Five For The Record: Massachusetts town line signs.

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: The big white signs that delineate town boundaries on state-maintained highways in Massachusetts. Proof that you have, in some roundabout way, gotten heah from theyah.

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And here’s why I like them:

1. Tradition. It would probably be easier and cheaper to use smaller, plainer square or rectangular signs — the way they do here in Pennsylvania, where the town-line signs are about the size of a mail slot.

But when it comes to signs, Massachusetts is uncharacteristically not much for frugality or plainness. The state has used the big white signs for generations now, in a welcome triumph of tradition over the bottom line.

(The signs, which were once hand-painted and made from wood, are now metal; so in that regard, they are cheaper and longer-lasting than they used to be. They’re still a visual link to the past.)

2. Even more tradition. In a nice touch, the big white signs display the founding year of the community you’re entering.

Massachusetts, especially the eastern half, has some seriously deep roots, and you don’t have to drive far to find communities that date to the 17th century.

I used to go to work every day in a community founded in 1637; and seeing that on the town-line sign made me sit up a little straighter and pay attention. You can’t be a history buff and not like that kind of thing.

(Of course, this argument does a disservice to the Native Americans, who were on the land countless years before Anglos carved it into pieces and put big white signs on every edge.)

3. They’re one thing the richies can’t have. If you can afford a place on Nantucket — or even a long-term rental — there’s probably not much you can’t have.

One thing on the short list is a classic town line sign. That’s because the island of Nantucket is a stand-alone town connected to no other. No town line means no white sign.

You can buy magnets and coffee cups with a white “Entering Nantucket” sign, and there’s even a stock photo of one on the ‘Net, but it’s clearly a Photoshop job. I find no proof online that Nantucket has a classic white sign.

While I imagine wealth can buy all sorts of happiness, I don’t think Massachusetts seems quite the same without those signs around. They’re part of what makes the Bay State what it is.

(The island of Martha’s Vineyard, in contrast, is divided into six towns; and you can find the familiar white signs there. When I hit the Powerball, I know which island I’ll be moving to.)

4. There are 351 stories in the naked commonwealth. For reasons I probably once knew but can no longer remember, the town-line signs are shaped like open books.

The original generation of signs — which apparently began to be retired in the 1970s — had a more defined literary profile, so to speak, as shown in this photo my grandfather took circa 1958:

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I love the subtle support for literacy — the idea that books could be so fundamental to society that they would lend their shape to a ubiquitous feature of municipal life.

(Yes, I suspect the Bible may have been the source of book-shaped inspiration here, which does not thrill me. But still. They’re books. Hooray for literacy and learning.)

I also dig the equally subtle suggestion that each one of Massachusetts’ cities and towns has its own story, which is yours to discover — or maybe even help write a chapter.

5. They double as America’s coolest state-line signs. Yup. Take a state highway out of Massachusetts and you get one last book-style town line sign, just to remind you what you’ll be missing up the road:

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Edit, December 2018: A commenter mentions that MassDOT standards now call for town and city names to be lowercased on these signs. I recently saw my first such sign in that format, and thought I would post it for anyone looking for such a thing.

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Five For The Record: The Southern Tier Expressway.

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Highway that cuts across the southern extremities of central and western New York, connecting Binghamton on the east with the Pennsylvania state line on the west. Historically signed as New York State Route 17; being gradually consumed by Interstate 86. Still sports Native American-themed logo signs (as seen below) years after other highways got rid of theirs.

I’m on it a couple times a summer traveling to, from and around the Finger Lakes.

Southern Tier Expy

And here’s why I like it:

1. Quiet places. If I were good enough at creative writing (or guitar playing) to actually make a living at it, I might make my home in either Elmira or Corning. Corning has more of an arts community, from what I understand. But they both seem like charming, down-to-earth little places to get some thinking done. (If the creek don’t rise.)

Elsewhere on the expressway, the exits will take you to small towns and open country to get lost in. I don’t usually take advantage of that: When I’m on the expressway, I’m usually making time to reach either home or vacation. But I’ve enjoyed getting off the road before, and I’m sure I will again.

2. Geographical anomalies. The road — remember, it’s New York State Route 17 — actually dips across the state line into Pennsylvania between exits 60 and 61.

If what I read online is correct, the land where the highway would have passed in New York was already built up, and there was no choice but to route it farther south. The highway is posted with signs reading “STATE BORDER” where it crosses in and out of Pennsylvania.

I suppose this is less impressive now that the road is in the process of being converted to an interstate. It’s still an interesting little diversion, the sort of thing you don’t encounter on every road.

(Some would say it’s all the visit any traveler really needs to make to Pennsylvania. Did I say that out loud?)

3. Forgotten history up close. Whether you’re a conventional history buff or more of a modern pop-culture junkie, there’s something on the Southern Tier Expressway for you.

The Revolutionary War Battle of Newtown, where Continental troops beat a joint British-Iroquois force, was fought near Elmira in 1779.

Today, it’s a historic site you can see literally without leaving your car. For some shortsighted reason, the expressway was routed directly through part of the battleground; you can see monuments from the roadway marking troop positions.

If you want to pull off and get out for a longer look, Newtown Battlefield State Park is right off the highway.

If you prefer true crime or forgotten 20th-century history, Exit 66 will take you to Apalachin, the otherwise obscure village that hosted a 1950s gathering of many of America’s leading organized crime figures. A local state trooper caught wind of the gathering, and more than 50 people were arrested, some of them while fleeing through the woods in expensive suits.

I tend to doubt there are any monuments there, or anything much to see. But, what better souvenir for anyone who likes Mob movies than to snap a pic of themselves next to a sign saying, “Apalachin”?

(I’m not even going to get into the story of the town along the Southern Tier Expressway named after the mass slaughter of animals. That’s a curious bit of history too.)

4. Progress. Not far east of Bath — maybe around Savona or Campbell — is a big-box retail development with room for a couple stores.

It has a great big facade that’s very visible when you’re driving west. And for years and years it’s been almost entirely empty.

Last time I drove by, a couple weeks ago, there was at least one new store in there and maybe two.

I have no idea what they sell — probably craft supplies or something inessential like that — but I hope they’re there next summer when I drive past. In its own weird way, it’s like a small blossoming of hope.

5. Mellow down easy. I’ve been on interstates that were unpleasant to drive on, and ones that were clearly carrying more traffic than they were meant to carry, and ones where I feared for my safety.

The Southern Tier Expressway is none of those. As I said before, it wends its way through a lot of places that don’t tend to draw huge crowds.

I suppose if you’re on it in winter weather, it can get kinda crappy. But I never am.

So when I think of the road, I think of warm clear summer nights where the natural light holds on until close to 9 p.m., and there’s plenty of breathing space in the traffic, and a ballgame’s on the radio, and the staties aren’t paying too close attention, and the miles just roll by until it seems like I got from Exit 65 to Exit 34 in the time it took John Farrell to change pitchers.

Yes, the Southern Tier Expressway might just be the Mellowest Interstate in the Northeast. Enjoy it before something screws it up.

Five For The Record: Grand Funk, “We’re An American Band.”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Seventh studio album by Flint, Michigan-based rock band. Released July 1973. Produced by Todd Rundgren. Reached No. 2 on the album charts and spawned two Top 40 singles (the one you remember, and the one you probably don’t.) Kick-started GF(R)’s brief but lucrative run as a Top 40 teenybop-singles band.

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And here’s why I like it:

1. None more gold. An American band? Perhaps. But there’s scarcely a shred of red, white or blue to be found anywhere on the album. (We’ll get back to this thought in a minute.)

Instead, the entire album cover is done in gold foil, with black lettering and some white inside the gatefold just to break things up a bit.

Redolent of gold albums, yes … but also of shiny, shiny bullion, and sleekness, power and fortune.

’73, you’ll remember, was also the year Alice Cooper released Billion Dollar Babies, whose art and design were based heavily on dollar bills. Grand Funk went Vince Furnier and the lads one better, with a design that evokes one of the world’s most sought-after universal currencies.

And, when you think about it, a lot of people laid out a lot of bank to buy copies of We’re An American Band (and Billion Dollar Babies, for that matter). Behind that shiny gold cover was/is a rich river of millions of dollars of American teenage cash.

It’s enough to make a man go all Scrooge McDuck.

2. Vinyl. This is the other album I own on colored vinyl. And colored vinyl, in all its showy glory, earns an automatic placement in any Five For The Record entry.

You can guess which color it is.

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3. Starkers in a hayloft. Those among you who know We’re An American Band mentally corrected me a minute ago. There’s actually a fair amount of red, white and blue on the inside cover.

Though … well, that’s not where your eye is drawn when you look at the picture:

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If you were gay in 1973, you could enjoy this picture as a rare over-the-counter glimpse of male nudity, as an old acquaintance of mine who was gay in 1973 (and still is now) once described it to me.

If you were straight, you could take droll pleasure in considering any one of a number of questions and considerations:

What is Craig Frost looking at (or for)? Is someone standing just out of shot holding up his clothes?

Could Mel Schacher look any more emaciated, or any more pissed off?

Is it coincidence that Mark Farner, who seems to be enjoying the moment the most, is also the band member with the least body showing?

Why do I get the feeling Don Brewer is about to offer me cab fare and an invitation to see him backstage the next time he’s in town?

Is there some corollary between “American” and “naked” I’m missing? Did someone think, “Nothing says ‘American band’ quite like going naked”? (I mean, they could have dressed up like Uncle Sam and had their pictures taken at the head of the Flint Fourth of July Parade or something.)

If this is what they opted for, what kinds of ideas do you think they rejected?

And, from a modern-day perspective: Should we all thank Rock n’ Roll Jesus that there were basically no music videos in 1973?

4. Empty calories. Every album, even the great ones, has some filler tracks — a couple tunes that don’t shine as brightly as the others, and are pretty much there so the record can reach the required running length.

For whatever reason, I long ago recognized “Ain’t Got Nobody” — which holds the ideal filler-track position of Side Two, Track Two — as the epitome of the Seventies album track.

It’s not bad; it’s not good; it transcends both badness and goodness and lands in a hollow, unfulfilling sort of Beigeville.

This is a slippery thing to define, of course. What constitutes true mediocrity? And if the song stands out for something in my head, then it cannot be truly and completely empty, can it?

All I can do is rattle off the factors that make “Ain’t Got Nobody” a definitive example of the genre.

There’s the banal lyrics (“If she don’t come back, I’ll have a love attack”) … and the way the tempo bounces between plodding and double-time just for the sake of changing … and the use of two repetitive chords for most of the song … and the double-negative title …

… and, I dunno. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and maybe other people see “Ain’t Got Nobody”  as a hidden gem. To me, it is a peak of professionally produced but totally forgettable Seventies rock.

It’s not embarrassing. It’s not a fiasco. It’s just … there. And the album got finished.

5. Continuity. We’re An American Band closes with “The Loneliest Rider,” a stomping paean to the plight of the American Indian that might have been a real knockout in the hands of a better band. (Farner, who wrote and sang it, is of partial Cherokee ancestry, which I suppose redeems the simplistic poetry of his lyrics.)

Whatever its faults, “The Loneliest Rider” is perfectly placed for some of the continuity games that we music bloggers love to play.

The album begins with Brewer singing about being “on the road for 40 days.” The album ends with the last Indian riding a grimmer road — a road to oblivion reminiscent of the Trail of Tears.

“The Loneliest Rider” explicitly reminds us that the America that party-hearty Brewer traverses in the opening song (Little Rock and Omaha, anyone?) is built on land taken from its earliest inhabitants.

The album also begins with the energetic cowbell-driven thump of Brewer’s unaccompanied drums … and ends with the gradually faded-up sound of unaccompanied Native American tribal drumming. (A suitable place for the American Band to bring it all back home, no?)

In the hands of any other band but Grand Funk, this sort of full-circle stuff would be seen as Important … and Thematic … and Strong Meat. It may well have been coincidental, but I’m willing to give them credit.

Five For The Record: The Doors.

News item: Doors organist Ray Manzarek is dead at 74.

I never knew the Doors as a working band.

Instead, they existed in my teenage years as something distinctly different — a titan; a megalith; one of the inescapable blue-chip bands of classic rock, ranking alongside the likes of Led Zeppelin as one of the groups that everybody knew.

(My introduction to them came circa 1985, at sleepaway nerd camp. There was a kid on my floor a year older than me, a little more mature, to whom all things excellent were “life.” Pizza was life. Root beer, I think, was life. And the Doors, in Jim’s language … yes, the Doors were definitely life.)

I doubt that the kids who went to Penfield High in 1969 cared half as much about the Doors as the kids who went there in ’89.

For that matter, I wonder if the kids in high school today — the ones who weren’t even born when Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison — care nearly as much about the Doors. Do the leather-trousered shaman-poet and his beatnik pals still stir teenage souls? Or are they faded now, like daguerrotypes?

For me, nearly thirty years on, familiarity has bred contempt. Time has amplified the missteps in Morrison’s lyrics (“I see the bathroom is clear”) and the less dextrous instrumental moments of his bandmates.

These were not the Baudelaires and Rimbauds of Sixties L.A., but just a more-interesting-than-average band whose reach exceeded their grasp a fair amount of the time.

Still, in keeping with my ongoing Five For The Record feature, here in no particular order are five Doors songs that stand the test of time better than most.

1. “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” 1971. This was the song I went to YouTube to hear after learning of Ray Manzarek’s death, and the one Doors song I mumble to myself when I get the urge to do such a thing.

Morrison’s lyric is all over the place from the get-go, but I like the matter-of-fact way he declaims it; and I can’t get enough of the muscular, metronomic whomp-whomp-whomp of the rhythm section. (That’s Elvis’s bass player, Jerry Scheff, sitting in.)

Manzarek, for his part, makes a memorable entrance after Morrison raves about the sound “driven slow and mad like some new language,” his organ bubbling up like a cooling spring of water amidst the humidity of the rhythm track.

2. “The Soft Parade,” 1969. From an objective standpoint, this song is an overblown mess. It’s got that line about sailors and the underfed, for one thing. You know, that line — the one every Morrison-hater keeps at the ready.

But it’s a wonderfully memorable mess, encompassing Morrison’s screamed introduction … some delicate harpsichording … the funniest, blandest, fruggiest funk the Doors ever puked up … some jazzy soft-shoe … and then a long journey into the underbrush.

It is, in eight-plus minutes, a summation of everything these guys ever did right and wrong … the Doors song to have when you can only have one.

As an added bonus, “The Soft Parade” gave birth to one of the best and most insidious cultural references I’ve ever encountered.

About once every six or eight years, I run into something — a news story, a workplace discussion, an email chain — to which “The monk bought lunch!” is a logical, perfect and hilarious addition. (I remember Dennis Miller dropping the phrase once in his heyday, if that’s any measure of its value.)

Now that I think of it, I’m about due to run into the phrase again. When I do, I’m gonna laugh like a loon. And if you’re in the same room with me, you’ll know why.

3. “Light My Fire” (full version), 1967. Yeah, we’ve all heard this a million times, and heard other people’s covers as well. The original full version still stands, though, as an audacious combination of Morrison’s poetic drama and the musicians’ power. (This was on their first album, remember; they were still developing as a group, but already capable of catching lightning.)

The sinuous, dynamic improvisation will always remind the Morrison obsessives in the crowd that the Doors were not a one-man show.

4. “Peace Frog,” 1970. You want darkness? Try Morrison singing again and again about blood — up to his ankle, up to his knee, up to his thigh; rising, tumbling, drowning rivers of blood — over a backing track that sounds deceptively jolly at first, but comes to resemble the sound of a spring ratcheted close to its breaking point.

I’ve always found the line “Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven” (motivated, of course, by a personal vendetta of Morrison’s) especially chilling. My fondness for all things Connecticut might have something to do with that; but I think it cuts deeper.

We know where the blood in the streets of Chicago came from. And blood in L.A.? That’s not too surprising; weird shit happens in Los Angeles. Anyone who’s read their Joan Didion, or their Vincent Bugliosi, can tell you that.

But blood in the streets of New Haven? That suggests the evil force is manifesting in cradles of education; places of tall old oaks; birthplaces of the nation. There is nowhere in America saintly or hallowed or granite-hardened enough to resist.

5. “The Spy,” 1970. There are one or two others I might have picked for this last spot — like the hard-driving “Break On Through,” which all things considered is probably a better song than “The Spy.”

But I like the understated nature of “The Spy,” a simple, dusty countryish-bluesish number that keeps its cards close to its vest.

Robbie Krieger’s guitar makes this one. That nagging riff is a classic: Like a phone ringing at 3 a.m., it won’t leave you alone, but you’re afraid of what will happen if you engage with it.

Five For The Record: Bay City Rollers, “Money Honey.”

A recurring feature in which I (usually) look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Tartan terror!In honour of the ongoing series of Edinburgh Exorcism posts, this edition of Five For The Record will take a slightly different angle.

Everyone knows “Saturday Night” was the Bay City Rollers’ most popular single. When you think of the Rollers, that’s most likely the song you hear in your head.

The Rollers’ follow-up hits, like “Money Honey,” “It’s A Game” and “You Made Me Believe In Magic,” aren’t often considered in the same breath as “Saturday Night.”

But, being a contrarian, I present:

Five Reasons (For The Record) Why “Money Honey” Is Better Than “Saturday Night”

I suppose you should hear the songs first, before you read the list:

1. They wrote it themselves. “Saturday Night” was written by the Rollers’ producers, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter. “Money Honey” was written by the Rollers’ guitarists, Eric Faulkner and Woody Wood.

Granted, there’s not much to “Money Honey.” And, sure, a lot of the people who bought “Money Honey” would probably have bought four minutes of soused belching if it had the Rollers on the cover.

No matter. The Rollers were called upon, or took it upon themselves, to write a successful single. And they did: “Money Honey” was a Number One hit in Canada and a Top 10 song in the U.S. It’s also one more hit single than anyone reading (or writing) this blog has ever written.

Fair play to Faulkner and Wood, say I.

2. It rocks, kindasorta. Most of the Rollers tunes I know are either ballads or upbeat pop numbers. This one is stompy, glam-flavored rock n’ roll, and they pull it off honestly enough.

3. All beef, no cheese. All the little quirks that make “Saturday Night” memorable — like the spell-chant, and the squealed “Ai-yai-yai-yai can’t be laaaaaaate” — can also make it really, really obnoxious. “Money Honey,” in contrast, is free of cutesy aural gimmicks. It might not stick between your ears quite as much, but you won’t wind up pounding your head against a wall, either.

4. That the Allman Brothers? My brother and I have a longstanding joke going back to our teens. (That makes it more longstanding than I care to think about.)

He once wandered into my room while I was listening to a band playing a guitar solo in two-part harmony. His mind flashed to the band he associated with harmonized guitar leads. And he asked, “That the Allman Brothers?”

Of course, it was KISS.

Anyway, “Money Honey” — while unlikely to make anyone think of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts — features a basic but highly effective harmonized guitar lead, right at the end.

Couldn’t be simpler … but isn’t the simple-but-just-right production touch the very essence of a good pop record?

5. I’d like the Belgian waffles, some Earl Grey … and a mystery. For whatever reason, the line “And money, honey, gets you breakfast in bed” always cracks me up.

The mention of brekky in bed could be a bit of crass, been-there done-that rock-star vanity. (I can imagine Nigel Tufnel ordering breakfast in bed, and redistributing most of it around the room if it didn’t meet his standards.)

Or, it could be a genuine glimpse at what a bunch of scruffs from Edinburgh might say if you asked them to mention a perk of hitting the big time. (Imagine the grin on Woody Wood’s boyish face the first time somebody brought him breakfast in bed.)

See? Ambiguity! Unreliable narrators! You won’t find any o’ them literary devices in the lyrics to “Saturday Night.”

Five For The Record: Aerosmith, “Draw The Line.”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Fifth album by Boston-based hard-rock band. Recorded in a former convent in Armonk, New York. Released December 1977. Widely (and correctly) regarded as a druggy, unfocused disappointment following the excellent Toys In The Attic and Rocks albums. Reached No. 11 on the U.S. album charts, with no Top 40 singles.

“The Beatles made their White Album. We made our blackout album.” — Joe Perry

And here’s why I like it:

1. Honoring the Lost Cause. You know that point on the battlefield at Gettysburg that represents the “high-water mark of the Confederacy” — the last best attacking moment of the Confederate Army?

Well, the high-water mark of Aerosmith can be found about 20 seconds into the Draw the Line album. (Seventies Aerosmith is at least as grand a Lost Cause as anything Robert E. Lee ever fought for.)

A single sludgy guitar chord rings out. Some Big Drums make an entrance. Joe Perry and Brad Whitford start beating the tar out of another filthy riff. And Steven Tyler tops it off with a burst of attytood: “Checkmate, honey / Beat you at your own damn game.”

Imagine you’re a teenage Aero fan; it’s December of 1977; and you’re curled up in front of your stereo with a joint, a bag of cheese puffs and the new album your favorite band has helpfully ralphed out just in time for the Christmas season. As soon as you hit the first line, you close your eyes and think, “Awwww, yeah. They’re back. It’s gonna be another great album.”

Of course, just as defeat awaited Johnny Reb after Gettysburg, our teenage metalhead didn’t have much to look forward to after the opening salvo of “Draw The Line.”

In the short term, he’d end up with a disappointing record full of forgettable, half-cooked songs.

Coming years would bring him the equally uneven Night In The Ruts; a dreadful cover of “Cry Me A River,” and beyond that, the unabashed horror of “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” “Janie’s Got A Gun” and “Cryin’.”

For a little while there, though, it was OK to think the rock might go on forever.

2. Disco-metal rules. With its swishing high-hat pattern and funky strut, “Sight For Sore Eyes” gives every evidence of having been born from a rehearsal-room jam where everyone was goofing on disco.

Wherever it came from, I’m glad it ended up on the record, because it’s an irresistible combination of funk and slop-metal that out-swaggers everything else on the LP except maybe the title track.

Tyler is at his most incoherent — mumbling something about titties and underwear and ground round and nitty-gritties and going downtown — and Perry matches him with a loopy, irrational solo that dips and dives like a Phil Niekro knuckleball.

It ain’t high art; and I wouldn’t want to ingest the diet of pharmaceuticals that made it happen; but on an album full of misfires, this one catches the spark, just a little bit.

3. Kings and queens and guillotines. Besides the title track, the tune from Draw the Line that most casual fans would recognize is “Kings and Queens.

The song — included on Aero’s original Greatest Hits album, despite not actually ever being a hit — is a lengthy dramatic rumination by Tyler in which he daydreams about being the reincarnation of a medieval knight.

It’s a little cruel to call it Aerosmith’s “Stonehenge,” especially for a band that had a literal Stonehenge.

But hearing Tyler sing about Vikings and maidens fair and sailing ships and “dreams of swords in hand” isn’t any more convincing than seeing Nigel Tufnel step to the mic in a monk’s cowl and intone, “And oh, how they danced, the little children of Stone’enge … beneath the haunted moon.”

Sound like delightfully cheesy self-parody? Yeah, pretty much. And I enjoy it as such, just as I enjoy seeing Nigel Tufnel break into his mandolin solo and turn to see a Stonehenge monument that is in danger of being trod upon by a dwarf.

What we are hearing is clearly and pitiably a drug-singed rock star, probably waiting to board his next flight, trying to come up with words for the session later that week, and letting his mind wander to any other place he’d rather be.

It’s a postcard with a picture of a Renaissance Faire on the front, and the exclamation “Wish I were here” on the back.

The question is, how much more black and white could it be? And the answer is: None. None more black and white.
The question is, how much more black and white could it be? And the answer is: None. None more black and white.

4. NINA was here. Three times. And with all that absurdly long Seventies hair, it’ll take you a good five minutes to find her.

I have long suspected that the album title is some sort of drug reference … though I don’t think you draw a line of cocaine; I think you chop it or slice it or something. I wouldn’t know.

I do think it’s droll, though — at least by rock-star standards — that the cover of Draw the Line consists of a whole bunch of drawn lines. Three-and-a-half points for that, anyway.

(Aero would go down the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-drug-reference path again on 1986’s Done With Mirrors. I never actually knew anyone who owned a copy of that one, though I used to go to school with a kid who had one of those long-sleeved softball-jersey shirts with the Done With Mirrors logo on it. I suspect he was a time traveler sent by 1977 to spy on 1990.)

5. It only looks easy. Have you ever thought a producer’s job was easy? It seems like one of those jobs where you wear an aloha shirt every day, sit next to the mixing desk, indulge in your drug of choice, and say things like: “That sounds real nice. Why don’t you take another pass and double it with the Rickenbacker?”

Try telling that to Aerosmith’s producer, Jack Douglas, who appears to have worked his arse off making Draw the Line.

Douglas gets c0-writing credit — which is unusual for a producer, at least in the arena-rock world — on half of the album’s eight originals. And he’s credited with playing mandolin on “Kings and Queens,” to boot.

Why do I suspect Jack Douglas picked this record up by the scruff of its neck and dragged it to completion while the guys in the band were busy seeing triple?

Five For The Record: Van Duren, “Are You Serious?”

This is usually recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

This time around, it’s about an album I just bought a week or two ago, so it’s more of a review than anything else. It’s also part of my Year of Power Pop series of posts, for all of you anxiously waiting for more of those.

Today’s subject: 1977 indie-label debut album by singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from the formidable Memphis power-pop scene. Released in the U.K. under the title “Staring At The Ceiling.” Made nary a dent on the charts as far as I know, but became a cult item among pop geeks, especially after the Internet enabled its wider distribution.

RUSerious

And here’s why I like it:

1. The axework. Duren apparently played just about everything on the LP except the drums. He was/is a pretty good piano player and a solid bassist. But more than anything, he had a knack for fluid, memorable pop guitar solos and biting rhythm lines (some of them enhanced by warm retro late-’70s signal processing, as well.)

I’ve commented before that the solo on “Oh Babe” (which should have been the album’s single, and maybe even was) reminds me of Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine’s contemporary playing in Television, only much terser. That’s pretty high praise around here. Check it out:

2. The waiting is the hardest part. There’s one song on every album that wedges itself into my head and comes to represent the entire record. It’s not usually the one with the biggest hooks, or the one that I find easiest to like on first listen.

On Are You Serious?, the song that sticks with me most is “Waiting,” a plaintive ballad of insomnia and longing. Its melody bespeaks McCartney; its yearning lyric and spare piano-bass-and-drums arrangement suggest Lennon. That’s pretty high praise too, of course. But I think it’s merited:

3. I give you the bride and groom. The love evoked in power pop songs is generally teenage by nature (as in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for example.)

Duren goes for something different on “Positive,” a lovely, glowing ballad that is as stone perfect a wedding song as any I’ve ever heard.

It’s goopily sentimental and a little bit gauche, like all good wedding songs, and I could no more listen to it every day than I could eat fondant and buttercream frosting for breakfast.

Still, if you know any pop geeks getting married in the near future, you might want to be sure to give them a copy of Are You Serious? before the big day, rather than after.

4. The !drama! Interpersonal relationships are pretty much the sum and end-all of Duren’s artistic inspiration. There are no songs about ecology or Wolfman Jack or the streets of Barcelona on this album.

Where there is love, there will be heartbreak. And two of the tunes on the album — “Grow Yourself Up” and “Yellow Light” — find Duren in a sort of emotional chest-puffing Eric Carmen mode, reflecting bitterly from the bottom of his throat on relationships gone wrong.

He doesn’t carry it off all that well … but the tunes are catchy, and endearing in a he’s-cute-when-he’s-mad kind of way.

Here’s “Yellow Light,” just for comparison, complete with James Brown-style “huh!”s:

5. The carbon copy. Most of Duren’s songs on Are You Serious? do not blatantly reveal their sources. All in all, he does a pretty good job mixing Badfinger and the Beatles and Todd Rundgren (and maybe America) into his own radio-friendly jawn.

The exception is “Stupid Enough,” which sounds like three or four different songs from Rundgren’s landmark Something/Anything? album welded together. (The closest direct resemblance is probably “Saving Grace,” with its clumsy drum transitions and foursquare piano playing, but there are bits and pieces of other songs in there.)

They say you have to fake it ’til you make it … and I give Duren extra points for apparently drawing inspiration from a truly classic and idiosyncratic pop album, and one close to my own heart.

Perhaps with a few more breaks, Van Duren might have ended up as a quirky, Rundgrenesque one-man-band musical cottage industry. He never quite got there. But he gave us pop songs like this, and that counts for something:

Five For The Record: Joni Mitchell, “In France They Kiss On Main Street.”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: First track from Joni Mitchell’s album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Issued as an unsuccessful single (reached No. 66) that happened to be on at least some people’s radios around this time of year in 1976.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The opening. The record opens with a softly, insistently strummed acoustic guitar (probably in one of Joni’s beloved open tunings), and a gentle, orchestral cymbal crash.

It reminds me of the sound of leaves being blown down the street by the wind … which is a pretty good metaphor for a song in which a thirtyish woman revisits her wild teenage memories.

As Top 40 cold opens go, it ain’t exactly “Saturday In The Park” or “Good Times,” which might help explain the song’s relative failure on the charts.

It’s more painterly than it is AM radio, if that makes any sense.

2. The low end. The bass line, with its grunting tone and inventive melodicism, sounds remarkably like jazz-fusion bass innovator Jaco Pastorius.

Jaco’s not credited on the liner notes. Instead, the bass player is listed as L.A. session man Max Bennett. I can’t believe it’s not Pastorius, though; I wonder if he went uncredited due to label issues or something.

Whoever played it, the bass line is really the instrumental heart of the song, a burbling river of propulsion and disruption underneath the well-groomed exterior.

It’s one of those individual efforts that sometimes makes me go back and listen to a song again, just to hear it.

3. Beauty, eh? I grew up thinking that only Canadians render the plural of “beer” as “beers.”

That’s the way the McKenzie Brothers did it. And that’s the way Joni, a native Albertan, does in verse two: “Gail and Louise in those push-up brassieres / Tight dresses and rhinestone rings, drinking up the band’s beers.”

I was always charmed by this small-scale bit of semi-exotica, and still am whenever I hear it, in this song and elsewhere.

(While I have learned that not all Canadians talk this way, I have long since adopted this coinage as my own: “As soon as this f–king work week ends, there will be beers.”)

4. The contrast. This is a song about youthful rock n’ roll rebellion; it closes on the lyrical image of two teenagers going all the way in a back seat.

And yet, there is scarcely any hint of actual rock n’ roll in the groove or the instruments — except maybe for the occasional bursts of fuzzy lead guitar, which are too studio-virtuosic to be convincing as gritty, energetic teenage rock n’ roll.

A polite grown-up song about dirty rock n’ roll youth tends to come across as bittersweet, no matter which one of many ways you choose to cut it.

It makes me think of a woman looking out the front window of her comfortable home; seeing the jean-jacketed high school kids come tumbling and scratching off the bus; and remembering what it felt like to be one of the girls giggling in their wake.

The first verse of the song contrasts the narrator’s mother (“fading in a suburban room”) with her blooming, adventurous teenage daughter.

The narrator’s transformation into her mother goes unsaid, but you don’t have to listen very hard to hear it in the grooves.

5. The ending. Joni has traditionally sung all her own backing vocals on record, and also tends to deploy interesting, unconventional, jazzy chords in her writing.

The last note of “In France…” features both devices, used to lovely effect.

Over a bed of her own overdubbed voices, holding some chordal suspension I’m not musical enough to identify, Lead Joni’s voice climbs, step by step, up to a peak note: “Rolling, rolling, rock and ro-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-llin’.”

Tentatively at first, then surely, he sounds like she’s spreading her wings and flying … and maybe recapturing the rapturous feeling of being brazen and 16, and kissing on Main Street.

Five For The Record: Paul Kantner.

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Rhythm guitarist, songwriter and singer with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Born 1941, San Francisco. Middle name: Lorin.

And here’s why I like him:

1. The voice. Kantner has a voice I could easily imagine Tom Paine having — dry, leathery, undaunted. If rock n’ roll had never come along, he might well have put it to use hectoring people on San Francisco street corners.

(Instead, he put it to use hectoring people on vinyl. But at least there were tunes involved.)

2. He may well be immortal. In the early 1960s, Kantner survived a motorcycle accident that damaged his skull. Then, in 1980, he survived a cerebral hemorrhage with no lasting damage — apparently because a hole left by the motorcycle accident eased the pressure inside his skull.

People talk about Keith Richards as the great rock n’ roll survivor … but Kantner may have him beat, having survived run-ins with both physical frailties and high-speed machinery.

Either the guy will die from slipping on a banana peel, or he’ll outlive the oceans.

3. He got out while the getting was good. Kantner quit Jefferson Starship in 1984, saying the band had grown too commercial.

Yeah, I know 1984 was kind of a late date to figure that out. Still, his departure meant that the unmitigated awfulness that was Starship did not take place on his watch, and he wouldn’t have to answer for “We Built This City,” “Sara” or “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

Timing is everything.

4. The revolutionary diaper-changer. Kantner’s first solo album, 1970’s “Blows Against the Empire,” was recorded while the guitarist was (1) calling for the overthrow of America’s government; and (2) expecting a child by Grace Slick.

Both of those preoccupations inform the songs on “Blows.”

The hippie stuff sounds like mush today, as you’d imagine. (It’s often been noted that “Blows” was the first record to be nominated for a science-fiction Hugo Award. It’s also worth remembering that it lost out to “No Award.”)

But it’s charming to hear the references to children and imagine that most unlikely of creatures — the revolutionary rock n’ roll counterculture father-to-be, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about things like generations and legacies and providing for the future.

In the midst of the fist-waving rhetoric on Side 1, Kantner tosses in a deadpan solo cover of Rosalie Sorrels’ “The Baby Tree,” as if he’s practicing at singing his child-to-be to sleep.

It’s about 6:40 in on the following video:

5. He thinks. (It ain’t illegal yet.) Kantner has always enjoyed something of the air of a rock n’ roll intellectual, mainly because he’s well-spoken and known to be a big science-fiction fan.

At the same time, he doesn’t usually come across as being full of himself — not in the interviews I’ve read, at least. Instead, he comes across as thoughtful without being pompous, well-read without being stuffy, and irreverent without toppling over into dopey.

He is, in short, just about everything you’d want in an elder statesman of rock n’ roll; and if he hadn’t spent all those years wearing leather trousers and playing “Jane” alongside Craig Chaquico, he might be more highly regarded as such.

“People distrust intellectuals as a rule and I like to be on the distrusted side of life rather than the trusted, normal, get-along side of life.”

“I like things that are a little out of control. Like my favorite women are bipolar, alcoholic, smoking sluts. At least the ones I’ve fallen in love with. And the same in music. I just like that out-of-control elements in things where you don’t quite know how it’s going to work out.”

“…We explored new areas of things to do. God knows why, but we got away with it. We all probably should have been thrown in jail for twenty years. But we got away with exploring. So science fiction is just another mode of exploring for me, and I love to explore the unknown.”

“You can’t plan for the future, because some guy’s going to land in a spaceship with three heads and a big beak and take over everything.”

(Sourced from this interview, and this one, and this one.)

Five For The Record: Cheap Trick, “Heaven Tonight.”

The latest installment of an ongoing feature. Also could be construed as the first fruits of my self-declared Year of Power Pop.

Today’s subject: Third studio album by snarky power-pop-cum-hard-rock band from Rockford, Illinois. Released May 1978, to middling commercial success in the U.S. and stark raving mania in Japan.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The entire first side. Choosing the best album side of the Seventies would be a monumental task, even if you broke it down into categories (singer-songwriter, hard-rock, soul, etc.)

I think Side One of Heaven Tonight can hang with just about anyone in the hard-rock category — even with Side One of Aerosmith’s Rocks, a long-beloved favorite of mine.

Side One starts with the definitive Cheap Trick song, “Surrender;” moves on to the powerful stop-start riffing of “On Top of the World;” then into the loose-jointed boogie stomp of “California Man.” Any of the three of these could have been a separate reason I like this record.

We also get “High Roller,” a portrait of a self-important sleazeball, in which the AC/DC swagger of the verse gives way to a Lennonesque chorus; and “Auf Wiedersehen,” a song about suicide whose thorough lack of sentimentality is either callous or kinda refreshing, depending on your point of view.

Side Two, unfortunately, isn’t quite as memorable a ride. If it were, Heaven Tonight would rank as an unquestioned classic, rather than just a very good Seventies riff-n’-roll record.

2. The faux teenage mania. I have a certain affection for the late-Seventies and early-Eighties teensploitation genre — all those movies and songs that presented slices of teenage life (often sun-kissed Californian) with a practiced adult cynicism and tongues planted firmly in cheek.

(And well-toned teenage arses planted firmly in short-shorts … gotta think of the box office, after all.)

This genre could include everything from “Rock N’ Roll High School” to the “Grease” movies to “Gorp” to “Up The Academy” to “The Van” to Celebration’s “Almost Summer” … feels like I’ve only scratched the surface, but if you’ve seen a few of these, you get the idea.

Cheap Trick’s cynical attitude and fondness for catchy hooks creates a natural affinity with the genre. It’s probably no coincidence that “Surrender” ended up on the soundtrack of “Up The Academy,” for instance.

Heaven Tonight features a classic teensploitation song, “On The Radio,” which combines brilliantly polished pop production with a baldly dumbheaded teenybop lyric (“Hey, mister, on the radio / You’re really my best friend / Please play my favorite song for me.”)

Maybe a song about music on the radio was just a little too meta to score with the general public in ’78. But it would have played bee-yoo-tifully over the opening credits of a teen film, perhaps while the heroine gets out of bed, puts on her satin jacket and roller skates, and heads off to school.

3. The title track. I would have imagined — nay, I did imagine — that a song called “Heaven Tonight” would have been a blissful Friday-afternoon pop romp in which a letter-jacketed suitor dreams of the pleasures to be had that evening with his lissome significant other.

Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In Cheap Trick’s hands, the title track of Heaven Tonight plays like the warped love-child of Alice Cooper and the Beatles.

It’s a slow, menacing, Halloweenish horrorshow of a song, apparently about death by drug overdose, set to an effective combination of harpsichord, strings and heavy guitar.

Frontman Robin Zander gets to yowl and croon on other songs; but he’s at his most effective on the chorus here, whispering, “Would you like to go to heaven tonight?” like a devil on someone’s shoulder.

To those of us who grew up in the relatively uptight 1980s, the ’70s have a reputation as a time of widespread and casual drug use. Set against that background, “Heaven Tonight” plays like a eulogy — maybe even an anthem — for a lost generation of longhaired kids who took too many barbiturates and kicked the oxygen habit.

4. The bits and pieces. For whatever reason, I find it especially easy to play spot-the-influence on Cheap Trick records.

I’ve already mentioned Alice Cooper and the Beatles (who show up several times, none more so than in “On The Radio,” when Zander sings a quavery line about “at night I turn you on” that’s instantly redolent of “A Day In The Life.”)

Listen carefully — through my ears, anyway — and you might just hear Jeff Beck, Jeff Lynne, Dylan, the Who, Paul McCartney, and maybe the Raspberries make cameo appearances.

On some records, that would be annoying. But I’m willing to let it slide here, because these guys don’t claim to be geniuses or craftsmen … they’re just four irreverent scrubs from Chicagoland, trying to make their way in the crazy-quilt corridors of Seventies rock n’ roll.

5. The ending. Heaven Tonight ends with “Oh Claire,” a barely minute-long track that consists of Zander bellowing, “Oh, konnichiwa!” over a slamming series of power chords. (The songlet purports to be live, though I’d bet it’s really a studio construction with overdubbed crowd noise.)

It’s not all that engaging … but it’s just random enough to make me wonder: What is it? A random nod to the Japanese market? An inside joke?

And whatever it is, why close the record with it?

(I’m one of those geeks who believes that the sequencing of a record actually means something, and the song you choose to end a record should be some sort of Grand Statement that sends the listener off in style.)

Maybe Cheap Trick’s rejection of Grand Statements is the entire point here. Heaven Tonight is a rock record custom-made for a time and place when Grand Statements were passe, and all that counts are some Big Riffs here and some clap tracks there.

(And in the end, the love you take is equal to konnichiwa.)