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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Sarcomastigophora.

News item: Felix Grande, Spanish poet and musicologist, is dead at 76.

I’m pretty sure Felix Grande was never aware of the finest piece of art that ever carried his name … which is a shame, as it would have made his eyebrows curl.

The story begins a world away from Spain, on the campus of the State University of New York at Fredonia. (Like Chekhov’s gun, this detail will become important in a moment.)

An old friend of mine, the former drummer in my high school band, went to school there in the mid-1990s. He fell in with a couple other musicians and formed a new band called Cheese Log.

Most of their output was garden-variety punk, sincere enough, but not tremendously distinguishable from countless other bands.

But, for the last song on their self-produced cassette, they shot for the moon. And unlike most people, who fall short, they went sailing right on past it.

Fredonia has a School of Music, which in turn has a program in Sound Recording Technology — a place for the prospective Phil Ramones and Glyn Johnses of the world to learn their trade.

Whoever worked the boards for Cheese Log’s session apparently got extra credit for every button he pushed, because he drowned the final song in enough echo and reverb to stone even Lee “Scratch” Perry.

While my friend laid down a straight-ahead fatback drum groove, the bass and guitar wandered in more or less the same watery key for five or six minutes, occasionally arriving at the same note the way a fast runner and a slow one will sometimes arrive on the same straightaway over the course of a lengthy race.

From the depth of the haze came a resounding voice — not an aggressive punk shout, but more of a firm declaration, the sort of voice one might use to claim new land for one’s Queen:

I am Felix Grande! (Felix Grande! Grande! Grande!) …

Andalusian penis PUP-pet! (Penis PUP-pet! … PUP-pet! … PUP-pet!)

Boa constrictor! (Boa constrictor! … Constrictor! … Constrictor!)

Beyond its outre title, “Andalusian Penis Puppet” wasn’t particularly obscene or objectionable.

It was just … well, to steal one of my favorite Lester Bangs lines, it was so far off the wall it wasn’t even in the room.

Every so often I get on my high horse about how irrationality — or surrealism, if you prefer — is a highly underrated contributing factor to great music.

Remember the movie Xanadu, where Sonny Malone, the pouty artist, goes roller-skating headlong into his mural to get to the other dimension where his muse lives?

Every so often, a band smears a random, previously unseen vision on a wall somewhere. Then it puts its collective head down like Sonny, banishes all doubt (and conscious thought) from its mind, and sprints so hard toward the wall that crashing through to another dimension and French-kissing the muse is the only possible outcome.

I usually hold up “Surfin’ Bird” as one example of this. “Rock Lobster” may be another. The Pixies’ “Debaser” might qualify as well.

And so could “Andalusian Penis Puppet.”

For five or six minutes, the members of Cheese Log stopped being an obscure college-town punk band and became three Neil Armstrongs, digging their boots into the soil of a luridly colored and highly reverberant new planet, reporting back in a series of garbled transmissions.

(Some years later I had the opportunity to exchange a few emails with the guy who wrote and sang the words. They were a ragbag of various phrases he’d encountered — like “sarcomastigophora,” a type of one-celled organism. He’d read about Felix Grande somewhere, too, and added the name to his lyrical ball of string. He seemed like worthy fodder for a song, the guy said.)

You may be wondering what this journey into the sonic ether sounded like.

Having led you this far, I am going to have to let you down. I think I still have my Cheese Log cassette; but my tapes live in two big boxes in the unheated part of my cellar, and I don’t feel like freezing my bollocks off while I paw through these boxes.

So, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

(It might be more delicious, anyway, to let you build your own mental representation of the song based on what I’ve told you. Maybe what you’re hearing in your head is even more warped and fantastical than the real thing. That ain’t necessarily bad.)

Felix Grande is gone; and so too is the unknown band who decided to bring him along on their astral sojourn.

But somewhere, as I write these words, some other band is strapping on its skates and heading kamikaze-style toward the wall.

When they get back from the other side, I hope they send me a tape.

Drive yourself down to the sea.

All those singer-songwriters with their flared jeans and Martin guitars and Steinway pianos and pot baggies and bruised hearts and major-label deals and L.A. condos and trenchant observations and impressive moustaches and anonymous-but-tight backing bands, all mouldering around under that big collective spacey dome we think of as the 1970s — aren’t they super-marvelous!

Yes, the Seventies were halcyon days for rock n’ roll troubadours, be they sensitive and thoughtful (Jax Browne, John Denver, Stephen Bishop) or working-class and combative (Billy Joel) or flaky around the edges (Dean Friedman) or heavy around the edges (Joe Walsh) or country around the edges (Glenn Frey and Don Henley) or marginally sociopathic (Warren Zevon) or … well, you get the idea.

Thanks to YouTube, I’m building up an interest in one of the lesser-known members of the grand fraternity.

Jay Ferguson couldn’t be called obscure. His CV includes the Top Ten solo hit “Thunder Island” and the Foreigner-esque Top Forty hit “Shakedown Cruise,” as well as membership in Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne, two bands well-remembered by crate-diggers and seekers of high-quality sounds just off the beaten path. (Spirit’s 1970 LP Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus comes highly recommended in these quarters.)

Ferguson never landed a solo album in the U.S. Top 50, though. And he left his solo pop career behind after only a half-dozen years or so to go into TV and movie composing.

Over the long run, then, he stands as a secondary member of the Los Angeles songwriter mafia … another guy in the cutout bins with a lush mustache and a partially unbuttoned shirt.

Which is unfortunate, because he seems to have had enough talent to paper his sunroom with gold records.

Ferguson — who recorded with Walsh’s producer, Bill Szymczyk, and sometimes with Walsh himself — turned in a portrait of sun-kissed hedonism to match any of his feather-haired rivals on “Cinnamon City,” from his first solo album, 1976’s All Alone in the End Zone.

Over a slice of mid-tempo, piano-driven boogie funk, Ferguson paints pictures of beautiful scenery, affluence (“Gucci suits” and “German cars”), and, this being the Seventies, plenty of restorative drugs (“sexy darlin’, never see you yawnin'” … yes, cocaine does have a way of picking one up, doesn’t it?)

Check it out, and see if it doesn’t deserve to have been beaten to death on classic-rock radio for the past 40 years, just like the work of so many of Ferguson’s contemporaries.

Too fat for love.

News item: Members of Motley Crue announce farewell tour; sign “legally binding document” promising the band will not perform again.

Authenticity is a slippery thing.

Sometimes, musicians who live what they sing about earn the highest critical and popular accolades.

Think of Keith Richards, rock n’ roll outlaw …

… or Bruce Springsteen, who by most reports (the ones I’ve heard, anyway) still has a lot of the baby-boomer Jersey everyman about him …

… or Bon Scott, the ex-shipyard worker who stopped drinking, screwing and fighting just long enough to write songs about drinking, screwing and fighting.

But staying true to one’s own self does not guarantee success — or at least, not unanimous success.

Evidence indicates that the members of Motley Crue, particularly in their younger years, very much lived the glam-wastrel L.A. lifestyle they sang about.

I have no doubt that the band members slept with every woman they could convince, took drugs until they turned blue, averaged two new tattoos per week, and slipped their last $50 into strippers’ G-strings — when they weren’t busy pumping out hard rock to clubs full of rowdy fans.

And yet, I never warmed to them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they are quite possibly my least favorite major rock band of all time. They’re certainly in the top 10.

At various points in my life, I’ve metaphorically bought into David Bowie as a starman, Mick Jagger as Satan, Johnny Cash as a prison inmate and Alice Cooper as a cackling necrophiliac freak — all of them poses, from start to finish.

But the four guys who chronicled their proudly decadent Sunset Strip lifestyle left me as flat as last night’s half-finished beer.

The Crue songs I heard always struck me as repetitious and derivative, laden with obvious chord changes and secondhand licks.

(The riff that drives “Dr. Feelgood,” just to name one, bears a distinct resemblance to AC/DC’s “Night of the Long Knives.” The Young brothers may well have swiped it from somewhere, too; but in my editorial judgment, once they used it, it was theirs.)

In my mind, they will forever remain a punchline — as they were for my entire sophomore year in college, when I roomed with a guy who owned their “Too Fast For Love” CD.

“Too Fast For Love” was the band’s first album, and it is as raw and half-defined as first albums tend to be. Vince Neil sings a half-note flat the entire time, while the band pounds out lowest-common-denominator licks that wouldn’t sound convincing coming from a group of high school sophomores.

My friend Matt and I decided that “Too Fast For Love” lent just the right comic/trashy overtones to our dorm-room video-game hockey battles, which mostly consisted of us shedding the puck as quickly as possible so we could start fights. (“What a burden it is to have the puck,” Matt sighed one night, as one of his goons fruitlessly pursued one of mine.)

So, on more nights than I remember, we would send out for pizza (we ate so much Domino’s that year, I can still taste it); put on “Too Fast For Love;” and merrily send our virtual skaters out on the ice to drop the gloves and do battle.

It was a wonderful year, sophomore year; and I suppose I owe some tiny part of that to Motley Crue’s overblown, cowbell-laced cock-of-the-walk strutting.

Still, I’m not gonna miss them.

Mundane Moments: Hockey night in Canada.

Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

ROCHAMBEAU, Quebec (AP) – When the streets ice over and the snow falls thick, the natives here still tell dazzling stories about Lyle and Jean-Claude Montraineau, the schoolboy wonders immortalized in Canadian history as “the Rochambeau Rockets.”

“I never saw anything like them, me,” local farmer Brien Saint-Denis said, nursing a beer at the bar and restaurant that sits beneath the town’s only stoplight. “They had une tete — one brain.”

“Remember when they scored in their sleep?” chimed in Jean Renard, the town shopkeeper. “No joke. They were asleep on their feet. You could hear them snore from the stands. And they each scored. They were tired from milking the cows, they said later.”

“You weren’t safe going to their games,” Saint-Denis went on, “because they used to put pucks through the glass. All the time. No one was safe. It’s a wonder someone isn’t avec les anges.”

The snow keeps falling, and the stories go on:

– The goal Lyle once scored in mid-fight.
– Jean-Claude’s astonishing ability to go from full speed to dead stop, and vice versa, in the blink of an eye.
– The brothers, arriving late at a game, splitting a pair of skates between them — one apiece — and still dominating the course of play.
– The “Montraineau Rule” briefly put in place by provincial youth-hockey authorities, limiting the brothers’ teams to permanent shorthanded status whenever they were on the ice.
– The number of opposing goalies who quit the sport and became preachers, convinced they had seen le diable lui-meme in the Montraineau brothers’ eyes.

“Gretzky?” summarizes the town’s librarian, Michel Arneault. “Gretzky avait rien. I saw the Montraineaus.”

It’s been 35 years since the “Magic Montraineaus” became the talk of their nation. And the mists of time have only added to the inevitable question:

How much of this actually happened, and how much of the legend is simply a self-serving folktale invented by bored farmers trying to put their town into the spotlight?

The Montraineaus’ most famous moments took place out of the camera eye, in countless identical youth-hockey rinks scattered across the farmlands of Quebec. There is no tangible proof of their achievements — and, to add to the mystery, many of the coaches and players they opposed refuse to discuss them.

“No. Rien,” shudders Claude Benoit, a longtime youth hockey coach in the area. “Some things, one does not talk about.”

The Montraineaus’ absence from the discussion only strengthens the doubters’ arguments. The boys who rumor said could have started for the Montreal Canadiens as middle-schoolers never pursued professional hockey careers.

Lyle developed a life-threatening allergy to Zamboni fumes, while Jean-Claude fell in love with the pedal steel guitar. Today, the older Montraineau is a computer programmer in Vancouver, while the younger plays in country-and-western bands in the Toronto area. Neither has visited Rochambeau in years, and neither speaks publicly about their hockey exploits.

“There is nothing to say, vraiment,” Jean-Claude says in a brief phone interview. “There is nothing to prove.”

No matter. The legend of the Montraineaus is deeply enough ingrained to withstand the futile search for details.

Especially in the farm towns of Quebec, where the brothers live forever in memory as tousled, heart-stoppingly gifted youths — like the pre-teen Paganinis of the national game.

“You should have seen them,” Arneault, the librarian, sums up. “Tabarnac. You should have seen them.”

XXXXX

In real life: Rochester, New York, circa 1980.
Mike Eruzione had nothing to fear.

Going off the rails.

‘Bout time we had another diddley-bow post.

Tonight’s victim — er, honoree is one of the staples of the aspiring heavy-metal guitarist’s repertoire.

As with so many other songs, though, you don’t need six strings to play it; that’s just a common misconception.

On a related note, thanks to all of you who made In The City of Churches and Cannons, the experimental free-jazz diddley-bow album of the year, the 509th most popular experimental album on Bandcamp last week.

Here’s how I figure that:

Bandcamp’s “best sellers” screen shows eight albums at a time. And, I had to scroll back to page 64 to find mine, where it was fifth listed. Thus, I reckon it was the 509th most popular experimental album of last week.

(Its achievement might have been greater; it might have been in a 309-way tie for 200th for all I know. But, I will content myself with what is visible to me.)

I'm bigger in Japan.

I’m a bigger deal in Japan.

If you haven’t yet checked out ITCOCAC, give it a listen.

It’s good background music for shelling pistachios, heavy petting, or scouring the bathtub grout. And best of all, it’s free. So, take two if you want.

(That would get it up to 475th, at least.)

Last lonely eagle.

Expanded, somewhat, from a pair of tweets.

The takings haven’t been quite so rich in Grateful Deadland since the death of Jerry Garcia.

That goes not just for the surviving members of the Dead, but for all the supporting musicians in the band’s orbit. Last fall, you might remember, I saw longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter half-fill a small orchestra hall in Allentown.

Or, take the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the country-rock band spun out of the Dead circa 1970, which included Garcia and Dead drummer Mickey Hart as (long-departed) founding members.

Once upon a time, New Year’s Eve was a big night for the band. The New Riders opened no fewer than five of the Dead’s legendary San Francisco New Year’s shows in the 1970s — including the mammoth production that closed Winterland on NYE 1978.

I learned earlier tonight that the current incarnation of the New Riders spent New Year’s Eve 2013 playing a Holiday Inn here in the suburbs of Allentown.

(The New Year was apparently rung in with a medley of “Auld Lang Syne” and “Honky Tonk Women.” You don’t hear that every day.)

The bill also featured opening bands and guest artists — including keyboardist Melvin Seals, formerly of the Jerry Garcia Band and another refugee from the Dead’s umbrella. So those Deadheads who are partial to the New Riders (I’m not) got a full night of music, and probably had themselves a good time.

I’ve said before that acts that continue touring after the spotlight stops shining shouldn’t be pitied or ridiculed. They’re musicians. Touring is what they know, and what they do.

They’d probably rather be on stage — or offstage, meeting those fans who still keep the faith — than punching a time clock or driving a truck.

Still, it’s a long way from Winterland to the Lehigh Valley Holiday Inn and Conference Center in Breinigsville.

And New Year’s Eve, a holiday that by its nature makes you think about time passing, must be at least a little bittersweet to those who don’t mark it in quite the same style as they used to.

I wonder if David Nelson and Buddy Cage — the two current New Riders who trace their careers back to the Seventies — flashed back to the old days when New Year’s Eve meant acid and balloons and lines of people around the block.

And I wonder if they asked themselves, in the waning moments of 2013, how many more times they want to be onstage, counting an old year down to extinction.

From the Valley: Octopus Logic, “Live Demo.”

The latest in a series of posts reviewing online music releases by Lehigh Valley bands.

Some premonitory rumble, a few stick clicks, a countoff that sounds like “One-tay-ay-ay!” and … well, what exactly are we diving into?

It’s a two-song online release by Octopus Logic, a punk-alternative band from Easton, and it’s simply called “Live Demo.”

There’s a reason most demos get done in studios: They sound better.

And I’m afraid this live recording doesn’t do Octopus Logic all that much justice. There’s a fair amount of cymbal, guitar and miscellaneous room-rumble, and not that much bass or vocal.

Which is kinda too bad, because I wouldn’t mind hearing “Wode Things” and “Total Cave Darkness” in a setting that does more justice to all of their component parts.

For instance, what exactly is up with the shouted midsections of “Wode Things” (“I AM NOAH, AND I AM ALONE”)? It might register a little better with me if I could hear it. Same with the stop-start drumming and ringing guitar riffs featured in both songs.

This recording probably sounds exactly what it’s like to hear them in person in some small club. And if that’s what you’d like, you’ll want to download this.

As for me … well, I don’t want to belittle anybody’s efforts, and I know a two-song “live demo” by a local band shouldn’t be expected to be diamond-clear. Still, I’ll wait and hope that Octopus Logic gets its sound down a little better in some other setting.

Octopus Logic’s “Live Demo” is available for download here. They’ve also got a couple clips on YouTube, if you feel like watching the people behind the sound: