Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hanging Downtown: The Replacements (Piano Van Cover)

Filmed at Von's Hollywood by Jeff Feuerzeig

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 3: Hanging Downtown (The Replacements)

I’ll start with an “accidental (quasi-) Limerick”—

The Westerbergian Sublime
Can be summed up in the line
“I suppose your guess
is more or less
Probably as bad as mine.”

There’s a Confidence-By-Default in that line from “Nevermind” (from Pleased To Meet Me). It’s basically the opposite of the “First Thought, Best Thought” dictum so beloved of the Beat Generation. You could even call it The VIA NEGATIVA. Starting from the basic “life sucks,” or “life is shit,” premise, there’s the realization that two negatives might make a third, worse, negative—but they could, maybe just maybe, become a positive. This Westerbergian Sublime (an anti-essentialist essentialism or essentialist anti-essentialism) is evident in so many of the classic mid-80s Replacements songs, but it’s also there even on their 1981 debut, Sorry Mom, I Forgot To Take Out The Trash. Like much punk, Paul puts himself into relationship with a voice of authority, but often the authority is a woman and is respected more than the mere male authorities---“Sorry, Ma” isn’t just a joke.

Take “Customer,” for instance. I’m shy. I’m terribly shy, but since I have to be “nothing but a customer” anyway, I certainly don’t want to be “Lost In The Supermarket.” (The Replacements hated when critics would compare them to The Clash, preferring, say, The Faces and Small Faces), and this cashier is kinda kute, I can at least be theatrical about my inability to make a genuine first move in a pick-up bar (especially, as long as got this sonic force of a rocking band that needs a vocal/verbal image face to complement Bob Stinson’s Lead-guitar face).

This studio recording provides a replacement to video culture (years before they finally broke down and created the seminal ‘nose thumbing,’ yet poignant, “Bastards Of Young” video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl9KQ1Mub6Q) by creating its own very theatrical verbal/musical “moving picture”

How about cigarettes?   CHORD CHORD CHORD
I'll take sugarless             CHORD CHORD CHORD
You sell Wombats?        I’m a Customer…..

The call and response between vocal and guitar-lead band could paint a picture of the singer on a rampage back and forth through the store to get these items, but that interpretation is a stretch (though no more than 95% of music videos). It’s probably more accurate to see the beloved cashier rushing around trying to find the Sugarless, The Cigarettes, and The Wombats. He’s not just asking her (though “What’s On Sale?” is delivered with a sexy-coy come-on wink), he’s ordering her around, making her grab all these different items (which he may not even buy!), pushing the envelope of the Customer role so he can feel, uh, Empowered! (I wonder if she ends up calling him “Chief” or “Boss,” well, save that for the answer song).

Nonetheless, in terms of sexual politics, in much of Westerberg, male is gendered consumer and female is gendered producer—which for many women, especially in the 80s, was very refreshing. Most men, even in the underground scene, were still clinging to macho-breadwinner postures without any substance to back them up; here was a male could admit women’s productive power (like a cross between feminism and the blues that understands the woman as “replacement” for G-d—or, more accurately, G-d as replacement for woman).

Still, it’s certainly not a very efficient way to seduce or shop (although the song is very efficient, a nugget, a gem). If there are people behind him in line, they must be getting pissed off (unless they’re too busy moshing). And this is where the hope that the strictly non-verbal aspects of the music can somehow compensate for the social transgression implied in the words, like Jonathan Richman taking his band to the Government Center to “make the secretaries feel better when they put the stamps on the letters” (what I call the Westerbergian Sublime is also very evident on The Modern Lovers’ first album, especially the “confidence-by-default” in the quasi-revenge fantasy of “I’m Straight).”

In “Customer,” Westerberg has it both ways: shy and cocky. It’s a scene more than a story, and there are lots of scene-songs on the first two (“melodic hardcore”) Replacement disks. “Goddamn Job,” is a scene. Or two frames in a short graphic novel with the phrases “I need a goddamn job” and “I need a goddamn girl” in word balloons. It’s even more minimal than “Customer,” but expressed with such urgent conviction that the listener may be convinced that these are the only two basic needs (and maybe they are, if not “bacon and cigarettes” or pictures on the fridge that are never filled with food)—in the consumerist America of the 80s. And then it hits me---well, at least he had a goddamn band!

In “Hanging Downtown,” things don’t get swell until 3AM. Westerberg’s timing is way off. So was mine (college all-nighters). Via Negativa? Another Variation on The Westerbergian Sublime: The singer doesn’t want to do anything, but doesn’t want to do nothing either. If nowhere is home, everywhere could be? Maybe just maybe! My needs tell me that. What the hell: let’s go downtown by default!

At least it’s semi-peopled with pimps and whores and liquor stores, some lonely loner stick figures out of a Beckett set-design by Giacometti. This may make Westerberg feel less lonely than he would in a crowd (unless it’s the ward where he’s the doctor, or front-man) There is a lot of nothing to see, and this “nothing” in the Westerberg sublime could come straight out of Alan Watts!

Despite the quasi-Ashberian heightened ambivalences of the Westerbergian sublime, he still does fall from it, like the boy on “The Ledge,” or at least into mere inversion: “one foot in the door/the other foot in the gutter/the sweet smell you adore/I think I’d rather smother”---is he talking to a goddamn job, like record label (as the cover image to Pleased To Meet Me suggests) or to a woman? It’s probably either at different times, but it changes the meaning of those words.

But crucial to Westerberg is the pain, the cry, in the voice even when he uses the most aggressive vox he can summon. And, yes, all these songs tell us as much about 1980s culture, and even for many “our 2013 culture,” as it does about Westerberg as person and persona. “Customer” was the 1980s, before many cashiers were replaced by machines, or just less cashiers were hired, which caused longer lines and thus more strained relations between workers and customers (as anyone familiar with 19th century social philosophy will understand, alienating the laborer—who is also a consumer—from him or herself)

“Hanging Downtown” feels as true in Downtown Oakland, San Francisco, Philly and the Skid Rowkio (Skid Row meets Little Tokyo) section of LA today (and probably The Twin Cities as well; the only possible exception in the USA is NYC) as it was in the 80s. BLEAK; oh and I forgot to mention the police presence (they’re in other early Westerberg songs); you probably got to be the 20 something kid Westerberg was then to navigate it—not that he really navigates it outside the studio. It’s a short moving picture. At least you get a two-minute song out of it.

The Piano Van version is 2:29, and performed at Von’s Hollywood around 9PM—about as much as a 40-something disabled guy can muster, but I needed to spread the word of The Westerbergian sublime…and appeal to Jeff Feuerzeig’s love of “lost classics” from the 80s, like Richard Hell’s “Time.” And Sorry, Ma is definitely more of an underrated lost classic than Let It Be and Tim are—and, besides, it’s true I, desperately…..need…..a goddamn…..job! (I mean woman!)

Here’s the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSIPdIw-DcY

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 7: “'I Am,' I Said" (Neil Diamond)

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 7: "'I Am,'' I Said" (Neil Diamond)

The Feuerzeig Video Covers Project. Part 7:“I Am,” I Said (Neil Diamond)

I.               A Brief Cultural History of Neil Diamond (for Ricki Lisi)

When people ask for LA song, Neil Diamond’s “’I Am,’ I Said” is a better choice than most. It’s a deeply personal song, but it’s also an emblematic lament, both for and of, a musical and cultural trend that happened around 1970. Specifically it’s a “1970 LA Song.” To put it in context, I’ll begin with an excerpt from the draft of my History Of Radio published on the Radio Survivor website.

The Dominance of the LP
Although the major record labels had needed to piggy-back, and be subjugated to the whims, of the more popular medium of radio for decades, by 1970 they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and could gain more control of A&R and markets than before, even if they had to temporarily align themselves with the underground FM-DJS, as well as TV and Hollywood to do so. One of the ways Hollywood recovered in the 1970s was by luring its enemy, the relatively independent network of regional labels to relocate to L.A. and (re)-centralize the industry. In LA, the major media conglomerates could defeat the independents through co-optation; Motown perhaps being the best case in point, but this was paradigmatic around 1970s.

As Hollywood made a comeback in the 1970s, the album grew. 1970 marks the first major shift toward re-centralization. By the early 1970s FM had adopted the AOR Format. Now there were more movies “about” music; bigger meant better. The industry’s move to LA cleaned up (or white washed) the music business. Radio was now more efficient and cost effective at no loss of quality (researches showed). Playlists prevented any messy payola scandals, just as Lake Erie was magically cleaned when the calendar changed to 1/1/1970. (http://radiosurvivor.com/2011/06/09/a-history-of-radio-and-content-part-iii-the-rise-of-fm-music-radio/ )

Neil Diamond’s career from roughly 1966 to 1971 is emblematic of this paradigm shift. Cutting his teeth during the heyday of the Brill Building, Neil achieved fame as one of the last great singles artists. Many of his first hits, from his trilogy of catchy Monkees’ songs to his string of smashes on Bang Records, had a signature sound (Black Gospel as performed at a Latin-tinged Bar Mitzvah, packed economically into a hook laden pop arrangement with heavily melodic verses and sing-along choruses)—but he also had beautiful crying ballads (“Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” and “Shiloh”). As his hit-songwriting grew from that basic groove foundation, he took it about as far as it could go with “Cracklin’ Rose.” And then the paradigm shift happened: “’I Am,’ I Said” straddles the old and the new as the singer tries to straddle two shores.

LA’s fine, the sun shines most the time
And the feeling’s laid back
Palm trees grow, the rents are low…

While a new crop of “California Sound” bands like The Eagles were having hits with “laid back” songs like “Take It Easy” (co-written with Jackson Browne), Neil Diamond moved to LA, but just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) quite do laid-back, much less “singer/songwriter,” though "Forever In Blue Jeans" would come close. The song teases us with a seemingly laid-back beginning, but it doesn’t take long for his nostalgia for the good old days of New York’s Brill Building’s competitive community to overtake him, as the song rises to its emotional climax:

Well I’m New York City born and raised,
but now days I’m lost between two shores
LA’s fine but it ain’t home;
New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.

Like Motown’s Hitsville USA House, The Brill Building was becoming a ghost-town; many of its exiles (whether famous like Neil or not) were moving to LA, in search of, if not the next big thing, at least a gig. He didn’t necessarily want to move to LA, but the music industry did. I can hear the compulsion—“I moved under duress” in his voice. Thus the solitary cry, the tree-falling-in-the-forest, of the chorus bespeaks not simply a personal isolation, but also a cultural phenomenon. Neil was no ‘singer songwriter,’ but he was still the ‘solitary man,’ and would survive the 70s as singular mega-platinum album artist. I’d argue that “’I Am,’ I Said” is his last great single.[1]

2. What The Song Has Meant To Me: 2003 & 2013

When I left NYC for a plum day-job in the SF Bay Area as Visiting Distinguish Poet In Residence that enabled me to take summers’ off and finally afford a rehearsal space to get a band going in 2003, “I Am, I Said” was the band’s crowd-pleasing cover; we often saved it for encores. We usually extended the final two chords into a long rave up; guitarist Pete Nochisaki and I would transform our little songwriting-based band into about as close to psych-noise groove as we got.

This cover had a kind of “campy cred” among for the “indie hipster” crowd, which we of course were “above” (ha!). A lot of this campy cred has a lot to do with one particular line, which most people I know single out as an example of bad songwriting:

And no one cared at all, not even the chair

But the more I listened to this line, the more it made sense. When singer-songwriter Phranc devoted an entire album to Neil Diamond covers in the late 1990s, she had a similar epiphany. Here’s a guy who has an intimate relationship with his chair! As one who cut his teeth in a Brill Building songwriting factory, Neil certainly would’ve appreciated Leiber and Stoller’s “If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair,” to say nothing of Willie Nelson’s first major hit as a songwriter when he worked in a Nashville songwriting factory, “Hello Walls,” with its poignant use of the pathetic fallacy (when he talks to the walls, and notices they’re crying and says, “don’t you try to tell me that it’s rain.”). But, for Neil, in his isolation, even the musical chair is  letting him down.

And then there’s the title, it almost sounds like Dr. Seuss, or, far worse, Rene Descartes! But it’s better than the logo-centric Cartesian Cogito (disembodied thought). After all, Neil doesn’t say “I am,” he sings, and even shouts, it. Campy-cred aside, I liked it because Neil also meant it, and could express my own conundrum, and loneliness.

In our live shows during this time (2003/04), I could emotionally relate to the lyrics to both verses of the song, with the only major difference being that I was in Oakland/San Francisco, not LA: In the Bay Area, palm trees are transplanted and the rents rivaled NYC for highest in the country, but that’s relatively incidental. More importantly I was definitely torn between the two coasts as this speaker is. I could also relate to the second verse:

Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of being a king
And then became one
Well, except for the names and a few other changes when you talk about me
The story’s the same one…

Sure, I didn’t think of myself as a “King,” certainly on the level that Neil Diamond could claim in 1971, with numerous gold records and, more importantly, catchy melodies that millions of people knew, but I had the enviable job, a band with a rising reputation in the “indie-rock” world—even though my friends, publishers and, most importantly, my girlfriend, were still in NYC.  I was definitely “lost between two shores” then; I thought I’d eventually acclimate to California, or find a way back east, but then I fell down and broke my “crown.”

As a result, I relate to the lyrics of the first verse much more than the second these days—especially when I found myself actually homeless in LA. In moments of despair, I can look back on my 2003 self and say, “get over it, mere loneliness isn’t that big of a deal; I got to deal with disability and homelessness now!” But the song can still have a kind of power, even if it offers no way out, and no way back to the life I lost when I left NYC. If I pretend or imagine that chair is Neil Diamond, it still may not care, but at least I could let Neil know that his art and the soul that comes through it at its best is loved by many younger poor people (as I read in  Newseek several years back, when I could afford dentists: Billy Joel, down; Neil Diamond, up!).

Here's the Piano Van version Jeff Feuerzeig recorded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR1xXGTt0Ig&

[1] Around the same time (1970), Mike Nesmith released a song called “Hollywood,”
In which he characterizes his years on the TV show that, probably more than anything, effected the transition of the industry from New York to LA, and the dissolution of The Brill Buildng:

It’s not the countryside that appealed to my heart,
It’s the spirit and it captured my mind
But the things I tried to be made a wreck out of me
Now a different road I must find.”

Nesmith had to get out of there, and like Doug Sahm return to his Texas roots, and even the Eagles, for all their laid-back California Songs in the early 70s, transformed into the dark coke-laden paranoia of Hotel California by 1976. Neil saw through the “California Ruse,” much earlier, and much deeper.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Better Than 90% of Poetry Readings

Al Filreis facilitates a discussion on two later poems by Wallace Stevens. To me, such a mode of teaching is more collaborative and even entertaining (as performance art) than the vast majority of literary readings. Next time I get to teach creative writing or literature, I hope it can get filmed. Equally importantly, if I am ever involved in a "group literary reading" again (in a non-musical context), I'd like to make it more like this. Choose only one or two works and talk about them. It makes me feel more engaged in a present.

"I Prefer To Let The Music Do The Talking,"

Piano Van arrives in LA on sweltering day in September 2012

Notes From A Lecture: 2001 (Caedmon V. Beowulf)

Behind The Hymn

The crime, a simple one, common as Caedmon's:
against community.  Venerable Bede
paints his story against a prelapsarian harmony,
a backdrop of high human community.
No one making fun of another's voice.
No mere tolerance either: "Everybody plays the fool sometimes
so rise and fall my friend
and sing to spite the voice you'd have if you wouldn't sing.
No need to wait, no need to stack the deck."
The pre-fall world not simply a man and a woman built from him,
but the gentle perspective edited out of Beowulf,
an alternative community of visionary tenderness
we find in the story behind the hymn.

But Caedmon couldn't take it, out of bashfulness
according to the officials, but there's reason to be skeptical.
He doesn’t appear to me as he appeared in Levertov,
the poor misfit cowherd not let in the exclusive club,
not so much the little drummer boy as the stone
that rejects but has to pretend it is rejected
to be the cornerstone.  Unlike Rudolph,
he was already invited to play in their reindeer games.
Thus he is harder to pity as he hides in his barn
disguised as the isle of misfit toys.

His is the first British rehearsal room.
One could see him plotting revenge, seeking fame.
Sure, his preference for "simple beasts"
over Beowulf-like epic poetry scene preening
is to be admired and even praised,
especially if the songs most of them spoke
were monster stories in which Grendel
always bore an uncanny resemblance to clumsy
illiterate anti-social cowherds (mama's boys to boot).
But there is no evidence in Bede to suggest
that the community from which Caedmon ran
was anywhere near as brutally macho as Hrothgar's meadhall,
and that bit about finding in the barn
the monotheistic god
so supported by those colonizing continentals,
sneaky, absolutely sneaky!      
And not even for a reason as noble
as the Africans in the American south
taking on the religion of their oppressors
or even Caliban learning to curse in the highest
state of the art Elizabethan English Prospero made available to him.

No, Caedmon answered imagined coldness with coldness,
had to see heaven (“Heofron”) as a roof ("hrofe”)
and not accept the sky, the open air.
Caedmon just needed his space, which I can respect,
but he couldn't even see the tame beasts for the angels
who battered his heart into song.
Heofron was no hrofe but that which protected Caedmon
from his own tendency to abstract angels from beasts.

In his creation song, the earth comes last.
I don't doubt his good measure as much as I doubt his honesty.
No "sudden angel" scared him back into the circle
as but one of a democratic community.
Instead, he went straight over their heads
and used St. Hilda and the good folks at Whitby Abbess
to club the prole art circle, like the Clash
siding with CBS against their mates who used to get in for free
(the nerve of Dylan going electric!),
But more profoundly, since Caedmon set the tone,
broke the ring, changed history, or was bent on it,
and history (as in tribute) now uses him to justify its existence.
The ring was never the same, is now "prehistoric."
Cry, citizens, cry!
For Caedmon was the first Madonna;
God his marketing device.
The first lipsyncher (poor Milli Vanilli).
He ate the apple and the apple was God
and eventually the circle of reindeer faces--
who only laughed and called him names in his own head--
got their revenge on him by making him a star.
They gladly robbed from themselves to do so.
Either there's a sucker born every minute
or he sang so well it didn't matter
that his words were not even as good as "Eleanor Rigby"
(which used to be anthologized as poetry
but which seems to lack the staying power of his hymn).

The music is best lost to us
practically forcing us to make our own,
and buy fourtracks and managers,
and leave the circle behind
even if we don't go so far as to go solo.
And Caedmon sang his songs everywhere--

As he was consistently voted
best singer of 672AD, 673 AD,
some began to resist. They too were "bashful"
or sick of the goody-goody Pete Seegers
and their whitebread songs of solidarity,
and found barns of their own, laboratories in dreams
in which to conjure God and appeal to a creation
that could only happen once, and in the past.
A whole new race had begun, their (secret) motto:

"I'm better than Caedmon because I'm just like him
Sure, he might have been the first singer
to call heaven a roof, god as the barn in drag,
but it was the fruit that caused the fall. Cry, citizens, cry!
Even then, Christianity was capitalism in disguise,
at least from the scant records we have.
Sad world of bare outlines,
of not enough distance between people
at least by contemporary standards."

Caedmon brought distance, found God in solitude
and brought it back to those who never needed it,
who already had it within, or made it like love
without having to masturbate.
But that time is gone now.
"What's he doing in that barn?"
were the last words that community ever uttered in unison.

I'll tell you what he's doing.
No, he's not wishing he were in Scotland fishing tonight.
No, he's out to prove y'all wrong, out to see evil in your peace.
Out to become everyman, get you down in the hole
that he was only in until he got you there.
This is the only democracy he feels he knows.
He'll even act as if he's giving you shelter
against harshness in see-through song.
But the song remains a thing too,
and as such another harshness.
uncomfortable in a circle unless it’s the only center.
He's solo-ing it in the barn when the caterpillar
becomes a butterfly even though it's been a moth, a leaf, all along.

"Get down on your knees and listen"
is one of those revenge fantasies.
I, too, got brass in pocket
for the desire to want to check
the fame game acceleration nozzle
is, in today's society, a denial of life and joy.
The only true murderer's a killjoy
and I wouldn't say Caedmon murdered
anything worthwhile by doing tricks for you,
if I felt his hymn brought me joy
as it presumably does to the medievalist
the academy makes more room for than for the lyricist.

And I would be more forgiving of him
if his songs were available on LP and Cassette
as I would probably be a bigger fan of Duncan's
had I gotten to partake in one of his intense conversations
now lost, when only the writing remains

I'd be more forgiving, too, if Bede could be proved wrong,
if the high human community he painted
was really more like that to be found
in the roughly contemporaneous Beowulf (658-680AD)
that certainly would ostracize a mere lyricist
as a mama's boy, lacking epic ambitions
and there is nothing to disprove this in Bede's account.

So hail Caedmon, and the necessary barn.
Hail the angel or beast that tells us
that competition is not necessarily capitalism,
there's no expression but artistic expression.
Hail the middlemen brought in to keep us from getting too close.
They don't have to be used as psychologists
you go to to complain about the stress of the job
you have to take to be able to afford them,
nor marriage counselors
that prevent some from making love
ever since Caedmon could not prove a lover
and was determined to play professional
or at least use heaven as a middleman to get to earth.

(first published in Combo, 2001; Scratch Vocals, 2002)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Break Up Make Up (lyrics)

I got a real nice email today asking me to post the lyrics of my song "Break Up Make Up." I'm so tempted to post the email, but I'll just post the lyrics:

 Break Up Make Up

You read somewhere that people need at least 4 hugs a day
So I guess we owe each other 68
I know it’s bad to just want touch
But maybe we both want too much
Like good is wrong if it’s not always great
Some friends tell me a drama queen ain’t worth it
But come to think of it we’re all drama men
And the mountains we are climbing might be molehills
If we break up just to make up once again

I told myself Chris keep it in, I’ll cheapen love if I begin
To try to put in words its mystery
But you called me back I’m giddy now though later it might seem a brag
That’s too naïve to space out tragedy
Methinks the deepest dramas need their comics
Coz angels fear to tread where fools rush in
And there’s more to life than happy or sad endings
That play break up just to make up once again

I can’t say what happens next I hope it ain’t the kind of sex
That leaves us colder than no sex at all
You still feel broken up, and maybe I have woken up
 Too late to take you to Viagra Falls
 Neitzsche wrote of eternal recurrence
 But he couldn’t make it in the den
 And you might drop your clothes like they’re your standards
 If we break up just to make up once again

 You were all the world to me and maybe soon again you’ll  be
 But you need some time alone or we’ll explode
 And I need some kind of ritual that isn’t pharmaceutical
 To find out what I owe and am not owed
 Ain’t gonna cling and claw in this suspension
 And ask Was I too GI Joe or Ken?
 I’ll hang up now and wait for you tell me
 If we hit another bump or a dead end 
That wore make up just to break up once again?