Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Unless you live under a rock, you know today is National Coffee Day. Here at the Rock Turtleneck office, every day is coffee day – we drink the robust, savory beverage any way we can, with half and half if it's hot, and whole milk if it's iced. Skim literally doesn't cut it.
When they’re not singing about world peace, groupies or heroin, a lot of RT’s favorite musicians have recorded musical tributes to America's favorite eye-opener.
Back in his early days in the late sixties, Bob Marley and the Wailers had a hit in Jamaica with their song “One More Cup of Coffee.” You can find it on his must-own box set Songs of Freedom. While researching this piece, I learned that the Marley family sell a Bob Marley line of coffees with blends like "Stir it Up" and "Simmer Down" - amazingly, I see no evidence of one named after his one song that actually mentions coffee.
Another Bob, Bob Dylan, also has a song called “One More Cup of Coffee,” a highlight of his 1975 album Desire. Dylan's ode to joe has a subtitle (Valley Below) and a vibe that's much more Tehran than Trenchtown, but Marley’s influence is felt nonetheless. Here’s Zimmerman singing it on his '75 Rolling Thunder Tour, as captured in his 4-hour self-directed opus Renaldo and Clara.
Dylan is a big coffee enthusiast – you don't write a thousand or so songs, play 100+ nights a year, write books and make films without a little pick-me-up. A few years back, his justly celebrated XM Radio show Theme Time Radio Hourdedicated an hour to the beverage. You can download his Coffee episode, and many others, here.
The White Stripes, who I would imagine love to start their day with a nice strong cup of Chock Full O' Nuts, majestically covered Dylan’s tune on their first album.
The Stripes also appeared in a hipper-than-thou art-house film called “Coffee and Cigarettes.” Here they are sitting in a café discussing — what else? — the legacy of genius inventor Nikola Tesla.
The most famous java related song in semi-recent memory is surely Squeeze's “Black Coffee in Bed" from 1982. In the tradition of their heroes Lennon & McCartney, it's a closely observed, super-melodic tale of marital strife and sexual gamesmanship. While it is not my favorite of their many pop gems, it’s a catchy, literate little ditty and also features background vocals by Paul Young and Elvis Costello.
Remember, at Rock Turtleneck, WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Happy Birthday to Bruce Springsteen, who turned a whopping 60 on Wednesday.
U2, the only other artist who is as good in a big venue as a small one, paid tribute to Bruce Wednesday night in the Holy Land of East Rutherford NJ, home of Giants Stadium. It’s like paying tribute to Jesus in Jerusalem. They did a fun version of Bruce's Born to Run classic "She’s the One," seamlessly riding that Bo Diddley beat right into "Desire":
I admire Bruce as a songwriter, musician and public citizen with a supreme work ethic. And while I don't worship at the altar of Bruce, I enjoy a lot of his music and he has written many undeniable classics. The man puts out a quality product.
What truly amazes me about Bruce is that after 40 years and thousands of shows, he still finds it within himself to treat every song in his set like it's half past midnight, the house lights are on, it's his third encore, and he's just getting started. While his generosity and show-biz can-do spirit are commendable, in some ways it can be like the guest at your party who won't get the hint that it's time to leave.
Take this version of one of my favorite songs of his, “Ramrod,” from a 2002 show in Barcelona. On The River, “Ramrod” is a 3-minute blast of garage rock in the tradition of “Louie Louie” and “96 Tears,” but in Barcelona, he ends the song and starts it up again about eight dozen times, until it’s longer than Tales from Topographic Oceans:
It’s almost vaudevillian, the way the band looks surprised as Bruce takes them around the block one more time. Even Bruce feigns surprise and helplessness like the willing Prisoner of Rock & Roll he is. Hey Bruce, my babysitter charges $15 an hour and it's a weeknight - let's wrap this up so I can beat the traffic.
You know what would be genuinely surprising? A taut, 45-minute set with no false endings, no monologues and just two short encores. But I guess that's what Sonic Youth is for. I will say, watching the "Ramrod" clip, it's hard not to smile. The band sounds great and everyone is having a damn good time.
Let's come back full circle with the Boss himself putting 110% into "She's the One" at his legendary 1975 show at London's Hammersmith Odeon. This concert was released a few years back and is a must-own document of a man becoming a legend.
Little Steven, who was "Miami" Steve Van Zandt back then, looked much cooler as a mobster than he does as a gypsy. Or is he trying to look like Madame, the famous puppet and muse to Waylon Flowers?
Bonus clip: Madame interviews Phyllis Diller:
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
While Rock Turtleneck’s dream of a Gen-Y Fleetwood Mac (see Monday’s post) probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon, an indie rock version of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is already up and running.
Monsters of Folk is an all-star group of non-stars (none are household names) who are big names indie rock: Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Matt “M” Ward of She & Him and solo fame.
Like CSN&Y, MoF have recorded and toured together in various combinations on many projects. The question is do they, like CSN&Y, add up to more than the sum of their parts? (I should say that CSN adds up to more than the sum of their parts. The Y, Neil Young is more by himself than CSN&Y put together.)
In the spirit of The Band at Big Pink, the four Monsters of Folk swapped instruments and shared writing, singing and production duties at Oberst's Omaha home studio to ensure a group feel rather than a collection of solo tracks.
Their eponymous debut was released yesterday. I haven’t heard the entire album but I’m enjoying the lead single “Say Please” a great deal.
Monsters of Folk are spending the fall on the road, in what is sure to be one of the concerts of the season. As stated on the band’s website, the show will be "a 2 1/2 hour musical event showcasing brand new songs from the forthcoming album as well as songs fans have come to enjoy from their respective Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket and M Ward catalogues.” Count the RT in.
As MoF’s live version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” from a few years back demonstrates, there are sure to be some interesting surprises as well.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Rock Turtleneck raises its glass to newlyweds Ben Gibbard and Zooey Deschanel, who were married over the weekend in Seattle. (My evite must have gotten mistakenly gone straight to my spam folder.)
In "indie" circles, this is the equivalent of a Royal Wedding. Ben is the very talented leader of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service. His songs and singing have an R.E.M.-ish dreamlike quality and walk the line between experimentation and pop accessibility.
One of my favorite tracks from Death Cab's last album Narrow Stairs was "No Sunlight" seen here in a nifty version from the UK's cheeky Black Cab Sessions:
Zooey, in addition to being an on-the-rise talented comic actress (her film (500) Days of Summer was a big hit) and top-shelf eye candy, is a talented singer-songwriter in her own right.
Her band She & Him, with indie svengali M. Ward, had one of the most charming debuts in recent memory with last year's Volume One. It was surely one of the best albums by an established actor, and one of the only ones I can think of that is completely unembarassing in any way. Here are She & Him casting a very Linda Ronstadt-like vibe in a nice performance of "Change is Hard" on the Craig Ferguson Show.
Now that indie rock has a bona fide prince and princess, perhaps it's time to put together a 21st century Fleetwood Mac, with equally talented collaborators Ward, Jenny Lewis, Jakob Dylan and elder statesman Elvis Costello, who is a fan and mentor to all these artists, as seen in this version of "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding" from his great IFC show Spectacle.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Jay-Z’s new record The Blueprint 3 debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart this week. It sold 475,000 copies, which is impressive since supposedly no one buys music anymore.
More significantly, the new album is Jay-Z 11th record to hit #1, which means he has passed Elvis Presley as the solo artist with the most #1 albums. Only The Beatles (who re-released 13 albums this week) are ahead of him - way ahead, with 19 #1's.
While I am not a huge hip-hop fan, and Elvis will always be the King, I have been listening to a bit of Jay-Z here and there lately and I like what I've heard. For one thing, he sings with a real voice of authority and intelligence in a way that reminds me of Chuck D from Public Enemy, and even John Lennon.
The former Shawn Carter is also interested and knowledgeable about music far beyond hip-hop. For example, in 1998 he brilliantly recast the Annie song “Hard Knock Life” into a Ghetto Anthem. I'm not really into all the talk about bling and Cristal and liberal use of the N-Word, but I grew up in Connecticut:
More recently, Mr. Beyonce teamed up with surprisingly good guitarist John Mayer for a pretty hot version of his new song "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" at a 9/11 victims' all-star benefit show Jay-Z organized this month at Madison Square Garden. Any rapper who hates auto-tune (technology that allows bad singers to sing in tune) and plays with a full band is alright by me.
Like lot of white rock geek dudes, my first exposure to Jay Z was 2004's The Grey Album, the reputation making mash-up by Danger Mouse. He brillianly (and illegally) took accapella versions of Jay Z’s tracks from 2003's Black Album and put them over samples taken from The Beatles' 1968 White Album. While at first I found it sacrilleigious, it eventually grew on me. At one point there were rumors of a commercial release, but the Beatles estate put the kabosh on that. It's too bad, because it would be a better way to take their music to the next generation than the multi-hundred-dollar Rock Band game that just came out. Anyway, you can probably find The Grey Album online if you look around (I did).
And you can hear clips of it on YouTube. Someone out there made a really cool mashup video as well for the Glass-Oniony track "Encore," incorporating Jay-Z into footage from A Hard Day's Night.
And here's a charming homeboy-made video for a Rocky-Racoony Grey Album track called "Justify my Thug":
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Mary Travers, the Mary in Peter, Paul & Mary, passed away today at age 72 after a long battle with leukemia.
Peter, Paul and Mary were a folk power trio with a huge run of top ten hits throughout the sixties, giving commericial viabilty to a music which had long been confined to coffeehouses.
The group was the high-concept brainchild of uber-manager Albert Grossman, who also managed an alley-cat voiced singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan. Grossman fed songs from the young genius songwriter to the pretty sounding folk trio and converted them into chart-toppers, getting paid twice in the process. When the group toured Florida, they were forbidden to get tans by Grossman, for fear of tarnishing their pale Village-Bohemian image.
Though they covered many of Dylan's tunes, "Blowin' in the Wind" was by far the biggest, and their huge hit was a career maker for Dylan as well. Pretty soon, everyone was covering his tunes.
Personally, I find their version of "Blowin'" a little too solemn for my taste. But as this clip of Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" shows, Peter, Paul & Mary could be pretty compelling when they decide to rock it out a bit:
Looking around YouTube at the plethora of vintage PP&M clips, I came across a gem called "Jane Jane" with New Testament lyrics and some strong vocals by the late Ms. Travers:
Here they are doing a spirited version of the Rev. Gary Davis's "If I Had My Way," which the Grateful Dead covered as well as "Samson & Delilah":
I met Ms. Travers very briefly in the 1980s when I was a student at the University of Connecticut and she was as an honored guest for some sort of world peace rally. It was nice to see she was still walking the walk so many years later.
To take things out, here are Peter, Paul & Mary doing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by John Denver, who actually did leave us on a jet plane. RIP & TCB MT.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Jim Carroll, the author of the prep-school jock turned junkie memoir The Basketball Diaries, and the singer/songwriter behind the great punk anthem “People Who Died” died himself over the weekend from a heart attack at age 60.
Carroll made his mark as one of my least favorite musical archetypes: The Tragically Gorgeous Street Poet Turned Glamourously Hopeless Drunken Angel and/or Junkie. Other links in this self-destructive chain would include Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain.
Nevertheless, “People Who Died” was a brilliant blast of universal truth; one need not live on the streets to feel overwhelmed by the litany of deaths around us.
Carroll was discovered and embraced by the matriarch of the Beautiful Loser genre, Patti Smith (pictured above w/Carroll), who never met a high cheekboned tragically romantic poet she didn’t like. She got him to read his poetery onstage to the accompaniment of her band, and liking the results, he formed his own band.
Keith Richards, who is neither beautiful nor a loser, and who brilliantly channeled the sound of the downtown New York music scene on the Stones’ Some Girls, got Carroll signed to a three-record deal on Atlantic. His debut album, Catholic Boy, is considered a punk classic, and The Basketball Diaries has enjoyed a long shelf life as a book and film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Personally, I have never understood romanticizing throwing away one’s life for just one more shot in the arm. As long as we’re glorifying horrible life choices, why not romanticize people who eat too much bacon or hand their life savings to Bernie Madoff? The Bacon Diaries, starring Kevin Bacon? I smell Oscar!
Anyway, I’m glad Mr. Carroll found it within himself to cleanup his act and live to age 60. RIP and TCB. Here's another tune from Carroll called "Day and Night" - sounds more like Springsteen than the Sex Pistols but hey a poet's a poet right?
Friday, September 11, 2009
While not about September 11, 2001 per se (it was released the year before), Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" more than any other song, evokes for me the haunting feeling of that day.
Thom Yorke's spare piano ballad seems simple at first, but is deceptively complex with an unusual time signature and instrumentation.
A highlight from their very underrated record Amnesiac, "Pyramid Song" revists themes often heard in the blues: fear, doubt, terror, acceptance and rebirth.
But no one is going to mistake Thom Yorke for Robert Johnson; "Pyramid" sounds miles removed from history, just as the 9/11 attacks, while based in the most ancient religious conflicts, were like nothing the world had ever experienced before.
The song's most marked characteristic is it's eerie silence and calm, which for me completely captures the sense of disbelief felt in New York City and around the world in 9/11's immediate aftermath. It was millenial blues for end-of-times terror.
I jumped in the river and what did I see?
Black-eyed angels swam with me
A moon full of stars and astral cards
And all the figures I used to see
All my lovers were there with me
All my past and futures
And we all went to heaven in a little row boat
There was nothing to fear and nothing to doubt
Another reason I find "Pyramid Song" so powerful in the context of 9/11 is that in August of 2001, some friends and I attended our first Radiohead concert, an outdoor show at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ. The band was absolutely at the top of their game, with a stunning backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and World Trade Center. Taking the ferry back to Manhattan after the show on this gorgeous evening, my friends and I marvelled at the silent majesty of the Towers and other downtown architecture. A month later, the Towers were gone.
Last year, Radiohead returned to Liberty State Park, headlining the first night of the All Points West festival. This time Radiohead faced in the opposite direction, with no Towers in the background. Seven years later, watching the band play "Pyramid Song" with the same friends who joined me for the 2001 concert, I wondered if the reorientation of the stage was intentional, so as not to draw attention to the spirtitual and physical void that still sits across the Hudson River.
Herewith, a stunning live performance of Radiohead playing "Pyramid Song" at All Points West, plus a live mp3 from a 2000 Berlin show. At the risk of sounding self-important or trite, Rock Turtleneck dedicates this to the thousands who lost their lives that day and the millions still affected on this one.
mp3: Radiohead, "Pyramid Song," Berlin 2000
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Living in the northeast US, I am always amazed by how the seasons show up right on schedule. Sure enough, leaving my house on this first September Morn of 2009, I felt a distinct fall-like crispness and slight chill in the air that was nowhere to be found only two days earlier.
Neil Diamond found much significance in the dawn of the ninth month as well. His classic "September Morn" chronicles a relationship that is about to begin "a brand new day," and not necessarily a better one.
Look at what you've done
Why, you've become a grown-up girl
I still can hear you cryin'
In the corner of your room
And look how far we've come
So far from where we used to be
But not so far that we've forgotten
How it was before
Do you remember how we danced that night away
Two lovers playing scenes from some romantic play
September morning still can make me feel this way
Another American Master of Song who understood that September is much more than a month is the Chairman of the Board, Francis Albert Sinatra.
Frank has used September in service of his world-weary brand of romanticism on several occasions, notably on this duet of "September Song" with B-B-B-Bing Crosby:
One of Sinatra's biggest-selling albums was 1965's September of My Years, which featured the autumnal "It Was a Very Good Year." Sinatra of course, was a master interpreter, but even Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't hold a candle to this definitive version by the Transformed Man himself, William Shatner, seen here on the Mike Douglas Show in the early 1970s. How he gets through this without withering Harvey Korman-like into laughter is one of life's eternal mysteries.
A big September shoutout to George Feinn for inspiring this historic post. TCB.