Anarchy in the UK

Cheers to Queen Elizabeth on the 70th anniversary of her reign. She’s outlasted all of her detractors, including those fine young lads the Sex Pistols.

As Britain fetes it’s monarch, I’m knee deep in the Hulu miniseries Pistol. I’ve read nary a decent review of the Danny Boyle film, but I’d urge you to ignore the critical blah blah blah if you have any interest in the Pistols. It’s tons of fun and does a good job of showing the dynamic that creates — and ultimately kills — bands. There are plenty of great performances, but it’s really hard to look away when Anson Boon’s Johnny Rotten is on the screen, abrasive, brilliant and mad, sometimes simultaneously.

While I was already a big Ramones and Clash fan, I didn’t really get hip to the Pistols until their 1978 break up. It was really over just as it was getting started. To my young ears, Never Mind the Bollocks made other punk albums sound tame and over-produced. The chaos that poured out of the speakers left no mistake that these guys were deadly serious. It also sounded like the wheels would fly off at any second, which of course they did.

I know it’s frustrating to watch TV in a world with dozens of streaming services, but if you’re interested in punk try to see this one. Maybe there was no future for the Sex Pistols, but we can go back for a little taste of the past.

The Saddest Song Ever

Been spinning Chet Baker Sings on the turntable recently. Quite a record.

If I were a single man, this is probably what I would play for someone who I was trying to seduce. You can’t help but be moved by his voice and the arrangement. It’s quiet and vulnerable and intensely personal. And on side two is what may be the saddest song ever.

It’s a Hoagy Charmichael song and the lyrics were based on a poem by Jane Brown Thompson, who is said to have died the night before the song was first played on the radio in 1939.  Many artists have covered the song, but the 1954 Chet Baker version is devastating. He sings that he gets along without you very well, but you know what? I don’t believe it for a second.

There are lots of sad stories behind the music we love, and Chet Baker had more than his share of trouble. His career was a rollercoaster of fame, addiction, incarceration, and terrible setbacks that nearly derailed his brilliant art. Hollywood once eyed him as a matinee idol, but the demons wouldn’t have it.

Listent Chet Baker Sings on your Spotify or whatever. Pick up the vinyl if you’re the analog sort. It will take you elsewhere for a time, to a place that just doesn’t exist any more.

A Letter to My Brother

Well, this is awkward.

It seems that I have your copy of The Who’s “Tommy.”

And I’ve had it for more than 40 years.

I probably grabbed it during one of the times you were away from the house, off doing who knows what. At the time, your records seemed like abandoned objects and I helped myself. Honestly? If I knew then what I know now, I might have grabbed more of them, like those Kinks albums.

I doubt that you have a turntable, so I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

Anyway, I listened to it today and it sounds pretty great. They knew how to press albums back then, and it has that cool Decca Records label with the rainbow stripes. The sleeve is pretty nice, too, except where I wrote my initials on it, because you don’t want someone stealing your records. Even the records you stole.

I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to take it.

But do you believe that physical things can posses energy? If that’s the case, record albums would contain some great power. In the same way that dust gets stuck down in the grooves, maybe these vinyl discs collect our experiences and feelings. And I’m sure that a lot was going on in your head back when you would have listened to “Tommy.” Much of it revolves around troubled families, and you know what things were like sometimes. And your name is Tommy, so there’s that!

Over the years, so many records end up in landfills, and others get passed from hand to hand among strangers. I get a powerful feeling from albums that belonged to someone I care about, like you or Dad. I’m sorry I took it, and it wasn’t right, but today I’m glad I have this little part of you.

By the way,  yeah — I also took “Quadrophenia.”

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Quote

This song by Brandy Clark, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat, is all over the radio.

The duet with Randy Newman is pretty catchy — and certainly timely in these crazy times — but it’s sure to make Jaws fans cringe. As so many people do, she misquotes the iconic line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Does the one word make a difference? Yes.

Chief Brody’s use of “you’re” instead of “we’re” is telling. It seems to be him saying, “OK, let’s get the hell out of here and come back when you get yourself squared away with a proper boat.” But in Quint’s world, that’s not an option. There is no bigger boat, and more importantly, here we are — and now we’re all in this together. This is no longer about me, it’s about we.

The subsequent scenes in Jaws show Brody, Quint, and Hooper coming together as a team, forming a bond that is one of the beautiful things about the movie. You’re boat is now our boat.

So, I’ll stop being an annoying purist with my complaining about a silly movie quote. And if there’s one thing we need now, it’s a bigger boat.

Mall Punks

It had to be 1981 when me and my friends drove from Plattsburgh to see the L.A. punk band X play in Montreal. They were my favorite band, so it was a real thrill to press up against the stage and watch John Doe and Exene exchanging vocals, the blonde and ridiculously cool Billy Zoom effortlessly running through his punk meets rockabilly riffs, and D.J Bonebrake who was, well… the drummer. It’s breathtaking to be so close to a band you idolize.

Fast forward to 2019.

Hearing that X would be play in Albany on June 9 blew my mind. What? Albany? Why?

They were scheduled to play at The Skyloft, the new music venue at Crossgates Mall. Seeing a band like X at the mall — any band at the mall —  felt a bit weird, like my mother should be dropping me off at the show, or something. It turns out that Skyloft is a great little place to see a band, even while people are walking by outside with shopping bags from Old Navy and Best Buy.

As for X, well, they were unbelievable. It was flawless musically, and the signature harmonies of John and Exene were as beautiful as ever. Billy Zoom maintained his studied cool, albeit while perched on a stool, and D.J played the drums like a man who was a third of his age.

I’m old enough now that aging rockers seem more like older brothers, sister, and cousins. Interestingly, there were a lot of young kids at the show, people in their twenties, to whom the band would be old enough to be grandparents.

This brings us to the most wondrous thing about the age of rock: the way people can discover and enjoy music that’s forty years old or more. In 1945, young people weren’t discovering music from 1905, and saying, “Wow! This is great!” Today they do, and we all rock on together.

Rude Folks

English folk singer Martin Carthy was at Old Songs on Sunday night, playing a delightful set whose topics included betrayal, beheadings, vengeful ghosts, imprisoned maidens, losing one’s pants, and a wife beating her drunken husband. Such is the world of British traditional music — and it was a great to see this legendary figure in such an intimate setting.

The crowd at an Old Songs show is what you’d expect: like the bus to the co-op collided with a bus full of WAMC fund drive volunteers. They were a receptive and gracious audience — except perhaps for the two characters sitting in front of us.

A man and a woman — presumably a married couple — raised their phones every time Carthy named the song he was about to play and began pecking away. It turns out they were pulling up the lyrics, and heads bent, they would follow along as he sang, their faces bathed in a blue glow.

Where do I start?

First, if you are so keen on the lyrics, maybe you should pay attention to that man on stage twenty feet away. He’s about to sing them to you.

Second, your glowing phone is in my field of view and very distracting. There’s a reason they dim the lights for the audience: it’s to focus your attention on the performer.

Third, and most important, it’s incredibly disrespectful. Old Songs is a small venue, and to sit a few feet from a performer and mess around with your phone while he’s singing is outrageous.

A woman down the aisle asked the people to put away the phones. They didn’t. My wife did the same later, aided by a few cross words from me. This worked somewhat better, but the husband would not relent with his phone. They looked to be pushing 60, but acted like a pair of 14-year-olds.

Look, I get that a there’s a scholarly element to folk music, and the origin and lineage of the work is sometimes as interesting as the songs themselves. But if you want to look up the lyrics or song facts, how about you do it after the show, not during?

Otherwise, I wish on you a fate like that which befalls those in British folk songs. Perhaps having your thumbs lopped off or being transformed into weasels would be fittingly folky.

Anyway, about Martin Carthy. This was one of the memorable songs he performed solo on Sunday, an updated take on a tale of your son going off to war.

All the Young Punks

I do try to avoid indulging in “when I was your age” stuff.

A young lady who works at the coffee shop was bopping around as she did her chores, decked out in punk regalia that would have fit right in at a Sex Pistols concert 40 years ago. By young, I mean young enough to be my daughter. She was rocking out to — wait for it — Green Day.

Waiting for one’s tea to steep, it’s hard to resist the temptation to strike up a conversation and say things that would make you seem like a ridiculous old geezer — or worse yet, a creepy middle-age guy trying to make time. So, one keeps one’s mouth shut.

But how would that go?

“You know, I was really into punk when I was your age. I was just unpacking my records and came across my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks on vinyl. Oh, and the Clash? I saw them live. Me and my friends at the college radio station, everybody hated us because of all the punk we played. Do you ever listen to X? Los Angeles and Wild Gift are like the best albums ever. You know, a lot of people slam Green Day, but you can really hear a lot of what influenced them if you listen to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Yes, pathetic. We thought we were so cool back then.

But it is interesting that there are still punks, isn’t it? The rock era may be unique in the enduring nature of  its genres and music. A record from the late 70s might interest a lot of 21-year-olds — but could the same be said in 1970 of music that was popular in 1930?

So, ridiculous old geezers, feel good that your music survives. But please do so quietly.


Music often carries a connection to a time in your life; maybe that’s why the death of David Bowie affected people so powerfully.

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts recently featured a performance by Natalie Merchant, and it transported me back more than thirty years to a dingy bar in Plattsburgh, NY. The Rook was holding a show by 10,000 Maniacs, who at the time were an obscure indie band known only to college radio DJs and our tiny group of listeners.

rook ad
Ad from Cardinal Points, the SUNY Plattsburgh newspaper, January 20, 1983

The usual suspects attended, a small, ragtag crowd of students that made up the local new wave/post-punk contingent. It was not much of a scene, but as much of a scene as one could have in Plattsburgh, NY in 1983.

Naturally, Natalie Merchant was the center of attention. She was maybe nineteen, and her singing and movement on stage were exotic in a way that left us all deeply smitten. The band was crashing with a guy we knew, and at a post-show party we struggled awkwardly to make small talk. She was wisely having none of it.

So here we are, 33 years later. Look how old we’ve gotten! Personally, I think most people improve with age. Thank goodness.

Sounds Like America

If asked you to name a composer who evokes the American spirit, you’d mention Aaron Copland, but could you come up with another? I could name a bunch — and all of them have worked in Hollywood.

There is a particular style of movie score that’s big and bold and sweeps you away. It sounds like America.

One of those scores is the one James Horner did for Rocketeer.

I have a long history with the movie.

Horner died in a plane crash this week. It’s telling that he escaped to the sky, a very American pursuit, which you can hear in his music. And you can certainly hear it in that title theme to Rocketeer, titled “Takeoff.”