Monthly Archives: June 2011

STICKS & STONES Otep Vs. Sarah Palin & Co.

Hey-ho,
with the 4th of July looming, let’s all wave the flag.

 

BY OTEP SHAMAYA

 

Ed. Note:
Our resident “cultural arsonist” Otep – who also fronts the fiery punk-metal
band of the same name – is a published author who regularly blogs for Blurt about social, sexual and political issues. The essay that follows originally
appeared in issue number 10 of the magazine and was penned not long after U.S.
Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson by Jared Loughner (who has since been
determined to be mentally unfit to stand trial).

 

***

 

The Tragedy in Tucson rumbled through the atoms of our
nation with a feral shriek that left us trembling with trepidation and outrage.
We are wounded. But we have always been and forever will be wounded. Since the
days our ancestors broke the bonds of colonialism with fever, fervor, blood and
musket fire, since they turned that same vigor on the indigenous people of this
land and crushed their independence with boot heel and repeater rifle, when the
burning smoke of gun and cannon fire peppered the air during the Civil War,
when the blossoming lives of JFK, MLK, & RFK were cut down by assassins
bullets, when we lost John Lennon to a coward’s attack, shot five times in the
back, when the poor and working class listen to the modulating bursts of
gunfire like morning birdsong and the last thing some see is the grime and
rubble of cracked concrete soaked in their blood, when our young are hunted in
their schools, when a lunatic purchases ammo at a family shopping center and
methodically guns down unarmed men, women, and children, there can be no doubt
this affliction will thrive unabated.

 

It’s the American way.

 

Nineteen people were shot on January 8, 2011. Six
were murdered. Among the dead is a 9-year-old girl born on September 11, 2001.
(If that isn’t a metaphor for what’s happening to us as a society, I don’t know
what is.)

 

They were gunned down, coldly, callously, and
somewhere, out there, Sarah Palin is smiling. The “lamestream media” couldn’t
help but focus scrutiny on this strange and confused woman. Her idiots-grin
pulled back across her puckered face because this sort of maniacal attention
fuels her ego. She is a fiend for it. Hell, I’m giving her a new dimple or
perhaps a deeper crease around those crow’s feet right now just by writing this
article. But you see, I am compelled to do so for one reason only. Sarah
“Failin” Palin and I actually agree on something. I know, I know, they are
breaking out the sweaters in Hades right now and I’ve had to down a double shot
of single malt scotch just to finish typing that last line. But, alas, it’s
true. We do.

 

She has staunchly defended her decision to put
crosshairs over the names and districts of Democratic politicians that she
disagreed with and using her oft chanted mantra “Don’t Retreat, Reload” during
the last Congressional campaign. In fact, the entire wingnut Conservatard media
exploded to her defense. The pig-bodied Sean Mannity, er Hannity, gave her
another ego-launching in an interview to deny that her words and imagery have
any effect on the opinions and emotions of others. They spewed the false
equivalency that “well, liberals do it too” and tongue-holed each other until
their dumpster heads were emptied on the airwaves with the usual vitriolic
trash.

 

(Writers Note: For you anatomical oddity buffs out
there, I have been informed by a former RENTBOY(dot)com employee that Hannity
has an inverted penis. Interesting, yes but, you know, Gack!)

 

I concur. Let’s forget, for a moment, that if a Muslim
or a “Gay” or an “undocumented worker” had said these things or made a bullseye
map, they would be on a ship with a one-way ticket to Guantanamo. “The ballot or the bullet?” You
betcha. “2nd Amendment remedies”? Whatever. It’s obvious to anyone with half a
brain that words (inflammatory or not) simply do not matter. Nope. Symbols and
images do not influence anyone. They do not incite, they do not inspire. They
are dead as stones. Okay, fine.

 

Then I welcome Palin and Mannity and the
turd-herder Limbaugh and the weeping Mormon Glenn Beck and Michelle “which
camera is it” Bachmann, and the crazy cat lady Sharon Angle to join my crusade
to remove PG-13, TV 14, and R ratings from films and TV, and to outlaw those
silly EXPLICIT LYRICS tags from CD covers. We demand porn on public TV, we
demand SCIENCE to be taught in CHURCH, to make Sex Education classes mandatory,
let tobacco and alcohol companies advertise in grade schools, and do away with
Parental Settings on internet browsers. Why do we need them? Let’s stand united
to end these archaic restraints and the censorship of the intellectual liberty
of free children and free people!

 

The fact that (prior to the shooting and mass
murder by the coward Loughner) Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had received multiple
death threats, and the fact that her campaign offices had been blasted with
gunfire are, you know, like, whatever, come on, DUDE, like, it is, I mean,
pffft, so unrelated, but, I guess, like, even if MOST people would be decent
enough to respect the welfare of another human being (despite political
affiliation) to call off the dogs and ease the heated rhetoric by making it
clear that “Don’t Retreat, Reload” is HYPERBOLE and not a commandment, it still
doesn’t prove that slogans, lyrics, symbols, and whatnot influence or incite
people. Ozzy, Slipknot, Metallica, The Beatles, ME, none of us, have any
influence over our listeners to abandon Puritanism and embrace the way of the
noble savage. (Well, maybe a little, but so what?) I can put it out there that
Sarah Palin should be covered in garbage and set on fire or that someone should
fist-fuck her smug, pug ugly face without clarifying that this is satire, nor
do I need to explain hyperbole because it just doesn’t matter. WOW, it’s so
liberating!

 

We aren’t talking about the acne’d availability of
help for those in need of mental healthcare in this country, or the fact that
any shit-sifting lunatic can purchase a 32 round clip for a handgun at a
Walmart next to a teenage mother buying Huggies. Now, for some the silence on
these issues is staggering and terrifying. But they are pussies. This is the
way WE like it. Avoid and ignore. 

 

We aren’t talking about the moral fraud being
perpetrated on this nation by the Tea Party or the lying leather skinned
cackling Governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, who cut (just days after the mass
shooting) state funding for mental health facilities. (Insert obligatory face
palm here.)

 

No, we are talking about Sarah Palin and how her
words, opinions, attacks, incitements, and lies have absolutely no influence on
anyone and how people who think she’s an irresponsible dipshit are being mean
to her which somehow has an impact on her (but it shouldn’t because words
don’t, ah forget it).

 

It’s nice to see Palin and the rest of the Conservatard
Bullshit Machine finally surrender their position on personal responsibility
and agree that women should be allowed to go topless in public (whoo hooo), to
stop blaming rape victims because they were “asking for it” because, as Mascara
Sarah points out, we are islands of experience and not influenced by anyone or
anything except our own minds.

 

We are solipsists and nothing anyone can say will
ever change that. Obviously.

 

Lastly, allow me to be clear because I know some of
you have difficulty discerning this sometimes, but should you have perceived
anything in this article other than venom, outrage, and sarcasm then you have
missed the point entirely. Palin and her bloody group of agitators are a
national disgrace and should be shamed into exile. But they won’t be. There’s
too much media dollars to be made from reality TV and opinion politics to
indict their cash cow. And I do mean cow. But I would like to remind the public
and the pundits that there were 19 victims on that terrible day in January. Not
20. Sarah Palin was not one of them so she and the rest of the rightwing
propaganda squad can justly and patriotically SHUT-THE-FUCK-UP! We’ve had quite
enough of your pathetic pity parties to fill a lifetime.

 

Otep’s
latest album
Atavist was recently released by Victory Records.
Go to the band’s official website for details. They are also currently on tour –
dates can be found here.

 

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME? Question Mark & the Mysterians

The garage-rock legend on the Stones, the
Pretenders and, er, Taylor Swift, and the ups and downs of trying to get paid (
or register with Social Security) as a symbol.

 

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

 

Onstage,
the man known as Question Mark knows how to work a crowd. Decked out in his
obligatory wrap-around shades and cowboy hat, with his fringed shirt opened to
reveal his ageless, bronze chest, he worked a small but captivated Pittsburgh crowd into a
frenzy in early April.

 

In some
ways, it felt like 1966 again. All five members of Question Mark & the
Mysterians date back to the band’s original days. Bassist Frank Lugo joined
right as Larry Borjas left for the service along with original drummer Robert
Martinez, who now plays with the band again. (His successor, Eddie Serrato,
passed away back in February.)  But
guitarist Bobby Balderrama and keyboardist Little Frank Rodriguez have been
part of the band through their original run and their reunion. Not
surprisingly, the majority of the setlist came predominantly from the band’s
two Cameo-Parkway albums.

 

Certain
parts of performance clearly kept things in the 21st century. A banner hanging
over Martinez’s
drum kit covered what clearly sounded like electric drums, save for the snare
and high-hat. A Korg keyboard has replaced the Vox organ on which Rodriguez
created that two-note riff of “96 Tears,” the band’s biggest hit. Besides that,
the band’s manager Luverne Thompson continually walked to the back of the stage
to manually change the patterns on a blinding strobe light, which left some
audience members feeling uncomfortable. Still the energy in the performance
helped make up for these shortcomings. Question Mark ended nearly every song
with his arms outstretched, much like James Brown might have done.

 

On the
phone, Question Mark is equally animated, although the conversation is not as
linear as his onstage performance. Few singers come across with the kind of
braggadocio and charisma that the man allegedly born Rudy Martinez possesses.
Over the space of two hours, he opined about some hack named Mick Jagger and
how it all comes back to the music. (He also weighed in one of his favorite
subjects – American Idol – but, gosh,
space doesn’t permit those comments.) Official website – yes, you will be
entertained – at www.96tears.net.

 

***

 

BLURT: What do you listen to now?

QUESTION
MARK: Nothing. I don’t have dreams. I have goals. I still have goals. I was
never influenced by anybody. And continue to not be influenced by anybody. And
anybody that was anybody really wasn’t nobody. [Laughs] And everything that they were doing was inspired by
somebody else. Even Elvis. Even Michael Jackson.

        Everything that I do, I back it
up. Mick Jagger… was very dull on the Ed
Sullivan Show
. The Beatles were very dull. I was never inspired by anybody.
But when people saw me, you know who they were talking about? Me! They weren’t
talking about who was 1 or who was headlining or who had more records. They
were talking about me and my group. It happened then, it happens now.

 

A lot of people have taken inspiration from
you.

Yeah,
and a lot of them are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we’re not. I mean,
at least the Pretenders… they did “I Need Somebody” [which appeared on a bonus
cut of their reissued debut album]. I like Chrissie. She has a distinct voice,
it rocks. Joey Ramone… all these people used to talk about us before they
became [sic]. And then after they
became, they never talked about us. Iggy Pop. Meatloaf.

        We got back together in ’96, we
went on the road in ’97. The second time we played Coney Island High was Jan 17
[1998].  The Rolling Stones were in Madison
Square Garden
[that night].

It was
one of those shows where there were six bands [on the bill]. Now it’s 4:30 in
the morning. I announce to the public that this is the encore. ‘We’re gonna do
“Satisfaction.” The boys are in town at Madison Square
Garden tonight.’ But I
didn’t know the guy from Rolling Stone,
was there and he was also at the
Rolling Stones concert. He waited all that time and he heard them do
“Satisfaction.” But he didn’t hear them do it like I did. 

        Somebody called me up [a month later]
and said, “There’s an article in Rolling
Stone
magazine, just a small column about you.” They know what they’re
talking about because the guy said, “Question Mark is the template.” And I said
man, you got that right. I am the
template. I’m the mold and everything else.

        They didn’t say that about Mick Jagger.
And dig this – [Jagger] said he didn’t want to be 45 and still singing
“Satisfaction.” That’d be like me saying I never want to sing “96 Tears.” I
love my songs every time. They’re
fresh to me.

        “He did it with authenticity and
sophistication and nailing it down.”
Nothing about the Stones doing their own song. Mick Jagger knows all about
this.  He knows who I am. In fact Rolling Stone even said, “Mick Jagger
wishes he had what Question Mark has.” [Ed.
Note: R.S. writer Ben Ratliff described the performance as “returning the egotistic anxiety to that song, and nailing
it.”]

 

How does that make you feel?

Oh, I know it! Or else I wouldn’t do it! Anything I do, I know. That’s why I’m doing it. And I
expect it.

 

Have
you ever met Mick Jagger?

Nope. Nope. When they came to Ford Field [in Detroit] around 2006, I
got two $400 tickets in the eleventh row on the field. The tickets were orange,
my favorite color. And somewhere they had the number 96. But I didn’t go. Know
why? I don’t belong in the audience.

        Whenever I see
a group up there, I don’t care who they are, I’ll say let me up there. Once I
do my thing, you’re gonna see what’s real and what’s not real. ‘Cuz people feel
it. There’s a difference about feeling something.

        I can do
publicity anytime I want, right? But I want people to know us for our music,
not for stupidity. Here’s what I would’ve done. I would’ve been in the eleventh
row, and as soon as Mick Jagger would’ve came out, and started playing
“Satisfaction,” he would’ve seen somebody in a black leather jacket run up
onstage grabbing that microphone start singing songs. Then he would’ve seen the
guards hauling me off. Then it would’ve made the news. Then I would’ve been
brought in the public view, but I kinda don’t want to be remembered doing it. I
can make news just like anyone else can. But that’s how they remember you,
instead of what’s more important – the music.

        As far as
what’s happening with today’s music, now I like Rascal Flatts. Right now
they’re my favorite group.

 

What do
you like about them?

I like their sound. They’re real. I don’t like a lot of the
country artists. Oh my god, the worst thing in country music – what’s that
mousy little girl? With the blonde hair?

 

Taylor
Swift?

Oh my god! She is
so terrible. Yech.

 

So
everything I’ve read says that you legally changed your name to Question Mark
and that you were born as Rudy Martinez….

Ohhhhhhhh.
No. [Pretends to cry] No. I never had
it legalized and changed. With Social Security, you can’t get the symbol. You
have to spell it out. When I got my computer in 1999, naturally I put the
symbol and you know what happens if there’s not a name, it comes back. In ’66
with BMI, you sign up to get paid, so I told my name was Question Mark, the
symbol, which is true. And they said, ‘How do we know?’ I said, ‘Do I have to
call my parents?’ They said you’re not going to get paid if you don’t have a
name.

        But now, I know at the same time, you
could not even put the question mark ‘cuz the computer has to have a spelling.
When I get my social security letters, how much my earnings are, it has
Question Mark spelled out.

        I’m there at BMI and I have to come up
with a name. Eddie Serrato’s brother’s name is Rudy and Robert Martinez, I used
his last name for Martinez.
And that’s how you came up with the name. Eddie was right there, right and
Robert just went in the service. Other than that I don’t know what I would’ve
come up with.

THE GOSPEL OF MANHOOD: KEITH RICHARDS, HEMINGWAY, & FINDING THE GOOD

Open tuning, and the male prize:
never trust someone who ain’t a Stones fan.

 

BY
DAVID MASCIOTRA

 

One
of the most underrated Rolling Stones songs is the late-‘80s classic “Mixed
Emotions”. The hard driving beat compliments Jagger’s growling vocal until he
lifts into near falsetto for a deceptively sweet sounding chorus. Horns fight
with guitars for center stage near the end for an epic culmination that sounds
like mixed emotions and captures the epic beauty of the lyrical sentiment:
“Button your lips baby/ Button your coat/ Let’s go out dancing/ Let’s rock ‘n’
roll/ You’re not the only one with mixed emotions/ You’re not the only ship
adrift on this ocean/ You’re not the only one that’s feeling lonesome/ You’re
not the only one with mixed emotions.”

 

You
could dance to the song, you can press your foot on the gas pedal with the
power of the song, and you can make love, blending fantasies into reality, with
the song rising like smoke from the speaker into the room. All of that is
important because the song communicates the importance of the lifestyle virtue
of selective thinking – selective thinking that selects the thoughts that will
empower the feeling of the moment. Mixed emotions are common, but the feeling
that drives you into pleasure building and memory making action is the right
one. Dwelling on uncertainty or the discouragement of the overly active, overly
worrisome intellect leads down a dead end fast. As Jagger warns, “Get off the
fence now/ It’s creasing your butt”.

 

“Mixed
Emotions” is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs from the greatest rock ‘n’
roll band. In addition to its showcase of musical mastery, it also gives clear
insight into the internal philosophy of The Rolling Stones. For years I’ve said
that I don’t trust people who don’t like The Rolling Stones. Their music is not
only fun, sexy, and absolutely life affirming – see the great and sexy Jill
Scott’s explanation of why the Stones is her go to band for dancing if you need
further evidence beyond the band’s expansive and excellent catalogue – it is
also representative of an approach to life that empowers individuals to live as
collective rogues – following their own sense of direction and coming together
to claim territory for reciprocal pleasure in moments of soulful solidarity.
Even when the Stones are living on their own, they are never doing it alone: You gotta roll me / Call me the tumbling dice.

 

In
Norman Mailer’s seminal essay, “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the
Hipster”, he writes about a man who believed that “in a bad world there is no
love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage.” The
philosophy of courage elevates “the adventurer” to the highest place of
prominence, and the adventurer is a man who lives according to the “categorical
imperative that what makes him feel good becomes, therefore, The Good.”

 

Mailer
is referring to the philosophy of the man who spawned a species of writers and adventurers,
restylized English prose, and established a spiritual check-in for millions of
men: The father of them all. “Papa Bear” Ernest Hemingway.

 

The
men of Hemingway’s stories move with the master of their souls whether they are
falling in love or killing in war. The reason that Hemingway’s prose is so
stripped bare and simple is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to explain the
categorical imperative of feeling good becoming The Good, especially when
delineating a narrative that emotionally shifts from moment to moment.

 

There
are few writers who still possess the intuitive sense of ethics and masculine
virtue and vice that Hemingway boiled in his voodoo kitchen. In fact, there are
few men left who can weave the spell.

 

Keith
Richards, without any doubt, is one of the few remaining voodoo warriors
following the code of the adventurer. It is little surprise then that his
memoir, Life, reads very much like a Hemingway novel. The prose is good,
but needless to say, it doesn’t come anywhere near Hemingway quality. The
structure of Life, however, is precisely the structure of every great
Hemingway story. Richards, like Hemingway and Mailer, understands at the
deepest level – that which is often unspoken and always difficult to articulate
– the male prize and plight of moving according to an internal compass,
deciding based on unexplainable intuition, and living by a sensation that
provides check and balance over behavior, creates a code of ethics, and defines
spirituality and sensuality. Hemingway was armed with minimalist prose.
Richards has open tuning.

 

In
Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and The Sea , the old man, Santiago,
goes deep into the ocean to capture his coveted marlin – a fish so large and
strong that he earns the name “brother”, bestowed on him by the old man who is
equally astonished and impressed by the fish’s dignity, fight, and tenacity.
After three days of pain, struggle, and exhaustion, the old man finally lays
his harpoon into the beast of the water and claims him as his own, toasting
himself in triumph and praising the fish for his resilience. He ventured too
far, however, and sharks, attracted by the trail of blood the marlin leaves
from the boat, begin to swarm the old man in the sea. He is able to kill off
five sharks, but not before they devour the marlin’s carcass. He only has an 18
feet long skeleton with him when he makes it back to the shore. He falls asleep
dreaming of the sights of his youth – lions on the beach in Africa.

 

Joseph
Waldmeir, a literary critic, said that The Old Man and The Sea “elevated
Hemingway’s philosophy of Manhood to the level of religion”. Waldmeir was right
to call Hemingway’s philosophy of manhood a religion, but it is also a gospel –
a pronouncement of good news for men willing to live according to their courage
when they venture far out into uncharted waters. The reward may not always be
material. Santiago
lost the fish, but he gained the memory to accompany his dreams of lions on the
African beach. He is slaying monsters, living with a wild energy, and testing
himself with loyal application to the internal sensation compelling him to
drift onward and move forward.

 

Keith
Richards has the material and existential rewards of slaying musical giants,
running as far as possible into the direction of creative conquest, and
allowing his own wild energy to colorize and characterize his life story.

 

In
Life there are plenty of stories about Keith’s trouble with the law,
abuse of drugs, and dangerous confrontations with police officers, angry
hecklers who thought he was making Satan’s soundtrack, and overly zealous fans.

 

There
is also, however, a continual theme of conviction without compromise. He played
his music despite threats from law enforcement in the early days. Later, he
would continue to write songs, even in rehab. He self-medicated with an
assortment of drugs in a style that maximized his musical devotion. His
commitment to music paid off in a variety of obvious and visible ways –
millions of dollars, beautiful women, artistic prestige. It also, however,
continued to give him the feeling he describes on stage as nothing less than
“magic”. When “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – a song Keith wrote inspired by his
grandfather’s tough ability to move through unlimited horrors – kicks in, he
writes about how nothing in the world is better than the groove that Mick
Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Daryl Jones, he and the rest of the band
feel. It is a feeling that never goes away – a beautiful and triumphant moment
of collective creativity – even though, he claims, he plays the song a little
differently every time. These are the dreams that Keith goes to sleep with
every night.

 

Through
the highs and lows – the glories and deaths – Keith delineates a set of values
that falls neatly into Hemingway’s gospel of manhood.

 

The
reciprocal pleasure of embracing the moment with a woman of like mind is
important. Keith writes that good women have saved his life more times than he
can count, and rather than viewing them as notches in his belt or trophies for
his mantle, they are friends. He remembers asking one why she was with him when
she knew he was in town for only one night. She said, “I like you”. Keith
writes, “Sometimes it is better to be liked than to be loved.” Don’t betray the
moment and don’t betray the memory of the one who helped you make the moment.

 

Keith
also writes that he believes, “There is nothing more important than friendship
and comradeship”. He promises that, despite all of his disagreements with and
criticisms of Mick Jagger – they are brothers and he’ll kill anyone who says a
bad word about Mick in his presence. Don’t betray your comrades if you want to
call yourself a man. Don’t betray your friends if you want to call yourself a
decent human being.

 

It’s
only rock ‘n’ roll and it’s all rock ‘n’ roll to Keith.

 

He
began playing guitar because he wanted to sound like Elvis, Chuck Berry, and
the bluesmen making music on the hard streets of Chicago. He claims, with
credibility, that the experimentation of The Rolling Stones, which had
enjoyable and dreadful results, was primarily due to Mick’s influence, and that
he never lost sight of the “only rock ‘n’ roll” philosophy of The Rolling
Stones.

 

Rock
‘n’ roll is the soundtrack for empowering the exuberance of the instant and for
providing a backbeat to the adventurer’s search for The Good. The Good may come
in the arms of a woman, it may come in the company of friends, or it may come
on the sea in a battle with an 18 feet marlin and five sharks. When it does
arrive, however, you have no choice but to follow it down to its magnificent or
disastrous endpoint.

An
unbuyable integrity results from such a lifestyle.

 

When
I asked my friend Kev Wright, the lead guitarist, backup vocalist, and
co-songwriter of The Righteous Hillbillies, how Keith Richards has influenced
him as a man, he said, “What’s carried me through the course of my life as a musician
has been my love and respect for Keith’s undaunted, unyielding, and unending
refusal to ‘reinvent’ himself.”

 

Kev
added that, “In every instance of my musical endeavors from songwriting to
performing, I continue to ask myself first and foremost, ‘what would Keith
do?'”

 

Masculinity
has few cultural champions left. The gender description is degenerated by the
overly sensitive, hairless, exfoliated metrosexual who plucks his eyebrows,
texts his wife to let her know he is “on his way” at 9:00pm, and publicly
admits to enjoying cuddling for cuddling, while it is ruined by stereotypically
chauvinist rappers and frat boys who casually refer to all women as bitches and
think their very existence entitles them to ownership of the entire universe.
Keith Richards, Santiago, and Hemingway, despite all the balking of feminists,
represent the sane, healthy, and empowering middle.

 

The
religion of man is a religion because its demand to live according to The Good
and follow an internal compass of sensation is a faith based position. Kev
couldn’t explain how he knows what Keith would do any more than Santiago
could explain why he stayed in the water for three days for a single fish. In
both cases they are talking about the right thing to do, but the rightness of
the action is different from the correctness of an action in that it is
untestable, unexplainable, and improvable.

 

Kev
Wright’s favorite Rolling Stones album is the classic 1971 release, Sticky
Fingers
. The sixth song on the album is the unbridled scorcher, “Bitch”.

 

The
song begins with one of Keith’s meanest riffs over a driving beat and Mick is
growling again: I’m feeling so tired/ I can’t understand it/ Just had a
fortnight’s sleep.

 

He
also feels “hungry”, “drunk, juiced up, and sloppy.”

 

Then
something happens. Jagger compares himself to Pavlov’s dog and says that his
heart beats louder than a bass drum when the object of his desires comes
around. Such strong sentiment – a paralytic feeling that won’t go away – must
be love simply because “it’s a bitch”. The guitars weave together as they
jointly solo with increasing ferocity; notes are bending, breaking, and coming
from everywhere. Then the horns enter the fold giving a muscular punch to the
lethal assault. The song’s beastly tendencies are dominant, and they are
devouring the listener. The band is holding nothing back, and they’ve released
everything, destroying all inhibitions.

 

Jagger
is back in full growl. Keith is tearing on the guitar behind him. No longer
tired and no longer hungry, they declare with the confidence of the devil: “I
feel alright.”

 

***

 

David
Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political
Vision of Bruce Springsteen
(Continuum Books). He is a columnist with PopMatters and a regular contributor to Relevant . He is 26 years old and lives
in Indiana. (For more information visit: www.davidmasciotra.com)

 

A PRECARIOUS BALANCE The Buddy Holly Tribute Album

Snap! As one might
expect, the new Holly project has a handful of good tunes. Likewise, it falls
prey to the usual trib-album gimmickry and pointless remakes.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The advance buzz on tribute album Rave On Buddy Holly (Fantasy Records) is all about Paul McCartney’s
contribution, in which the 69-year-old ex-Beatle rants, shouts and growls his
way through a madly goosed-up version, complete with false endings, of “It’s So
Easy.” Rolling Stone has described
the approach as “He yowls like he popped some Viagra and then set his pants on
fire.”

 

But is that a good thing? While one appreciates the effort
and the autobiographical themes of his contribution – McCartney, whose Beatles
cued off Holly’s Crickets for their name, is engaged to be married for the
third time, proving that indeed it is easy for him to fall in love – and while
the song itself has that kind of crackling, electric arrangement (live-sounding
lead guitar upfront, ever-so-slightly-weird processed backing vocals) of
late-1960s Beatles, the novelty of McCartney’s vocal embellishments wears off
quickly and becomes annoying. In short, it’s a gimmick.

 

This rock-oriented Holly tribute (an earlier one, called Not Fade Away, was
country/alt-county-oriented) was produced by Randall Poster, the imaginative
music supervisor for the movies I’m Not
There, Velvet Goldmine, Rushmore
and countless others. That explains the
eclecticism of the line-up, a mix of the hippest of alt-rock acts (Black Keys,
Florence + the Machine, Jenny O., Modest Mouse) and the heritage rockers who
influenced them (McCartney, Nick Lowe, Patti Smith, Lou Reed) plus a few
left-field choices (Kid Rock, Graham Nash, Cee Lo Green) to keep things fresh.

 

But it still doesn’t resolve the pitfalls of tribute albums.
With an act whose songs are as familiar as Holly’s, and whose streamlined,
heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll is so timeless and direct, you can either be faithful
to the original version and risk redundancy, or try something different and
risk pretension. Further, the self-consciousness of so many post-modern
alt/indie rock bands just gets in the way of the sublime illumination of
Holly’s best work.

 

Modest Mouse’s muddling deconstruction of “That’ll Be the
Day” proves the point, as does Florence + the Machine’s soulless “Not Fade
Away,” which sounds like a bunch of random instruments, plus probing voice, in
search of a clever arrangement. That’s a particularly inappropriate song to
mess up, too – after all these years, the best Holly cover of all is still the
Rolling Stones’ 1964 “Not Fade Away,” which found the bluesy Bo Diddley-isms
beneath the original’s chirpy arrangement and toughened the song up.

 

Yet, good cover versions can redefine a song, giving it new
life and deeper meaning. There are several here, as the law of averages
dictates there should be with 19 contributions. Foremost is Patti Smith’s take on
“Word of Love,” a sweet almost-ballad that is one of Hollywood’s prettiest
songs. Smith, who somewhere along the aging process has evolved from punk
priestess to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s wisest tribal elders, gives it an ethereal,
modal, drone-like arrangement, her deep voice cushioned by angelic backing
harmonies. She quotes from the Shangri-las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” toward
the end. Really, she infuses the song it with her own words of love – the ideal
of a great cover version.

 

Another excellent contribution – “Peggy Sue Got Married” –
is provided by John Doe, who seems to have found his strength in post-punk
folk-rock/alt-country. His slightly grungy guitar provides texture to the song,
which starts off stately and builds in dynamism without ever sacrificing
melody. Like Dave Alvin, whose success seems to be giving Doe confidence to
pursue the same kind of weathered Americana sound, his voice has grown from a
youthful monotone to one that’s full of confident rusticity.

 

Add some other good if not revelatory versions – Black Keys’
“Dearest,” Karen Elson’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” Justin Townes Earle’s
“Maybe Baby,” My Morning Jacket’s “True Love Ways,” Kid
Rock-as-the-new-Mellencamp on “Well All Right,” and you have an album that on
balance is worth the effort it took to produce.

 

But it’s a precarious balance.

 

Here’s the real Buddy Holly…

HERE’S ONE FOR THE TALKERS Centro-matic

On their latest – and
possibly greatest – album the Texas
rockers draw artistic sustenance from both novelty and consistency.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

If you’re a live music fan and this has happened to you,
then you know why you are a live
music fan: It’s a mid-week night, and you and some friends are at the local
club-slash-watering hole to knock back a few, shoot the shit and blow off some
mid-week steam. There are a couple bands on the bill, and one of the names vaguely
rings a bell — you heard somebody somewhere sing their praises, but can’t
quite place it because it wasn’t a viral chorus or anything.

 

The opening act plays a brief set — not bad, but not good
enough to derail conversations. But when the headliner hits the stage? It’s
another story altogether, one of unexpected transcendence, where all the
“cubicle jobbers” and “talk-talkers” are eventually stunned into silence. It’s
a rare phenomenon, but one summed up neatly by Centro-matic’s Will Johnson in
the anthemic and jaunty rocker “All the Talkers” from the band’s 10th and latest full-length, Candidate Waltz:

 

“But the band, they
were not like the ones before/There was talk amongst the hips and cliques/As if
it couldn’t be done/They played until we had been won/Until we had been won!”

 

Speaking from his Austin, TX, home, Johnson says “All the
Talkers” was written from a fan’s standpoint more so than a performer’s. “We’ve
all witnessed it, and I love seeing it happen – when an unexpected comes
through town and blows the doors off the joint,” he says, “that experience
knowing that music can still hit you in that way, just as it did when you were
15 or 16 at your first show.”

 

Johnson and his band mates – keyboardist Scott Danbom,
bassist/guitarist Mark Hedman and drummer Matt Pence – have often been the
source of those unexpected moments. Over 15 years, Centro-matic has been
pumping out its consistently great yet underappreciated blend of fuzz-friendly
indie rock, high-plains Texas twang, beautiful-loser ballads and arena-sized
sing-along anthems in clubs across America and Europe, winning a small army of
dedicated converts without benefit of national magazine spreads or Internet
hoopla.

 

Those Centro-matic fundamentals haven’t changed much over
the years; consistency has been one of the band’s hallmarks, though they have
added a bit more polish since their lo-fi beginnings that had some comparing
them to Guided by Voices. Still, you know what you’re going to get with a
Centro-matic release – in part because the band scratch their other artistic
itches via the prolific Johnson’s solo records or the moodier and more
experimental side-project South San Gabriel.

 

But that doesn’t mean Centro-matic isn’t motivated by the
same restless qualities inherent in any other evolving act. Candidate Waltz is, in some key
respects, a significant departure from previous records, from its revised
songwriting tack and producer (Scott Solter) to new recording methods that
reflect significant changes in the band members’ lives, both personal and
professional.

 

Johnson and his mates did the basic tracking at their
favored studio, Echo Lab (with some extra work done at Pence’s log cabin
studio). But instead of their typical three-week “band camp vacations” as
Johnson calls them (from which they usually emerged with something close to a
finished record), this 10-day session in August, 2009 required quite a bit more
work afterward. The constricted time frame happened because Hedman and his wife
had a child, Danbom went out on the road with up-and-coming folk rocker Sarah
Jaffe, and Johnson was officially welcomed into the Monsters of Folk, joining
My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, M. Ward and Conor Oberst as the group’s drummer
on tour. (Johnson and his wife also had their first child five months ago.)

 

Those scheduling and family concerns meant the band, spread
out over Texas from Dallas to Austin anyway, turned to the Internet to complete
the record. Johnson estimates there were over 600 Candidate Waltz-related emails shipped back-and-forth over the last
two months of 2009, featuring everything from song-title round-tables to zip
files with guitar or keyboard parts. That drew out the process further, but
thankfully 15 years together does offer some shorthand.

 

“It’s kind of cool that after all these years of friendship
we can still finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s minds, even
electronically,” Johnsons laughs.

 

They had to lean on that familiarity as well because Johnson
wrote the skeletons of these songs, with one or two exceptions, on bass guitar.
That changed their nature, he says, from the new, poppier rhythms of “Iso-Residue”
and “Solid States” down to how the vocals and melodies interacted with the
rhythms. It was uncomfortable and even confusing at first, Johnson concedes,
but the change forced the band to focus more on tension-making than “the
overall explosive release” that Centro-matic songs often rely on.

 

“It was fun to try and exercise that kind of discipline and
not just go for the big-loud-wall-of-guitars-thing all the time,” he says.
“It’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but for our band it definitely
took us into some new territories, which made us really happy.”

 

For a band used to self-producing, bringing Solter
(Superchunk, Mountain Goats) on board changed things up as well. “We’ve made
our own records for many years now, so it’s just good for us to bring in a new
set of ears every once and a while,” Johnson says, “someone who can see the
furniture in a different way in our little living room.”

 

Even the record’s 9-song austerity was a change-up – this is
a band that once recorded 60 songs during one band camp. Part of that brevity
was a result of the shortened recording window, but Johnson says the record
“speaks for itself over the course of nine songs,” especially after the
sprawling two-disc “split” between Centro-matic and South
San Gabriel, 2007’s Dual
Hawks
.

 

“We wanted to make something a little more meat-and-potatoes
and a little more terse,” he says.

 

And so they did, creating a blend of the new and familiar
that, with its brevity and concentration on tension, feels as urgent as
anything the band has done. The opening minor chords, burbling synth and
recurrent keyboard pattern of “Against the Line” insist on going “down and down
and down and down and down” without ever quite releasing into crescendo. The
guitars and drums gang up on “Only In My Double Mind” to pound the beat like
sledgehammers and mirror the narrator’s urgent warning to “iron out your
trouble lines,” Johnson’s double-tracked vocals acting as the melodic red-hot
glow while a fuzz-happy solo provides the sparks. Even the record’s ballads
seem to cut deeper, as the sad-eyed soul of the relationship lament “Estimate
X3” – “the minutes stretched between us tight” – is captured in warm guitar
arpeggios and a slow martial beat coated in synth haze, morphing the outro’s
overlapping “woo-woos” into elegy.

 

These new approaches and fresh elements seem to have served
their purpose; Centro-matic sounds refocused here. They’ve stripped away some
of the past and dug even deeper – using a few new methods, too — into what
they’ve been doing for 15 years.

 

“When we go in and put our heads down and we are on our own
in a quiet setting and able to commit our music to tape, it’s still kind of an
old school, very spiritual and very familiar way of making our music,” Johnson
says. “In those approaches, things have not necessarily changed all that much
as our lives have. But when we walk out of the studio door and realize it’s
2011 instead of 1998, we immediately have to start conjuring new ideas and new
ways to hopefully make people aware of our music.”

 

And on many nights, they’ll do it by being that band that just
shuts the talkers up.

 

 

Centro-matic is on
tour at this very moment. Dates: www.centro-matic.com

SWEET SWEETBAND’S BAADASSSSS SONGS The Mekons

Melvin Van Peebles
chronicler Joe Angio produces a Kickstarter-funded Mekons documentary. Pictured
above: Sally Timms, w/liquid friend.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Filmmaker Joe Angio can’t fathom how the only band from the
Class of ’77 British punk explosion stayed largely intact over 33 years while
never “making it.” That’s why he champions artists like the Mekons, who he
documents in Revenge of the Mekons,
targeting film festivals this Fall.

 

“The fact that they continue to do this,” he says, “especially
since they’ve had to overcome hurdles that would’ve caused so many other bands
to toss in the towel-miserable luck with record companies, living on two continents
separated by thousands of miles, the fact that they all continue to do day jobs
of varying degrees to pay the bills-makes them a really worthy documentary
subject.”

 

Don’t forget the music. Angio can speak at length of the Mekons’
stylistic diversity, or “genre tourism,” that continues to find the octet
high-stepping through punk, country, electronic, ethnic and World musics. They
defy categorization, even by their own friends, fans and members. Angio discovered
to what extent this is true when he tried to elicit depictions from everyone he
interviewed. “Invariably, they gave some rambling, convoluted reply, with
numerous digressions, qualifiers and asides-they’re just impossible to
summarize succinctly!”

 

 

 

Revenge of the Mekons also concerns the Mekons as an art collective. They’re not simply sound
sculptors; they’re artists, period.
It’s well-known that front-and-center Mekon Jon Langford does folk art
paintings. Angio points out that the entire band collaborated with
performance/video artist Vito Acconci in the mid-‘90s as well as “transgressive
proto-feminist novelist Kathy Acker,” and that the band has held collective art
exhibitions such as the multimedia show OOOH!
(Out of Our Heads!)
.

 

Also, the Mekons are probably the only band that earns a comparison
to a notorious blaxploitation filmmaker. Angio directed the award-winning How
to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)
, a documentary about
Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
), and answers a snarky
question laughingly but in all seriousness. Why didn’t he call this Mekons
joint Sweet Sweetband’s Baadasssss Songs
?

 

“Ha! Funny you mention that,” says Angio, recalling a Mekons
entry he read in the Trouser Press Record
Guide
. He quotes author Greg Kot from memory: “[The Mekons] ‘continue to
put out records of bewildering variety, erratic musical quality and enormous
heart that function almost without exception as critiques of power and the
abuse of power, whether in government, the record industry and, less
frequently, the bedroom.'” It was early in production when Angio encountered
the passage, and it struck him as profoundly appropriate.

 

“Without even searching for it, I’d found an interesting
symbiotic relationship between Melvin… and the Mekons. I even started referring
to the Mekons (only half-facetiously) as the white, British, eight-person
version of Melvin Van Peebles!”

 

Official Web Site: 
http://www.mekonsmovie.com/Revenge_of_the_Mekons/Home.html

 

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL Withered Hand

Scottish songsmith Dan
Willson tries to spread some good news.

 

BY NICK ZAINO

 

Withered Hand’s Good
News
is one of the best albums of the year, and should remain so when the
critics start to put their lists together in December. Dan Willson, the
singer/songwriter/guitarist at the heart of the Scottish outfit, writes
tortured, hilarious, profane, and beautiful songs that are hard to peg to a
specific genre. Indie folk is the nearest fit.

 

The album was released in the US in March to some critical
praise, and Willson followed that with an appearance at SXSW and a few dates in
New York, LA, and San Francisco. What happens now will be interesting to watch.
Good News has been out in the U.K.
since 2009, where it also garnered critical acclaim. Willson has some songs to
start recording a follow-up, but he would like to build a following in the
States first. That’s if he can get back here. He nearly missed SXSW with visa
problems. 

 

Willson has momentum, great songs, a unique voice, and a bit
of buzz. He’s already overcome a lot just to step up to a microphone in public.
BLURT spoke with him by phone to see how he got to this point, and where he’s
going. (Go here to read our review of the album.)

 

***

 

BLURT: How was South
By Southwest?

DAN WILSON: It was amazing. Yeah. It was really interesting.
I had never been to the US before, so it was all new to me.

 

How was the music
received?

Pretty well. I mean, I stayed with a family, an Austin
family, and they told me sometimes there’s no one at the shows, especially if
you’re off the beaten track, away from 6th Street or whatever it
was. But my shows were really busy considering that. I was really happy with the
response, really. It was worth it to go play these shows in the US from the
response of the people who were there.

 

Are you trying to lay
the groundwork for coming back for a larger tour?

Yeah, I am. But I haven’t got a booking agent in place for
that. So it’s kind of dipping my toe in the ocean, kind of. I’m hoping to do
that later on. I’d be happy to. That was one of the things I was hoping to get
out of South By Southwest that didn’t materialize.

 

A booking agent would
help with credentials and things. I know you had difficulty, you almost didn’t
make it.

Yeah, I did. That was amazing. Aww. Horrible. I had a dely.
You know what happened with the visa, right?

 

Somewhat. I read
online that they denied the visa and you had to get temporary credentials. I
don’t know what they denied it for.

Yeah. They jut delayed it. They didn’t deny it, they delayed
it. But it happened to quite a few people, I think, all at once this year. And
there were people who didn’t actually go because of this. The more people were
getting kind of outraged about it, the more I felt like I really wanted to go. [laughs]

 

That kind of anger
and outrage attracts you?

Yeah, it kind of motivated me to not just think, “Oh, damn,
it’s not happening.” And then thinking, “Wow, people really feel like I should
be going to this thing.” Then I started to get more and more motivated ‘til I
was riding this big wave of online help, really. People were trying to help me
to do it. Crazy level of people, like members of the Scottish Parliament writing
to me. It was a weird week. I hope it will never be repeated. Yeah. Completely
surreal.

        That’s all in
the past now. I would like to come back and play. I’d really like to support
the record, because this is the first proper release it’s had, really. When it
was [released] here it was on a really, tiny, tiny label even as indie label
sizes go. It just sneaked out here and it’s really been [by] word of mouth that
I’ve been able to keep doing it.

 

It was critically
acclaimed in the UK
– was it critically acclaimed and not as popular in terms of sales?

It was more that it was released on a budget. We got it made
up and then we just sent a bunch of press releases to the Scottish press. And
this is really the extent of what we did. And then, it was critically
acclaimed, when those people decided to write about it. But then the bigger
magazines like Mojo didn’t actually review
until nine months later when they started to hear about it, if you know what I
mean. It’s kind of like been a very slow burner.

 

Is it just now
starting to catch on there more, as well?

Yeah, yeah. The shows are getting busier and busier and I’m
still – I’m not playing all the same songs that I’ve always played, but I’m
playing still a lot of the songs that are on the album. So it’s kind of weird.
I never had anyone championing me, you know? Apart from other songwriters. I
know what’s helped me in the States, you know that band Frightened Rabbit?
They’re a rock band from here. They have been really helpful for just dropping
my name into things.

 

 

You’re in an
interesting position, because you hear a lot musicians say they’re sick of an
album, playing the songs live by the time it comes out because they’ve been
working on them and they’ve got another batch of them ready to go. You’ve had
this out since 2009, and you’ve delayed working on a second album, I believe,
because of the release in the States. Is that true?

Yeah, it’s partly true. It’s mostly true. It’s definitely affected
my work rate. I’m not hugely prolific anyway. I’m at kind of a strange time in
my life to be doing this. It feels like it to me, a strange time to be doing
this. But yeah, I’ve been playing those songs for a long time. I don’t really
ever get sick of it. I guess some of the people that play with me might, but I
don’t. They’re very autobiographic, you know, so I just feel like I’m saying
what I say, over and over again.

 

Is it to the point
where you feel like you’re working on this album and you’ve got other things
you want to say and other songs you want to be pushing? Or you’d rather be
working on a second album?

It doesn’t feel like that to me. I still feel like the songs
are very relevant to me, as a person, where I’m at right now. So I don’t feel
like I’m standing up and playing old, old songs. They kind of are, I guess, but
it doesn’t make me feel like that. And there’s a smattering of new material,
but I’m a kind of accidental singer/songwriter, in a way. Songs do come out
once in a while, but it’s not like I’m the most organized person with this kind
of thing.

 

Is there any kind of
lag where people in the U.K.
are maybe expecting a new album because they’ve been listening to this one
since 2009?

I think that might be true, yeah. I think there’s probably
people wondering what I’m doing. [laughs]
I’m trying to bring up two children and be an effective citizen. I’ve got a few
songs. Whether they’ll kind of come together as an album or not, or an EP, I’m
not too sure. I don’t really have anyone breathing down my neck telling me to
pull my finger out. I’ll just write the songs and try and record them when they
come out.

        In a way, I
guess I am kind of giving the album a little bit of a breathing space now that
it’s been released in the U.S.
And then I’ll turn my thoughts to whatever’s next. The label in the States has
an option for another record. So at some point, I will make another one.

 

Is it hard to please
fans in the U.K. while
trying to make your introductions in the U.S.?

People keep coming to the shows here, probably more than
ever before. And I see the same people. I don’t really know who they are, but I
sometimes think, that guy’s at every show. Surely he’s sick of it. But they
don’t seem to be at the saturation point just yet. I worry about that, but it
doesn’t seem to have happened quite yet. I guess there are tons of people
everywhere who haven’t heard that record yet.

        I play a fair
amount of live shows here, and they’re still busy, so something’s working
right. Even if they’re kind of hankering for new songs. Sometimes if I try to
play a new song people will try to record it on their phones or whatever
because I haven’t been forthcoming with any new, proper recordings for a while.
I do try and slip a few new songs in there for this reason, I guess. It’s
strange, really. I don’t have a clear idea about what the next record is going
to be. I did try and record an EP recently. And I was really unhappy with it,
so I’ve canned it. I’m going back to scratch again with it.

 

You’re not happy with
the songs or just the recording
?

I really love the songs, I just want to do them justice. And
it didn’t, really. And that’s a really hard decision to make, because I kind
of, I stopped working these jobs I really liked because I didn’t have any more
holidays and the guy that I wanted to record with, he kind of had only one window
of opportunity to do it. So we did it, and I was really unhappy with it. So
that’s kind of weird. No EP came out of it. I have the songs, still, which I do
like a lot. But I don’t like the recordings.

 

You said you’re at a
strange time of your life to be doing this. How would you describe where you
are?

I’m pushing on 37. I’ve played music since I was a teenager
in bands and stuff, just messing around. This singing in front of people and
writing songs thing, I’ve really only been doing it for a short time in the
context my whole life. Maybe only six years I’ve been doing this thing. And at
the same time I have now two children, one nine and one six. And my wife works,
as well, so I’m quite integral in domestic things.

        It just feels
like such a strange lifestyle, you know. I’ve done a couple of tours. It’s
really weird. It’s kind of a weird thing. Because you have less energy and you
just think, ooh, I could have stayed up until three when I was 20 doing this
thing. And now you’re playing a show and you’re like, “Hey, guys, I hope you
have a great time, but I just need to go to sleep right now.” That kind of
thing. Particularly when I was in the U.S. I felt like that. I was so
tired after that week of not thinking I was going and lots of transatlantic
phone calls at crazy times at night.

        I’m just
talking about the actually going and playing shows part of the whole thing. I
really didn’t have anything all to say to anyone when I was young. I always
thought I’d be doing music as a little thing in the background while I did my
artwork, as my full-time activity. It’s kind of switched completely the other
way around.

 

Was it that you felt
you finally had something to say, why you finally started writing songs?

Yeah, I guess. And always because I think I’ve always been
frightened of doing it. Frightened of trying to do something. I guess many
people can relate to that. Frightened of trying something, even if you could
maybe even do it well. You’re frightened of actually grappling with something in
case you failed. It was a time in my life when a friend of mine who I always
saw as the embodiment of this “seize the day” kind of guy, he died and I
immediately saw the light. I just thought, aw man, I’m just going to be
tinkering around forever thinking that I’m just going to paint my masterpiece
tomorrow. Then I just started doing it from that exact time, almost.

 

I’d also read that
your voice was somewhat soft and you were hesitant to push that out into the
forefront, as well.

Yeah, very much so. I was the guitar player in the
background who sound guys would be like, “You’re not singing! I can’t make the
mic go up any higher.” I’d be like, “Aw, you know, I’m trying.” At that time,
as a kid, I was playing in friends’ bands usually, just sort of a social thing,
and they would be always furious with me, saying we’d practice these backing
vocals, what to do, and I would never do them when we’re onstage. That’s just
stupid fears of something. Now every time I do it it’s like totally, “Yeah! I
can do it!” And it’s really good.

 

You have to realize
you have your voice before you figure out how to use it, too. I could see that
delaying the writing, because you’re thinking, I don’t have the voice to sing
it anyways.

Absolutely. I think that’s completely true. I had no idea,
really. I don’t come from a musical family. Sometimes I play with people on the
same bill and they’re like, well, you know, my parents were folk musicians and
we used to go to folk camps and all this. I’m like, my dad put in medical gas
in hospitals and my mom works in the supermarket. I didn’t know I could do it!
I took a lot of power, almost, from this vague awareness of punk aesthetic. The
sort of D.I.Y. thing. That, to me, suddenly validated anything I tried. It made
me a lot less scared of facing it down.        

 

You also don’t write
happy little throwaway ditties – there’s a lot to chew on in these songs. That,
I’m assuming, has something to do with you realizing you have something to say.

Probably the genesis of those songs is really wrapped up in becoming
a parent, I think. A lot of this stuff was around the time I was grappling with
all these changes at that particular time that I think a lot of people are
aware of. There’s sort of universal things that happen to most people on the
way to becoming a parent. It’s right in your face. I think a lot of that came
out in those songs. And when I started to revisit places in my childhood, I
guess, looking now as a father revisiting my childhood, almost revisiting me
through the eyes of my father, it started to make me really start to think
about what I carried on with me from my upbringing, which was as an evangelic
Christian. And I’m not anymore. I’m an agnostic, if I had to be put into a box.
All that stuff I guess lends the songs… it makes them more substantial as pop
songs go.

 

There is a lot of
juxtaposition of sex and religion. Is there a particular intersection there you
feel is fruitful for songwriting?

I do. I think for me, when I was carrying these moral codes
with me as a youngster and then into adulthood, sex is the hardest arena to
work out what the hell is going on. Sex was the most confusing, and still is, I
think. I don’t see that as a really clear and easy to grasp topic. It weighs on
my mind a lot and it usually comes into the songs in some way. My primary
relationship is constantly alluded to in my songs, I guess.

 

 

 

Is there a particular
religious attitude toward sex you’re commenting on?

My church was pretty down on sex. I think that’s probably as
near as I can get to where your question is asking. I’d say the influence I was
having from religion was casting sex in a bad light. And then I spent most of
my adult life grappling with this, trying to sort out, is it healthy? Once sex
becomes loaded with feelings of guilt and fear, then it takes a long time to
try and see clearly what is going on when you’re becoming an adult. We had a
really bad attitude to sex before marriage. And sex for fun was always frowned
upon. It was a slightly Puritanical thing. It leads a lot of people to become pretty
obsessed the other way around.

 

Are there specific
incidents that sparked the lyrics
?

In the songs, yeah. There are either specific incidents or a
phase in my life that’s being alluded to. Definitely. What’s weird – well, it’s
really not weird. I guess some people find it a little profane. They don’t want
this in their folk music or whatever. Those kinds of honest moments, they tend
to really communicate… I notice after shows, a lot of people really get it.
They’ve had similar things to grapple with, themselves. That, to me, is the
main thing.

 

I would think singing
lines like, “If I should happen to die tonight in my sleep I’ll have cum and
not blood on my hands” is maybe something people aren’t expecting to hear.

Not at first, yeah. I guess I kind of get out of the habit
of knowing what’s expected and what’s not. I don’t go and see that much music
outside of what I like. Sometimes when I play those and it’s in a place where,
maybe like a rarified atmosphere or something, people are like, “What? What did
he say?” I find pop music much more pornographic than those songs, actually.

 

Ever gotten tossed
out of a place for language?

No. Not yet.

 

But it’s a goal?

It’s a goal? [laughs]
Yeah, it would be interesting. It’s funny. Actually, I did once play at my
daughter’s school, actually now you’ve reminded me. I thought I’d vetted the
set list to omit songs which had anything that was going to be dodgy in it for
children at a family fun day. I got halfway through a song and realized that I
had said “shit” twice. And I just stopped playing that song and went on to the
next one.

 

Which one was that?

It was “I Am Nothing.” It says, “Did they teach you shit at
school?” and then I thought, well, hang on. I just said “shit” and I’m at a
school. I’ve got to pack this song in and go on to the next one.

 

So ironically, you
taught, probably, several children “shit” at school.

[laughs] Exactly.
The hunter has become the hunted. Yeah, I guess so. My wife is a teacher at the
school. That was also awkward.

 

SAND MEN Beach Fossils

Brooklyn-by-way-of-Carolina
musical savant Dustin Payseur talks about his critically-acclaimed indie rock
outfit.

 

BY TIM HINELY

 

It seemed that last year intriguing pop bands were appearing
everywhere and many were coming forth from Brooklyn’s
Captured Tracks label. Bands included the gentle pop sounds of bands like Wild
Nothing and Minks and both seemed to capture a fair amount of attention from
the press, but perhaps the best of the bunch was a mysterious band called Beach
Fossils
. There was very little information on the self-titled album (packaged
in a drab gray sleeve), but it did say it was written and record by a person
named Dustin Payseur.

 

Shortly thereafter Payseur’s name began popping up in
reviews and interviews, and the show I subsequently caught last year at Portland’s Doug Fir
Lounge was nothing if not electrifying. 
All four musicians onstage (including a stand-up drummer and a newly
acquired guitarist since their original one for the tour had bailed) were dancing
and obviously knew how to put on a good show. They returned this year with the What a Pleasure EP and have lost nothing
on their approach; in fact, the songs might even be better. Payseur took time
out of his busy schedule – he had just returned from tour – to answer some
questions via email.

 

***

 

BLURT: What
was your initial interest in music? Was it through your folks?

DUSTIN PAYSEUR: Yeah, my family definitely had an influence
on my beginnings. Having musical parents gave me an opportunity I may not have
had otherwise, so it was easy for me to pick up instruments early on.

 

Didn’t
they play in a band? If so, what/when?

Yeah, when I was a kid I thought everybody’s parents were in
bands. They were playing live around the late ‘80s through the mid ‘90s. There
wasn’t much going on in [hometown] Charlotte around the time, that scene was
sort of feeding off the Atlanta/Athens vibe, so my parents kind of had a
totally sarcastic approach to their music (songs like, “Fuck You in the Face”)
since all the other bands around the area took themselves way too seriously.

Any significant memories of your folks’
gigs, or maybe semi-famous
friends coming over to the house?

Not really too much, mostly just going with them out to the
country where they would jam with their crazy hippie friends for hours. Although
my mom did have a morning show at the radio station and she got picked up in a
limo so I thought she was famous.

What was the first record you remember
buying with your own money?

I think it was the Misfits compilation album or Ministry’s Psalm 69 on cassette. If it was aggro I
was into it.

Is Beach Fossils your first band?

I’ve had bands before, but nothing I’ve concentrated so much
energy into before. Everything else I did was focused, but also pretty loose since
I didn’t think anybody would ever hear it so it was more just experimenting
with sounds and genres. I guess the Beach Fossils album came about the same way,
though; I just focused more on it because it was a combination of sounds that
finally felt really comfortable, pop yet mellow and sometimes aggressive. It could
really be whatever I wanted it to be since the sound was so flexible.

Tell me about the recording of your
debut record. You did it yourself, right?

Yeah I did it all at home, I didn’t really know what I was
doing but I knew how to get the sounds that I wanted… I suppose that’s still
how I’m operating.

How did the deal with Captured Tracks
come about? Do you feel a
kinship with other bands on the label? It seems like a lot of bands
might share the same influences.

I sent a demo hoping to hear back but figured it would get
lost in the mix of “incredible stuff Captured Tracks probably receives
every day” but luckily I heard back really quickly. The label is amazing,
I love being a part of the family. The bands are really on point, there’s a lot
of variety, but what every band consistently shares is a passion for creating
music that has guts and takes risks while staying pop… music that has deep
roots of inspiration spreading across different
genres from punk to cold wave and twee to free jazz, etc. It’s inspirational to
be around.

 

 

Have
you been surprised by the interest taken in the band?

Definitely. Every time we play a show I’m surprised by the
crowd and their excitement and participation. It’s all you could ever want when
you think of being in a band. The fact that we get people moving like that, and
the things they tell us after the shows about how our music has had an impact
on their lives, it’s unbelievable.

Who are some of your biggest influences?
Anyone that might surprise us?

As far as just being in love with music in general, the
stuff that really moves me is Lester Young, Ravi Shankar, J.S. Bach, Don
Cherry, My Bloody Valentine, The Byrds, on and on and on… mostly jazz and classical
as far as the way it’s written and structured. I’m limited as a rock musician –
I don’t know how the hell to play that kind of music so I do what I can with a
guitar and bass.

Tell me about the tour last year. Did
the guitarist really up and quit
mid-tour? Onstage you said you had taught the replacement the songs
in the van on the way to the gigs.

Yeah that tour was pretty exhausting. We were already on the
road when our guitarist quit and that was pretty hard, but I honestly wasn’t
mad at him because I felt like quitting the tour myself. We were hardly making
money for gas and sleeping on floors for a month. Not really any different than
any other band on their first tour, but it can grind you down after a while.
But we picked up our friend TJ from Cloud Nothings and showed him the songs in
the van, he was a really
quick learner and saved us for that tour.

Did things change for the recording of
the What a Pleasure EP?

Originally it was Chris and John [Peña] and
myself. But after Chris quit, John and I scrapped all of the songs we wrote
with him and started over. It was a stressful recording situation because we
were pressed for a deadline but also on tour in Europe,
so I was literally singing into my computer mic in hotel rooms trying to make
some sort of progress. We finally wrapped it up when we got back
to the States and released it. I think if we had a little more time it would
have been a completely different album, but that’s what the next LP is for. [Ed. Note: the band’s current touring lineup
is rounded out by Tommy Gardner and Cole Smith.
]

Was this latest tour better than the
first one?

Absolutely… we shared a van with Craft Spells and those
guys are the best. That made it a lot easier and felt more like a tour should, which
is having a good time and making sure the crowd has a good time too. It was our
first time headlining a tour in the U.S. and I was a little scared
before we took off on it, I was surprised every night and totally thankful to
the crowds who made it such a beautiful
experience.

Do you still have a day job?

I can’t function in a “normal” job, it’s nearly
impossible to me, the tediousness of it all makes me want to tear my hair out.
I haven’t had one in over a year and it’s the best feeling. Sometimes it can be
a little too free because I don’t make the wisest decisions with my free time,
but recently I’ve been forcing myself to record a lot more frequently.

What’s next for the band?

Just focusing on one song at a time, making albums that I
personally want to listen to. And to make sure I do it right so don’t have to
go back to a day job!

 

[Photo Credit: Angel Ceballos]

 

 

 

WRIT IN BLOOD Rainer Ptacek

A new
archival release featuring backing from members of Calexico finds the late Tucson guitar maestro
staring down the tumult of life and death.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

Speak with almost anyone from Tucson’s fertile music scene and eventually
the name Rainer Ptacek will come up. Despite his passing in 1997 at the age of
46 following a second bout with brain cancer, Rainer (talented enough to earn
the first-name-only sobriquet) still casts a long shadow over the music
community in Tucson and in some “musicians-musician”-circles far beyond its
desert  surroundings.

 

But nowhere was that shadow longer than in the Giant
Sand/Calexico universe. For Howe Gelb, Rainer was friend and mentor, a
guitarist and songwriter with an equally idiosyncratic blues-and-country rock
vision informed by the heat, sand and cactus of the local terrain. Together
they formed Giant Sandworms in the late ‘70s, which later morphed into Gelb’s
Giant Sand collective.

 

Coming piecemeal to Giant Sand but forming its best-known
lineup, drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns – now the brain trust of
Calexico- joined Rainer in July and early August of 1997 at the Barrio Viejo
home of journalist, author and activist Bill Carter to record these deceptively
casual tracks. At the time of this recording, Rainer was in remission, having
survived the stroke-like collapse and memory slate-cleaning that announced the
brain cancer, the chemo and radiation, and the long hours spent relearning his
own music and retraining his mind to understand what his fingers wanted it to
do.

 

Rainer would spend the time between his initial February,
1996 diagnosis and treatment, and the recurrence that eventually killed him in
November, 1997, putting down some of his most affecting music. In addition to
this summer date with Burns and Convertino, he recorded what many consider his
masterpiece, Live at the Performance
Center
, a stunning solo gig on the eve of his last birthday (June 6) in
which every track seems a pathway to new guitar-genius territory. 

 

He also appeared on The
Inner Flame: The Rainer Ptacek Tribute
, the Gelb-curated disc to raise
funds for the insurance-less Rainer’s staggering medical bills. The respect his
peers had for Rainer is manifest in the lineup, which featured among its tracks
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, P.J. Harvey, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman, Evan
Dando, Emmylou Harris and Madeleine Peyroux. Then, shortly before his death, Rainer
recorded The Farm (eventually
released in 2002), his final sessions before the disease forced him to put down
his beloved National Steel forever.

 

So, then, Roll Back
the Years
, a victim until now of timing and circumstance, released by
Rainer’s widow with the assistance of archivist David La Russa and audio wizard
Jim Blackwood (www.RainerMusic.comwww.rainer.bandcamp.com). Because
of the release of his live date, and later The
Farm
, these songs wound up on the shelf for 14 years.  (Three of the songs – “The Farm,” “Oasis,”
and “Hard to Remember” – would appear on The
Farm
, a hint that perhaps this one was meant to be permanently shelved.)
And while Roll Back the Years features Rainer and a combo, the
music is not to be confused with Rainer & Das Combo, Ptacek’s power-blues
outfit of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s (1993’s The
Texas Tapes
featured an uncredited but prominent collaborator: ZZ Top’s
Billy Gibbons).

 

Burns and Convertino had recorded with Rainer prior to this
date (a clutch of songs for 1995’s DYO
Boot
, for instance, and a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”
released posthumously on 2000’s Alpaca
Lips
), and they slipped right into their rock-solid sidemen roles here,
sometimes with first-take succinctness. With Rainer exclusively on dobro or his
National Steel resonator, Burns’ acoustic bass and Convertino’s brushed skins
nudge the pace where it needs to go and then get out of the way while the
bottleneck and finger-picking magic – a blend of Ry Cooder-blues and John
Fahey-folk-meets-Mississippi John Hurt-finger-picking prowess — takes place.

 

The songs range from chooglin’ blues-rock (“My Honey”),
boogie-woogie (“Now I Know Better”) and traditional acoustic blues fare
(“Tenish”) to the desert-baked shuffles (“Roll Back the Years”) and
instrumental explorations (“Di Latin”) familiar to the Giant Sand/Calexico
songbooks. Sung in Rainer’s Dylan-like nasal register, the songs nevertheless
convey a wide range of emotion. Of course the narratives carry the specter of
his diagnosis with them, but there is also urgency, appreciation and unbridled
joy coursing through them and his nonpareil playing – the tumult of life and
death, illness and remission, writ in blood and lived in visceral real-time.

 

Rainer encapsulates all of those conflicted feelings over
the jaunty beat of “Hard to Remember” when he sings, “Sometimes I can’t
remember/the reasons why we’re here at all/then it hits me, hits me like a big
jolt/comin’ straight into my brain/that the only reason why we’re here/is to
love away the pain.”

 

It’s a spine-chilling moment, one of many on a dusky gem
that reminds us what an underappreciated Rainer meant to fans, blues-guitar
geeks, fellow musicians, and friends – both as an extraordinary player and a
humble, kind friend and family man.

 





BLURTING WITH… The Soul of John Black

No, sir. Thank YOU! John Bigham returns with another
immaculately-crafted platter of eclectic soul goodness. 

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

John Bigham remembers where he was the first time he heard
all of his favorite songs. That’s how you know music really made an impact on
you, when the events of the day, no matter how insignificant, get burned into
indelible memories by a great song. The first time BLURT heard “Scandalous (No.
9)”, the lead track on The Soul of John Black’s eponymous 2002 debut (No Mayo
Records), I was driving to Subway. I ordered a footlong steak and cheese on
wheat and ate it in the car while the rest of the record played.

 

Man, that was a good sandwich. But what was really worth
savoring was the album. As it rolled by, it revealed as many ingredients as on
the sub: folk, blues, rock, hip-hop, even a touch of twang – with soul music as
the meat. And these weren’t just piled on top of each other; they were arranged
in such a way that they complemented each other and made each song a
masterfully crafted experience.

 

Since then, the former Fishbone guitarist, who has also
played with one Mr. Miles Davis, has put out three other albums: The Good Girl Blues (Cadabra/Yellow Dog, 2007), Black John (Eclecto Groove, 2009) and
the newly minted Good Thang (Yellow
Dog). Each as good as the last, they stand as highly satisfying start-to-finish
listens, filling like a big ol’ sandwich, but gratifying like the book you
can’t put down, or the film you didn’t expect to like but held you riveted for
its duration.

 

Good Thang, in
that sense, lives up to its name. It gobbles up 40 minutes in no time, as you
feast upon joy, pain and bitterness – and all the aforementioned musical
flavors – as well as Bigham’s vivid storytelling and expressive guitar work. In
simplest terms, John Bigham is one hell of a sandwich artist.

 

***

 

BLURT: Guitar sounds
so good in soul music, but few people do it right anymore. You’re a guitar
player, so naturally you see its importance.

JOHN BIGHAM: All the great soul music from the past that I
ever heard probably had a Telecaster through a Fender amp. You know what I
mean? The guitar is an integral part of the band. It’s like, on all those old
soul records, you get that little soul ‘chink’? 
You know (mimics the sound). That’s like, a third of the song, you know?
[laughs] That’s what was makin’ me love that song. I just always think about
that when I’m writing a song. When I’m writing, I’m not even thinking about the
guitar. But when I’m producing the song, I’m like, ‘Okay. Now it’s time to add
the guitar.’ Because, for me, it wouldn’t be complete. I could turn the guitar
down, have it really low in the mix, but I think it needs to be there because
it’s the driving force.

 

Who are your favorite
soul guitarists?

I like Cornell Dupree. He’s one of my favorites. And I like
Dennis Coffey, Steve Cropper, yeah. In modern times, what I was digging was
Paul Jackson Jr. He put a whole ‘nother twist on guitar in soul music, you
know, with his single note thing. It’s just all those different things that the
guitar does. It really helps paint the picture.

 

You played jazz with
Miles Davis – but what I wanna know is if you knew Betty Davis?

Was I acquainted with her? Or did I know about her? Noooo…His relationship with her was back
in the ‘60s. You know what man? To be absolutely honest, since the record (TSOJB’s
Black John, which has the track
“Betty Jean”) has come and gone… I
mean, I love Betty Davis’s music.
It’s just ridiculous. There’s never been anything like it before or after. Naming
that song after her was kind of an afterthought – it wasn’t even a thought,
really, man. To be honest, I had Betty Jean in my imagination. And the funny
thing is I looked over and I saw that album cover ‘cause I’d been listening to
it. But it’s a damn good question, though.

 

Which album cover was
it?

[laughs] Nasty Gal.
It was just sittin’ right there, all the time. The answer to my question,
“Who’s this song about?”

 

You’re so good at storytelling,
setting a tone and conveying emotion in your songs. For example, “Scandalous
(No. 9)” from The Soul of John Black and “Oh That Feeling” from Good Thang, have a really nasty, threatening sound and
great characterization.

Yeah, I think about that but it’s a little bit more – I
don’t have a definition for it because I’m doin’ it instinctively, you know? That’s
just what I do. I think about some of the older songs – and actually, “No. 9”
was influenced by “Ode to Billie Joe.” It’s this story of a guy that jumped off
a bridge because he did something that was really embarrassing. I think he was
gay or somethin’ like that. Well, in the TV movie, he was gay. But I don’t know
what he really did in the story. But then there was “The Night the Lights Went
Out in Georgia.”
It’s like, “I can feel the police cars pullin’ up to his house and stuff.” I
visually see it and know that feeling.

 

Many of your songs could
have come straight out of 1970s blaxploitation-era films. Are you a fan? What
are your favorites?

It’s kind of a different thing for me, thinkin’ of these as
like, exploitation movies. Like, Superfly – it was the one black movie that was out, and [at the time] I was a young
black guy. Everything after that is exploitation. [Gordon Parks,
Jr.] was just tryin’ to make a movie at the time. Then Hollywood is like, ‘Hey we can make money off
of these! Let’s make a bunch of crazy movies about pimps and whores and cool
cars.’ But anyway, what I’m gettin’ at is my favorites are the Dolemite movies
‘cause they’re funny. But it has nothin’ to do with the music, really.

            I kinda
grew up in that era so that type of music was everywhere. It wasn’t so much the
movies; I just heard that music all the time. And by the time I saw that stuff,
it was kinda boring to me. So it was really like a lot of the bands that I
heard, that did that kind of thing.

            You know
what? Isaac Hayes’ album – my mother had his Hot Buttered Soul album, and I came home one day after bein’ out
with my friends all day long and she had this album playin’. I was like, ‘What
the hell is that? It’s ridiculous!’ It was like the best thing
I had ever heard in my life. So it was just music, music, music. I never really
went to the movies or watched much TV.

We had a lot of music goin’ on in
our house. Isaac Hayes, man, and Johnnie Taylor – all the stuff that my family
listened to, especially my mother and my father. My mother listened to all the
soul music, and my father listened to all the jazz. And then my brother listened
to all the rock. I got Led Zeppelin from my brother, Jimi Hendrix from my
brother. I got Sam Cooke and Ray Charles from my mother. I got Miles Davis and
Paul Desmond from my father and stuff like that. I just heard all that music.

            It’s really
about that music that was in my world. I know where I was when I heard all my
favorite songs for the first time. I know where I was, what was goin’ on. The
whole scene.

 

You mentioned Isaac
Hayes. It seems to me that you picked up a thing or two from him about rappin’
to women. Especially on “I Got Work.”

Oh, man. Yeah.
That’s that old school – they still do it now. You know, it’s not always so
cool now – it’s a little hard. But yeah, man. Isaac Hayes, sure. Him and those
other people that were on Stax, they had that rappin’ to women talent. I love
that whole thing, just describin’ how ‘I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that
and you’re not gonna believe, and… jump down and around…”

 

When you play that
song, how do the ladies in the crowd react?

Oh, man. They love that song. They love that song. They love it, man. [laughs]

 

Have you ever been
approached about scoring a film?

 

I’ve actually done a few films, just super small budget
movies. I don’t know if you know this guy Jan Michael Vincent? He was in an old
TV show called Airwolf. I did this
movie with a friend of mine, just this terrible sci-fi movie. We scored the
music for it. And I did this blues thing for a 20-minute short called A Single Rose. I wrote four original
songs and then I did the score – it’s pretty much all slide guitar. I’d love to
do more. I love that stuff. I may need to learn a lot more.

            I really
like the guy that does all the Tim Burton movies, Danny Elfman. He went from
bein’ a musician – I think he took some time off, went and studied, and came
back to become the best film composer ever.

 

What would you say to
a mash-up of your new song “Strawberry Lady” and The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry
Letter #23”?

I’d love to hear
that. You mind if I pass that idea on?

 

Yes, please. I’d love
to hear it, myself.

Well, alright! My buddy and I were just discussin’ remixes
and cover tunes to do and that’s a good idea, man. Really. Thank you.

 

[Photo Credit: Pep Williams]