Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bob Dylan: The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 (1991)

(As published in Brian Q. Newcomb's Harvest Rock Syndicate in 1991)

Columbia's 1985 Bob Dylan box, Biograph, emphasized greatest hits and other career high points, with even its outtakes and live versions sounding fine. The Bootleg Series, on the other hand, is less careful, offering both completed, masterly songs that were left off official LPs and tentative, half-finished or half-hearted songs that were never intended for release.

In terms of the trajectory of Dylan's career, therefore, The Bootleg Series tells us mainly what we already know: that he began as an interpreter of folk protest, developed into a writer of the same, went electric (and surreal), went Woodstock, got great songs out of a failing marriage, got saved, and intermittently wandered the wilderness in search of God knows what.

In terms of Dylan the artist, though, Bootleg punctures one very persistent myth: that Dylan (or his record company) has routinely left revelatory masterpieces off his official albums and that only with a thorough familiarity with the "underground Dylan" can we get the naked truth.

It turns out that the truth wears clothes. The early versions of "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "If You See Her, Say Hello," for instance, included here from the original (never released) Blood on the Tracks sessions, are notably inferior to their official counterparts in everything from musicianship and execution to imagery and phrasing, and at a combined length of nineteen-and-a-half minutes, they're too much of nothing.

The same goes for the "Tight Connection to My Heart" prototype "Someone's Got a Hold iof My Heart" and the publishing demos or botched takes of such Dylan warhorses as "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Like a Rolling Stone," "When the Ship Comes In," and "Every Grain of Sand," the last of which, if not quite a warhorse, is hardly a new pony (and certainly not a dog, although during it one barks in full digital clarity).

Which still leaves over forty songs known until now only to obscurantists, and many of them do deserve to see the light. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" (1962) and "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" (1963) are funny and, in some ways, still relevant ("Talkin' Don Wildmon Paranoid Blues," anyone?). And "Worried Blues," "No More Auction Block," and "Moonshiner" (1962-'63) are among Dylan's richest interpretations of folk standards. From the classic electric period, we get the magnificent "Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence," a truncated but exuberant "She's Your Lover Now," and the Europe-only single version of "If You Gotta Go, Go Now" (which, it turns out, is not the version that's been circulating semi-legitimately on those cheap Italian White Wonder cassettes for over a decade).

But perhaps the most pleasant surprise is how the dozen-or-so good-to-great performances on Disc Three, covering the Slow Train years to the present, argue persuasively that neither Jesus nor age has taken the edge off Dylan's blade. If "Ye Shall Be Changed" (1979) and "You Changed My Life" (1981) are almost glib in their new-believer zeal, "Need a Woman" (1981), "Lord, Protect My Child," and "Foot of Pride" (both 1983) are raw and tough-minded in their biblical resolve. Furthermore, the much-acclaimed "Blind Willie McTell" is as strong as it's been rumored to be, and the lone Oh Mercy outtake, "Series of Dreams," magnificently updates the apocalyptic imagery of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" amid Daniel Lanois's maelstrom of echo-laden drums and guitars.

Of course, with chronological order the only organizing factor, it's unlikely that anyone will enjoy these discs all the way through or in their original sequence as much as he would with a finger on the programming button. Or, to put it another way, composed asit is of cutting-room clippings, The Bootleg Series isn't so much a self-portrait as it is a series of long looks behind the curtain of a most beguiling wizard.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Two for Texas" Show Preview: Kinky Friedman & Billy Joe Shaver (2002)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana, October 2002)

Between writing detective novels, shooting the breeze with Don Imus, keeping several cigar manufacturers in the black, and helping out with the Utopia Rescue Ranch for animals in Medina, Texas, Kinky Friedman doesn’t spend much time in recording studios anymore. His most recent on-disc appearances--Live from Down Under and Classic Snatches from Europe--are collaborative live albums, with Billy Joe Shaver and Little Jewford Shelby respectively on Sphincter Records, the label he co-owns with Shelby and whose motto, give or take an apostrophe, is “Leaving Our Competitors Behind.”

Still, there is one song that Friedman wouldn’t mind returning to the studio to record. “It’s time for me and Willie Nelson to do our duet of ‘Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,’” he says, referring to Ned Sublette's camp-country classic. “I’d like to let everybody know that my heroes have always been faggots.”

Friedman, who’ll turn fifty-eight this Halloween, was politically incorrect long before political incorrectness was cool. A major-label country musician in the mid-’70s, he named his band the Texas Jewboys and gave the world such masterpieces of insensitivity as “Ride ’Em Jewboy” (about the Holocaust), “Men’s Room, L.A.” (about upholding high standards of personal hygiene with a gospel tract), “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” (about keeping women’s libbers in their place), and, his signature tune, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus Anymore” (about “a redneck nerd in a bowlin’ shirt ... a-guzzlin’ Lone Star beer / Just talkin’ religion and politics for all the world to hear”). By comparison, songs like “Ol’ Ben Lucas” (rhymes with “mucus,” about an inveterate nose-picker) and “Asshole from El Paso” (a parody of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee”) seemed tame.

Friedman readily admits that such material “kept [him] poor” (“It kept down the airplay totally”), but he still performs it, and he’s not the only one. In 1999, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Delbert McClinton, Dwight Yoakam, Tom Waits, and other high-profile admirers of the “Kinkster” recorded Pearls in the Snow (Oarfin),a seventeen-track album of Friedman compositions that stands as one of history’s few genuinely useful tribute LPs. Currently on tour with his fellow Texan Billy Joe Shaver on what’s being billed as the “Two for Texas Tour,” Friedman performs tonight at Tipitina’s in New Orleans and tomorrow night at Rabb’s Steak and Spirits in Ruston. “We do a few songs together,” says Friedman, “but mostly it’s back and forth, so there is kind of a tension and a competition. There’s a good dynamic going on.”

For his part, Shaver, sixty-three, is touring in support of The Earth Rolls On (New West), the second in a series of what many had hoped would be a long run of albums featuring him in collaboration with his axe-slinging son Eddy. That the partnership was cut short by Eddy’s drug-related death on New Year’s Eve 2000 at the age of thirty-eight has only deepened the music’s appeal for many of Shaver’s fans, of whom Friedman himself may well be chief. “Kristofferson wrote some great stuff,” Friedman says, “and Harlan Howard did too. But Billy Joe is the best living poet in country music. I mean, the weight of the catalog that he has written is quite outstanding. The difference between us is I’m doing the same songs I was doing twenty years ago. Billy Joe is currently writing great songs.”

Another difference is that Friedman is currently writing best-selling detective novels. In keeping with a tradition established by its fourteen predecessors, the protagonist of the latest, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch (Simon & Schuster), is Friedman himself--or, at least, Friedman as he’d be if instead of a hard-bitten, cigar-chomping, liquor-quaffing, blisteringly satirical, novel-writing Semitic minstrel with friends like Willie Nelson and Don Imus he were a hard-bitten, cigar-chomping, liquor-quaffing, blisteringly satirical, novel-writing Semitic private eye (or, as Friedman would say, “dick”) with friends like Willie Nelson and Don Imus.

Fast-paced, profane, funny, suspenseful, and written in the first person, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch details Friedman’s attempts to find a missing three-legged cat in Texas and a missing, autistic ten-year-old boy in New York. It’s also rife with pop-cultural and rock-and-roll allusions, and Friedman knows how to use ’em: high noon is “Gary Cooper time,” midnight is “Cinderella time,” and a character named Hattie tells a character named Mattie about a thing she saw, just like in Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully.” The novel, in short, makes an ideal gift for that literate baby boomer in your life who has almost everything. “The books are what’s happening now,” says Friedman. “My interest and my energy are going into them.”

The effort is paying off. According to the “bibliography” link at kinkyfriedman.com, the novels are “now being published in Swedish, Japanese and fourteen other languages, two of which even Kinky cannot read.” Many of the “Two for Texas” dates, in fact, are doubling as book signings. According to Friedman, however, the audience for his books and the audience for his music seldom overlap. “They’re wholly two different audiences. If I could combine those two, I would have a huge audience.”

It is, he says, his “cross to bear.” “But the Lord only gives you as big a cross as you can carry, you know?”

Kinky Friedman & Billy Joe Shaver: Live in Baton Rouge (2002)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana, October 16, 2002)

A lower-key gig than the “Two for Texas” show at Chelsea’s Café in Baton Rouge last week would be hard to imagine. Even with Jeff “Little Jewford” Shelby’s one-man opening act in full swing inside, the eight-o’clock darkness and the café’s extinguished outer lights rendered signs of life invisible.

Those equipped with night vision, however, would have noticed a cowboy-hatted, mustachioed, cigar-smoking, beer-nursing figure seated at an outside table, and in so doing would have noticed Kinky Friedman, the novelist, country singer, and quintessential Texas Jewboy who would soon be joining his fellow Texan, the equally quintessential Billy Joe Shaver, for an evening of below-the-belt satire, old-time religion, surreal rabble rousing, gallows humor, and song.

It’s too late, obviously, for anyone who missed the show to see it now, but Live from Down Under (Sphincter), the recently released double-disc set of the tour’s Australian leg available at sphincterrecords.com and other fine Sphincter outlets, is a reasonable and entertaining facsimile thereof. Minor set-list discrepancies aside, the main difference between the Baton Rouge and Down Under shows is that the Sydney audience was far less rowdy than the one at Chelsea’s, which consisted primarily of middle-aged men given to hooting, hollering, clapping, guffawing, and flicking Bics to Friedman’s and Shaver’s every pronouncement, wisecrack, and exhortation.

(Friedman: “An intellectual is someone who takes a simple idea and makes it complex”; Shaver: “Simplicity don’t need to be greased”; Friedman: “I hate intellectuals, although I am one”; Shaver: “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell!”; Friedman: [introducing bandmember Washington Ratso] “He’s the Lebanese boy in the band!”; Shaver: “Jesus is the one who made us all Number Two”; Friedman: [joining hands with Ratso] “Ratso and I consider ourselves the last true hope for peace in the Middle East”; Shaver: [singing “Black Rose”] “The devil made me do it the first time, the second time I done it on my own”; Friedman: “Naomi Judd used to tell her children, ‘Always say your prayers and wash your hands, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.’”)

Little Jewford, after warming up the crowd, remained onstage to play electric keyboards, kazoos, and the melodica for both Shaver and Friedman. He also functioned as a one-man Firesign Theater, playing Ed McMahon to Friedman’s Johnny Carson and punctuating the proceedings with MC patter, deadpan asides, and impressively articulate belches.

And then, of course, there were the songs. Singing “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed” always takes matzo balls, especially in a club whose audience includes women armed with beer bottles. But Friedman’s decision to open (after winning the who'll-go-first coin toss) with the sniper narrative “The Ballad of Charles Whitman” on the day that the shooting of a Washington, D.C., school boy highlighted a week of Beltway-area random shootings--well, let’s just say that Jesus ain’t the only Jew they ain’t makin’ more like anymore.

2002 Album Reviews: D-F

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted....)

Dash: Sonic Boom (Write On)--Dash is the latest incarnation of Dash Rip Rock, the little Baton Rouge band that not only could but also did and still does. Album number nine leads off with ten new Bill Davis originals, the least of which echo his betters (e.g., Marshall Crenshaw and the Beach Boys on “Dream Together”) and the best of which give off Southern pop, rock, country, folk, and bar-band-boogie vibes as only songs awash in references to Mississippi, Evangeline, waltzes, and the South can. Then, in the true spirit of lagniappe, the album concludes with three covers that, name change or no name change, rip and rock: Rufus Jagneaux’s “Opelousas Sostain” (sic), the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and Steve Poltz’s “Monkeys,” which begins “Well, I went to the Zoo the other day. / I had seven hits of acid. / I was on my way” and ends with primates out the wazoo. Rating: Four jewels out of five.

Neil Diamond: Play Me: The Complete Uni Studio Recordings ... Plus! (MCA)--I used to think I had a soft place in my heart for Neil Diamond, but now I realize the soft place was in my head. I used to think that by playing his Jonathan Livingston Seagull for my dying parakeet when I was in the seventh grade I’d helped the little guy hang on a little longer, but now I think I probably hastened his end. I used to think I’d find lots to like on Diamond’s late-’60s/early-’70s LPs once I had the chance to investigate, but now that MCA has collapsed six of them into this three-CD set I realize I was wrong. In short: some hits, some oddball curiosities (e.g., “The Pot Smoker’s Song”), some O.P.K. (other people’s kitsch, e.g., “Mr. Bojangles”), and lots and lots of crap. Rating: Two counts of involuntary budgieslaughter out of five.

Celine Dion: A New Day Has Come (Epic)--With Barbra Streisand a political blowhard, Whitney Houston a (Bobby) brownnosing crackhead, and Mariah Carey a woman under the influence, Celine Dion is easily the most likable of her ilk. But except for her understated treatment of the jazz standard “Nature Boy” and maybe the temptation-acknowledging “When the Wrong One Loves You Right,” there’s no reason to listen to this hackneyed comeback twice. The gimmick is to graft gospel lingo onto secular schmaltz in a blind grope for something generically “inspirational.” Hence, references abound to “prayer,” “faith,” “miracles,” “heaven,” and being “touched by an angel,” but they’re really just metaphors for the chanteuse’s happy marriage, her baby boy, and her upcoming three-year concert engagement at Caesar’s Palace. She’d be more interesting if she’d sing about those topics directly. Rating: Two more Grammies anyway out of five.

Dirty Vegas: Dirty Vegas (Capitol/Credence)--The style is that trance-like brand of modern disco beloved of Ecstasy addicts, and although there’s no objectionable material as such, the limp philosophizing of lyrics like “There must be a better way / There must be a way to change ... Leave the past ’cos it don’t mean a thing” does get annoying. Actually, I’d prefer annoying to mechanical, which along with monotonous is what this disc nearly winds down to before the unannounced Pink Floyd cover at the end. In case you’re wondering, the Dirty Vegas guys don’t need no education. Or so they think. Rating: Two-and-a-half Wayne Newtons out of five.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (DMZ/Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax)--I haven’t actually seen the movie--you think I’m a nut?--but the event is too overwhelming to ignore altogether. Don’t know whether this soundtrack will follow its predecessor, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to Grammy glory, but moving units should be no problem, not with three new Ann Savoy cuts helping sales in Acadiana, new Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray, and Tony Bennett betokening demographic criss-crossover, some classic blues and Alison Krauss ensuring AAA airplay, and a new Dylan recording hooking the many unwilling to wait for Greatest Hits, Volume Four. Rating: Three-and-a-half platinum magnolias out of five.

Dixie Chicks: Home (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia)--Having been granted the serenity to accept what I cannot change--specifically, that this album will no doubt rule the roost for the foreseeable future--I’ve decided to make my peace with it early and hunker down while the hunkering’s good. Surprisingly, the experience has been largely pain free. Though the vocals are still as tightly strung as the mandolins, dobros, and banjos that bind the Chicks to country-music tradition, only on “White Trash Wedding” do they threaten to turn into the Cyndi Laupers of studied hickdom. Elsewhere they sing convincingly, if not always well, of love, home, pearls of water on their hips, and a soldier who’s no 9/11 stereotype. They also steal “Landslide” from Stevie Nicks. Can a reclamation of Patti Smith’s “Godspeed” be far behind? Rating: Three-and-a-half Easter eggs out of five.

DJ Sammy: Heaven (Robbins)--A novelty, yes, but one that by draping its gimmickry across the time-tested hooks of the Mamas and the Papas, Paul Simon, Bryan Adams, and Don Henley ("The Boys of Summer") affirms the durability and necessity of melody.

Donna the Buffalo: Live from the American Ballroom (Wildlife)--What does it mean that a band can exist for fifteen years, record four studio albums, tour never-endingly, achieve an impressive ragged-right balance, yet never show up on one’s radar until it plays the Festival International? Or that the Village Voice can compare it to “Ralph Stanley sitting in with Bob Marley and the Zydeco All-Stars” when its real synthesis is obviously the Grateful Dead (average song length: eight minutes) and BeauSoleil (accordion, Step Rideau cover, song called “Revelation Two-Step”)? Or that my classical-musician wife can enjoy these spirited jams as much as I do when nearly everything else in the review pile drives her nuts? Rating: Four Godchaux’s out of five.

Donovan: Pied Piper (Music for Little People)--This album is allegedly for children, but when Donovan sings “The sun is a very magic fellow” on track three, you can’t help thinking, “Yes, but the sun’s yellow is most definitely not mellow.” At which point you realize that Donovan’s music has always been child-centered, that the aesthetic accomplishment of songs like “Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman,” and “Jennifer Juniper” is their transformation of the nursery rhyme into a folk music that--with no sacrifice of naïvety, whimsicality, or charm--can retain its appeal even when sequenced between mannish boys like the Rolling Stones and Eric Burdon on oldies radio. Several of these songs, re-recorded here, did, in fact, begin their lives on Donovan’s ’60s albums, but the best ones sound as timeless as Donovan’s voice. Rating: Four epistles to Dippy out of five.

Bob Dylan: Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Review (Sony/Legacy)--The tour this box commemorates has become legendary not on the strength of Dylan’s then-current sound but on the strength of his then-current look and his then-current friends/band. In theory, the spectacle should’ve been as fun to hear as it was to look at, but even “Isis,” this collection’s one undeniable highlight, sounds better on Biograph. And Hard Rain, the single-disc LP that Columbia released from this tour’s 1976 leg in ’76, preserves more must-hear performances. On the plus side, this box includes a bonus DVD with a video of the Biograph “Isis,” thus preserving the look. Rating: Three-and-a-half Renaldo’s and Clara’s out of five.

Echobrain: Echobrain (Chophouse/Surfdog)--If this trio sounded even a teensy bit like Metallica, the mere mention of Jason Newsted’s presence in it might move metalheads to illicitly download its music. But this trio sounds nothing like Metallica: “Keep Me Alive” has the kind of acoustic guitars and violins that have been coloring ace melancholia since “As Tears Go By,” the acoustically wispy “We Are Ghosts” feels every bit as spectral as its title, and the mellotron-like sounds of “The Feeling Is Over” recall days of future past. Even “Highway 44,” a song with obvious roots in Cream-era electric blues, emphasizes melody, hook, and Dylan Donkin’s almost effeminately vulnerable Left Banke singing over brawn. The words make no sense (they’re supposed to, I think), so I guess the group’s more echo than brain. But what echoes! Why, the whimsical untitled hidden track even sounds like a Paul McCartney outtake. Rating: Three-and-a-half swapped MP3s out of five.

Walter Egan: Apocalypso Now (Gaff)--“Magnet and Steel” fans not-shy enough to give this solid and consistently entertaining modern-rock album a try (and to overlook the absence of Buckingham and Nicks) will be abundantly rewarded--not only by the Mac-ish “Only Love Is Left Alive” and the very pretty “Better Days” but also by the surfin’-Byrdsy “The Reason Why” and the hard-rocking, organ-driven “Stubborn Girl.” Who says heroes are hard to find? Rating: Four future games out of five.

Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath)--Legend has it that in the days of royalty common folk had no qualms about proclaiming naked emperors to be well dressed. In our day, when Jerry Springer is king, it’s rappers to whom we attribute imaginary qualities. Mathers has been misidentified by many who should know better as an artistic genius. Still, as a case study in the extremes of mass-marketable pathologies, he’s not without interest. Those who listen between the lines will note that he fully acknowledges his own wretchedness, considers homosexuality abnormal, claims he won’t let his own daughter listen to him, warns parents that if they’re not careful their kids could turn out like him, and otherwise seems one with the conservative Republicans he criticizes for criticizing him. But conservative Republicans don’t criticize him for what’s between his lines; they criticize him for the lines themselves, lines which in their relentless profanity, vulgarity, obscenity, and narcissism provide overabundant evidence of an intelligence too underdeveloped and solipsistic to take seriously. Conservative Democrats would probably criticize him too--if there were any. One-and-a-half James Trafficants out of five.

Evangeline Made: A Tribute to Cajun Music (Vanguard)--Having married into Cajun music instead of absorbing it as part of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Ann Savoy loves and champions the tradition with an erstwhile outsider’s awareness of what it takes to get the attention of the world-at-large. And never before has she made as much of that awareness as she has on this future winner of a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy. First, with haunting ballads interspersed among the waltzes and two-steps, there’s simply a greater variety of music than one usually encounters on Cajun albums. Second, with singing courtesy of a veritable folk, rock, and country Who’s Who, there’s a greater variety of voices as well. Oddly, with the exception of Richard Thompson and maybe Patty Griffin, none of the singers sound particularly like themselves; even the usually irreducible David Johansen and John Fogerty take on the nature of their surroundings. What the singers do sound like is natural-born Cajuns, a testament, perhaps, to their acting as much as to their singing. And the music, performed as it is by ensembles of “all-star Cajun musicians” (Steve Riley et. al in the case of Nick Lowe) is never anything less than worthy of the attention of the world-at-large. Rating: Four-and-a-half French immersions out of five.

Freddy Fender: La Musica de Baldemar Huerta (Back Porch)--Not until he hooked up with the Texas Tornados was Freddy Fender considered much of an album artist, and even then he had to wait for the best-of. Now, after more than four decades of striving for hits and with the government-mandated retirement age just around the corner, he relaxes, settles back into the music of his youth, and comes up with the best album of his career. I always knew he could sing, but I never knew that he or anyone else for that matter could ever sing well enough to make me put on a traditional conjunto album of my own volition and enjoy it all the way through. Beautiful and haunting, the drumlessness a gift to the violins, guitarron, and muted trumpet, the album is so of a piece that by the time the bonus cuts (“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” “Secret Love”) bring the program to a close, they feel like the nice but extraneous encores they are. Rating: Four-and-a-half lone stars out of five.

The Flying Burrito Brothers: Sin City: The Very Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers (A&M)--In case you don’t know, the first eleven tracks (out of twenty-five) are Gilded Palace of Sin, a seminal masterwork long considered the touchstone of much of the best country, rock, and country-rock of the past thirty years, with a bona fide dead avatar front and center to boot. That’s a lot of hype to hear through, but the music (especially “Wild Horses” and “If You Gotta Go”) rewards the effort.

The Forever Fabulous Chickenhawks Showband and All-Star Revue Starring Big Luther Kent: Live from the Gypsy Tea Room (Louisiana Red Hot)--It’s like this, fellas: I only get 480 words per column, and there are twenty-one in your group name, album title, and record company alone. That leaves barely any room to tell folks that this live disc, like the two you licensed to CSP in ’99, proves you’re the real-life Commitments; only instead of soulful amateurs you’re soulful pros. Meters, Bland, Melvin, Wither, King (Albert)--where else can a poor boy go to hear them together again for the first time? But what happened to Al “TNT” Braggs? And why not identify the sister doing Etta on “Tell Mama”? I mean, any dozen-or-so-member all-male revue will smell fishy enough to the Title IX gang as it is. Rating: Three salmon daves out of five.

John Fred and His Playboy Band: Somebody’s Knockin’ (TJ)--I respond readily to the slow pretty songs and can relate to the ones that boogie. In between I note synthesizers and programmed drums (apparently the Playboy Band is a fiction these days), religious-conversion songs (apparently sixty-two isn’t too old to be reborn), and songs about partying in the South during the summer (apparently sixty-two isn’t too old to appreciate girls in bikinis). As for the nostalgia and LSU references, I can relate to those too. Rating: Three Judy’s in disguise with Botox out of five.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alex Chilton Live Review (1995)

(As published in B-Side magazine, sometime in 1995...)

The Metropolis, Lafayette, LA

May 4, 1995

"We're going to do a couple of songs now about something that's not everything but that's way ahead of whatever's in second place--money."

With that, Alex Chilton, who these days looks and sounds about two decades younger than his forty-three years, launched into "Money Talks," followed by "I Will Turn Your Money Green." The message of both songs, that money can in fact buy happiness, was belied by the details of Chilton's surroundings: to call the Metropolis a "hole" would be to insult holes. "Basement" is more like it, although, since the sea level in Louisiana precludes subterranean construction, the Metropolis is "underground" in a figurative sense only. Add to this that the venue inhabits a downtown that resembles a ghost town even during business hours, that Chilton took the stage after midnight, and that no more than seventy-five people inhabited the club at any one point during the evening and you have anything but a recipe for cash flow.

In other words, if Alex Chilton really thinks money talks, he has a funny way of showing it.

Nevertheless, he, his bassist Ron Easely, and his drummer Brian Barbaro played and sang, if not like Big Star, then at least like big stars, winding their way through eighteen songs and two encores that found Chilton every bit as invigorated and eclectic as his last decade of recordings. The song list drew from Feudalist Tarts (three songs), High Priest (two), 1994's all-standards/all-acoustic Cliches (one), Chilton's still-untitled forthcoming Ardent release (two), and his vast knowledge of the nooks and crannies of several generations of pop music.

He bypassed the Box Tops, but Big Star's "In the Street" received a lively treatment. And speaking of lively treatments, Chilton turned "My Bonnie"--as in "lies over the ocean"-- into a jazzy blues that more than held its own immediately following "Il Rebel," a manic '50s rocker from "the Italian Elvis," Adriano. "He's an electrifying performer," Chilton explained. "He's tabloid material in Italy."

Chilton, of course, is tabloid material only to the rock 'n' roll fringe, even now in his fourth decade of making great music. And he really does make great music. His guitar, perhaps the least remarked-upon aspect of his arsenal, rings with a clarity and warmth missing in these cold, grungy times. He also plays with the virtuosity of two or more guitarists and makes doing so look easy.

But in addition to making great music, he also makes music great. "My Bonnie" and "Il Rebel" were only the surface. What other viable performer, after all, could make eighty minutes of blues, "Volare," Jan and Dean, and "Alligator Man" sound like the future of rock 'n' roll in the dead of night from the tiny stage of a dive so sleazy the locals call it the Mecrapolis?

Born Under a Bad Sign: A Rock and Roll Horoscope

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer's 2002 April Fool's Day issue...)

Most rock 'n' roll fans won't admit it, but they feel left out by traditional astrology. Oh, they know that Jesus was a Capricorn and that Pisces Virgo rising is a very good sign, but say "heavenly bodies" to them and they think of Jennifer Lopez or Britney Spears.

Well, as the Monkees (fourth album: Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.) once sang, "That was then, this is now." Whether you're a Doris Day fan who's been humming "Whatever Will Be, Will Be" for forty-three years or a 5th Dimension fan who's been humming "Aquarius" for thirty, you can finally join the tabloid crowd in knowing not only the future but also what to do, when to do it, whom to do it to, and how.

What's the diiference between rock 'n' roll astrology and the traditional kind? Easy. Traditional astrologers consult the stars, rock 'n' roll astrologers consult the rock stars. Why not? There's only a few years' difference between the ages of the stars in the sky and the ones in Jefferson Starship anyway. As for the charts themselves, the musicians and singers whose names appear in parentheses were actually born during the astrological period in question. They are the stars that guide your life!

So read on and a have a clue for once. With Y3K right around the corner, it's the least you can do.

Aries (March 21--April 19): You're on drugs (Perry Farrell, Izzy Stradlin, Eric Clapton) and you drink too much (Perry Farrell, Izzy Stradlin, Eric Clapton). Keep your four-year-old son away from fifty-storey windows, unless, of course, you can write a career-rejuvenating song about how sad you'll be should the tyke fall out (Eric Clapton), and avoid driving your Corvette too fast on Whittier Boulevard unless your motto is "Rehab forever" (Jan Berry). Beware belts suspended overhead (Richard Manuel) and your father (Marvin Gaye). Take advantage of opportunities to use your voice to rid the neighborhood of unwanted dogs (Roger "Supertramp" Hodgson, Russell "Stylistics" Thompkins, Jr.), and don't let the fact that you're blind (Jeff Healey), overweight (Aretha Franklin), shameless (Elton John), and ugly (Amy Ray) get you down. Why? Because no one cares (Stuart Adamson, Eddie Money, Gerardo, Julian Lennon), and if you're not permanently out of your misery already (Billie Holiday, Phillipe Wynne, Jeff Porcaro, Muddy Waters), you will be soon (Gatemouth Brown).

Taurus (April 20--May 20): You're on drugs (Pete Townshend) and you drink too much (Pete Townshend). By all means feel free to attend the publicity party for your new book (Richard Farina) and cry if you want to (Lesley Gore), but by no means ride your motorcycle home (Richard Farina). You have a happy marriage (Nick Ashford, Bono, Susan Cowsill, Kim Gordon, Toni Tenille); do nothing--not suicide (Peter Ham, Danny Rapp), not Tanya Tucker (Glen Campbell), not time (Sid Vicious, James Brown)--to jeopardize it. Although overweight, you are popular (Fats Domino, Gary Glitter), but don't assume that your immense popularity will guarantee you a friend in the world five years from now (Fabrice "Milli Vanilli" Morvan, Peter "Peter Frampton" Frampton). You were, after all, born under a bad sign (Albert King), a fact that no amount of looking at life from both sides now (Judy Collins) will change, and a fact that manifests itself in your preference for ridiculous nicknames (Bono), an inability to show your face in public without abundant makeup (Ace Frehley), an unbelievably large schnozz (Barbra Streisand, Pete Townshend), and the inability to see for miles (Stevie Wonder).

Gemini (May 21--June 21): You're on drugs (Richard Butler, Miles Davis, Bonzo Bonham), you drink too much (Hank Williams, Jr., Ron Wood, Bonzo Bonham), you sniff way too much chicken poop (Bob Dylan), and you're probably surnamed Wilson (Ann, Brian, Jackie). Your troubled relationship with your father (Roseanne Cash) will tempt you to de-emphasize your feminine side either by affecting butchness (Laurie Anderson, Melissa Etheridge) or by developing and showing off your washboard abs (Paula Abdul, Gioia "Exposé" Bruno). On the other hand, you will also be tempted to exaggerate your feminine side (Stevie Nicks, Prince, Boy George) just to prove you're not some vestal virgin (Gary Brooker) but a wild thing (Reg Presley) who can still appeal to all the young dudes (Ian Hunter). Matters on the sibling front will prove no less stressful (Ray Davies), with both suicide (Rob Pilatus, Nick Drake, Tom Evans) and scientology (Chick Corea) beckoning bveguilingly from the wings (Paul McCartney). For now, though, opt for something more status quo (Francis Rossi). Stop your sobbing (Ray Davies)! Baby, workout (Jackie Wilson)! Hold your head up (Rod Argent)!

Cancer (June 22--July 22): You're on drugs (Johnny Thunders, George Clinton, Roky Erickson, Courtney Love) and you drink too much (Bon Scott, Woody Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Ringo Starr). Give up the search of that ever elusive eight-mile high (Roger McGuinn), and avoid Russian Roulette (Johnny Ace), dangling nooses (Ian Curtis), and public restrooms (George Michael). Take comfort instead from your rich American-Indian heritage (Robbie Robertson) and the fact that even if everybody seems to be doin' the loco-motion (Little Eva), it's really hip to be square (Huey Lewis). As for your quite rational fear of dying the same slow, painful death as your father (Arlo Guthrie), knock on wood (Eddie Floyd), and thank your lucky rock stars that at least you're not Salman Rushdie (Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusuf Islam).

Leo (July 23--August 22): You're on drugs (David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, B.J. Thomas, Phil Lynott) and you drink too much (Mike Bloomfield). You're in love with your car (Roger "Queen" Taylor) and you don't like Jews (Chuck D). You left your heart in San Francisco (Tony Bennett), but you bungle in the jungle (Ian Anderson). You know that good girls don't (Doug Fieger), but you do (Madonna). You get weak (Belinda Carlisle), you go all the way (Eric Carmen), you're havin' my baby (Paul Anka), you can see clearly now (Johnny Nash), and you still can't get no satisfaction (Mick Jagger). The lesson: you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to go running up that hill (Kenny Rogers, Kate Bush).

Virgo (August 23--September 22): You're on drugs (Charlie Parker, Joe Perry, Nick Cave, Billy Preston, Dinah Washington, Keith Moon) and you drink too much (Hank Williams, Sr., Dinah Washington, Keith Moon). As if your picture weren't grim enough already, you're at unusually high risk to die from complications brought on by obesity (Mama Cass Elliot), brain tumors (Bill Black), AIDS (Eazy-E, Freddie Mercury), and plane crashes (Buddy Holly). But don't worry--you will survive (Gloria Gaynor). After all, your spiritual reserves are practically bottomless (Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Debby Boone) even if you yourself are not (Barry White). Also, you have an above-average sense of humor (Loudon Wainwright III) and know how to laugh, laugh (Sal "Beau Brummels" Valentino). Ultimately, however, you'll have to admit that not only is the thrill gone (B.B. King) but the pigment is as well (Michael Jackson).

Libra (September 23--October 22): You're on drugs (Bob Weir, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Nico, Frankie Lymon, John Lennon, Marc Bolan, Ray Charles, Shannon Hoon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Les Claypool, Ziggy Marley, O.V. Wright, Peter Tosh, Arsenio Orteza) and you drink too much (Jerry Lee Lewis, Arsenio Orteza). Your susceptibility to multiple sclerosis (Annette Funicello) and your cavalier attitude toward organized crime (Bobby Fuller), firearms (Snoop Doggy Dogg, Jerry Lee Lewis), marriage and children (Carlene Carter), open fifteenth-floor windows (Donny Hathaway), unsafe helicopters (Stevie Ray Vaughan) the videotaping of girls in public restrooms (Chuck Berry), and battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit an unnatural and lascivious act (Flea) further heightens your chance for unhappiness. So does the likelihood that your first name could be Chubby (Checker) and your last name Allbut (Barbara and Jiggs, the Angels). On the plus side, you could end up with as many as twenty-eight wives at one time (Fela Anikulapo Kuti) or at least the looks necessary to end up with as many (Julio Iglesias, Arsenio Orteza). And if you don't like your sister, don't fret; chances are she won't be around for long (Richard Carpenter).

Scorpio (October 23--November 21): You're on drugs (Anthony Kiedis, Dr. John, James Honeyman-Scott, Bootsy Collins, Graham Bond, Ike Turner,Gram Parsons) and you drink too much (Grace Slick, Ike Turner, Gram Parsons). You have slept with Madonna (Jellybean Benitez) or would like to (k.d. lang), but neither your accomplishments nor your hopes should distract you from the fact that cars (Rick Allen), motorcycles (Duane Allman), airplanes (the Big Bopper), and breast cancer (Minnie Riperton) are musts to avoid (Peter Noone). Furthermore, attempts to use manslaughter (Little Willie John) as a way of lashing out at the world for your problems--obesity (Mary Travers), premature baldness (Kevin DuBrow), ugliness (Lyle Lovett), nomenclature (Bjork)--will likely result in jail time (Little Willie John). Even touching yourself (Christina Amphlett) and not sleeping in subways (Petula Clark) will prove short-lived solutions. The good news is that when they lay you down to die, you're gonna go to the place that's the best (Norman Greenbaum). Oh, what a lucky man you are (Greg Lake)!

Sagittarius (November 22--December 21): You're not on drugs (Amy Grant, Donny Osmond, Ted Nugent), you don't drink too much (Amy Grant, Donny Osmond, Ted Nugent), and it feels so good (Chuck Mangione)--so good, in fact, that not even being nicknamed after a smelly mammal (Jeff "Skunk" Baxter) or finding yourself alone again naturally (Gilbert O'Sullivan) can make you say you're sorry (Brenda Lee) for sticking to your moral guns. Not that you won't be tempted to abuse drugs (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards), drink too much (Tom Waits, Ozzy Osbourne, Dennis Wilson, Charlie Rich, Keith Richards), drive too fast (Harry Chapin), or seek the sacrament of holy orders in a dissident religious community (Sinead O'Connor). But in the long run your ability to keep on truckin' (Eddie Kendricks) and to psychically predict the future (Dionne Warwick) will enable you to respect yourself (Pops Staples) and to do "it" your way (Frank Sinatra).

Capricorn (December 22--January 19): You're on drugs (Elvis Presley, Marianne Faithfull, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, Shane MacGowan) and you drink too much (Jimmy Page, Paul Westerberg, Jimmy Buffett, Alex Chilton, John Denver, Sandy Denny, Shane MacGowan). Combined with your extraordinarily developed secondary sexual characteristics (Dolly Parton) and orgasmic potential (Donna Summer), your addictions make you a sitting duck for hot-blooded (Mick "Foreigner" Jones) Neanderthals on the make (Rod Stewart, Luther Campbell, Lemmy Kilmister). No matter how nicely one of them asks you to scratch his back (Slim Harpo), smell the glove (Harry "Spinal Tap" Shearer), meet his Auntie Griselda (Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith), rock him all night long (Malcolm Young) or walk, don't run (Bob "Ventures" Bogle), stand tall, don't you fall, and for God's sake don't go and do something foolish (Burton Cummings). If necessary, spell out what he can do to himself (Country Joe McDonald), hit him with your best shot (Pat Benatar), take the last train to Clarksville (Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith), and run-run-run run away (Del Shannon).

Aquarius (January 20--February 18): You're on drugs (John "Jake Blues" Belushi, Dwayne "Skinny Puppy" Goettel, Rick James, Tim Buckley) and you drink too much (Exene Cervenka, Eddie Van Halen, Alice Cooper). Run like hell (Nick Mason) if anyone so much as mentions pistol cleaning (Terry Kath), snow skiing (Sonny Bono), riding on the tour bus (Cliff Burton), raping armed women (Sam Cooke), setting the cottage on fire (Steve Marriott), contracting AIDS (Peter Allen) or joining him for a duet on "Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing" or "You're All I Need to Get By" (Tammi Terrell). And although you needn't fear the rockin' pneumonia or the boogie-woogie flu (Huey "Piano" Smith), agree to the amputation that your doctors are suggesting (Gene Vincent). Recovery will be tough, but don't give up (Peter Gabriel). There's nothing you can't shake, shake, shake (Harry Wayne "KC" Casey) with some red, red wine (Neil Diamond), a holiday in the sun (John Lydon), and some more red, red wine (Ali "UB40" Campbell).

Pisces (February 19--March 20): You're on drugs (Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash, Sly Stone, George Harrison, Andy Gibb, Brian Jones, Lou Reed), you drink too much (John Doe, James Taylor), and you eat way too little (Karen Carpenter) when you're not eating way too much (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bob "Bear" Hite). Still, although your partners are constantly running afoul of parked trucks (Dean Torrence), empty nooses (Mike "Badfinger" Gibbins), delusional fans (George Harrison), bad acid (David Gilmour), bad plastic surgery (Marlon Jackson), and overloaded syringes (Billy Corgan), you tend to survive--often to the acute disappointment of many (Michael Bolton, Nina Hagen, Paul Kantner, Dee Snider, Mike Love). In other words, when you're hot, you're hot, and when you're not, you're not (Jerry Reed). You've got personality (Lloyd Price), but you give love a bad name (Jon Bon Jovi) by choosing to hide your truly animalistic nature (Seal, Peter Wolf, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Bob "Bear" Hite) beneath a don't-worry-be-happy (Bobby McFerrin) exterior that even has Michelle Shocked. Only by realizing that sometimes the snow comes down in spring (Vanessa Williams) and that every rose has its thorn (Bret Michaels) will you be able to extract a kiss from that rose (Seal) and roam if you want to (Cindy Wilson) from Electric Avenue (Eddy Grant) to Funky Broadway (Wilson Pickett) while talking about sex (Cheryl "Salt" James) in a fast car (Tracy Chapman) with some little Latin Lupe Lu (Mitch Ryder). Hasta la vista, baby (Tone-Loc)!

Spotlight: Algebra Suicide

(As published in B-Side, 1994 or thereabouts...)

Time for some truth-telling: Despite the reputations that musicians like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Henry Rollins have gotten as "poets," they're not.

They're songwriters.

Walt Whitman was a poet. And Emily Dickinson. And Leonard Cohen. And so is Lydia Tomkiw, the female half of the spoken-word-with-music duo Algebra Suicide.

"I was a graphic arts major," Tomkiw (pronounced "Tom Q") recalls of her college days. Then she took a poetry class.

"That's when I switched schools. I transferred to one that offered more creative writing classes. I got really fierce about it. Once I started writing poetry and getting pieces I could tolerate, I started sending them out. Then, after about a hundred rejections, the first acceptance came along, and that spurred on the next one and the next one."

As Tomkiw's pile of published poems grew into chapbooks (The Dreadful Swimmers, Popgun Sonatas), she began to envision other outlets.

"I just thought, 'There's got to be some other way to disseminate this stuff.' A dear teacher of mine said something to me very early on, like, when I was nineteen, that's stuck with me: 'The sign of an immature artist is one who wants to make and keep for himself.'"

Hence Algebra Suicide, a.k.a. Tomkiw and Don Hedeker. In the past year, they've capped their decade-long career by getting divorced, breaking up the band, and releasing their swan song, the excellent Tongue Wrestling, on Chicago's Widely Distributed Records.

"The way Don and I would work is, he would go downstairs and work on tunes, and I would have a pocketful of poems ready. He would present his music to me, and I would find something that fit. Or didn't fit, preferably. You know, for a happy, bouncy tune, I'd maybe apply something a little morbid."
She laughs. "Actually there was a nice tension going [during the Tongue Wrestling sessions]. So a lot of the tunes turned out--I wouldn't say better--but harder. There was none of the 'Whatever you want, darling,' you know? The divorce was in the process. So I was like 'This might be our last release. We have to do this." And then he'd turn around and say, 'No! We have to do that."

That tension comes through. On the best tracks, Hedeker's synthesizer and guitar work sounds both lively and haunting, like a less perverse Wall of Voodoo. And Tomkiw's poetry walks its talk.

The best is "What I Like Doing Best," a whirling, epithet-rich tribute to osculation. "Busting slob, swaying gush, nabbing drool, boodling," Tomkiw chants. "Flinging woo, pitching woo, spooning, smooching." When she gets to "in a tizzy, I remember getting dizzy, while listening to, like, / Thin Lizzy," she's practically given birth to a world. When was the last time Dylan, Reed, or Rollins did that?

"That's the one the title Tongue Wrestling came from," Tomkiw says, "and that's the one that I like best because it's about what I like doing best. I mean, it's safe enough to admit that without sounding slutty."

With her passionate but detached, weary but wise Windy City accent, Tomkiw also doesn't sound like Laurie Anderson. Just ask her. "I've been doing this since 1982, and the first time I heard Laurie Anderson was in graduate school, and that was 1985. I think it was 'O Superman.' It was part of a program on spoken word or whatever, and I was, like, 'I don't sound like this at all.' The comparison I like best is when somebody wrote, 'Female Lou Reed.'"

More truth-telling: As a poet Lydia's lots better than Lou Reed.

Listeners will soon have another chance to answer these questions for themselves. Tomkiw plans to release Incorporated, her first non-Hedeker album, by mid-October. Produced by Tongue Wrestling's Chuck Uchida, it will feature collaborations between Tomkiw and Belgium's Dirk Ivens ("industrial dance music?" gropes Lydia), Martin Bowes ("same thing but more up-in-your-face"), Reality Scare ("They're synth-heavy, sort of like New Order"), and more. The album will not, according to the poet, mark a radical departure from her established track record but a "progression," especially the "dance tunes."

"My years with Algebra Suicide were really good and gave me the courage to go on and do other things. And I hope whatever comes out after this, if not different, is--"

She pauses.

"You know, I'm really blessed and lucky because I'm thirty-four, and I think of people in the music business who just seem ridiculous by that age.

"What I do is, like, one genre in which I think I can keep going."

Monday, May 11, 2009

2002 Album Reviews: A-C

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)

Abba: The Definitive Collection (Polar/Polydor)--The definitive "video" collection, that is, and definitive proof that never were more attractive people made to wear such unattractive outfits. It’s almost as if Fate, having decided she’d gone overboard with the foursome’s looks, decided to overcompensate with clothing. It’s not so much a ’70s look or even a ’70s pop-star look as a Swedish approximation of a ’70s pop-star look. Yet, given that Abba outsold everyone else during the ’70s--the Bee Gees, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots--perhaps it was right. Or perhaps the sales would’ve been even better had the videos that were this seldom-touring group’s main medium of international exposure not disseminated the look worldwide. Did matters improve with the ’80s? Clothes-wise, yes; hair-wise, no. Meanwhile, film majors will note the occasional Bergman homage, and the music, as always, sparkles. And the kimonos--I like the kimonos. Rating: Three-and-a-half don’ts out of five.

Abandoned Pools: Humanistic (Extasy International)--Slightly anachronistic, thoroughly catchy, and occasionally beautiful one-man-band electronica.

The Acoustic Folk Box (Topic)--Ultimately, you don’t warm up to a four-disc, eighty-five-track, five-hour box such as this for of its historical, anthropological, or even aesthetic value, considerable though its value in these areas may be. You warm up to it for the same reason you warm up to any album: the songs. These being primarily British Isles folk (and folk-based) songs recorded primarily by British Islanders ’tween 1960 and 2000, the order of their appeal to Americans is likely to be melodies (sing-along) first, vocals (astringent) second, instrumentation (unplugged and largely drumless) third, and words last (if at all)--been a long time since anyone I know got too worked up about the agonies and the ecstasies of the Labor Party. The archetypical stuff of which the trad. ballads are made, however, endures, especially the stuff involving tales of adultery, murder, corrupt clergy, and other topics of contemporary interest. Spend a few weeks with this collection and at least one eighty-minute homemade CD’s worth of tunes will have burrowed themselves into your head. And while Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, and Maddy Prior do appear, the emphasis is on heroes and heroines of the genre heretofore unsung by those of us this side of the Atlantic. The Incredible String Band obscurity is amazing, the Martin Simpson instrumental a real ear opener. And I definitely intend to track down more of Nic Jones, Fernhill, and Kate Rusby. Rating: Four-and-a-half lucky charms out of five.

Air Supply: Yours Truly (Giant)--This audio valentine came and went last year without so much as a yawn from any discernable segment of the music-buying audience, yet it (the record, not the audience) deserved better. Close your eyes at almost any point in this swoonfest and you’d swear you were hearing the latest comeback single from the Bee Gees or the Moody Blues, neither of whom appears to be in any hurry to score with such prime fluff these days. So why not settle for the stuff as purveyed by these inspired phonies? And why not admit that “Learning to Make Love to You” cuts closer than “How Deep Is Your Love” and “Your Wildest Dreams” combined? Rating: Three-and-a-half nights in white satin and-or on Broadway out of five.

Eric Alexander: Summit Meeting (Milestone)--The Young Man with a Sax keeps on coming, although what elevates this one above his first two is admittedly a matter of perspective.

The Rev. Vince Anderson and His Love Choir: The Thirteenth Apostle (Dirty Gospel)--Those who consider it foolhardy to weld Tom Waits to gutter-gospel themes are directed to the fifth and sixth movements of Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, after which this raucous shouter’s descent into a booze-fueled hell will feel purgative indeed.

Badly Drawn Boy: About a Boy (XL/Artist Direct)--I haven’t actually seen the movie--you think I’m a nut?--but this evocative Manchester pop is worth a matinee ticket at least.

David Ball: Amigo (Dualtone Nashville)--Finally free of his major-label obligation to follow up “Thinkin’ Problem,” Ball eases into a Western-swing so easygoing it could accompany siesta and fiesta time both. Those of us in-between get the dual pleasure of hearing Ball sing and hearing him sing lyrics worth attending to, including but not limited to the hit friendly-ghost narrative “Riding with Private Malone” and the soon-to-be bumpersticker classic “When the Devil Wants to Wrestle (Put Jesus in the Ring).” Rating: Three-and-a-half Texas echoes out of five.

Jason Becker: Perspective (Warner Bros.)--For most of the ’80s, Becker was just one more hard-rock guitarist racking up notches on his axe, eventually replacing Joe Satriani in David Lee Roth’s band. Then in ’91, while in the initial stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he began composing on the computer, getting other people and machines to play the music, and coming up with songs so soaring, celestial, moving, and strange that at times they sound like what post-Vatican II Catholic composers might have come up with had they spent less time honing the folk mass and more time listening to progressive rock. Independently released in ’96, Perspective came out last year on Warners at the behest of another hard-rock guitarist with an intimate knowledge of ravaging illnesses, Eddie Van Halen. A portion of the proceeds go toward the ALS Therapy Development Foundation, but this is one fund-raising album you don’t need a well-formed conscience to enjoy. Rating: Four luckiest men on earth out of five.

Bellamy Brothers: Redneck Girls Forever (Curb)--“Let’s Roll America,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “Come Back Gene and Roy” may capture common sentiments, but sentimentality has never been a Bellamy strength. What has been is satirical songs like “What I Used to Do All Night,” credited here to David Bellamy although Billy C. Wirtz copyrighted a similar Viagra anthem under the exact same title four years ago. I’m glad these fellas are back on Curb, and I wish them the best. But even more I wish us their best. This isn’t it. Rating: Three Rafael Palmeiros out of five.

Ron Block: Faraway Land (Rounder)--Don’t be fooled by the inside photos of Block’s Inklings library; these country-bluegrass gospel songs are as sweet, simple, and American as any he’s recorded with Union Station.

Blues Around the Clock (Pablo)--From Joe Turner's "Blues Around the Clock" to Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's "Just a Dream on My Mind," raunchier, funnier, and more rockin’ than Marshall Mathers.

David Bowie: Heathen (ISO/Columbia)--Bowie recently told Vanity Fair that his music has always been “about style,” an admission, perhaps, of what those of us who liked him when he was good have long maintained: that he has nothing to say and (sometimes) cool ways of saying it. The cover sticker proclaims Heathen “classic Bowie circa 2002,” and to the extent that he’s still saying nothing in cool ways, I guess it is. But little in its dark, carefully wrought electronic suavity will endear it to today’s youth, for whom “cool” requires profanity, rapper cameos, and a look entirely at odds with Bowie’s dapper elegance. And while the Neil Young, Frank Black, and Legendary Stardust Cowboy covers go with the flow, neither they nor the flow shed light on why the album’s called Heathen when it should be called Pagan. Classic Bowie would’ve known the difference. Rating: Three golden years out of five.

Randall Bramblett: No More Mr. Lucky (New West)--Bramblett’s been around a while: solo debut in ’75, member of Sea Level, oft-covered singer-songwriter. The album with which he finally returned to solo recording in 1998, See Through Me, was O.K. but hardly adequate preparation for the depth, catchiness, and masterly execution that radiates from these songs at nearly every point. “Hard to Be a Human” aside (Bramblett should try being a panda), the Georgia native’s eminently replayable rock and soul hooks, mystic sax, and funk pulse constitute the ideal backdrop for a wisdom that’s freshly phrased, well sung, and eminently plainspoken. As for the Van Morrison fan in me, he’s happy to report that “Peace in Here” is a perfect song. Rating: Four-and-a-half Veedon fleeces out of five.

Brandy: Full Moon (Atlantic)--If teachers have to pass certification exams before gaining access to the classroom, shouldn’t pop singers, who wield a far greater influence on the young than teachers ever will, at the very least have to fail an airhead test? Writes Ms. Norwood: “I have been on a journey to search for my higher self, bring my life into harmony, transform my perceptions, and expand my awareness of love.” And, believe me, it shows. Rating: Two-and-a-half one-way tickets out of five.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: Be Glad (M2)--In which the number-one multi-racial pop-gospel ensemble in the land seeks beauty and joy in the middle of the road and finds it.

Stephen Bruton: Spirit World (New West)--The albums of sidemen who go front and center after years of toiling in the shadows tend to be dreary affairs, and until now the output of this Texas axeslinger-for-hire has been no exception. This time, however, he beats the jinx. He still goes on too long (only one song under four minutes) and is content to let sleeping clichés lie when he should be kicking them in the head, but these defects are portable with other graces, and Bruton finally has some. For one thing, he now writes melodies that stick. For another, his backbeats groove and shuffle a little when they absolutely must. Third, and most pleasantly surprising of all, Bruton is now singing less like a guitarist and more like the relaxed, confident, and sometimes even thoughtful 54-year-old he is (when he’s not singing exactly like Mark Knopfler, that is). Rating: Three-and-a-half dire straits out of five.

the b-sides: Yes, Indeed, the b-sides, quite (Rock)--Who says punky, rinky-dink nerd-pop is dead? Certainly not this rag-tag collective of indie-rock cast-offs and hangers on, whose passionate commitment to the residual sweetness at the bottom of the bubblegum barrel is positively bracing. The collective thinness of the three main voices makes for unnecessarily prepubescent-sounding harmonies, but the infatuation with cool effects that results in the occasionally gratuitous deployment of vintage electronic doodads lends the fun-sized hooks and melodies a winsomely adolescent urgency. Recommended to fans of the Cowsills, the Pooh Sticks, the Vandalias, Poole, the eels, and Throw That Beat in the Garbagecan! Rating: Three-and-a-half Ron Dante’s Infernos out of five.

B2K: B2K (Epic)--I know, they’re just kids (average age fifteen according to b2klovesyou.com, which also says they’re home-schooled, yeah right), but seeing as how their legal custodians see nothing wrong with their singing about wanting a girl “so damn bad” or assuring her it’s O.K. to play Truth or Dare after school, they may as well learn that part of what it means to be a big boy is occasionally being told that J-Boog, Lil Fizz, and Raz B are really stupid-sounding nicknames. Rating: Two spur posses out of five.

Built to Spill: Ancient Melodies of the Future (Warner Bros.)--Going from imitating Neil Young to imitating the Buggles may not be an improvement, but it certainly increases the catchiness quotient.

Jonathan Butler: Surrender (Warner Bros.)--Albums recorded in the afterglow of religious conversion can be bracing, as fans of Bob Dylan, Al Green, Maria Muldaur, Arlo Guthrie, and Van Morrison know. Why Butler, a forty-year-old South African nearly a decade past his Jive Records best-of, is more bracing than his jazz-lite settings at first make him seem is his Stevie Wonder of a voice, which makes his Scripture-lite (and romance-lite) clichés go down easy. Of course, he’d be more bracing without any clichés at all, but giving up pat phrases cold turkey is a lot to ask of someone who’s re-learning the language of love from scratch, and his foregoing of words altogether on the five instrumentals suggests he’s more aware of his verbal limitations than the average enthusiast. Rating: Three-and-a-half revivals-lite out of five.

J.J. Cale: The Best of J.J. Cale: 20th Century Masters, the Millennium Collection (Mercury)--Budget prices or no, Universal’s Millennium Collections are often too little of a good thing or just plain redundant. In the case of this Oklahoma miniaturist, though, the format makes sense; much more Cale would require a warning against operating heavy machinery. He gave Clapton "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" (both included) and did them as well if not better. He gave Knopfler a voice, a shuffle, and a picking style. Too bad Knopfler refused Cale’s humor--"I’ll Make Love to You Anytime" is a real fanny slapper. Rating: Three-and-a-half moneys for something out of five.

Calliope: Braille (Thick)--There’s genuine ebb and flow in the way Andy Dryer’s languorous whisper floats atop the hazy electronic washes, and when these boys set their guitars on “chiming,” their brass on “oracular,” their tempos on “bouncy,” and their melodies on “upbeat,” they open up their hearts and let the sun shine in. As for “Detroit Girl,” it’s the slacktronica masterpiece you always hoped someone had in him. Rating: Three-and-a-half Motor City mad chicks out of five.

Eliza Carthy/Nancy Kerr: On Reflection (Gadfly)--A boiling down of Carthy and Kerr’s traditional, acoustic, fiddle-and-vocal ’90s, the logical next purchase for fans of Carthy’s cuts on The Acoustic Folk Box.

Johnny Cash: Ride This Train (Columbia/Legacy)--The corniest of the seventieth-birthday reissues, but what would you expect from a “stirring travelogue[s] of America in story and song”?

Johnny Cash: Hymns by Johnny Cash (Columbia/Legacy)--The second-corniest of the seventieth-birthday reissues (“Johnny’s second Columbia album,” says a sticker on the promo copies, “the album he came here to make!”) But what would you expect from an “all-time country classic” containing “Johnny’s originals and his take on his favorite gospel songs” and an “alternate version of ‘It Was Jesus’ (previously unreleased in the U.S.!)” and a “new personal reflection by Johnny Cash” and a “new essay” and the “original liner notes and many previously unpublished photos!”? Rating: Two-and-a-half sweet chariots swung low out of five.

Celebration of America (Music for Little People)--Music for Little People’s concept albums often list toward the sentimental Left. The recently reissued Peace Is the World Smiling (sic), for instance, features Holly Near, Pete Seeger, a Harry Belafonte lyric, and enough puerile self-esteem to make Oscar the Grouch kick the can. Thus it is that this compilation’s unabashed patriotism, best exemplified by the robust triptych of “America the Beautiful,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that closes it, comes as such a pleasant surprise. And there’s plenty of pluribus amid the unum: hitmakers (Ray Charles, Randy Newman), Broadway (James Cagney, “Seventy-six Trombones”), even Commies (Paul Robeson, the Weavers). I’d replace Linda Ronstadt’s Chuck Berry song with Chuck Berry’s, Jane Siberry’s “Shenandoah” with Bob Dylan’s, and Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Cotton Fields” with Leadbelly’s (or Al Jardine’s), but until Ken Burns documents 9/11, this album is an attractively efficient way to introduce American tykes to their musical roots. Rating: Three-and-a-half cheers for excluding Lee Greenwood out of five.

A Cellarful of Motown! (Motown)--Because Berry Gordy always had his performers put their best feet forward, this two-disc collection of recent vault findings that were never released because they were nobody’s best foot contains no revelations. Plenty of pleasant surprises though (Brenda Holloway, "Who You Gonna Run To"; Barbara McNair, "Baby a Go Go"; Kim Weston: "Don’t Let Me Down"; the Contours, "Danger, Heartbreak Dead Ahead").

Kasey Chambers: Barricades and Brickwalls (Warner Bros.)--This attractive lass from Down Under has been accumulating kudos for her somewhat edgy take on the Appalachian sound, and kudos she deserves. But the sound’s not hers, it’s Julie Miller’s. Program this album’s “Not Pretty Enough,” “On a Bad Day,” “Nullarbor Song,” and especially “Runaway Train” and “I Still Pray” as bonus tracks on any of Miller’s recent Hightone albums and no one would notice the sleight-of-hand, probably not even Miller’s husband Buddy, who sings on some of these tracks just as he does on his wife’s LPs. As a longtime fan of First Class’s Beach Boys rip, the Knickerbockers’ Beatles rip, Billy Joel’s Four Season’s rip, etc., I willingly admit that there’s nothing wrong with a musician’s looking around, noticing less of the music she loves than she’d prefer, and making more of it. I cannot, however, blame those who find the dopplegänger effect a little creepy, or deny that Chambers’ suggestive cover poses and occasionally dirty mouth are hers alone. Rating: Three-and-a-half O sisters where art thou out of five.

Cher: Living Proof (Warner Bros.)--One expected a bad album, but not this bad. One expected more techno-disco, but not this much. One expected more electronically treated vocals, but one also hoped one would be wrong, that in attempting to stretch her hit-making into decade number five Cher would avoid repeating the same gimmick twice in a row so as not to seem crass. No such luck. And no sneaking into the Vocoder Hall of Fame on the coattails of Roger Troutman and Laurie Anderson either. Rating: Two dying proofs out of five.

Chumbawamba: Readymades (Republic/Universal)--These anarchists must be doing something right because you don’t have to buy into their notion of the ideal society to get with their notion of the ideal music. So skillful is their deployment of gentle techno touches and pretty-sad melodies that to sense the gravity of their concerns you need no more be moved by the details of the real-life injustices behind “Without Rhyme or Reason (The Killing of Harry Stanley)” or “Don’t Pass Go” (way to get in a side dig at “monopolies,” guys) than with the New York mining disaster at the heart of their last album’s Bee Gees cover. In the end, of course, you might be moved anyway. And if you think they have no sense of humor, check out “Ask Britney Spears” at chumbawamba.net. Rating: Four-and-a-half slaves 4 U out of five.

Bruce Cockburn: Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 (Rounder)--What would you think of a woman who, having been raped, reproached herself for bringing out the animal in her attackers instead of organizing a posse and going for their gonads? What do you think of Arthur Miller, who in discussing the WTC attacks recently said, “I think that more people are prepared now ... to inquire as to why [Americans] are so hated in so many places”? What did you think of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” back in ’84, when those opposed to the Contras could wish violent death on U.S.-backed forces without seeming unpatriotic? What does Cockburn himself think of the song now, or is his inclusion of it on this, his third or fourth best-of (and his second best-of to include it), answer enough? Do you think maybe if he had a hammer he’d hammer out love between his brothers and his sisters all over this land? Or would he just use it to beat dead horses? And although “Wanna Go Walking”--the catchiest song he ever recorded -- was never a single, don’t you think someone could’ve snuck it on? Rating: Three MIA’s out of five.

Counting Crows: Hard Candy (Geffen)--“People began taking melody for granted when they started thinking of songwriters as poets,” says Adam Duritz, and he’s right. “Poetry is great,” he continues, “but I haven’t the slightest interest in being a poet.... I’m a songwriter, and I want to engrave my songs in people’s heads.” The problem is, Duritz does have the slightest interest in being a poet, hence the evocative but ultimately unfocused pictures presented by these songs. He likes girls, he loves travel, he hates sleep, and he wishes he still liked getting high--from a younger man, such shamblings might come off charmingly waifish. From a thirty-eight-year-old whose real-life rootlessness comes fully funded by royalties and major-label advances, they come off immature, even irresponsible, and as a singer the head Crow’s still no songbird (compare his “Big Yellow Taxi” with Joni’s). Still, he does well by details (n.b.: the Band-like piano on “If I Could Give All My Love or Richard Manuel Is Dead”), and he has quit taking melody for granted--“Why Should You Come When I Call?” and “Butterfly in Reverse” could engrave themselves in the head of a pachyderm. Rating: Three brain salad surgeries out of five.

Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff: The Best of Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff (Milestone)--We’re sorry, all of our operators are currently busy helping other customers. Please stay on the line, and your call will be answered in the order it was received.

Sheryl Crow: C’mon, C’mon (A&M)--As long as she retains her gift for the hook, Sheryl Crow will make for a livelier aging party girl than Joan Jett has in a while, though not than Joan Jett ever did. Although Crow appears fated to out-point Jett in terms of hit quantity, there are no junk-culture totems on the scale of “I Love Rock ’n Roll” on her horizon. She still wants nothing more than to have some fun, and with breezy-lightness the secret of her charm, ambition is gone with the wind. Even the lasting-relationship business that informs her ballads seems little more than a reason to duet with Don Henley. Will she ever dig deeper? Probably not as long as the air-brushing of her beauty mole remains a priority. As for the over-eagerness to please implicit in her swimsuit-issue booklet photos, it puts me in mind of an answer song I once composed: “Amazons, they make me sick. / Are you weak enough to be my chick?” Rating: Three-and-a-half cock-a-doodle-doo’s out of five.

¡Cubanismo!: The Very Best of ¡Cubanismo!: ¡mucho gusto! (Hannibal/Rykodisc)--Leading off with a definitively classic mambo followed by a definitively classic descarga followed by a definitively classic Arsenio Rodríguez composition, this compilation comes on like Jesús Alemañy’s answer to Bob Marley’s Legend and doesn’t so much let up later on as level off. Not that it levels off much, not with a definitively classic salsa ending things with a bang and two well-done Bob Marley covers keeping the legend alive (always nice to hear a Cuban telling his brethren to stand up for their rights). Rating: Four-and-a-half upside-down exclamation points out of five.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Village Idiot: My Pieces from the Village Voice (1999-2000)

Thanks to the great Chuck Eddy, who was serving as the Voice's music editor at the time, I was able to get four pieces into one of the hippest music sections in the world. The links, in chronological order, are below. (Thanks to the arguably greater Robert Christgau, I was able to get a few choice 'graphs into several of the Voice's "Pazz & Jop" polls as well; I'll post them as soon as I can find them.)





While we're on the subject, here's one on Loudon Wainwright III (from the Illinois Entertainer, 1998) that's still floating around: http://www.lwiii.com/about.php?section=articles&article=3

And here's an interesting piece that quotes one of my better paragraphs from the year (1997-1998) that I was WORLD's TV critic: http://www.nykola.com/archives/2004/06/the_cultural_re.html

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ted Nugent: #@&%!*! (2000)

(As originally published in the Illinois Entertainer...)

“Holy shit! I think I just had a spiritual erection!”

It’s a chilly October morning, and Ted Nugent is looking out the window of his Michigan home, watching a flock of Canadian geese land on his lake. By interview’s end, at least two more flocks will have touched down, arousing his uncommonly sensitive hunter’s instincts and moving him to vow that by day’s end a few of them will be items on a forthcoming Nugent-family menu. “It’s the perfect hunting season,” he says, “and I’m having the best hunting season of my life.”

He’s also having a pretty good rock ’n’ roll season. As you may know, Kiss spent the spring and summer traveling across North American on a “farewell tour,” playing “Do You Love Me” and “Rock and Roll All Nite” to sold-out stadiums and arenas, presumably for the last time. As you may or may not know, Ted Nugent opened each of the shows with sixty-five minutes' worth of greatest gonzos, generating a fair amount of Kiss-fan commentary at kissonline.com.

“We caught Uncle Ted,” wrote Joseph from St. Louis, “and he did not disappoint! It’s amazing what he can do with his guitar backed up only by a bass and drums. I do think some of his language was too foul, but then again I appreciate his blatant rejection of political correctness. Rock on, Ted.”

Frank from Georgia, on the other hand, while savoring some of the Nugent experience (“Ted & his band was [sic] very tight and sounded pretty good ... I love the song ‘Stranglehold’”), did not share Joseph-from-St.-Louis’s appreciation of Nugent’s “blatant rejection of political correctness” (“He still went through the usual bitching ... his banter can get pretty tiresome”).

As for Bryan from Calgary, he didn’t care for Nugent-the-rabble-rouser either (“Of course, the breaks between songs were full of comments that I didn’t agree with”), but he gladly allowed Nugent his right to unfettered speech (“This is a free country, and he is free to think and say whatever he wants--more power to him”). Furthermore, Bryan “was really impressed with [Nugent’s] set.” “He was a man possessed with energy, and [he] really worked for the crowd.”

Alas, not every crowd member enjoyed being worked. “Don't get me wrong,” wrote Reese from Louisiana, “I'm as much a fan of ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ as the next guy, but the Motor City Madman has apparently lost what little sense the good Lord bestowed upon him.... His music only killed time between his pseudo-political rants.”

What, one wonders, does Ted Nugent himself have to say to the Reeses of the world these days? “I’m not specially talented, and I’m not Superman,” the fifty-two-year-old guitar slinger admits in a rare moment of self-depreciation. “I'm just six-foot-two, 190-pounds of fire-breathing shit, and I guess my alarm to my fellow man would be ‘All right! Everyone calm down and take a deep breath! Yes, those are flames coming out of my ass, but don't be scared! Just grab the fucking marshmallows, O.K., kids? Drive safely!

“Oh, and by the way, eat me.”

This month Nugent and his current band (Tommy Aldridge, drums; Marco Mendoza, bass) will return to Chicago--where Nugent formed the Amboy Dukes thirty-five years ago--for two shows at the House of Blues, a venue he calls his “favorite place to play in the whole world.” “Maybe I’m making it up,” he muses. “Maybe I’m perceiving more than there actually is, but because of the Chicago blues history, a soul, a spirit, grows horns when we perform there, no matter whether it’s Damn Yankees, Amboy Dukes, or Ted Nugent Band. The attitude, the spirit, the sound, the invigorating, motivational essence in the air at the House of Blues--I feel Lightning Hopkins, I feel Spoonbill Thornton, whoever the fuck that is, I feel all these wild-ass brothers from the past. I come to Chicago because it’s a gift to me. We play ‘My Girl.’ We play ‘Soul Man.’ We play ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’.’ It’s unbelievable, it’s so intense! People don’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

Neither does the literary community. In addition to rocking out, hunting game, busting druggies, out-swearing the entire rap community, and having sex, Nugent has recently discovered the joys of authorhood. True, he has tested these waters before; his 1991 self-published classic, Blood Trails: The Truth About Bowhunting--120 Detailed Kill Stories remains essential dinner-time reading and is still available through the merchandise link at tnugent.com. His new book, however, bears the imprint of none other than Washington, D.C.’s Regnery Publishing, Inc., perhaps the most august conservative publishing house of the last fifty years. It’s called God, Guns, and Rock and Roll, and the odds that anyone will ever confuse it with George Harrison's I. Me. Mine, David Crosby's Stand and Be Counted, or Jewel’s A Night Without Armor are slim indeed. “Familiarity with both the function of the gun and the tactics of getting it into action could well save your life,” Nugent writes in the chapter titled “Wanna Go To A Gun And Knife Show? I'll Open My Jacket.” “And at the very least, the discipline will go a long way in quality of life upgrade in all other endeavors. As goes the projectile, so goes the soul.”

Word-slinging has long come easily to Nugent. His 1977 Double Live Gonzo album remains to this day as notorious for its ’tween-song jabber as for its hi-amp celebration of all things wang-dang, and during his early-’90’s Damn Yankee phase, his impromptu phone-ins to Rush Limbaugh alerted several million conservatives to the fact that they had a friend in Ted. By the mid-’90’s he was hosting a successful morning talk show of his own in Detroit, a show that he abandoned after two years at the peak of its popularity. “I quit,” Nugent laughs, “because I missed the road so bad I could hardly stand myself.”

The good news for fans of Radio Free Nugent is that the Nuge has plans to be back on the air, nationwide this time, by 2002 if not sooner. “It’ll be on a brand new radio format,” he explains. “First there was AM. Then there was FM. Next year there’s going to be XM. It’s a digital satellite radio subscription service that will be available in all automobiles, and I suspect that, as sure as the deer breed in November, I will be on the airwaves again because I’m too fucking good to keep off.”

In a sense, Nugent’s assault on the talk waves is payback for the silence with which FM programmers greeted his last album of original material, 1995’s Spirit of the Wild (Atlantic). It’s a silence, he believes, that’s entirely attributable to politics--specifically his. Side by side with such quintessential Nugent numbers as “Thighraceous,” “Tooth, Fang, And Claw,” and “Primitive Man” were Nugent’s first overtly political anthems, the Second-Amendment touting “I Shoot Back” and the hilariously liberal-baiting “Kiss My Ass,” a song that on the Kiss Farewell Tour, incidentally, has metamorphosed into the centerpiece of Nugent’s seventy-minute sets. During a performance last August in Lafayette, Louisiana, Nugent backed his way into the track by declaring Janet Reno, Jesse Jackson, and Sarah Brady “pieces of shit” while the assembled thousands roared their concurrence. (“You want to cure AIDS?” Nugent asked an Irving Plaza crowd in New York City one month later. “Everybody, repeat after me: No more butt-fuckin’!”)

Nugent’s tone for most of God, Guns, and Rock and Roll’s 315 pages is far less inflammatory. Just as Nugent the Champion Cusser morphs into Nugent the Airwave Friendly Talk-Show Host at the drop of a hot mic, Nugent the Scribe comes on far more thoughtful than the Nugent who during that aforementioned Louisiana performance introduced “Cat Scratch Fever” by saying “Even the faggots will be eating pussy tonight.” True, the book probably has two or three too many hunting stories to hold the attention of readers used to procuring their sustenance in the drive-thru lane, but the stories about Nugent’s real-life law enforcement adventures, his aggressive confrontations with drug abusers and pushers, his hunting trips with Joe Perry (who along with Charlton Heston, Kirk Gibson, Mitch Albom, and Congressman Bob Barr contributes a blurb to the book’s back cover), and his wilderness-awareness-raising Kamp for Kids reveal a man far more well-informed than his ’coon-tail and headdress-wearing onstage alter ego.

He and all his gun-brothers, for instance, eat everything they shoot and insist that anyone who doesn’t--anyone, in other words, who kills animals just for fun--is no gun-brother of theirs. Nugent also substantiates his claims that animal populations allowed to run amok can be destructive of the eco-balance and that therefore hunting can be as conservationist an activity as protesting the cutting of old-growth forests.

“You should communicate with all the players at Regnery and ask them what it was like to deal with Ted Nugent,” he says by way of pointing out that it was they who approached him to write the book and not vice versa. “The outcome’s going to be, basically, ‘Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! Nugent is dedicated, he’s sincere, he gives a shit, and he’s reasonably intelligent for a guitar-slinging idiot.’ And why? Because I’m clean and sober and my brain and everything else works pretty damn good!"

Obviously, the rock-star mold that Ted Nugent shattered just by being born remains in pieces, and, lest anyone get any bright ideas about gluing it back together, don’t bother. Ted’ll be there, fully loaded, ready to blow it back to smithereens.

Nick Lowe SXSW Interview, Pt. IV (March 21, 1998)

You've done so much good work in the '90's, it seems to me that someone's going to have to bring Basher up to date. 
Oh, well, I hope so. I hope so. 

Has anyone shown an interest in gathering your more recent-- 
Yes. They have actually. There's talk about box sets and things like that, which--I don't know. I can't work my way through a box set, even of people that I like. I've got a Johnny Cash box set. I've only listened to the first one. Whenever I want to hear Johnny Cash, I just put the same one. I never listen to any of the others, you know.

Speaking of Johnny Cash, did you write "The Beast in Me" for him? 
I did, actually, yes. 

Was there ever the chance that he would've rejected it? 
Oh, yeah. He did. I actually thought it up when he came to London and came to stay with me and Carlene [Carter]. He came around. Carlene phoned him up and said we'd written this song. And, in fact, what it was is, I had this first--I had the title and the first verse, and when he came along--he came 'round to hear it, and the song really wasn't finished--we'd made up a whole bunch of other stuff to tag onto it, but I knew that the first couple of lines were great. Anyway, I sang it to him, and he said, "Well, you're onto something here, but it's not quite right, is it?" I said, "Well, it's not really." He said, "Well, when you finish it, send it along." And that was about 1980. And every so often--I finished it in what? 1994 or something. But every so often I'd get this song out, or if I'd run into him, he'd say, "How's 'The Beast in Me,' Nick?" And I'd get it out again, and it was one of those songs where you think you've said it all in the first verse. There's nothing else to say. But something must've clicked one day, and I just finished it off. It just seemed to all fit, which sometimes happens. The song hasn't kind of revealed itself to you or something until some time passes, and that's the danger time [tape ends] ... the song we'll be revealed. So, anyway, I sent it off to him and didn't hear anything, and next thing I know American Recordings has come out, and it's on it. So-- 

He didn't tell you he was going to record it? 
No, he didn't tell me he was going to do it. It was fantastic. I did know that my step-daughter, who hangs out with him a lot, she said that he'd been playing it to people who'd come around to the house. He'd been singing it to them. So I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. So he got the tape." I thought he just might've listened to it and thought, "Oh, no! He still hasn't got it right." But, no, I thought it was good. 

"The Man That I've Become" sounds like a Johnny Cash song. Yeah. Yes, it is a Johnny Cash song--a Johnny Cash-style song. But I think Johnny Cash is such a great artist--I'm such an admirer, a fan, of his--as well as my familial connections to him--that I think it's sort of--he's a great enough artist--if you've got a good song, even if it sounds like--I don't know--like a good Barbra Streisand song--but a good song, good song--"People Who Need People," for instance. It's a good pop song of a kind, from the point of view of being in every airport, playing in every airport around the world. It's a crafty piece of work that everybody knows. But if you send a song like that, a really good song that doesn't necessarily sound like Johnny Cash, he'd be able to spot--"This is a really good song!" Here comes Johnny Cash singing it: (in mock Johnny Cash) "People--boom-chick-boom"--Now, he'd do something with it. He'd do something with it and make it brilliant, but I think it's sort of insulting to send a song to somebody that just sounds like them. It's sort of insulting to. People have done it to me. They mean well. They mean well. But they say, "Ah, here's a song! You're gonna love it!" And it's this rather embarrassing pastiche of three or four of your things slung together, and you go, "Thanks very much. That's very nice of you. That's very interesting, but it's not quite what I'm trading with at the moment." So I never would've dreamt of sending him "The Man That I've Become" because it does sound like him, especially with that Luther Perkins lick on it, that really does--it just cries out for it, you know. But the other thing is, it's got that country and organ music. I think organ on country tunes sounds so cool. It just puts something in there that's--on country songs--that's really emotional, better than a pedal steel for me, even though I like pedal steel played well. You know what they say, that women don't like pedal steel. It's only men who like pedal steel. There's something about that tone. Men react to the pedal steel much more than women do (laughs). I don't know. It's just one of those things. I think it's more sonic than anything else. 

I first heard "High on a Hilltop" as an extension of "What's Shakin' on the Hill." In both the "hill" is a metaphor for what's really important. 
I suppose it is. I hadn't thought about it like that. I think that that is a gospel song. I think "High on a Hilltop" actually is a kind of gospel song. I felt inspired with "High on a Hilltop." It's still pop, you know. It's still pop. I still think, "Would Dan Penn do this, or Arthur Alexander?" You know, some of the people that I like. Ivory Joe Hunter. I think, "Would they do something like this?" If I think they would, I think, "Oh well, I will too" (laughs). 

When I first saw the title "High on a Hilltop," I thought, "Yet another gospel song!" 

"The Man That I've Become" goes well with "Failed Christian" because they both have verses about the choir. 
Oh yeah, yes. That's true. Yes, I didn't know that until we actually--I hadn't realized that until they sequenced it. But they do. Yes, they've both got the choir reference.

They sound as if they're being sung by two people coming at the same emotional or spiritual state from different perspectives. 
Oh, well, that's great. That's great. 

Such connections seem to continually emerge from your albums. I have the feeling that ten years from now I could play this album and discover more. 
Well, I hope so. I really hope so because--well, I like listening to it too. See, that's the strange thing. You get a real kick from sitting down and listening to your own record. There comes a time when you stop, but generally it's when you start thinking up a new way of telling your story. But until that comes along, to listen to your own record and really enjoy it and not be going--twitching and--you know, because you can hear yourself going to work--there are always things that you wish you'd done slightly different. Of course there are. But they're all honest, honest--you know, you overlooked something. I mean, it's honest. But to be able to listen to your own record and for it to sound like somebody else, for you to enjoy it as if it were somebody else, is a very curious sensation. Or maybe it's not curious enough. Maybe it's not a curious sensation. 

Did you always listen to your own records and enjoy them, even in the '70's? 
I did, but some more than others. Definitely some. Whenever I thought I'd done a good thing, oh yes! I'd listen to it over and over again and dig myself, you know (laughs)? But, no, there was a period when I was striving for something and not--I was very unhappy, and I felt very uncreative and at a low ebb and trapped. I felt--I was still with a big record label then, and when it's time for an album, you've gotta come up with one. It doesn't matter if you don't feel like it. 

Columbia, yeah. And that's a terrible feeling, to go into the studio with feet like anvils, you know, just dragging them. And that's, of course, when you start taking to the bottle and thinking that if you've got half an idea--if you get drunk enough, you can actually turn it into something good. And the awful thing is that occasionally it works. But, of course, the next time you do it, what you're left with is this drunken mess. And that's awful, when you've got to--when you know you've done a record that, in your heart, you know is a sorry thing.