“What a drag it is getting old,” Mick Jagger snarled at the beginning of “Mother’s Little Helper” in 1966. That was 44 years ago, and now Jagger’s getting a bit aged and crinkly himself, and Andy Rooney, who was 97 back then, is now a ripe old 141. Which makes Rooney’s attempts at pop-music punditry especially laughable, and if I was a muckety-muck at CBS, I’d be pushing to devote the final 15 minutes of 60 Minutes each week to playing Rooney the latest sounds the world of popular music has to offer just to get his impromptu reviews, because the dividends of unintentional comedy gold might be priceless. Dunno about you, but I certainly would be tuning in every week.
“I consider myself to be an absolutely normal, dead-center, average American,” Andy sez at the beginning of this clip (after whatever noxious advertising clip the mooks at CBS tacked onto the beginning, and sorry about that). Yep, Andy, when I think about paragons of normal, contemporary Americans, I think of you — you , and that guy who played Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace, perhaps. Then he goes on to comment on Lady GaGa, and The Human Foetus (some kid named Justin Bieber), and Usher. Um, hasn’t Usher been around since the 1990s? Someone gave Rooney a copy of Billboard magazine, and he didn’t see Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights or the Capitol Steps on the Top 200 Albums chart? Whoa. Big-B little-ummer bummer, man.
The only thing cooler would be to pair Rooney with a cartoon counterpoint: Mr. Magoo. Unfortunately, Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, is no longer living. Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen or Harry Shearer might be up to the challenge, or maybe they could create a whole new geriatric goofball character who could spar with Rooney. Something like this might get everyone tuning in each week — “Hey, Rooney and Magoo are reviewing the new Black Tambourine and Fall albums!” — and might help reignite interest in a moribund record industry.
And, hey. If I ever finish my album, I’d want these guys debating its merits. —Jackson Griffith
Sorry I’ve been away. I’d written a long screed that I kept adding to, and then better sense told me not to post it. Allergies are making me slightly wacko, but at least these days I have the presence of mind to be able to understand exactly what’s gone sideways in my head. You know, feelings aren’t facts and all that.
What I’ve been doing is writing, so that I don’t totally starve. I’m still looking for work, but until someone graciously succumbs to the brilliant idea that I would be a pretty decent fellow to bring on board, I’m writing. The trick, I’ve learned, is to eat, because I get loopy when I haven’t eaten enough, and then I have trouble concentrating on whatever it is I’m writing about.
Been recording, too. This past week into the weekend, I got seven out of the 14 songs I wrote in February demoed into GarageBand. A few of them I want to revisit and redo the vocals and remix them slightly, but overall I’m happy with the progress. Then I’ll record the other seven songs, and then maybe I’ll get busy recording some of the songs I wrote before February, and a couple I’ve written since. It’s good to stay creative and upbeat. Well, good for this particular artist, at least.
I like to share what I create, but unfortunately I don’t have a website to do that. Yeah, I posted some stuff on that social networking site owned by Rupert Murdoch, but I’d really like to avoid going that route. WordPress has a way I can upload them here as links, but I’d need to buy additional server space from them to do that, and currently I’m counting my shekels to avoid starving. So, if anyone is a combination of curious and magnanimous — curious to hear what I’ve been up to, and magnanimous enough to spring for some server space for me at WordPress — I will be able to upload my MP3s for people to hear.
Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. But over the last couple of years, I’ve taken a nice toboggan ride to the bottom of the hill, and most of the time there wasn’t any snow on the ground to cushion the blows. Nevertheless, every day/ I keep moving things forward, hoping that things will get better, as many people assure me they will.
But, well … I’m just not there yet. Yet being the operative word. —Jackson Griffith
Must’ve been the spicy food. I had a whole bunch of weird dreams the other morning, vivid psychedelic dreams. In one, I was told by a sidewalk psychic that my dog was in danger of being sliced up by an expert swordsman lurking nearby, but not to worry; a moment later, the swordsman materialized, but the dog danced around the attacker and his swinging blade, repeatedly lunging up and chewing his face off in the process. We left the fool’s shredded body in the gutter, covered with a black blanket.
In another part of the dream, I was walking through a video gamescape, like an early Renaissance European city, and I wandered off the main course to examine a glint in the shadows. Next to a huge set of double doors, like a cathedral entrance, was a sparkly beggar, an Easter egg in the game, and when I reached out to touch him, the prize added to my inventory was a “magic porno carpet.” Suddenly I was airborne, naked, en flagrante delicto on a flying carpet, ravenously and gleefully humping away with a beautiful genie while, below, a Merrie Melodies version of the cityscape from The Thief of Baghdad whizzed by. Then I found myself back before the double doors, and where the beggar had been was a huge glowing gold cross like the ones on the sails of Columbus’ ships, which I touched, and the doors opened, and a glorious, luminous cathedral beckoned me in. “Not my time to go yet, San Pedro,” I said, then I shambled off down the road, looking for the next glint from the shadows.
I wish I had a magic porno carpet. Gosh darn, I’d settle for a simple old magic carpet sometimes, if it would give me temporary escape from this town. Not that I want to leave this town, mind you; I like it, and I like the sense of community here, and the friends I have and the people I know, but there are times when I have what are impolitely called “WTF moments,” and I wonder what it is that keeps me here, and why the hell I just don’t pack up what little I have and try for better luck somewhere else.
Case in point: There’s a nightclub up the street from where I type this, Azukar Lounge, which caters to the kind of oontz-oontz Hummer-limo crowd that, well, it just isn’t my thing. It’s the kind of joint that I really dig in principle, because its clientele is pan-ethnic and out to have a funky good time, a place where the mooks and mookettes from Jersey Shore might land if they deigned to host a Chicken Cutlet Guido Fist-Pump Night in our fair city (which just might motivate me into visiting Azukar if I could get by their stringent-for-hippies dress-code enforcers, but that’s another story). Azukar, perhaps Sacramento’s shining exponent of the Maloof aesthetic, recently got into a bit of a messy tête-à-tête with some skanky subterranean nightclub booking agency over a scheduled appearance by the spectacularly multi-talented Kim Kardashian, whose non-derriere-related assets somehow escape me, although I’m sure they’re there somewhere. I mean, when Spencer Pratt wants you to be the first non-Heidi artist signed to Heidi Montag Records, you know you’ve got some stellar assets, right?
So apparently Azukar thought they’d booked the spectacularly talented Quim Lardassian for an extra-special appearance on April 29, but there was some kind of mix-up, and Ms. Kardashian will not be there to recreate the golden scenes from her famous video masterwork with former boyfriend Ray J, brother of actress-singer Brandy. Now, Mr. Ray J himself is no stranger to Azukar; having appeared there last November. No report on whether he displayed any of the talents demonstrated in his screen debut with Ms Quim.
I guess if there’s some factor of butthurt on my part related to a local nightclub booking someone who’s claim to fame is that she was a demonstratively lousy lay in a celebrity sex tape — and I use the term celebrity loosely, because she seems to lack that iconic status of a Charles Nelson Reilly or a Jaye P. Morgan, both of whom actually did something other than going shopping and getting peed on by some rapper to merit their fame — it’s that Azukar was willing to pay her $11,000, plus hotel suites for her entourage and black Escalades to ferry them about, to make an appearance in their club. To me, that marks Sacramento as a monumental embarrassment in the milieu of popular culture.
Okay, it is a weird little world we live in, and I guess I’m having trouble living in a city that will pony up eleven grand to some Los Angeles turboshopper with a large ass and putatively not large brains, but can’t seem to support an original local music scene. Yes, apples and oranges; the people who go pay for overpriced drinks in oontz-oontz joints are not the same people who go out to see live music, and the people who go out to see live music are sitting around watching Lost and talking about their J.J. Abrams is a genius fixations. Or maybe they’re just not interested in the current crop of local musicians, or they don’t know about them, or whatever.
I have a vested interest in this, because even at the ripe old age of 55, I’ve discovered that what most I want to do is play and sing the songs I’ve written in front of people, and go into the studio and record the songs I’ve written, and generally just make a little joyful music. The world may disagree, or at least feign indifference, but I think I write some pretty good tunes. One of these days, I’ll finally push that boulder uphill far enough that I will release an album of my songs. Maybe I will find some people to back me up so I can get bookings outside of the solo singer-songwriter ghetto. I’m gonna keep at it, because for me to give up, I’d probably die a little too much inside, and I’ve already relived large parts of the Old Testament Book of Job over the past few years, and, dammit, I don’t want to give up. I would like to avoid moving to Los Angeles, or Portland, or Austin, or somewhere that might recognize and respond to what I have to offer. But I will, if I get to that point where I realize that trying to make it in Sacramento is an exercise in futility. Some days, I think I’ve arrived at that place.
If you’re reading this as a humble call for some kind of help, you’re probably right. —Jackson Griffith
One of my favorite things to do when no one is around is play and sing covers of old country songs. Sometimes I fantasize about gigging under the nom-de-twang of Orvis Tinney, me in a rhinestone-bejeweled Nudie-style suit, backed by a stellar combo of killer country musicians, launching into hit after hit after hit of pedal-steel and double fiddle-fueled goodness.
I grew up pretty conscious of country music, because all the grown-up white men, as in dads, in my part of California’s agrarian Central Valley listened to KRAK radio, the AM station out of Sacramento. Which is to say that Buck and Merle, along with Hank Sr. and George Jones and Patsy Cline and others, were part of our musical consciousness, like it or not. But by the mid-1970s, country wasn’t doing it for me, because so much of it had become twangless countrypolitan fodder, box wine and cold beer at a time I was thirsting for sour-mash whiskey.
I’d read a review somewhere about an album by some sheetmetal worker from Florida named Moe Bandy, on an indie label out of Atlanta called GRC, which was owned by a porn king named Michael Thevis and had landed a hit record with Sammy John’s cheesy hit “Chevy Van.” Bandy’s album cover pictured him scowling and holding the busted-off neck of a whiskey bottle, the remnants of which were smashed on the jukebox behind him, and the title got me, too: I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today, featuring the hit “Honky-Tonk Amnesia.” That was enough for me. And the music was great, too — 100-proof country music with metallic guitars and keening pedal steel, just like I remembered I liked before Nashville went all soft and pussyboy. Bandy cut a couple more great records for GRC, and then he signed with Columbia and did a bunch of dopey duets with Joe Stampley on Epic. But his GRC stuff renewed my faith in country music.
Another review by the same guy who turned me onto Bandy, I think it might have been Chet Flippo, hipped me to Out of Hand, the RCA Victor debut of Gary Stewart, another guy with a Florida connection. Stewart sang like a hillbilly Roy Orbison, and his music was out of this world. I couldn’t get enough of the single “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” still one of my all-time favorite country songs. Stewart went on to cut a bunch of fine two-fisted drinkin’ anthems for RCA, and then his demons got the best of him for a while, and then Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg signed him to their HighTone label for a comeback, and then Stewart came to a bad self-inflicted end at his Florida home. He’s still worth checking out, and you should if you’re not familiar with him. Writer Jimmy McDonough penned an excellent piece on Stewart, if you’d like to know more.
In 1977 I got hired at Tower Records in Stockton. We used to get free promotional copies from the labels, and most of the in-demand stuff got cherry-picked by the day shift, leaving the dregs, usually unknown acts on major labels like MCA, which we called “Musical Cemetery of America.” One night about a year later I took home a couple albums nobody wanted. The next day, after I’d mowed the lawn at my old house on Flora Street, I cracked a beer, twisted a doob, put on one of the albums, titled Honky Tonk Masquerade, flopped down on the couch, sparked the umbage, toked deeply, and then the music hit. What the fuck? I had no idea who this guy Joe Ely was, but every song just killed: “Cornbread Moon,” “Because of the Wind,” “Boxcars,” “Jericho,” “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” — and that was just side one. Side two had “West Texas Waltz” and this killer track with the line: “I keep my fingernails long so they click when I play the piano.” I was completely smitten, and I played the record for everybody I knew. Had no idea who the Flatlanders were, or Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Butch Hancock, either. But that late-afternoon listening session was a life-changer. Still love all those guys.
Years later, had to be 1985 or so, I was working for Tower Records’ Pulse Magazine, out of Tower Records’ advertising office on Howe Avenue in Sacramento. I’d taken over a column called “Spins” from Keith Cahoon, who had moved to Japan to run Tower’s Far East operation. One day I got a box with six or eight records in it from something called Tabb Rex Enterprises in L.A.; most of the records featured the kind neo-Nuggets psychedelic revival bands that were popular in L.A.’s so-called paisley underground scene. But one of them was a six-song EP with a black and white and blue cover: Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam. We listened to stuff all the time on the office turntable, and when something was good, everybody’s ears perked up. Yoakam’s debut, on a label called Oak Records, was such a record; I remember heating up the phone lines raving back and forth with store guys like Joe Medwick and Larry King from Southern California, who already were selling the shit out of it and were smitten. And my boss Mike Farrace, along with some of the other countryphiles in the office — Tower seemed to have a lot of hard-core, whiskey-drinking twang fans in its headquarters — were flipping out over it, too. It was a short time later that Warner Bros.’ newly revived Reprise label signed Yoakam and reissued the EP, fleshed out to a 10-song album.
The funniest thing was that like a day before I heard the Yoakam record, the New York Times ran an obituary of country music by critic Stephen Holden, commenting on how utterly dead in the water the genre was. And then, Dwight, along with Randy Travis and a bunch of other new guys hit. So, well, just when you think something is dead in the water, like country music, it gets revived by some total unknown. Seems it’s time again, I think.
And if nobody else gets ’round to it, maybe my pal Orvis Tinney will take a whack. —Jackson Griffith
Ever wish you could clone yourself into maybe three or four or five different versions, so you wouldn’t miss anything? Last night that magic number was at least four — five, if you count my occasional venturings into cocktail lounges frequented by flight attendants in the guise of Vladumb i Vladumbr, a semi-moronic double agent from the Slovenivakian Embassy in Fresno, which is a reasonably pointless place to site an embassy, but the premier of Slovenivakia — or maybe it’s Slovakivenia; these details are too easy to forget — a former minor functionary from the old Soviet Union’s Ministry of Medium-Sized Dogs by the name of Dopero Doperovich Plitplov, became convinced that the real capital of the United States was wherever freerepublic.com was located, so that’s why Vladumb i Vladumbr was working out of there, at a Clarion Inn near Highway 99, well outside a walking radius from any decent Chinese restaurant. But I digress.
Went out to see music last night. Would have liked to be in Brooklyn to hear my pal the great singer, songwriter and beverage expert Sport Murphy wow ’em with his brilliant music, and maybe some of that will show up online. Also wouldn’t have minded seeing Kevin Seconds play with 7Seconds in Berkeley. And, locally, JD Valerio was at Luna’s, and I’d promised him I would show up, but I know he’s gonna play Naked Lounge at 11th and H on Sunday, April 25 with David Watts Barton, who’s sitting mere yards from me in that other Naked Lounge at 15th and Q as I type this on a wet Sunday afternoon, so that’ll take care of seeing two people I really want to see live again, if I can make that show. And, of course, I will.
I’d wanted to stick around the Urban Hive at 20th and H to see Dusty Brown‘s DJ set, and I went by there early and hung out and talked a bit, but where I really wanted to be was Clubhouse 24 over on 24th Street just off J — first, because my pal Warren Bishop was playing with his trio the Onlymen (which usually is a foursome), and also because there were two acts on the bill that I’d been wanting to see: Musical Charis and Boulevard Park.
I’ve known Warren ever since I put an ad in the News & Review around 1991, looking for people to play music with, and a pal of his named Rich answered, and we got to talking, and he kept saying a musician buddy of his who’d moved to Orange County was moving back, and then their band would be getting under way. The buddy turned out to be Warren, and the band was called Mojo Filter, or at least it was later on. Dunno whatever happened to Rich, but I’ve gotten to know Warren over the years. I kinda recall his band the Onlymen were called the Holy Men or something, but a name like that can work against you unless you hire a few strippers to join you onstage from time to time. Which is what I’d do in that case, but again, I digress.
Last night Warren was joined by Kevin Gaffney on drums and, well, I forget who he told me his bass player was, but it wasn’t Larry Cox, who left the band. Warren plays the kind of music favored by white guys of a certain age who remember seeing the Beatles play on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and got forever warped, and before you accuse me of being ageist, I’ll just say that it takes one to know one. Warren and I both were huge fans of NRBQ, this band that was kind of an amalgam of the Beatles, Thelonious Monk and Soupy Sales with maybe a little Buck Owens, or more accurately Don Rich, thrown in of Big Al was manning the Tele, and that sensibility comes out in his music.
By mid-set, about half the audience looked like Musical Charis, so it kinda blew my mind when Warren lauched into an original called “Hipster,” about, he later told me, a local poet and a performance artist; he seemed a little apologetic in reassuring the audience that the song was not about anyone in the room. My advice? Get in your face about it, and tell them that this is about every one of you little fuckers, and if you don’t like it, well, fuck you. But that’s just me, and Warren’s light years more diplomatic than I am. So there.
He also apologized for living in Citrus Heights, which has more pentecostal cranklabs than Midtown and Land Park combined, plus it has purple street signs, which would please The Artist Formerly Known As Unpronounceable Dingbat. Do I apologize for being from Stockton? Fuck no. The Onlymen closed with, well, a song about the first iteration of the True Love Coffeehouse closing, a Bic-lighter moment that’s called “Kicking The Walls Down” or something like that, and forgive me for being too lazy but I tried to look it up, I really did, but it’s that kind of a day and I need to keep typing and not get too bogged down with anything resembling, erm, accuracy.
Part of the reason I was there — and not sausaged into an ugly and ill-fitting thrift-store leisure suit in a dive bar laying horrible double-entendres served up with a craptacular Slavic accent on flight attendants and other intoxicated women — was because I wanted to really grasp the whole Musical Charis thing. I mean, they’ve been playing everywhere lately, and every couple of days it had seemed, and people, including Blvd Park’s Brian Ballentine, were raving to me about how great they were and I kept going, hmmm, I dunno, in that cynical way I can get sometimes when the contrarian impulse arises. The reason that recalcitrance kept coming up is that there’s something very cute about this young band, like they were the coffeehouse combo in an ABC Afterschool Special about how the kids at the local junior high were beginning to evade responsibility by getting all buzzed on smoked bananas.
Last night, the audience that showed up to pack the joint looked a lot like the band — frontman Blake Abbey, keyboard player Jessie Brune and four others, including the bass player from Blvd Park and a conga player, because the drummer had to work or something. Which is to say that it was a house full of attractive young people who looked like a circa-1975 Disney movie about hippies, where everyone was a bit too Partridge Family to look like the kind of lowborn bong-hitting scum I was losing brain cells with back in that particular day.
Musical Charis sings really well together, or Blake and Jessie have very nice harmonies. Their music is upbeat, positive and bright, like the pop-song equivalent to a series of brightly colored photographs of flowers, heavy on intense primary and secondary hues — no dark or gritty tertiary industrial palette here. The chords tend to be all major — the two or three basics like I > IV > V — which, to a chronic and unabashed Brian Wilson addict like me, can throw a wet Neptunian blanket on my perpetually Uranian craving for surprise.
Which is to say that I really didn’t hear anything that knocked me out, musically, in the way that their contemporaries Adrian Bourgeois or Ricky Berger tweak my eardrums, but I got that I really liked them anyway, and as performers, they really connect well with their audience. “This goes out to you beautiful people,” Blake told the crowd on several occasions — and not with oozing Las Vegas hackery, but what appeared to be authentic sincerity. Indeed, Blake broke down that invisible wall between band an audience several times by offering random tambourines to people. It’s always good to get that crowd involved, no?
They were digging it, young and some older Charis-heads, too. But, like I’d mentioned, I have trouble sometimes when the contents of my own head get in the way of me giving an act the tabula rasa to win me or lose me, but fortunately there’s this old quote attributed to British philosopher Herbert Spencer that appears at the end of an appendix on “spiritual experience” in a book I’ve gotten pretty familiar with over the past two decades, and it goes like this: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” Thank whatever deity for that, because it’s pulled my critical bacon out of the fire many times.
Which is to say that there are things I like very much about Musical Charis, and they’re a sweet bunch of kids, and I’m gonna miss them when Blake and Jessie move to Corpus Christi, Texas next month to record an album in a lighthouse. But the band is playing a final show at Harlow’s on J east of 27th, on Wednesday, April 28.
Where the Onlymen are concise and Musical Charis is forthright, Boulevard Park — or Blvd Park, dunno which is right — is shambolic. And where the Charis is church-socialesque, where everyone looks like they’re dressed for that crucial first day of school, Blvd Park is relatively skanky. First, the well-scrubbed Charis crowd bailed, and a new bunch of folks came in, after a giant hand-painted backdrop was squeezed through the door and installed in the window, behind the corner where the bands were playing. Unlike the contemporaries of my adult daughter that made up the Musical Charis audience, the ladies that followed Blvd Park in were a shade trashier, which perked my libido a notch. It was fun wondering how many of them might have “tramp stamp” tats under their clothes, and trying to calculate what the house percentage might be.
I’d hung out with Mr. Ballentine a few nights earlier at Old Ironsides, where he was playing with a stand-up bassist. Both of them were now onstage, along with, um, a snare drummer, two blonde backup singers, another guitarist, or maybe a keyboard player, a violinist and a trumpeter with a mute. Oh, and there was a white pit-bull terrier. Ballentine’s got a raspy voice, so it was like seeing Steve Earle backed by Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks after the time Dan dosed Herb Alpert with LSD and coaxed him onstage with Petey the dog from the Little Rascals. The music had a loose and thrumming quality, like a peyote-marinated Mexican jarocho banda.
By mid-set, I had a bad headache, though. It wasn’t the music; it was the onset of April allergies, coupled with barbeque fumes wafting in from a smoker outside — three years of not eating meat, and now instead of my mouth watering when I smell beef ribs and links, I get kind of janky. Plus I get claustrophobic when there are a lot of people in a small enclosure with me, and I get kinda crossed-up conditions when there are too many active drinkers around, because I’m kind of a club-soda enthusiast, so to speak. So, I went outside and hung out with Warren, who commented on the dog’s contribution to the Blvd Park sound by recounting a story about a bandmate who’d brought a live monitor lizard to a gig at a local club and thought it would make a nice decoration onstage. Which may be the dumbest thing I’ve heard this year, or at least the dumbest thing outside of everything coming out of Glenn Beck’s mouth — some real what-the-fuckery there.
Anyway, I thought this was going to be much more terribly cynical. I must be in a good mood. —Jackson Griffith
I almost made it out to the Fox & Goose tonight, but just didn’t get it together in time to get down there. Guess I was kind of unmotivated after last week. I’d pulled a good slot, early, bracketed between a folk-singing woman with her hair pulled back, who let me use her music stand, and then her friend, another woman folksinger. The trouble was that they’d brought a bunch of their friends, who sat up front in the pub near the stage area for the first woman’s set, let’s call her Kristi, and then when I got up there, well, they didn’t like the cut of my jib or something, and some of them — strike that, most of them — got up in the middle of my songs and wandered to the bar.
Not that I wouldn’t do the same thing. I mean, if a performer isn’t quite doing it for me, I may bail, but I usually try to wait till he or she is between songs before I beat a retreat, and it usually has to be a pretty bitter cup of tea to drive me out of there. So when you get up in the middle of someone’s song, make sure that you’re intending to make a deliberate statement, because if you aren’t, then you’re just being a clueless asshole, as your exit can break a performer’s concentration. It did mine.
Anyway, after I finished my allotment of three songs, all ones I’d written in February, the same entourage came back to cheer their friend, who’d followed me. Not that either her or Kristi were bad; I think I liked what they played, but what they played was mostly covers. And I don’t want to sound like any kind of open-mic snob or anything, but I go there to try out new material I’ve written in front of people, some of whom I know, others who are strangers. Yes, that sounds kinda chauvinist — not male, but songwriter — and I do realize that open-mics serve different purposes for different people. Some people like to entertain their friends at the pub. And that’s cool.
I guess what got me bummed out was how the entourage stuck around for the following act, some mental case with a ukulele. Okay, I’m gonna say it: Girls with ukuleles? Cute, albeit in the wake of Regina Spektor’s success, somewhat played out, with an exception for Ricky Berger, perhaps. Guys with ukuleles? Unless you’re Herbert Khaury or Cliff Edwards, just don’t go there. You’re heading into seriously annoying territory, exceeded only by that Michael McDonald buffoon doing his little-kid shtick on Mad TV for the 1,045th time.
And the entourage just ate this clown up, even though everything this guy played was — you guessed it — a cover. For me, it felt like I’d played modern jazz to an indifferent audience, only to watch a quintet of straw-hatted dentists moonlighting as a jazz band sweep in and enthrall the same crowd with a bunch of moldy-fig Dixieland standards.
And then the entourage shuffled out, along with the two musicians they’d come to see. “I fuckin’ hate that,” one guitar-playing mainstay muttered. “Kristi and her friends do that every damn time. It’s starting to suck.”
“Well,” I countered, “at least she brought people in who drank beer and spent money. So give her credit for that.”
Anyway, three days without caffeine, and I’m pretty goddamn crabby. I stayed out of public places over the weekend, just because I’ve been broke, and when I’m broke like this, I crawl back in my snail shell and hope there’s no random salt laying about. So I didn’t make it down there tonight, because while I love playing my original songs to people, even when they don’t give a shit, which is most of the time, when I’m kinda crabby and broke and haven’t had coffee or been smooched on or even hugged for a long time, I can turn into a real sourpuss.
Which I’d rather not do, at least in public, y’know?
So, well, another night of me being my usual loner self, tapping letters on a keyboard. —Jackson Griffith
Last weekend I went to Old Ironsides, a fine old bar in downtown Sacramento, to see DoomBird, a new band that’s been making some seriously wonderful noise in these parts. I’d seen the last three or four songs in a set by the same band a week before, at Luigi’s Fun Garden, which left enough of an aftertaste that I made it a big priority to get down to Old I on Saturday. And having a copy of the the band’s unreleased album really helped convince me of the wisdom of that decision.
I’ll make no bones about my love for Baroque pop music. Brian Wilson is still my number-one guy in the record-making department, with the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds, along with Smile, which Wilson reconstituted from a cancelled 1967 Beach Boys release. Van Dyke Parks’ 1968 album Song Cycle is another favorite, along with Randy Newman’s skein of Reprise albums in the late 1960s and early ’70s. And I love all those Jimmy Webb songs that people like Glen Campbell were covering. Not to mention more obscure SoCal Baroque sides like “My World Fell Down” by Sagittarius.
So, well, I just have to go on and on with how completely knocked out and bowled over by this 10-song album from DoomBird that someone passed my way, which I’m presuming is self-titled. This is a great album. To nick what David Watts Barton said a year ago about Christian Kiefer, Jefferson Pitcher and Matthew Gherkin’s sprawling song cycle about the American presidents, Of Great and Mortal Men, I think this may be the greatest thing to ever come out of this town, musically speaking. I don’t like to blather with the hyperbole like a dog slobbering over a nearby steak dinner, but homina homina, this thing is fucking brilliant.
The album opens with a bit of plainsong, songwriter Kris Anaya singing over a fingerpicked acoustic guitar figure juxtaposed with an electric on “Crooked Heart,” with cellos and flutes. Very Beatle-like, with sweet little dissonances popping up for nice flavoring. “Naked” follows, a stunning track that rides on a shimmering wave of orchestration anchored by a piano, with oscillating instruments out of the Steve Reich or Philip Glass playbook rolling under the incredibly catchy “Too many mistakes have ripped off all of my clothes” chorus. Jeebus, two songs in and I’m thoroughly enamored. It’s like Animal Collective meets Smile. A trippy instrumental figure in the middle, a fake fade, and then the chorus comes back in. Third song is “Petty Lies,” which lopes along like Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” with acoustic guitar, with angelic backup vocals. The song stops and starts, with a simple orchestral interlude that’s Van Dyke Parks meets Ennio Morricone, and then the guitar and organ: “There’s no place for me in your life/ I can’t beg you for mercy/ You told me not to try.” Fuck. Devastating. “Sick of Fighting” has an andante pizzicato thrust, driven by what sounds like a harpsichord. “If the candle burns at both ends, which flame will burn out?” Anaya asks. “Are you running scared?” There’s a lot of space in the track, which coalesces into heaviness on the chorus, and there’s more of that Sergio Leone-movie guitar and organ. I really love what follows: “Mood Ring” opens with cello and flute, which flower into a string quartet, an effect that’s beautiful and dreamlike. “I would walk for miles to hear you sing,” Anaya sings in a gentle melodic figure that soars upward in Wilsonesque fashion. But it’s the way the track finishes that’s truly jaw-dropping; after a very nice, sailing-into-the-sunset melodic vocal tag comes a string arrangement that rises from the ocean like Botticelli’s Venus.
So that’s the end of what would be side one; side two begins with “Receive,” a slow-moving track that stops and starts like a throwaway from David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, then bursts into an atmospheric stomp toward the end. Again, a simple figure rendered profound: “We can grow if we receive,” Anaya sings. A bass clarinet signals an imaginative brass and percussion arrangement on “Meant to Be,” a fairly short track that moves slowly beneath Anaya singing his wishes for a bucolic existence. Very Randy Newman. Dunno if the next track is called “Loose Fur” or “Lucifer,” but it’s a dreamlike waltz that’s been rattling around in my head for a week, until I finally realized its melody reminded me of Grant Lee Buffalo, or the kind of John Lennon-meets-early Elton John thing Grant-Lee Phillips might write. Then, “Shape of Hearts,” a dirge with a plaintive, minor-key, almost Japanese melody and a spare but exotic arrangement. “I don’t want to beg for you, I can’t hold my promise/ I don’t want to beg for you, I can’t hold my pride,” Anaya sings. Incandescent. That song segues into the closer, “Cruel Mistake,” which makes for a pretty transcendent way to go out: gentle guitar, a little organ, Anaya’s voice singing one of the record’s most winning melodies. Then the track builds, with background vocals. “Just give me a little sign/ I’ll leave myself behind.” Then, the fade. Beautiful.
It’s a short record, clocking in at a little over 35 minutes for 10 songs. But with music this good, who says you need a double album with a die-cut gatefold cover to make your point? And while I never caught the bug of An Angle, Anaya’s previous band, I’m going to have to revisit everything that band did as a result of this one. And one more point: Anaya’s a brilliant songwriter, but I’m told Joe Davancens did the arrangements, which are nothing short of masterful. He’s like Ben Mink to Anaya’s k.d. lang, a comment that will make sense if you’ve ever heard lang’s 1990 album Ingenue.
I think I can confidently say that this gets my vote for the best album of 2010, by anybody, anywhere. I can’t imagine anyone topping this, and if they do, it will be a very, very good year for music. It’s the kind of record I wish I could walk into Lenny Waronker’s and Mo Ostin’s office at the Warner/Reprise ski chalet circa 1975, lay this on their desks and say, “Lads, have you had your massive musical boners today? Because, boy, do I have a treat for you. Here.”
I do hope this comes out for public consumption, and soon. Because you’re just going to melt. —Jackson Griffith
I never thought I’d hear any music that makes the Aqua song “Barbie Girl” and the Gummibär tune “I Am Your Gummi Bear” sound like the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and the Beatles’ “In My Life,” respectively, but I think I’ve finally found a whole album where every cut achieves that lofty objective. It’s called Superficial, and it’s just been released by famewhoring plastic-surgery addict and wannabe popstar Heidi Montag via — according to Apple’s iTunes service — the once-respectable Warner Music Group.
What’s great about listening to and reviewing this record via Apple’s iTunes page is that the songs are only 15 or 20 seconds long, which is to say that I cheated and didn’t listen to the entire album in real time. That would take too long, and life is short, and I’m already giving it much more consideration than it merits just by sitting here typing this. And besides, there are thousands of other albums I could be listening to where I wouldn’t be thinking, “This is 45 or 60 minutes of my life that I will never get back, ever.” With the appropriately titled Superfacial, it is all I think about. So the song snippets are all I need for various reasons, and wouldn’t it be true that Montag and her equally famewhoring Svengali husband, the Jack O’Lantern-headed Spencer Pratt, exercised great care in selecting precisely the correct and most representative song fragments to use to sell this self-basting wonder of the large poultry sciences? I am utterly convinced of that, and thusly in the rightness of my approach.
Let’s start by stating that if the wags at The Onion were trying deliberately to concoct the absolute worst dance-pop album in the history of civilization — human, subhuman or bivalve — I’d like to think they’d have fallen far short of whatever mark Team Speidi set with Superbukkake, a collection of 12 numbers that Montag compared favorably against Michael Jackson’s Thriller in a recent interview. This magnum opus of turboshopping narcissism and malevolent-machine bubblegum swill has emerged straight from some demented auto-tuned cartoon-music hell to reptilian-buttrape your sorry-ass brains but good, and I am certain that I could find plenty of authorities in the scientific community who would warn any being, sentient or otherwise, away from listening to this thing in its entirety, lest they incur severe brain damage and even death. So I’m kinda taking one for the team here.
Appreciate that, motherfuckers.
And now for the particulars. Superfishoil opens with “Look How I’m Doing,” from what I can glean, the first of many perky fuck-yous directed toward former beaus and other “haters.” Something about “Now it’s you who’s sweating and it’s me who’s not concerned.” And then “Look at me how I’m doing” yadda yadda, followed by a robotically percussive “ha ha ha ha” — ripped off from “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” — that, well, I don’t want to invoke any Godwin’s Law nonsense, but there’s a certain Nazi girlfriend vibe at work on this.
It’s followed by “Turn Ya Head,” which posits that “I’m the bitch that you don’t wanna miss, so turn ya head” blah blah meow, something about “aint nothin’ like a show” and, uh, well, fuck, it’s already gettin’ pretty fuckin’ grim between my ears with this aural projectile vomiting, oy vey, crimony. Something about “exhibition,” and I’m sure Spencer Prattfall is seeing dollar signs, imagining he’ll be collecting royalties from every stripper joint in the country, but this pensive jam’s a surefire boner softboiler so I’mina betcha the guids that run some of them poonjoints will be saying no-go with that robot beatweeny shit.
Song three, “Fanatic,” rides on the same satanic dingleberry of a nyah-nyah-nyah melodic arpeggio that seems to infect most of these faux-Scandinavian cybergum doglogs, and apparently it’s the “hit.” “I want you so bad that my hands start to sweat,” robo-Heidi mewls, to which I say, well, at least they’ll be lubricated for the jacking, y’know?
The title cut follows. After a gratuitous and non-sequiturial reference to “breakfast” over Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea-style sonar bloops, Nyarlathobarbie oozes the multi-tracked chorus like a freshly lanced carbuncle, something along the lines of “You say I’m superficial, some call me a bitch, you’re just mad because I’m sexeh, famous and rich, I fuck the latest fashions and I set the latest trends, they say I’m all conceited because they really wanna be me, they say I’m superficial because I’ve got money ….” Ahem. Fuck you, Spiedi. No, wait: Blow me. No, I’m sorry. Just fucking die. Go away. Eat shit. Swallow a stew of dog vomit, termites, rusty nails and scabs from Courtney Love’s snatch, Tila Tequila’s bleached bunghole and Kevin Federline’s dick. Whatever. Just shut the fuck up already.
Next up is the only “explicit” track on Superpooper, “More Is More.” I suppose this is supposed to be some Minnie Mouse “crunk” shit over the robo-crepitation that’s the hallmark of this sonic butt-butter, but it wanks as hard as anything that’s preceded it. “More is more on the dance floor, it’s fucking dance swill, more is more in my arsehole, it’s fucking fuck my fucking fuck,” or something like that, before making a dumbass reference to a “Jack and Coke.” If I were a representative of either Jack Daniel’s or Coca-Cola, I’d be on Team Speidi with the cease-and-desist orders post haste, as no smart corporation wants this kind of negative association.
It’s hard to think that “One More Drink” only marks the halfway point through this graveyard of doomed popular culture, that this miasma of bleeping hellchirp will continue for another six “songs.” This one’s apparently about getting too fucked up in the clubs: “One more drink and I think that I’ll be in love,” Bar-belial drools in Doubly. “I’m getting lost in this liquid high … high … high … high,” and if you’re this bint’s bartender, please toss in a roofie or two — followed by a bouncer with a meathook straight to the goddamn Dumpster. Sorry, but I’m fighting back a vicious wave of impending chunder, and this writing’s not coming easy.
Annie Ross should fucking sue Spiedi for appropriating the song title “Twisted,” which on Superswill isn’t the wonderful hairpin-turn ride on the shrink’s couch made famous by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross — and, later, Joni Mitchell — but instead the same bogus Max Martin junk and Britney-in-a-blender outtakes we’ve been subjected to for this album’s first half. There’s a line about “you want to strangle me” here that, although I am extremely dead-set against violence toward women, children, pets, men and anything else, in the context of this album’s existence it may not be such a bad idea. The “you’re twisted” chorus is the closest thing this album comes to any kind of a “soaring” melody, but the Society for Twisted and Otherwise Perverse and Rabidly Omnisexual People Who Will Do It With Anybody or Thing, Even a Hand Cranked Tonka Truck Cement Mixer Packed With Warmed Liver Bits From the Butcher Shop should sue this bitch for maligning such a good word.
“Hey Boy” sputters along on an assembly-line aerobic jizzercize vibe before Heidi Ho downshifts her vocoder into more trash-talking to random Ed Hardy-wearing douchebaggery: “I don’t wanna be wit’ you, watch this, I’m quittin’ your scene, before you even know, you’re on the D-list, watch me, gettin’ treated like a queen ….” But this ain’t the Rodeo Drive version of The Dozens; it’s more like the time when my daughter was six and got all butthurt at some friends and pouted while making a list: “You’re not coming to my birthday party, and you’re not coming to my birthday party, and you’ll be really really sorry.” But my daughter grew up to be beautiful and smart and level-headed and not insane, while Spiedi quite apparently has stayed mired in early grade-school emotional conundrums.
Golden showers are what came to mind upon hearing the next track, “My Parade,” a loping digital dungheap that Speidi must think is some kind of empowerment anthem for entitled rich celebrity bitches and their dickwhistle svengali colon-nodule hubbies to go shopping and clubbing without being bothered: “Hoi polloi, you suck, but give us your money anyway and worship us, because we are worthy and you quite clearly are not.” “I won’t let you rain on my parade,” Metal Machine Minnie Mouse mews. Beg to differ, Barbiezonker; I’m inviting anyone who’s reading this blog to join me in Beverly Hills or Bel Air or wherever youse vile pieces of subhuman excrement go shopping, and we’ll stage the world’s largest golden shower party, and we’ll even line up some of those stand’n’pee funnel thingees for any ladies who’d like to join us, along with whoever in the science world would like to measure exactly how much piss it will take to drown or otherwise obliterate you, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt.
Fuck. Three tracks left to go. I’m not sure I have it in me. Oh, well; time to hold my nose and dig in: “Blackout” is what I want to do right now, but duty calls. More ersatz IKEA-meatball disco, with a variation on the old one-six-four-five progression. Since it’s probably the least offensive track on this record so far, the idiots who made this shit buried it toward the end of side two so no one would notice.
Gag. I can do this. “I wanna let my hair down if that’s all right, if that’s OK. I’ll be a blonde tonight” …. Ah, shit. I bet this “I’ll Do It” pantsload ends up on the hit parade of whoever’s squaring away the playlists to fuck with future terra-ists at tomorrow’s Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamos, because that recurring descending synth line is surefire fucking torture when juxtaposed against Minnie Maus’ voice. This shit could be really harmful in the wrong hands. Harmful in any hands. It’s fucked up. So’s my head from subjecting myself to this android jism, and I’m only listening to excerpts. (Which illuminates the major drawback of my only-listen-to-excerpts approach: Apparently this song contains the line “eat my panties off me,” which was not apparent on the Apple iTunes page for this album; one wonders what other fucked-up lyrical constructs I missed.)
Ah, fuck it. At least here’s the last cut, “Love It or Leave It.” I’m reasonably sure that Speidi are right-wing Winky McFuckmepump-, I mean, Palin-worshiping tools, so I was hoping that this would really up the “sieg heil” factor with this record, but as is characteristic of this particular plastic audio-animatronic construct, it’s a big fucking disappointment. I thought we were in for some fucking jingoistic flag-waving bullshit here, but no: Speidi nicked craigslist for the lyrics instead. “Independent woman with massive beef curtains seeks short-term relationship with erect penis of large barnyard animal onstage in Tijuana, you bring the pharmaceuticals,” the Speidi vocorder intones, and I have wood — not because this record has stimulated any tumescence in me at all but because I’m fucking done with this chore and I can do something else.
And it isn’t because I am a hater. No, it’s because I care about music. I write and play music, good music, and I’m too goddamn broke to go into the studio and record one measly EP, much less an entire album. And market it? Forget it. But let’s leave me out of this. I’m pissed off because I can walk down the street in Midtown Sacramento or probably any other city in America, and in a half-hour randomly round up two-dozen genuinely talented musicians whose contributions to the popular-music canon will never see the light of day. And that, my friends, is a goddamn tragedy.
In fact, there’s so much good music being made, and yet these assholes get some kind of deal with Warner Music Group (fuck you, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., and fuck you Lyor Cohen, too, for killing what’s left of the music business with this vile piece of shit), and this plastic-surgery casualty and future Jocelyn Wildenstein monstrosity is on the cover of People magazine, and people are interviewing her about her “album,” and someone is promoting it, and you know these fucks are going to be on the revived corpse of The Tonight Show With Lanternjaw McDoritoshill the first week NBC begins airing that weeknightly colostomy bag.
Now, I’m not advocating that everyone involved with the making and marketing of this grim shithole of an album get the kind of punishment meted out in certain parts of the world to thieves and moral reprobates with big ugly scimitars and other sharp knives, or via ravenously hungry jungle beasts in coliseums filled with drunken yobbos in Tapout, Affliction and Ed Hardy shirts, but if something like that were to happen, I would understand and, to be brutally honest, I would not be terribly upset about it.
So Heidi and Spencer, fuck you for foisting this shit. Seriously: Fuck you. —Jackson Griffith
The album is dead, say the pundits. Yes, and water is quite wet. Music consumers, or people who love music enough to spend money on it, may have migrated to an a la carte singles model, but some of us who make music still think about framing our songs in album contexts.
Whether you’re talking about a simple longplayer, or collection of songs, or something more overarching with a consistent theme, what’s often called a “concept album,” albums are pretty cool things. And if not for a greedy record industry, which (quite arguably) killed the album by letting marginal acts put out $15 or $17 CDs with one or two good tracks, the album, along with record stores, might still be around.
Anyway, in one little corner of the universe the album still lives, and there’s this annual thing called February is Album Writing Month, or FAWM; you can find its website at FAWM.org. After hearing about some other local songwriters who’d done it, like Christian Kiefer, who’s done a couple of them, one of which resulted in his Of Great and Mortal Men project, I got a hankering to give it a shot.
The idea is that you write 14 or more songs, and then record them if you can. Last year, I began on February 1 and wrote a song a day for 14 days, and then I think I wrote one or two after that. I didn’t have a setup to record them, until I got a USB mike and was able to record all the songs and mix them in Apple’s GarageBand program over the course of a day and a half at the end of the month. I’d wanted to post them, but I didn’t have a place to upload the tracks, so I just burned some CDs and gave them out to friends.
I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway.
So, now February 1 is less than three weeks away, and I just got an e-mail from FAWM letting me know that the album-writing festival — better to call it that than a competition, which it is not — is commencing to begin. I’d begun thinking about it in earnest right after New Year’s Day, so no need to pitch me, but I appreciate the reminder nevertheless.
Okay, so the beauty of participating in FAWM, for me, was that I learned a lot about how the creative process works for me. First, when you set a goal of writing a song every day, you have to figure out how to turn off that internal editor so that the ideas can just flow. And second, you have to be willing to live with the idea that this is the best you can do on that given day, and if you have all month, you can get your song-ideas down early, then go back and revamp.
I’m thinking this year I’m going to record the songs I write as I go along, which will differ from last year. This way, I can post them as I go along, and I’ve got a couple of weeks to line up some server space where I can post the MP3s.
Last year, I made a decision that what I would come up with would be songs that showed up in my cranial inbox at the time, rather than take half-baked song ideas — I’ve got a whole bunch of those — and shape them into finished tunes. I haven’t decided if I’m going to repeat that process this year; it seems like an honest one, but then using FAWM to finish work on some songs that might not otherwise see completion might not be a bad idea, either.
So when I began last year, I was still rather freshly brokenhearted, or let’s just say that the depths of hurting from a relationship that had ended a few months before, one that I figured would be much more long-lasting, was beginning to hit home with me, so that theme surfaced in a number of the songs. This year, I still have residual saudade, but most of that has worked its way out, and now I’m writing from a much more grounded place again, at least emotionally and spiritually.
How I usually go about the writing is that I sit down with my guitar and start playing around with chords and chord progressions, what Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson calls “feels.” When I get something that sounds promising or worth pursuing, I’ll start humming melodies until I find something that fits. Next comes the structure; I try to figure out the verse melody and underlying chord progression, and then the chorus melody and progression, and then a bridge or “middle eight” if that seems appropriate or fits.
And then comes the lyrics, which are the hardest part. It’s kinda weird and ironic; you’d think that someone who’s been writing for as long as I have, and under pressure of deadline, would be able to come up with words as easy as turning on a faucet. But I’m the worst kind of perfectionist, and I get locked into rhyming conventions and internal rhyme sequences, which is akin to me doing a Houdini by binding up in several straitjackets before I hop into that barrel that’s about to be pushed over Niagara Falls. (And, yeah, my metaphor blows, but so what.)
Before I get started on this year’s FAWM, though, comes the “feed your head” phase. Since I’m a pop songwriter, with aspirations to grow in the storytelling tradition of Ray Davies and Difford & Tillbrook, and maybe Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, but would like to throw some Brian Wilson and Elliott Smith and Todd Rundgren and maybe Alex Chilton in there, too, I’ll be listening to a bunch of those artists’ stuff, along with some other things — old country tunes by Harlan Howard and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, newer ones by Townes Van Zandt and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, some jazz and classic Tin Pan Alley, and maybe Argentine tango orquestras tipica and Italianate singers like Domenico Modugno and my favorite guy, Dean Martin. And perhaps some Jonathan Richman and Leonard Cohen and even Bob Dylan for some perspective, and a little Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Judee Sill and Joni Mitchell and Sport Murphy and Stephens Malkmus and Foster and my old standbys J.S. Bach and Scott Joplin. And I’ll go hang out in coffeehouses and listen to what’s playing there, just because you never know what you’ll be exposed to, like the Norah Jones song “Dont Know Why” I heard yesterday, and then backtracked to its writer Jesse Harris, and then checked out some of his other stuff on YouTube. I’ll shut up now; you get the picture. It’s an exercise in preparing the field.
I will post links and progress on this when it comes. I did FAWM last year, and I know I can see it through until completion. Which is more than I can say for National Novel Writing Month in November (NaNoWriMo.org), for which I got 16,000 words (out of 50,000) into a ridiculous story about some Midtown Sacramento twentysomethings who were being pursued by alien life forms crawling out of sewers, squidlike Lovecraftian creatures, and some of them were being taken over by anthropomorphic crustaceans from Davy Jones’ Locker who could assume near-human form but not quite; I got going pretty good, but then tried to complicate the story with a loose squadron of psychic Sikh cabdrivers, and things went too awry to continue. Then I got the writer’s block that resulted in me starting this blog a month or so later.
At any rate, stay tuned if you’re interested. If not, well, hey: do something else, no? —Jackson Griffith