Monthly Archives: July 2009

Collapse

Storm the structure’s aging walls, parapets—
a bold sedition—, armories beyond
the inner sanctum of the campanile.

Drop the oxidizing gates, gently, so
they do not break, after you have rid your
bicycles beneath their teeth. Struggle past

unbearded men, stained backs sliding down brick,
black in the corridor, hands unbracing
for the red stone impact. Smash the unlocked

wooden door; leave it, splinters. Snap the warped
and gnarled men chained behind me from their bonds.
Torch the beds as you set off. Execute

this as my final wish, and let it end
quickly, before the whole thing collapses.

Maximum Overdrive

Several years ago, after my Great Uncle passed away, his wife returned my father’s old guitar amp to him, a 1962 Sears Silvertone, with the original tubes and speakers still intact. My father had all but forgotten about it, after 40+ years, and surprised me with it, uncertain of how it might sound.

But the tone was incredible: there was no distortion or overdrive channel to be found on such an old piece of equipment, but the amp itself would naturally distort when pushed past its limits, resulting in a tone that was at once cleaner and more crisp but still dirtier and harder than I ever could have expected. No matter what I tried to play, I sounded like I was in one of those old Rolling Stones albums, where even clean guitars had balls and drive.

That was when it started becoming clear to me that no amount of reverb or flange could make up for the aural truth that bleeds so clearly from strings slammed and strung with the desperate, futile passion of a performer lost in song. Whether it’s the ear-piercing screech of fingers sliding up the neck and shifting position or the scratch of a pick or fingertips against the winding of a string, there’s something to be said about the drive—the natural gain—of an acoustic guitar or a clean, dry amp channel being played like there’s no tomorrow. You can lightly pluck an electric guitar played through a Marshall JCM2000 Half Stack on the OD2 channel (I endorse this product, especially the TSL60), with the gain, EQ, and volume cranked enough to piss off Brenda upstairs (or crank it to 10 like Johnny Ramone, or crank it to 11 like Nigel Tufen), and sure, your shredding might be awesome, but the sympathetic frequencies will never resonate quite like they do when that dreadnought body is played hard enough to break the strings or rip the callouses off your fingertips without remorse or hesitation.

And so it seems that the higher the Gain, the more subtlety is lost, the more nuance obscured and destroyed. The performance, the personal art of the song is so often lost by the rip-crack of speakers and tubes and air pushed over the edge of comfort, of sound they can control. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to be said about a great distortion tone, the kind that really drives a song. The opening chords of “You Really Got Me” would have never grabbed the world like they did if Ray Davies (or was it Dave Davies? And who names their kid something so cruel?) hadn’t sliced up the speaker cone with a razor blade, but even then, the sound was so analog.

Truth is, I never heard much of a difference in Bob Dylan’s music after he went electric. As far as I was concerned, his fingertips and downpicks distorted his acoustic guitars much, much earlier in his career. There was something dirty about his sound, and that’s what made it good; plugging in was just a shortcut. That meticulous, almost artistic control of dynamic attack on wound metal strings creates something so undeniably human and true that no high-gain, detuned Ibanez (I do not endorse Ibanez anything, ever) could ever hope to compare. It is the harmonic nuance of the physically overdriven tube amp or acoustic guitar generates sympathetic vibrations that make these songs, however small or powerful, truly affect us and stick with us like they do.

I leave you now (over the word limit) with a brief excerpt from Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman:

    We started talking about how the best parts of songs are usually accidents; [Jeff] Tweedy [of Wilco] mentioned that the most transcendent moments in pop music are inevitably unintentional, because listeners reinvent those mistakes and give them a personal meaning no artist could ever create on purpose. This segued into a conversation Fleetwood Mac, and I told him about the way Quincy and I would incessantly play the opening five seconds of “I Don’t Want to Know” at maximum volume, This is because—if you play the song loudly enough—you can hear Lindsey Buckingham’s fingers sliding down the strings of his acoustic guitar. His sliding phalanges make this unspeakably cool squeak; it sounds organic and raw and impossible to fake. Q and I would play this opening sequence over and over and over again, and we were convinced that this was the definitive illustration of what we both loved about music; we loved hearing the inside of a song.

And that is rock and roll.

Books I’ve read so far this summer

People keep asking me, “B-rock, what should I read?  What are you reading?”

From here on out, I’m gonna direct ’em to this here blog post.

These are the books I’ve read since I got home to NY on May 15th or so.  A little blurb follows each; the ones I recommend get stars.

 They’re in chronological order, because that’s how I remember them.

T.C. Boyle: Budding Prospects.**  It’s a fun book about a couple of guys who go up NorCal way to grow a big bumper crop of weed.  Cheeky, smart.  Tons of fun.

Steve Lopez: The Sunday Macaroni Club.  Meh.  A fun read if you’re familiar with Philly; otherwise, it’s skippable.  The guy did write The Soloist, though.

Carson McCullers: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.  What’s all the fuss about?  It starts with a bang, ends with a whimper.  Like Steinbrenner used to say about Dave Winfield.

Sara Gruen: Water For Elephants.**  An oldster in a nursing home reminisces about his youth, which he spent working for a traveling circus.  Lots of tension.  Very fun.

Jason Epstein: Book Business: Publishing. Past, Present and Future.  Worth reading the first 50 pages if you want to learn about the book business.  After that, a not-too-engaging memoir emerges.

Denbeaux and Hafetz: Guantanamo Lawyers.**  A non-fic book that tells about not only the trials and tribulations of Gitmo detainees, but the life experiences of the lawyers who risked alienation and death threats in their efforts to defend those unseen men, declaimed by the US Gov’t as terrorists.  Amazing.

David Sedaris: Holidays on Ice.  A humorous holiday stories memoir collection.  At times it was grand.  Generally, it was fine – nothing better.

David Benioff: City of Thieves.**  A story about two nearly-dead men caught in the Nazi siege of St. Petersburg in the winter of 1942 and their incredible, farcical quest.  Best book of the summer.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451.  A story that reads less well than the promise of its premise.

Scott Snyder: Voodoo Heart.**  A short story collection by a young writer.  A little uneven at times (the lead story, for instance, is weak), but on the whole very, very good.

Dave Eggers: What is the What.  Good premise.  Very slow read.  A little less whimsical than I want my Eggers, when I want Eggers, though.  I am nonetheless excited for Away We Go.

Yvonne Thompson, MD: Ditchdigger’s Daughter.  A non-fic memoir about the six daughters of one black ditch-digger in the post-war era, and how they all worked hard to become successful.  Surprisingly, given the compelling subject, it’s a little dry.

David Foster Wallace: Consider the Lobster.  A series of essays.  Some good.  I kinda liked it.  But no more than kinda.

Andrew Gottlieb: Drink, Play, F@#k.  Uneven.  Funny at times.  Too bad that it’s fiction.  As a true memoir, would have been stronger.  For some, worth a read, but I wouldn’t go out on a limb for it.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. Hard to follow at times, what with all the character-jumping and internal monologue, but still worth a read on a solitary sunny day.  Tells the tale of the death of a family matriarch in the poor, rural south.  I debated whether or not to give this one stars, as it’s a slog and I sometimes hate it.  But there’s value there, too.

Bernard Otterman: Black Grass.**  A collection of fictionalized Holocaust short stories, written by a Holocaust survivor.  Damn good.  Actually, 4 of the first 5 are damn good.  After that, the potency seeps out.  I nonetheless recommend this book.

John Knowles: A Separate Peace.**  Well, slap me around and call me Shirley.  One of the best books I’ve ever read to come out of the 50’s.  The light Catcher In The Rye shed on disaffected northeastern prep school kids one decade later, this book does for the WWII coming-of-agers.  Really, a masterful book.  I would happily praise it to anyone.

Damn.  Seventeen books in two months.  ….. I am a book nerd.

Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones

Growing up I remember running through my father’s records looking for anything your average classic rock loving 5th grader would recognize. Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Eric Clapton, anything the local rock radio station was playing. Although it took me time to truly understand the greatness of The Rolling Stones, I still stopped to look at the Sticky Fingers album during every perusal. The album-art was a close up shot of a tight-jeaned man covered from all angles, when you removed the liner notes from within the record the man was in cotton briefs, as if he had just removed his pants. Andy Warhol conceived the cover design and conducted the photo sessions. Many speculate that the cover model was the eccentric artist’s boyfriend at the time, others claim Warhol used a variety of models during the session and secretly chose the shots without crediting any of the men. The reason I stopped at this record was not the album art or the music, it was the fact that the album itself featured a working zipper on the front, something that set it apart from everything else in the mass of musty cardboard and dirty plastic sleeves. Little did I know that more than a decade after first recognition I would drunkenly battle Beatles fans in dark bars stating that The Rolling Stones are a better band. My weapon? Sticky Fingers

This record is dark, written with drug addiction, alcoholism, money and fame washing over Mick and Keith like a Pacific tsunami. The meter of the music was the only thing keeping an even keel. From rock, to blues and country, they weren’t afraid to test the limits. I equate Brown Sugar to a one night stand. Drunk, steady and dangerous, this is still an 8pm barroom staple. Wild Horses is a country song through and through right down to the crawl of the rhythm and cry of the pedal steel. Many artists would write about heroin, alcohol, sex and money, but The Stones didn’t have time to dress up their songs in pretty words disguising drugs as women, women as nature, nature as religion. They were raw. Sister Morphine (drugs), Brown Sugar (sex), Dead Flowers (social seclusion and heroin use) all told stories of pain and pleasure that could be understood blatantly and unmistakably across the board.

“Well, when you’re sitting back
In your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky derby day
Ill be in my basement room
With a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away”

I love the Beatles, but when it comes to experimenting with sound or lyrics, The Stones will always win.

Kings Cross

If I were Lord Voldemort,
I’d skip the school, hit the train,
just before the year began;
and you may call it what you
like—foolish pride, suicide—
but I would have my revenge:
little Harry Potter dead.

The Sound of Silence

Carey always had a sharp ear — her mother was an opera singer-turned-voice instructor who raised her girl to always stay in tune with the sounds of places and words and the world around her. As she grew older, she found comfort in the lingering baritone reverb of a man’s voice, and the sultry sounds of thoughts sneaking past pursed lips and hanging softly in the air, leaving a trail of audible bread crumbs behind. Even her own mezzo-alto echo could glide with the weight of a hummingbird’s song.

It was the complete absence of an echo, however, that made Ben’s adverse reaction to her news so shocking. The cavernous boom of his refusal was hardly a tickle in Carey’s mind compared to the sight of him catching her words in mid-air and crushing them in his hand, letting the syllables sift lie sand through his clenched fingers. There was nothing more haunting to her than the absence of sound; nothing more isolating than the feeling of still, silent air on her skin. Carey felt asthmatic; without the vibrations of soundwaves and frequencies, the air tasted thin and dead. She looked down and saw every plosive and sibilant shattered like glass fall and sprinkle the ground. That was when she knew that she never taste the resonant tones of Ben’s sweet voice again.

New York City

What is it about New York City and summer lovin’?  Something about summer time, and the big city, and people out gettin’ tans in the park just brings all those pheromones out in the air. 

 

A few years back, I was hangin’ in the city one summer and this one song just really captured the feeling of the time for me.  I started singing it a lot; it came on my iPod the other day on shuffle and it really took me back.

 

It’s originally by a little-known band called Cub, but was popularized by those geek-rock darlings, They Might Be Giants.  (Side note: when I was fourteen, I was in a band that played two songs.  Both were by TMBG.  One of them was Particle Man.  yeah, bring it!)

 

Anywho, here’s the song.  You can download it off of this other dude’s blog, if you wanna. (You should do it.  The S&G song he’s got on there ain’t so bad, either.)

 

LYRICS

You called me last night on the telephone
And I was glad to hear from you ’cause I was all alone
You said, “It’s snowing, it’s snowing! God, I hate this weather.”
Now I’d walk through blizzards just to get us back together.

We met in the springtime at a rock-and-roll show
It was on the Bowery when it was time to go
We kissed on the subway in the middle of the night
I held your hand, you held mine, it was the best night of my life.

‘Cause everyone’s your friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you’re young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there’s just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is you and me.

Statue of Liberty, Staten Island Ferry, Co-op City, Katz’s and Tiffany’s
Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, The Empire State where Dylan lived
Coney Island and Times Square, Rockefeller Center
Wish I was there.

You wrote me a letter just the other day
Said, “Springtime is coming soon so why don’t you come to stay.”
I packed my stuff, got on the bus, I can’t believe it’s true
I’m three days from New York City and I’m three days from you.

‘Cause everyone’s my friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you’re young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there’s just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is you and me.

‘Cause everyone’s my friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you’re young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there’s just so much to see
But the best thing about New York City is you and me.