Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin, Henry Holt, 2016
First the bad news.
In the late 1980s when I was a DJ on college radio, I heard a rumour from a musician who came by for an interview. He said that he’d heard about a legendary singer from the sixties who had sought the services of an up and coming LA band. He had asked them to back him on a song for his forthcoming album. The legend’s stock was not particularly high at the time and they were happy to lend their current street cred to his record. He arrived and immediately began ordering them around and complaining after each take. It was clear that he didn’t have anything written but was hoping that a song might come out of a jam session. Eventually, the band played a song that they had been working on. They hadn’t recorded any demos but it had a name. The legend was interested in the song but the band had decided that it would be on their next album. The sessions didn’t produce anything further and eventually he left, seemingly unhappy with the results. They hadn’t been that impressed with him either and forgot all about it. Then his album appeared. It was a massive seller. They noticed that their song was on it. He had used the recordings they’d made that day and hadn’t even changed the title. The words and music were credited to him alone. They phoned him up and his response was: “Sue me, see what happens.”
It should have been obvious to me but there was no internet in those days and just about every legendary sixties artist was staging some kind of a comeback that year. I remember hoping that it wasn’t John Fogerty! It wasn’t. It was Paul Simon and the band was Los Lobos. The song was All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints from his Graceland LP.
Question: Who would rip off Los Lobos?
Answer: The same guy who has been pulling similar stunts since, wait for it, the late 50s.
So, it turns out that Paul Simon isn’t a great guy. Peter Ames Carlin has set himself a difficult task in Homeward Bound. His last book was an excellent biography of Bruce Springsteen, a much easier subject I suspect. Paul is a complicated, not to mention litigious, guy, which might explain why this is the first major biography of a superstar who has been recording for decades.
Incidentally, I am a fan. A big one. My initial Simon and Garfunkel freak out may have even come before my first Beatles thing. Do teenagers still go through these phases? I have owned all their albums on all of the successive formats along with bootlegs, DVDs, and so on. I only say this to make it clear that I’m not using the review to trash the man. His music has meant an enormous amount to me as it has to millions of others.
Homeward Bound therefore, is not easy reading. Within 80 pages we learn that before he had even left high school, Paul had sued his first record company and made a solo deal behind the back of his best friend, Arthur Garfunkel. As Tom and Jerry, they had scored a regional hit with a song called Hey Schoolgirl. When a follow up failed to chart, Jerry, aka Paul, went solo without mentioning it. Artie, who really must be a saint, took it all in his stride. Five years later they were back together for the folky Wednesday Morning, 3AM album. It was a flop and Artie was once again sidelined while Paul went to England. When producer Tom Wilson put some folk rock spice in the mix of Sounds of Silence and released it, Paul found success, but again with Artie. And that was an issue. Art’s voice is thing of beauty and Paul’s isn’t. He had broken up the band and had no desire to play music with his old friend. The problem was that they sounded so good together.
It didn’t last long. Around 1970, Art’s involvement in the Catch 22 film proved too much for Simon’s fragile ego. He went solo, sank into depression when his first album only sold 2 million copies, and finally phoned up Artie to appear with him on the second ever episode of Saturday Night Live. “So, you came crawling back?” he said. The reunion lasted for one glorious song, My Little Town.
Carlin works hard to tell Paul Simon’s story without turning him into the villain of the piece. I’ve never read a music biography like this one. I felt like I was reading Great Expectations as rendered by Philip Roth. Or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as reimagined by Brett Easton Ellis.
It’s not really what you want in a book about a musician you admire, is it? If you are a fan, you’ve probably clicked away from this review and have no intention of going near this book. But wait! There is good news too.
If not exactly a hagiography (ahem), Carlin’s book is an excellent source of information about Paul Simon’s recording career. He explains, in detail, the early years when Paul recorded as Jerry Landis, Paul Kane, and True Taylor. Similarly, he explores Simon and Garfunkel’s first recordings and Paul’s long lost ‘Songbook’ album which he recorded in England. He goes through each of the Simon and Garfunkel records, song by song, commenting on the arrangements, the lyrics, and the performances. I went back and listened to all of them while I was reading. Until someone writes a Revolution in the Head type book about the duo, this will do just fine. He then applies the same microscope to the albums of Paul’s post Garfunkel career.
Many Simon and Garfunkel fans have only a passing acquaintance with Paul’s solo albums. I’m one of them. But this book got me listening to them, some for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised! There are gems on all of them. He didn’t forget how to write great songs after Artie left though one can’t help imagining what they would have sounded like with his curly headed pal in the mix. For a tantalising taste of what might have been, listen to the two of them singing Paul’s American Tune on the 1982 Concert in Central Park LP. Magic.
On the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, Simon had used tracks by an Andean folk band called Los Incas to create El Condor Pasa. On his first solo album, he worked with a group of Jamaican musicians from Jimmy Cliff’s band to develop Mother and Child Reunion. He eve went to American Studios in Muscle Shoals to draw on The Swampers for a few of the songs on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. In all cases, he recorded the sessions and then returned to New York or LA and overdubbed himself on vocals to finish the song. He is far from the only musician to work this way but his unwillingness to give credit where it was due is exceptional.
I suppose this is the crux of the story. Paul Simon is a gifted songwriter with a wonderful musical imagination. But to what extent has he, on occasion, exploited the generosity of his colleagues and collaborators? Carlin isn’t putting him on trial in this book but a pattern does emerge. I had no idea that he wrote Red Rubber Ball with Bruce Woodley of The Seekers. And neither did anyone else because Paul took Woodley’s name off the writing credit. He did the same thing with Woodley’s contribution to the Simon and Garfunkel song, Cloudy. Of course, Bruce Woodley went on to write the eternally annoying ‘I am Australian’ so perhaps he got what he deserved. But then there is Martin Carthy’s arrangement of Scarborough Fair. The story is well known though, as Carlin shows, Simon did try to make amends.
And that brings us to Graceland. This is where the book really takes flight. What a story! Graceland was an album that I loathed with an almost exquisite fervour when it appeared in 1986. It sounded like BMW coke music, the kind of thing Gordon Gecko would have in his car. Man, the 80s were awful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently, kids. Simon predictably ran into trouble when he went to South Africa and recorded with a group of mbaqanga musicians that he first heard on a cassette that he forgot to give back to Heidi Berg. Before he even got around to his usual shenanigans with writing credits, he was in trouble with the ANC and found himself on a UN blacklist of musicians who had broken the embargo against working in South Africa.
Carlin explains what happened in great detail and Paul Simon comes off looking pretty good. He understood the ban but assumed that it was all about performing, rather than recording. He did refuse to apologize, which didn’t help matters. The ANC, noble institution that it was, turns out to have been very unreasonable when it came to musicians. Johnny Clegg, no less, had great difficulty with them over a tour of England. And if the founder of Juluka had trouble negotiating with the ANC then what chance did a man of Paul’s temperament have? He had the support of many prominent anti apartheid activists including Miriam Makeba and Hugh Maskela who toured with him. There is a theory that the popularity of Graceland played some role in the close of the Apartheid era. A documentary called Under African Skies is worth watching if you are curious. One person not impressed was Miami Steve Van Zandt who tried to redress what he considered Paul’s transgressions with his ensemble piece, Sun City. They met just once and Paul told Steve that his friend Henry Kissinger had told him that the ANC were Soviet backed communists. Miami Steve said, “Fuck you and your friend.” Steve did manage to get Paul Simon removed from an AZAPO assassination list but that’s another story.
Ezra Pound once said, ‘I am old enough to make friends’. He was talking about Walt Whitman, I’m talking about Graceland. I listened to it again a few days ago, prepared to sit on my hands if I felt like breaking something. Funny thing is, it’s a great album. What sounded overproduced in 1986 now sounds like depth. It’s a BIG record with all kinds of elements. I know I won’t convince everyone but it is a kind of masterpiece, the vision of a great artist realised in full. The African songs are wonderful but there is also a great track with Rockin Dopsie, the Zydeco artist. Sure, he forgot that they were playing an old song of Dopsie’s when it came to the credits but still…
It’s clear that Peter Ames Carlin and his publishers had no desire to mess with Paul Simon. There are some gaps here and there where the legal department might have felt that discretion was the better part of valour. His personal life is outlined but not many of his friends, wives, or lovers were, it seems, willing to go on the record. Paul Simon certainly didn’t cooperate and neither did Art Garfunkel. The strength of the book is Carlin’s ability to arrange almost 60 years of interviews and press material into a compelling narrative. He is also, as I have said, damn good on the man’s music. He writes with enviable precision about Paul’s various musical passions including batucada, West African rhythms, doo wop, rockabilly, folk, and so on.
Behind the story is one question: What the hell is Paul Simon’s problem?
He’s a talented musician who has, for more than half a century, continued to produce critically acclaimed and highly commercial music. Who else can say that? Bob Dylan? Neil Young? David Bowie? Leonard Cohen? That’s heady company. So why is he so cranky? Paul Simon isn’t an evil man but he would appear to be a very difficult one, not to mention one who is strangely uninterested in any kind of artistic integrity when it comes to working with other musicians. So what does Carlin conclude? There seems to be two main possibilities:
- He is short, about 5′ 2″. I know this is ridiculous but when he was 12, despite being a talented baseball player, he was relegated to a league for short kids. It comes up a lot in the book. Artie’s height seemed to bother him. Watch the clip of their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Art, twisting the knife, says, “It’s mike height, that’s what split up this group.” Ouch. Mind you, I’m not making light of this situation. I understand that it can be a real sore point but then again there are a lot of six footers around who haven’t written Bridge over Troubled Water. Plus, he is hardly the only diminutive rock and roll star.
- His father was disappointed in him. Yes, the standard Freudian problem. Louis Simon was a jazz musician who never really got there and continued to belittle Paul even after his extraordinary success in the sixties. He thought Paul should have been a teacher. Better hours but…
If you have any interest in Paul Simon, you should probably take a deep breath and read Homeward Bound. I heard the other day that Art Garfunkel has written his memoirs. I might read them but then again I might just put on Bookends and imagine that Old Friends isn’t supposed to be ironic.
Teasers: His tangled up and true relationship with Bob Dylan. His role in the early years of Saturday Night Live. The whole Carrie Fisher thing. The story of Kathy Chitty who figures in several of his songs. The identity of Tom in The Only Living Boy in NYC. (Okay, it’s Artie!)
Raggedy folk glory from ’66:
A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom, Thomas Dunne, 2016
In his memoir A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel, Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer in the Stray Cats, makes the following observation: “There were quite a few rock guys in our school and neighboring town who could play faster and harder than I could. None of them had any fashion sense…”
Black slacks. Blue suede shoes. Put your cat clothes on. Flat top cats and dungaree dolls. Clothes are a big deal in the music Slim Jim plays.
Rockabilly is perhaps the most enduring of all rock and roll subcultures. Its origins are murky and earlier than generally thought. The name, a portmanteau of rock and hillbilly, suggests something that might sound like Workingman’s Dead or The Gilded Palace of Sin. Of course rockabilly sounds nothing like either of those records.
I’m happy to argue (you buy the drinks – I’ll talk) but I think rockabilly began in 1927 with Jimmie Rodgers. His first Blue Yodel, better known as T for Texas, has crept into the repertoire of many a rockabilly band for good reason. It has all the basic elements. It’s an up-tempo blues sung like a country song. A number of Rodgers’ subsequent hits have the same quality. But the key moment for rockabilly and American music in general might be the day in 1930 when he sat down with Louis Armstrong and recorded Blue Yodel Number 9. Number 9. Number 9…
Louis Armstrong’s records with the Hot Five and Hot Seven are as eclectic as they are brilliant. Yes, he is laying the foundations of jazz but that foundation also supports swing, jump blues, and rock and roll. The fact that he and Jimmie Rodgers could hear the symbiosis in their work is significant because the next important chapter in the rockabilly story belongs to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Western Swing as played in the 1930s by Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, The Light Crust Doughboys, and Milton Brown represents a rich period in American music. It’s swing played on strings. The cowboy hats and corny lyrics are deceptive because this is jazz. And it is why rockabilly doesn’t sound like New Riders of the Purple Sage. There is a jazz sensibility in early rock and roll that stretches back to Lindy Hoppers of 1930s and Cab Calloway at his most frantic. When Sam Philips made his questionable assertion that he could make a million dollars if only he could find a white man who sang like a black man, he might have had someone like Nat King Cole in mind. Elvis – and perhaps more importantly, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were channeling something else that day at Sun Studios. They were playing blues but they were playing it the way jazz artists play it. They were swinging it around, slowing it down, speeding it up. Listen carefully to the ‘Sun Sessions’ and you can hear the whole history of American music. In rock journalese, Louis Jordan meets Hank Williams, Lionel Hampton jams with Gene Autry with T-Bone Walker on guitar. Or something like that.
Rockabilly never went away either. Very few people heard it outside of the south in the first place but, as someone once said of the Velvet Underground, everyone who did formed a band. A slight exaggeration perhaps – but certainly all of The Beatles held this genre in high regard. They covered a lot of rockabilly songs. Watch the Let It Be film. When the going got tough, the tough jammed on Carl Perkins’ numbers.
But they weren’t alone. As Slim Jim Phantom notes in his memoir, Blind Faith covered one of Buddy Holly’s most smoking tunes in Well Alright and The Who did Summertime Blues. CCR, the biggest selling band of the late sixties, were a rockabilly band, no more and no less. Their blues excursions aren’t a patch on their rockabilly moments. Jimmy Page is a better at rockabilly than blues and so is Keith Richards. They might talk about Buddy Guy but their best moments say Cliff Gallop, in Page’s case, and Chuck Berry in Richards’. Head Stray Cat Brian Setzer said that when he first met Keith, the guitarist picked up an old Gretsch and played a letter perfect version of Elvis’ Baby Let’s Play House. Setzer later became one of Robert Plant’s many Page stand-ins in The Honeydrippers. Many of the great guitarists of the 60s and 70s started out playing this kind of music. Robbie Robertson, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Alvin Lee, and Jeff Beck all began as twangy sidemen. Even Robert Fripp started out playing in a band called The Ravens. Robert Fripp! I’ve always maintained that Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is essentially a rockabilly record and he seems to drift back to the genre regularly. Listen to Dirt Road Blues on Time Out of Mind.
Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin. Rockabilly is the secret hero of Rock and Roll’s many stanza’d Howl.
Which brings me to The Stray Cats, a band featuring vocalist and twangmaster Brian Setzer and ably rhythm sectioned by his Long Island high school chums Lee Rocker and our author, Slim Jim Phantom.
Slim Jim (real name James McConnell), Lee Rocker (Drucker) and Brian Setzer came together as teenagers with a mutual interest in rockabilly. They were all playing in other bands. The side project, as so often happens, began to attract attention and the other bands disappeared. It’s Slim Jim’s book but Brian Setzer was part of a late 70s New York new wave band called The Bloodless Pharaohs. You can probably download a box set and footage of every show they ever did now but in the 80s I found one of their songs on a compilation album and did a victory lap around a record store. They’re not mentioned in this book. Slim Jim, it must be said, has a big heart but little interest in that sort of detail.
Slim Jim’s implied and occasionally stated assertion that The Stray Cats single handedly revived rockabilly doesn’t hold up. It wasn’t part of the music mainstream in America in 1980 but it wasn’t a non-entity either. Slim Jim and the boys might have got something happening in Long Island but The Blasters were weathering gigs with Black Flag in California in the late 70s. A ferry ride away in NYC, Robert Gordon had already recorded two absolutely stellar rockabilly revival records by the time Slim Jim bought his first jar of Royal Crown.
Over in England, rockabilly was alive and well. The Shakin’ Pyramids’ sizzling debut, Skin ‘Em Up, appeared a year before The Stray Cats’ first English record. You can laugh about Shakin’ Stevens but there is some great rockabilly on his first couple of albums. Matchbox is not much remembered these days but they released their first album in 1976 and scored a big hit with the classic Rockabilly Rebel in 1979. The Stray Cats are easily the most successful revival band but they are only part of the story. Slim Jim doesn’t mention it but the whole reason they left the cozy club scene of Long Island for London was to join a movement already in play.
But this isn’t to slight Slim Jim or his book. The Stray Cats were the real deal and, to be honest, better musicians than most of the English revival guys. The competition was a bit stiffer in the States. While they never enjoyed anywhere near the success, The Blasters and The Paladins were hard to top.
But back to Slim Jim. He is probably best on the early years. The memoir hops around a bit but the basic story of their move to England and the space they found within the immediate post punk scene is of great interest. Rockabilly always seemed to be just below the surface in early English punk. Malcolm McLaren had run a shop for Teddy Boys called Let It Rock on the King’s Road before changing the name to Sex and, well, you know the rest. The Sex Pistols recorded a couple of Eddie Cochran songs. The Clash looked like a rockabilly band for a while. Billy Idol sang about a club blasting out ‘maximum rockabilly’ in Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly. Tom Petty noted that “rockabilly music was in the air” in King’s Road on the Hard Promises album. The Stray Cats arrived in a city ready for their look and their sound. They somehow skirted the slightly moldy atmosphere of, say, The Polecats, and became a band most people could agree on.
Remarkably, ‘most people’ included not one but all of The Rolling Stones. In 1980, Keith and Mick could hardly bear to be on stage together but they turned up with the rest of the band one night to see The Stray Cats open a show in a crummy London pub. The idea was that they would sign with Rolling Stone Records and that Mick and Keith would produce their first album together. Like that was ever going to happen! It didn’t but they did do a series of dates opening for the old boys in America. Bill Wyman was still in the band then and he was, and is, a rockabilly fanatic. Remember the Willie and Poorboys album? A little overproduced but full of heart. Slim Jim played on the b side of a single apparently.
The Stray Cats ended up on Arista Records in the capable hands of Dave Edmunds who produced all of their best work. Edmunds is a rockabilly legend who scored a hit in the late 60s as part of Love Sculpture with an instrumental called Sabre Dance. He then went solo in 1972 with a stunning rockabilly album called Rockpile, not to be confused with the band he later formed with Nick Lowe. There was no one better qualified to produce The Stray Cats and the album was a great success in England. Songs like Runaway Boys and Rumble In Brighton became big hits there but the band were still virtually unknown in America.
Luckily, MTV had just appeared and, come the moment, come the band. The Stray Cats looked cool. All of them, all the time. The clothes were vaguely 50s style with some Ted additions and a punk overlay that made them look somehow contemporary. MTV was perfect for them. TV in general worked pretty well for the Stray Cats and an early appearance on a now forgotten show called Fridays made them stars in the States.
There was a lot going on in the early 80s. The music industry was enjoying the last few years of prosperity before everything went shit-shaped in the late 90s. There was a lot of money and, it would seem from Slim Jim’s account, a lot of cocaine. The period has a more or less deserved reputation for excess and overproduction but the sheer size of the industry had some benefits. There was room for a band like The Stray Cats in among Madonna, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the other superstars of the period.
Their moment, however, was brief and no sooner is Slim Jim married to Britt Eckland and walking his dogs in Hollywood than the band is making its last album. Interesting stuff but the timeline in this book is very difficult to follow. Slim Jim will note that he has been sober for five years on one page and then be found having a bump of coke with Lemmy on the next. Either Slim Jim simply told the stories as they come to him or the book was ghost written by Peter Hoeg. Probably the former.
His post Stray Cats life has been slightly less exalted but no less busy. He appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Bird, remembering his co star Forest Whittaker as ‘the guy in Fast Times’. Yeah, I’d forgotten he was in that too. He also tells a hilarious story of an incident that took place while he was filming one of his two scenes. I won’t spoil it but it involves a very angry Clint Eastwood.
He opened a bar and music venue called The Cat in Hollywood, toured and recorded with a dizzying number of other bands, got back together with The Stray Cats, broke up with them again. He was here in Melbourne last Thursday. Slim Jim still gets around.
What does one say about a memoir like this one? It’s a bit of mess in terms of chronology and anyone looking for a detailed account of The Stray Cats’ career will want to look elsewhere. In fact, there’s not much about The Stray Cats at all. I would have been very curious to hear about the recording of those early albums and what it was like to work with Dave Edmunds. Perhaps Brian Setzer will cover that if he ever writes a book. There is a bit about their sound but never enough to really satisfy. Just when you think he is about to double down on the band that made him famous, he’s back in a club with Michael J Fox or someone.
But this is not a book without merit. For one thing, Peter Hoeg notwithstanding, I am convinced that he wrote it. That might sound silly – his name is on the cover – but, as I have said before, I doubt that a lot of these rock and roll memoirs are written (or even read) by their subjects. I could name three very recent and notable examples but I’ll be kind. For now! This is most definitely Slim Jim Phantom and if you fancy an evening with a guy who has had a remarkable life that has brought him into contact with the cream of rock and roll, blues, and beyond, this book is worth reading. It is also frequently funny as hell. Michael Jackson appears out of nowhere with Elizabeth Taylor in tow and whispers to Slim Jim, ‘I really like that song about the cat.’ Our hero ends up in the dark with Jerry Lee Lewis and a groupie. Keith Richards throws everyone out of his dressing room while Slim Jim is in the toilet. The drummer has to come out and face the enraged Stone who sits him down and feeds him narcotics. Clothes are a big number in this book if male rock and roll style is your thing. Slim Jim always tells us what people were wearing and details the evolution of his own look. Much is made, for example, of a polka dot scarf that he receives from Keith Richards in a trade. Without giving too much away, Britt is annoyed because Slim Jim ends up with a tatty cotton affair while Keith gets a silk one from her collection.
So Slim Jim Phantom leaves us with a memoir that won’t trouble the Pulitzer folks but might improve your spirits on a long flight or a rainy day at home. You might even find yourself hauling Rant n’ Rave out of an old crate for another spin. Meanwhile another rockabilly revival is either imminent or underway. In the immortal words of Joe Clay, ‘don’t mess with my ducktail.’
Teasers: Slim Jim’s Rules of Rock and Roll are a highlight. Number Four is: “Always wear something around your waist that has nothing to do with holding your pants up.” Noted!
This TV appearance launched them in America. Still gives me chills:
Dave Edmunds and The Stray Cats:
Jimmie and Satchmo:
These Are The Days: Stories and Songs by Mick Thomas, Melbourne Books, 2017
I’m sure Mick Thomas gets tired of hearing this statement:
‘Weddings Parties Anything changed my life!’
But I might be able to impress him with my story.
“No really, Mick!”
In 1990, I was living in Toronto and had no interest in Australia. I knew that Sydney had the Opera House and Melbourne was the other city. That was about it. Less than four years later, I was living in Carlton, barracking for the Saints, and knocking back pots of VB at Young and Jackson. What happened?
Weddings Parties Anything happened.
My cousin Tim invited me to see them one night at a venue called The Siboney Club in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He promised me that they were like the ‘Australian Pogues’. It wasn’t easy to summon that up but I went along. I remember a furious version of Knockbacks in Halifax and the religious experience that resulted. If you’ve seen enough live shows, you’ve had this happen. Something snaps and you become a fan. A really big fan.
I moved to Japan soon after with a 90 minute cassette of their music. Melbourne had begun to loom large in my imagination. Songs like Under The Clocks, Roaring Days, and Brunswick were calling me in a southerly direction. I took a short vacation there in 1992 and walked up Johnson Street singing Manana, Manana. Back in Japan, I played my 90 minute cassette for a woman from Melbourne. We got married and moved to Carlton.
I’ve spent nearly a quarter of a century in Mick Thomas’s city. Weddings Parties Anything ceased trading about 15 years ago but Mick has continued to build on his repertoire as a solo artist. If you stopped at WPA, you’re missing some of his finest moments. Melbourne still figures in his songs and I still see the city through his eyes. That said, my life has begun to drift towards the northern beaches of Sydney of late but the 90 minute cassette will come with me when I finally head up the Hume for good.
Mick Thomas’s book, These Are The Days: Stories and Songs is beautifully presented with sharp photos and reprints of tour flyers and posters. If you leave this book on your coffee table, your guests will pick it up and start reading. They’ll be happy and you won’t have to entertain them. Win win! The photos frame the chapters, each of which is based around a particular song from either WPA or his solo years.
He begins with The Lonely Goth, one of many standout tracks on the Dust on my Shoes album, his first without the band. The song is the kind of story that Mick tells so well. A Goth kid in a small town hangs around the war memorial, shocks his grandmother in the chemist by buying black nail polish, and corresponds with a Goth girl from a nearby town he met at a Marilyn Manson show. If Mick wrote crime novels, he’d be Elmore Leonard. His characters breathe. The listener can not only picture them but can hear them. Recently, I read Jock Serong’s brilliant new novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. I kept thinking of Mick Thomas’s mastery of voice. Then I noticed that Serong is thanked at the back of the book. I pictured the two of them sitting together in the Mona Castle Pub in Seddon, not talking but just listening.
I was particularly struck by the chapter on Sisters of Mercy. This song from Weddings Parties Anything’s Roaring Days album was written in response to a nurses’ strike in the 1980s. In 2012 he was invited to play it for a large group of nurses at a strike meeting in the Melbourne Convention Centre. This chapter might have been a straightforward story about the song and how things never change. But it wasn’t. Instead, Thomas talks about a critique he’d copped in another setting for overdoing the emotional dimension of a song about asbestos poisoning. He was accused of emphasising the victimhood of the sufferers instead of celebrating their fighting spirit. The charge seemed terribly unfair and few singers would have the courage to revisit such a hardline dressing down. Mick then finds himself playing Sisters of Mercy for the striking nurses and choking back tears so as to avoid a repeat of the asbestos song episode. He manages it but only just. My own eyes grew a bit misty reading this chapter. The idea of a singer at a strike meeting in these cynical times is itself moving!
I was going to say that Weddings Parties Anything is the biggest Australian band to have missed out on the big time but that’s a pretty competitive field. They are a cult band but it’s a big cult. For a different sort of musician, this sense of ‘there but not there’ would be unbearable. The story of their song Monday’s Experts is a case in point. Many years ago now, a sports commentary television show called Talking Footy used the song. For most bands this would have been a lucky break and for Mick it should have been some extra cash in his pocket. But the TV station squirmed around on paying royalties, claiming it wasn’t the show’s ‘theme’ so the rules didn’t apply. I used to watch it occasionally. It was the theme. When Mick asked politely if they might be willing to pay for it, they immediately replaced his song with a similar and wholly inferior one. Don’t be a musician, kids!
Fortunately, Mick isn’t a bitter man or least he doesn’t sound like one here. He seems to have enjoyed the ride and never lost the desire to write songs. This doesn’t always happen when I finish musicians’s memoirs but I wanted more. I particularly would like to hear more about the early days of the band. The chapter on Away Away provides a tantalizing chronology but I need details! I think another book is in order but for the time being this wonderful collection will do just fine.
Teasers: The lyrics and guitar chords for every song! Jim Dickinson says that no one wants to hear a short song about cannibalism! A frank discussion of dysentery and marital discord in Turkey!
Waiting For Buddy Guy by Alan Harper, University of Illinois Press, 2016
Let’s start with a quiz.
1. Which album do you prefer?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
2. Which is the more representative blues album?
a) John Mayall and the Blues Breakers (the ‘Beano’ album with Clapton) 1966
b) The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (first album on Elecktra) 1965
The first question is relatively easy. You own both of these albums. You prefer one to the other.
The second question seems easy. One of these albums is closer to the ‘real’ sound of the blues than the other. Of course, this is where it gets tricky.
The obvious answer is that, in 1965, Paul Butterfield was better placed to present a more authentic blues record. He was, as the first track on the album asserts, ‘born in Chicago’. He came up in the West Side clubs, learning to play harmonica from legendary harp men like Little Walter. And, I hear you ask, didn’t the band include Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold, otherwise known as Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section? Yes, it did. So it’s the real deal, isn’t it? The Blues Breakers album, on the other hand, might be a great record but it’s really just talented English white kids trying to sound like Chicago bluesmen. Right?
Yes, but that could describe the Butterfield record too. Elvin Bishop (yup, the guy who fooled around and fell in love), Mike Bloomfield, and Paul himself were blues-obsessed white kids too, just like Eric Clapton. So the argument becomes not only one of authenticity but also of race. That’s not to say it’s the weary question of whether or not ‘a white man can sing the blues’ but rather one about the nature of genre, its sources and its definition.
So let’s throw another log on the equation. Those two albums appeared within six months of each other in the mid 1960s. Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells was released at about the same time. Surely this knocks it out of Wrigley Field. Bloomfield and Clapton are great blues players but compared to Buddy Guy? Butterfield is one of the great harp players but, senator, he’s no Junior Wells. Case closed then. Well, maybe. Hoodoo Man Blues departs, quite dramatically at points, from the electric ‘country’ style associated with Muddy Waters, Wolf, and others. Listen to the first track, Snatch It Back and Hold It. It sounds a lot more like Papa’s got a Brand New Bag than Two Trains Running. Look over the track list. There’s a Kenny Burrell song on there! It’s a sophisticated and beautiful record but is it the blues? The ‘real’ blues?
This trapezoidal question is something of a thread in Alan Harper’s deceptively straightforward memoir, Waiting for Buddy Guy. For the record, I prefer the Butterfield album. Harper opts for Mayall. Feel free to add your pick and why in the comments section. I have no idea which one is a better ‘blues’ album and with Junior Wells in the mix I have even less idea, especially after reading Harper’s take on it. Fear not though, he provides an answer of sorts on the last page of the book. More on that later.
In 1979, Alan Harper did something we all wish we had done at some point in our lives. He went there. The ‘there’ in this case was Chicago and for a blues fan from England, it was exactly where he needed to be. He got to the Windy City just in time. It’s true that 20 years earlier, in 1959, he would have seen the original Chess stars at the height of their powers. Even 1969 would have been pretty good, particularly if Hound Dog Taylor was in town. But compared to 1993, when I stopped by to find one or two tired bands cranking out Hoochie Coochie Man, 1979 sounds pretty good. He hung out, went to Sunnyland Slim’s birthday party, went broke, and went home. He returned in 1982 and did the interviews that make up the bulk of this book.
The story functions as a night tour of the Chicago blues world as it stood in the early 80s. The title is a wry reference to the Checkerboard Lounge, a blues venue owned by Buddy Guy himself. The guitarist draws in punters by putting his name on the bill but almost never actually gets up to play. Alan Harper spends most of the book popping in, ordering a drink, and, yes, waiting for Buddy Guy.
While he waits, he comes across other creatures of the night world. He gets Johnny Littlejohn to sign an LP, interviews Carey Bell and his son, guitarist Lurrie. He tries to interview Junior Wells, who won’t comply unless he gets 10% of the action. There is an evening on the town with Louis Myers and a glimpse of the menacing Left Hand Frank. The early eighties was a difficult period for Chicago and its signature music. The city was slowly dying of Reaganomics while the musicians tried to work out how to move the blues forward.
The little known Lefty Dizz stuck with me after I finished reading the book. In a shiny red suit, carrying a guitar case, Lefty tells Harper that he has been drunk since he got back from Korea. Keeping in mind that this is 1982, that’s notable even among blues players. Lefty Dizz is a legend for those who saw him and a rumor for those who didn’t. His small batch of recordings are poorly produced and, apparently, don’t in any way represent his impact on stage. The one or two YouTube clips don’t give much away but it is said that the Rolling Stones sought him out when they visited in the 1970s and jammed with him for three nights. Old hands say that he was a better guitar player than Buddy Guy but blew every opportunity handed to him by drinking too much and being notoriously unreliable. He was once hired to play his own birthday party and missed the gig. At the risk of falling into yet another blues cliché trap, I sometimes think that guys like Lefty are the embodiment of this form. The jazz critic, Albert Murray, maintained that the music wasn’t the blues itself but an escape from that melancholy state. Lefty Dizz wasn’t playing the blues, he was playing in spite of the blues!
Harper doesn’t ask Lefty about his views on the great Butterfield/Mayall/Wells question but they do discuss the shift in the genre’s fanbase. No one wants to put a date on this but at some stage, the original audience of Chicago blues, the African American residents of the city, drifted away and were replaced by white university students. That’s a vast generalization but one echoed to this day by practitioners of the form. When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray brought a new audience to the blues in the 1980s, it was a predominantly white one. Young African-American music fans were somewhere else completely. There is a point in the story where Harper is driving through Chicago with Elisha Blue and Lurrie Bell listening to Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit, ‘The Message’. It’s a poignant moment. It wasn’t the novelty song it might have seemed at the time. It heralded an entirely new chapter in pop. Sadly, it had little to do with the styles played by the two men in the car.
So, back to the prickly issue of authenticity and race in the blues. Harper interviews Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, whose mission was to present ‘new’ blues bands in the post Chess era. His roster in those days was pretty impressive. Koko Taylor, Magic Slim, Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks were all on his label. He kicked off in the 1970s with Hound Dog Taylor’s first album with the Houserockers, one of the great records of any genre. Iglauer, in 1982, felt as though his audience was a small group of white specialists. He couldn’t get his music played on any mainstream radio stations playing rock and roll for a largely white audience and had even less luck with RnB stations.
There is a suggestion, raised a couple of times in the book, that the southern, Jim Crow Mississippi sources of the early Chicago sound are simply a different listening experience for black audiences. Possibly this is why the black audiences that have stuck with blues apparently favour the smoother, more urban sounds that white devotees of the genre, like me for instance, find dull and overproduced. So where does that leave us? What’s authentic now? The rough hewn sound of Muddy’s earlier sides or the slick lines of ZZ Hill, an artist credited with bringing blues back to its original audiences in the early 80s? Harper admits that he had never heard of ZZ Hill in 1982.
The whole issue is linked to a much wider discussion of African American identity and its relationship to American identity in general. Elijah Wald addressed the question in relation to pre War styles in his 2005 book, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. Harper’s book is less didactic but he doesn’t shy away from the problem. Instead of trying to provide an answer to an impossible question, he finishes with a Zen-like parable. Back in England, he meets an elderly potter and puts this dilemma to her:
You see an antique Chinese bowl for sale in one shop. It is beautifully crafted but no more so than an almost identical one made by a contemporary master in another shop. They are the same except that one is a thousand years old and therefore more ‘authentic’. Which one do you buy?
The elderly potter laughs and says;
‘You must choose the better pot.’
Teasers: Bruce Iglauer’s many brushes with blues death. A mouth watering list of all the gigs Alan Harper saw in the 1980s. Sigh. I’ve already spoiled the ending so I won’t tell you what happens when Buddy Guy finally turns up!
I’ll take Magic Sam’s West Side Soul album over them all! (That is Sam. He’s playing Earl Hooker’s guitar for some reason.)
Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Schuster 2016
I had a strange experience on my way to see a Bruce Springsteen show one summer evening in 1984. I was standing on the southbound platform of Sheppard Station in Toronto waiting to meet a friend called Cam. We were both fans and agreed that this was probably going to be the event of the summer, if not the year.
A train came and went, leaving just me and one other person on the platform. I could see he was trying to get my attention but I was a city kid, used to such entreaties. This guy was muttering to himself and playing with a broken watch. I looked down at the platform, hoping Cam would appear on the next train.
The crazy guy on the platform had said my name. I looked up and realized that this was a guy called William who had once been my best friend. We had lived in the same apartment building when we were kids and started school together. Every year we attended the same summer camp. Then we drifted apart. William’s prodigious drug intake and increasingly odd behavior had proved too much for me in our mid teens. After one too many frightening episodes, I’d had enough. I heard late he’d moved to the west coast.
He was in terrible shape. He had put on a lot of weight and his teeth were green. I should have done something but I was 18 and well out of my depth. We chatted briefly but he was making little sense. Cam appeared and I said goodbye. As the train was pulling away, William smiled and waved from the platform. Cam was talking to me about Springsteen and I put my old friend out of my mind.
The show changed my life. Bruce played for nearly four hours and it never stopped getting better. Johnny 99 nearly finished me off. Because The Night did. Towards the end, he played No Surrender. I was still getting to know the Born in the USA album and hadn’t taken much notice of this particular song. Bruce dedicated it to Miami Steve who had recently left the E Street Band. After hours of almost unbearably excellent rock and roll, I guess I was overwrought. The song suddenly brought William back to me. And hard. I pictured him smiling and waving. Tears started rolling down my face. The sunglasses went on and I quickly lit a cigarette (you could do that then!) and pretended to cough a bit. I was mortified, of course. I was 18!
The release of Bruce’s new autobiography, Born To Run – like that show in 1984 – is an event I have been looking forward to all year. He has been pretty well served by biographers. Dave Marsh’s Glory Days was required reading in the 80s and, more recently, Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce is of a high standard. If you haven’t read David Remnick’s New Yorker article from last year, you need to immediately!
But this is Bruce himself. He is articulate in interviews and his gift with language has never been in doubt. Many of his songs involve narratives, sometimes personal, but what would a book length Springsteen ‘song’ look like? As it turns out, pretty good. This man can write. At times, particularly in the early sections, it occurred to me that he had a distinctly ‘American’ style of the old school. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel came to mind. So did James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy. The scenes with his father place him a very long tradition in American letters.
That said, this is a tricky book to categorise. It is a long way from, say, Elvis Costello’s recent memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Elvis was focused on the music itself. He dutifully takes the reader through the highlights of his career (there are many, it would seem from the book) and lays out the path of his artistic journey. Bruce doesn’t exactly ignore the music but there is no sense in which this book is an annotated discography.
Born To Run is also miles away from Keith Richards’ engaging if slightly tiresome Life. There are no ‘then the groupies brought more coke’ moments or anything even approaching that kind of rock and roll story. At some point in the late 70s, Jimmy Iovine invited Bruce to the Playboy Mansion. No one, surely, would have begrudged a young rock and roll star an evening with Hugh and his pals but Bruce declined. No thanks, Jimmy, it’s just not me.
So what’s in this mysterious memoir? Well, you know how Bruce’s exuberant stage presence sometimes seems at odds with his darker lyrics? And you know how even his more upbeat songs always seemed to have an element of sadness? It turns out that Bruce has suffered from depression since the 80s. It is by no means the sole subject of his book but it is certainly notable. He’s very honest about it. Many musicians, particularly of Springsteen’s stature, might have been tempted to somehow mythologise such a condition. His account doesn’t spare the reader and it makes for uncomfortable reading at points. He admits to being a difficult person, a control freak, a loner, and someone who found commitment almost impossible until the timely appearance of his second wife, Patti Scialfa. It is clear that their marriage has not always run smoothly and that he feels his shortcomings as a parent very deeply. In other words, Bruce is human. He has dealt with an all too common illness in depression and is not any more the boss of his fate than anyone else.
At first I wondered if I would have been better off not having read this book. His music remains important to me and his concerts are still mind blowing. Do I really need to associate his songs with the lived experience of a man I’ve never met? We’ve all had music soured by a revelation or too much information. Adam Raised A Cain, an album track from the Born To Run LP was, during a particularly difficult time in my life, the only song I could listen to. It kept me sane and spoke directly to my situation. Clearly, as I now know, it is one of many songs about Bruce’s relationship to his own father, Doug Springsteen. I might have resented the intrusion on my reading of this song except that I didn’t. The point is that Bruce’s music is intensely personal. Many artists dash off rhyming couplets in the studio while the horn section is smoking outside. These songs mean nothing to them but become treasured by fans. The older I get, the more I suspect that many of my favourite artists don’t actually invest much of themselves in the lyrics of their songs. I think Bruce does and I believe that his book makes this clear. That extra element in his songwriting that can hit so hard is Bruce himself. That’s what I heard that night in 1984 when he played No Surrender. He was talking about his friend in a way that perfectly articulated my feelings about mine.
So what else do we learn? A few interesting items are revealed but here’s one that struck me: Bruce, it would appear, has a lot of affection for The River LP. He spends a lot of time on this album in the book. He rejected the original Bob Clearmountain mixed single LP because he wanted something a bit more ragged and more representative of the true E Street Band sound. There are personal clouds over most of his other classic albums but The River appears to be a record where he feels he got it right.
I think he got it right in this book too. If you’re a fan, you are already halfway through it. Even if you aren’t, you might still find much to admire here in the early chapters. He was a working musician in New Jersey for ten years until Born To Run launched him to stardom in 1975. His depictions of the twilight world of working class America and the ‘other’ 1960s in decaying Eastern seaboard bars make for a great read. In this manner, it is a poignant book for an election year in the US. Especially this one!
Teasers: Frank Sinatra’s birthday party with Bob Dylan in attendance; Less about Clarence and Miami Steve than you might expect, but a lot about Danny Federici and Vinny Lopez, original E Streeters with their own stories. Also, Bruce’s take on his ’80s image – “I looked…gay!”
Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone by Michael Bradley, Omnibus Press, 2016
The Undertones’ most famous song, though not their biggest hit, is Teenage Kicks. It belongs to an elite group of timeless rock and roll tracks that perfectly capture adolescent consciousness. I remember hearing it on the radio when I was all of 22 and being gripped by a distinctly regretful tristesse. I would never again experience the pure existential joy of those years. Is it about sex? Sure, but it’s also about the best party you ever went to, and the best band you ever saw, and the greatest night of your life that seemed to just keep going and going until the sun came up and you stood waiting at a cold bus stop, smoke in mouth, still a little stoned, thinking that this life thing was going to be pretty good if the last 12 or so hours were any indication. By 22, I could already feel a sense of disappointment creeping in.
It’s all there in Teenage Kicks, a song that John Peel liked so much that he spun it twice in a row the night it debuted on his BBC show in 1978. He later insisted that it be played at his funeral. And it was, putting everyone in tears at the close of the ceremony in 2004.
So who were the authors of this masterpiece? They were five Irish lads from Creggan Estate in Derry, the city where the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ began in the late 60s. The Undertones formed in the mid seventies, only a few years after the Battle of the Bogside, Operation Motorman, and the Bloody Sunday murders. Creggan, incidentally, is adjacent to the Bogside so none of the members were in any way sheltered from the events of the period.
Which raises an intriguing point about The Undertones. As bass player Mickey Bradley reiterates regularly in this fine memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, they were not a political band.
Unless they were.
The absence of politics in their lyrics in the context of late 70s Derry is a statement in itself. They had all grown up in this ferociously tense atmosphere. Bradley mentions in passing being asked to leave a classroom because a British helicopter was trying to land on his school’s soccer field while being fired on by the IRA. Nobody brushes that off entirely. Thus, the music of this band is political because it rejects sectarianism of any kind for a world of girls, cars, perfect cousins, mates called Jimmy, and good weather. It’s always raining in Derry, or at least it always is when I go, but one of their songs is sunnily titled, Here Comes The Summer. Derry was, like many cities gripped by strife, a socially conservative place. The generation The Undertones represented didn’t ask to be born there. When they rebelled, it wasn’t with anger but against anger, as Eammon McCann notes in the 2002 documentary about the band. The Undertones’ first album is a protest record that counters hate and war with the promise of fun.
Their stance, or anti stance, wasn’t entirely uncontroversial. While they had a loyal following in their hometown, they were also seen as tall poppies or as they say in Derry, ‘complete wee-ankers.’ The band were regularly heckled and egged onstage there after their initial success. The lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, was a particular target. He had, as a child, been a much decorated choir singer and Feis Ceoil champion. As a member of The Undertones, he had to get around town in a green parka because so many people were spitting at him.
Michael Bradley begins with their early years, playing Stones and Lindisfarne (!) songs to bored boy scouts and fellow students at school. I liked the rendering of the blues idiom in Derry patois. Feargal sings that old favourite, “Shaker Money Mikker”. When they began their legendary residency at the Casbah (Kias-bah, that is), where Derry’s small punk scene coalesced, the original songs began to make an appearance. They caught the attention of Terri Hooley, the legendary Belfast record store owner and label boss, who released the first version of Teenage Kicks. John Peel played it twice in one night and the rest is history.
Except that the history of The Undertones is by no means a standard rock and roll story. Teenage Kicks did not make the top ten but a later single did. Nobody got into drugs, nobody got ripped off too badly, and nobody seems to hold any grudges. If you are expecting the inevitable scene where Feargal Sharkey’s massive ego is too much to bear for the rest of the band, you will be disappointed. He comes across as hard working, slightly eccentric, and amazingly modest in Bradley’s account. They released four albums, toured a lot, ran out of puff, and called it a day. The Replacements, they aint.
One of the many unexpected pleasures of this band is their second album, Hypnotised. The first self-titled record is classic early punk rock, beautiful in its own way but still in the thrall of the Ramones, Dolls, and so on. Second albums aren’t easy for any band but perhaps even less so for this generation of punk pioneers. The moment was passing quickly and it was often hard for these groups to find a way forward. Not so The Undertones. Without abandoning any of the energy of the first release, the songs were better written and better played. My Perfect Cousin (their only top ten single), Here Comes Norman and See That Girl are just some of the highlights of this gem.
Michael Bradley tells their story with humor and warmth. There is no score settling, no ridiculous claims of utter originality, and no pretense about the band’s place in rock and roll history. If anything, one is left wondering if he realizes just how good The Undertones were. The early scenes in Derry are hilarious. It’s essentially The Commitments in a war zone but even Roddy Doyle couldn’t have come up with the scene where they first encounter Feargal singing – in blackface!
The account ends at the precise moment in 1983 when they are late for their final gig in Kildare. Feargal went on to have several hits before becoming an important figure in the world of public policy around UK music and the arts. The guitarist brothers, John and Damien O’Neill, formed That Petrol Emotion and had several hits in the late 1980s. The author, Michael Bradley, became a bike courier. The band reformed without Sharkey in 1999 and continues to this day with another Derry native, Paul McLoone, on vocals.
I saw them in Derry a few years ago. The hall was filled with ageing punks, mods, and skinheads. In a nearby pub after the show, I sat at a table with a group of original fans all now in their 50s. The talk was of old friends, legendary parties, classic gigs, and that night when, you remember…
Teenage dreams are hard to beat, indeed.
Teaser: A series of scenes when the inscrutable Derry world view combined with the impenetrable Derry accent proves challenging for the people they meet in the outside world. Look at the cover of Hypnotised for a preview of what happens when these punk rock hobbits leave the shire.
In Love With These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records by Roger Shepherd, Harper Collins NZ, 2016
I once asked Kim Salmon to explain the extraordinary flowering of early punk in Australia. I’m from Toronto after all, just up the road from New York. We had a few notable bands in this era but nothing on par with The Saints, Radio Birdman, or indeed Kim’s outfit, The Scientists. He had no idea. But he did offer his own experience as a possibility. The Scientists’ early sound, he told me, was based on what he thought punk might sound like after reading about it in a six month old issue of the NME. There were no punk records in the shops in Perth or Brisbane. Early Australian punk avoided being derivative because no one had actually heard the music.
How’s that for a theory? Isolation breeds original music. There should be some great music coming out of places like Reunion Island then. Well, ever heard of Rene Lacaille? And what about Dunedin on the south island of New Zealand? That should be a veritable wellspring of creativity in music. According to Roger Shepherd’s new memoir, In Love With These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, that is exactly what it is.
The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, Sneaky Feelings, and The Bats are hardly household names but they are all associated with the influential ‘Dunedin Sound.’ Roger Shepherd notes that, in the early 80s, Dunedin bands went in for reverb, drone, and jangle (without the jingle). Sound familiar? Fans of LA’s Paisley Underground scene will recognize the same brushstrokes but might be surprised to note that some of these New Zealand bands got there first or least at the same time. Listen to Sneaky Feelings’ ‘For Pity’s Sake’ from the 1982 ‘Dunedin Double’ compilation EP if you don’t believe me. Michael Stipe, it should be noted, credits the sound as a major influence on REM’s early albums.
Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records in 1981 while working in a Christchurch record store. The most interesting sections of the book are in the first few chapters where he describes the excitement of punk’s initial stirrings in New Zealand. He tells a funny story about a friend who in 1976 predicted that the future of popular music was something he called ‘Space Rock’. Three weeks later, a new issue of the NME proclaimed the arrival of punk. Space Rock would have to wait. Hopefully for a long time!
Shepherd almost accidentally started the company by releasing two singles (‘Ambivalence’ by The Pin Group and ‘Tally Ho’ by The Clean) in 1981. He saw a lot of bands and thought that other people should hear them. Compared to, say, Mushroom Records’ Michael Gudinski or someone like David Geffen, Shepherd is a modest fellow indeed. It only occurs to him that he is the owner of Flying Nun when he meets someone in a pub claiming he is instead. It takes him years to get up enough nerve to quit his day job. This is a long way from SST Records being infiltrated by the FBI. But still, these chapters are like snapshots of a lost world in rock and roll. From the four track recorder in someone’s living room to the surprise entry into the national charts, there has never been a time like the pre internet early 80s for tiny record labels.
The gap between mainstream and ‘alternative’ music was far more pronounced than it would be ten years later. The major labels in the 1980s were so powerful and so rich that it was almost impossible to challenge them in the market. Anyone feeling sad about the more recent disruption of the record industry by online piracy might reflect on the effect of this stranglehold on music. Labels like Flying Nun were fighting a real David and Goliath battle with the majors in those days. New Zealand radio was filled with the same bathwater that everyone was subjected to in the early eighties while volunteers packed envelopes with little heard but gloriously creative 45s. Roger Shepherd is far too humble to say so but he, along with his many counterparts all over the world, were revolutionaries. The overused word ‘alternative’ really meant something in those days. When The Eagles Junta was in power, small labels kept us safe!
Speaking of politics, New Zealand in 1981 was experiencing one of its more dramatic moments. A controversial tour by the South African rugby team, the Springboks, divided the country sharply. The protests were enormous and several games were actually stopped. It’s not a overstatement to say that the international attention that the protests brought to the situation in South Africa was a significant step towards the end of Apartheid. Shepherd weaves this story into his own. He doesn’t overdo it but there must be some connection between New Zealand’s birth as a liberal minded nation on the world stage and the sudden appearance of so much great rock and roll.
In the late 80s, Flying Nun Records relocated to Auckland before it was more or less taken over by Australia’s Mushroom label in 1990. Roger Shepherd moved to England where he was eventually pushed out of the label completely when Mushroom itself was taken over. In 2010, he regained control of the label with the help of fellow Kiwi Neil Finn. By this time, Flying Nun Records was recognized in New Zealand as a national treasure that deserved to survive.
Throughout the book, Roger Shepherd seems curiously removed from the music itself. His intentions were, and remain, to distribute music that he enjoys. That said, he says very little about the music. The book certainly has its moments. His descriptions of Chris Knox on stage as the lead singer of Dunedin Sound ur band, The Enemy are vivid and compelling. The story of how Flying Nun inadvertently released a bootleg of The Fall is of interest too. But there is still a book to be written about the ‘Dunedin Sound’. Roger Shepherd is a likeable guide to his label’s history but a scene that can produce so many bands playing so much deep music requires a far more thorough investigation.
Teaser: The story about the stolen cactus with narcotic properties, the enema kits, and the missing ginger ale is sufficiently weird to remind you that we’re talking about New Zealand here, after all.
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk, John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends, De Capo 2016
John Doe, like most Californians, is from somewhere else. So is Exene Cervenka, his bandmate and former spouse. John is from Baltimore, Exene from Florida. Both, oddly, were born in Illinois. Yes, the ultimate LA punk band, X, was formed by two Southerners from the Midwest.
But California has always been more about the idea of California than the state itself. Outsiders, from the original settlers to Jim Morrison, brought their imaginative sense of the west coast with them. The pure products, like Brian Wilson, go crazy. But then, so does everyone else. As James Ellroy says about the city, you ‘come on vacation and go home on probation’.
Under The Big Black Sun is a strange book in many ways. It’s not about X, despite the title it shares with their 1982 album. It’s also not about John Doe, despite his name on the cover and various contributions. He and Exene certainly haunt its pages but are by no means the main characters. It’s not an oral history in the style of Legs McNeill’s Please Kill Me though it contains many voices. There is already an oral history of LA punk from 2001 called We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb. This collection covers some of the same ground but the use of the essay form makes for a very different book. For one thing, Under The Big Black Sun is not exclusively about music. To some extent, it is a snapshot of Los Angeles at the end of a long period of decline. The seventies (and indeed, the sixties) are ending but the former governor Reagan is waiting in the wings for his turn as president. LA will rise in the 1980s and become a kind of staging ground for the cultural shift to neo liberalism and hyper consumerism.
So this is an unfamiliar LA, a city of derelict apartment blocks filled with misfits who are making films, writing poetry, and forming bands like The Go Gos. It’s a night place where a bunch of disaffected kids come together and try something different. All of them had grown up in the Watergate 1970s and the slow death of the 60s dream. Like their counterparts in New York, London, Sydney, and Toronto, they weren’t interested in the bloated rock music on the radio so they made it new. Henry Rollins says that history is filled with moments where someone stands up and says ‘Fuck this. No seriously, fuck this.’ This is what happened in LA in 1977.
Not much stuck. Aside from The Go Go’s, whose moment was brief, none of the bands in this story went very far. X made four stellar albums, followed by a few less stellar ones. The Blasters set a high standard for roots music and promptly broke up. Black Flag are well known but are hardly anyone’s idea of a mainstream act. There is no Blondie, no Talking Heads, no Ramones and no Patti Smith in this story. Instead this is a beautiful moment in rock and roll history that remains preserved by its own obscurity.
X is probably the least known great American band. The combination of poetic lyrics, Exene’s persona and voice, Billy Zoom’s hot rockabilly licks and John Doe’s Cosmic Country soul makes for a remarkably eclectic sound. Some critics have called them the punk rock Doors. But those are lazy critics. Ray Manzarek produced their first four albums and there are occasional references but X is a far more interesting unit. The Band maybe, if you are looking for a 60s equivalent, not so much in sound but rather in vision and depth.
Like all truly great bands, they have their own sound and comparisons don’t really add much. Nor do narrow boxes. I don’t think the punk label served X well but it is possible to see, perhaps, a road not taken for that genre. In another universe, punk might have continued to grow in more interesting ways. I often wonder why so few bands took up The Gun Club’s thrilling use of delta blues and deep south imagery. The vision of punk in Under The Big Black Sun is a long way from the subsequent ‘hardcore’ scene of mid 1980s. In fact, many of the contributors in this book bemoan the end of the initial punk period in LA as it descended into violence, monolithic rhythms, and male posturing.
Punk began in LA as the music of the outsider. There is a fine essay by Teresa Covarraubias of the band The Brat, about the scene in East LA and the contribution of Latino bands like The Plugz – who once backed Bob Dylan on Letterman. Yes, Los Lobos makes an appearance here. They once opened for PIL. What happened? Guess. It involves saliva. Her essay ends, however, on a sad note about the night that a local hall, The Vex, was destroyed by the violent suburban punks who began to dominate the scene in the early 80s. They were, for the most part, white and male. The diversity of the early scene didn’t last long. When the bullyboy skins from Orange Country turned up, women too drifted away from what had been a remarkably progressive moment in rock and roll.
Jack Grisham of the band TSOL gets right of reply here and, in an articulate and fiery essay, outlines the experience of the suburban punks who took the ‘destroy everything’ slogan very literally indeed. In some ways, the book is a series of elegies for a lost time. Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters describes a moment of truth when he walked in on John Belushi and Derf Scratch of the band Fear snorting coke. He resented the intrusion of celebrity culture and the tired inevitability of it all. That’s the moment it ended for him. Others point to the closing of clubs, the death of the Germs singer, Darby Crash, the ‘success’ of X, and the rise of bands like Black Flag.
Other essays, like Mike Watt’s stream of consciousness style story of the band The Minutemen are surprisingly touching and sad. He describes his first meeting with bandmate D. Boon, who died young in a traffic accident:
I met d. boon some three or so years after coming to san pedro, ca, from Norfolk va, when he jumped out of a tree and landed on me in peck park, thinking I was a friend of his, nicknamed eskimo – I told him I wasn’t eskimo…
The sheer oddity of this meeting is a veritable mission statement for the zeitgeist that produced LA punk.
There is much to be discussed in this book and many old albums to dig out while you are reading it. Everybody has periods in history they would like to visit – Paris in the 20s, Greenwich Village in the early 60s, and so on. I’ve added LA in the late 70s. I want to go over to East LA with my new friends John and Exene and catch The Plugz at the The Vex. Afterwards, I want to go to a party at the Canterbury and finish up at the Tropicalia where Tom Waits will stumble out and advise me to stay in school. You had to be there. You wish you had been but Under The Big Black Sun will do nicely as a substitute.
Teaser: Dave Alvin describes what it was like for a rockabilly band to open for Black Flag and describes the various items thrown at the stage that remain embedded in his 1964 Telecaster.
X in the studio with Ray Manzarek in attendance.
Before the Orange Country invasion…
Girl in a Band Kim Gordon, Dey Street, 2015
This is a sad book. Unlike so many rock and roll memoirs, it is not a litany of drug related deaths or missed opportunities. Sonic Youth’s key members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly, and the author of Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon, are alive and well. Their now defunct band has an enviable legacy. They never sold out, never released a seriously bad record, and can rightly claim to be one of the most important acts of the last few decades.
So why is it such a sad book? If you have ever been through a divorce, you will recognize a lot of familiar stuff here. If you haven’t been, well, this is what it’s like.
Throughout the band’s existence, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were one of the great couples in rock and roll. They were also the coolest. Kim was intelligent, beautiful, and she played bass, for god’s sake! Thurston was tall, friendly in a shy sort of way, and played guitar like a man possessed by punk rock demons. They shared a loft in New York and were as well connected in the art world as in the music one.
But ultimately the marriage didn’t last. After nearly 30 years, he met someone else and it all ended in an uncool, tawdry fashion. Kim Gordon is not angry. It’s not that kind of book. She’s just sad. Okay, maybe she’s a little angry.
Fortunately, the entire book is not about this sad event. It’s a memoir and a really good one. I read it in two sittings. I had to go to work!
Kim Gordon was born in 1953 which puts her in that interesting demographic of people who were teenagers at the end of the sixties. They were there but not like someone like Neil Young who was born in 1945 was there. On the other hand, they are still boomers with all of that generation’s manic energy and fearlessness.
In 1969, Kim Gordon was going to high school in LA. The Manson Murders would have been discussed over egg salad sandwiches in the school cafeteria. She knew someone who was friends with Bruce Berry, later Neil Young’s roadie and the subject of Tonight’s the Night. What comes through in her story is that Sonic Youth’s groove owes something to their shared understanding of that period. She and Thurston are old enough to have caught the whole ‘break on through’ vibe but young enough to recognize how quickly it could turn into ‘take it easy’. For them the sixties isn’t a nostalgic past but the beginning of something. She mentions Thurston’s love for The Stooges and acknowledges, like everyone else, the importance of the Velvet Underground. As Victoria Williams once put it, they ‘were too young to be hippies, missed out on the love’. Their sixties was not mop tops and flower power but rather Manson girls, riots, and bands like the MC5. She notes that the song, ‘Death Valley ’69’, a collaboration with Lydia Lunch from their early days, is about her own experience of the time.
The No Wave movement in New York also made a significant impression on her. Sonic Youth, in her estimation, are closer to this genre than punk or grunge, which, of course, they, in part, inspired. The deconstructive ethic of the mid seventies New York art scene remained an influence on Sonic Youth to the end.
The story of her teenage years in LA, her move to New York, and her relationship with Thurston, make Girl in a Band a natural companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I hope now she writes another one in the M Train mode. Finishing the book makes you feel like calling her up for a chat. As with Patti, her voice gets in your head and you miss it when you are finished.
I am not a hardcore Sonic Youth fan. I saw them once, opening for Neil Young, and I have two or three of their albums. The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter. She has so many interesting things to say about art, about her friendships with people like Kurt Cobain, her experiences as a woman in the blokey world of alternative rock, motherhood, and her brief time as a fashion designer. I suspect that even readers who had never heard of Sonic Youth would be charmed by her story. That said, fans will relish the detail with which she outlines how certain songs came to be written. She is clearly inspired by the books she reads and she mentions many of them. Keep a pen handy.
Girl in a Band, like Patti’s books, is a breath of fresh air for readers of rock and roll memoirs. In a genre too often dominated by score settling, windy claims of glory, and adolescent self justification, Kim Gordon’s book is, yes, a little sad, but it is also intelligent, readable, and much more than simply a recount of a band’s progress.
Teasers: Her take on Courtney Love. The tour with Neil Young. Kim on The Carpenters.