The Best Thing Elvis Costello Has Done In Years

I can listen to this all day, which is more than can be said for anything on North.

 

This is so great I don’t even mind that I don’t get to hear my all-time favorite Costello couplet, “I said, ‘I’m so happy I could die’/She said, ‘Drop dead’ then left with another guy.” It may even rival “Born To Add.”

And this is just gratuitous.

Is This The Greatest Springsteen Cover Ever?

Most covers of Bruce Springsteen songs fall flat. The Hangin’ On E Street project was a good idea, but it also proves my point. Josh Ritter, Avett Brothers, and Ted Leo are great, but the others (and yes, I’m including Brian Fallon in there) do nothing for me. It’s not that I think they’ve sacrosanct, but that, in their desire to “make the songs their own,” too many artists de-emphasize something – a lyric or something in the arrangement – that misses the point of the song.

A few years ago I was searching through the Internet Archive for Warren Zevon concerts, where his family has authorized for them to be shared, legally and free. I found a show from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ that had a cover of “Cadillac Ranch”, which effectively ended the search. “Cadillac Ranch” is a tough one because it sounds like it’s about driving, but it’s really about death. In other words, it’s a perfect fit for Zevon. When I first heard it, I leapt out of my chair at the start of the riff coming out of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” It’s a blistering piece of rock n’ roll that captures everything great about the original, and Zevon adds his own sense of gallows humor to his vocals.

I discovered it was from an MTV special, but it wasn’t up on YouTube, and I gave up trying to find it. Then, a few days ago, my buddy Rob Smith posted a link on his Facebook wall to an AV Club list of five Springsteen covers they liked. Naturally I disagreed with four of the choices (I don’t consider Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” to be a cover), and if I hear one more awful female singer/songwriter butcher “I’m On Fire” someone’s going to pay. The Hold Steady do a pretty good job with “Atlantic City,” but they ruin the ending. But the fifth one, like the cool dentist who didn’t recommend sugarless gum for their patients who choose gum, was the long-lost Zevon clip. Fasten your seat belt for this one, folks.

“It Was No Longer ‘Us Versus Them’”

I was trying to think of some way to write about the breakup of R.E.M. without resorting to the same things that everybody else has already said. I was talking about them with a good friend last night and we agreed that what they had more than just about any other band was a consistent sense of integrity. It’s not that they weren’t interested in money, but even those decisions stemmed from the band’s pride in their work. Yeah, they signed an $80 million deal with Warners, but I always thought of that as a victory lap for paving the way for everything that followed in their wake than raw greed. And as their popularity waned in the last decade, they continued to exclusively follow their muse. OK, maybe it wasn’t always with such great results, but at least they didn’t try to sound contemporary (see Chris Cornell-meets-Timbaland).

In 2003, Brian convinced me to try NaNoWrMo, the project where you spend a month writing a 50,000-word novel. I got about 35,000 words through it before realizing that my characters had nowhere to go, but it was still a good exercise that taught me a lot about my own writing abilities. Within it was a section that my narrator had written about R.E.M. There are a couple of changes for fiction’s sake (although I did blow off class that morning to buy Out Of Time) but the opinion is all mine, and how I still feel.

I’m not a huge fan of compilation albums. Usually I have the whole collection of the artist anyway, so I wind up paying full price for the two or three new songs that the labels put on to get people like me to buy them. Besides, I can always think of at least five other songs I’d rather hear than the Big Hit Single.

Occasionally you get a great one that not only has fantastic music, but also brings you back to when the songs were new. A perfect example is In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003. I had stopped listening to them when Bill Berry left the group in 1997. He was my favorite member of the group, not just because he was a great drummer, but also because he seemed like such a cool guy. Their came through Washington in early October and a friend had an extra ticket and I accepted. Within seconds I was reminded of why they were the best band in the world for a few years, and the newer songs blended in very well with the more familiar material.

So on In Time I have the three new songs plus five from the two albums they released after Berry’s departure to discover. Of the other nine songs, six of them were released before I had a CD player and hadn’t thought of in years until the concert. Not surprisingly, it’s those six that I find myself listening to more than the others.

I still remember the day Out Of Time was released: March 12, 1991. I blew off classes to be at the store where I hung out as soon as it opened, because I needed to hear it before everybody else. “Losing My Religion” had been getting airplay for about three weeks, and we were all anxious for the whole album. I threw the cassette on in my car and waited for The Word, the sign from my tiny speakers that said that THIS was where music was taking us. The first thing I heard was rapper KRS-ONE speaking “Hey! Can’t find nothin’ on the radio. Yo! Turn to that station.” Then came the familiar sound of Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker guitar, followed by Mike Mills’ bass. What’s a Hammond organ doing in an R.E.M. song? “The world is collapsing/Around our ears/I turned up the radio/But I can’t hear it,” sang Michael Stipe, as the track mutated into some bizarre, brilliant mixture of the Byrds and Booker T. And the M.G.’s. They had done it. R.E.M. had finally created their masterpiece.

I spent that day driving around town, playing Out Of Time at full volume, letting the music guide the steering wheel. I left snippets of songs on friends’ answering machines. My roommate Ken was an acoustic guitarist who performed a lot at this small bar in Charlottesville. He spent hours figuring out every lyric, melody, chord, guitar solo, bass line, drum fill, and harmony line. A few weeks later he played a gig where he performed the whole thing from start to finish. I even got on the microphone to do KRS-ONE’s rap.

And as if we didn’t think it could get better, eighteen months later they released Automatic For The People, and it was even more beautiful and evocative than “Out Of Time.” I loved it on first listen, but Ken and some of our friends thought it had been too much of a departure from the group they had fell in love with. But they stayed with it and eventually they were able to see it my way.

Everything changed during those few years. It was no longer “us versus them.” “Us” had become “them” or more correctly, “them” had become “us,” and we were having a blast because we knew that we had been right all along. Most people point to the success of Nirvana that winter as the pivot upon which the industry turned, but it couldn’t have happened without R.E.M.

That period, the early-90s, when the rules of what constituted a pop song were broken, was the closest we’ll ever come to my parents’ generation, when every Beatles, Dylan and Motown record was seemingly different from anything else you had ever heard in your life. The current state of the music industry is designed to keep interesting and experimental music in the margins at best, and I worry that future generations will never have their own period of discovery like we did.

“The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago,
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows.
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse.
Still, it’s so much clearer.” – Michael Stipe

Thought For The Day

The other day I was listening to the new episode of Coverville, where Brian played Elvis Costello’s cover of “Let’s Misbehave,” one of Cole Porter’s most definitive songs. Even if you’re familiar with a few of Porter’s songs, chances you can identify it as being one of his. It’s classy, witty, playfully sexy, and lots of other adjectives ending in “y.” Porter’s catalog contains dozens, if not hundreds of songs like this.

And if you look through the Great American Songbook, you can find thousands of songs with clever and sophisticated lyrics by such notables as Gershwin, Sondheim, Berlin, Strayhorn, Comden & Green, Fields, Cahn, Mercer, Loesser, as well as plenty of writers whose songs have been played for generations, but aren’t as well-known.

And yet, it took a four-eyed shitkicker from Lubbock, Texas to realize the poetic beauty in naming a song, “Maybe Baby.”

JD McPherson

Testing, testing…Is this on?

It’s been a crazy five weeks here which has kept me from posting. I’ve been so busy I didn’t even get a chance to write up a review of the thoroughly awesome Paul McCartney concert at Wrigley Field I attended on August 1 (who cares about “Hey Jude,” “Band On The Run” or “All My Loving?” He played “The Night Before!”). Funny how these lulls happen so often during the summers here, where there’s always so much going on – bike rides, outdoor activities, friends and family coming through town – that I lose track of the site. It doesn’t help that I started a new column at Popdose, which I hope will gain some traction even though analyzing Bob Lefsetz’s columns may drive me crazy.

So yeah, I’ve had some friends come to Chicago recently, including this past Friday where one suggested that we see some live music on her only night here. I looked and didn’t see anybody that I knew, but the Double Door was having a Soul Summit, with three DJs spinning, followed by a set from roots rock weirdo JD McPherson, whose debut album, Signs & Signifiers, was released last October. I skimmed through a couple of the samples on his website, liked what I heard and told my friend of our plans.

I’m always skeptical of acts that are rooted in the past. Either I hear too many anachronisms,  or they’re too slavishly devoted to the past that there’s no room to grow. I mean, I love Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, especially in concert, but too often I wish the songwriting was as consistent as those of their influences.

But back to JD McPherson. Right now it’s too early to tell if he’s around for the long haul, but based on the evidence both live and on Signs & Signifiers, he’s one to watch. His songs evoke not only the early rock n’ soul of Little Richard and Carl Perkins, but also the jump blues shouters that inspired them. The lyrics fit in nicely with the songs of the day without once resorting to a recitation of period cliches, which is another problem I often have with retro acts (cough)Big Bad Voodoo Daddy(cough).

And, just as importantly, he delivers the goods in concert with a raucous set. I wish his guitar solos had a little more flash like Brian Setzer, but his playing was still solid, as was the rest of his six-piece band, especially upright bassist Jimmy Sutton, who brought plenty of charisma to the stage. Go and see him if he’s playing near you.

Take a look.

And it takes a lot of balls to pull off a cover of James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” as well as he does here.

Criminal

I remember the moment when I gave up caring about awards shows. It was the 1992 Grammys and R.E.M.’s Out Of Time lost out to Unforgettable, Natalie’s Cole’s karoake cash-grab heartfelt tribute to her legendary father. It was one of those, “Well, here’s where I learned that life can be unfair” moments. While I will still occasionally watch the Oscars, I don’t get involved in the debates about who should have won or whether or not somebody got screwed out of a nomination. Honestly, why do we need a group of industry insiders to validate our own tastes?

Still, the announcement that, once again, Nick Offerman has not been nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of Ron Effing Swanson on Parks And Recreation fills me with a contempt that cannot be covered up with a thick, bushy mustache denied. As P&R star Amy Poehler told Alan Sepinwall yesterday:

Continue reading ‘Criminal’ »

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

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This is the Petrillo Music Shell at Chicago’s Grant Park. It’s deserted now but for the past week and a half it was a focal point of the annual Taste Of Chicago Festival. I didn’t get to spend as much time at Taste as I had in previous years due to commitments which happened to fall on the nights the acts I would have liked to have seen played. But on Saturday I did catch The Jayhawks, who were fantastic. Now that Marc Olson is back in the fold, they concentrated mostly on the classic albums they made together, Tomorrow The Green Grass (nine songs) and Hollywood Town Hall (six songs), with a few songs from their upcoming album that I liked a lot.

But I didn’t make the trip down to Petrillo this morning to talk about something that happened on Saturday, but about the 20th anniversary of an event. When most people who aren’t from Chicago hear the words “Grant Park,” they think of the celebration the night Barack Obama was elected. But for years before that it has meant something else to me, because it was on July 4, 1991, at Petrillo on the last day of Taste, that The Replacements played their last show.

Continue reading ‘It Was 20 Years Ago Today’ »

Peter Falk, RIP

It’s been a sad week here at WFW Headquarters. Just as we were all getting over the death of Clarence Clemons comes the news that Peter Falk has passed away at the age of 83.

With his thick, gravelly New York accent, perpetually rumpled features, and the glass eye he had worn since losing his right eye to cancer at the age of three, Falk had a knack for offbeat characters who seemed dumb or crazy, but were really thinking one or two steps ahead of the game. Columbo, his career-defining role which ran from 1971-78, was a little before my time, but I knew my parents loved it. And Dad also used to talk about a movie he did in 1961 called Pocketful Of Miracles, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. I remember him cracking up Johnny Carson a lot, but I couldn’t find any clips of those.

For most people of my generation, he’s remembered as the grandfather in The Princess Bride. But I’ll always remember him as Vincent J. Ricardo, the lovable CIA agent in The In-Laws, which co-starred Alan Arkin. I blogged about this movie two years ago and was surprised to find that there was only one clip on YouTube. I’m glad to see that’s changed. When a famous person passes away, we often say, “If he/she had only made this one album/movie/book, that’s enough to secure their legacy.” With Falk, it could have been any of these scenes.

And of course, “Serpentine!”

Clarence Clemons And The Importance Of Social Media

I didn’t expect to stay in last night.

I had a busy day planned. I woke up early and went for a 27-mile bike ride. I only stopped once, at the halfway point to get off the bike for a few minutes and send a picture of the Chicago skyline on a gorgeous, if slightly hazy, morning to Twitter and Facebook through the Instagram app on my iPhone. I could have gone a few miles more, but I had to be back home by 11:30. I was meeting a friend for coffee in the afternoon, and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to shower, change, and catch up on e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook before going out to get some lunch (the calories I burned on the ride were nullified by a trip to Five Guys).

After I got back home from coffee, my intention was to rest up for about an hour or so, have dinner, then meet another friend for a pub crawl. But that all changed at about 7:00. I don’t remember who sent it first, but there were about three or four tweets in a row on my Tweetdeck all with the same message, that Clarence Clemons had passed away.

Over the next six hours, I only left the couch a handful of times, to make a sandwich, put on the DVD of the Houston 1978 show, a couple of bathroom breaks, and pour myself a couple of fingers of Highland Park 12 and toast the Big Man’s memory.

But I was not alone.

Since getting the news, my Twitter and Facebook feeds have been in constant motion. We’ve retweeted lyrics that took on greater poignancy, tributes from the celebrities we follow, and links to blog posts, including beautiful pieces from Anne and the best writer in America, Joe Posnanski. We’ve said which songs we’re listening to and which DVDs we’re watching. People fortunate enough to have met him wrote about how sweet and warm he was. We’ve shared YouTube videos of our favorite moments and commented on each other’s posts. Two friends popped up on Facebook’s IM to talk about it. Ben found a performance of “Growin’ Up’ from the last night of the Working On A Dream Tour in Buffalo, which has taken on even greater poignancy because of the 1978-style breakdown after the guitar solo.

As all this was going on, I wrote a blog post in tribute. I tweeted it and posted it on Facebook. In the 18 hours since I published it, my traffic has skyrocketed because people retweeted it and shared it with their Facebook friends. I got linked from corners of the Internet I never knew existed. I also picked up a bunch of Bruce-loving followers on Twitter.

A year and a half ago, I somehow got linked from the New York Times ArtsBlog that set a one-day record for traffic to this site. I may break that record today, but if I don’t, today will still mean more to me because it came from a variety of sources instead of just one highly influential source.

I know a lot of people who don’t understand social media, and give the standard line about how it’s a bunch of self-absorbed people talking about their lunch and bowel movements. But the last 24 hours have shown its true value. I could have gone out to my friend’s pub crawl and hoped that there was a fellow Bruce fan there so that we could drink a toast to Clarence. And if there wasn’t, I could have tried to explain to someone how and why Bruce Springsteen‘s music is so important to me, and the role Clarence Clemons played in that music. Instead, I bonded with people who felt exactly the same as I did. It didn’t matter that we weren’t in the same room or that I’ve never even met most of the people with whom I was grieving. We were all brought together by our laptops and smartphones, and our tweets and videos served as virtual hugs. There was no other place I would have rather been.

My Ten Favorite Clarence Clemons Moments

Rest In Peace, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons: 1/11/1942-6/18/2011

Bruce’s statement

10. The Introductions

Whether it was during “Rosalita,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Mary’s Place,” or “American Land,” no E Street Band show was complete until Bruce introduced Clarence, getting the loudest ovation of the night. The list of names that Bruce called him over the years is impossible to compile. Thanks to my Popdose colleague Will Harris for pointing me to this.

9. “Sherry Darling”

No instrument sounds more like teenage sexual frustration than the tenor sax. Clarence exemplifies it here twice.

8. “Spirit In The Night”

His first great moment, pretty much blowing that tenor through the whole song as if nobody would dare tell him to stop.

7. “Independence Day”

Clarence’s solo perfectly captures the sadness of the narrator torn between his love for his father and his need to break away. I quoted this song at my Dad’s funeral. Both Clarence and my father died at the too-young age of 69.

6. “If I Should Fall Behind”

Clarence didn’t sing much. We mostly think of “Kid, you better get the picture,” and “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.” And I loved the re-working of “Out In The Street” that concluded with that huge voice singing, “Meet me out in the street, baby!” and going back to his spot with a huge smile. This arrangement of “If I Should Fall Behind,” with Clarence doing a beautiful vocal after a lyrical solo, is his finest vocal. It brought me to tears in 1999. I remember looking over at Bill afterwards and he was wiping his eyes, too. It still gets me whenever I play it.

5. “Bobby Jean”

“You know that one ‘Bobby Jean,’ off Born In The U.S.A.? Anyway, he phones this girl up but she’s left town years before and he’s pissed off that he didn’t know about it, because he wanted to say goodbye, and tell her that he missed her, and to wish her good luck. And then one of those sax solos comes in, and you get goose pimples, if you like sax solos. And Bruce Springsteen. Well, I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song. Just once.” – Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

4. “Born To Run”

I originally didn’t want to include it because I thought it was too cliched. But there’s no way you can leave it off any list of his greatest moments. It simply explodes out of that dense mix.

3. “Quarter To Three”

On record, his solos were so perfectly worked out that they were played verbatim onstage every night. Unfortunately, he rarely got the opportunity to just wail. For years, a cover of Gary U.S. Bonds‘ “Quarter To Three” was the point in the show when he was able to let fly and all hell would break loose, sending the crowd into ecstasy. I discovered this video tonight and it’s everything that made the relationship between Bruce and Clarence so special. Check out the 8-minute mark where Clarence’s tenor sax temporarily “revives” Bruce.

2. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Rock’s ultimate bromance, Scooter and the Big Man, encapsulated in four bars: the first two sung by Bruce, “They made that change uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” and the last two blown by Clarence.

1. “Jungleland”

The greatest sax solo in all of rock, bar none, was famously pieced together from dozens of takes until Bruce got what he was looking for. Musically, it’s surprisingly simple, a blues scale in C minor spread out over an octave and a fourth. But every night that solo, all two minutes and 18 seconds of it, wrapped you up in its warmth and soul and light, even when the pain was so great that he couldn’t stand up.

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