Thursday, January 27, 2011

Song for a Snow Day: Belle & Sebastian's "Fox in the Snow"

The unrelenting barrage of snowstorms in the northeast is inconvenient yes, but in the end lovely. In this age of tweeting, texting, crowdsourcing, microblogging and getting it done yesterday, one must occasionally pause to remember that the same broad is still running the show: Mother Nature.

Thinking about a song that captures the feeling of snow, I drifted towards the soothing sounds of "Fox in the Snow" by the Scottish chamber-pop collective Belle & Sebastian. I'm not sure if the fox is a fine-looking woman or an actual fox, but it's a beautiful song.

Looking for a clip of "Fox in the Snow" on YouTube, i came across this appropriately twee animation, which suits the song and the day to perfection.

"Fox in the Snow" hails from Belle & Sebastian's second, and possibly best album, 1998's If You're Feeling Sinister. They are one of the greatest groups of the last couple decades and if you are a fan of The Smiths, Nick Drake, early R.E.M. or the Velvet Underground, you should definitely get on board.

Buy If You're Feeling Sinister:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rock Turtleneck Book Club: Keith Richards’ "Life"

Tonight my wife is hosting the neighborhood book club. I have never attended a women’s book club, and I'm not sure men's book clubs exist. But I imagine it involves about 15 minutes of actual book discussion while waiting for the Chardonnay to kick in, at which point the meeting devolves into a Tupperware party and/or pillow fight.

I’ve been pushing my wife to steer her club away from the usual Like Water for Elephants-type titles towards a true masterpiece of modern literature: Life by Keith Richards. It’s by far the best music-related book I’ve read, and I have read many.

Devouring Life upon its release a few months back, I wondered why people even bother reading fiction. Sure a boarding school for would-be wizards is wildly imaginitive, but does it hold a candle to the Stones’ ‘75 tour, when Keith’s 8-year old son Marlon was appointed caretaker to his strung-out Daddy because all the adults were afraid that they tried to wake Keith up for a show, he’d kill them?

I could go on with the only-Keith stories, such as the time (recounted in the book by Kate Moss) he chased a guest at his daughter’s wedding with a dagger because the guest had taken the spring onions Keith was using to make his beloved bangers and mash; or the time he got out of a drug bust by posing for a photo with the county judge, but you need to read it to believe it.

In addition to Keith’s unmatchable rock & roll hijinx, we also get plenty of tales about the music, such as how he came up with the famous five-string Open-G guitar tuning that is the bedrock of “Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice” and many other mid-period Stones classics. (When Ike Turner heard that tuning, he put a gun to Keith’s head and forced him to show him how to do it, right then and there.)

Yet for all his wild tales, the impression one walks away with at the end of Life is that Keith is a musician first and foremost, and a family man as well.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Keith is not that he survived 50 years of elegantly wasted madness, but that he remembered it all and managed to get it down on paper before it was too late. Co-author James Fox deserves a lot of credit for cohering Keith’s rambling monologues into a narrative voice that sounds like Keef is sitting across the table from you with a scotch and a smoke, comparing Mick Jagger's first solo album to Mein Kampf and gettng misty over Gram Parsons.

Life, which was named the best book of the year, fiction or non-fiiction, by the New York Times, is required reading for Rock Turtleneck fans, Rolling Stones fans, fans of music, and fans of life in general. Hopefully you fit into one or more of these categories.

Here's the first part of a must=see Keith doc produced by the BBC in conjunction with Life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bob Dylan: He Was Young When He Left Home

Fifty years ago today, a cherubic, slightly Chaplinesque 19 year-old vagabond named Robert Zimmerman got out of a car on the George Washington Bridge in the midst of a blizzard and took a subway to Greenwich Village, after hitchhiking his way from Hibbing, Minnesota.

His first night here, he landed a folk-singing gig at the CafĂ© Wha. He slept on strangers’ couches. He changed his name to Bob Dylan.

Within months he had established himself as an up-and-comer in the burgeoning folk scene. Within a year he was signed to Columbia Records by famed talent scout John Hammond and played Carnegie Hall.

A year after that, he released his second LP, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and changed music with songs like "Blowin in the Wind," "Don’t Think Twice It's All Right," "Masters of War" and "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall."

His archetype of the visionary singer-songwriiter killed the Tin Pan Alley style of song production and caught the attention of The Beatles, who would start to add more gravitas to their music. Dylan in turn, incorporated some of the Beatles’ musical inventiveness and playfulness into his own work.

Dylan’s arrival in NY wasn’t celebrated like The Beatles' 1964 arrival in NYC – or even noticed for that matter – but its impact over time was just as massive. His hitchhiking trip into NYC is a central part the Dylan legend, the American dream lived large. The power of an individual to forge their own destiny with their own voice on their own terms.

The best accounts of his early years can be found in his must-read memoir Chronicles Vol. 1 and the Martin Scorcese documentary documentary No Direction Home.

And for 47 musical documents of his early years, check out the ninth, most recent volume of the Bootleg Series: The Witmark Demos 1962-64.

Thanks, Bob - glad you made the trip.

Buy the Witmark Demos and other Dylan goodies here:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

R.I.P. Don Kirshner, Music Impressario Bar None

Don Kirshner, who passed away this week at age 76, had at least three music-biz careers by his mid-40s, any of which would have make him a legend.

He built his rep in the Brill Building era of pop music, when songwriters assembled hits the way a GM plant assembles cars. With writers like Carole King/Gerry Goffin and Neil Diamond in tow, the hits flowed, including Little Eva's "The Locomotion."

A few years later, assembly-line pop gave way to the self-contained songwriting band, led of course by The Beatles.

Sensing that the times they were a-changin', Kirshner was one of the guiding forces of The Monkees, a pre-fab Fab Four. Thanks to Kirshner's connections to top-flight songwriters, the Monkees recorded some of the best 45s of the 1960s, such as the Diamond-penned "I'm a Believer":

When Kirshner got his hands on a song called "Sugar Sugar" he brought it to the Monkees, knowing it was a surefire hit. But the Monkees had been hanging out with The Beatles and fancied themselves artists. An irate Kirshner said "I want a group who won't talk back" and invented The Archies, an animated band of anonymous studio cats. "Sugar Sugar" was the biggest hit of 1969 and the Monkees were toast soon thereafter.

In the early 1970s, Pop was out and Rock was very much in. So Kirshner created Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, a late-night show that featured live-in-the-studio performances by an eclectic mix of the era's best artists, including Todd Rundgren doing his classic "I Saw the Light":

Occasionally, the acts were pre-taped or lip-synched, as in the Kiss klassic "I Want You." Looking at Kiss now, they don't seem a whole lot different than the Archies.

Back in his SNL days, Paul Shaffer did a legendary impression of Kirshner. Here it is on the classic "Rock Against Yeast" sketch, whcih also featured Gilda Radner's dead-on parody of Patti Smith.

R.I.P. and TCB DK.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy MLK Day: The Beatles' "Blackbird"

In honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther KIng's birthday (he would have turned 82 on Saturday) we go not to Bob Dylan playing the March on Washington (where King delivered his "I have a dream" speech) or U2's grandiose tribute "Pride (In the Name of Love)" but to a song I had no idea was about civil rights for what seemed like the longest time: "Blackbird" by The Beatles.

"Blackbird" is one of Paul McCartney's most beautiful songs, featuring his lovely acoustic playing and the distinctive tapping of his foot to keep time. And it would still be a gem if it were simply about a blackbird singing in the dead of night.

But McCartney was inspired to write the tune by the civil unrest that was at its peak in 1968, culminating in Dr. King's assassination in Memphis on April 4. And while John Lennon chose to comment on the tumult in the U.S. with the in-your-face "Revolution," the more genteel McCartney chose to send a message of hope via avian metaphor.

Here's a priceless piece of footage of Paul working out "Blackbird" in Abbey Road studios during sessions for The White Album, with producer George Martin looking on (and an unnamed "bird" in the wings on the left). Nice shoes.

I believe I was in college when a friend noted that "Blackbird" was Macca's comment on the civil rights movement, and suddenly i heard the song with fresh ears. Once I listened to it in this context, I was amazed that it hadn't occurred to me before, despite having heard the song hundreds of times.

And as Macca points out in the clip below from his 2009 concert in Citi Field, the music is partly based on a Bach piece he and George Harrison used to fake their way through back in their Liverpudlian days.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Station to Station: Happy Belated David Bowie

January 8th is surely the greatest single birth date in rock; for the Good Lord brought the King Elvis A(a)ron Presley into this world in 1935, and ushered in the Thin White Duke, David Bowie, born David Jones 12 years later to the day.

The first week of my freshman year at the University of Conn-
, my buddy Rich and I headed over to the campus record store, called The Disc, and picked up a couple LPs. I bought The Buzzcocks compilation Singles Going Steady and Rich picked up Bowie's Station to Station.

I knew a couple of the tunes on the Bowie record, namely "Golden Years" and "TVC15," but was unfamiliar with the album's full suite of chillingly sexy proto-Eurodisco. Rich and I listened to Station to Station constantly our first semester, and gravitated in particular towards the haunting Side One-closing ballad "Word on a Wing."

Here's a dynamite one-two punch of "Word on a Wing" and "Stay," recorded during 1976 tour rehearsals in Vancouver.

Its six flawless tracks make Station to Station perhaps Bowie's greatest album, despite the fact that he says he doesn't remember recording it, due to his non-stop 70s diet of recreational narcotics.

Once you're done checking this out, head on over to iTunes, Amazon or your campus record store and pick up Station to Station, which was reissued in a Deluxe Edition in 2010. Let's go out with a Bowie-rific version of the title track from 1978 featuring the incredible playing of twang-bar king Adrian Belew.

iTunes: Station to Station (Deluxe Edition)

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Happy Birthday Elvis: The King IS 76 today

June 5, 1956: Elvis does "Hound Dog" on the Milton Berle Show and works teenage America into a lather.


Thursday, January 06, 2011

Stuck in the Middle of Baker Street: R.I.P. Gerry Rafferty

Gerry Rafferty, who passed away this week at age 63, did something in his career that is truly one in a million: he struck the AM Gold mother lode twice.

With his band Stealers Wheel, he tossed off a spot-on parody of Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan called "Stuck in the Middle with You," which to his amazement, became a huge hit in 1973. It is almost unquestionably the best Dylan rip ever recorded, and there have been many.

"Stuck in the Middle" enjoyed a huge resurgence in 1993 when Quentin Tarantino used it incongruously for a grisly scene in his debut film Reservoir Dogs. A year later, Sheryl Crow took "Stuck in the Middle"'s vibe wholesale for her debut hit "All I Wanna Do."

By the time "Stuck in the Middle with You" hit pay dirt in '73, Stealers Wheel had broken up, and Rafferty embarked on a solo career. And he topped his earlier success with 1978's "Baker Street," which contains perhaps the most memorable sax line in pop music history.

As a 1978 Rolling Stone profile points out, "Baker Street" was about a miserable period Rafferty spent squatting in a friend's London flat on, you guessed it, Baker Street. Despite this, the song is commonly associated with the magnificent mid-70s genre of Yacht Rock, which celebrates easy living, key parties, Riunite on Ice and artists like Seals & Crofts, Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers.

A few years back, the Foo Fighters, who have great taste in cover tunes, did a fabulously post-grunge version of "Baker Street." Let's go out with that.

R.I.P. Gerry Rafferty - hope you spend your time in Heaven with clowns to the left of you, jokers to the right.

Get your Gerry Rafferty on iTunes here:
"Stuck in the Middle with You"
"Baker Street"

Monday, January 03, 2011

Rock Turtleneck Gets 2011 Off to a Dastardly Start

One of Rock Turtleneck's resolutions for 2011 is to listen to and promote more new music, and we're starting with Dastardly, a six-piece slice of Americana via Chicago.

When I received an industry-only link to their new record May You Never..., I was immediately struck by the urgency of their sound, which recalls the spirit of The Carter Family, The Clash, Wilco and Arcade Fire with equal brio. It's on full display here on their tune "Exercises in Self Loathing":

Dastardly is coming to the legendary Lower East SIde club Arlene's Grocery (95 Stanton Street, near Ludlow) at 9pm this Thursday. I'm going to be there and you should too. In honor of the event, Rock Turtleneck and vocalist/guitarist Gabe Liebowitz have sat down (not in the same place) for the first-ever RT Interview, hopefully the first of many.

RT: I get a decent amount of unsolicited musical solicitations but hearing your CD May You Never, I was immediately grabbed. Like the best music, yours is grounded in the past yet still sounds of-the-moment. How do you do that?
GL: Thanks, that's definitely what we were going for! We actually started out as a pretty straightforward Americana outfit. I had basically written a bunch of songs in the vein of the '50s Hank Williams, George Jones honky tonk style and recruited some competent musicians to back me up. Luckily, these musicians were not only competent players but also very adventurous with interests in a lot of different styles of sounds. So the progression came very naturally. Once we felt we had a pretty good grasp on the country sound, we decided to use that as a springboard for music that was a little more exciting for us.

"Villain," the first track on the record, and the one which I think is the most "adventurous", is actually a tune I demo'd as another pretty straightforward country song. Then when we all got together, we just totally f%cked with it. Added additional percussion, booming bass, a freak-out noisy, distorted guitar interlude. And we just went from there. We're definitely not content with just being an "Americana" band. I want to have an understanding of the foundations of American popular music so it never sounds dated, but also emulate the cool stuff going on in music right now so we stay current. So the stuff that Grizzly Bear, Kanye West and Arcade Fire are doing, to me, is just as important as, say, those first Carter Family recordings from the '20s.

RT: You cite Roy Orbison and the Carter Family as key influences, but when listening to your great track “Exercises in Self-Loathing,” I was reminded of the psycho-sexual push-and-pull of John Doe and Exene from the great 80s L.A. punkabilly band X. Do you listen to them at all? What other influences do you have below the surface?
GL: Haha, that's funny you mention that. Actually at an after-party for one of these shows, a weird coked-up drunk dude cornered Andy [the drummer] and I and ranted about how we reminded him of X, and wouldn't shut up about them for about 30 minutes. And every time I accidentally made eye contact with him from somewhere else in the room, he would go over and talk more about X.

RT: Listening to your album, I got the feeling that in addition to having great original material, you do a mean cover tune. What are some of your favorite songs to cover?
GL: Thanks! Yeah, the main way we got good at playing the whole country style was obviously by learning a lot of the repertoire. My favorite we do of the old time variety is a cover of "Rose Marie" by Slim Whitman which was a big hit in the '50s. The first time I heard that was as sung by Andy Kaufman on the David Letterman Show...he was wearing a turban and a toga. The song has stuck with me ever since. We're going to start working on a cover of "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" by The Smiths which I am pretty pumped about! I've always thought that there's a lot of parallels with us and The Smiths, especially lyrically. That song has a very driving feel that I think will translate very well to our style.

RT: On Thursday January 6, you’ll be coming to New York’s Lower East Side to play the famed club Arlene’s Grocery. If Dastardly were an item in the grocery store, what would it be?
GL: We would be the vomit on the floor of the liquor section.

RT: Chicago is one of Rock Turtleneck’s favorite cities. Where do you like to play when you’re at the home base?
GL: We've had the good fortune of being able to play at most of the major venues in our neck of the woods. We've got a terrific relationship with the fine people of Schubas and Lincoln Hall, which are two of the most beautiful venues I've been to, and have also been home to some of our best shows. Also, three months ago we played at the legendary Metro theater...after seeing that DVD of Jeff Buckley playing there, and seeing some of my favorite bands there...being able to play there was a great experience.

RT: From a musical standpoint, the genius of Wilco seems to loom large over the Windy City. Do you ever hang with those guys? Do you think I’m out of my mind?
GL: We're still tiny tiny fishies, man! Don't think we'll be hanging with Wilco any time soon. However, their style of taking Americana and putting their own, updated spin on it is something a lot of groups, including us, are attempting to do right now in Chicago. It doesn't mean we all want to sound like Wilco, just take their idea and make our own unique sounds with it. And yes, you're losing your mind. And I'm reaping all the benefits.

Learn more about Dastardly here
Get info on Dastardly at Arlene's Grocery Thursday January 6 at 9pm here

Want to submit your artist or band to the RT interview? Contact me at