Brian Wilson came to Bowling Green for a show a few days ago and I got to see him. He was on his “Pet Sounds” 50th Anniversary tour, with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin as special guests. It was a strange show, considering the setting and the audience. Watching the show at SkyPAC with thousands of older folks who seemed to want to have a nice, normal time enjoying classic Beach Boys songs. If it had been in a small club in front of a crowd packed with hipsters my age and younger, I wouldn’t think it was so strange. But the niceness of the venue and the oldness of the crowd and the content of the music, especially the “Pet Sounds” music combined for an intense but interesting show.
First thing you realize when held up next to the classic Beach Boys hits is how “Pet Sounds” is such a moody collection of emotionally intense songs. It’s not a happy album at all. Brian Wilson produced that album when he was twenty-four, which is a pretty good age to have an existential breakdown about your life. So maybe “Pet Sounds” is the musical equivalent of that breakdown except it sounds beautiful and universal. And then you hear that same guy at the age of seventy-four singing “God Only Knows” and you start thinking.
I got choked up at “God Only Knows”. My life, how it has changed. How I have changed. To hear the old man sing the song that he wrote when he was a young, young man. He wrote it and had his brother sing it but his brother has passed on. And Brian can’t sing anymore. Or he can but his range is limited. By age and drugs and life. My God.
Brian Wilson, this poor s.o.b. is a 74-year-old drug-damaged schizophrenic. And he’s the ticket seller for this 50th anniversary tour. Why don’t we just leave the guy alone? He has to sell the tickets and be there in person for the show. That concert did more for Bowling Green than it did for Brian. And it was pretty weird.
I also cried at the last song of the night, “Love And Mercy”. Choked up again. Because that’s what it is all about. Love and mercy is what we need tonight. Every night. Forever. He’s right. We really do need Brian more than he needs us.
A VIP experience was available. No thanks. Never meet your idols. Nothing like posing for an awkward photo with an anxious old man. What are you gonna tell him? “Thank you. . . for everything.” Anything I’d want to say would be way too personal for someone who I don’t know and doesn’t know me. I’d want to hug him. Can you imagine how his eyes would bulge if a stranger just grabbed and hugged him. Forget it. Leave him alone.
Quick, what’s the greatest rock album of all time?
Nope, it’s not Sgt. Pepper’s. Or Pet Sounds. Nope. Or Blonde By Blonde. Nice try, though.
Don’t trust anyone who tells you emphatically what the best album of all time is. How do they know? Maybe it’s the best album as ranked by a like-minded group of writers and musicians in the same peer group who all grew up with the same music which is why you end up with a bunch of fifty-year old albums like the ones above in the top spot (hi, Rolling Stone).
I’m sure if you ask the right group of people, they’ll tell you that David Bowie’s fucking Tin Machine made the best al-
Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention released “Freak Out!” fifty years ago this summer.
I think about how well regarded “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys is now. Brian Wilson is fondly remembered as a brilliant songwriter and producer. He gets to live his winter years being venerated as a genius, a Kennedy Center honoree, touring for adoring fans. After decades of disrepair and mental torment, Brian Wilson is the victor.
“Freak Out!” was released the same year as “Pet Sounds”. Zappa would make records with various lineups under the name “Mothers of Invention” until 1975, and continued a solo career up until his passing in 1993. There hasn’t been a revival of Zappa music at least since 1995 when Rykodisc released CDs of every Zappa and Mothers album (over 60). Rykodisc released several approved compliations of his music, and found long-lost treasures like the soundtrack to 200 Motels, which had been out of print over 25 years and the never-released “Lather”.
Unfortunately, Frank isn’t here to celebrate with us. He passed away from prostate cancer in 1993. Three of the five Mothers on the cover of “Freak Out!” are dead and a fourth is in prison. You don’t know want to know why.
It’s a double-album, which was unheard of at the time. The only other artist to do it at that time was Bob Dylan who was at the apex of Bob Dylan God-hood. It took a lot of nerve for Frank to insist on this for his very first album but perhaps he thought it would be his “only” album so why not get the most out of it.
The sound of the album is indicative of 1960s California rock, complete with session musicians. Unlike “Pet Sounds”, the Mothers actually play their instruments on “Freak Out!” even when joined by orchestral accompaniment. The horns are replaced by the grating of kazoos. Either to save money or because it sounds appropriate. The first song is a garage rocker with anti-LBJ Great Society sentiment and bile to match in the lyrics. It’s dirty punk before punk is a thing. Zappa is barely singing, mostly sneering his lyrics. Ray Collins is carrying most of the melody vocally. Ray does such a great job as a singer and as a straight man to Frank’s wiseguy on the side.
“I Aint Got No Heart” is a vicious anti-love love song. Ray handles the lead and Frank lays back and harmonizes instead. They don’t play it for laughs which gives the song its’ power. There’s a hallucinatory cut right at the end that you don’t expect. “Who Are The Brain Police?” is when things turn for the strange. More hallucinatory cuts and a main tune that disturbs. This song is why distorted fuzz bass was invented. Also the song is asking you who are the fucking brain police.
“Motherly Love” is a song about how good the Mothers of Invention are at sex. “Wowie Zowie” is a nonsense with a nice marimba part that’s designed to make children happy even though there’s a line that says “I don’t even care if your dad’s [a cop]”.
The first disc on “Freak Out!” is a cynical take on 60’s culture and pop music skewed and bent totally out of shape with lyrics that reflect the band’s daily reality as a nighttime entertainment on the Los Angeles club circuit. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” is the culmination of the bar-band musician’s nightmare and he completes that sentence with “and so am I, so am I”.
Disc two is where “Freak Out!” separates itself from any other album before or after it. “Trouble Every Day” is the last conventional song, a lengthy talking protest blues written by Frank after the Watts riot in ’65. It is unfortunately still timely today.
“Hey you know something people? I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white!”
You know we got to sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many live
To see it really end
‘Cause the fire in the street
Ain’t like the fire in the heart
And in the eyes of all these people
Don’t you know that this could start
On any street in any town
In any state if any clown
Decides that now’s the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right
And if a million more agree
There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
From there, the album devolves or evolves into experimental music. First with the bizarre “Help I’m A Rock” which uses those hallucinatory cuts from “Who Are The Brain Police” to connect its’ parts. Smash cuts of gibberish over a one-note beat into multi-level stoned doo-wop about Kansas and swimming pools, all with the sinister refrain “it can’t happen here”. In between, Frank complains about being a rock: “Wow, man, it’s a drag being a rock. I wish I was anything but a rock. Heck, I’d even like to be a policeman.”
The final track on “Freak Out!” is “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”. It’s about twelve minutes long and is the sound of a room full of acid freaks banging on a bunch of rented percussion equipment. The only people not on acid during the recording were Frank (notoriously straight his whole life) and the recording engineer. The “song” is an edited but unfinished rhythm track (because the label would not let Frank spend more money to finish it) and sounds like a trip, either good or bad. Through the acid mist, there’s the mocking voice of Frank Zappa cutting in to say “America is wonderful! Wonderful wonderful wonderful! It really makes it!” before the track speeds up into absurdity and flies away forever.
A lot of bands tried to copy “Sgt. Pepper’s” after it came out but many more tried to copy “Freak Out!” right down to its’ end-of-album freak-out. Some albums become important retroactively but “Freak Out!” had an impact that was felt immediately. Every band had to try to do their own version of that album.
Frank didn’t know if he would ever get a shot like that again. He was twenty-five, which was old for rock ‘n roll at the time. The Mothers were not an attractive band but what they had were attitude and commitment to an ideal. They also had the chops to go against just about any other band but what did any of that mean career-wise? They were still struggling on the club circuit. If you only get one chance you want to make it the best you can and not save your better material for better circumstances. You have three days to make this album. The band is practically starving. Well-rehearsed but starving. What do you do?
You swing for the fucking fences? That’s what you do.
Frank made over sixty albums in his lifetime. Some of them are pretty good (“One Size Fits All”, “Joe’s Garage”), some of them are the dirt worst ever released (hi, “Thing-Fish”) but NONE of them would exist without the artistic success that was “Freak Out!” which is worth it all on its’ own.
We could really use Frank Zappa right now but we lost him twenty-three years ago.
When a major news event breaks, I sometimes wonder what Frank would have had to say. After 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina or even now with the UK and its’ Brexit news. Frank died at the young age of fifty-two in ’93. It’s possible he could still be here if not for the cancer.
A new movie called “Eat That Question” compiles interview footage from Zappa’s entire career, from years before his ’60s fame until months before his death. He was an intelligent guy, outspoken and unafraid to state his opinion when asked. He fought for the First Amendment, the rights of creative people, and pushed the envelope in his own music. He fought governments, record companies, public views of what’s acceptable.
The world is a better place because Frank Zappa was in it. Frank Zappa stood for freedom and actually applied it instead of paying lip service to the idea of freedom. I would like it if somebody could do that now. Is it too hard now? To stand up for what you believe in wholeheartedly? To not compromise in your integrity or your art? To say what you want to say without fear of backlash? If it is then we’ll need another person to come along and show the way again. They needn’t have to compose music as incredible as “Peaches En Regalia” but it couldn’t hurt.
I want to see “Eat This Question” and am waiting for a screening somewhere near me. The nearest so far are in Indianapolis and Atlanta. I’m holding out for a Louisville or Nashville screening. I want to see this in a theatre. I want to see this with other people who want to see this. I want to take my best friends to see this and say “Here. Here is the guy I wanted to be when I grew up.”
RollingStone.com has an article up called “22 Terrible Songs by Great Artists”. Two songs in and I already know they need my help. So I’m going to help them. They don’t know what they’re doing over there, what with the death of print media and the struggle to monetize clicks. Sometimes in the middle of all that, people forget to make sure their content is tip-top. It’s clear that they ran out of steam after about 15 and forgot they needed to include hip-hop acts just for inclusion’s sake.
Their pick: “The Laughing Gnome” by David Bowie (1967)
My pick: “Too Dizzy” by David Bowie (1987)
Bowie was embarrassed by “Gnome” but being a 19-year-old who wasn’t DAVID FREAKING BOWIE yet he had to do what he could in order to be famous. So let’s leave “Gnome” alone and pick “Too Dizzy” from 1987’s “Never Let Me Down”, a song so bland and boring Bowie left it off future rereleases. “Gnome” might be worse, but 1987 Bowie had more options than he had twenty years earlier and something as phoned-in as “Too Dizzy” should be heralded with equal mockery.
Their pick:”There’s A World” by Neil Young(1972)
My pick: “Lotta Love” by Neil Young (1978)
Hear me out, HEAR ME OUT. It’s a fine song, but listen to this version. It’s like he’s barely trying. Then you hear the Nicolette Larson version and then you go “oh, that’s how it should sound”. Like that’s what a song sounds like when the musicians are trying and the microphones are pointed they should be and the singer cares and someone is actually producing the thing. Neil didn’t give a shit.
Their pick:”Tea For One” by Led Zeppelin (1976)
My pick: “Hots On For Nowhere” by Led Zeppelin (1976)
Same Zeppelin album. Presence isn’t a good album by any means. “Tea For One” is actually not a bad track. Starts with a nice riff then goes into a slow blues burn. “Hots On For Nowhere” is just. . .there. It exists in the universe. And the title is horrible. I’m not even going to link it. Just picture the most generic, shabbily recorded Zeppelin song. There you have “Hots On For Nowhere”.
Their pick: “France” by The Grateful Dead
My pick: “Truckin'” by The Grateful Dead
With the exception of a handful of songs, the best and worst Grateful Dead songs are tied. If you say the Dead are “great” artists? Fine, it’s your list.
Their pick: “Did You Steal My Money” by The Who (1981)
My pick: “Music Must Change” by The Who (1978)
Why pick on post-Moon Who when we can pick on a song from the last Moon-era Who album that didn’t have Moon on it because he was in such decline he couldn’t play the drums. So the song has no drums, just a few cymbal splashes. The only reason either song works at all is due to Roger Daltrey’s vocals.
Their pick: “My Fist Your Face” by Aerosmith (1985)
My pick: “Voodoo Medicine Man” by Aerosmith (1989)
The ‘Smith were trying to sober up and “My Fist Your Face” is the best they could come up with under the circumstances. 1989 (fully-sober) ‘Smith has this lyric “Livin lovin, gettin’ loose/masturbatin’ with a noose/now someone’s kickin’ out the chair”. I confess that I thought the lyric said “masturbating with a goose”. Why, because Steven Tyler seems capable of anything.
Their pick: “We Are The Clash” by The Clash (1985)
My pick: “Mensforth Hill” by The Clash (1980)
It’s literally another song in reverse. The whole thing. It’s from Sandinista! which is three-LP’s which is a sure sign of filler bullshit. “We Are The Clash” is the second best song on the worst Clash album because Mick Jones was fired. On “Mensforth Hill”, there’s no such excuse. This is the Clash in their prime. And it’s filler.
Their pick: “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” by Bob Dylan (1986)
My pick: “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” by Bob Dylan (1979)
Bob Dylan has put out a lot of stinkers. He even recorded an album with the Grateful Dead. He did three albums of Christian-influenced originals. “Man Gave Names” is a reggae song. Bob Dylan doing Christian reggae just pushes things too far.
Their pick: “German Kid” by Dee Dee King (1989)
My pick: “Go Lil’ Camaro Go” by Ramones (1987)
Dee Dee King is the rap persona of Dee Dee Ramone. It sucks. Everyone knows it. It’s not great. The Ramones are great. So I chose a bad Ramones song written by Dee Dee. It has backup vocals by Debbie Harry. What a waste.
Their pick: “My World” by Guns N’ Roses (1991)
My pick: “Get In The Ring” by Guns N’ Roses (1991)
Insecure Axl challenges a bunch of rock writers to a fight in song. Fails to follow up with an actual fight even when he was taken up on it. Got beat up at a party by Tommy Hilfiger in the 00’s. Couldn’t beat up anybody but his wife. Wimp.
Their pick: “Smart Girls” by Brian Wilson (1989)
My pick: “Some Of Your Love” by The Beach Boys (1980)
“Smart Girls” was not officially released. Brian was still under the “management” of Eugene Landy. Go back a decade to when all the Beach Boys were still around and explain the lack of quality control. Late ’70s Beach Boys is a real pile. Look at the album: The band is trapped in a giant bubble in a frozen wasteland.
I am a middle-aged man. I am thirty-eight years of age.
This is not about approaching middle age or confronting one’s mortality. This is about me trying to build up the reserves to occasionally have a moment like I did when I was in my early 20’s.
Did you ever get in a car with friends and drive hours to a distant city to see a favorite band you loved but wouldn’t appear anywhere near you? I did that a lot in my youth. Now, not so much.
It’s harder to get away. It’s harder to get a group of friends to get away together for a day or two. Let’s get in the car, go to town, see a concert and drive immediately back. No stopping for a hotel room. Pull an all-nighter, get collective white line fever. Get home and sleep it off the entire next day. Wonderful, right?
You can do that all you want when you’re 21, 22, 23, but at 37 it takes a lot of effort to get away. March 26th was my 38th birthday, so I celebrated with a trip to Chicago to see the French progressive group Magma.
I have done this before. On my 30th birthday, I went to Chicago to see the Boredoms, a Japanese noise rock group. That band had three percussionists, one vocalist and somebody playing a seven-neck guitar that was stood up on the end like a christmas tree. Maybe the strangest show I’ve ever seen. It was also a great way to ring in my thirties.
This Magma concert, this was the second strangest show I’ve ever seen. Second only to the Boredoms. And unlike the Boredoms where I traveled up in an car with friends, I went to Magma by myself. . . on Greyhound.
I took a Greyhound bus from Louisville to Chicago (nine hours), then took a Megabus back to Louisville (seven hours) immediately after the concert. I don’t recommend it to anyone. I was awake for twenty-seven hours before I got back to my home in Fordsville.
For those sixteen cumulative hours I rode on the bus, I was cramped and my legs were sore. My body played a game, seeing which body part could hurt the most at any given point. My knees, my ankles, my ass were all prime contenders.
I can’t do that again. Maybe I can do the car trip all-nighter but I can’t do the bus thing. No way on Earth. There was a point on the way back I thought that if nobody had ever committed suicide on Megabus, I might be the first.
MAGMA: JUST WHAT EXACTLY WAS THAT?
Okay, where were we? In Chicago, at Reggie’s Rock Club on South State Street, watching the second strangest show we’ve ever seen in thirty-eight years of life.
Magma is a French group formed in the late ’60s by drummer Christian Vander, and beyond that you should go read the band’s Wikipedia because it’s far too complicated to discuss here. Key words include: “John Coltrane”, “space opera”, “quasi-operatic”, “tribalistic”. I don’t know if that helps. I hope it does.
If I have to play the role of David Fricke, I’d tell you to check out Magma’s 1973 album “Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh”. If I knew how to add umlauts I would because that title has so many umlauts, Motley Crue would bow down.
They played four songs Saturday night. Four. The first two were thirty-five minutes EACH. They didn’t warm up with a short one and then go into the longer pieces. They went straight into the hard stuff. Their drummer is sixty-eight years old and played two thirty-five minute songs in a row.
To be fair, he stopped in the middle of the second song to take a scat vocal solo. For ten minutes, he scatted, he pretended the mike was a clarinet, he squealed and screeched like a maniac. And then he started drumming again. He didn’t exactly make it easy on himself.
The only way he could have made it harder is if he had taken a nine-hour Greyhound bus trip right before the show.
This is for all the people who musicians. All of the people in bands, all the people who want to be in a band, you name it. This is for you.
There are occasionally major proclamations made in media “the best album ever”, “album of the year”, “best concert of all time”. Major hyperbole invoked to hype up a thing that somebody somewhere is enthusiastic about. I have done it myself, claiming Sparks’ No. 1 In Heaven is one of the best albums ever. I qualified it with “one of” but the point is anyone who writes enough/posts enough will end up going full hyperbole mode.
Unless you’re Brian Wilson, one of the Beatles or in Blue Oyster Cult, chances are you will not be referred to as “the best” anything. That’s okay. You don’t need to be validated by others. What you need is to feel that way yourself.
There have been a few select moments in my life when I was either on stage or at the practice space with Technology Vs. Horse and everything clicks and it feels irresistible. I have had a few moments in my life when I thought “I am in the best band in the known universe right now.”
Are we the best? Were we ever? No and no. But who cares. Those moments have been rare for me so I treasure them when I have them. The odds of ever getting out of your own hometown playing with a band are boggling. So doing this music thing for fame or glory is a fool’s game. It took me a long time to learn that. But the sooner you learn this, the sooner you can appreciate what you have for what it is. Those moments when a bunch of strange people come together and make it work. The kind of synergy that a corporate boardroom preaches about but cannot inspire.
I really hope everyone who ever joins a band has that feeling, if only once. If you’re out there writing songs, I hope you have a moment in your life when you can look at one of your creations and go “that’s a masterpiece”. You deserve to feel good about what you’ve done. It’s not like you put toxic smoke into the world. You’ve made the air molecules around you wiggle in a particular fashion. You’ve attempted to communicate to others using this commercial form of songcraft.
What else do Elvis Costello, Blackie Lawless and Farrah Abraham have in common, really?
Bob Dylan is a very fascinating songwriter. So much that there are eleven in a “Bootleg Series” of unreleased material. Bob Dylan is so fascinating that people want to hear the songs that weren’t deemed good enough for an official album (of which there are three dozen).
Last week I considered releasing an album of unreleased demos. Rap songs from 2002-2009. I was going to release it either on Bandcamp or Soundcloud.
Then I actually listened to these songs. Boy oh boy oh boy. These songs are not worthy of release. Now that I think about it, they weren’t worthy of being recorded. They shouldn’t even have been written.
The blame for this is on me. My lyrics. The ideas in my lyrics. My stars. What a terrible execution on my part. It would be a disservice to the people who produced and collaborated with me on this music to let it out and give them credit for it.
Think about those old pictures of your folks wearing tacky clothes from the 70s or early 80s. Now imagine that instead of wearing silly clothes, they’re blowing a dog. That’s what this music sounds like. My unreleased songs sound like your parents blowing a dog. Metaphorically.
If you were lucky enough to catch one of the performance on Prince’s two-night, four-show stand at the Louisville Palace, you got to see a phenomenal showing by one of the Old Masters who still performs like a sugar-buzzed kid in a candy store. Backed by his all-girl trio 3RDEYEGIRL, His Purpleness took the tri-state area down Alphabet Street back to 1999 in a Little Red Corvette full of Raspberry Beret(s). No Controversy about this master of Musicology, Prince made it Purple Rain until The Chocolate Invasion happened in this reviewer’s pants.
His Purple Majesty, Prince.
This reviewer saw the second show on Sunday,last in the four-show stand. Prince walked out (or was carried out Ariana Grande-style) by a bodyguard. Parked in his spot for the entirety of the show, Prince struggled to stay upright. The fifty-six legend complained of a hip problem. I checked Twitter and found that Prince had apparently fractured his hip the night before doing a split.
Prince, being a Jehovah’s Witness, refuses surgeries that require blood transfusions. Rather than accept doctor’s orders to have surgery and cancel the rest of his tour, Prince decided to treat his hip fracture with intermittent bedrest and rubbing vegan cuisine on the hip. He breathed heavily throughout the show and occasionally muttered “tired. . . want to go home” to rapturous Louisville cheers.
The first song of the set was a rousing “Endorphinmachine” from The Gold Experience. After the song, the crowd waited with bated breath as the Purple One looked down his pedals and. . . decided to play “Endorphinmachine” again, to the confusion of everyone including his band. After a second but no less stellar rendition of that song, he cranked up the riff to “Endorphinmachine” again until one of the 3RDEYEGIRL band members stepped over to Prince and mentioned something to him off mic. From there, the band cranked up “Take Me With U”. While the crowd applauded, Prince looked back and asked “how long have we been out here already?” and attemped to play “Endorphinmachine” a third time before the PA went dead and the lights went out.
The house lights came up as the stage stood dark and empty for nearly a half-hour. The audience grew quiet than began cheering, then grew quiet again, then began clapping, then booed lustily, then cheered. Some people left and went back to the ticket booth to get a refund only to find a sign on the window that said “SUCKERS” signed with an androgynous Prince symbol.
A roadie came out with a stool and a Crosley turntable. He placed the turntable on the stool then left. The house lights dimmed and the stage was illuminated as a second roadie entered stage left with a vinyl record. The roadie placed the record on the Crosley before putting the needle on it and pressing play. It was a 12-inch of “Batdance” and the crowd exploded in delight. The 12-inch “Batdance” played in its’ entirety as the roadies looked sternly at the show. Security confiscated a camera when someone in the front row tried to take a picture of the turntable.
When the record stopped, the roadies took it, the Crosley and stool and left the stage. An announcer said, “Thank you for coming to the concert tonight. Please leave in an orderly manner. Thank you for coming to the concert.”
On the way out, this reviewer was presented with a religious tract from a strange little man in a trenchcoat and barely-concealed afro.
It’s a quarter after one in the morning. I’m listening to Mickey Newbury. If I had a floor full of empty bottles, it would be the perfect picture of sadness.
Wait, I do have a floor full of empties. Diet soda, not beer. I bag them up once a week or so and take them to the recycling bin by the fire department. I promise I’m not a total degenerate. I have never allowed more than three pizza boxes to accumulate at one time. I used to know a couple of guys in L.A. who had Shaq-height stacks of pizza boxes but then again they both took a lot of speed so whaddyaknow.
Mickey Newbury is why I’m writing this. Specifically, an album he recorded in 1971 called Frisco Mabel Joy. The album is named after a song Newbury wrote called “San Francisco Mabel Joy”, which took on a life of its own after everybody from Kenny Rogers to Joan Baez to David Allen Coe covered it. John Denver covered it. It’s a flexible song to have such a variety of artists cover it. Newbury had more success as a songwriter than as a recording artist but his recordings are worth checking out.
Have you ever heard that Elvis song “An American Trilogy”? That’s a Mickey Newbury song, or rather Newbury’s clever arrangement of a minstrel song, a Negro spiritual and “Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. I’m surprised Fox News doesn’t close its’ broadcast day by playing the thing each night. Not one of my favorite Elvis recordings. Elvis was deep in his Vegas-Evel-Knievel-white-suit-take-a-bunch-of-pills phase. The performance is bombastic, flamboyant, and Elvis sings with the power of a roaring brushfire on a mountainside.
Now listen to the Newbury original. Elvis is a roaring fire, Mickey is a fragile candlelight. The King’s strings and backing vocalists are almost oppressive, performing a Concerto for an Imaginary Republican Convention. Mickey is more sensitive and contemplative. These words mean something. There is a thoughtful reason for contrasting these three songs: “Dixie”, “Battle Hymn” and “All My Trials”. The cognitive dissonance of flag-waving patriotism smack with the painful history of America’s treatment of non-whites.
How many times must the piper be paid for his song?
What a brutal thing to hear. It’s almost too much. Captivating and bracing. Who writes this kind of song now? I don’t see how this guy can be categorized as anything other than “songwriter”. He didn’t fit in a folk or country or folk rock or any other easy box to be marketed in. That’s probably why he had more success as a writer. Let the suits and the producers figure this stuff out. Let them decide out how to sell it. As long as they keep it true and don’t filter out what connects with the listener. Luckily there have been many performers who have found something in this material.
Good news: An American Trilogy is a 4-CD box set featuring three Newbury albums and bonus disc of rarities came out in 2011. You can track it down, probably. I assure you that Frisco Mabel Joy is worth the price of admission.
I look outside to find the last remnants of snow in my yard. Last week we got about a foot of the white stuff. Still a few inches left to be washed away by the rising temperatures and rains of the coming March.
It’s Thursday morning. I have spent the last hour or so listening to Huun Huur Tu, a quartet of Tuvan throat singers. I am obsessed with a song called “Camel Caravan Drivers Song”. I heard a snippet of it over twenty years ago.
I heard it near the end of a BBC documentary about Frank Zappa. Zappa hosted a party at his house a few months before he died in 1993. Invites went out to Irish folk group The Chieftains, bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and among others Huun Huur Tu. You can find the raw footage of this event if you google “Zappa Salad Party”.
I saw the documentary in ’94, and it shows Zappa enjoying this unlikely collaboration between Irish folksters, Mongolian folksters, an American blues legend, and who knows who else. I only heard a snippet of a song sung by Huun Huur Tu, and never thought I’d hear it again. It never occurred to me do any further research. Perhaps they had conceived the song on the spot, I figured. A one-time event never to be repeated.
The jam session/salad party was a one-time event but it was not a one-time composition, as Huun Huur Tu were singing a song, “Camel Caravan Drivers Song”. I have not heard any part of this song in any other than what was in the Zappa documentary.
It gave me some joy to hear it again. Two decades have gone by. My life has changed so much. I went from teenager to legal adult to college graduate to crazy rapper to bitter, depressed crank. The folk tradition is not something I understood at sixteen. I may get it a little more now. The authentic soul of a distant land, a different people. The folk tradition lives but it will not be found at an award show. Music is life. This is life I’m hearing. A cry that is joyful and pained by the same token. It took a long time to get to this place. The music took a long time to get to my and your ears. Our lives have taken us here after such a long journey. The journey never ends, either. Not for life and not for music that embodies the folk tradition.
Did you know Huun Huur Tu tours frequently? I just learned this. They will do U.S. dates in April and again in the fall. If you can see them, you should.