Where Mobile Steel Rims Crack (May 13th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Today’s listening was inspired by my terrific experience with the above book. I needed a push to read it; there have been a plethora of books lately that look like this but end up having scant meat on the bone. Thanks to my friends Jeffrey and Ken, I was given no choice but to check it out from the local library and get crackin’, and let me tell you true, it’s a trip worth taking. I’m a bit tired of Van the Man, I’ve read deeply about ’68, and I wasn’t sure I needed to read an entire book about the city of Boston written by a rock musician, but I’ve learned something new and exciting every page, my mind has actually been blown a time or five, and Walsh’s tone and style are right up my alley (why the hell am I always lining up strings of clauses???). What’s the dealio? This is a book that deserves to have nothing spoiled, so let me just say that Walsh pulls back the skin of that year and reveals what very much appears to be a nervous system of imaginative radicalism (in lifestyle, in media, in art, in more) that made Beantown twitch, vault, and sometimes crash. The number of interconnections between innovators and visionaries, between locations and events past, present, and future, was almost enough to drive me to superstitious thinking, something which Walsh definitely doesn’t indulge but finds other reasons for. Who you gonna meet? Besides Morrison? Timothy Leary, Mel Lyman (if you don’t know him, you’re gonna), Michelangelo Antonioni, Howard Zinn, The Velvet Underground, James Brown, The Boston Strangler (perhaps), Bruce Conner, Edgar Cayce, Ram Dass, MLK, Peter Wolf, The Black Panthers…ok, that’s all I’m offering…it’s a must-read, so get on it.

Oh, yes–the listening! Pretty simple: I listened to Morrison’s Astral Weeks–for the 2nd time since I started the book. As a young man, it gripped me tightly, before and after I read Lester Bangs’ essay on it, which has been known to convert a listener. The searching mood, mysterious and poetic lyrics, and enigmatic and sensitive singing spoke directly to my 18-year-old soul (I think it ’80 when I first dug it). In addition, it seemed to tap into a world far, far different than I was used to in its concrete description, but very similar to what I’d been feeling emotionally (I may be repeating myself)–particularly what was being brought on by a sharpened awareness of mortality on my part. Over the last 15 years or so, though it’s one of those “fine wine albums” you reach for when you need them, the lyrics and singing haven’t really reached me like they used to–I’m less miserable and more rational. When I have selected it, I’ve listened to it with jazz ears (Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Jay Berliner and even John Payne always reward that approach), and focused on its very personal forms. However, cranking the album up and getting into Morrison’s vocals anew, I was reminded of one reason I’ve always been amazed by him: who else do you know who can not just get away with so many modes of singing, but actually sell them, masterfully at that? You name it: punk (that’s what many of his performances with Them are: “One Two Brown Eyes”?), rock and roll, spirituals, jazz, blues, poetry (singing that is like walking in a creek on slippery rocks), soul, rhythm & blues, ballads (both traditional and invented), incantation, vocalese, pop (bubbly damn pop!), dream texts, chants, country & western, hell, Sesame Street! Ok, maybe he can’t MC, and I don’t want him to take that as a challenge, but you get my point. And on Astral Weeks alone–is there another classic album in history that sounds least like both its immediate predecessor and follow-up?–he effortlessly shifts from mode to mode, though beyond “ruminations” I don’t really know what to call any of ’em but “The Way That Young Lovers Do,” which he just self-covered this year on his neat album with Joey DeFrancesco. Might I suggest you may be due for some fine wine listening yourself?

Short-shrift Division:

The Story of Them–Though on these records they are not really a band, for British Invasion punks I often prefer Them to the Stones. Note: Morrison’s early multi-mode acumen!

Lost Bayou Ramblers: Kalenda–Have I mentioned how great this daring Cajun record is? Yes I have. And guess what, in case you were wondering? It’s got legs.

“I Think I’m Just Going to Listen to This Album First” (March 17th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Distracted by a cat emergency (cats are cooler than humans) and March Madness (I am a species hated in Missouri–a Rock-Chalk-Jay-fuckin’-Hawk), I didn’t get much music in. What I did spin may have been too obviously St. Pat’s-y: Shane MacGowan’s The Snake (see yesterday’s post), The Pogues’ piquantly (and accurately!) titled Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now (Volumes II-IV). The former two are indisputably A+ records; the latter piggy-backs on a vintage A+ record but staggers in a B+ / A-.

It’s not like I have a story for every single one of the over 10,000 records I own, or have heard–I’ve not thought deeply about it, and maybe I should. But concerning the original It’s Too Late to Stop Now, I do have one that I bet a few readers can relate to. It reveals something about me that I’m mildly proud of, and mildly embarrassed by. It goes a little somethin’ like this:

I was a senior at what was then Southwest Missouri University. Now it’s rather desperately called Missouri State University. I’d been buttonholed for a double-date opportunity by two old hometown friends who’d been dating forever (they’ve been married pretty much since), and the set-up was another hometown friend I’d always had a crush on but…well…timing is a pain, and when I was hot for her, she was otherwise occupied, and when I was hot for her–she was always otherwise occupied. But at this point–I assumed–she was free.

I have never been smooth. For every hetero male I’ve ever known, sexual intimacy appeared a matter of getting from Point A to Point C. For me? Point A to Point Z–with a videogame-like intricacy of obstacles in between, so complicated seeming that, I will freely admit, I just became determined not to give a shit. If the prelude to sex was a Rubic’s Cube–fuck fucking. Don’t get me wrong: this did not make me happy. But it all seemed the law of diminishing returns. Easier to bow to God Onan, you know.

So, back to the double-date. We went out to eat at some quasi-swank place in Springfield (there were no other kinds of high-end places). I recall a relatively pleasurable time, though my mind was literally racing with ideas about records, films, and books, and that mind-spray was just not gonna be tapped at this soiree. Was I thinking about getting laid? Yeah. I was 21. But it was like imagining you were going to survive The Walking Dead; that’s how it felt to me.

We retired to my friends’ apartment. In our dinner small talk, I’d discerned that my date was still seeing her old boyfriend, another hometown friend whom I’d attended every level of elementary with, whom I’d played many years of football with, and who–other then almost breaking my finger for kicks when I was a 10th grader–had always maintained ace-boon relations with me. The lights were dimmed, the wine was poured. The pre-existing couple faded almost imperceptibly into their bedroom, leaving me and my date. She whispered, “I’m going into the guest bedroom, just to relax some. Grab a beer or something and we’ll talk.”

So what does all this have to do with It’s Too Late to Stop Now? As I sat on the precipice of satiating long-tendered lust, my eyes drifted to my friends’ LP stack. If you’re reading this, I know you do it, too. I do it with books, I do it with music–though I can’t see into a hard drive. In the middle of their modest collection was Van’s double-live record. In the good ol’ “red” Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh had “meh”-ed it with three (out of five stars). Because I was a dipshit, and was unwisely smitten with Marsh’s bad attitude, I’d taken that as deific judgment. Still, though–I fucking LOVED Astral Weeks and Moondance, and was in deep like with His Band and The Street Choir and St. Dominic’s Preview. How bad could a live Van performance from that period be? Seriously? I heard my date kind of rustling around in the guest bedroom, so I figured I had enough time to put the first disc of It’s Too Late to Stop Now on the turntable–and buy myself some time to figure out whether I’d be cheating on my childhood buddy (oblivious, some 50 miles away), even though his woman was broadcasting serious overtures right to my thick forehead.

Well, if you know the record, Van’s band is fuckin’ crack, the recording quality is superb, Morrison is dialed in (as he tells an enthusiastic audience member, he’s “turned on already!)”, and the damn thing has dynamics out the wazoo. As Van moved from totally committed Bobby Bland and Sam Cooke covers through very idiosyncratic takes on his own quirky originals, I found myself mesmerized. “Three stars? Motherfucker, this is a FIVE!”

Suddenly, I snapped back to reality. There was a woman, who’d been rustling around, and she was in a bedroom ten feet away. She had seemed to be beckoning me hither–what was that, 10 minutes ago? 20? I got up from my position right next to a speaker, tipped into the bedroom–and she was out cold. I paused on the verge of regret–then tipped back out to listen, happily, to the rest of the record. I sat amazed as Van sang through the songs, and put hooks in the audience’s lips–also, that damn Jack Schroer was a devastating secret weapon on sax.

Better than sex? I’d made the call on that. And looking back across 25 years, I not only hold to that assessment but, corny as it may seem in this era when all bets are off, feel assured that my old first-grade buddy didn’t get betrayed. I have no religion–no God compelled me not to breach a relationship that, technically, was sinful in itself. But–talk about a higher calling in the moment? My moral compass was unerring, at least in that case.

Good to My Earhole, June 1-16: Headfirst into the (Summer) Flames

Highlights of my June listening so far, ranked on a 10-point scale determined by a drunken game of darts:

Van Morrison/IT’S TOO LATE TO START NOW, VOLS. II, II, IV and DVD – 9.0 – Volume 1 was so good I spoiled a great date during my wayward youth just to concentrate on it. This ain’t quite that, but if you want to hear how an orchestra can be fitted effectively to a rock/r&b/folk/you-name-it singer’s attack, dig in. And The Man himself is in great form saving Hard Nose the Highway from its studio wreckage, taking Kermit the Frog to Belfast (thanks, Ken!), and proving he’s no sobersides by doing Louis Prima justice. Plus: many early ’70s classics from his own pen, and a too-short video that burns. Docked 0.5 for too many versions.

Morton Feldman/ROTHKO CHAPEL + WHY PATTERNS? – 9 – A classical-expert friend told me,” Debussy did all this years ago and he only needed six minutes to make his point.” Well, he also hadn’t been to the meditative sanctuary of the title, which is decorated only with Rothko paintings, and not only did Feldman capture Rothko’s simple but resonant approach, but he also got the peace and beauty you can experience therein.

Chance the Rapper/COLORING BOOK – 10 – I often have former students who are now old rap heads asking me rhetorically, “What new can compare to the old?” I also have friends who ask the same question about music in general. After giving this mixtape (wait, is it?) four progressively more enjoyable plays, I’d offer it as an answer to both parties. How’s this for a review: it makes me happy. And it ain’t sappy. Dude’s smart, funny, and versatile, with a bouquet-like imagination. He’s also bemused, but determined. And does he have help, from Jay Electronica to, um, The Biebs.

Elizabeth Cook/EXODUS OF VENUS – 8 – On first contact, I reported that she had one foot in the mountains and one foot in Florida, which, by the latter, I meant (metaphorically) in a dark, dangerous, crazy swamp–her home swamp, hiding the demons of excess, heartbreak, and, well, the habits of Venus. For those who love her spunk, unfortunately, she’s also a bit ankle-deep in swampy production. I implore you to be patient with this unregenerate honky tonk wonder as she looses her inner Stevie Nicks (who of a certain age doesn’t have one of those within?), and you’ll get paid with some perky-catchy from the likes of “Straight Jacket Love,” “Broke Down in London on the M25,” and the pick-to-click “Methadone Blues.” She goes out on a meditation which remembers Tabitha Tuders (could have been me, I can hear her thinking), and reaches out to Tuders’ grieving mama.

Allen Toussaint/AMERICAN TUNES – 8.8 – He didn’t know he’d be shuffling off this mortal coil after playing a European show shortly after he recorded these–but it’s a valediction nonetheless. Professor Longhair‘s all over the record–including hidden within Toussaint’s last original, the opening “Delores’ Boyfriend”–but he’s woven into the quiet, seductive eloquence that’s AT’s trademark. He also pays lovely tribute to his fellow groundbreaking Creole Louis Gottschalk and his fellow bon vivant Fats Waller, makes two stops at Ellington’s station (with controlled aid from Rhiannen Giddens), and applies his own vocals only to Paul Simon’s appropriate title closer. He didn’t assemble it–but he might as well have.

Last Exit/HEADFIRST INTO THE FLAMES – 9 – The record isn’t called that for nuthin’, folks! When drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, (electric) bassist Bill Laswell, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, and (electric!!!) guitarist Sonny Sharrock collectively improvised, there was no foreground or background. As such, under the live conditions in which they always recorded, you might expect a dialogue of the deaf. Fact is, through the caterwaul, you can hear them listening to each other, and creating structures. This is their best album; I have ’em all. Decider: it features some of Sharrock’s greatest chainsaw jazz creations. Try it if you can stand the wailing heat, or if you need to clear the room.