A Little Kid on the Scene

When I was about 12 my older brothers formed a punk band.  They were both in high school.  My brother Tom had been playing the guitar and flirting with various kinds of music for a while.  When he discovered punk it was love.  My brother Ben had just gotten his first drum kit.  He too loved the defiance and weirdo pride of punk.  They recruited Chris Clay, a neighborhood kid who was our fourth brother and a couple of other kids from our town and started rehearsing all the time.  Tim Hughes played rhythm guitar for the first few months and Pete Schmidt played bass.  Tom, Ben, Chris and Pete rehearsed at our house all the time for the duration of High School.  Their sound was loud and crude but they got their act together and played whenever they could.  I remember hearing them working on “Tommy Gun” by the Clash for hours.  The noise filled the whole house.  I was impressed.

Right away, Tom was very driven to write his own songs.  Ben and Chris got involved in the lyric writing too.  I remember what I believe was their first song.  It was called “Sell Out City”.  It was loud and angry and adorably topical in retrospect.  It had just a few chords and a thrash beat.  I can still hear them rehearsing it, stopping and starting.

The verse began:

Radio waves are filled with shit

All I hear is top forty hits

People making records, they don’t care

No creativity they wouldn’t dare

The end of the chorus went…

Sell out city, I don’t know what to do

Sell out city’s gonna get you too.

Tom just kept on writing songs and those dudes just kept on bashing away.  Their work ethic was inspirational.  Seeing it all first hand was great for me.  I watched all of the rehearsals.  I saw all of the songs get written and worked out.  I saw them make their own posters and stickers on our very first home computer.  Soon they recorded a demo tape.  That seemed amazingly sophisticated to me at the time.  They played their first show in our garage.  Soon after that, their set was cut short at the High School talent night for its loud, rebellious nature.  We were all outraged and heartbroken.   A few months later, a big watershed moment came when Tom announced to us all that he had booked the band a gig as the opening act at a punk club clled the Anthrax in Stamford, CT (No relation to the heavy metal band of the same name).  Tom had learned about the Anthrax through the underground youth network that was the hardcore punk scene of the 1980’s.  We were all blown away by how grown up and professional the whole thing was.  A gig in a club!  Nobody could contain the excitement.

The big gig was on a warm Friday night toward the end of the school year.  There wasn’t enough room in the car for anyone but the band members and their gear, but the club was supposedly walking distance from the Stamford train station and the trains ran fairly late.  By the second half of seventh grade, my friend Josh had become my main running buddy and I knew he’d be up for the experience.  Josh and I had been roaming around Greenwich Village a bit by that point, so we just added this to our list of amazing adventures.  Josh told a kid he knew named Scott about it and we were all in.  I think Scott might have backed out at the last minute.  We probably gave him hell about it the next day and told him that he had “snaked us out”.  I remember riding the train in the smoking car, feeling very grown up, wondering what we would find in Stamford.  I had never been to Stamford, besides to the hospital when my father was working there.  I certainly hadn’t roamed the Stamford streets at night.  It was a rough city in many parts.  I don’t know how we knew which way to go when we got there.  Maybe my brother had instructed me.  Maybe we ran into an older skateboarder kid from our town and followed him.  I really don’t remember.

The Anthrax wasn’t in a very nice part of town.  It was an industrial area, near some housing projects.  There wasn’t much doing there by night.  There weren’t even many streetlights and the club wasn’t visible from the street.  We walked up to the parking lot of a mechanic’s shop, where we found a bunch of kids in punk clothes hanging out.  Some kids were doing skateboard tricks in the alley.  Others were smoking, spitting and cursing.  We tried to act as cool as possible, hoping no one would notice that we were twelve year olds.  In one corner of the parking lot we saw some kids come out of a door that lead down to a small basement.  The walls of the stairway were covered in band stickers, taped up fliers, duct tape and graffiti.  I could hear my brothers tuning up.  The place was dark, smoky and sweaty.  The music was amazingly loud.  We had made it!

I can’t really express how cool it felt that night to be in on the underground scene.  Though they were playing for a crowd of 20 or 40 teenagers that night, my own brothers were practically rock stars in my estimation.  They were up on a stage playing and kids I had never met from other towns were slam dancing to their music.  Josh and I jumped in the mosh pit too.  What a jolt!  In the dark basement it looked scary at first, but it wasn’t particularly violent.  Everyone was kind and cooperative.  Nobody wanted to hurt anyone.  If you fell down, someone helped you right up.  The stage and the ceilings were too low for stage diving.  It wasn’t anything really rough at all, just energetic.  But to a twelve year old kid, slam dancing and bumming smokes off dudes with Mohawks in an urban basement at 11:00pm on a Friday night was some pretty wild carrying on.  We couldn’t even stay much more than an hour because we had to make the last train home.  I remember stopping at some all night convenience store on our walk back to the train.  Some awfully seedy characters were hanging out at that store.  I bought some lemon flavored Hostess Cupcakes.  Even that was pretty wonderful as far as I was concerned.

Over the course of the next few years, my brothers played the Anthrax several times.  They also played at New York’s famed CBGB and many other places in the New York/ tri-state area.  I was in attendance at most of those shows.  Eventually I took to working the merchandise table for my brothers.  Boy, did I feel cool.  I remember palling around with Wattie, the giant-mohawk-sporting, heavily pierced lead singer of a Scottish group called The Exploited.  He drank a lot of beer and I couldn’t make out a word he said, but he sure was friendly.  The Anthrax club itself moved to a much bigger warehouse-like room in Norwalk, CT and my brothers’ band eventually became regulars there.  They even made a record for the Anthrax record label.  I tagged along to gigs up there more nights than I can remember.  We got to be pretty big fans of some of the Connecticut bands and we were always excited to go up there to see other bigger acts when they came through on tour.  Acts that would achieve international fame like Fugazi, Henry Rollins, the Bad Brains, Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads all played there.  I spent several sweat soaked nights there as a fan, stage diving and shouting along with bands, feeling incredibly alive.

There are plenty of war stories I could tell from the Anthrax days; fights, gangs, police raids, drug overdoses and drug busts made their way into the festivities.  Those type of incidents were really the exception to rule over there for me.  More than anything, I’d have to say that my feelings about that scene were very positive.  I never really considered myself a punk.  I was the kid brother of the guys in a punk band.  Nobody ever gave me or my friends a hard time there.  The Anthrax was like a haven of acceptance for so many kids in the conformity driven suburbs.  For a couple of dollars admission, underage kids could go out to a club for the whole night and be thoroughly entertained by 100% independent bands from all over the U.S. and elsewhere.  Bands toured the entire country in station wagons and slept on people’s floors, largely just for the fun of it.  Friendships were struck between kids from different towns.  Teenage aggression and self-expression had a safe, legal outlet and homemade, thoroughly un-corporate music was at the center of it all.  I’m forever thankful that my brothers were so involved in what was known as the Connecticut Hardcore scene.  I’m proud of my brothers and all of the other kids who were a part of that scene.  I’m pretty sure the likes of it did not exist before or after that time.

 

P.S.

A book about the Anthrax was published in 2009.  Check it out: http://www.anthraxclubbook.com

My brothers’ band was called the Zombie Squad.  You can see their name in posters in the book.  There’s also a very good documentary about that era in punk music called American Hardcore.  It’s available on Netflix and other places.

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Random Pretty Verse, Number 1

The waters that feel my powerless strength

And meet my homeless oar

Laboring over their ashen length

Never to find a shore.

But the gleam still skims

At times on the somnolent lake,

And a light there is that swims

With the whirl of a snake:

And tho’ dead be the hour i’ the air

And dayless the sky,

The heart is alive of the boatman there:

That boatman am I.

-Trumball Stickney from In the Past

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Washington Square Park Circa 1985

I remember watching a homeless guy pull a knife on a cop in the Washington Square Park fountain.  The guy had been sitting in the fountain drinking from a liquor bottle wrapped in a paper bag and John “Dr. Juice” Allicock, the leader of the Calypso Tumblers asked him to move so they could do their show.  The homeless guy just cursed at the tumblers, so they yelled for a cop to come remove the guy.  When the cop approached him, the homeless guy pulled out a knife and the cop had to grab it and wrestle him down.  I was pretty scared.  The Calypso Tumblers didn’t seem too rattled.  With his thick Caribbean accent, Allicock just said “One ass-ole want to mess up de show”.  After the guy was removed, the tumblers just got right back on with the act.

The Calypso tumblers performed every weekend in Washington Square. Young and covered in muscles, they did flips in the air and folded themselves in all kinds of crazy shapes.  A new generation of the act still exists today and performs in the park.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw those guys do their thing for the tourists.  I used to know their whole act by heart.  I knew when every joke was coming and I liked watching each audience react differently.  I spent a lot of Saturdays sitting in that park for hours at a time and I knew all of the park performers.  Even on weekends when I had no money for record shopping, ten dollars could buy me a day in the Village when I was in junior high.  The commuter train was $3.50 each way.  Two subway tokens cost two dollars and the extra dollar bought two 50 cent hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya on 8th street, upon which I could survive.  Just to be away from all of the “normality” of my suburban town was fun enough for me.  I’ve always really enjoyed people-watching and sitting quietly in big, noisy places.  I almost always went downtown with my friend Josh and stayed the night at his aunt’s house on 8th and McDougal.  Sometimes other guys came along.  A few times I even went alone, though I never told my parents.

The Village of 1980’s had a remarkably different feeling than the Village of today.    Everything was a lot dirtier and grittier.  Graffiti covered subway cars were still the norm.  Homeless people lived more openly in public enclaves.  The Bowery was still filled with derelict drunks and drug users. Cashiers behind protective cages would sell single cigarettes to street people in Bowery bodegas.  It seemed like cigarette smoking, cigarette advertisements and cigarette butts were everywhere in New York.  Drinking and drugs were everywhere too.  People from all walks of life drank beer on the street, in cans and bottles wrapped in paper bags.  If the cops saw you drinking beer out of an open container they’d say “Put it in a bag,” and keep going.  The sale of illegal drugs in Washington Square was at an all time high.  I wasn’t interested in buying drugs but I always felt honored and tough just being offered.  Nobody ever bugged me if I just said “no, thanks”.  My group of friends didn’t get through those years without some drug experimentation, police run-ins and ugly moments.  I tried some stuff, but I was mostly too chicken to do anything really dangerous.

I did smoke way too many cigarettes as a teenager.  There was no legal age for the sale of tobacco back then.  I really wanted to be cool like my favorite rock stars, though I would have completely denied that if you had asked me back then.  I always tried to look grown up, urban and bohemian when we went downtown.  I’m sure I only succeeded in my own mind, but at least that helped me feel more comfortable.  Josh and I both usually wore cheap overcoats from the Salvation Army thrift store over our t-shirts, jeans and converse high-tops.   Where we came from, that was pretty darned bohemian.  Most of the other kids we knew weren’t going down to Greenwich Village on the weekends.  Most of our friends’ parents thought the Village was way too dangerous for their kids.  Josh’s father was the only person I knew who encouraged us to go.  He was a professor of urban planning at Hunter College and he seemed very happy to see a couple of sheltered Larchmont kids eager to take in the more diverse experience of the city.  He used to give us a pep talk before we left for the train.  He delivered his speech passionately and always ended with the tag lines “See everything, experience everything.  Look but don’t stare.”  We loved the “look but don’t stare” speech.  We often asked Josh’s dad for an encore performance.

A great deal of our time was spent both looking and staring at people in the park.  Josh said “hello” to strangers all the time.  We both enjoyed talking to whatever weird characters we could find.  We both learned kind of quickly that people who wanted to be your new best friend usually wanted something from you.  Still, there were some who just liked talking.  We were friendly with various and sundry punk rockers and skateboarders from around the New York area.  Sometimes we’d run into them.  We knew some transient hippie types too.  Among the regular performers and artists in the park, there were a few we particularly loved to watch.  Others really annoyed us, but we kind of loved to laugh about them too.  There’s no way I could remember all of the acts we used to watch and I know I’d get bored going through them all but here are a few of the main ones I recall the best:

1.Rodney Yates, Public Astrologer

Rodney was in the park every day for 20 years or more.  He might still be there.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  He always wore a sweatshirt with the word Astrologer written out in iron-on letters.  He always carried a large, very chewed up astrology reference book.  He had composed rhyming, jiving speeches about the significance of your astrological sign ready for you.  He read your palm and he’d tell you the same few lines about yourself every time if you let him.  He moved away from you quickly if you weren’t going to pay him.  His teeth were in very bad shape.  On several occasions I remember watching him read a woman’s star chart and hearing him tell her “you hot to trot.”

2.Ellis Hooks

Ellis sang and played an acoustic guitar for hours every day.  I really idolized him.  He’d work the whole day in the park on Saturdays and came out of there with a deep bucket of bills and change.  One time Josh and I sat with Ellis for 4 or 5 hours.  We requested songs, collected change for him and brought him a cold drink.  He joked around with us.  I felt so cool that he even talked to us.  I learned Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” from Ellis.  I just loved the way he sang it.  He sang a lot of old pop songs too.  I remember him doing Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love is”.  Even the corniest numbers he sang with a lot of feeling.  Twenty years later I was playing a gig in a club on St. Mark’s Place and I ran into Ellis, sitting at the bar.  He hadn’t aged much.

3.Albert Owens

There were a lot of performers who performed inside the Washington Square fountain when it wasn’t gushing water.  Albert Owens was the one I remember seeing there the most.  Albert was a commentator and comedian.  To a 12-year-old white kid from the soft suburbs, he seemed angry and obsessed with the topic of race and white people.  When I think back on a lot of his material now, I can see that he was just telling it the way it was.  He was very smart and often hilarious, though never polished.  He was a brave performer for sure; a gritty guy, who was rough around the edges.  He died not long ago on the street in Europe due to complications from a seizure, while traveling around performing over there.

4. Tony Vera and the Tony Vera Fire Show

Tony wore a fireman’s hat and ate fire.  He also balanced a bicylcle on his chin, did several other tricks and told a lot of jokes.  In the wintertime, Tony worked as a peanut, soda and beer vender at Madison Square Garden.  One of his regular gags was to ask if there was anyone in the crowd from the South.  When someone would say “yes” he’d put a rope around his neck and ask “Does this remind you of anything?”  Years later, Tony moved to Los Angeles and did his act on Venice boardwalk.  I think he became a news reporter of some kind too.

5.  Rico Fonseca

Rico had a big cart, which he called his “outdoor gallery” with photos of his paintings on them.  He wheeled the cart out from a garage every day and sat selling prints of his paintings in front of an iron gate on MacDougal Street.  Rico was from Peru, but he had been a black light poster artist in California in the 60’s.  He made large paintings that had to do with different themes.  Most of his paintings had pictures of famous people taken from photos.  Sometimes the likenesses were a bit silly and cartoony but we just loved them.  Josh bought a print of Rico’s painting of 60’s rock stars called “Flower Child”.  I used to like to see how many of the famous hippies I could name.  Eventually, Rico got commissioned to make murals for some of the businesses in the Village.  He too might still be out there, though I haven’t checked for him in long time.

There were many more characters and several more performers that made weekends in the Village colorful.  I saw a pre-fame Dave Chapelle do stand up in the park.  I saw an escape artist get stuck in his chains when a couple of wise-ass punks ran away with the key.  I remember hearing him tell the mean teens “When you think about it, you’re wearing more chains then I am.”…

….Much more to remember, but perhaps another day.  How about you?  Did you ever hang out in Washington Square Park?  In what era?  Do you remember any of the performers, artists or recurring characters from that time?  I’d love to hear about them.

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Wonderful Weirdos on Wax

I recently read an interview with the late great John Fahey, in which he named Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of Folk Music as the single most important source of musical education for him and a whole generation of folk music students, which included himself and Bob Dylan among others.  I had never heard Harry Smith’s anthology so I tracked down the CD’s at the library.  They came in with a giant Smithsonian booklet full of essays and notes, a major score for a music junkie of my kind. Legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family, Charley Patton, along with many names I’d never seen before sing 80 plus perfectly interwoven songs.  Cajun songs, delta blues, cowboy ballads and Appalachian folk story songs are all together.  Listening to the Harry Smith anthology this month has been one of the greatest musical pleasures I can remember in a very long time.

Unlike the selections on most other Folkways compilations, every record in Harry Smith’s anthology was originally a commercial release for another label, made between 1927 and 1932.  In the 1920’s and 30’s, early gramophone companies made folk and blues recordings and sold them with the machines to gramophone buyers in rural America.  Radio hadn’t yet come to nationalize hit songs and generalize popular styles of music.  Each old record in the Harry Smith collection is rich with local color, accent and style.  Equally as refreshing is the lack of “folk art” self-awareness in recordings of the anthology.   Collegiate activist types hadn’t yet gotten hip to rural music in the 20’s and 30’s.  The hyper-conscious attempts at “authentic” folk music made during the 50’s and 60’s don’t make it onto this compilation.  The singers and players on the Anthology recordings don’t know they’re “folk” musicians making “folk” music.  They’re just musicians, singing their hearts out, playing the songs they know best with the intention of making them sound good and maybe making a little money.

Harry Smith wasn’t a social activist song archivist like Pete Seeger or Alan Lomax, he was a weird artist guy with tremendous taste and a remarkable collection of 78’s.  He came from Portland, Oregon and he came to New York City, where he studied the occult and made experimental films and small pieces of visual art.  He was destitute most of his life and lived several years in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street with Allen Ginsburg.  Smith’s great love for the records in the Anthology was esthetic more than socio-political.  The same can be said for Bob Dylan, John Fahey and the greatest students of Smith’s Collection.  In their works you hear powerful melodies, spooky sounds and enduring stories that come directly from the records in the Anthology.  Years later the cartoonist/illustrator R. Crumb would feel a similar connection with the soulful performances and the cultural “marginality” of the artists in pre-war recordings.  Crumb published portraits of many of the artists in the anthology and comic books of their life stories.

Harry Smith included very thorough informational notes with the records in his anthology.  But you can just let the songs play without reading a word and they speak for themselves.  Great art is made by wonderful weirdos with advanced esthetic intelligence, brave hearts and open minds.  Harry Smith was one such wonderful weirdo, as were the great artists in his collection.  If you don’t know the Anthology, you’re in for a treat.

http://harrysmitharchives.com

http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=2426

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First Hand Music Memoirs

I wake up in the morning make a pot of coffee and it’s time to work on songs.  I’m staring down several numbers that are missing big pieces.  Whoah boyeeeee.  Putting off getting to work on them can be an art form in itself.  This blog can be a good distraction but it’s writing so I can’t really do it in a half-assed way.  At this point, I have a piece on Chuck Berry and one on old field recordings that desperately need editing.  So I spin old records and download a lot of music.  I read a lot of books, blogs and magazines.

My comfort books are mostly fiction and literature, lots of old novels and stories.  I like 19th Century stuff a lot, but my no means exclusively.  Tolstoy and Isaac Bashevis Singer are my all-time favorite writers.  There’s a lesser-known 20th Century guy from Northern Ireland called Brian Moore whose novels I’ve read like a junkie.  Vonnegut always helps me out when I’m in a tough place.  I’ve recently gotten into some older works by V.S. Naipul.  My favorite one is called Miguel Street.  I’ve got a stack of cheap-o, sci-fi paperback collections from the 1950’s, that I read for pleasure.   I really like British poems by the Romantic poets.   I take a lot of comfort in stories by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar too.  These days I’ve been digging some non fiction too.  I’ve been flipping out on the lectures of Joseph Campbell.  There’s also a brilliant psychologist called Marion Woodman whose work really floors me more than anything I’ve read in a long time.

I’ve wasted a joyous good deal of my time in life reading music history books, biographies and essays.  My all time favorite are music autobiographies and memoirs.  There’s nothing quite so relaxing and comforting to me.  Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorites.  These are just the autobiographies.  There are stacks of great biographies and writings on music that I love.  Maybe one day soon I’ll write about some of those too.  For now, I’ll just list the autobiographies I can remember.  Once again folks, it’s incomplete, directly from memory and in no particular order.  You won’t find Bound For Glory or Beneath The Underdog here because I never got through them.  They may be wonderful.  I’ll give them another shot.  Anyway, here are some real goodies.  I highly recommend them all.

…And please…drop me a line and tell me about which music autobiographies didn’t make my list.  I’d love to read all of your recommendations.

Lady Sings The Blues by Billy Holiday

All You Need is Ears by George Martin

Fleetwood by Mick Fleetwood

Chronicles  by Bob Dylan

I Put A Spell on You by Nina Simone

This Wheel’s on Fire by Levon Helm

Good Morning Blues by Count Basie as told to Albert Murray

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong

Born Under a Hoo Doo Moon by Dr. John

They Can’t Hide Us Anymore by Richie Havens

Blues All Around Me by B.B. King

Man of Constant Sorrow by Ralph Stanley

Big Bill Blues by Big Bill Broonzy

Hound Dog by Leiber and Stoller

The Godfather of Soul by James Brown

Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars by Dennis Coffey

I am Ozzy by Ozzy Osbourne

Chuck Berry by Chuck Berry

I Me Mine by George Harrison

Me, The Mob and the Music by Tommy James

Miles by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe

Rage To Survive by Etta James

Brother Ray by Ray Charles

Just Kids by Patti Smith

To Be Loved by Berry Gordy

Willie by Wille Nelson

Stone Alone by Bill Wyman

I’ll throw in Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx, even though he’s not a musician.  I just love that book so much.  You might try his collected letters as well.

Oh…and I also read most of Keith Richards’ memoir in a hotel room somewhere.  It wasn’t my copy but I’m the only morning person in Rock and Roll so there’s always a couple of good hours of quiet reading time before the band gets up.

…Ok Milty, back to work!

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Proving and Improving Good Songs

No group, be it Beatles, Dylan or Stones have ever improved on “Whole Lot of Shaking” for my money. Or maybe I’m like our parents: that’s my period and I dig it and I’ll never leave it.  –John Lennon

I read this quote from a 1971 John Lennon interview a while back and I think about it all the time.  John Lennon always claimed to like 50’s rock and roll best of all music.  When Lennon was 16 Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were taking over the charts in England and the U.S.  John, like his parents in their day, loved the golden hits of his youth and never liked anything else quite so much.  To his ear, no pop music after those records was even as good as the hit songs of his youth.

It seems like a natural process to me.  There are certain songs that get played everywhere when you are young and full of imagination and desire.  You choose your favorites among those songs.  That selection of music remains “your” music for the rest of your life.  You may like other stuff throughout your life, but never in the same way you like “your music”.  This formula for why and how we like the music we like best should always work with the big pop hits from every time period but I’m not sure it does for me.  When I was 16 the biggest records on the charts were by Bobby Brown, Poison, Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson.  I didn’t like those records very much then so it’s pretty hard to get nostalgic for them now.  I did have favorite records from that period: U2, Prince, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, the Police, Bruce Springsteen.  I know many of those records by heart.  I still like all that stuff and it does take me back but I can’t say it speaks to me more or even as much as Dylan, The Beatles, Jimmy Cliff and many other records that were made long before I was born.

So why then doesn’t the music of “my period” sound best to me?  First of all, I think hit radio has had a different-sized presence in different people’s lives at different times since its invention.  When John Lennon was a kid in Liverpool, the radio was everything.  When I was a kid, radio was a semi-big deal that I checked into and out of.  And though Dylan and the Beatles and old reggae weren’t in the top 40 anymore, they were getting heavy, heavy spin on my record player at home.  They were massive hits to me.  Also, songs by artists like Dylan and the Beatles had been sewn so deeply into the popular culture all around me that it functioned similarly to the way religious music had functioned for people in centuries past.  It was a part of my every day lore.   Lennon himself had caused great controversy back in 1966 when he said that the Beatles meant more to many kids than Jesus did.  Years later, he was definitely right in my case.  I never attended religious services of any kind growing up but I did sing Beatles songs in the classroom a couple of times a week in 1st grade and I thought about the Beatles’ music all the time.

So I just had more exposure to old records and therefore I liked them better than the hit radio of my time?  I think that’s partly true but I still believe some songs are just better than others and some recordings are just better than others too.  I’ve developed an esthetic of my own, built around some 20 or 30 years of trial and error as a listener.  Sometimes a big hit song really speaks to me.  Other times it really doesn’t.  When Lennon was growing up, the big hits really spoke to him.  When he was 30, those same songs still really spoke to him.  When I was growing up the Beatles and Dylan and old reggae really spoke to me and they still do today.

So what is it really speaks to me in a song?  A couple of weeks ago I spent a bunch of time thinking and writing about my favorite pop, rock and jazz albums of all time.  It really got me thinking about specifically what I liked in a song.    Mostly, I like very simple songs.  I like a good tune that I want to hear again and again and maybe sing along to.  I like honest, soulful singers with interesting and/or pretty voices.  I like to feel a heart singing when a singer sings.  I like groovy rhythm pockets, most often simple repetitive rhythms.  I like meaningful, well crafted but not obscure lyrics.  I like stories and pictures and transcendent thought.  A song can appeal to me on any one of those levels or on multiple levels at the same time (in the best case scenario).  Most of all, my favorite songs just feel right and I just want to hear them again and again.  I’ve heard many of the kind of song I like best in elaborate recorded productions.  Many times I’ve heard an equally great song played by just a singer alone with a single instrument.

I’m certain that the essence of a good song has very little to do with production or arrangement. This idea brings me to another quote.  It’s from an interview with a playwright that I read close to 20 years ago but I’ve never forgotten it.

A bad play could be improved by production.  A first rate play can only be proved, not improved, by production. –Edward Albee

Albee was talking about plays but I think we could easily apply the same idea to songs and it would still be perfectly true.  A great song is a great song to you as soon as you hear the melody and you hear the sound of the words, you feel their rhythm and you take in their meaning.  The arrangement/production that may or may not be applied to a great song could only prove it, not improve it.  Listen sometime to Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.  The more famous version is the full orchestration by Maurice Ravel.  It’s certainly beautiful, but Mussorgsky wrote the piece for solo piano.  Listen to a recording of the solo piano version.  I don’t think there’s anything missing.  Ravel’s orchestration is great because it doesn’t ruin what’s already great.  The same is true of a pop song.  When I learned the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine” in my 1st grade class, my teacher would play the guitar and the whole class would gather around.  We shared booklets with typewritten lyrics and we all sang together as he played.  My teacher played a few other Beatles songs, a bunch of old folk songs and a few other popular songs.  I remember “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver in particular.  When I learned those songs in class, I hadn’t heard the records but I really loved the songs.  Later on, when I did hear the records, it took me a little while to get used to the sound of the recorded versions, but I did eventually like them because I already liked the songs.  The records were good records because they didn’t hinder my enjoyment of good songs, they just proved how good they already were.

If you have a chance, listen to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music released by Smithsonian Folkways in 1952.  It’s a collection made up of old 78 recordings from the 1920’s and 30’s.  Most of the songs on the record are “primitive” recordings.  They have one singer’s voice, with accompaniment from one or two instruments.  To me, those recordings, made so long before I was born, endure better than most of the hits from “my period” as John Lennon would say.  Their melodies and lyrics and fragments of both have been re-visited and re-worked over the years by countless artists all over the place.  Still,  like John, I don’t think anyone has “improved” upon those songs either.

Production will continue to change over the years.  Instrumental styles and singing styles will come and go too, but there will never be a substitute for a good song being sung and played with feeling.  I think anyone who hopes to arrange or produce or perform a song well should always keep that in mind. This doesn’t mean that any solo singer, singing alone with a banjo, is inherently good.  It just means that a good song is only as good as its tune and its lyrics and a great singer would sound great singing a cappella in a supermarket aisle.  What John Lennon liked about “Whole Lotta Shaking” was not that it was made at Sun Studios in 1957.  What he liked was the feeling that the song and the singer gave him.  If Sam Phillips and the musicians at Sun records did something right, it was to capture that feeling and not get in its way.

Happy listening!

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My Favorite Jazz Albums

I was delighted by all of the passionate responses to my last blog about albums.  I thank you all.  Somebody responded to the last blog by asking about my jazz record preferences.  Below you’ll find a list of the jazz records I spin most often, at home in my apartment.  I listen to nearly all of them on old records, but I’m pretty sure they’re all available online.

Once again, I try to be as honest with myself as possible.  Stan Getz may be most famous for his masterful Bossa Nova records.  I do love those records but I don’t spin them the most so I didn’t list them.  Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is undeniably one of the finest jazz records ever.  I own an old vinyl copy and I’m not sure if I’ve ever played it.  Coltrane’s album with Duke Ellington may be considered a “minor” album by aficionados.  Once again, I own Coltrane’s world famous A Love Supreme and in all honesty I never play it. I do play Duke Ellington and John Coltrane all the time and therefore it appears on this list.  There’s no Monk or Mingus or Charlie Parker or Django on this list.  There are many, many giants of jazz whose works I’ve really enjoyed over the years but if I find I never spin their records at home I didn’t list them.  And if fusion and contemporary jazz are unrepresented here, that’s because I don’t think I own any jazz records made after Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters (1973).  I have no rules about what I do or don’t listen to.  So if you’re passionate about a jazz record from the 70’s, 80’s 90’s or beyond, please recommend it to me and I’ll check it out.  It’s also extremely possible that I’m forgetting one or many of my own personal favorites.

Here are some great ones.  Once again I’m listing them in no particular order.  All of this music is very beautiful and I highly recommend it all.  Please drop me a line and tell me your favorite jazz albums ever.

Bob Brookmeyer and Friends – Columbia

Bob Brookmeyer and Stan Getz Recorded Fall 1961 – Verve

Miles Davis– In a Silent Way; Bitches Brew- Columbia ; Greatest Hits – Prestige

Benny Goodman’s Quintets featuring Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton – Columbia

Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio– Verve

Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson Live at the Opera House – Verve

Wynton Kelly – Wynton Kelly! – Vee Jay

Herbie Hancock – The Prisoner – Blue Note

Modern Jazz Quartet- Blues at Carnegie Hall – Atlantic

Duke Ellington  and John Coltrane – Columbia

Ellington at Newport – Columbia

Cannonball Adderly- Somethin’ Else – Prestige; Things are Getting Better – Riverside

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – Columbia

Count Basie- Blues by Basie – Columbia

John Lewis- Improvised Meditations and Excursions – Atlantic

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers- Ugetsu – Riverside

Best of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio Volume 1– Capitol

Ahmad Jamal- At the Top; Poinciana Revisted – Impulse

Roland Kirk- Volunteered Slavery – Atlantic

Milt Jackson Quintet featuring Ray Brown – That’s the Way it is – Impulse

Billie Holiday – Volume III – Columbia

Nina Simone- Pastel Blue – Phillips

Ray Charles Live at Newport Jazz Festival – Atlantic

The Dorsey/Sinatra Years, Volume 1 – RCA

Moodsville Modern Moods Compilation – Prestige

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Perfect Albums

Perfect Albums

I was planning to continue with my memoirs of Greenwich Village in the 1980’s.  I aim to write about some of the recurring characters from back then.  I probably will write about them at some point, but today I still feel like talking about records more than people.  If you’re jonesing for some good writing about Greenwich Village, I would strongly suggest Dylan’s Chronicles.  The village in 1960 was awfully rich with life and Dylan is an awfully good writer.

I’ve been thinking about albums a lot this week.  For years, there have been books, articles, films and tv specials made about the great albums. I grew up dreaming along to albums, dreaming of one day making albums.  I’ve still got a record player and a couple of hundred dearly beloved old vinyl albums.  Most recording artists still release collections of songs as CD’s or downloadable albums.  We package the songs together.  We put them in a sequence.   “Here’s our latest batch of songs,” we say with our album’s release. I’m working on another album of my own right now.  My album will have 10 to 12 songs.  I guess the album format is a reference point that most of us still relate to in some way. Today, in the age of I-pod’s and playlists, most people are back to listening to single songs rather than whole albums. Anyone releasing music on I-tunes can safely assume that a lot of people will download one song at a time.  Most likely they’ll only listen to one song at a time.  Maybe on a car ride they might listen to a whole album or a large part of one.  Still, we make albums and sell them at shows.  I’m not entirely sure why, but we do.  A lot of us still like albums.  I’m not sure how many of us do.

How many really good albums are there?  I’d say there are loads.  How many albums can you enjoy from beginning to end?  I’d say that number is very small.  Let’s face it; none of us has a consistently great attention span.  Many songs that start out wonderful grow kind of annoying half way through or earlier.  So how many collections of 10 or more songs could there be that don’t get annoying at some point.

Stop and think:  How many albums do you really like all the way through?  Be honest with yourself.  I’m not asking how many albums were deemed “classic” in a rock critic’s 100 “Greatest Albums” list.   I’m not asking which albums you think are “influential” and therefore appreciate.  There are plenty of those.  I’m not even asking you who your favorite artists are.  I’m asking how many albums (by anyone) do you consistently enjoy listening to in their entirety.  How many of your favorite albums have stood the test of time and still hold up years later.   I think the reality is that the elite few are the albums we love consistently at every stop along the way from beginning to end or close to it.

I’ll tell you what:  I’m going to name some of my favorite albums. Not many, just a few that I’ve been able to listen to from beginning to end for years.  I’ve been testing them out on my record player or my computer while I write this.  You can tell me some of your favorites too.

There are some interesting things to note:

1.The classic period of the album format is rather short.  The long playing album was introduced in 1948.  The first albums were collections of previously released 3 minute singles.  Most artists who started making records before the 1960’s, never really came around to relating to the album format.  They just recorded an album’s worth of songs and put them out.  Many people still do that.  Albums really flourished from the 1960’s to the 1980’s.  Full length CD’s dominated pop music sales in the 90’s but with the ability to include more songs per album came a decline in many artists’ ability to edit their own work.  Plenty of people are still releasing full length CD’s and even vinyl LP’s.  Are any of them classics that will stand the test of time?  I don’t know.

2. I don’t think I’ll name any of my classical or jazz records for this particular list but one could easily say classical and jazz is where album art began.  Jazz and classical artists began making longer recorded pieces long before the pop artists with the advent of 33 1/3 rpm circa 1950. It’s harder to listen to just three minutes of a classical album or a modern jazz record.  Classical music or jazz on a long player was a musical outing in and of itself.  I highly recommend the experience.  I spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz albums at home.  Longer listening with varied format can be way more meditative.

3.This is no kind of definitive list.  These are just a few albums that I have consistently loved all the way through on my living room stereo.  It’s entirely possible that I’ll forget several of my own favorite albums.

4.My favorite song or songs by an artist might not be on my favorite album.  This is a list of wholly listenable albums that have held up for me years later.

So here are some (in no particular order):

Nick Drake Pink Moon 1972

Sly & The Family Stone There’s a Riot Goin’ On 1971

Paul Simon The Rhythm of the Saints 1990

 Joni Mitchell Blue 1971

Randy Newman Sail Away 1972

 Neil Young Everybody Knows This is Nowhere 1969

The Wailers Burnin’ 1973

 The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967

Sam Cooke Night Beat 1963

Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind 1997

Toots & The Maytals Funky Kingston 1972

Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells A Story 1971

 Jimmy Cliff Wonderful World, Beautiful People 1969

 Van Morrison Astral Weeks 1968

The Beatles The Beatles (the White Album) 1968

The Clash London Calling 1979

Fleetwood Mac Rumours 1977

David Bowie The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars 1972

The Grateful Dead American Beauty 1970

… So there you have it:  a list of some of my favorite albums.  Many of those artists have multiple works as good or as close to as good as the albums listed.

Here are some thoughts on other works by these artists:

As usual, I’d have to say the Beatles are in a class of their own.  Some might have some problems with “Revolution 9” or a few of the more cheapo inclusions on the white album but I don’t.  To my ears, those guys put out two completely enjoyable albums a year for eight years straight before calling it a day and all of their albums have stood the test of time.  That’s remarkable like just about everything else in the remarkable career of the Beatles.  So I’d say I could safely name any of the Beatles albums, particularly Rubber Soul in 1965 through Abbey Road in 1969.

For my money, Bob Dylan also made close to 10 totally fulfilling albums over a 40 year career, almost every album he made in the 60’s is a full listening pleasure from top to bottom.  His debut was not so great.  The second album has a few weak moments and mostly brilliant ones.  From their on, it’s a brilliant run all the way through New Morning.  Perhaps my favorite Dylan record is the unreleased version of Blood on The Tracks.  Most people consider that released version to be one of his finest.  I think the unreleased version is even better.

I think Paul Simon made 4 perfect albums.  That’s impressive as hell.  I love Simon & Garfunkel and many of their songs are among my absolute favorites but their albums usually lose me at some point.

I think Van Morrison had 4 or 5 other immensely listenable ones directly after Astral Weeks.  Most of them even had a radio single.

Neil Young probably has 5 albums that I play all the way through.  Neil Young; After The Goldrush; Tonight’s the Night and Harvest Moon are probably my other favorites.

I can sit and listen to every song on every Randy Newman album from his first 6 albums.  Sail Away is the most listenable of some extremely listenable records.

Rod Stewart made 2 more of the most listenable albums I know of in the two years before and after Every Picture Tells a Story.

I’m far gone on the first 4 or 5 Joni Mitchell records (Blue is the 4th) and one later one called Hejira from the mid 70’s.

Nick Drake only made 3 albums.  I like every song on all three of them.  I think Pink Moon is his best album and it’s just him and his guitar, with a little piano by him as well.  His debut Five Leaves Left is just about perfect too.

The Grateful Dead’s made 3 or 4 weird, psychedelic records that I love in the 60’s.  They made two solidly listenable collections of songs in one year in 1970: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. 

The Velvet Underground made 4 great studio albums in 4 years.  I recommend them all.

David Bowie was really good at making albums.  Hunky Dory is arguably as good as Rise & Fall . 

The self-titled Fleetwood Mac album just before Rumours is wonderful.  Tusk is a brilliant album too but not in a consistently listenable way.  Lindsay starts to bother me somewhere along the way.  It’s a double lp with many very cool moments but it ain’t the White Album.

The Clash had double lp perfection in my opinion with London Calling.  The two albums before London Calling were pretty darn easy to listen to as well.

Sly and the Family Stone have three ridiculously wonderful albums in a catalog of great albums.  The two after  There’s a Riot Goin’ On are pretty perfect too.

Sam Cooke comes from before the age of the album.  He died the year after Night Beat came out.  His legacy of songs is incredible.  Night Beat was his only real album statement.

Toots & The Maytals made their greatest works in Jamaica in the late 60’s.  Most of those records were released as singles.  They’re all remarkably wonderful.

Jimmy Cliff contributed half of the songs to the soundtrack of the film The Harder They Come, which I would argue is one of the best albums ever made.  1974’s Struggling Man is a pretty great album too. 

Bob Marley & The Wailers had 5 or 6 great albums for Island records.  His even greater works were made on countless singles in Jamaica in the 1960’s.

…What are some top-to-bottom classics for you?

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Record Hunt in the Village, 1985

Record Hunt in the Village, 1985.

I remember the sheer excitement getting off the subway at Astor Place and walking towards Washington Square Park for the first time.  As soon as we got to Broadway I saw the big yellow sign for Tower Records and I practically broke into a sprint for the revolving doors.  Tower was a giant record store chain.   The three-level location on East 4th Street and Broadway was the biggest record store in the New York area at that time.  I couldn’t believe anywhere so wonderful could exist.  Everywhere you looked there were records!  They had every style of music I had ever heard of.   I couldn’t afford to buy much at Tower, but I would have been happy just to hold those shiny records and stare at them all weekend while people came and went and music played all around me.  Just to see the cashiers and door people, gainfully employed with pink and green hair was liberating and fascinating enough to my young suburban sensibilities.

Soon I discovered that there were 10 or 20 other record stores right around the corner that sold records I actually could afford.  These places even had out of print records by rare, old forgotten artists.  Every weekend in the Village, Josh & I would make the rounds of those used record stores.  It was a kind of treasure hunt.  We would search out every weird record that we had read about in a book or on the back of another album.  It was on the record hunt that I really I got to know the neighborhood.

I’ve still got a map in my head of the village and its record stores from 1985.  We spent a lot of time at Second Coming Records, on Sullivan Street and West 3rd, just a block South of Washington Square.  They had two stores on one block.  One store was rock & pop.  The other store had jazz, folk, classical, etc…  The counter clerk at the rock shop was Ewa, a woman with super straight, light brown hair with bangs. She seemed grown up, cool and mysterious to me.  She never smiled.  Maybe Josh got her to smile eventually, but only for a second and not a full smile.  We also bought a lot of records at Venus Records. It was on 8th Street & 6th Avenue on the second floor.  The guys who ran the joint were kind of cranky punk rock guys who had no great love for kids but they cracked each other up.  They tolerated us because we bought stuff.  There was another place on 8th street called “It’s Only Rock & Roll”.  They stayed opened way into the night.  They had a bouncer at the door who wore a leather vest and told war stories about old rock concerts he had worked at.  They had big wooden shelf full of rock & roll books.  I remember that they had an old, extremely rare book of photos taken in Hamburg, Germany in the early 60’s.  The book included many totally obscure behind the scenes photos of the pre-fame Beatles, hanging out in clubs.  I never could afford the book, but I used to look through it all the time.  On Bleecker and Thompson there was a store with a sign that just said “Records”.  They had some cool, old dusty stuff.  The proprietor seemed to be in a perpetual hang over from a party he’d gone to in 1969.  “Records on Bleecker”, as we called it, also had a broken pinball machine and they sold little pot pipes and paraphernalia, arranged haphazardly in a glass display case by the cash register.  “Records” eventually lost its lease and had to move to Greenwich Avenue.  We started calling it “Records on Bleecker that’s not on Bleecker”.  Bleecker Bob’s was also in business back then and open super late.  It wasn’t on Bleecker either and everything was marked up except for the stacks of  50 cent 45’s.

Eventually, we started branching out from the main haunts.  To the west was Golden Disc on Bleecker across 6th Avenue, with two floors of used records.  Slightly out of our range to the East was “Sounds” on St. Mark’s Place.  Sounds seemed even more punk and tough then our old hippie record stores and it took us a while to fully explore the East Village.   Right next door to Slava’s building was a place called Record Factory, that had a rather extensive selection of new records for cheap.  I bought some very obscure cassettes there from weird knock-off labels.  Far afield was a place up on 12th or 13th Street called “Footlight Records” that sold a lot of jazz and show tunes kind of stuff.  They hated our scruffy kind over there but they seemed mildly amused when we bought old jazz records.   We also flipped through the jazz records at a shop called “Nostalgia” on Thompson Street, that mainly sold framed black and white portraits of old movie stars.  Their records were priced high, but they were cool to look at and the guy who ran the place was quiet and polite.

Josh and I had a general plan of action each time we’d stay at his aunt’s place.  We’d wander around the village all day, from one record shop to the next.  At night we’d let ourselves in to the apartment after Slava had gone to bed.  We’d play our precious new acquisitions on her old turntable, while she slept just a few feet away. Playing records late at night wasn’t something I could get away with at home.  Luckily for us, Slava was too deaf to get woken up by the music.  I remember listening to Jimmy Cliff singing “Time Will Tell” and staring at the multi-colored album cover while Slava snored.

Some weekends we didn’t even have enough money to buy 2 dollar records at the used shops.  But the Village itself was enough of an adventure for us.  We weren’t old enough to go to bars, but we started sneaking in where we could.  There were movie theaters, coffee shops, bookstores and diners where we’d spend a lot of time too.  Mostly, we just hung out in Washington Square Park with the street musicians, stand up comedians, and other assorted performers and weirdos.

…More about them next time…

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The Village, Circa 1985 intro

When I was in 7th grade, there was in a kid named Josh in both my history class and my English class.  I didn’t know him well but I knew who he was.  I had taken after school Yiddish classes, held in the basement of his house when I was 7 or 8.  His basement was very cool.  It had been a dance studio in the 70’s.  The walls were painted different solid colors.  There were mirrors all along the walls with bars for stretching. On the first day of 7th grade I had mixed feelings about Josh.  He wore an old used men’s shirt and cut off jean shorts.  I thought that was very cool.  He had sleepy looking eyes and he spoke kind of slowly. He was very polite with all the kids, popular or otherwise.   He asked everyone lots of questions.  I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.  I thought maybe he was being friendly to “un-cool” people as a put-on, which wasn’t uncommon in 7th grade.  At some point I attempted to call him out on how mean that was.  It turned out he wasn’t putting anyone on.  He was actually genuinely interested in everyone.  He didn’t even dismiss me or resent my misjudgment of his politeness.  He thought it was funny.  We soon became best friends.

I started hanging out over at Josh’s house all the time.  We spent hours goofing around in that old dance studio, smoking cigarettes on the sly, talking about girls and music.  Josh was into old music like I was.  He was also heavily into reading.  As was my custom at the time, I immediately checked out all of his parents’ old records.

They had a really good collection, heavy on the leftist folk records from the 60’s.  I had just seen the Woodstock movie on PBS.  Josh had the album.  I thought it was unbelievably cool.  I wanted to know about any and all old hippie-related music.  Josh asked me if I wanted to go to Greenwich Village with him one weekend to see his aunt.  All I knew about the village was that they had a park where crazy people took drugs and a giant record store called Tower Records where you could get any record you ever dreamed of.   Josh said we could take the train and the subway and get there very easily by ourselves.  I found the whole thing very grown up and exciting.

Josh’s aunt turned out to be his grandmother’s sister.  Her name was Sylvia but she preferred to be called Slava.   She lived alone in a small, one bedroom apartment on 8th street & McDougal in the middle of Greenwich Village.  Slava was about 80 years old and no more than 5 feet tall.  She was fairly hard of hearing and we had to yell our greetings to her.  When I met her she had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She grabbed our faces and kissed us when we arrived.  Her eyes squinted up almost closed when she smiled.  Slava was a communist.  There were Soviet Life magazines on her coffee table and portraits of Lenin on the wall.  Josh and I slept on the miniature couch and the floor of her living room.  Saturday morning we sat with her in her tiny kitchen, yelling questions about the old days in the village, pretending to eat the breakfast she made for us.  The rest of the weekend we wandered around the village, exploring.   I can’t remember how many times we made the trip downtown.  I can still feel the sheer excitement of 7th period on Friday afternoon, counting the few bucks we’d scraped together in our pockets.  Getting ready to run to the train after the bell.  Those weekends became one of my favorite parts of junior high and high school.  We had found a way to transcend the limits of our little suburban 1980’s world.  The village, it’s strange characters, it’s history and the music I found in it’s shops and clubs and street corners, was for me the land of dreams.

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