Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Malin in Crawdaddy

Just in case you might have missed it (hey, I was in non-self-promoting mode back in July), here's my Crawdaddy piece on my favorite drinking buddy (that is, when the McGraths are not available).

Jesse Malin Comes Full Circle

Thank you and good night.

"God helps those who hype themselves..."
(hey, Dave Marsh said it...)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kyle Krone

Is fucking badass. If you don't know who he is, well that's your problem. Merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Things I Like 2007

Yeah, I haven't done one of these things in a long time. I know, they're supposed to be weekly. Welp, what with school work and shows and um, a little too much overindulging, I have been seriously crunched for time this past year. That will change in January, when I promise to get back to the job of annoying y'all with my opinionated self on a more regular basis. In the meantime, go see/hear/read/check out the following. (You can thank me later.)

No Country For Old Men - dir. by Joel & Ethan Coen. The best film I have seen in years, and the Coens at their creative peak.

Everyman - Philip Roth. Yeah, it's not his latest, but novels don't get much better than this. And it's got a couple Jersey Shore references too. Give the man his Nobel already.

The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 - dir. by Murray Lerner. Further proof of Dylan's genius. As if we needed any.

The Live Stuff:
The Hold Steady at The Stone Pony, Asbury Park NJ - 1/19/07
Jesse Malin at The Mercury Lounge, New York NY - 4/21/07
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at The Stone Pony, Asbury Park NJ -7/3/07
The New York Dolls at The Stone Pony, Asbury Park NJ - 7/20/07
Two Cow Garage at The Saint, Asbury Park NJ - 7/23/07
Ryan Shaw at The Highline Ballroom, New York NY - 7/31/07
Marah at Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia PA - 9/7/07
Marah at Union Music Hall, Brooklyn NY - 9/13/07
Hudson Falcons at The Stone Pony - 11/30/07
Maybe Pete - anytime, anywhere
I'm sure there were more, but that's what I can think of for now. Damn, July sure was a great month for live music.

Petal Pusher - Laurie Lindeen. Yeah, it's not perfect, but it's well-written and engaging, and it makes you want to start a band despite it all. Can't ask for much more from a musician-type memoir.

She's About to Cross My Mind - The Red Button. Power pop at its finest.

Federico's Pizza, Belmar NJ - Try the white pizza with garlic and tomato. So what if they don't have a liquor license.

Back to Black - Amy Winehouse. Totally badass.

Fins, Bradley Beach NJ - Tortilla soup. 'Nuff said.

The Beach Cinema, Bradley Beach NJ - Movies and organ music for under 5 bucks.

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector - Mick Brown. Well-researched and incisive, not just about Phil, but about the Brill Building era as a whole. Not to be missed if you're a music fan.

Eastern Promises - dir. by David Cronenberg. Viggo Mortensen's performance is nothing short of astonishing.

Fontana's, Chinatown, NYC. Cool not-so-new hangout for what's left of the NY punk scene. Also the Lit Lounge on 2nd Ave. And Midway on Ave. B, Lakeside Lounge on Ave. B and Manitoba's, on um, Ave. B.

Little Steven's Underground Garage -- The website, the radio show, the live shows, the merch, and now a record label. Further proof (as if we needed any) that Little Steven is the living embodiment of rock'n'roll as it was meant to be, as well as just badass in general.

The Sopranos, the finale.

Coney Island, Brooklyn NY - long may it live. The Mermaid Parade, The Cyclone, The Wonder Wheel, and Ruby's Bar to take the edge off. It's Disneyland for adults.

Booeymonger's, Washington DC. How can you not love a place that still has a sandwich named after Patty Hearst?

Asbury Lanes, Asbury Park NJ - How could a venue this cool be in danger of extinction? (Answer: Asbury Partners.)

The Twisted Tree, Asbury Park NJ. The heart of the acoustic music scene in Asbury Park, and the only cool place left on Cookman Avenue. Go before they f**k that up, too.

The Jefferson Market Branch, New York Public Library - One of the few real landmarks left in Greenwich Village. It's got a clock tower that rings on the hour, and it's in at least one Woody Allen movie. Plus it just looks cool.

Electric Lady Studios, New York NY. Thanks JM, for giving me one of the coolest days of my life.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - dir. by Yves Simoneau for HBO films. Required viewing for every American.

Rick Shapiro at the Sidewalk Cafe, New York NY - Comedy that jolts you awake.

The French Roast, 6th Ave., New York NY - Candlelight, great food and more coffee drinks with alcohol than I even knew existed. And you never know who will be at the next table. The epitome of Greenwich Village cool.

There are more CDs and films and stuff that kick ass, but I can't think of them now, so check back for updates.

Oh, and thanks to all my friends for being there when I needed you, and for putting up with me all year long (you know who you are). You guys rule.

That is all. Happy Holidays and shit.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Angels on a Passing Train

Just posting a link to my piece on Marah for Crawdaddy online. Enjoy. Or not.

Marah: Angels on a Passing Train




Sunday, November 04, 2007

Dice Behind Your Shades

Some of this is true, some of it only marginally so. Figure it out for yourself.

I am a cancer survivor.
I drink too much.
I love cheese and salt and garlic on just about everything.

I can check the oil and drive stick but can't change a tire.
I hate washing my hair but love long hot showers.
Ryan Adams is a genius and so is Paul Westerberg. Neither one of them will talk to me, though.

I stay up way too late and drive when I probably shouldn't.
I am loud and opinionated and uptight.
Most of my friends are men but they don't understand me any better than I do myself.

I am lonely and bitter and confused, and I don't like myself very much.
I have a pretty good sense of humor despite all outward appearances, and I make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.

I used to play the piano but I don't anymore. I wasn't that good at it anyway.
I can sing a little bit but no one ever asks me to anymore.
My favorite color is blue, and I can quote extensively from just about any Barry Levinson movie.

I don't get kissed nearly enough and listen to way too much Hank Williams for my own good.
I like tequila and whiskey and Mexican beer, and can probably drink you under the table if you'll give me a chance. (Alcohol tolerance courtesy many late nights with Mr. Jesse Malin.)

I used to think Hemingway was overrated but lately I think he's pretty amazing. (Though I do think drinking oneself to death like Fitzgerald is an infinitely superior method of suicide than a gun to the head.)

Jon Bon Jovi has a great ass and is a pretty good guy, too. (Hey, we can't all be Townes Van Zandt…)
I think sex is great but there's not nearly enough to go around.
Ipods and iPhones and video games and Blackberries can all go to hell—the best form of portable entertainment is still a good book.

I spend way too much money going out to eat and can't live on a budget to save my life.
I love rollercoasters and bumper cars and hot dogs.
NASCAR confuses me.

We would all be better off if everyone turned off all their gadgets for one hour a day and took a long walk. But that being said, I love my laptop.
I secretly dream of being carried off by a hot young musician. Ok, it's not such a secret.

Happiness is where you find it. So is sadness...

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Livin' in the Future

Bill Flanagan wrote something in his review of Bruce Springsteen's new release Magic that really resonated with me. While I disagree with his overall review, I really liked what he said about Bruce himself:

"[He is] more defiant and less sure that the comforts of old friends and shared experience is a real defense against the world's darkness."

After the events of the last few years--election debacles, Katrina, and countless other disappointments that have made me lose faith in just about everything, that's pretty much how I feel, too. I guess I've always had an affinity for Bruce outside his music because I seem to see the world the same way as he does, and like me, he has gotten more bitter, cynical and disgusted as he's aged. Not much to be done about this I suppose except continue to do what you do and hope someone's listening. But it's gotta be frustrating to be producing some of the best work of your career with material like the Seeger Sessions and know that most people just wanna hear "Badlands" for the 95th time.

For what it's worth, Bruce, though I have some issues with your new record, I'm still with you because, like me, you live with the darkness every day and still manage to come out on the other side. Thanks for everything.

Friday, September 28, 2007

What is a Friend?

I have been thinking a lot this past week about what being a friend really means. I looked up the definition and found this:

1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.
3. A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade.
4. One who supports, sympathizes with, or patronizes a group, cause, or movement: friends of the clean air movement.

After the events of this past week, I don't like or trust a bunch of people I thought were my friends. Goodbye and good riddance. Guess I needed the wakeup call. I suppose I ought to think of it as a blessing in disguise, but I can't help feeling sad and hurt and confused just the same.

I guess I just want to believe that people are basically good until proven otherwise. Sadly (and ironically) it takes Bruce Springsteen--a performer known for his generosity and humanitarianism--to really bring out the absolute worst in people. It's been real easy to feel sorry for myself this week, but I'm not going to do it, not while there are kids lying in hospital beds missing legs, arms, sight or hearing, kids who have become vegetables before they were even old enough to take a drink legally. So no, I won't feel too bad about things. I'll just work really hard at remembering what true friendship and sacrifice are, and at not taking anything I have for granted. That's what Bruce's message has always been--living each day to the fullest, being in the moment, treating each other with courtesy and respect. After all, even if I didn't get into any of the three rehearsal shows this week, I still have ears to hear them with. And even if several of my so-called friends were nowhere to be found, I know that I am still a good person. I will not sell myself out for the companionship of people who only think of themselves.

If it takes being a liar, a conniver or a cheat to get in to see Bruce Springsteen, I guess I'm not going to be attending too many shows on this upcoming tour. Which is good, because other people need my money and support more than he does.

"Step into the light."

Friday, August 31, 2007

In Memory of Diana

It has been ten years since the tragic death of Diana Frances Spencer, former Princess of Wales. Yes, it was a tragedy. Look up the definition and try to tell me otherwise.

Diana never thought she was special; she never thought she was important. She was told she was dimwitted, shallow and common by her own family—those who should have given her nothing but unconditional love. But happily, she had the support of several key people who made her believe in herself, and you could see the transformation happening before your eyes. All at once, she knew who she was, and the world was a better place for it.

Because she had come to believe that her calling was to help people. She discovered that she had an enormous heart, a deep compassion for others that came from her own sense of what it was like to not feel loved. She could be manipulative and melodramatic—she lived in a world not of her own choosing, a media hell that she sometimes responded to less than admirably. But she made a choice to put her power over the media to good use. She forced them into places they didn't want to go—AIDS hospitals, minefields, hospice facilities—and made people see what she knew and understood intuitively—that everyone—everyone--deserves love and respect.

So say what you want about her sometimes petulant nature, her narcissistic tendencies, her mood swings and manipulation. There were so many good things about her that far outweighed her flaws. She taught the world how to truly live, to be present and alive and in the moment. To look deeper and give more. She was so much more beautiful on the inside than she was on the surface, and no one can take that away from her.

Diana's death is still an open wound for many. It still hurts, not because of the "glamour," or because she was a princess. It hurts because she loved without judgment, because she reached out without fear. A previous generation looked up to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as a kind of heroine or role model. But Diana was from my generation. She was my age; we went through so many similar things in parallel lives, and I felt a deep kinship with her, a tremendous sympathy and understanding that are difficult to explain even now. I never met her, but she was my hero for so many reasons, and I still miss her every single day.

So R.I.P. Miss Di. Maybe we'll meet someday.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 40

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Made in the Shade - The Rolling Stones. Yeah, I know it's a cheesy collection and not a proper album, but the song selection is pretty badass.

2) The Washington Nationals. Say what you want, but we Washingtonians had baseball taken away from us and then waited 30 years to get it back. You think you're a baseball fan? Try not having a hometown team to root for, pal...

3) Backbeat - dir. by Iain Softley. Damn, I love The Beatles.

4) Status Green - the best new band on the Jersey Shore, and a bunch of great guys too.

5) Federico's Pizza, Belmar NJ. Best pie on The Shore.

6) Da Vinci chianti. Wine doesn't have to be expensive to be good.

7) Oh Brother Where Art Thou? - dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen. Brilliant and subversive and cool.

8) The Terror - Dan Simmons. How have I never read this guy before?

9) Two Cow Garage. The best band you've never heard of. Like Westerberg and Black Flag rolled into one, Ohio-style.

10) Lakewood Blue Claws. Baseball, single A style. Who needs Shea when you've got it in your backyard?

Hero of the Week: Terry Magovern - R.I.P, brother. Also that guy who jumped in and rescued the school kids from the bus in Minneapolis.

Villain of the Week: Barry Bonds, Bud Selig, Michael Vick, and all the other morons ruining professional sports. Oh, and that guy being a d*ck about A-Rod's home run ball. And I don't even like the Yankees...

Sunday, August 05, 2007

I Got Soul

You may not have noticed it but—be very quiet—there’s a soul revolution goin’ on. It’s not making headlines—yet. Yeah, I know, there’s Amy Winehouse and—eek—Joss Stone. But that’s not it; they’re not there yet.

No, I’m talking about SOUL. The kind that makes you wanna get up and shout, the kind that lifts you up, that hits you in your stomach and your throat and your hips, the kind that that sends shivers down your spine and makes your feet move and your butt shake and your spirit soar. SOUL. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you experience it.

There are lots of cheap imitations out there, lots of wannabe Dreamgirls. But soul isn’t something you can manufacture—you either have it or you don’t. Otis Redding. Sam & Dave. Wilson Pickett. Aretha Franklin. Ryan Shaw.


No kidding, folks, this kid Ryan Shaw is the greatest raw talent I have ever seen. I’m not talking about polished professionalism; I’m talking about untapped ability, limitless possibility, star quality. This kid from Decatur, Georgia is the real deal. He came to New York to appear in a gospel musical a couple years ago and did some gigs on the side, including a regular slot at the Motown CafĂ©. He eventually settled in Brooklyn, and was soon recruited into Johnny Gale’s Fabulous Soul Shakers. The rest, they say, is history. His debut disc came out earlier this year and has received excellent reviews, and he just completed a major tour opening for the aforementioned Ms. Stone. But that’s not the whole story.

This kid is on his way somewhere, and he’s moving fast. Shaw made his debut headlining appearance at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan this past Monday, and more than lived up to the hype. Now, the Highline is not my idea of a warm friendly room. This place has the B.B. King’s money grab gouge going on from the minute you walk in the door. We’re talking they serve ice cream on a plate with garnishes, people. So it took some doing for Mr. Shaw to warm the place up, especially because the folks running the show made us wait close to an hour after a tepid opening set on acoustic guitar by Atlanta singer/songwriter Anthony David.

But this kid has balls. He walks onstage and opens the show with “A Change is Gonna Come.” It probably wasn’t the right Sam Cooke song—“Let the Good Times Roll” might’ve been a better choice—but you have to give the kid props for trying. He had me. And then he proceeded to knock the show out of the park. Shaw has style and power and charisma. He doesn’t just hit the notes; he feels them way down deep. He’s a gospel singer, and he sings the only way he knows how—with his soul.

The set was brief because he doesn’t have much material yet. The record, comprised of soul almost-weres and near misses like Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For a Love,” sounds like the great lost Stax record that’s missing from your collection. His originals sound like classics, and it’s hard to tell them apart. Interspersed with songs from This is Ryan Shaw (even the title is retro!) were several jaw dropping covers, including a gospelized “Let it Be” and, of all things, a sing-along to the folk standard “If I Had a Hammer.” Introducing it as a song he used to sing with his mom, Shaw performed it as a rousing testament to the power of love to change minds. And before you could pick yourself up off the floor from that, he was on to the dance portion of the program, “Mish Mash Soul,” calling the audience down front to join him. Closing the set a few minutes later with a rousing “Do the 45,” (which kind of sounds like “Shotgun” with different lyrics), he had everyone up and dancing again (I defy anyone to sit still when this man is onstage). And then he was done. It was short, sweet and to the point. It was energizing and joyous and deeply satisfying in a way you can’t get from rock’n’roll (well, except when said rock’n’roller performs soul shaking gospel-influenced material--that his fans hate…but I digress.) Nope, I love rock’n’roll as much as the next guy, perhaps a lot more, but this music is different. Soul gives you hope. It makes you see life’s possibilities, gives you the strength to go out and face the world. It’s not “head” music, it’s “heart” music. It’s muscle and power and nerve. And it’s uniquely, profoundly American.

Whew. It was 90 minutes of pure unadulterated joy. And the best part is, like all great soul music, it’s sensual without being dirty, it’s spirited but not obscene. It’s life affirming. It makes you feel like dancing and shaking your groove thing, like moving your hips and shouting to the rafters, “I am alive!” This kid Ryan Shaw has resurrected the true soul magic of yesteryear. He’s all about love and hope and positivity, a one-man self-help seminar—and it's all genuine. Midway through the show, he introduces one of his songs by prowling the lip of the stage proclaiming, “I want you to think about that heartbreak, that bad break, that bad job and scream ‘It’s OVER AND DONE!’” This would be cheesy in lesser hands, but it’s clear he believes so strongly, his faith is so deep and pure, that you are carried along with him, and so you shout “Over and done!” right along with him. And just like that, your pain is washed away, your frustration is exorcised.

The show was not perfect; Shaw needs to work on smoothing out the set list, developing his onstage persona, and most importantly, learning and/or writing new material. But his natural talent, his ability to silence a room, is something that you can’t teach. You either have it or you don’t. So go see him now, before you have to pay $100 to sit in the back of Radio City or something. Cos this kid’s not stickin’ around the $10 rooms for long…

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Frustration and Heartache

Last night the New York Dolls saved my life.

I know that sounds melodramatic but let me explain. It’s been a bad week. No. I take that back. It’s been a bad couple of months. A fender-bender I can’t pay for. Job interviews that didn’t pan out. Too many bills, too much debt. Family drama and more family drama. Each item not enough to be more than a petty annoyance individually, but taken together, along with my usual low self-esteem and tendency toward depression, enough to send me on a downward spiral. Usually when I hit these black moods, I look forward to a good rock’n’roll show because it is often the only thing that lifts me out of it. Takes me out of myself. Awash in the music, I know I am not alone.

On top of the aforementioned issues, I had been looking forward to a couple weekend getaway shows to see a friend of mine play whom I have not seen a lot this whole summer. He’s been away on tour, and being around him always makes me fell better about myself, so I had really been anticipating these shows as a chance to get away from the routine, to get my mind off some stuff and just enjoy. So it was with great disappointment that I learned in the last couple days of the cancellation of four upcoming shows that I had planned to attend.

Suffice to say I was low—really low—and being surrounded by Harry Potter-mania all week didn’t help. So it was that, feeling miserable and alone (all my friends had bailed on me) I lined up by myself at 6:30 outside the venerable Stone Pony for a night with the New York Dolls.

These guys are professionals. Entertainment is their life as well as their profession, and they take it very seriously. You know when David Jo and the boyz take the stage it’s going to be a night to remember. The Dolls are the band everyone stole from: oft imitated but never duplicated, as the saying goes. They have every reason to be bitter –and after the loss of four band members (3 of them founding members), every reason not to ever set foot on a stage again. But they are showmen at heart, and they can’t help themselves. So when Morrissey called David J up 3 years ago and requested a reunion performance, it wasn’t really too hard to say yes, and the result was one of the most talked about events of the decade. I myself had never seen the Dolls in their previous incarnation—I was too young and certainly not knowledgeable enough—so it was all very new to me. New and yet instantly familiar. Attending their first NYC show after the reunion with a friend who is a hardcore Dolls fan, I was enraptured and in awe. These guys live and breathe rock’n’roll—ooze it from every pore. They have grit and style and class. Musicianship and showmanship and skill. Raunch and debauchery and lust and lasciviousness. But most of all, they know how to Bring The Rock. They are the masters of their domain, kings of rock’n’roll the old fashioned way, and they know it. They start each show with “Lookin' for a Kiss,” [“When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m LOVE, L-U-V!!”] their Shangri Las homage, and from that point on, they have the audience eating out of their hands.

A word or two about the audience. It is, in my estimation, the epitome of what a rock’n’roll audience should be. It is, in a word, democratic. Old and young, gay and straight, punk rockers and office workers, urban and suburban, male and female. It’s a place where no matter who you are you always belong. And that’s truly what rock’n’roll is all about. Going to a Dolls show and being a part of the audience is that gentle pat on the shoulder, that warm embracing hug, that voice in your head that tells you it’s all going to be all right. That most rock’n’roll audiences are not like this speaks volumes about the shoddy state of the music at present.

Back to last night’s show. So it took longer than it usually does for me to break out of my funk. I was tired and cranky and didn’t feel much like dealing with people. The opening band bordered on Spinal Tap parody, while the second band was good but went on too long. As it was, I stood there for 3 hours until the Dolls finally took the stage around 10:30. It took a while but it happened. The moment of breakthrough came at the end of the night on the penultimate song, “Personality Crisis.” Long a Dolls signature song, it sums up best what the band is really about: sex, love, rock’n’roll, and fucking triumph, man. I had been smiling all night as I always do when the music overtakes me, but still felt a lingering funk that it seemed nothing could cure.

And then suddenly … “Frustration and heartache is what you GOT!!” belted David Jo.

And it hit me. YES! YES! YES! That’s it, that’s what I feel, and those guys get it. They understand! It hit me, and suddenly tears were running down my cheeks. Here these guys were—a bunch of misfits, a band that had never truly been understood by the rock’n’roll world—a world that had saved their lives—much less the world at large. They had suffered the same frustration and heartache and had SURVIVED. Goddammit, despite the tragedy and illness and despair and death, they were still here. They were on stage smiling smiles that lit the room, exchanging knowing glances and playful banter and enjoying every minute of their time up there like it was their last. It seemed that after all they had been through, they were just happy to still be here on this earth playing rock’n’roll, David looking at Syl and Syl winking back at David and Steve and Sami smiling and wailing away on their instruments like madmen, Brian Delaney pounding the drums behind them. These guys have been through so much—endured so much of their own frustration and heartache—and goddammit, they’re still here. They know in their bones that they still have the power to save lives, and that is a fundamental part of what drives them every single night.

So on this night, though nothing in my life had really changed, I regained some of my faith in the world when I needed it most. I felt, finally, that I could go on. Because (with help from David and Syl and Co.), I saw that no matter how the world treats me, how many bad breaks, how many disappointments and cruel twists of fate I am forced to endure, the Dolls will be there. They’ll be there, and they’ll understand because they get it, because they know. Standing there with tears in my eyes, I realized at last that as long as the New York Dolls are alive and well and playing shows, there will always be a place where I am accepted for who I am, a place where I will be welcomed into the fold with open arms.

Because it’s the Dolls, and in their world, everyone belongs.

Monday, July 16, 2007

John Doe

John Doe is my husband. Shhh, don't tell Mr. Westerberg...

Oh, and that Dave Alvin wrote some pretty amazing songs. What a great f'ing band. Screw those pesky bands from "over there."

The Seventies Ruled

Yeah, I know they did. Here's a few of the reasons why:

1) Television.
Laugh-In. Saturday Night Live. M*A*S*H. The Odd Couple. All in the Family. Sonny & Cher. Dick Cavett. Merv Griffin. The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And that's just for starters.

2) Movies.
Too many to list, but a few of the best would include: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Godfather films, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, The French Connection, Deliverance, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Doctor Zhivago, Rocky.

3) Music.
Top 40 Radio. Album Rock. Progressive Radio.
The Stones, The Who, Earth Wind & Fire, TSOP, Springsteen, Parliament, Sweet, Jackson Browne, The Clash, The Ramones and on and on...

From the depths of the cultural wasteland of 2007, we can only wonder if our American culture will ever reach those heights again.

PS-The '70s ruled even in high school. Check out Richard Linklater's classic film Dazed and Confused if you don't believe me.

Things I Like Vol. 39

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Tequila. Margaritas that give you that buzz, shots that freeze your face.

2) F.D.R. - Now more than ever. This country would be fortunate to elect a president with half of his talent, energy, intellect and integrity in 2008. If you don't believe me, read the excellent new biography by Jean Edward Smith.

3) White Stripes - "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You're Told)." This song would rule for the title alone, but it rules even more because it rocks so hard.

4) Starland Ballroom, Sayreville NJ. Great sight lines, excellent sound system, plenty of room, enough bars to handle even a packed house, and -- wonder of all wonders -- air conditioning that actually works!

5) Booeymonger's, Washington DC - Ruling the sandwich world in DC since 1975. How can you go wrong with a sandwich named after Patty Hearst?

6) Cary Grant. Do I need a reason?

7) "Get Smart" - No, not the dumbass movie remake, the original and brilliant TV show created by the most excellent mind of Mel Brooks. [Man was TV great in the '70s. Man does it suck now.]

8) Coney Island. How can you not love an amusement park where you can get wasted and then get on America's greatest rollercoaster? See it now while you still can. And don't forget to ride the Cyclone.

9) Joe Strummer. Can't wait for Julien Temple's documentary.

10) Washington DC. My hometown, and possibly one of the most underrated and misunderstood cities in the world (for too many reasons to get into here). A great place to grow up and a great place to live. (Shh, don't tell...)

Hero of the Week: The McGraths--for understanding what real friendship is all about and living it every day. And for making some pretty cool music to boot.

Villain of the Week: Asbury Partners. For oh so many reasons.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Revolutionize This

Over the years, The Beatles' "Revolution" has been called naive, pessimistic and wrongheaded. But they never mention the most important thing: it ROCKS!

Friday, June 22, 2007


My friends and I have been arguing Beatles vs. Stones forever, or so it seems. My friends are dyed-in-the-wool Stones fans. I, on the other hand, grew up on the perfect pop of the Beatles. I was only 6 or 7 when I fell in love with John Lennon's voice on "Tell Me Why." Then of course, there was Paul...Hey, when I was a kid, they were ubiquitous. On the radio. On television. In the movies. On your lunchbox. I didn't even know who the Stones were until several years after the Beatles broke up. (Yeah, ok, I was a little bit sheltered, but I did listen to Top 40 radio...)

Unfortunately, the 35th anniversary (can you believe it?) of what is arguably the best pure rock'n'roll album of all time, Exile on Main Street, is upon us, and with it, a steady stream of articles in the music press about what geniuses they were on this disc, etc. Well who can argue? I'm not even gonna try. If you want reasons, read Bill Janovitz's excellent addition to the 33-1/3 book series, aptly titled The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (wow, how did they think of that title?). Anyway, much to my great disappointment, all these articles have done nothing whatsoever to bolster my case because not one music journalist has stood up for the Fabs as being equals, at least none that I have seen. What the?

Anyway, the debate has been revived amongst us for the umpteenth time because some ninny on the network of the OTHER New York baseball team hosted the great Little Steven on his show and one of the totally dumbass questions he asked him was (apropos of his Underground Garage empire), "Beatles or Stones?" What an idiot! You have one of the great rock'n'roll historians in for a Q&A and that's what you ask him? Unbelievable.

So we were discussing Steven's guest appearance on that network [shudders] prior to watching the final Sopranos episode, and the subject came up. It was, naturally, 3 against 1--not even close. (Where are all my Beatlefriends when I need them?) I got creamed with the "World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band" argument once again. Ouch. It was truly ugly. Of course, I thought of all my snappy comebacks on the drive home. As a matter of fact, it wasn't until a week or so later that I finally had the proper ammunition with which to counterattack, and by then it was far too late. Figures.

Well, in my humble opinion, there shouldn't even be an "either/or" question when it comes to The Beatles and The Stones. They were both unbelievably great, and it's apples and oranges. But since most of the rock world insists on forcing the issue, I'll play along. So, without further ado, below are some of the arguments I've seen and heard on this issue. C'mon, which side are you on? Read and decide for yourself...

Beatles: They came, they saw, they rocked, they broke up.
Stones: Still around 30 years later. Um, why?
Beatles: 3 out and out geniuses in one band, and the 4th guy wasn't bad either
Stones: Mick & Keith.
Beatles: 4 solo careers, a couple of which have been pretty damn impressive in their own right. Two of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as solo artists, for god's sake.
Stones: Xpensive Winos aside, not even a question.
Beatles: They did it all first: met Dylan, smoked pot, went psychedelic, etc.
Stones: They're bad boyz playin' rock'n'roll. It's all about stealing from your influences. Who cares who did what first?
Beatles: They could go from raw and raucous to unabashedly sexual to poppy and sweet to joyfully alive to heartbreakingly sad all on one record -- and it was never forced.
Stones: Um, Exile on Main Street.
Beatles: They practically invented power pop, but who's counting.
Stones: They are a genre unto themselves.
Beatles: Perfect and polished on vinyl, raw and real live.
Stones: Sloppy and messy and unforgettable. The essence of rock'n'roll.

I would say it's a draw. But my Stones friends always insist that they win because the Stones play rock'n'roll--understand the American musical tradition--better than the Beatles ever could. To which I say, check out the following Beatles covers:

"Please Mr. Postman"
"You Really Got a Hold on Me"
"Anna (Go With Him)"
"Long Tall Sally"
"Roll Over, Beethoven"
and last but most definitely NOT least:
"Twist and Shout" - the definitive version of a definitive rock'n'roll song. Yes, it's rock'n'roll, not pop, because it comes from R&B roots. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, pal...

I rest my case.

Oh, and Paul's new record is pretty good for a 64 year old. Sigh.

Beatles vs. Stones? Who cares? It's all great! Just to show that I have no allegiances, I will state that though my new favorite record is by this L.A. duo called The Red Button who play note perfect Brit pop--and they're both huge Beatleheads to boot--shocking, I know (please do check out their new disc, She's About to Cross My Mind--totally rules, right?)--though I love love love this record, I do also love (on the more rockin' side) The Shys and their most excellent garage rock. And they're also from L.A. Wait'll I tell my Stones friends. Could be a new battle in the making. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 38

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Live in Dublin - Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band. Fantastic performances of amazing material beautifully shot and reproduced. Why have we had to wait so long for something of this caliber from Our Boy?
2) Easy Tiger - Ryan Adams.
3) Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - dir. by Yves Simoneau for HBO Films. Impossible to watch, impossible to look away. It will break your heart over and over again. And the book ain't bad either.
4) Waitress - dir. by Adrienne Shelly. Start fresh.
5) Petal Pusher - Laurie Lindeen. For those of us chicks who will never be in a band but wish we were. And there might be some stuff about Mr. Westerberg in there, too...
6) Adam & Dave's Bloodline - the band, the record, the live show, the guys.
7) Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia, PA - cool new venue in a cool town
8) Exile on Main Street - the Stones, natch. Well, why not?
9) Johnny Pisano, the coolest guy I know and the nicest, too.
10) Sunday nights at the Headliner, Neptune, NJ - cold Coronas (with lime) for $2.50 and some pretty good Springsteen covers. Great way to bid adieu to the weekend.

Hero of the Week: Francis J. McGrath. For saving my life by playing rock'n'roll.
Villain of the Week: Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby. Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Sunday Morning, 2 a.m.

Some people get it. They understand that because of rock’n’roll music, the world can be a better place. And so they consume it compulsively, listening to it on the radio, shouting along to it in their cars when they think no one can hear, discussing it endlessly with their friends late into the night, falling asleep with its healing magic echoing in their headphones. And if they’re lucky, some people even get to play this music, get to be part of its history and traditions themselves.

It’s a compulsion for these people, they don’t do it for the money or the fame, but because they don’t know what else to do. And so they learn to play the guitar or the drums or the piano, they write songs and form a band and rehearse till 4 a.m. in their parents' garage. They all have jobs and lives but they make time because they have to. And if they’re lucky they get booked to play shows and perform before a real live audience. Sometimes they even get paid for it.

Some bands are just passable; they borrow and steal from those who have gone before them and get away with it because mostly people are just there to drink and don’t really notice or care that much who’s up there on the stage. But there those that are good at this; they come up with their own sound, their own look and style and presence, and after a while people begin to notice. People come out to see them regularly, and they ask them if they have a record out. And they say no, not yet, and then they write some more songs and go into some cheap studio and do the best they can, and actually it’s not half bad at that.

And they’re not on a major label—they sell their CDs at the shows and on the Internet, and local papers that practically no one but other musicians and writers even reads give them good reviews, and they take heart from this and keep working hard and the bookings increase. And the same handfuls of people keep coming to see them. And they find out that not only are these people talented musicians, they are also warm and generous and funny. And they get to be friends.

And that is the best part of all, because these are the only people who really get you, who really understand your compulsion to be out every night listening to music, to get drunk and scream and shout along, to voraciously consume and then memorize everything you can find on your favorite artists, to purchase endless books and CDs until they spill over into every nook and cranny of your tiny apartment. They really get you, and you love their music and you can’t believe that they let you hang out with them, that they actually think of you as a friend. You can be yourself with them, you can say or do whatever you want and it doesn’t matter. And when you’re with them, you’re more alive somehow, every moment is electric. You feel you are at your best, that perhaps there really is a place for you in the world after all. You laugh until your stomach aches, you eat and smoke and drink and suddenly it’s 2 a.m. and the place is closing and how will you get through the week now without them? You wake up the next morning and wish you could have put it all in a bottle and taken it with you so you could open it up and enjoy some of it when life becomes too dull and painful and meaningless. You wish it would all last forever, but deep down you know that what makes these nights truly special is that they will, like everything else in life, eventually come to an end.

These people save your life again and again, and you do whatever you can to help them, but they are modest and self-effacing and really, you don't have that much power in this world; there is not much you can do but write the occasional essay and hope someone reads it, submit queries to magazines and pray the editors bite on them. Like them, you can learn to believe in yourself a little, to be persistent and hope it pays off. But in the end, all you can really do is say thank you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


The label on the bottle says cheap vodka
Watch out I am dangerous
I will swallow you up
The black hole
Will claim another victim.

I am so I am so unsatisfied
Kiss away the void I want to
Drown in your laughter in your blue eyes
The sun rises just another minute
Is not enough is too much
But I want to
Sleep now it will be ok.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Top Ten Reasons Springsteen Fans Should Love the Hold Steady

Admit it, the wait has been arduous, and it’s hard to find ways to occupy your time while Bruce is off making a new record. We’ve all been forced to take up new hobbies. Because I am music junkie myself, I am constantly buying new stuff. And I have, in the last six months or so, developed a severe addiction to Vagrant recording artists The Hold Steady. Here’s why you, as a Springsteen fan, should too.

Top Ten Reasons Springsteen Fans Should Love the Hold Steady:

1) The Sound. The Hold Steady’s sound has been likened to Bruce, but that’s too simple. Yes, it’s dense and guitar driven. Yes, they have been compared to everyone from Modest Mouse to The Replacements, but there’s more to it than that. Floating among Craig Finn’s nasal vocals and Tad Kubler’s juicy power chords are some pretty lovely melodies. There are Franz Nicolay’s lush, romantic keyboards, Galen Polivka’s dynamic bass and Bobby Drake’s solid backbeat. But what hits you hard, what grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go are the passion and the drama of the music; filled with unabashed emotional intensity, it’s the sort of addictive stuff that’s hard to find either on the air or on iPods. Simultaneously unique and comfortingly familiar, it’s the first thing you want to hear in the morning and what you listen to on headphones all day.

2) The Shows. While not overly long (usually under two hours), they are sonic blasts of energy that leave you pumped for days. Thoroughly satisfying and addictive like crack.

3) The Fans. They know every word to every song and aren’t afraid to sing (or shout) along. They have memorized every nuance, every Craig Finn gesture. They are passionate and intense and at showtime, they are 100% focused on the stage. No bathroom breaks, no beer runs (ok, there’s usually one or two), no talking, no whining. They are totally there. They are a true community, and some of the coolest people you’ll ever meet.

4) The Guys in the Band. How else can you say it? This is just a bunch of nice, normal guys. They’re smart and funny, the kind of people you want to hang out and get drunk with. But it’s more than that—they really love what they do and they have a great time doing it. Above all, they’re music fans too.

5) The Lyrics. Clever, dense, intellectually challenging, tender, passionate, funny, joyful, tragic playful, heartbreaking. They steal your heart, fill your soul and power your brain. Craig Finn’s lyrics are reminiscent of early Springsteen, and his characters every bit as memorable. And he’s even working the trilogy thing: where Bruce has the Born To Run/Darkness/River trifecta, THS gives us Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday, and Boys and Girls in America. And where Bruce tells the stories of Wendy, Mary and Sherry on those records, Finn gives us Halle, Gideon and Charlemagne.

6) They’re Springsteen Fans Too. These guys love Bruce as much as you do and aren’t afraid to say so. And don’t challenge them on the trivia, because they know their B-sides.

7) Tickets. Easy to get and inexpensive. Nuff said.

8) They’re Coming To Your Town. Their record’s out now (not at some undisclosed future time), and they’re currently on the road. Coming soon to a town near you.

9) Bruce is a Fan.

And this is the most important reason of all…
10) They will make you believe in rock’n’roll again. (No further explanation needed.)

So without further ado, buy the record –Boys and Girls in America – and give it a listen. And by all means, go to a show. Who knows—you might just bump into a certain Mr. Springsteen…

For further info:

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 37

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Warren Zevon - Like I have said in the past, it's tough to describe genius, but you know it when you see it.

2) I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - Crystal Zevon - Finally the unvarnished truth about one of the most remarkable, fascinating talents of this past (or any other) century.

3) The Sweet Smell of Success - dir. by Alexander Mackendrick. One of the most brilliant screenplays ever written (by Clifford Odets) and some pretty great performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. And then there is the beautiful nighttime photography of mid-50s Manhattan. Not to be missed.

4) Dazed and Confused - dir. by Richard Linklater. The closest thing to my high school experience (outside of the utterly brilliant "Freaks and Geeks") ever to appear onscreen. So much truth that it's hard to watch.

5) Fontana's, New York NY - rock'n'roll in Chinatown

6) Richard Bacchus and Sammi Yaffa - 'nuff said

7) Uncle Jimmy's Dirty Basement - New York, NY - Punk rock, puppets and filthy sex jokes. NIICE.

8) Rich Shapiro, comic madman

9) The French Connection - dir. by William Friedkin. They don't make 'em like this anymore. Classic for the car chase scene alone. And Hackman's not bad, either.

10) Adam and Dave's Bloodline - The boys from Philly (Florida, Indiana?) have finally put out their debut disc, eponymously. Couldn't be happier or more proud.

Hero of the Week: Joe Strummer, for walking it like he talked it.

Villain of the Week: Our illustrious president, George W. Bush, for making sure that our National Guard is nowhere to be found when they are needed most. Kansas thanks you.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

We Don't Wanna Be Alone

I am not the popular one. When I was a teenager, I was not the one the boys gathered around in a crowded room. I had a tendency to be on my own all the time, preferred the company of animals to people, preferred curling up with my favorite book to running around in the mud with the other kids. Now that I’m grown up, alone is what I am all the time still, even with other people. I have always been the one who doesn’t quite fit, who is the third person of a pair, the oldest one of a young crowd, the only girl in a room full of guys. I should be terrified of being alone; my divorced parents have shown me how lonely it can get, especially after a certain age—but I am alone so much even when I am with other people that it’s nothing I can’t handle. In fact, I am quite accustomed to it. I have always preferred the company of music, books or movies to people. After all, in the world of literature, Jane Eyre will always have Mr. Rochester in the end, Elizabeth Bennet her Mr. Darcy. “Baba O’Riley” will always end on a note of triumph, Louis and Rick will always walk off into the Casablanca dawn arm in arm. Music, books, films, those things don’t let you down because they are works of art; etched in history, they are unalterable. It’s people who let you down; they have their own agendas, their own interests to look after, and when something bad happens, they will always look after themselves first. Nothing to be done; it’s human nature. So we are born alone and we die alone regardless of what everyone tells us, and we’d better get used to it. But there’s nothing horrible about being alone if you are happy with who you are; it’s only society that tells you have to be with someone all the time for the rest of your life to be happy.

Despite blissful solitude, however, despite the writings of Thoreau, there are yet still times when you want to hold someone, to have them look into your eyes with complete love and understanding, to reach out in the dark and feel them breathing softly next to you. But such companionship is elusive, and searching too desperately for it, you may grasp it only to have it slip through your fingers. So live your life, do what makes you happy, and when you find a person who can stand to be with you for more than a few minutes, who actually pays attention to you, listens with both ears and whole heart, looks at you when you talk and really sees you, grab on for dear life. Because it is all fleeting, and we are always alone in the end.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

-William Shakespeare, sonnet 116

I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.
--W. H. Auden

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 36

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Love and Danger - Joe Ely. "Settle for Love" (see previous post) is the best song I know about what it feels like to fall in love and want everything. Plus the man is just flat out gorgeous and rocks harder on an acoustic guitar than most people do with twin Marshall stacks.

2) Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson. On the NYT list of best books of the century. With good reason.

3) Back to Black - Amy Winehouse. Forget the hype, buy the record and listen for yourself.

4) Daniel Wolff, my pal and mentor

5) "The Twilight Zone" - Not every episode is brilliant, but the majority are better than anything that has been on television before or since.

6) "Someone Left the Back Door Open" - John Eddie. New (much darker) music from my dear friend and inspiration. Good luck with the new record.

7) "Another Cigarette" - maybe pete. Watch out, their new stuff rocks hard.

8) Christine Smith. Be happy, be well, adieu.

9) The Hold Steady. Need I say more?

10) To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf. For anyone who has dared to dream.

Hero of the Week: JM, who came through for me in more ways than one this week. You're the best.
Villain of the Week: I would like to say Don Imus, but he's more pitiful than anything else.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Would You Settle?

This song says about all there is to say on the subject of love, on how it can obsess and possess you, shake you to your core, make you see the world differently. But what makes the song really resonate is its focus upon what love really means--being there for someone every single moment of every single day, without question, without judgment. All of us deserve this kind of love, but so few of us seem to get it...

Settle For Love
by Joe Ely

You say you want drama
I'll give you drama
You want muscle
I'll give you nerve
You want sugar
Would you settle for honey?
You want romance
Would you settle for love?

Would you settle for love?
Would you settle for love?
Would you settle for love,
Or do you need
All that meaningless stuff?
Would you settle for love?
Would it be enough?
Baby, would you settle for love

You want fire
I'll give you fever
You want kisses
I'll give you all I got
You want diamonds
Would you settle for rhinestones?
You want romance
Would you settle for love?

Would you settle for love?
Would you settle for love?
Would you settle for love,
Or do you need
All that meaningless stuff?
Would you settle for love?
Would it be enough?
Baby, would you settle for love

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 35

Wow it's been since August--before the move--that I have written one of these. And that's far too long, So without further ado....

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Minor Characters - Joyce Johnson. Like looking in the mirror.
2) Get Steady - Jonny Lives! - You don't have to be deep as long as you rock.
3) In Search of Lost Time - Marcel Proust - I don't know why it took so long for me to read this.
4) HiFi (bar) - New York, NY - pretty cool jukebox, I would say...
5) "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" - Jet
6) 7A (restaurant) - New York, NY
7) The Queen - dir. by Stephen Frears - a thoughtful take on the price of fame and royalty
8) The Lives of Others - dir. by Florian Henckel-Donnersmarck - While American filmmakers disappear into mediocrity, those furriners just keep doing great work.
9) Mr. USA - is it possible to be both hot and cool at the same time?
10) "The Office" - proof that while American television is out of ideas, the Brits can keep it we can steal it.

Hero of the Week: Dana Priest and Anne Hull of the Washington Post, who finally pulled the wool off the eyes of the American public about the deplorable situation at Walter Reed, and about the true cost of the war. It's about time.
Villain of the Week: Dick Cheney. Fitzpatrick's waiting for you, pal...

Friday, March 02, 2007

I Want You Back

I was eight years old when I first started listening to the radio. It was the late ‘60s, and Top 40 was king. I lived in Washington DC, and as it was in most places, you could turn on the radio and hear almost anything without having to change stations. From British Invasion stalwarts to novelty tunes, from bubblegum pop to country ballads, from one-hit wonders to stone cold soul, it was all on your AM radio dial. I fell in love with The Beatles and Donny Osmond. And I practiced the dance moves I learned from the Jackson Five in front of the mirror in my bedroom.

Michael Jackson was six or seven years old at the time—just about my age—and his joyous smile and undeniable talent were irresistible, especially to a sheltered, shy kid like me. He and his brothers had a weekly cartoon show on Saturday mornings, and I was enthralled. The music of the Jackson Five wasn’t serious and cerebral like John Lennon or simplistic throwaway pop like The Archies. Here was a bright, rhythmic sound that seemed to encapsulate joy itself, that made you want to get up and just move. To a kid raised on Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio, it was truly exotic and just a little scary. I wasn’t sure what this music was called, but knew I wanted more. My grandparents gave me a little transistor radio when I was nine or ten, and I carried it with me everywhere. It was like a secret world had opened up to me that my parents weren’t a part of; my friends and I would discuss our favorite songs, endlessly debating the meaning of song lyrics. Just what was Patti LaBelle talking about in “Lady Marmalade?” I made a friend of mine go ask her French-speaking mother. Of course, the answer to our question wasn’t really a secret, but we were more than a little scandalized nonetheless. And in truth, the sociological ramifications of the song eluded us. We just liked it because it annoyed our parents, and because we could dance to it.

By the time I entered high school, though, something had changed. There was this new radio trend called “Album Rock.” Geared toward an increasingly suburban audience, it had located itself on the far right end of the FM dial, a forbidding place I had never been before. Formerly a no-man’s land, FM was now where the “cool kids” tuned their radios to listen to rock’n’roll, a change that seemed to me to have happened almost overnight. But something else had happened; the breathtaking diversity of Top 40 had been replaced by a curious sort of radio apartheid. R&B and soul music, dance music and funk—all had been exiled to another new FM format called “Urban Contemporary,” a moniker that confused me when I first heard it. After all, I lived in a city—wasn’t I an “urban” radio listener? Why did the purveyors of “Album Rock” think I didn’t want to hear Marvin Gaye and James Brown? And why were these artificial walls being built around musical genres—R&B and rock’n’roll—whose roots were so inextricably linked? What was it they didn’t want us to hear?

In the first half of the 20th century, the powers that be in the radio business had tried once before to keep blues and R&B—what they called “race music”—hidden. It was very simple, really—they just didn’t play it. If you wanted to hear Howlin’ Wolf or Big Mama Thornton, you had to listen to stations that programmed this outlaw music, obscure AM stations that were far from the bright sunny world of commercial pop radio—stations that most of white America considered taboo. But hiding it didn’t work; kids would stay up late and tune in these forbidden sounds after their parents had gone to bed. They connected with this music; R&B took them outside their realm of experience into an adult world of deep passion and profound despair and joyful transcendence. It was hypnotic and mysterious and exciting. It was the sound of oppressed people expressing themselves, and listening to its infectious rhythms, you wanted to dance and sing and shout, to announce your presence to the world. These kids who listened to R&B bought records, too, and when music industry people realized there was money to be made from “race music,” it began to show up on mainstream radio, to creep into the public consciousness. By the 1950’s, artists like Fats Domino and Ike Turner were household names. R&B was the authentic voice of people who had been silenced for too long and who would no longer be denied, and its visceral power forever changed the cultural landscape of America.

But something went wrong in the mid-‘70s. In the transition from AM to FM, popular music was re-segregated. Instead of reaching for the masses, radio programmers targeted their stations to very specific audiences, eliminating entire genres from their playlists. The message seemed to be that you weren’t supposed to like R&B if you were a white kid, weren’t supposed to like rock’n’roll if you were black, weren’t supposed to like country music at all. Advertisers on these stations picked up on this trend, and so radio ads, too, began to be targeted to one market or the other. We were all urban kids in DC, but we lived in different worlds. This music that had once brought people together—kids from Harlem and Detroit and Birmingham and Philadelphia—was being used to divide us in ways we were very slow to recognize.


There is no instruction manual for being a teenager; most of the time you just show up and do the best you can. I remember the unique hell of high school dances, of being 15 or 16 years old and standing awkwardly in a corner of the school cafeteria with a couple girlfriends and feeling small and insignificant. We would each be dropped off at eight o’clock and told to have fun, but were never quite sure how we were supposed to accomplish this task. After all, the same kids would still not speak to you, that cute boy you had a crush on would still have no idea you even existed. Why did anyone think things would be different just because it was dark outside and there was music playing? The cafeteria’s dingy fluorescent lights would be dimmed, lending the room the somewhat stodgy air of one of those museum exhibits in which there are precious documents on display that can’t be exposed to the light. The dining tables would be stacked on top of each other and pushed haphazardly against a far wall as though they were trying to hide. The room usually smelled of floor wax and disinfectant and yesterday’s meat loaf. I would spend most of the night standing around whispering to my friends just like we did in class when we were supposed to be paying attention. Dances were like school with bad lighting and no desks.

I went to a few of these tortuous evenings, and each time I walked through the industrial metal doors leading to the cafeteria, I would wonder why I had bothered to show up. I would sigh and look at my watch and wish I were anywhere else. Until the music started. The atmosphere of the room instantly changed when people started dancing. There was terror and anticipation in those songs—anything could happen. (Would that cute guy finally ask me to dance?) There was despair. (Probably he wouldn’t.) But there was also salvation: I could close my eyes and dance with anyone I wanted. “Every man has a place/in his mind there’s a space/ and the world can’t erase his fantasy.” The mellifluous voice of Philip Bailey would wash over me telling me that it wouldn’t always be this way, that there was a world outside this sheltered, unforgiving place, a place in which I belonged. “All your dreams will come true right away…” The lyrics of Earth Wind & Fire songs were not exactly deep, but it didn’t matter. They lifted you out of yourself, called you out onto the dance floor and compelled you to move. With their irresistible brand of R&B music, they created a rhythm that let you dance all over your blues. I never did get asked to dance much, so I danced by myself and I didn’t care who saw me.

Some anonymous social committee always seemed to control the music at these dances. They would hire a DJ who would play pretty much what I heard on the radio. But one night, standing off to the side as usual, I was assaulted by the sound of pounding, thumping bass and drums. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, a thick stew of noise that made the room vibrate. I looked up and was startled to see a group of older boys dancing together in the middle of the crowded floor, shouting along to the song at the top of their lungs: “Flash- light! Spot-light! Day-light!” They were wearing black jeans and white t-shirts and black masks that covered their eyes, and they each held a household flashlight. They were inciting the crowd by pointing the flashlights at people and turning them on and off. Each boy had an odd nickname sewn onto the back of his t-shirt as though it were a sports jersey: one was “Dr. Funk-enstein”, another “Capt. Cou-Cou.” They danced and shouted, parading through the dance floor and shining their flashlights at the surprised teenagers around them, who laughed and joined in the chant. “Flash-light!” Soon the whole room was caught up in the frenzy. I watched, awestruck. Clearly the perpetrators had requested that this particular song be played, and had planned this flashlight outburst for weeks. But how did they know about this wild, energizing music? And what was this song that had entranced them so?

I later learned that it this music was called “funk,” and that the song was called “Flashlight” and was performed by a band called, of all things, Parliament/Funkadelic, led by one George Clinton. George was a huge, burly, flamboyant character who wore his long hair in multicolored braids that fell to his waist and a large feathered headdress on his large head. He had quite a cult following—an audience that came in all colors and sizes. P-Funk didn’t care who you were—they just wanted you to join in the party. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about him or his music at the time—he was a still little “out there” for my teenage taste—but like the Jackson Five, he had shown me a world quite apart from the one in which I lived, and I begin to see things a little differently. I was intrigued.

As the ‘70s progressed, popular music became increasingly fractured. By the time I was 16, I, like most of my friends, was listening to “Album Rock” and thinking that the world of “Urban Contemporary” stations was a scary, unfamiliar place. Though I liked a lot of the R&B music that was played on such stations, the programming and advertising—for hair relaxers and skin tone cream—clearly wasn’t directed at me. To find the music that I loved I had to listen to stations that didn’t acknowledge my existence (and I suppose it was that way for African-Americans wanting to hear rock’n’roll, too). It was divisive and depressing. Why was I being forced to choose? Wasn’t it all just music?

This troubling trend came to a head during the punk rock vs. disco “controversy” of the late ‘70s. Somewhere out there in America, the cultural divide had escalated into full-blown war, and it seemed like every kid had to choose sides: did you like “punk rock” or disco? There was no middle ground. Far away from the epicenter of this controversy, New York City, I knew little about either genre—it was all still music to me. But when the powers that be at my high school followed the national trend and scheduled a “punk rock vs. disco” dance, I was confronted with the question at last. The format of the dance was designed to create tension: the DJ would alternate playing “punk” and disco, and we kids would “vote” by dancing to the songs representing whichever genre we preferred. I remember some of my friends danced to punk and some to disco, and how conflicted I felt. I wanted to dance to all of it and wondered why it was that I was being forced to choose. The atmosphere at the dance began to get ugly—people booed and harassed each other on the dance floor—so the organizers ended the evening early. I left the dance with a terrible sense of foreboding—what was happening to American music, and to America itself?

It wasn’t until I was in college that I really delved into the world of R&B, began to understand its history and cultural significance. I became a true junkie, devouring every book on the history of American music I could find, buying countless records and immersing myself in the glorious shouting of Aretha Franklin, the sad entrancing croon of Sam Cooke, the dynamic vocal interplay of Sam & Dave. I listened, and I began to understand things about my country’s history that I had never learned in schoolbooks—how jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B had been born out of the suffering of African-American slaves, and how it had been a tremendous force for social change. I had felt for myself how powerful it made me feel, and so I began to understand that perhaps people had tried to keep it hidden away precisely for this reason. This music was life-affirming; it told you that you mattered, that you were somebody—and then it made you dance all over anyone who dared to question it. In a country that had spent so much energy and lost so much blood trying to keep people apart from each other, trying to keep things just as they were politically, economically and socially, it was a potent instrument of change. And if you were wealthy and powerful, change was a dangerous thing.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Boys and Girls in America

Every now and then you have an experience that lets you know you are still alive, that restores your faith in yourself and in the things you love. It makes you believe again, lets you know that you were not foolish to open your heart to something in this frightening, cynical world. Last night at the Stone Pony was one of those nights.

The Pony will be gone soon, perhaps in a matter of months, and I have experienced many magic nights there. But the people I shared them with are mostly gone from the scene now; other priorities have taken over their lives, and music is not what it once was to them. But I have not changed. To me, this place, this music is everything, and it kills me to see it dying before my eyes.

It is dying, but it will not go without a fight. Rock’n’roll has long since fractured into a million pieces, and other idols have replaced it in the hearts of America’s youth. But every now and then a band comes along that understands what this music has meant, that loves it as much as you do. A band that keeps the spirit of rock'n'roll alive, that picks up the standard and carries it bravely and unabashedly into the future. That wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t care who knows it. The Hold Steady is such a band.

I don’t know how this is happened. How does it ever happen? The power of music is a mysterious thing; the process by which it insinuates itself into our hearts and minds is innate, organic. It is part of who we are. How else to explain it? You are in a room full of people whom you have never met, that you have nothing in common with. And then suddenly the band you love walks out and begins to play these songs that mean so much to you, and you are instantly old friends. You share a deep connection that needs no explanation. Which is a good thing, because how would you ever explain it?

How would you explain that feeling you get when the band walks out and picks up their instruments, strumming and tuning and grinning in anticipation? That moment when the first chords sound and the room lifts off the ground and starts whirling in space. When a song has caught fire, has moved out of itself and become a physical presence. When the band is caught up in the swirling wall of sound; when they smile at each other with joy and love and abandon, and you know that they feel like you do—they wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world at this moment. That moment when everyone in the room knows this is it, this is the place to be. You are there and you know that tonight, you are watching the best band in America. You are in on the secret; you know something no one else knows yet. But still you want to share it. It’s so amazing, so mind-blowing that you want to shout it to the world—this is it! This is where you need to be right now! This is the band, this is the moment!

The Stone Pony will soon be gone; and this band will move on from this time and place. They may become huge stars, may be on the cover of Rolling Stone. And they may remain a cult band that never sells more than a couple hundred tickets a show, a few thousand records. They may have a long career or they may crash and burn tomorrow. But they will never again play like they did last night. This was a special night in a special venue, and they knew it. And that’s fine. That, as they say, is rock’n’roll; you wouldn’t change it even if you could. And you don’t care. Because this band gave you this night, and you were there to see it. On this one night, for those two or three hours in a run-down bar in a faded resort town that once meant so much to so many, they were the best band in America. And if you love this music, that is all that matters.