What do I know about this album? Not much. I just listened to it for the first time today.
I know that Alex Chilton, after leaving the Box Tops in late 1969, moved back to his hometown of Memphis and started recording his own songs (not the ones hand-picked for him by his Box Tops producers), at Ardent Studios, the same studio that would record and release Big Star’s #1 Record in 1973. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves just a little bit.
In 1970, Big Star hadn’t even been formed yet. I don’t know all the facts, but my guess is Alex hadn’t even met Chris Bell or Jody Stephens or Andy Hummel. He was already a seasoned music industry veteran at 19 years old, finally free of his obligations to be a hitmaker, but ready to try something new. He enlisted John Fry (Ardent’s founder and producer-to-be for #1 Record and 1974’s follow-up, Radio City) and engineer Terry Manning to helm the sessions.
Listening to this album now, which wasn’t released by Ardent until 1996 and then reissued by Omnivore in 2012, it’s hard to believe it was recorded one year after Woodstock. The vibe is loose and playful, but full of swagger. Chilton’s legendary twin gifts, genius and ambivalence, are in full view. Here he most closely resembles his heir, Paul Westerberg, also an incredibly gifted but legendarily lazy songwriter who nevertheless wrote one of the greatest rock peans of all time. Laurel Canyon-esque melodies sidle up to grungy, sloppy covers, while pop gems and soulful ballads lurk in between the grooves. Chilton moves easily, almost too easily, between Gram Parsons-style country rock and pre-Ramones punk.
To this writer, the real hidden treasure is “The EMI Song (Smile For Me).” A plaintive opening lyric gives way to a driving piano riff that would make Leon Russell smile. And on the Omnivore reissue, we get to hear it twice, in its finished version and in an alternate, mono mix. Both versions rock. Then, highlighting his chimerical spirit, he sings a raunchy blues rip-off, “All I Really Want Is Money.” These two songs, side by side, one achingly beautiful and the other crass and seemingly tossed off after a day-long drunk, encapsulate Chilton’s entire career in less than eight minutes.
The weird and wonderful thing about music like this is that, like a book or a painting or a poem, once it leaves the creator’s hands, it becomes ours. I’m hearing this record for the first time today 43 years after it was recorded. I would have been three at the time. Even so, it sat in a Memphis vault for 26 years before it even saw the light of day. If anything, it shows that our personal musical history, the one we take for granted, is only a small fraction of what it might have been. Millions of parallel universes exist. We might not hear the soundtrack of our adolescence until 20 years after it was put down on tape.
I don’t know much else about this album and frankly, I don’t want to know. There’s Pitchfork and Wikipedia for that. All I do know is that this album moves me. I listened to it on the way out to my favorite swimming hole tonight. I parked by the side of the road at dusk and hiked a pine needle-strewn path through the woods until I got to a quiet secluded spot, stripped off my sweaty, ash-encrusted landscaping clothes, and eased myself into the water. I heard distant voices across the pond, but saw no one. The sun was setting and the water was silky and luxurious against my skin. It washed the dirt, and the day’s cares, away.
I know Alex Chilton had no idea that this is what his album would be used for. He gave it to us and now we run with it, letting it take us to the swimming holes or the dive bars or the honky-tonk joints or the deserted football fields at night where we drink beer while the cop cars drive by in the distance and we laugh and crank the Stones even louder. It’s truth and fantasy at the same time. Our birth and death. Our childhood and old age, two conflicting ideas, held in our minds at exactly the same time. It’s impossible, they say. I say: not so. We are dying and living, drowning and swimming, and music is our steady girlfriend or boyfriend through it all. But Alex doesn’t know this. He’s just a kid in a Memphis studio. How can he know?
I see him on the cover above, backlit against the window of somebody’s mansion (his mansion?), giving him the appearance of a cigarette-smoking angel in a white shirt and bell-bottom jeans (which, in my opinion, is what all angels should look like and would make me believe in God again). And just look at that long hair. Hair I’m trying to grow right now but will probably have to cut off before I get fired. Like his hair, this much awesomeness and sublime beauty is almost too much to bear.
And I’m in love. With that song.
(WARNING: bad syntax, too many commas, drug references, and really horrible YouTube videos ahead)
I have a thing for girl shoegaze bands, as evidenced by earlier posts on Young Prisms and Tamaryn. I also have a thing for lists, thanks to Spotify. And a deep love of rock and roll. My shoegaze fetish started years ago with the second My Bloody Valentine record, Loveless. I remember the first time I heard the song “Soon” from MBV. I was sitting in my basement apartment on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, DC, the same apartment that a few months later a city bus would jump the curb and crash through the window of while I was driving to my girlfriend’s house in Silver Spring, and I thought my brain had exploded. Vocals no one could understand, a throbbing, fuzzed-out wash of guitar and bass, an almost-not-quite-hip-hop drumbeat, an ethereal female vocal buried in the mix, with that last few minutes of the song the singer just repeating the phrase “Uh, Uh Uhhhhhhh.”
Then came Lush, who I saw live one night at 9:30 Club, Catherine Wheel, and Slowdive. Pale Saints, from Leeds, UK with their great white wall of noise:
All the great artists take everything that has come before, somehow filter it through their own consciousness and creative impulses and reappear on the other side with something fresh that we’ve never heard before even if we think we’ve heard it all. Shabazz Palaces did that a few years ago when they turned hip-hop inside out on Black Up. Massive Attack a few years before that, both travelling light years past trip-hop and killing it dead with Mezzanine. What is rock and roll in 2013, anyway? What can it be, after the sixty-plus years since Elvis? Now, halfway through 2013, we have the Canadian band No Joy and their new album Wait To Pleasure, showing us exactly what rock and roll can be in the age of Demi Lovato and motherfucking Mackelmore. On my nascent Best of 2103 list on Spotify, they are number one with a candy-coated bullet. And that’s a list that already includes Foal, Justin Timberlake, Kurt Vile, Jessie Ware, and Flaming Lips. Thankfully, I don’t believe in Kevin Kline’s character from The Big Chill’s maxim that we stop staying current with music when we graduate from college. People used to ask me when I was younger, “How do you find out about all these cool bands?” How else? I read, I told them. Rolling Stone, Creem (when it was still in print), Spin, Musician, Guitar Player (even though I don’t play guitar), Q, NME. Hell, even Teen Beat. Now it’s Pitchfork as well. I hear stuff I like and I add it to my Spotify playlists, or I go to my local record shop and buy the album (I hate calling music “CDs.” Album sounds much more respectful). I also don’t like buying singles. iTunes, for all of its virtues, completely fucked the concept of the album when it started selling single songs (although I guess the same could be said for the old 45, but usually that was just an enticement to go out and buy the whole record. Unless it was “Pac-Man Fever” or some silly one-off like that. No comment). What I’m trying to say is that if I give up on today’s music, then I give up on the possibility of more joy in my life. Despite what I said a few days ago, some kids are still going down the dirt roads (or into the basements) of their minds with their instruments in the back of a metaphorical truck and making some really complex, enigmatic, beautiful, heartbreaking sounds. Sounds that incorporate everything that came before, even if these same kids weren’t even born when Psychocandy came out. In Wait To Pleasure, I hear My Bloody Valentine, sure. But I also hear The Zombies, The Velvet Underground, New Order, Black Sabbath, Love, Echo and the Bunnymen, Misfits, Bad Brains, and Joy Division. Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd have taken all these sounds, and more, smashed them to bits with a Day-Glo potato masher, soaked and boiled them in old bongwater, poured them into crystal ice-cube trays and baked them for a hundred years under a big-ass black light in your momma’s attic. I’ve said it before. As the father of two, I can’t condone drug use or shotgunning Busch beer. But just watch and listen. Or better yet, just listen. Please don’t say no to joy.
Over on my favorite podcast, they’re running the annual Song of Summer contest, where listeners send in suggestions and then instead of a blood match to the death, we vote. If you’re a Spotify user, you can check out the 40 most popular songs here. One song that didn’t make the list just happens to be my favorite song of this early summer season, and is destined for my own personal musical hall of fame. It’s called Reunion, by the band M83. I’ll give you a link to the song, but as with most great songs, I’d recommend picking a special place and time. I’ve always believed that you can only listen to a song for the first time once, and because of this, the circumstances under which you experience your first listen can color how that song is remembered for the rest of your life. In my case, it was late at night, sitting in my car under a tree in the church parking lot across from my house. From the first guitar blast, I knew the song was mine. My own Boys of Summer, even. I know I’m moving into David Byrne territory here, who said (I think) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In other words, close to impossible. And if you try it, you’re bound to look like an idiot. So much of what matters in great music or great books, or any great art, is what it doesn’t say, the questions it asks. I stopped loving REM so much when I could finally figure out what Michael Stipe was saying, post-Fables of the Reconstruction. It was better when I couldn’t understand him because then I could really believe that he was mumbling in my ear and no one else’s. Each person experiences a piece of music or a poem or painting differently. Those differences are the mysteries embedded in the art. Like the kids in this picture, I don’t want to know anything about them. Like the band itself, I don’t know who the singer is or what country they come from. I can barely understand the lyrics, and the female, spoken-word bridge makes me shiver, even though I’ve never taken the time to learn what she’s saying. I know I could look it all up on Wikipedia, but I’d rather not know. What I do know is that every time I hear this song, I get goosebumps. I think the best summer songs are those that make you remember what summer was like after it’s gone. This song is both nostalgic and rocking. Like summer should be.
I can’t remember the exact line from the Big Chill, but Kevin Kline’s character says something to the effect of “We don’t listen to music made after 1970 in this house.” Another truism is that people stop staying current with music the year they graduate from college. Thankfully, neither idea is true in my house. I’ve always loved music, and I am always searching out new bands to discover and fall in love with. It could be Toro Y Moi, Sharon Van Etten, French Kicks, Austra, Miniature Tigers, or Mike Wexler. I read Magnet, Spin, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, The Guardian, NPR Music, and the Vulture pages of New York Magazine. I keep my eyes and ears open. My hope is that you will all do the same. You never know when you’ll discover your next new favorite band. I mean, how else can you explain a forty-five year-old man who loves Grimes.
Henry is heading out on the open road today, bound for that paradise by the ocean, Atlantic City, NJ. This is business, not pleasure, but wherever Henry goes, he hopes to find new discoveries and adventure. The meadowlands are coming back they say. It’s been about twenty years since I was in AC, and it’s come a long way since then. With Jersey on my mind, I listened to Nebraska again last night, and those lines of Springsteen’s are echoing in my head as I prepare to set off: “Everything dies baby that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” I’m looking forward to strolling the boardwalk and seeing the ocean. I imagine it will be about ten degrees warmer there. I’ll miss my family while I’m away, but I’ll bring them back a handful of sand, or maybe a poker chip.
I was feeling sentimental a few nights ago, so I went to iTunes and bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska. I have it on vinyl, but I don’t have a turntable anymore. I’ve been listening to it on my late-night walks. Even though this album is more than twenty years old, it’s still pertinent today, perhaps even more than ever in George Bush’s America in 2008. As a nation, our people are getting poorer. The desperation of the people in these songs is the desperation of the times we live in. I feel that desperation, that pull of poverty, the burden of having debts that “no honest man can pay.” I’m a well-educated, fairly literate, professional-looking, forty-year-old married father of two. I’ve been pretty lucky. My parents both worked hard to keep a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. I got a college education, the thing that was supposed to make the world my oyster. This is a country of merit where those who work the hardest get ahead, right? As Americans, we’ve been told that each successive generation is supposed to be able to make a life for themselves better than what their parents had. But I never expected it to be so hard. I know these are the musings of a westerner who is wealthy by most of the world’s standards. I want my children to have a better life than mine, more financial security. But how will they get there? The college where I work costs $50,000 a year. When my kids are old enough to go to college, it will probably cost $75,000. I’ll never save enough money to pay their tuition unless I win the lottery. Oil prices are so high, I can barely afford to heat my house, or put enough gas in my car to get back and forth to work every day. I’ve been returning bottles just so I can buy a gallon of milk. I’m tired of struggling, but maybe a Republican will tell me that I’m just not working hard enough. 100 hours of work a week between my wife and I isn’t enough anymore…work harder! they would say. But I feel like the characters in the song Mansion on the Hill, who stare up at the brightly lit windows from the cornfields down below, listening to the laughter, music, and clinking cocktail glasses, and who know they’ll never see the inside of a place like that. Much of America seems like that mansion right now, and there are so many more of us on the outside, hiding in those tall grasses, wondering if we’ll ever find a way to get inside.