Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Top 10 plus a couple

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday – spooky, ethereal, dark, romantic, blood-drenched, sexy and it can be damn fun. For the last few years, I haven’t truly celebrated, but that has never stopped me from pulling out my favorite films and, of course, music to commemorate the day!

Of course r’n’r has always been tied to evil and Satan, so there are countless examples of great Halloween-themed records, but I decided to try to make a by-no-means-comprehensive list of some of the ones that I love best.

1) Of course, when I think of Halloween, I think of B-horror movies and I think of The Cramps. A huge influence on me and an incredible band, especially early on. The best for Halloween: Gravest Hits, Songs the Lord Taught Us, Psychedulic Jungle and, of course, “Surfin’ Dead”. Once again, RIP to Lux - this is the first Halloween without him - sad...

2) But, before the Cramps even existed, horror rock was a fairly small genre, mostly occupied by the superb Alice Cooper band. The first 5 studio albums are all full of death, gore, b-movies and terrific r’n’r. And, as I’ve been watching the original Universal horror movies, Alice’s “Ballad of Dwight Frye” (“Renfield”) from Love it to Death is particularly appropriate.

3) Not as overtly theatrical as Alice, but sounding at least as “evil” is, naturally, Black Sabbath. Their self-titled initial outing is the darkest by far, but the three that follow have plenty of wicked-sounding, bombastic, dirge-like anthems that certainly fit the season.

4) Moving into more modern (comparatively) times, the Misfits actually titled a song “Halloween” and apparently celebrated all year long! Almost every song they ever wrote and recorded fits, from “Vampira” to “Astro-Zombies” to “Teenagers from Mars” and on & on.

4a) From their, Glenn moved on to create the band he modestly called Danzig, with much better production but still plenty of devilish tunes. Their first three are musts for all Satan lovers!

5) As a lover of garage, I can’t help but dig Rudy Protrudi’s genius idea of a r’n’r Haloween record, the FuzztonesMonster-a-Go-Go. Chock full of great garage numbers fitting the season, this vinyl was even pressed in pumpkin orange!

6) Some of my fondest memories of the early 80’s in LA include seeing the Dream Syndicate and their tune “Halloween” from Days of Wine and Roses is another perfect nugget for the night.

7) Another band that is spooky mostly in their sheer bizarre-ness is the Shaggs, whose tune “It’s Halloween” is a mix of innocence and madness that couldn’t be re-created and certainly not if someone tried!

8) While my favorite Siousxie and the Banshees is the first album (also seasonal, with tunes like "Carcass"), they continued to put out quality tunes through the 80’s including “Halloween”, from the JuJu record.

9) Roky Erikson went a little mad after a few too many acid trips and a stint in an asylum (in order to avoid the draft) but he continued to record truly twisted and demented monster music. My personal highlight is The Evil One, which would frighten any sane person any time of year.

10) Though I pull out their records constantly and not simply seasonally, Blue Oyster Cult is another group who, while being short, New York Jews, sounded demonic and the second word out of Eric Bloom’s mouth on their first album is “Satan”, which gives you an idea of where they stand!

Bonus bands – of course I can’t forget the late 70’s early goth of Bauhaus (“Bela Lagosi’s Dead”) and Joy Division, who was so depressing that the singer killed himself.

And, of course, all the devilish and evil-sounded old blues singers, from Robert Johnson ("Hellhound on My Trail") to Howlin’ Wolf ("Evil") to countless others who lived their own internal fights between good and evil.

So, Happy Halloween and put on some white-face and black eye shadow for me!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Neil Young Acoustic

Neil Young is one of the most prolific and consistent songwriters of our times. Of course, not everything that he has ever recorded has been stellar, but he has remained relevant over the course of 5 decades (!) and continues to release strong records to this day.

Over the past few years he has released old acoustic shows on his own label, which show that he was a strong solo performer even in his (comparatively) early days of his career. He could hold an audience’s attention, he was personable and witty, and he could fill a hall with just his guitar and voice and not sound like anything was missing.

One of the more recent acoustic shows that he has released is his 1993 Unplugged album, done in conjunction with MTV, of course. This has songs covering his career up to that point, with tunes as old as “Mr. Soul” right through to ones that I have never heard before. Though a number of these are performed by only Young, he is joined by a full band at times. I find some of the most interesting songs to be Neil by himself, with some changes to the original, such as his pump-organ accompaniment to “Like a Hurricane” and his little changes to “The Old Laughing Lady” & “The Needle and the Damage Done”. Also effective is the plaintive background vocals to his piano and harmonica version of “Helpless”, which sounds considerably more dire and lonesome (in a good way!) than the studio take. “Harvest Moon” is lovely, with just the right hint of texture added. Other highlights include “Unknown Legend”, Look Out For My Love” and “Long May You Run”.

A few years ago, Neil released his Live at Massey Hall 1971 album, which is the recorded concert that “Needle and the Damage Done” was pulled from for the Harvest record. The record company was considering releasing a live record at this time, but decided against it and waited for Harvest, which turned out to be a smart move!

This finds Young in great voice and with a terrific catalog of tunes. He also entertains the audience with stories and anecdotes between numbers, opening up about his writing and his life, which makes the concert very personal.

Beginning with the wonderful “On the Way Home” (among my many favorite NY numbers), the set is almost a greatest hits comp from the time – “Tell Me Why”, “Old Man”, “Helpless”, “Cowgirl in the Sand” and on and on. Young was already a star at this point due to his stint in CSN&Y (as well as Buffalo Springfield, of course) and was on the verge of hitting with “Heart of Gold”, though at this point it was still an unknown tune to the audience.

Young shows his proficiency on the piano as well as guitar, something that I think is generally overlooked when talking about him. “Journey Through the Past”, “Love in Mind”, and the unusual medley of “A Man Needs a Maid” and “Heart of Gold”, which takes on a whole different feel without the guitar before drifting back into “A Man…” for the ending. Funny, considering that this became his biggest hit and he gave it the shortest amount of time in this show.

One of the highlights on 4 Way Street for me was the supremely depressing and exquisite “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and here he gives another wonderful performance. Equally solemn is the aforementioned “Needle and the Damage Done” with another opening monologue explaining the inspiration for the tune. “Ohio”, played with only an acoustic guitar accompaniment, is quite different, as well, but at the time this was still very topical and Neil is obviously still very passionate in his rendering.

The encore of an audience-requested “Down By the River” is excellent and dynamically delivered before moving into the much more light-hearted “Dance, Dance, Dance”. The crowd wouldn’t let him go with that and he came back for a nice rendition of “I Am a Child”. A great, great show by a major talent.

Even earlier is the release of the 1968 show, Sugar Mountain, Live at the Canterbury, which, interestingly enough, also opens with “On the Way Home”, showing that Neil has a soft spot in his heart for this one. At this show he speaks even more between songs and sometimes just kinda rambles and other times goes into something about a specific song – sometimes at the same time. I do love his comment that “some songs take a long time to write…an hour and a half to two hours”!

Unsurprisingly, since he had recently left the band, he does several of his Buffalo Springfield songs here – “Mr. Soul”, “Expecting to Fly”, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and his closer “Broken Arrow”. Obviously, these are all quite different with a solo acoustic guitar backing, as opposed to the full band and studio manipulations that accompanied some of these.

“The Last Trip to Tulsa” is unusually psychedelic for a Neil Young song – definitely written with Dylan-esque tendencies. For some reason after this he goes through a long tale of working at a bookstore and taking drugs (after asking if there were any cops in the hall) before moving on to the sublime “The Loner”, another of my fave Young tunes. More tales follow and more loveliness, such as “Birds”, “Out of My Mind”, “If I Could Have Her Tonight”, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and, of course, the title track, “Sugar Mountain”. He amuses himself, at least, by attempting “Classical Gas” and admitting that he could never figure out the “next part”.

Maybe these aren’t the best starting places, but anyone who appreciates the beauty of Neil’s tunes and words, these are wonderful documents.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Cramps – Smell of Female

I am still working on replacing my stolen Cramps vinyl with CD reissues and I have finally gotten this wonderful 1983 release again. This long-awaited follow-up to the terrific Psychedelic Jungle (the band could not record for years while tied up in a court battle with IRS and Miles Copeland) was highly anticipated and the only disappointment was that it was a mini-LP instead of a full length. Still, it is a super-strong record with great tunes and the CD has 3 bonus tracks.

With a cover that began the tradition of Ivy as sex-pot pin-up girl, this was recorded live at New York’s Peppermint Lounge and showed the band to be as strong as ever during their studio hiatus. The set opens with a gong and one of their best tunes, “Thee Most Exhalted Potentate of Love”, with Lux’s clever lyrics combining snatches of old songs while bragging about being the “hotentot (?) of twat” and his fantastic b-movie thievery: “mad – you call me mad? I who has the secret of eternal love?!” Ivy’s mid-eastern guitar lines intertwine and pulsate while Kid Congo Powers and Nick Knox hold down the fort. Amazing stuff!

You Got Good Taste” is not quite as successful, but it is still a solid rocker that lets Interior continue his lascivious leers, such as “you got good taste, you got good taste, you come here, sit on my…lap” and Ivy lets out a couple noisy fuzz solos. But back to sheer genius with “Call of the Wighat” – a hip-shakin’ backbeat, more patented Lux stream-of-unconsciousness brilliance and even strong dynamic work by the rhythm section.

Of course, the Cramps wouldn’t be the Cramps without b-movie references, and here they actually cover the theme song for Russ Meyer’s incredible and iconic “Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!”. Unlike many movie themes, especially low budget flicks, this is actually quite well written and lends itself easily to its Crampsification. Meyers was enjoying a resurgence right about this time (due in part to people such as Eric Caden at Hollywood Book and Poster) and this was one of Russ’ best, so good timing all around.

Another swinging beat propels “I Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Gorehound”, the band’s ode to the likes of Hershell Gordon Lewis and early blood-soaked flicks that were also making the rounds of the revival houses in LA and where you were sure to see Lux & Ivy. The album closed with their psychotic take on the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction”, made even more twisted by Interior blowing madly (and slightly out of key) into a harmonica and Ivy’s fuzz mania.

Truly mind-bending is the addition of an insane live version of the drug-addled “Beautiful Gardens”, which sounds like Lux is going through an acid trip and taking you along, whether you want to go or not! This is my favorite style of the Cramps – the psychedelized, semi-garage rock’n’roll, which I love even more than their psychobilly creations. But, that said, they also include a wacked-out “She Said” that is crazier than their studio version and gives Hasil Adkins a run for his money.

The CD closes with the band’s selection for the superb “Return of the Living Dead” movie, “Surfin” Dead”. This tune surprised many fans with its strong production and first-time inclusion of a bass guitar! The song is fantastic – a perfect mix of rockabilly and garage (the “c’mon, c’mon” section is taken from an obscure 60’s garage tune) and more of Lux’s “stay sick” lyrics.

Another essential Cramps release – no rock’n’roller should be without their first 4 releases!

Monday, October 12, 2009

supremely depressing

- Oct. 12, 2009
Dickie Peterson, the bassist/vocalist and founding member of BLUE CHEER, passed away this morning (Monday, October 12) at 5 a.m. in Germany.

He was 61 years old. Peterson had reportedly been battling prostate and liver cancer, and according to BLUE CHEER's message board, had developed a fatal infection following a surgical procedure to help alleviate his fight.

BLUE CHEER was an American blues-rock band that initially performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has been sporadically active since. Based in San Francisco, BLUE CHEER played in a psychedelic blues-rock style, and was also credited for pioneering heavy metal (their cover of "Summertime Blues" is sometimes cited as the first in the genre), punk rock, stoner rock, doom metal and grunge.

Throughout his life, Peterson's relationship to music has been all-consuming. He was quoted as saying, "I've been married twice, I've had numerous girlfriends, and they'll all tell you that if I'm not playing music I am an animal to live with. . . Music is a place where I get to deal with a lot of my emotion and displaced energy. I always only wanted to play music, and that's all I still want to do."

Despite the fact that BLUE CHEER was considered a pioneer in many different genres, Peterson downplayed the band's influence, stating in an interview, "People keep trying to say that we're heavy metal or grunge or punk, or we're this or that. The reality is we're just a power trio and we play ultra-blues, and it's rock 'n' roll. It's really simple what we do."

Peterson spent much of the past two decades based in Germany, performing with BLUE CHEER and with other groups as well. In 1998 and 1999, he played a number of dates in Germany with the HANK DAVISON BAND and as an acoustic duo with Hank Davison under the banner DOS HOMBRES.

Blue Cheer was a major influence on me ever since I first heard them and I still listen to them regularly. Peterson's vocals and bass playing led the band and kept them anchored as Leigh Stevens went off on sonic tangents.

He will be missed...

More from Dan Epstein at La Vie En Robe.

the LA scene wouldn't have been what it was without him

Club promoter Brendan Mullen dies
Founded legendary punk club Masque

Brendan Mullen, the promoter-entrepreneur who founded Hollywood's legendary punk rock launching pad the Masque, died Monday in Los Angeles hospital after suffering a massive stroke.

A Scotsman by birth, Mullen emigrated from London to Los Angeles in 1973. He created the Masque -- a dank, soon graffiti-scarred 10,000-foot space at 1655 N. Cherokee, behind and beneath the Pussycat adult theater on Hollywood Boulevard -- in June 1977 as a low-rent rehearsal space for local musicians. (Mullen himself played drums in his own punk lounge act, the Satintones.)

It quickly morphed into the principal performance venue for the city's then-nascent punk scene, mounting its first show by the Skulls on Aug. 18, 1977. It served as a stage and a hangout for an honor roll of first-generation punk groups: the Germs, X, the Go-Go's, the Screamers, the Flesh Eaters, the Weirdos, the Alleycats, the Plugz, the Bags. The freewheeling Masque, where the charming and oft-acerbic Mullen hosted the proceedings, was a magnet for the antipathy of local merchants and daily
scrutiny by police, fire, and licensing officials, and was soon cited by city authorities for various licensing violations.

Closed and reopened more than once, it moved to another space on Santa Monica Boulevard before shuttering permanently in February 1979.

Mullen is seen in the abandoned Cherokee Avenue club in W.T. Morgan's 1986 documentary about X, "The Unheard Music." From 1981-92, Mullen booked shows at the Sunset Boulevard bar Club Lingerie. His diverse shows included sets by talent ranging from veteran R&B, blues, and rock 'n' roll acts to hip-hoppers and avant garde rockers. He also mounted dates at the downtown Variety Arts Center in the late '80s, and stage managed some of the L.A. Weekly's music awards shows.

In recent years, Mullen prolifically chronicled the history of L.A. punk, and, not incidentally, his own role in the scene.

His books included "We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk" (2001, with Marc Spitz); "Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs" (2002, with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey); and the photo history "Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley" (2007). He also authored the Jane's Addiction oral history "Whores" (2005). Mullen is survived by his longtime companion Kateri Butler.

Terribly sad - I never got to the Masque, but what would these bands have done without him?
Of course, he did much more after the Masque closed, including Club Lingerie, where my bands played many times and I saw innumerable shows.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Freewheelin’ Time – A memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties – Suze Rotolo

Suze Rotolo is known for being the woman holding onto Bob on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and that will be her legacy for all time. She always tried to be her own person and believed in women’s rights before there was a term for it, but when you are connected with someone so famous, there is no way to extradite yourself from that connection.

Rotolo lived in the New York area all of her life and moved to Greenwich Village as soon as she left high school. She had a number of older friends who helped her enter the folk scene and who she worked with in different civil rights organizations. Coming from a Communist family of artists and musicians, she was already fairly well-rounded when she came across Dylan in the clubs in town. She helped promoters with her artwork and enthusiasm and became a fixture on the scene and friends to many of the musicians.

Her 4 year relationship went through many ups and downs – as most relationships do – including some long absences, but while Rotolo makes it seem like she wanted to move on, it sounds like the actual reason for their break-up was Dylan’s affair with Joan Baez. I suppose that is fairly understandable revisionist history and who knows, maybe it really was all her idea.

In any case, Rotolo was – and apparently still is – a well rounded person with many interests – music, art, politics – and always tried to explore these different realms. She lived in a wild and exciting time for each of these diversions and has interesting stories of her adventures and the people that she met.

Her writing style is pretty basic, but she weaves some nice tales and gives the reader a good feel for the times. This is not an in-depth exploration of Dylan by any means, but is a nice over-view of Greenwich Village in the 60’s.

Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rick-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle F. Wald

I only recently discovered Sister Rosetta Tharpe, either through one of my blues compilations or from happening across a You Tube video of one of her performances (or both). This gospel shouter was born in 1915 and played steadily until her death from complications due to her diabetes in 1973. What made her unique – in the secular world, especially – was the fact that she was also a stellar guitarist and more than a match for most men.

Wald chronicles Tharpe’s career, from her early days (pre-teens) in her Church of God in Christ (a sect that talks in tongues, believes in extreme abstinence and yet also believes in raising their voices in a “joyful noise”) through her commercial days in the secular world (where she still mostly played gospel though she had a couple of tangents into the blues world – not much of a stretch, of course, other than in lyrical content) and into her inclusion in the British folk/blues revival and her successful tours of Europe.

The book does an excellent job in digging up the life story of this wonderful and colorful character and there are some terrific compilations available nowadays, as well, but the best way to truly appreciate the Sister is to watch some of her videos (which Wald references throughout the book). She could always raise the roof with her gospel shouting and tear it up on her super-cool white Gibson SG Custom electric guitar. While not as well known as some of her blues counterparts, she certainly influenced many of the 60’s rock’n’rollers during the time she spent over there.

This is a tale of not just a terrific singer/guitarist, but of the gospel world (and some of its hypocrisy), civil rights, women’s rights and the growth of popularity of blues and the birth of rock’n’roll. Tharpe was an important part of it all and deserves a place of higher prominence in our musical history.

Low Side of the Road – Barney Hoskyns / Wild Years – The music and the Myth of Tom Waits – Jay S. Jacobs

I believe that my discovery of Tom Waits came about during the punk/new wave moment in the mid-to-late 70’s when I was buying anything “different”, in the hope of finding new and interesting sounds. Waits certainly fit the bill with Blue Valentine, which is still my favorite record of his. I was already learning to love jazz, especially be-bop, and was a big fan of the beat writers, so Tom was right up my alley and wore his influences on his sleeve for the world to see. From BV, I went on to find his earlier records, such as Small Change, Foreign Affairs and Nighthawks at the Diner, but did not follow up on his later works as he became more popular. While I respect what he has done over the years, the beat/bop crooner is still the Waits that I will put on when I want to hear his stuff.

These two books do their best to cover the career of this man who cherishes his privacy and who would not do any interviews for either book (though he has done many magazine interviews in the past, including several with Hoskyns) and even asked his friends and collaborators to not speak with the writers. Obviously, this made authoring a biography a little tougher!

Low Side of the Road is the much more in-depth read, as Barney dug up more tidbits about Tom’s life. The reader does get the feeling that Hoskyns is reading a bit too much into some lyrics and taking things a little too literally at times, but overall, it is an informative tome, with plenty of information about the musicians that Tom worked with and the unusual instrumentation that he used throughout his recordings. Barney does seem a little perturbed at Tom’s wife, Kathleen, for playing the gate keeper to Tom and his privacy, though most of Tom’s friends say nothing but good things about her and their relationship.

Wild Years, on the other hand, is heavy on the “myth” aspect of the “music and the myth of Tom Waits”. Jacobs admits in the forward that no one should take this book as the gospel truth and he recounts Waits’ stage patter as if these were true stories, rather than wild, lyrical, beatnik ramblings. Jay is trying to convey the feelings of the music more than relating a life story, but sometimes I would think that he was a bit naïve to think that making a joke about being born in a cab meant that he really was born in a cab (especially then he then goes on to say that he had to pay the fare for his mother!). Jacobs also quotes heavily from Hoskyns’ interviews and his book, which I read first, so there is not a lot of new ground here.

But, I am always entertained by stories of great musicians so these are fun books, but neither one can be said to be – nor do their claim to be – authoritative.