Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Five times awful rock audiences improved live recordings

Few things in life bum me out more than having a show by a band I love ruined by a jerky audience. (Looking at you, dude who loudly sang along with every Bonnie "Prince" Billy song at Logan Square Auditorium. You too, drunk bros who heckled Cloud Cult at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds last summer. And don't get me started on every crowd with whom I've seen Wilco.) I have to admit, though, that sometimes a poorly behaved audience can help to create some memorable music moments. Most of the time that doesn't become evident until after the fact, but when it does it can be something kind of special. Here are a handful of occasions when boorish, clueless or just plain inexplicable crowd conduct yielded historic (or at least momentarily pretty cool) results.

Antagonistic New Yorkers at a Lou Reed show
Take No Prisoners is the rare concert album that puts as much emphasis on the banter as it does the music, and for good reason. This is a perfect pairing of Lou Reed and a hometown New York City crowd circa 1978. Both are cranky, combative and ready to start swinging at a moment’s notice, but only one has quick wits and a microphone. The running narrative of the album reveals that Lou showed up late for the set, giving the crowd plenty of time to get drunk and resentful. New Yorkers, if you aren’t aware, don’t have a reputation for dealing with disappointment quietly.

There are too many incredible interactions for me to enumerate here, but a few highlights include Lou threatening to stop singing until everybody shuts up (the crowd calls his bluff), Lou demonstrating to a heckler how easily he can be drowned out with guitar feedback, and Lou pre-emptively quoting Yeats at the interlopers: “‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passion and intensity.’ Now you figure out where I am.”

The best part is that most of this isn’t between-song banter - Lou’s fighting the crowd right smack in the middle of his songs, and neither he nor his band ever misses a beat. Heck, the opening track alone, a splendidly greasy, eight-minute rendition of “Sweet Jane,” yields a tour's worth of memorable quotes:

  • “You ever put a quarter in those machines, man? Y’know, like the bear that plays basketball… I guess they never put a quarter in me, huh?”
  • “Where were you on the list when they called you for Vietnam?”
  • “We’re just here to make out. You bend over, we’ll put the head in. You don’t like it, then we’ll talk about it.”
  • “Fuck Radio Ethiopia, man, I’m Radio Brooklyn. I ain’t no snob, man.”
  • “If you write as good as you talk, nobody reads you.”
  • And of course, a vicious “SHUT UP, YOU!” wedged seamlessly into the “Villains always blink their eyes” segment.

Some of the annoyance is doubtless genuine, but at the same time Lou clearly relishes the back-and-forth and the songs crackle with nervous energy. Any which way, it makes for some compelling listening.

Stage-diving Nazi punk at an SNFU show
In 1991 venerable Canadian punks SNFU put out their purported farewell album Last of the Big Time Suspenders, a mix of rarities and live cuts that serves as a solid document of what turned out to be the band’s mid-life rather than its finale. Near the end of their atypically anthemic cover of Eddie Money’s outlaw ballad “Gimme Some Water,” lead singer Ken Chinn stops singing for a beat to point out “That asshole jumping off the stage is wearing a swastika on his t-shirt, obviously too young to understand the serious connotations of such a fuckin’ stupid thing.” There’s a brief pause while the audience begins to buzz, then Chinn launches right back into the chorus. The electricity of the moment is undeniable. You almost feel sorry for the dimwitted Nazi kid getting his ass handed to him so succinctly, but mostly you just want to cheer on Ken Chinn’s righteous indignation.

Unruly Englishmen at the Isle of Wight Festival
The infamous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival has long been a standard-bearer for badly behaved audiences. Reports vary on what exactly caused the crowd's discontent and on exactly how ugly the scene really was, but by most accounts a bunch of angry young Brits made life miserable for everyone assembled for good chunks of the festival. The crowd was especially hard on several acts who had the temerity not to rock. Joni Mitchell famously told the audience they were “acting like tourists” before breaking down in tears and leaving the stage.

Kris Kristofferson took a different tack, responding to the deafening boos with his trademark laconic acidity. Kristofferson sounds both exasperated and amused as he assures the crowd that nothing short of rifle fire will stay his musicians from making their appointed rounds. His band, playing what was only their fourth gig, then ambles into a particularly low-key rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” There aren’t many contexts where Kristofferson’s classic sketch of lost love and misspent youth could be taken as an act of passive-aggressive defiance, but that’s absolutely what it is here. Punctuated by the songwriter’s parting bird-flip to the crowd, it’s a perfect rebuttal to a bunch of ingrates.

Ironic loudmouths at Built to Spill shows
Built to Spill is the kind of band that tends to take a little time between songs, largely because they’re top-flight musicians who care about sounding their best on every number. Unfortunately, plenty of concert goers interpret pauses in the set as an invitation to yell out song requests, and anyone who’s been to a show in the past four decades knows that means someone’s gonna yell out “Freebird.” During their 2001 tour, the band opted to respond to that ubiquitous holler by going ahead and playing “Freebird.” And not just a tease or a sarcastic nod - the whole damn song, note for note. As a guy who unabashedly loves both Built to Spill and “Freebird,” getting to see that live stands as an all-time highlight of my concert-going career.

Devil Girl at a Rolling Stones show
I don’t know how close to the stage the young lady captured on the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! album could have been standing, but her voice comes through clearly enough that she almost seems to have a mic of her own. And what a voice it is: flat, toneless, devoid of passion yet somehow frighteningly insistent. “Paint it black,” she drones. “‘Paint it black. Paint it black, you devil. Paint it black.” 

Now, you might think she’s just requesting her favorite Rolling Stones song, but there’s a grim imperative in her delivery that convinces me that she’s actually demanding that the devil (which could be any of the Stones, but I presume to be Mick Jagger because c’mon) paint the intangible “it” black. The Stones pay her no mind, although they do break into a spectacularly inspired rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.” Her spooky doggedness is perfectly in keeping with what was simultaneously one of the band's darkest and brightest periods. (The performances captured on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out took place just weeks before the Stones' fateful Altamont concert.) The woman is never heard from again. I understand some fan journal tracked her down a while back, but I'd rather not learn the details of her real-life existence. As a mystery interloper on a classic performance, she’s one of my favorite people ever.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I wallow in trash: A manifesto for loving unlovable art

In 1984 Donovan released a studio album that included self-covers of his ‘60s classics “Sunshine Superman” and “Season of the Witch” updated with 1980s-style production. Reading that sentence, most people would have one of three reactions: “That’s interesting,” “Who cares?” or “Donovan sucks.” Of those responses, only the third is objectively incorrect. Considering that those re-recordings probably exist only because a weary Donovan realized that revisiting former glories was the most likely path toward getting anyone to care about a new Donovan album in 1984, a curious shrug is about all the response anyone could be expected to muster.
But me, when I stumbled upon the existence of these tracks, I couldn’t get them queued up in my Grooveshark (R.I.P.) playlist quickly enough. They're as bad as you'd expect, but this doesn't bother me one bit. This is my curse. When I learn about an absurd, ill-advised or quintessentially inessential piece of art, I simply can’t help myself. I need to incorporate it into my vocabulary. Zager & Evans followed up “In the Year 2525” with a song about a rapist crucifying himself in a jail cell? One of the guys from Jan & Dean recorded a pro-Vietnam answer track to “The Universal Soldier”? The Royal Guardsmen laid down a decades-late sequel to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” in which Charlie Brown and Snoopy hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden? Yes, I am going to listen to these songs. I am going to listen to these songs many times over.
It’s more than just curiosity for me. Knowing about songs like this inspires a peculiar drive in me. The same applies to bizarre film productions like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula or The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!  I’ll let any number of certified classics and new gems go unheard while I track down a recording of Jim Backus singing “Cave Man.” Given the choice between experiencing something perfect and beautiful and something flawed and inimitably weird, I’m siding with strangeness at least six times out of ten.
This might sound like ironic appreciation, the calling card of the dreaded hipster, but I think it’s something quite different. In my younger days, sure, I’d watch bad movies and buy novelty albums for the sole purpose of mockery, and I’m always going to love Mystery Science Theater 3000 above most things. But as I’ve grown older the irony has ebbed and I find myself appreciating these things in their own right. I’d say I love them for what they are, but that’s not quite it. I love them because they are. Knowing that these things are out there, that someone took the time to create them and shepherd them into existence despite their obvious lack of broad appeal, is a fascinating, inspiring thing to me.

And it isn’t only the weird stuff either. I just finished watching Treasure of Jamaica Reef (aka Terror in the Deep), a very cheap, very boring 1975 movie about a group of divers (including Cheryl Ladd and Chuck Woolery) trying to salvage a fortune from a sunken ship. It isn’t good. It isn’t “so bad it’s good” (a phrase I loathe). It doesn’t even have the same weirdo appeal as the aforementioned novelty songs and trash films. It’s just a movie that exists, badly made and eminently forgettable. There is no reason I should have watched it, and that’s exactly why I did. (If I might digress for a moment, I've had some debates about the term "trash." Some fans of this type of stuff feel that term devalues the art. I suppose it rather literally does, since trash is by definition material of little to no value. But I think it's appropriate, inasmuch as most of the public absolutely regards these songs and films as worthless. Also, a lot of the art that gets tossed under the "trash" umbrella was specifically designed to be disposable - quickie singles recorded by session musicians to cash in on a passing fad, no-budget genre films intended as background noise for teenage drive-in patrons, hasty projects knocked out to fulfill a contract or qualify for a tax break. I'm fine with using "trash." In fact, I consider it a badge of honor.)
I want there to be some evidence that movies like Treasure of Jamaica Reef are out there. I want art to be eternal, no matter how uninspired or poorly made. My Letterboxd account is a hall of low-budget obscurities ranging from the incompetent to the derivative to the inexplicable, most of which are unloved and unknown by the world at large. Obviously not many people want to watch these movies, or listen to late-period Donovan albums, or obsess about the musical careers of Dino, Desi and Billy. Honestly, most people shouldn’t. But I think it’s important that someone does, because these artifacts are a part of our artistic heritage too.
Are they as vital to our shared experience as their canonically classic contemporaries? Of course not. But we do ourselves a disservice if we leave the ugly and the unremarkable to molder in the grave. I feel my artistic life has been deeply enriched by the time I’ve spent in the company of these misfits. I can make a lucid argument for scabrous trash auteur Roberta Findlay being one of the most important female directors in American film history. I can sing every word of The Coasters’ On Broadway album, the novelty band’s unjustly ignored assay into straight-up Southern funk. I know who LeSesne Hilton and Bennie Robinson and William Metzo are, and why each of them deserves a place among the great cinematic villains of the 1970s. I also know that there are many, many worse movies than Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room or Birdemic or whatever the de facto “Worst Movie Ever Made” is at the moment. I’ve subjected my eyes and ears to a lot of irredeemable, uninteresting, soul-deadening dreck over the years, but I don’t regret a second of it. These things are out there and they need to be kept alive, even if only inside my cluttered brainpan.
All those classics of Western Literature can just slide to the back. We need that space for Shriek of the Mutilated.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lou Reed’s 25 greatest characters

Any songwriter who stays active for five decades is going to rack up quite a roster of unforgettable characters. Lou Reed’s cast of grotesques, ghouls and tragic heroines could fill out a stack of novels, but I tend to like them just fine as songs. In honor of what would have been Lou’s 73rd birthday, here’s a rundown of a few of my personal favorites.

25. Lulu (from Lulu, 2011)
Lulu’s had a rough go of it. She’s been neglected, prostituted, abused, idolized and left empty, and the image of her limbless torso on the Lulu album cover suggests there’s more indignity to come. She may be the archetypal Lou Reed heroine, as I think of it. Shame her album is sort of a chore to get through in one sitting.

24. George (from “My Friend George, 1984)
The title character of “My Friend George” is an unhinged gym-rat avenger who spouts incoherent philosophy and attacks people with a stick that he apparently believes to be a sword. Some songwriters would cast George as a tragic victim of mental illness, but in Louville he’s some manner of small-time superhero. I can dig that.

23. Theoretical Children (from “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” 1989)
You have to be careful assuming any artwork is autobiographical, but “Beginning of a Great Adventure” sure sounds like a tongue-in-cheek accounting of Lou’s real life self-debate about having kids. Lou muses on moving to the country and raising a home-schooled “little liberal army in the woods.” His 10-strong “TV brood” would be equally adept at playing guitar, planting bombs and shooting hunters in the nuts and be at Lou’s side when he’s “a wizened, toothless clod.” It sounds like our loss that he never let the baby thing go too far.

22. All of the Jim-Jims (from “Heroin,” 1967)
I don’t know who or what a Jim-Jim is, but according to “Heroin” New York was full of them in the late ‘60s and Lou’s contempt for them makes me believe they’re a thing to dread.

21. Sweaty Dude (from “Animal Language,” 1973)
This guy lives in Heaven or something like it, yet his job involves placing a board between a dead dog and cat to keep them from copulating. Tough gig. On the other hand, the sexually frustrated pets resign themselves to shooting up his sweat, so his body apparently secretes powerful narcotics. I can see that making a crappy day job a little easier to take.

20. Ed (from “Wild Child,” 1972)
“Walk on the Wild Side” is the most famous example, but affectionate lists of weirdos were a recurring theme in Lou’s songs dating back as far as 1967’s “Run Run Run.” “Wild Child” is maybe my favorite of those tracks, and the self-absorbed, cheese-loving Ed is my favorite of the song’s multiple grotesques. “I was talkin’ to Ed, who’d been reported dead by a mutual friend. He thought it was funny that I had no money to spend on him.” Ed’s a jerk.

19. Dude with a Stiletto (from “Kicks,” 1976)
“Kicks” runs neck-and-neck with “The Gun” and “Rock Minuet” as Lou’s darkest delvings into psychopathy. This one gets my nod for Lou’s unnerving use of second-person and chillingly casual delivery. This is a guy who lures his bar pick-ups to their violent ends for no greater purpose than staving off boredom, and the song’s laconic pace just makes the grimness all the more disturbing.

18. Mok (from “My Name is Mok,” 1983)
OK, Mok isn’t technically a Lou Reed character. He’s the villain of Rock & Rule, a bizarre animated fantasy film that plays like the work of Ralph Bakshi on his most timid day. For most of the movie he’s voiced by Don Francks (best known as the original voice of Dr. Klaw on Inspector Gadget) as a smooth but ruthless rock superstar/supervillain clearly modeled after Mick Jagger. But all that changes when Mok finally sings his big show-stopping number, voiced by Lou. Despite its 1983 timestamp, “My Name Is Mok” is pure ‘70s Lou Reed, a snotty, swaggering self-paean that paints the singer as a supremely confident epitome of cool who would just as soon crush you as look at you. Sounds like somebody else I know…

17. Pedro (from “Dirty Blvd,” 1989)
My problem with Pedro is my problem with “Dirty Blvd” overall: as strong as both creations are, they also come awfully close to being too on the nose. Not that there weren’t plenty of real-life impoverished Latino kids with abusive parents living 10-to-an-overpriced-room in New York City in 1989, but Lou lays it on so thick the song falls just short of tipping into caricature. But all is forgiven for that final verse about Pedro looking through a discarded book of magic tricks and hoping he can make himself fly away from his existence. With that finale Lou captures something primal and aching and it’s so tragically beautiful I just want to give poor Pedro a hug.

16. The Heroine (from “The Heroine,” 1982)
The Heroine’s story is already well in progress by the time we join it, and it seems to be going poorly. She’s standing alone on the deck of a sinking ship in the midst of a ferocious storm while a civil war rages amongst the crew. There may also be a baby locked in a box somewhere on board. Whether she can do anything to save anyone at this point is doubtful, but she can still “transcend all the men” and inspire some faith, however misplaced.

15. The Fat Blonde Actress (from “New Age,” 1970)
A casual ear might easily mistake the Fat Blonde Actress for the butt of the dark joke of “New Age,” when really she’s anything but. Both here and in the song’s semi-sequel “What Becomes a Legend Most,” she comes off far better than the smug fan who asks for an autograph as a preamble to bedding a faded star. Lou’s lyrics (and Doug Yule’s career-best vocal performance) imbue his leading lady with a dignity and presence that exceed her diminished standing on the Hollywood landscape. She may be “over the hill now and looking for love,” but she’s still more of a legend than her courtier will ever be.

14. The Man (from “I’m Waiting for the Man,” 1967)
A perpetually tardy dude in black strolling up the street in P.R. shoes and a big straw hat cuts quite a figure. The song is all about the waiting - and the waiter is a fascinating character in his own right - but when The Man himself is on the scene there’s no question where your eyes go.

13. Sally (from "Sally Can't Dance" and "Ride Sally Ride," 1974)
Sally’s about as punk as they come, a sexually omnivorous New York City libertine who ignores gender norms, dabbles in modeling and imbibes drugs and whiskey on the dance floor. The song arguably casts her as a heroine, but this being Lou Reed’s New York, society isn’t going to let anyone get away with living that freely. Over the course of the song she also gets raped in Tompkins Square Park, is stuffed in the trunk of a Ford and presumably dies of either an overdose or murder. It’s no mistake that the song that introduces her, the album-opening “Ride Sally Ride,” is a somber dirge about hanging out at a party and relishing having a heart of ice.

12. Dirt (from “Dirt,” 1978)
Sardonic vitriol is kind of Lou’s thing, and his venom never stung more sharply than on this ode to an anonymous poseur. It’s Lou Reed’s “Positively 4th Street,” minus the subtlety and wordplay, a spiteful celebration of the comeuppance of a scumbag “who’d eat shit and say it tasted good, if there was some money in it for ‘em.” The repeated invocations of the writ of Bobby Fuller suggest that this miscreant has run afoul of the law, but I doubt it’s the sort of infraction the police would bother with. The Law of Lou is a harsh one indeed.

11. Candy (from “Candy Says,” 1969)
Candy doesn’t have much to like in her life. She hates her body, quiet places and big decisions. The bluebirds pass her by and she worries that other people are talking about her discreetly. Yet somehow her song is possessed of a flickering, sickly hope that lends it an odd beauty and keeps it from spilling into despair. It’s an aching portrait of the quagmire of late ‘60s femininity and life as a trans woman that loses none of its power in a modern context.

10. Jackie (from “Walk on the Wild Side,” 1973)
I probably could have included every character from “Walk on the Wild Side,” what with their soul food and shaved legs and good head. But Jackie’s the one who’s always spoken to me the most, mainly because of that line about how she “thought she was James Dean for a day.” It’s a humanizing touch amidst Lou’s affectionate parade of Factory-made oddballs. Who among us hasn’t convinced ourselves we could be our romantic heroes, just for one day? But then I guess we have to crash...

9. Waldo Jeffers (from “The Gift,” 1968)
Lou Reed managed to create the definitive portrait of the Internet Nice Guy several decades before the internet was a thing. Waldo’s an insecure Pennsylvania college kid spending his summer break obsessing over imagined infidelities perpetrated by Marcia, his sort-of girlfriend in Wisconsin. He’s painted himself as a true romantic who has “intuitively grasped every nook and cranny of her psyche,” but really he’s a sniveling creep who regards Marcia as his inviolable property. Lou’s obvious disdain for his character makes it all the more satisfying when Waldo’s grand gesture goes as wrong as it possibly could.

8. Last Great American Whale (from “Last Great American Whale,” 1989)
This is a song about a superhero whale who fights racism and oppression along the American coast (and sometimes as far inland as Chinatown, if you can trust your mother). It doesn’t make a whole ton of sense but gosh, is it a comforting fantasy to have a stoic behemoth lurking out in the depths and looking out for the little guy.

7. Fucked-Up Middle Class College Student (from “I Wanna Be Black,” 1978)
Oy, this guy. You remember this guy from undergrad days, right? Got obsessed with another culture and claimed to empathize deeply with their beliefs, but only knew as much as television told him about their actual existence. This kid rattles off every “cool black dude” stereotype under the sun yet never sees that he’s most racist guy in the room.

6. Little Joey Diaz (from “Romeo Had Juliette,” 1989)
“Romeo Had Juliette” is Lou’s lyrical masterpiece, a little novella of meaningful gestures and perfectly chosen words. While the amorous Romeo Rodriguez and his slick black ponytail are the stars of the show, supporting player Little Joey Diaz is a marvel of economic characterization through dialogue. From his first line - “I bet you I could hit that light with my one good arm behind my back” - he’s instantly recognizable as that motormouth guy in your crew who drives you nuts with his yapping but is strangely endearing nonetheless. In the span of one verse he brags on his pitching prowess, downplays his disability, smokes some grass, engages in some light bigotry and celebrates the death of a cop. Little Joey packs more living into an evening of hanging on a street corner than most folks do in a month.

5. Lou (from “Doin’ the Things That We Want To” and “New Sensations,” 1984)
Again, conflating an artist with his work is always dicey, but there are quite a few songs in the Lou Reed canon that are pretty evidently autobiographical, from the recovering addict of “The Last Shot” to the domestic homebody of “My House” to the cautious optimist of “NYC Man.” His powers of self-observation were never stronger than on New Sensations’ double-shot of “Doin’ the Things That We Want To” and “New Sensations.”

The former finds Lou attending a production of Sam Shepard’s A Fool for Love and getting lost in a reverie of all the art that knocks him out, particularly the films of Martin Scorcese. The latter isn’t much more than a simple recounting of a day when Lou had a good time riding his motorcycle on country roads. Both are filled with such an infectious, exuberant delight in the  little joys of life that they make Lou Reed seem downright human. That’s no small feat.

4. Drella (from Songs for Drella, 1990)
I’ve never seen a movie biopic that captures the soul of an artist and his world nearly as elegantly as does Songs for Drella, and I’ve read precious few biographies that approach it either. Lou’s album-length collaboration with John Cale is a passionate, conflicted, scintillating portrait of Andy Warhol crafted by two artists who cared deeply about their former mentor. Whatever your feelings on Warhol as an artist or a media figure, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming away from Songs for Drella without a sense of loss and sympathy for the flawed, frightened, ferocious visionary portrayed in these songs.

3. Flophouse Guy (from “Street Hassle,” 1978)
This guy is a dick, but that’s sort of to be expected from a cat who’s presumably the proprietor of a New York shooting gallery. His amiably callous ramble on how to properly dispose of an overdosed house guest is the calcified heart of “Street Hassle,” a chilling stroll through a world where death and drugs intermingle easily with small talk and half-assed philosophy (“Some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own, so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why, they follow it. Y’know what it’s called? Bad luck.”) “Street Hassle” is arguably the single greatest piece of music Lou ever recorded and this guy is vital to its jaded brilliance.

2. Caroline (from Berlin, 1973)
To say Lou’s opus of despair Berlin is the story of a failing marriage would be putting it lightly. It’s an account of a marriage simultaneously imploding and exploding and threatening to destroy everyone within its orbit. While the he-said-she-said structure of the album’s narrative gives more or less equal time to her husband Jim, it’s Caroline who emerges as the heart of the story. She’s made her share of bad judgments, from serial infidelity to child endangerment, but Lou’s portrayal of Caroline is by far the more sympathetic. Like so many of his heroines, she’s an emotionally wounded woman butting up against a man’s world that refuses to let her live. By the time “Caroline Says II" rolls around we’ve heard Jim level a litany of charges against her, but her blank delivery of “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore” renders all of his complaints little more than petulant whining. Caroline won’t come to a good end, of course - she slits her wrists in her marital bed after Jim gets her children taken away by the authorities - and her tragedy is only compounded by her husband’s final smirk of “I am much happier this way.” Dark stuff even for Lou Reed, but damn if it doesn’t ring true.

1. Jenny (from “Rock & Roll,” 1970)
If you’ve never had an artistic revelation like Jenny dancing to that fine, fine music, that marvelous moment of clarity when a piece of art slapped you in the face and showed you a world beyond whatever doldrums you’d been mired in, then I just don’t know how to respond to you. Jenny’s life was saved by rock and roll. Mine was saved by “Rock & Roll.” Maybe yours was saved by a movie or a book or a photograph or a play or a sunrise. Whatever your particular salvation, I hope you know where Jenny is coming from. Jenny is everyperson.