hum lyrics that were simply sung like the performer had just won the lottery. Take one of my favorites, “Then Came You,” by the Spinners, featuring an amazing guest appearance by Dionne Warwick: a bouncing piano intro leads into Ms. Warwick jubilantly singing the praises of her beloved, going so far as to admit that “every time I’m near ya / I get that urge to feel ya”—yes, I did find those lyrics interesting. But when she hits the chorus, aided and abetted by the Spinners’ great lead singer Philippe Wynne, her voice, and the song, take off like a 747: “I never knew love before / Then came you”—nothin’ fancy, but delivered in a way that I could feel in my fingers and my toes. I could play it endlessly, or at least until I ran out of dimes, and I had to stop what I was doing, because at the end of the song Warwick and Wynne transform themselves from 747s into twin rockets of rhythmic improvisation. This went beyond interest; this was difference. Nothing—not music, not anything—had gotten to my fingers and toes before. I’d never heard singers just take off and invent, instead of just singing the same chorus lines the same way until the needle lifted. And the texture, the flexibility, the depth, the grit, the yearning in these voices? I’d never heard it anywhere.

            I’d never heard it anywhere, in any form, because I attended an all-white elementary and swam at the city municipal pool, on the west side of town. I didn’t know it yet, but the difference only existed because I had been separated from some particular fellow human beings.

NOTE: I am not finished with my draft—I deliberately left it incomplete for discussion purposes. I’m quite interested in your input, plus I wanted to help stimulate some ideas of your own.

Lo and behold if I didn’t find myself at the local public pool today, slumming, reading Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe, and…well, goddam it, they don’t have jukeboxes anymore, and the satellite fare was uninspiring, so I put the earbuds in and got knocked out by a current next big thing–actually, I don’t think she’s next, and think she’s here. Anyway, now I have a conclusion for my essay!

Here’s what I shared on a FB music group. I’m just gonna plagiarize myself, and we’ll see if the hot take stands up to time’s slot-mouth and squint:

I warmed up to Mitski last year via a KEXP show. I am really liking the new ‘un. I’m picking up a Joni throb-n-trill in her singing, but also her erotics in some of the singing. Also, along with the shifting personae, the musical dynamics are subtle and make a big difference to my concentration. I’m assigning a listening session for my students.

Last ‘Lanta

Did you know there’s an official Spotify playlist for all the stuff that’s been featured on Atlanta‘s soundtrack so far? You probably did, I did not, I passed it on to Nicole, and she’s listened to it at school all week. In case you are slow on the zeitgeist uptake like me, here’s the link, podnahs:

 

 

Neil Young (Almost) Ruined My Life, Part Two: Getting Blown Away

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!”

Pushed play.

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?

Good to My Earhole, March 12-17: “Mi Canto”

Highlights of the last week’s listening and reading, scores plucked out of the air as long as they are no lower than a 7–and, whaddya know, I am reviewing some new stuff (albeit mostly by oldsters):

Aziza Brahim: MI CANTO – 9 – A Sahrawi siren augmented by guitars redolent of desert, Delta, and djinnis. Needless to say, side effects may include euphoric trances.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions: LIVE AT HOLLYWOOD HIGH – 8.8 – Live albums: who needs ’em? Well, I treasure this for three reasons. One, it captures MY AIM IS TRUE material punked further up and in pretty high fidelity, with the L. A. teens in the audience seeming to get it–reminded me of a Carthage, Missouri, teen circa ’78-’80 who was definitely getting it. Two, the live setting seems to loosen up EC’s singing, which always seemed just a bit fussy to me when under studio control; he often settles into a bit of roar-and-yell which I find exciting–though I just wanna tell him, “You don’t have to introduce every song.” Three: the definitive recorded version of the film noir compendium “Watching the Detectives,” which he sings as if he’s extemporizing.

Kendrick Lamar: UNTITLED UNMASTERED – 9.2 – At first, I thought these were table scraps, but Kendrick’s rhyming and flow are too carefully honed for that. Then, for some strange reason–I think it was the influence of “untitled 06/06.30.2014”–I began to sense a trip-hop experiment, but it’s too verbally dense for that. Then it became clear, from the welcome intrusion of what I have begun to think of as his community voices–whether they emerge from actual human larynxes or machines–and his subtly morphing vocal inflections that this is of a piece with TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY. Less conceptual, more casual, thus…more pleasurable? If not, pretty close, and, though it’s argued that pure pleasure is counterrevolutionary, even revolutionaries need occasional loose fun to replenish their drive to make it to the mountaintop. I wish he’d have thrown in that “Colbert Report” performance as a bonus track, though!

Loretta Lynn: FULL CIRCLE – 8.5 – The power and clarity of her unmistakable voice, sounding barely touched by eight decades, are miraculous, reason alone to give this album a shot. Because the arrangements are spare and attractive, even the weakest compositions (and a cover of “Fist City” that doesn’t do the impossible) go down easy. And best in show? The first song she ever wrote, prefaced with a great anecdote. Secret missing ingredient? Jack White or someone like him.

Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love: CANDY – 9.0 – Across seven discs of improv featuring only McPhee’s multiple horns, Nilssen-Love’s percussion, and plenty of deliberate silence (and–oh yeah!–a very appreciative live audience!), I was NEVER bored. Not once. And I listened to the discs consecutively. Joe’s a very young 76, and he sounds happy whether he’s evoking India, honoring Ayler, or turning mouthpiece spittle into music. To paraphrase Tom Waits, not for everyone–maybe, for those seeking sonic adventure.

Alan Warner: MORVERN CALLAR (1995) – 9 – A rock and roll novel for sure. Just when you’re sure that the titular Scottish heroine is being propelled by her boyfriend’s suicide on an working-class odyssey of distinctly existential import–through house-party and hotel room bacchanals, through pubs and raves and and resorts–you’re caught up short by flaming statues of the Virgin and a drunken stagger into church. It’s an odyssey of some sort, that’s for sure, and at the very least, Morvy’s propelled by mixtapes of Last Exit and Can (about whom Warner authored a 33 and 1/3 tome). Figures: the book’s dedicated to Bill Laswell.