Showing posts with label jonathan richman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jonathan richman. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

AMG Parties Like It's 1992

All Music Guide continues it's ongoing "AMG Loves..." series with a tribute to 1992.

I remember this as a really good time for new music. Nirvana had broken through to the mainstream, and there was a sense that it might be possible for musicians to make a living creating something other than pre-programed pop music. There was a real sense of optimism as many talented and interesting bands got snapped up by major labels looking for the "next Nirvana." I graduated from college in 1991, so while I was not as deeply involved in the new music scene as I had been, I was still pretty tuned into what was going on. Being slightly more removed from the industry side of things also allowed me to feel like more of a "fan" than I was able to while serving as Music Director at my college radio station.

I also felt some sense of personal gratification at seeing the kind of music that I had been championing for the last 4 years breakthrough commercially. I had long maintained that much of the music being made within the "alternative" or "college rock" milieu could prove popular if given a chance, and Nirvana's success seemed to justify that belief. I remember making a trip back to my college in '92 and hearing Nirvana blasting from the windows of a frat house, while only a year early many frat boys had been mocking the radio station for playing the same kind of music. Unfortunately, the window that Nirvana opened for other interesting bands to climb through shut rather quickly, or proved to be something of an illusion in the first place, but that is another story.

1992 was a difficult transition period for me personally. I was a sanctimonious, vegetarian, recent liberal arts grad who had moved back in with his parents during an economic recession. I was dealing with some really serious issues at the time like what the heck was I going to do with a B.A. in Philosophy, and the fact that my mother was constantly trying to sneak meat into my meals. I was working at an entry-level, auto insurance claims adjusting job after having done cool stuff in college that actually involved a lot of responsibility. I was thinking seriously about grad school. I spent a lot of time with some of my old High School buddies holding Arch Hall, Jr. film marathons in our parents' basements. I wasn't sleeping or eating much, and was probably clinically depressed. I was a walking, talking cliché, and yet I probably thought I was unique. Still, I don't remember it as an altogether bleak period. The music probably helped.

I think the single album that I most closely identify with this period in my life would have to be Luna's debut album Lunapark. Galaxie 500's breakup was still big news when this album by Dean Wareham's new group featuring former members of The Feelies and The Chills appeared. Something about the melancholic, yet forward looking and hopeful vibe of the album struck a deep chord with me at the time. "Soho has the boots, Noho's got the crack, New England has the foliage, but I'm not going back." Like Dean Wareham, I'd soon be leaving behind past associations and relationships, and by January of 1993 I'd be living in Noho myself (although I was there for grad school, not the crack). Some of Luna's subsequent albums might have been better than Lunapark, but none hold as special a place in my heart.

Some of my other favorite albums from 1992 include the debut effort by Dean Wareham's old Galaxie 500 bandmates, Damon & Naomi's More Sad Hits, as well as Barbara Manning's One Perfect Green Blanket, Unrest's Imperial Ffrr, The Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, Kendra Smith's The Guild of Temporal Adventurers, Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted, Sugar's Cooper Blue, The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, Stereolab's Switched On and Peng!, Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20 1992, Throwing Muses' Red Heaven, Mudhoney's Piece Of Cake, Lush's Spooky, The Flaming Lips' Hit To Death In The Future Head, The Chills' Soft Bomb, Nirvana's Incesticide, Prince's unnamed symbol album, P.J. Harvey's Dry, Digital Underground's Sons Of The P, The Afghan Whigs' Congregation, Neneh Cherry's Homebrew, Jonathan Richman's I, Jonathan, Sonic Youth's Dirty, Velocity Girl's self-titled EP, The Cowboy Junkies' Black Eyed Man, King Missile's Happy Hour, Sebadoh's Smash Your Head Against The Punk Rock, Neil Young's Harvest Moon, Yo La Tengo's May I Sing With Me, The Wedding Present's Hit Parade Vols. I & II, Beat Happening's You Turn Me On, Giant Sand's Center Of The Universe, Heavenly's Le Jardin de Heavenly, Eugenius' Oomalama, Bettie Serveert's Palomine, The Headcoatees' Have Love Will Travel, Tom Waits' Bone Machine, as well as the influential dream pop compilation ...One Last Kiss. That's a lot of albums, but I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

I had thought about posting a couple of the more obscure tracks from 1992, but as more music becomes available for download through other channels I see little point. (This is a big part of the reason I've mostly stopped posting music here). If you're in the mood for a giggle, go to Amazon and download The Headcoatees' "My Boyfriend Is Learning Karate."

So where were you in '92, and what were you listening to?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It's Time For Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

I previously dedicated a whole week to the music of Jonathan Richman, but I neglected to feature anything from his most difficult album to find, It's Time For Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. The album was released in 1986 on Rough Trade in the UK and Upside Records in the US. It was available only for a short time before falling out-of-print, and it's never been reissued. It's something of lost JoJo classic.

The album is similar in many respects to my favorite Jonathan Richman record, 1985's Rockin' and Romance, although it is not in my opinion as consistently great. Producer Andy Paley once again creates an engaging, direct and unfussy sound (though not as self-consciously primitive as on Rockin' and Romance). Likewise, there is a similar nostalgic, doo-wop flavor to much of the music. One major difference is that backing singer Ellie Marshall is featured much less than on Jonathan's previous two albums. While her contributions are missed, they are compensated for by the presence of fellow Boston native Barrence Whitfield, who is prominently featured in the backing chorus. Replacing Marshall's folk-influenced voice with Whitfield's gives the album more of a rough rock and roll flavor. Additionally, Asa Brebner provides some of the toughest guitar work heard on a Jonathan Richman album since his original Modern Lovers days.

Despite all the things this album has going for it, a few of the songs don't quite live up to the standards set by the previous album: "Shirin & Farad" sounds like a less engaging re-write of "Abdul and Cleopatra," and "Ancient And Long Ago" aims for, but doesn't quite reach, the emotional majesty of "Now Is Better Than Before." Nevertheless, the stronger material ("It's You," "Let's Take A Trip," "Neon Sign" and others) would be highlights on any Jonathan Richman album.

"Double Chocolate Malted" is perhaps my all-time favorite Jonathan Richman song. Some people might consider constructing a song around three-chords and instructions on how to properly make a frozen desert treat a poor excuse for songwriting. Some people are idiots--this is one of the greatest songs ever written. I have tried to make a double chocolate malted to Jonathan's specifications, right down to the extra scoop of malt in a paper cup on the side. However, I have had absolutely no luck in locating Horlex brand malt. Any help in locating a supply would be greatly appreciated, as I suspect that is the key to whole enterprise.

"Corner Store" is Jonathan at his most Don Quixote-like, tilting against the windmill of corporatization and longing for the return of the old-fashioned corner store. When Richman first recorded this song in 1986, I had yet to hear the name "Wal-Mart," and the passing of time makes the song sound sadder to me than it once did. How many more corner stores have forever shut their doors since this song was recorded over twenty years ago?

Some might consider "Corner Store" (and in fact the entire album) little more than a pointless exercise in simple-minded, reactionary, nostalgia. But the song subtly taps into a deep sense of longing for community and honest connection between individuals that cannot be written off so easily. With a guitar riff that explicitly recalls Creedence's "Down On The Corner" and its doo-wop style chorus, the song suggests that in replacing Mom and Pop corner stores with malls and mega-marts we lost more than just comfortable places to shop, we also lost the important public spaces provided by small, independently-owned stores--the kind of spaces where Willy and the Poorboys could ply their trade, and where the joyful doo-wop that Richman pays homage to was born. It's a high price to pay--Richman suggests--for cheaper prices.

The author of a thoughtful review of It's Time For on Head Heritage passes along a second-hand story that suggests Jonathan Richman himself does not hold this album in very high regard. That's not entirely surprising considering Richman rarely--if ever--has a kind word to say about any of his own albums. But regardless of Richman's assessment of the music from this period in his career, as a fan I would love to see his three Rough Trade albums (Jonathan Sings!, Rockin' and Romance, and It's Time For) reissued in a deluxe box set with bonus tracks and liner notes written by Richman explaining why he really thinks this music is horrible, and he can't listen to it anymore, but if some people like it then, hey that's okay with him.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Harpo Marx - Harpo At Work

Eugene Chadbourne wrote a fantastic review of Harpo Marx's 1958 easy listening masterpiece, Harpo At Work for All Music Guide that very much deserves to be read in its entirety. I don't often read a review at All Music Guide and say "I couldn't have possibly said it any better myself," but that is the case here. I say this neither to denigrate the other reviewers at All Music Guide, nor to praise myself. It's just that generally the goals of this blog are different enough from those of All Music that I rarely find much overlap between their take on a particular album and what I want to say.

Chadbourne touches on all the major characteristics that give this album and the Harpo character such enduring appeal: the surprising and delightful ability of a mute character to express himself so elegantly through music, the tension inherent in the idea of Harpo as both cherubic angel and outrageous rebel, and the seemingly natural affinity between Harpo's unorthodox musical technique and jazz.

I've noticed that Chadbourne--a noted avant-garde musician in his own right--occasionally writes album reviews for All Music Guide. From the few I've read, his reviews are typically both entertaining and insightful. It makes me wish All Music was searchable by author. Chadbourne's writing is so different from the blandly authoritative tone adopted by most of the site's writers that it almost seems as if he somehow hacked into the allmusic server and uploaded idiosyncratic reviews of personal favorites that are obscure enough that the site's editors will never notice they're there. [If that in fact is what happened, I hope I haven't busted him].

Harpo recorded several jazz oriented, easy listening albums during the 50s. In addition to this album, he also recorded a 10" EP for RCA in 1952, and another album for Mercury, Harpo In Hi-Fi, in 1957. Both the Mercury albums were packaged as a single CD by Collector's Choice Music that has sadly fallen out-of-print, and now fetches collector's prices along with the original LPs.

If you consider "easy listening" a derogatory term, you are not likely to appreciate these albums, as the music fits comfortably into that genre. For the rest of us there is much in Harpo's music to appreciate. First and foremost is Harpo's harp playing itself. Though self-taught, Marx was a virtuoso on his instrument, albeit an idiosyncratic one.

When he was first given a harp by his mother (or possibly his uncle), there was no one around who knew how to properly tune the instrument. So Harpo tuned it himself. As it turned out he inadvertently discovered an alternate tuning that allowed for considerably more slack in the strings than standard tuning.

Harpo later hired some of the finest classical harpists in the world to teach him proper technique, but to no avail. The style he developed using his own alternate tuning would have snapped the strings on a "properly" tuned harp. No matter, most of his teachers quickly became more interested in observing Harpo's unique playing style than in teaching him how to play "properly." It is no exaggeration to say that no one played the harp quite like Harpo Marx. (Or as Jonathan Richman put it, "Well when Harpo played his harp it was a dream, it was/Well if someone else can do it, how come nobody does?")

Of course the fact that Harpo innocently stumbled onto his own method for tuning and playing the harp fits nicely with the persona he developed for stage and screen. Harpo the character, the mute clown in a fright wig, seemed to have stumbled in from some alternate universe, so it is no surprise he would play the harp differently from everyone else.

Harpo's unique approach to playing the harp is very much on display in this clip from The Marx Brother's 1932 film, Horse Feathers:

Many of Harpo's fans today seem to remember him primarily as a kind of benign, angelic presence. But it should not be forgotten that in the early films the Brothers made for Paramount (and before the era of censorship ushered in by enforcement of the Hays Code), Harpo's character was also frequently a lecherous pervert who was apparently sexually attracted to animals. His character was neutered in the later films by MGM and the demands of the code, but in those anarchic early films Harpo is one of the most deliciously strange characters ever to appear in film (which is no doubt why he counted Salvador Dali among his many admirers). In films like Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, Harpo's character was typically lecherous and perverted while at the same time angelic, innocent and otherworldly. A similar tension is present in his music which manages to be unorthodox and experimental while simultaneously sounding soothing and conventional.

The first song I selected from the album is "Laura." The virtuoso display of harp pedal use that Chadbourne mentions in his review is also a showcase for the arranging talents of Harpo's son Bill Marx. "Harpo Woogie" demonstrates Harpo's well-known humorous side. Finally there is Harpo alone at his harp, appropriately enough, on Duke Ellington's "Solitude." The music on Harpo At Work is completely enchanting, and Chadbourne's comparisons to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix are in no way over-the-top. Harpo Marx was a truly gifted and original musician, and his slim recorded legacy outside of the Marx Brothers films is surely a great loss.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers - Rockin' and Romance

Rockin' and Romance from 1985 is my favorite Jonathan Richman album. That is not the same as saying I think it's his best (the critical consensus seems to be that the first Modern Lovers album is the best, and I won't argue with that). It's just that Rockin' and Romance is the album I've listened to the most over the years, and the one I have gotten the most enjoyment out of.

So why do I like this album so much? It's probably a combination of factors including the wonderful songs, the spirited performances, the production, as well as the point in my life when I first heard the album.

My first exposure to the album was in high school through my friend Pete, who picked up a used copy at the Annapolis Record and Tape Exchange. We both marveled at Jonathan's honesty and fearless Romanticism: here was a guy who could find beauty and mystery in a disposed of chewing gum wrapper, and wasn't the least bit embarrassed about his enthusiasm for a piece of trash. Rather, he seemed to take a perverse delight in celebrating the things the rest of the world would rather dispose of. It took me a couple years to find my own copy of the album, but when I ran across a still-sealed cut out I snatched it up as quickly as I could and held on to it tight, afraid someone else might spot my sacred treasure and buy it out from under me.

Andy Paley deserves a lot of credit for his production on this album. Jonathan's complaint about the production on Jonathan Sings! being sterile cannot be applied to this album. Quite the opposite. Some might call the recording lo-fi, but I don't think that's right either. Rather, Paley simply eschews modern audio recording technique in favor of a much more organic sound that goes a lot further toward capturing the essence of Jonathan's songs and the group's performances than multi-tracking ever possibly could have. The sound is live, real and tangible. Paley was no idiot savant in the studio--he could do slick and overproduced as well (or as badly) as anyone (consider Brian Wilson's first solo album for example). Fortunately, Richman and Paley had the wisdom not to record this album like that. Instead it sounds like the whole band set up in a small studio and recorded the largely acoustic material around a single stereo microphone. However they did it, it sounds fantastic, capturing all of Richman's charm and the enthusiasm of the performers. Paley also plays some mean toy piano on the album.

Despite the fact that this album has never officially been released on CD, it is available on CD. Sort of. Twin/Tone has made much of their catalog available in the form of custom made CDs that can be purchased through their website. You can order a custom CD of this album for $15 plus $5 shipping (and if you don't already own it you should). Unfortunately, you won't get any cover art, but don't let that stop you because I created some high quality CD art (zip file) that you can download and print out yourself.

Rockin' and Romance is a cult album by a cult artist. According to Twin/Tone's website the album sold 19,360 copies on LP and cassette combined (which is actually pretty good by 80s indie label standards). You can probably add about 20 custom made CDs to that total. Would I like to live in a world where you could buy Rockin' and Romance at the supermarket, and you had to special order a custom burned CD of Slippery When Wet? Yeah, I think I would. It would be a different and weirder world for sure, but you'd have a hard time convincing me it wouldn't also be a nicer one.

"The Beach" is a seasonally appropriate ode to, um, the beach. "Vincent Van Gogh" is Richman's second song about a great painter, this one much happier and more positive than "Pablo Picasso," (which is almost perverse considering the subject). Art historians might quibble with Richman's methodology, but his thesis ("he loved color and he let it show") is as rock solid as the beat. Perhaps my favorite song is the album's closer, "Now Is Better Than Before," a frank and touching song about how love can grow stronger over the years. It is both sentimental and completely honest at the same time (a difficult feat). It is almost more beautiful than this world deserves. But since we can't live in a world where Jonathan Richman is a multi-platinum artist and Bon Jovi has small cult following, at least we can be thankful we live in a world where an artist as talented and unique as Jonathan Richman can sustain a 30+ year career on the margins.

[Custom CD available from Twin/Tone]

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers - Jonathan Sings!

Four years after his final Beserkley album, 1979's Back In Your Life, Jonathan Richman reemerged with a new record label (actually two, Rough Trade in the UK and Sire in the U.S.), a new Modern Lovers, a somewhat revised musical style, and a new album that was really quite special.

Jonathan Sings! marks the beginning of a transitional period in Richman's career. Over the next four years Richman would release three albums on three different labels before settling in to a long tenure with Rounder Records and then another long tenure with Neil Young's Vapor Records.

Jonathan's new Modern Lovers included backup singers the "Rockin' Robins" (Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington), as well Ken Forfia on keyboards, former Rubinoo "Curly" Keranen on bass, and Michael Guardabascio on drums. Utilizing two female backup singers in particular gave the album a different flavor than his previous releases. It's a good choice because it gives Richman someone to play off of with his sometimes conversational singing style.

For the most part the silliness of the Beserkley years is absent here. There are no Rockin' Leprechauns, Abominable Snowmen, Martian Martians, Parties In The Woods, or Dodge-Veg-O-Matics on this album. In their place is a set of very simple and heartfelt songs that focus on life's simplest and most profound pleasures. The album is all about the things that make Jonathan Richman happy: love in a stable relationship ("Somebody To Hold Me," You're The One For Me"), summertime ("That Summer Feeling"), music ("This Kind Of Music," "Those Conga Drums"), childhood nostalgia ("Not Yet Three," "The Tag Game"), special places ("Give Paris One More Chance," "When I'm Walking"), and doing your own thing without worrying about what others think ("The Neighbors," "Stop This Car"). Think of this album as musical prozac.

It's hard to call this a more "mature" Jonathan Richman. A sense of child-like wonder and innocence is still at the core of these songs, despite the fact that the self-conscious silliness of some of his previous work is missing. "Not Yet Three" is perhaps Richman's finest articulation of what makes the child's perception of the world superior to the inevitable cynicism that accompanies adulthood. This song could have been my son's theme song when he was around three: it very much reminds me of his absolute determination to take full advantage of every bit of joy the world has to offer, a quality that has already begun to fade somewhat at five. "That Summer Feeling" is a Richman classic that he would later re-record, and would remain in his core live repertoire for years.

In the liner notes to the 1993 CD reissue of this album, Richman is typically modest about the quality of the album:
Personally, I can't listen to this record...I loved the band that made it, and I loved the songs, but I sang the songs bad and the recording technique didn't capture the way we really sounded. It was sterile in comparison to the real thing.

Jonathan actually has a point about the recording technique, it does sound a tad sterile, but not so much that it diminishes my enjoyment of the wonderful performances. What a shame that this fantastic album has been out-of-print for so long.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers Live

Modern Lovers Live from 1978 is, in my opinion, one of the greatest punk rock records of all time. Now it might seem ridiculous to argue that this is a punk album (and maybe it is ridiculous, but like Jonathan Richman, I'm not afraid to be ridiculous, so bear with me). After all, this album focuses on Richman's most whimsical and childlike material. How can an album full of songs like "Hey There Little Insect," "I'm A Little Airplane," "My Little Kookenhaken," "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm A Little Dinosaur" be punk? This is innocent, sticky sweet stuff that even an eight-year old might find juvenile.

Certainly my enthusiasm for this album is not universally shared. Rock critics despised Jonathan Richman's post Beserkley Chartbusters embrace of his inner child. In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh dismisses this phase of Richman's career thusly:

In his original incarnation as the hyperthyroid lead singer of the Modern Lovers, Richman gave new hope to the socially inept. He looked like the kid who stumbled over his own feet in the high school lunch room and got the shit kicked out of him on general principles: short hair, sloppy clothes, no cool. But a real genius for metaphor was expressed in songs like "Road Runner," "Pablo Picasso" and "Government Center."

On Rock and Roll and "Live" Richman lost his vision and became once more a teenage twerp, warbling about Veg-a-Matics and other garbage, replacing the Lover's flat punk rock with even flatter folkie music. Now you know why everybody picked on that kid in high school.

Fortunately, Jonathan Richman was not interested in being some performing flea in Dave Marsh's fascist rock and roll circus. Richman was not inclined to play out Marsh's self-aggrandizing fantasy of the punk rocker as geek turned hipster. Jonathan Richman didn't want to make music so that rock critics could feel better about their high school traumas, and rock critics never forgave him for it. Instead, Jonathan did something much more profound and important; he followed his own muse where it led him, and did exactly what he wanted to do--critics (and audience for that matter) be damned. And that my friends is punk rock.

If punk rock is nothing more than a doctrinaire musical style (loud, fast and angry music), then no, this is not punk rock. But if punk is based on a DIY spirit and an aesthetic of radical individualism, then this music more than qualifies.

There is another aspect to this album that is punk that might not be immediately apparent given the sense of childlike wonder inherent in this material. Richman's interaction with the audience, though shrouded in his nice-guy persona, is borderline confrontational. Audience members regularly yell out for his older, more aggressive songs ("PABLO PICASSO!!!" "ROADRUNNER!!!") and Richman, in a simultaneously charming and passive aggressive manner, refuses to comply.

The 8 minute rendition of "Ice Cream Man" on this album is extraordinary. Richman does about 12 encore reprises of the chorus after the song comes to an initial end. David Cleary writing at All Music Guide criticizes this tactic as extending the song "well past the point of honest enjoyment." It's a fair criticism. After all, isn't 8 minutes of "Ice Cream Man" about 4 minutes too many?

Well, yes and no. Richman's performance of this song reminds me to a certain extent of the comedy of Jerry Lewis. Lewis will take a simple sight gag that is funny on the surface and then extend it to the point that it becomes painful, then keeps it going even longer to the point that it becomes funny again simply because you can't believe he's willing to keep such a ridiculous gag running so long. It is a style of performance that is confrontational, and alienates many, which is why opinion on both Lewis and Richman tends to be so divided. I'll let you guess where I stand on Jerry Lewis, but I make no secret of my love for Jonathan Richman.

This is an extremely well recorded live album that truly captures the spirit of the artist's performance at a critical juncture in his career. In my opinion it's one of the best albums of his career. My only complaint with the album is that--with only 9 songs--it is far too short. I'm sure there is a lot more material from these shows moldering in the vaults somewhere. I'd love to hear other Richman favorites from this period like "Dodge Veg-o-matic," "Abominable Snowman In The Market" and "Here Come The Martian Martians" added to this collection. I just hope Jojo didn't break down and play "Roadrunner" or "Pablo Picasso" as an encore, because it would totally shatter my understanding of Richman as an uncompromising artist. We should all pray twice a day for an expanded double CD edition of this album complete with liner notes from Jonathan Richman telling us how bad it is.

[Available at Amazon]

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Original Modern Lovers

I woke up this morning and decided it should be Jonathan Richman week at Flowering Toilet.

What can I say about Jonathan Richman? He is probably best known for his earliest music, which is often cited as a primary influence on punk rock. Some people refer to his early 70s band, The Modern Lovers, as "proto-punk." I think the idea here is that Jonathan Richman is supposed to be an important artist because the Sex Pistols covered "Roadrunner."

In the early 70s Richman was inspired by the Velvet Underground and The Stooges to form a band to perform his own loud 2 to 3 chord songs. The Modern Lovers primitive, primal music was deeply out of step with what was then fashionable within rock circles (think Yes, ELP, etc.). As a result, The Modern Lovers couldn't get a record deal, and by the time the music they recorded in the early 70s got released, loud, simple music was fashionable again thanks to the rise of punk rock. When The Modern Lovers was released by Beserkley Records in 1976, Richman was sometimes referred to as the "godfather of punk" (despite the fact that he still looked to be around 15 years old).

By 1976 the other members of The Modern Lovers had moved on to bands that would have more commercial success with a variation on this newly fashionable type of music. Jonathan had moved on too, but to something entirely different. His new music was decidedly more gentle, generally written from the perspective of a wide-eyed innocent, and was utterly devoid of the cynicism and anger that characterized the punk rock explosion of the 70s. Just at the time his early music became an influence on a new generation of musicians, Jonathan Richman again found himself totally out-of-step with the prevailing rock ethos. Rock critics fell over themselves praising his early recordings while dismissing his newer work as inconsequential garbage by someone who had totally lost the plot.

But here's the thing those critics (and a lot of other people) didn't understand: Jonathan Richman was still punk, and he always would be. And his new music was great whether the critics or anyone beyond a small cult following got it or not. I'll explain why in later posts.

For now, enjoy a couple of early Modern Lovers demos recorded by Kim Fowley in 1972, and released in 1981 on an LP called The Original Modern Lovers. In the liner notes Jonathan says this music is no good (Jonathan always says his music is no good), but you can make up your own mind about that. "I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms" was covered by the Feelies, and "Roadrunner" was covered by everybody. "Roadrunner" is also the greatest driving song ever written.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Feelies - Two Covers

One of the highlights of any Feelies show was finding out what songs they would cover that night. Television's "Glory" and "See No Evil," The Monkees' "I'm A Believer," The Beatles "She Said, She Said," and "Everybody's Got Something To Hide...," Neil Young's "Powderfinger," "Sedan Delivery" and "Barstool Blues," Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot," Wire's "Outdoor Miner" and "Mannequin," The Stooges' "Real Cool Time," The Modern Lover's "Roadrunner," and The Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" and "What Goes On" are but a few of the songs I recall getting Feelies make-overs in concert. The band's excellent taste in cover material was no doubt a large part of the reason I saw The Feelies live as many times as I did. It's a shame that The Feelies never released a live album because as good as their albums are, they never quite captured the nervous energy the band exuded onstage. And a whole album of covers would have been sweet.

Here are two of the better covers the band did manage to commit to wax. The Modern Lover's "I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms" is perhaps the perfect song for The Feelies to cover, nerdy and uptight, yet still rockin'. The Modern Lovers only ever recorded a demo quality version of this song, and The Feelies do a great job with it. This may be the definitive version of this song. This appeared on a promo-only 12" for "Doin' It Again." "Paint It Black" was a staple of late-era Feelies live shows, so I was kind of surprised when it showed up as a bonus track on the A&M CD reissue of Crazy Rhythms. This track was recorded long after the rest of the material on Crazy Rhythms, and it doesn't entirely fit stylistically with the earlier material. Why A&M included this as a bonus is anybody's guess, but I'm glad they did because it's awesome.

I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms [right click to download]
Paint It Black [right click to download]

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A short history of the car song

Car songs have played an important role in rock and roll's mythology virtually since its inception. Typically the car has represented adolescent dreams of freedom and sex, but the best rock and roll car songs present a more complex picture of the role of the automobile in middle-class American adolescent life. Chuck Berry set the gold standard in the 1950s with "No Particular Place to Go," by making the automobile simultaneously serve as both a sex machine and a chastity belt.

In the 1960s the Beach Boys' carried on the tradition with songs in which the automobile is sexualized to the extent that when Brian Wilson sings "Oh what she does to me, when she makes love to me" in "Don't Worry Baby" you can't be 100% certain he isn't singing about the car instead of a girl. But the Beach Boys' car songs are also shot through with an increasing level of anxiety and ambivalence about the automobile’s ability to deliver on its promise of freedom.

In the 1970s the automobile as sex machine theme becomes even more explicit in songs like "Chevy Van", but also finds deeper and darker expression in the music of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen seems all too aware that the automobile's promise of liberation is at best temporary and illusory, and it brings a level of desperation to his car songs that is almost operatic in scope.

You just know the narrator of "Born To Run," despite his desire to escape the confines of the working class world, will end up knocking Wendy up and working at a dead-end job. Or worse yet he'll end up like the narrator of "Darkness at the Edge of Town," offering bitter recriminations from beneath some bridge on the outskirts of town. But then of course the 1970s were a time of diminished expectations, when America seemed to be literally and figuratively running out of gas. (When I was in grade school in the 70s I vividly remember teachers telling us that we were the first generation of Americans who would end up worse off than our parents. That and we had to learn the metric system or the Japanese would eat us alive.)

Anyway, here is a weirdly wonderful car song from The Beat of the Traps, a compilation of songs from the "Send us your poems and we'll put them to music! Big money could be yours!" stuff collected by Tom Ardolino of NRBQ in thrift shops over the years. Where does this fit within the history of the rock and roll car song? Well, it doesn’t. Instead it’s a reminder that real life is too messy, and often too weird, to fit into the tidy historical narratives we construct in order to make sense of our world.

I genuinely enjoy listening to stuff like this. I like to imagine what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, the anticipation they felt waiting for their record to arrive, and their reaction when they got it. I like to think about what the performers must have thought of the lyrics they were assigned to put to music, if they thought about them at all. This is the stuff that happens outside the contours of official history.

And, not that it matters, but "Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers is my all-time favorite driving/car song, because it really is about the journey, not the destination, and nobody gets that like Jonathan Richman. And you can't drive around in the rockin’ modern moonlight of Massachusetts listening to "Roadrunner" and not feel good. Please feel free to share your favorite driving/car song in comments.