Monthly Archives: February 2012

MOTOR CITY TITAN Mitch Ryder

With a new Don
Was-produced album finally in stores, the Detroit-rock icon sets sights anew on
his American audience.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

Mention to Mitch Ryder that he’s the source point, the
iconic origin, for Detroit’s national reputation as a great rock ‘n’ roll town
– cradle of Seger, Iggy, MC5 and onward to White Stripes and Dirtbombs – and
he’s unimpressed, to say the least.

 

“Oh cool,” he says facetiously, when that point is made
during a phone interview from his Detroit
home on the occasion of the American release of his album, The Promise. “Do I get a gold watch?”

 

While Ryder, now 66, wasn’t the first Detroiter to make rock
‘n’ roll, with his band the Detroit Wheels he closely identified the Motor City
– known at the time for Motown’s teen-oriented R&B – with frenetic, sweaty
rock. Their cluster of mid-1960s hits – “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly
Miss Molly,” “Jenny Take a Ride!,” “Sock It to Me – Baby!,” “Little Latin Lupe
Lu” and “Too Many Fishes in the Sea” – featured Ryder’s electrifying shouting
and the band’s slashing passion, and did much to make Detroit a gritty rock city.

 

The hits mostly were covers, but sung and performed in a
manner that made them authoritative. Recording for producer Bob Crewe (the Four
Seasons), Ryder became a Top 40 star just before the action in rock moved to
albums and FM radio. (A longtime highlight of Bruce Springsteen’s live shows
has been his “Detroit Medley” of Ryder hits.)

 

Ryder further explains, in a mild-mannered and ego-free
speaking voice, his viewpoint about his legacy. “I appreciate all the accolades
and attention and proclamations, but that’s for other people to determine. My
dedication is to my craft. I want to grow as an artist. That’s all I care
about.”

 

But to grow as an artist, one must first make a living at
it. And in recent years Ryder found his livelihood challenged. He’s been a
fixture on the brutally competitive American oldies circuit for decades and
he’s been content to mine that field, not releasing a new U.S. album since 1983’s John
Mellencamp-produced attempt at a
comeback, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. (Strangely,
however, he has developed a separate career in Germany for new material, releasing
albums with eyebrow-raising titles like The
Old Man Springs a Boner, A Dark Caucasian Blue, The Acquitted Idiot
and You Deserve My Art.)

 

But time was taking its toll on Ryder’s following.

 

“The profile was so getting so low in America it was starting to get to
the point we couldn’t sustain ourselves financially on this side of the ocean,”
he explains. “Over there (Germany),
we paid five or six months worth of bills, but the rest has to be accounted for
through jobs in America.
And last year was the worst in my entire career in America, in terms of numbers of
dates performed.

 

“So we had to do something to get back on the radar in America. And we
have to be able to offer something of worth.”

 

***

 

Ryder’s answer was to call an old friend and admirer,
celebrity producer (and Detroit
native) Don Was, and ask for help with a new album. Was, who has worked with Ryder
previously, agreed. The result, The
Promise,
initially appearing in the U.K.
on the Freeworld label under the title Detroit Ain’t Dead Yet (The Promise) (read the
BLURT review here), has been released stateside on Ryder’s own Michigan
Broadcasting Corporation label. Out to do right by Ryder, Was brought him to L.A.’s Henson Studio in
late 2009 to record and used his top engineer, Krish Sharma. He also put
together a top-flight group of studio musicians to help, including Reggie
McBride on bass, Randy Jacobs on guitar and William “Sweet Pea” Atkinson on
background vocals.

 

All but one of the 12 songs are Ryder originals. “Don
created an essentially R&B/rock mix,” Ryder says. “Don wanted to exhibit
the fact I still have a remarkable voice and he did a wonderful job of capturing it.” (Listen
to streams from the album, below.)

 

Almost simultaneously, the album’s release coincides with
the publication by Cool Titles of Ryder’s memoir, Devils & Blue Dresses: My Wild Ride as a Rock and Roll Legend. Confessional
and aggrieved (especially at those who he believes have hurt his career),
painfully raw in detailing his struggles as a husband (his current wife is his
third) and with his sexual identity, the book is a frank chronicle of a rough
life. It also is sprinkled with some iconoclastic, at-times-hot-headed
political opinions.

 

The book even has reproductions of handwritten letters from
his current wife, Megan, that feel like an invasion of privacy to read: “…There
is no hurt that you have not handed me – no line you have not crossed, no abuse
you have not caused me. I am through,” she writes in one.

 

So are they still married? “Oh yeah. We’re very much in
love,” Ryder says.

 

It should be pointed out here that he is especially hard on
himself in the book for the ways he treated his former wives and current one.
“Look at what they had to live with, to be honest,” he says. “Somebody
extremely screwed up over something as simple as fading fame.”

 

He also recounts in the book how, at a young age, he was
made the “prey of a soft-spoken and gentle (and older) homosexual.” Later, as a
teen starting his musical career, he was seduced by a man. He writes he has had
gay experiences, not always enthusiastically, along with extramarital
heterosexual ones as an adult.

 

“My commitment (now) is to a heterosexual relationship,” he
says. “I’m free to choose anything I want. Anybody on the planet is.”

 

Talking about his book, Ryder says, “This is my first attempt to not only discover for myself, but to prove to
the public, that I was capable of writing. 
…One thing I wasn’t going to shy away from in this book was being
truthful. Then you’d be plagued the rest of your life with constant debates
about the validity of your statements. So if you tell the truth, in the end you
win.”

 

***

 

Ryder, born William Levise Jr., grew up in a working-class
part of Detroit.
Discovering his enviable vocal cords early, as well as a love for soul music,
he started singing with local black group the Peps. Then, as Billy Lee, he
joined up with rock band the Rivieras and made
an immediate impact on Detroit.
Crewe discovered them opening for Dave Clark Five, moved them to New York and renamed
them Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Crewe
subsequently tried to turn Ryder into an American Tom Jones. Watching Ryder on
an old YouTube clip today, wearing a double-breasted suit and stiffly
interpreting the hokey pop ballad “What Now My Love,” you can tell he was way
out of his element.

 

When their relationship (and the band) fell apart, he
recorded a 1969 album with Booker T. and the M.G.’s (The Detroit-Memphis Experiment). Then, under the patronage of
Michigan-based Creem magazine
publisher Barry Kramer and with a new band called Detroit, Ryder released a
marvelous 1971 album mixing muscular Motor City-style hard rock and soul, Detroit Featuring Mitch Ryder. The album
got strong reviews and good local airplay for “Long Neck Goose” and a raucous
version of Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll,” but failed to break nationally.

 

Many have wondered why Ryder didn’t want to stick with that
band longer. “I love what we created, but the problem with that group was the
psychological nature of a lot of participants. It was a very violent,
destructive, negative path to be part of.”

 

As was much of what has followed, it would seem from the
book – although his Mellencamp-produced album, overlooked in the marketplace,
had a great rockin’ version of Prince’s “When You Were Mine.”

 

But The Promise would seem a new beginning. One immediately notices that the voice is still
powerful and the new compositions are constructed with strong hooks and
choruses to showcase Ryder’s expressive voice. It’s contemporary, but rooted in
and respectful of old school.

 

And he is proud of the disc and optimistic
about its chances in the marketplace. There’s exuberant rock (“Thank You Mama,”
“Junkie Love”), funky soul (“My Heart Belongs to Me”), a sinewy Latin
arrangement (“Let’s Keep Dancing”), and a quieter, minor-key mid-tempo ballad
(“Everybody Loses”) that builds to a riveting chorus while avoiding false,
clichéd moves.

 

While a song or two is but a party-ready bar-friendly rocker
(the slightly salacious “If My Baby Don’t Stop Crying”; the familiar
electric-guitar soloing of “Get Real”), quite a few  contain lyrics with an autobiographical
punch. The title song, for instance, which can be read as a hopeful look at the
early days of the Obama Administration, features Ryder defiantly singing, “My child will have doctors, my child will
have good schools, my wife will have medicine, my work will have good tools.”
Even
the more straightforward dance-oriented numbers, like “One Hair,” have their
surprising lyrical twists: “Let’s have a
party where everybody’s shaking/And not from some bad physical disease.”

 

“The songs I brought are not ‘Devil With a Blue Dress’
because I don’t have the energy I had when I was 19,” Ryder says. “But they’re
soulful and clever and instructive and entertaining and everything a song
should be.

 

“Some of the lyrical material is a little bit more
age-relevant, but why shouldn’t it be? How can I go about describing my life if
I keep referring back to when I was 19?”

 

The Promise also
contains a live version, from one of Was’ free Concert of Colors festivals in
Detroit, of Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown classic “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.”
It allows Ryder to go full-throated at the end, screaming like indeed he still
is 19.

 

Right after this interview, he and his five-person band were
off to Germany
for shows. He’s unsure of his fate upon his return, but hopes The Promise is well-received enough to
get him off the oldies circuit and into clubs where he can showcase himself as
a relevant rocker with vital, new material – as well as some enviable classics.

 

“I’ve still got my chops and I’ve got a great band,” he
says.

 

[Photo Credit: ThKraft
(on stage, Chemnitz/Saxony 2008), via Wikimedia Creative Commons]

 

 


Mitch Ryder – ‘The Promise’ by Cary Baker

FRINGE BENEFITS Crystal Stilts

Are they garage? Indie-rock? Nü-new wave? Let’s
let the Brooklyn-based buzzband sort things out…

 

BY JHONI JACKSON

 

            Is it better for a band to run with
one particular music scene or, instead, take the social butterfly approach as a
fringe act? Crisscrossing crowds, you’d think, would make for the kind of
versatile appeal that brings a bigger fan base. In most instances though,
that’s not the case. Appeal stretched taut can confine a band to a popularity
purgatory of sorts where growth is thwarted – or at least disadvantaged. The
Brooklyn-based Crystal Stilts fit that bill.

 

            “There’s all the bands like…In the
Red bands, Norton bands and things like that. We can kind of fit into that
scene a little bit, like maybe on the edge of it,” explains guitarist JB
Townsend. “Then we played this indie-pop festival a couple of months ago, and
we were by far the dirtiest band there – but we could still play there, you
know?”

 

 

 

 

 

            Crystal Stilts present garage-pop
under an overcast sky with its lightly layered nuances of the Pastels, Lee
Hazelwood and The Damned. It’s a combination that doesn’t rest comfortably
within any one particular scene. The four-piece can hop on a bill with Tandoori
Knights, King Khan’s side project with hillbilly-punk Bloodshot Bill, just as
well as they can open for seasoned pioneers of alt-rock like the Vaselines.
(They’ve done both.) Even the club world isn’t entirely off limits to Crystal
Stilts. Just search YouTube for “Sugarbaby,” a fun, swinging slice from the
2009 7-inch Love is a Wave for some
“stanky” proof.

 

            When multiple styles are eclipsed
within one sound, booking becomes a smoother process and the arms of a band’s
fan base extend easily into several very different groups. They aren’t
explicitly running on a punk and garage ticket – Crystal Stilts don’t really
claim any particular party. Naturally, their potential followers are a mixed
group: Lovers of New Order, ardent indie-rock fans and even garage-rock
revivalists can dig Crystal Stilts.

 

            Slumberland Records’ notes for Love is a Wave describe the sound as
combining “post-punk gloom with classic ‘60s pop and garage, Suede-ish ‘50s
buzz/twang and a dash of ‘80s jangle.” Seriously? It almost seems like Townsend
and company gathered the hippest trends in independent music, tossed ‘em all
against the wall and were left with this hackneyed mix. But somehow, the blend
isn’t boring. Crystal Stilts gracefully encompass all that portrayal claims,
and not only on Love is a Wave, but
also throughout the band’s nearly decade-long repertoire. All Slumberland
failed to fully convey is frontman Brad Hargett’s echoing, haunting vocals and
the resulting dark, romantic fog that saturates the sound.

 

            Townsend helped produce all of the
band’s releases, from 2008’s Alight of
Night
to their last LP, In Love with
Oblivion.
His input started as “over the shoulder,” he says, then gained a
firmer grip over time. That’s likely why the band’s sound has remained so
consistent. Despite a studio stint at Malborough Farms with Gary Olson, founder
of ‘90s-born alt-pop act The Ladybug Transistor, Townsend’s influence on the
four-song release reigns. (And keyboardist Kyle Forester is even a member of LT
now-he has been since 2005.)

 

            “[Olson] engineered the record and…I
basically kind of mixed it and edited,” he clarifies.

 

            Townsend’s touch seems to tower over
the frontman role, despite that Hargett writes the lyrics, which can sometimes
guide mood. The band’s varied nuances appear to be a direct product of
Townsend’s musical literacy. That’s not to say other the rest of the band isn’t
knowledgeable, of course, or that other outfits don’t also boast impressive
mental music catalogs. It’s the manner in which Townsend filters his insight
that matters.

 

            “It’s funny because a lot of times
people will misinterpret where we got something from or something like that.
They’ll think it’s one thing when it’s really another thing, which is actually
kind of cool,” Townsend ruminates. “But then, on the other hand, it’s like if
you know what every style of song is and then you’re writing a song then you’re
going to be like, ‘That sounds too much like this or that.’ I think a little
bit of ignorance or a little bit of naivety is good too.”

 

            Either Townsend underestimates
himself or purposely opts for
modesty, because that ignorance is mostly limited to contemporary releases –
and there’s only one bit of evidence to support it. Radiant Door includes a cover of the Lee Hazelwood-penned “Still as
the Night.” It’s also done on the full-length debut from Gaye Blades, a side
project of Jared Swilley of the Black Lips and Jesse Smith of Gentleman Jesse
and His Men, released via Norton Records a couple months prior to Radiant Door, a Crystal Stilts EP also
released in 2011.

 

            “They did the same song?! Really? I
didn’t know that,” Townsend confesses. He calls the coincidence “bizarre.”

 

            To be fair, the covers are very
different. Swilley’s raspy vocals add aggression and a bit of speed to the
tune, while Crystal Stilts stick to its original romantic, slow and haunting
Western feel.

 

            On “Low Profile,” Radiant Door‘s other cover, the band
takes a similar approach to interpretation. They don’t do much to alter the
tune’s original idea of a New Wave-y soundtrack to passive triumph over
adversity.

 

            “I don’t think I’ve listened to the
original since we recorded it,” Townsend says. “I haven’t really compared it. I
think [Blue Orchids’] is a little bit…less ambient maybe. It’s a little bit
more upfront sounding [than ours].”

 

            Blue Orchids singer Martin Bramah’s
nearly deadpan vocals are much like Hargett’s, albeit without the latter’s
signature echo. And though Townsend speaks more ardently about the band’s
penchant for “dark country” than he does post-punk, the Blue Orchids cut is
quite fitting. Una Baines, Blue Orchids’ original keyboardist, was reportedly
dipping into the work of George Gurdjieff, a Russian spiritual teacher whose
presented ways of living including a method that Bramah and Baines interpreted
as living inconspicuously to get by.

 

            “I made [Radiant Door] originally on a four-track and I thought it came out
sounding a little bit like Television Personalities, but it wasn’t deliberate –
just kind of the style, kind of DIY, a British DIY style song,” Townsend says.
“But it ended up being a little more lush in the end.”

 

            Townsend adds that the EP’s two
original tracks are overflow from In Love
with Oblivion,
and even the material on that LP wasn’t altogether fresh.

 

 

 

 

 

            “The songs on the second album…
[are] just as old as when we recorded the first ones, so it’s really not that
different,” Townsend reveals.

 

            He says their releases are a
“continuation,” and expects future work to “go in different directions, but the
same routes.”

 

            “There’s not going to be a record
that sounds radically different,” he confirms.

 

            Whether sticking so specifically
with that sound will help or hurt them is debatable. They’ve garnered press
from mainstream media like NBC and frequently headline tours of mid-size
venues, but Crystal Stilts certainly haven’t blown up. That’s where the
popularity purgatory comes in – it’s a pitfall of malleability. Would the band
see more success concentrating on one particular group of listeners? Or should
they carry on grazing the outermost corners of countless cliques with a
multi-faceted sound?

 

            There isn’t really a solid answer,
obviously. There’s no way to calculate such a thing, especially these days.
Illegal downloading practically nullifies sales numbers in quantifying a fan
base. And Facebook likes can’t even be considered here because Crystal Stilts
don’t promote through social media the way most bands do now.

 

             “I don’t think we’re really a band that fits
into a label image that much,” Townsend says.

 

            One of the few discernable lyrics in
“Low Profile” song is “Keep a low profile.” Essentially, that’s what Crystal
Stilts have been doing all along – and Townsend seems content with that.

 

[Photo
Credit: Erika Spring]

 

THE MOST FUCKED UP THING I’VE EVER SEEN: Miracle Parade

In which Christopher
Pappas tells a tale of a pimp called Kaiser Permanente, who says the bitch
betta have his money – but he ain’t payin’ for no more ‘Brel..

 

BY CHRISTOPHER PAPPAS

 

Good times on tour? Sure, I’ve had a few. Like most
musicians, I have my fair share of pretty wild stories; women, drugs, Waffle
House – you name it. But hey: when you have close to 300 followers on Twitter
and the cash flow of indie-rock record sales – it’s hard not to get caught up
in the world of extreme excess.

 

However, when I was asked (via my publicist’s assistant’s
publicist) to write a “Most Fucked Up Thing” for Blurt, I wanted to really dive deep. No one-night stands, or silly
booze-binges. All of those are fun, yeah, but everyone has those stories. I
searched my mind for what, I believe, is truly the most fucked up thing I’ve
ever been a part of. And though I tried to avoid it – I came to one impassable
conclusion: I had to tell my big secret.

 

I currently have a $1600 a month drug habit.

 

It’s not cocaine, or crack. Not heroin, either. Nor is it
pain-killers, uppers, downers, or middlers. Mood stabilizers, mood
de-stabilizers, rounders, crankers, pop-ups, hoo-diddles, or toe-tinglers are
all peanuts compared to this drug. No, the drug I need is really underground.
You know what? You’ve probably never even heard of it.

 

I was in my mid 20’s when I first got addicted to sweet lady
Enbrel (to which, henceforth I will refer to by its street name “Brel”). One
afternoon, after seeing someone on TV do it, I decided to try it for myself, to
(as the program said) see if it was right for me. I mean hell: All the people
on T.V. ‘Brelling ended up running through fields and stuff – and it was always
sunny. And that’s exactly what it was like: When I had my Brel – everything was
always sunny, and I was always running through golden fields.

 

Well, even the deepest pockets in the ‘biz (that’s what we
people in the business call “the business”) end up empty from time to time, and
it quickly became clear: I was either going to need to find some money fast or
give up Brel. (Author’s note: Kickstarter hadn’t been invented yet – or I would
have just done that.)

 

That’s when I met him.

 

He was a sweet talker. Rich, powerful, owned a bunch of
fancy buildings downtown. I was immediately drawn to an intangible quality of
his, that, I guess I could only describe as, his money. Because, see: he had a
lot of it – and he was just giving it away.

 

“The deal is simple, sweetie.” he said. I blushed.

 

“You just give me 300 bucks a month, and I’ll pay for your
sweet Brel.”

 

“All I have to do is pay you each month, and you’ll take
care of the rest?” I asked dumbfounded. “What’s the catch?”

 

“No catch,” he said as he turned to walk away.

 

“Sir!” I called after him, “Watch should I call you?”

 

He turned and tipped his hat: “You can call me The Kaiser.”

 

From then on The Kaiser’s role in life became permanent, or
as the Spanish would call it – permanente.
And when the first of the month came around I walked down to one of his office
buildings (right near a marijuana dispensary that was shut down by the FEDS) to
give him his money.

 

“Beautiful, baby – nice to see you.”

 

I blushed.

 

“This money is good” he continued, “I’m just going to need
an upfront payment of $500 that I’ll need to deduct from your account.”

 

“Oh, well – okay,” I stammered, “I guess that’s a fair
deductible.”

 

“Don’t worry – its only once a year.” He assured me.

 

“So, do I just give you a check?” I asked, holding out the
check I had written.

 

Right then, a golden eagle swooped down and snatched the
check out of my hand and flew back up to a high bell tower, which, up until
this point, I had not noticed. I swore I heard thunder strike somewhere off in
the distance. .

 

Month after month, I would see The Kaiser to drop off my
payment, and this went on without incident; until one month.

 

“Hey, sexy robo-sex-a-matronic.”  He said.

 

I blushed.

 

“I’ve got your check.” I told him, holding it out to let the
golden eagle grab it.

 

“Great,” he said, “But unfortunately, you have to cover the
cost of your own drug now.”

 

“Wait – what?” I nervously sputtered.

 

“Listen, sweet honeydew melon cake,” (I blushed) “I offer a
premium service here, which is why you pay a premium price.”

 

I nodded.

 

“But you can only benefit so much from it, and
unfortunately, your benefits have run out.”

 

“Oh.” I responded, dejected. “So, I’ve hit the end of my
benefits. So, I guess I stop paying this premium?”

 

“Oh no!” He snorted, “You keep paying me that.”

 

“But wait -” I was confused. “If you’re not paying for my
drug anymore, why would I pay you?”

 

He snapped his fingers and the eagle swooped down, stealing
the check right from my hands.

 

He looked right at me:

 

“Don’t mess with me kid. I got friends all the way to the
top – you will pay me every month.”

 

“The top!” I laughed, “What – like, the president?”

 

He smiled.

 

“Yeah, right,” I shot back, “Like the president would make
it a law that I have to pay you.”

He laughed his high-pitched laugh that told me – this did,
in fact, go all the way to the top.

 

What did I get myself
into?

 

So there it is: the most fucked up thing I could think of.
Me, a highly Google-able musician that’s been featured on several weblogs,
stuck like a prostitute, working for a pimp named The Kaiser.

 

I’m not proud of it, but we all do what we need to do. So
every month I drop off a check to his office and every month he finds a new
inventive way to get out of paying for my Brel.

 

But hey – I choose to look on the bright side; I’m hoping to
use my huge fame to perhaps shed light on this fucked up thing, and to let the
others out there, just like me, know: there’s no hope. You’re fucked.*

 

THE END

 

(*Note: Apparently, there is hope – I’ve recently read in
several periodicals and internet message boards, that other countries have
figured out a way to weed out this type of prostitution. Perhaps, someday, America will
catch on to this idea that has worked in every other westernized country, and
we won’t have to suffer at the hands of people like The Kaiser anymore.)

 

 

Miracle Parade’s
latest album
Hark & Other Lost Transmissions is out now. Details at www.miracleparade.com

 

 

MIRACLE PARADE – “THE DYING PHYSICIST”

 

 

RIP HER TO SHREDS Alice Bag

Currently on a reading tour to promote her
recent memoir, the erstwhile Bags vocalist, punk legend, art teacher and
stay-at-home mom hasn’t lost a beat.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

Alicia
Velasquez apologizes frequently for talking at length, as she offers detailed
answers to queries about her musical past. Laughing as she asks, “What was the
question again,” she sounds like a far cry from Alice Bag, the tense,
aggressive woman who fronted the Bags, or the Alice Bag Band as they were
identified in The Decline of Western
Civilization
, Penelope Spheeris’ documentary of the Los Angeles punk scene, circa 1980. But
Velasquez and Bag are one and the same, a native of the East L.A. barrio who
grew up loving Elton John and went on to front one of the bands that made up
the first generation of Los Angeles
punk bands.

 

The
Bags recorded output is small: the single “Babylonian Gorgon” b/w “Survive” on
Dangerhouse, which also put their “We Don’t Need the English” on the one-sided
clear vinyl compilation Yes L.A. (Their only other studio recording, “We Will Bury You” wasn’t released until
1992 on the Dangerhouse Volume 2 compilation.)
But their performances were legendary, starting with the first few when they
actually performed with bags over the heads for anonymity. Like many of their
peers, they got onstage when their convictions were still a little stronger
than their sound. By the time they appeared in Decline the band was tight but burning out. (Spheeris rechristened
them the Alice Bag Band due to a dispute with ex-bassist Patricia Morrison
[later of the Gun Club]). But their gritty sound stands out against most of the
bands in the film, many of whom seem to predict the shift towards hardcore.

 

 

 

 

Velasquez,
born Alicia Armendariz, recently published Violence
Girl
(Feral House), a memoir that tells her of days growing up in a Chicano
household marked in equal measures by both abuse and support. She rejects the
second class status typically handed to women in rock and roll. She and her
friends get their minds blown by bands like the Weirdos and decide they can
play a show before they have a full set of songs. Along the way she meets
people like the Germs’ Darby Crash, with whom she has hours of philosophical
discussions.

 

Each
chapter was written as a blog post,
so none last more than a few pages. Yet each entry is filled with depth and emotion. She discusses her post-Bag life as
a teacher, including a brief, chilling period in Nicaragua.
Many of her peers have passed away, but the book avoids going into emotional
details about that, with the exception
of Crash, who overdosed early on. This straight-shooting perspective works
because it acts like a welcome respite from the overly romanticized sentiments
of some similar books. Now living in Arizona
with her husband and teenage daughter (she has two grown step-daughters), Bag/Velasquez
is currently on a reading tour of the East Coast. (See her official website, or
below, for dates.)

 

 

 

 

 

BLURT: What made you decide to write the
book?

ALICE BAG: I
was living in San Diego at the time
and a friend of mine was writing a play and interviewed me because she wanted
to learn more about what it was like to grow up in East
L.A. in the ’70s. We were having drinks and I started telling
her stories, and at some point she looked over at me and said, “You should
write a book.” And for some reason it stuck with me. When I went home that
afternoon, I told my husband. He turned to me and said, “I’ve always told you
stuff like that and you never listen to me because I’m your husband.”

        And my whole thing is, I never think of
myself as a writer. But my husband wouldn’t let it go. The next morning I woke
up and he set up a blog specifically for me so I’d write my memoirs. He said,
“Try a little bit every day.” And when I thought of it that way, it became
pretty manageable. And I think that made the writing in my book is really like
punk: It’s not polished at all, it’s concise, not a lot of filler. But you can
feel the passion.

 

It’s interesting that, while you talk about
the early Bags’ shows, you don’t talk in great detail about the songs. The
recordings only get a passing mention.

I
wasn’t really that involved in the recording process. I didn’t realize that I
could be. I thought I could go in and sing my parts and then I’ll be done. I
didn’t participate as much as I should have. I didn’t realize that I could sit
there and have input into what the drums or the bass sounded like, or how the
mix was going to end up.

        The Bags only recorded four songs. Then
for Decline of Western Civilization,
the whole set was recorded. Truthfully I was not really pleased with my
performance. I had a hard time with the movie so I never listened to the music.
At the point the band was really transitioning.

        We had a falling out with our bassist.
She was a founding member and really a big part of the group. The band was
falling apart at that point when were captured
on film and immortalized. [Laughs].
It was a painful process for me to watch it. “Oh this is what we’ve become.”

We were
not originally supposed to be in the movie. We were replacing the Go-Go’s, who
were asked to do it. They had a problem with the contract. So Penelope came to
us. I think she wanted other women in the film and that’s why she chose us. I
feel now that that it was sort of an incongruous choice. The Bags don’t seem to
fit in as well with the flow of the movie. I’m not sure that it’s a good thing
and I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing either.

        But I was talking to Robert Lopez who
was in Catholic Discipline [fronted by the late Claude Bessy, editor of Slash]. He was saying that when he sees
that film he feels that our two bands are the ones that stick out as weird and
not really fitting in with the others. And I think that’s because we were like a
throwback to the very early L.A.
scene that was very diverse and embraced all that quirkiness and weirdness. As
punk evolved it lost some of that diversity. The Decline for a long time was a difficult thing for me to watch.
I saw the way in which we didn’t fit it in which the band was breaking up… Oh
sorry – I’m going off again.

 

So you haven’t shown it to your kids?

Oh god,
no! One of the reasons I did want to write the book was my kids never knew this
side of me. I have two step-daughters who know me as the teacher who brings
them art projects to do. My daughter who was around me more knows that I play
guitar and write songs. Sometimes I go off and play with a band. None of my
girls we were really aware of my punk rock background.

 

How do you look back on the early punk
days? Did it feel like you were in the middle of a revolution?

I don’t
think I had the historical perspective. It felt revolutionary, what we were
doing. It felt radically different. But I didn’t have the context to realize
that it would spread, that it would change music. I really think it has had a
long term effect that I couldn’t have possibly imagined.

And I
think more than anything, it really had a long term influence on people that
were involved in punk. It really changes the way that you approach life, the
way you feel like you can empower yourself. You feel like you can pick up an
instrument and make a statement and your voice is heard onstage. The next step
is, “I can be involved in government.” You become very aware of your strengths.
And the concept of someone else
keeping power out of your hands is really an illusion.

        When I first got involved in music, I
thought we had to wait for somebody or some record company to discover me and
pay for my recording and put out my record and pay for my tour. When punk rock
came along I realized I don’t have to wait for all that. I don’t even have to
wait until I’m a decent player. I can just get up and do it. I think that
attitude has always been with me, once I discovered punk.

 

You wanted to play music anyway before punk
rock came along, right?

I
always wanted to be a singer because my first positive stroke came from my
music teacher in elementary school. So it always seemed like the one thing that
I was confident about and that I was good at. I wasn’t good in the way that I
thought I’d end up. I imagined myself …singing great multi-octave songs. That’s
very different from what I ended up becoming known for. [pauses] Growling and screaming. I have no regrets. I’m happy.

 

Was there any hope among the bands you knew
to “make it,” in any way or was that sacrilegious?

I think
we all wanted to not have a day job. We wanted to be working musicians. I don’t
know if we wanted much more than that. For me, the important thing was I wanted
to have a voice. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say, but I wanted to feel
like I could be heard. And also another secret goal of mine was to meet Elton
John on equal footing. So he would take me seriously and think of me as a
possible wife. [Laughs]

        My experience in glam rock [was] the
way that women got close to a man was by becoming groupies. I was coming out of
that frame of mind and realizing, hey, this isn’t working for me. If Elton John
becomes interested in me, he’s not going to take me seriously. So I have to be
a musician, someone who he respects so that he falls in love with me and
marries me.

 

It was refreshing to see you talk about
Darby Crash in a way that proved he wasn’t just some whacked-out drug addict.

First
of all he had a great sense of humor. He didn’t take himself seriously, but he
was very smart. He’d talk about anything with you. It is kind of sad that he
became a tragic figure and that’s what people focus on – the destructive side
of him. When I was close to him, he was very playful, very much about playing
pranks on people, or telling jokes or getting drunk and doing stupid things.

        People have asked me about the Germs
movie and I haven’t seen it. And I think probably one of the reasons I didn’t
see it is because I would rather remember Bobby Pyn [Crash’s original stage
name] with my own memories because that’s when he was close to me. That’s when
he was real to me. In the later years we were not close and he became very
dark. And I don’t know that we would’ve been good friends at that point. We
probably would’ve continued to argue.

 

Have a lot of old friends come out of the
woodwork for your readings?

Even
people that I haven’t met. Friends that I’ve met on Twitter and Facebook invite
me out to their city. I figure if I can get a little cluster of readings, it
can pay for itself. I figure I’m 53 years old, so I’m not
going to let this book just sit in a box in my publisher’s basement. I’m making
sure that it gets some attention.

        In the past, I didn’t record as much as
I should have. I didn’t promote things the way I should have. I’ve learned over
the years that you can’t just rely on someone who puts out the book or the
record to do the promotion. You really have to be involved in the process. I’m
really trying to do that.

        It’s been really fun for me to go
places and meet people. And it’s challenging for me to sleep in someone’s
rehearsal room. It’s fun. I was a teacher for a very long time, and I was a
stay at home mom. I’ve done so many different things, so to be back on the road
and promoting the book – it’s really exciting for me. And being out of my
element, challenging myself to do stuff that’s not necessarily comfortable.

 

 

Current Readings:

February 6: The Flywheel, 43 Main Street (In the Old Town Hall),
Easthampton, MA 01027. 8:00 pm

 

February 7:
Bluestockings, 172 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002. 212-777-6028. 7:00 pm

 

February 8: Goldenwest Café, 1105
West 36th Street, Baltimore, MD 21211-2410. 410-889-8891. Show starts at
10:00 p.m., with War on Women

 

February 9: Joint
Custody, 2337 18th St NW (at Belmont Rd NW), Washington, DC 20009

8:00 p.m.

 

February 10: The Marvelous,
208 S 40th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. 215-386-6110. 8:00 p.m. With Carmen
and 3 Jane

 

February
11:  Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street, Providence, RI
02903-3219

401-455-8000. All ages. 7:00 p.m.

 

February 12: Boston Aviary,
48 South Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

Free, all ages, starts at
8:00 p.m.

THE LADY IS A TRAMP Sharon Van Etten

Collaborating with members of the
National, the Walkmen and others, the gifted Brooklyn-based songstress finds
herself in good company.

 

BY MAX BLAU

 

In many ways,
Sharon Van Etten’s third full length Tramp – issued this week by Jagjaguwar – is a huge step forward. Not that her
first two albums Because I Was In Love and epic were anything less than
impressive, but they were introspective records that fit the Brooklyn
musician’s mindset. For Tramp, she
crafted a beautifully-produced and outward record that was born on the road and
resulted in her best work to date.

 

Throughout this
album, Van Etten collaborated with many of indie rock’s usual suspects,
including Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Bryan Devendorf (The National); Matt
Barrick (The Walkmen); Zach Condon (Beirut); Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak); Rob Moose
(Antony and the Johnsons); Julianna Barwick and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman).

 

There’s an
inordinate amount of talent spread throughout these songs, but it’s always
Sharon Van Etten at the front and center on her Jagjaguwar debut – making us
forget about her supporting cast by showing off her growth as a singer and
writer. We spoke to the Brooklyn songwriter
about her new album, working with The
National’s Aaron Dessner, Leonard Cohen’s influence and how some of the
collaborations on Tramp occurred.

 

***

 

BLURT: You’ve toured a lot to say the
least since epic came out as well as
during the making of your upcoming record Tramp. How has the experience of constantly being on the road and in transit changed
yourself and yourself?

SHARON VAN
ETTEN: [It] definitely shaped the album for sure… in between tours and writing
on tour and stuff like that. I was writing on the road and recording on all the
time off, so there weren’t really any days off in between. I started writing on
MIDI, which is where the first song came from, I actually wrote it Poland when I
was with The National in February. I wrote “Kevin’s” at someone named Kevin’s
house that I was subletting from for a little while.

        Some
of the songs are older songs I went back and reedited, because I could listen
to songs on the road without bothering other people and fixing lyrics and
things like that I didn’t feel worked before.

 

When you’re on the road, are you demoing
while you travel, or do you wait until you’re back in the studio to lay
anything down?

I usually write
when I’m in New York
when I’m at home, but I wrote a lot more this past year when I was on tour.
It’s really hard when you have all these people around you and you don’t want
to bug them because space is very precious [laughs]. I started writing keys, MIDI stuff because it’s pretty quiet and you don’t bother
people around you. You’re in your own space – it’s just something you can do in
the van. I started writing more electronic stuff in the van. Every now and then
I wrote a couple of guitar songs, but for the most part I wrote them when I had
some nights off after recording, and then I would edit them while I was tour
and work on lyrics.

 

You’ve made a fair amount of
contributions to other people’s albums, including The National, Beirut, The Antlers, and
the list goes on. What’s that experience been like for you on both sides of
collaborating? Do you think it’s helped make you a better musician?

I was lucky
enough to sing with people that just wanted me to do what I do naturally. I
wasn’t really told what to sing, and I would start off singing what I felt was
supposed to be there, and then I would be directed accordingly. There’s a lot
of freedom in it, you know, and realizing that people are asking you to sing
because it was something very specific that you did. Not just a friend asking
you to sing because you have a female voice.

        Making a plan is sometimes not a good
idea when it comes to collaborating. That was something I learned for [Tramp]. I had very vague ideas in mind
and very specific people in mind. I wanted them involved because of what I
learned from recording with other people. I wanted their intuition, you know,
because people are very unique musically in that way where they are themselves
– you hear it.

 

Looking at some of the people who
contributed to Tramp, Aaron Dessner
seems to have played the most prominent role here. How did you first meet Aaron
and why did you want him to be heavily involved in the making of the record as
a producer and musician?

It started when
I was on tour with Megafaun, and Brad Cook from Megafaun woke me up to show a
video of Justin Vernon, Aaron and Bryce Dessner covering my song “Love More” at
this music festival in Cincinnati that they
curate. After that tour with Megafaun, I was getting ready to record the album epic. I had done the song “Love More”
just as a single before I even did the record. That’s how I decided to the
record in Philly with Brian McTear, because I had such an amazing time.

        But I just set out at this time to do
the album when I got back on tour. All my friends encouraged me to reach out to
Justin, Aaron and Bryce to see if they would want to  be involved, you know, because isn’t that
what normal people would want to do? I don’t know. I did write to see if it was
something they would want to do, but they were all really, really busy – they were interested in doing something in
the future. They said to keep us in mind the next time you worked on stuff.

        But Aaron wrote me back and [was] very
specific. He just said, “Anytime you just want to demo songs out later after
you’re done with this record and you’re ready to demo more stuff, let me know.
I have a garage studio in my backyard. Or if you ever just want opinions on
what you’re working on, I would really love to hear what you’re working on
because I enjoy your music.”

        I didn’t really think anything of it,
but I recorded [epic], toured for a
little bit and then I had new songs. I followed up with him and I wrote him
again… We met up, had lunch, talked and I played him some of the new songs I
was working on. We met up a couple times like that on my time off. He said, “You
know, I already think you have a record. You should just record your record –  don’t think you need to demo songs anymore.”

 

It would be safe to say then, that he’s
there more than just your average collaborating musician – hat he played a
heightened role?

He only played
what he felt needed to be there. The core was always me and him. There’s
certain things we can’t do – we’re not drummers, we don’t play very well… we
know that’s where our weakness lies. But he can play bass and guitar really,
really well. I can sing better than him [laughs].
It was more a matter of, “What are the things that we can do best ourselves?”
and then for everything else, “Let’s find people who can do it better than us.”

 

Going from there, how did Matt Barrick
enter the picture?

It was kind of
funny. I know a few drummers that weren’t available, and Aaron knows a lot of
people. We had put his name out there, but I didn’t really see it as a
possibility or a reality. He lived in Philly and was still touring and stuff.
It was hard enough for me and Aaron to find time together. Then, we decided to
book time in that studio in Philly, Miner Street,
where I recorded epic at for a few
days where I could record live, you know, bigger sounding drums. Aaron’s studio
is great, but it’s really small – it’s a garage. You can get really tighter
guitar amp sounds, but as far as a band setting up and playing live… it’s not
possible.

        We decided to go to Philly for a few
days, and had just recorded this demo version of “Serpents,” but I did MIDI drums on it. I played it for Aaron and said “I think
I’m kind of ripping off The National on this one.” He said, “Oh that’s funny,
because we were ripping off The Walkmen. We should definitely call Matt.” [laughs]. We called Matt and laughed
because it was an accidental joke there, but he was actually free and
interested – so he came for a couple days to do drums. He only had two songs in
mind, but we ended up having him try other things because he liked the sound of
them too.

 

“Serpents” is the first single off of Tramp. Is that a song about the past
relationship that you’ve previously written about in the past for several of
your songs? If not, what’s it about?

Actually, it’s
really about a lot of things. It’s about more than one person that I’ve dated,
it’s about another friend who dated somebody, and just learning about how to
deal with those demons and letting them be…but it’s about a lot of different
people and dealing with the past in general.

 

Two of the songs on the record mention
specific names for the first time: Kevin, which you already mentioned, and
Leonard. Would you mind telling me a bit about the latter?

It’s for Leonard
Cohen, who I was listening to a lot over this time. Even though I don’t think I
sound like him… I look back and I think “yeah, I kind of sing in his style”
then in some of the other songs.

Who else were you really listening to
while making Tramp?

A lot of John
Cale, Patti Smith and early OMD. Magazine, Nick Lowe.

 

Tramp was recorded over a 10-month period from October 2010-July 2011. During that
time how often were you and Aaron getting together to work on the album?

It was different
every time. At the least, it was monthly, sometimes twice a month. Sometimes it
would be for a week, other times… we had a couple three-week stretches. But it
was really hard between his touring and my touring to find the same kind of
time. It was really hard to get into it sometimes, picking up where you left
off. I think neither of us really ever toured three weeks in a row, and then
things started to slow down a little bit, so every two weeks we’d reconnect
again.

       I had never worked in that way – I’m
used to working in one solid block of time in doing it. I was worried that it
wasn’t going to feel cohesive because of that. It ended up working out in the
opposite way.

 

Not pertaining to your record, but I feel
like sometimes people will see a long list of guest appearances on a particular
album and as a result lose sight of the overall work. So I’m curious, what do
you want to people to hear or get out of Tramp?

There’s a lot of
people on there that are my friends, or that are Aaron’s friends, that people
may think, “Oh, they got this star-studded cast.” But what it boils down to is
that they’re our friends that wanted to participate on this record. We didn’t
try to have it be starring so and so, or do this whole campaign about who’s on
the record. “This is my record and this is Aaron’s record. We worked on it
together and our friends supported us. I think we did a really good job of doing
that.”

 

SEDUCED BY… Maggie and Terre Roche

A
long-overlooked archival item from two-thirds of the Roches finds new life –
and proves its classic mettle – on a delightful reissue.

 

BY STEVE PICK

It’s not as though their 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live turned them into
superstars overnight. For many of us, though, that version of Handel’s
“Hallelujah Chorus” arranged for three parts that sounded like four, was the
break-through, the moment we realized these women were something special that
we would follow musically for the rest of our lives. I say “many,” but I mean
an all-too small “few.”

 

In the 1980s, the Roches tried hard to turn their
unconventional harmonies and melodic surprises into commercial success, but
they never broke through in a pop music marketplace which allowed for
quirkiness, but only if it had a bigger beat. Those of us who knew, however,
believed them to be stars, and I’ll never forget the discovery that there was a
prehistory to the albums released as a trio. Seductive Reasoning was released by Maggie and Terre Roche four years
before younger sister Suzzy joined them on their “debut” record.

 

Now, with most of the classic records by the three Roches
out of print, this least well-known item in their discography is given a new
lease on life; Seductive Reasoning is
reissued this week by the Real Gone Music archival label. Ten songs, all
written by oldest sister Maggie (with one co-write by Terre), all delightfully
imaginative, were recorded over the course of a year in three different
contexts. One song was produced by Paul Simon (who had given Maggie and Terre a
break earlier by hiring them to sing background on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and I can’t believe I never noticed that
before; thanks, Wikipedia).  Three were
produced by former Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Six were recorded in Alabama with the classic Muscle Shoals rhythm
section.

 

 

 

 

While adding Suzzy to the group allowed for even more
versatile vocal arrangements, it was clear from the beginning that the deep
alto of Maggie and the flexible soprano of Terre could go places rarely heard
in pop music before this record. Better musicologists than I am can probably
trace some specific Broadway show-tune influences in the ways Maggie’s tunes
meander around rhythmically and melodically, not to mention her love for
internal rhyme schemes and puns. There is also little doubt that Paul Simon’s
records of the time served as a partial template, especially in the ways song
arrangements could be tightly organized while sounding so off-the-cuff.

 

It is, though, the all-encompassing Roche-ness of this
record that makes it such a delight to hear for the first time in decades.
“Underneath the Moon” is as crazy-quilt in structure and theme as the best
later material, such as “The Married Men” or “Nurds.” Maggie’s piano drives the
song, and the sisters sweetly croon with vicious irony, “Good men want a virgin
so don’t you give yourself too soon / ‘Cept
in an emergency like underneath the moon.” (Three out of ten songs have moon
references, which may have been a sign of the proto-astrological 70s times, or
may have just simply been acknowledgement that Maggie’s voice is uniquely
suited to pronouncing that long oo sound.)

 

“Wigglin’ Man” is a folk sing-along with bizarre imagery and
words that sound irresistible. “Malachy’s” is a song about dreaming of the big
time which doesn’t sound remotely interested in pandering to those who would
offer it. “If You Empty Out All Your
Pockets You Could Not Make the Change” is a nasty put-down with vocal gusto
provided by both sisters and backing vocalists the Oak Ridge Boys, of all
sources. And Maggie’s penchant for cutting to the emotional chase in matters of
the heart, while still enjoying the play of words, is apparent in “Down the
Dream” and “Burden of Proof.”

 

 

 

 

Seductive
Reasoning
never had a prayer of cracking the charts back in 1975, but
it still sounds fresh all these years later. The string arrangements on the
Samwell-Smith produced songs, the vibrant plunk of the Muscle Shoals sound (on
“Wigglin’ Man” augmented by none other than Johnny Gimble on fiddle), and the
delirious exuberance of Simon’s production all serve the Roche sisters well.
There was no attempt to force Maggie
and Terre into commercial corners, but to present these clever bursts of songcraft
and beauty in their best light.  These
songs do not deserve to be forgotten, so kudos to whoever decided to rescue
them from the ashbin of musical history. Now let’s get going on the other
missing Roches catalogue items.

 

VISION THING Joseph Arthur

On an audacious new
double album – offered to fans as a free download, no less – the
singer-songwriter explores the intersections of music and spoken word.

 

BY ALLI MARSHALL

 

 

 

You don’t listen to a Joseph Arthur album so much as live with it. Arthur’s songs work on
many levels, revealing meaning in layers. At first they’re complex
orchestrations of loop pedals (he uses tons of Moog equipment) and captured atmosphere, and then they’re sonic paintings
of emotional topography. And then they’re songs with all the potential to
remain for years, decades, forever on mix tapes. And then they’re Arthur’s
secrets told without shame to the universe to do with what it will. We the
listeners are Arthur’s confessors, even as it turned out he’s actually giving
away our secrets. 

This is all the more true for Redemption City, the Brooklyn-based
singer/songwriter’s latest release. Coming less than a year on the heels of
2011’s The Graduation Ceremony (in
fact, Redemption‘s
final track, “Travel As Equals (Reprise)” shares the melody of Graduation‘s title track), it’s an
astonishing feat of recording. Two dozen tracks. And all available for free
download. But these aren’t mere remixes or B-sides. Not just a little something
for the fans. Redemption is a staggering body of work, nearly all spoken word pieces, and possibly
one of the most word-dense recordings even released.

Some of the tracks have been appearing in Arthur’s live shows. “Yer Only
Job” was first attached as a spoken word piece to “Almost Blue” from Graduation (check the below clip from
last summer in Asheville, NC),
while “I Miss the Zoo” (also performed on his 2011 tour while
live-painting on stage; also below is a clip from Chicago) recounts in heartbreakingly
beautiful verse his experience with addiction.

 

 

 

 

 

But Redemption expands beyond that. These are not just poetic musings, not just spoken word
extras. They go deeper: true poetry from an age when poets were rock stars.
When Lord Byron and Percy Shelley spend a summer dreaming of Gothic monsters
and penning fevered words. Arthur is our Byron, our romantic bard. But he’s
also fully engaged in the now, marrying verse to electro dream-pop. And he’s
not just waxing poetic; he’s calling out a flawed system – something he seems
especially passionate about. His poem “We Stand As One,” written for
those involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t appear on Redemption,
but “Travel As Equals,” which he performed on Late Show with David Letterman earlier this month, carries a
similar tone: “Bloom disgust and class divide, I saw it written on the
wall, The only way we can survive, We travel as equals or not at all.”
(It’s possible that some molecules of the late political spoken word poet Sekou
Sundiata, still bouncing around this plane, merged with Arthur’s already
over-active creative mind.)

 

 

While Redemption doesn’t float amidst dappled light and lovelorn ache of Graduation, it’s not without lush soundscapes, rumpled sheets and
dove-gray mornings. “There With Me,” words nearly obscured behind
electronic scratches and ethereal chatter, is as spiritual as it is romantic.
“Touched” moves even closer to the realm of ecstatic love. Arthur
talks about himself in second person (“you get up, have your coffee by
your canvas, throw yourself against the wall”) before launching into some
larger, braver realization of self and suffering as part of the bigger picture.

Both musically and thematically, Redemption is a work of risks and dares, an artist
not just pushing boundaries but hammering through walls. Arthur creates beauty
without playing nice. The itchy, staticy “Kandinski” (sic) is a
nightmarish art history lesson, trawling modern works for meaning, or the
unraveling of meaning. (“Kandinski is in my room. So is Edgar Allen Poe.
The shadows dream in color. And that is their final revenge.”) “I Am
the Mississippi”
looms heavy. Renowned producer Daniel Lanois (who is not involved with this
project) could have been in the room along with his penchant for reverb and
echoes and ghosts. 

And there’s “Night Clothes,” a sexy, aphotic prowl through the clank
and churn of some concrete underbelly. It reminds a bit of “Radio
Euphoria” from Arthur’s 2008 EP Crazy
Rain
. Not that the two songs sound the same, but there’s a revisiting of themes, which Arthur tends to from album
to album. It’s like he’s less concerned with making cool, current music and
instead is processing and evolving through his art, before our eyes (and ears). 

That Redemption is digital and free speaks to this. Few artists could sell (through labels and
mainstream outlets) what is, in essence, a double album of spoken word pieces.
By deciding to go independent, Arthur freed himself from those constraints. The
11-plus minute “Surrender to the Storm,” all washes of guitar and
high, blithe vocals, is a fine example of what a musician can do when he frees
himself.

Then again, “It takes a lot of time to live in the moment,” Arthur
says in a song of the same title. With Redemption it’s clear that he’s trying his damnedest
to do just that.

 

Download Redemption City for free in MP3 or FLAC format at Arthur’s
website
(donations are accepted, of
course, and there is also a limited edition vinyl version for sale).

 

Elsewhere on the BLURT
site, read our interview with Arthur in which he discusses his (literal)
intersection of music and visual art.

HOT ‘N’ GROOVY Hot Knives

The criminally overlooked Bay Area band gets a welcome reappraisal
thanks to an Australian label’s diligence.

 

BY RON HART

It would have been easy for Danny Mihm and Tim Lynch
to have transferred all that manic, scrappy energy they put out as members of
the seminal San Francisco psych-garage outfit the Flamin’ Groovies into the
context of their mid-‘70s follow-up act the Hot Knives, a group the late, great
Greg Shaw of Bomp! Magazine fame once
hailed as “the best thing happening” in their city at the time.

 

However, the music guitarist Lynch and drummer Mihm
helped create under the Knives name with their partners, bassist Ed Wilson and
the brother-sister singing duo of Michael and Debra Houpt, was more of a
creative nod to the acid-tinted folk-rock vibe that illuminated Frisco’s
Haight-Ashbury scene during the Summer of Love, albeit with the kind of
electrified muscle that helped to put over the Groovies on such classic
platters as Supersnazz and Teenage Head. Their vibe was as much Notorious Byrd Brothers as it was Nuggets, one that was conservative
enough to have the son of Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar
Weinberger financially support the band for a time, yet wild enough to headline
Mabuhay Gardens, the notorious Bay Area club that gave birth to the West Coast
punk movement by booking groups like Dead Kennedys, The Nuns and The Avengers.

 

Yet during the Knives’ brief stretch of time together, the outfit only saw
the release of two 7-inches – “Lovin’ You” b/w “Around the
World” and a great cover of Moby Grape’s “Hey Grandma” with the
original “I Hear The Wind Blow” on the flip – hit shop shelves before
they split up by the end of the Me Decade. But they did manage to record an
entire LP in 1976, a 14-song set that contained both singles, their b-sides and
ten more gems, including a buoyant tear through “Lies” by The
Knickerbockers. It is a fascinating document of pure proto-Jefferson Airplane
groove that, unfortunately, was shelved upon its intended street date and never
heard about again.

 

 

 

That is, of course, until the folks at the recently revived Australian
punk label Grown Up
Wrong!
rescued Hot Knives from 35
years of back closet purgatory with the release of this outstanding first
generation issue featuring extensive packaging loaded with old poster art and
concert flyers and educational liner notes written by longtime BLURT
contributor Jud Cost, who also played a key role in hunting down this rock ‘n’
roll rarity. And having been digitally mastered from the original tapes, it
sounds as though it was recorded last week. 

 

Veteran British music journalist Kris Needs has hailed Hot Knives as “a seriously exciting
discovery”. And when you yourself dig into the way by which this unheralded
extension of the Flamin’ Groovies family tree bridges the gap between the Bay
City music scenes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s a strong chance you will
certainly concur with those sentiments.

 

GIRL, INTERRUPTED Lizzy Grant Becomes Lana Del Rey

2009: young Garden State dancing queen begins making herself into This Year’s Model. “One
time I dyed my hair brown, but I got in some trouble for that.”

 

BY THE EDITORS, w/SARAH GRANT

 

This week Lana Del Rey’s “official” long-playing debut was
issued by Interscope. Titled Born to Die and
preemptively buoyed by the success
of 2011 single “Video Games” b/w “Blue Jeans,” it’s already being greeted by a
deafening, though wildly contradictory, chorus of cheers and jeers signifying
the songbird’s rapid blog-fueled ascent and the accompanying backlash.

 

 

 

 

The New York Times,
for example, last week dismissed the record as “an anticlimax” full of underwhelming
and slow-to-the-point-of-plodding tunes; the newspaper ultimately concluded, “Ms.
Del Rey has an idea about her presentation, which counts for something – to
some it counts for everything – but her singing still sounds like a road test.”
Then on Monday, erstwhile indie rock blog-turned-hipster-tastemaker Pitchfork awarded a miserly 5.5 (out of
10) rating and a rambling, navel-gazing review that focused on the record’s
inherent femininity (or lack thereof), writing that Born to Die “never allows tension or complexity into the mix, and
its take on female sexuality ends up feeling thoroughly tame. For all of its
coos about love and devotion, it’s the album equivalent of a faked orgasm – a
collection of torch songs with no fire.” Spin,
likewise, see-sawed between jargon-laden j’accuse (for not living up to the very hype that media outlets such as Spin fueled) and lyric-analysis
incoherence (the review quoted extensively from the songs, tossing around snarky
terms like “Miley Cyrus noir” while conveniently avoiding the fact that in pop
music, lyrics almost always take a back seat to the beats and the hooks – and
if you don’t believe that, try this one on for size from a few seasons ago: “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah/ She loves
you yeah, yeah, yeah…”

 

“Anticlimax.” “Faked orgasm.” Wow. Why not just call the gal
a hooker and be done with it, folks.

 

(Aside: To
be totally fair to Spin, the review
did open up promisingly enough, with a contextual point well-worth restating.
Offered their writer, “‘Bob Dylan’ is
not his real name. The ‘Ramones’ were not related. ‘Sun Ra’ was from Alabama,
not Saturn…. Yes, Internet, and God bless you for devoting most of the past
half-year exclusively to pointing this out, Lana Del Rey is a pose, a persona,
a version 2.0, at least, the contrivance of a messy, wayward, unformed,
aspiring pop star rummaging through closets and clutching at borrowed pearls.” Keep
all that in mind, and read on.)

 

 

***

 

Over in Britain – where last year bloggers and critics alike
embraced Del Rey as if she were the Second Coming of Morrissey; at one point CDR
promotional copies of the aforementioned single were trading hands on eBay in
England for upwards of $125 – The
Guardian
was considerably more generous and even expressed sympathy for the
Internet barbecue Del Rey had been subjected to. Awarding the album 4 out of 5
stars, they lauded its “magnificent melodies” and hooks that “sink deep into
the listener’s skin… What it is, is beautifully turned pop music, which is more
than enough.”

 

Meanwhile, back in the State our very own Contributing
Editor A.D. Amorosi weighed in on Born To
Die
a couple of days ago, and he was also more forgiving with his 7-out-of-10
star review in which he first chastised the media for mounting impossible
expectations of Del Rey, then – while noting that it’s a far from perfect
record – it’s “produced with weirdly atmospheric hip hop warmth by Emile Haynie
[and] has more hits than misses and more solidly strange fabulously femme
fatale interludes than naff ones.”

 

Far be it from BLURT, then, to not jump on the media bandwagon as we troll for eyeballs. Mindful
that “Lana Del Rey” is an intermittent trending topic and a hot search engine
term this week, we decided to dig up an early story about Del Rey that we
published in the fall of 2009, in issue #7, as part of a series of short,
fashion-forward profiles of then-up-and-coming female musicians. At the time
Del Rey was still performing under the name Lizzy Grant and had released one
EP, Kill Kill, in 2008. Yet as the
title of the full length – Lana del Rey
aka Lizzy Grant
(Five Points Records) – that was subsequently released on
iTunes in 2009 suggests – she was already in the process of remaking herself. Interviewed
by contributor Sarah Grant (no relation), she already knew what she wanted, but
didn’t seem 100% sure of how to achieve it.

 

***

 

Lana Del Rey/Lizzy Grant
2009 Interview:

 

“I’m in the process of a name change,” Lizzy Grant whispers.
The transformation from New York City bar star to glamour girl “Lana Del Rey”
has not been easy for the New Jersey native, who grew up looping around The
Cyclone and idolizing Elvis like a teenager in the 1950s.

 

Del Rey’s October-bound album has been in the works for over
a year and a half, which has given her a chance to experiment with the sound
that works for her voice. On “Yayo” she drags her airy vocals up and down the
minor scale, while slinking around in bed sheets, looking remarkably like one
of her fashion icons, the doe-eyed Tuesday Weld. A more recent recording,
“Hundred Dollar Bill,” has her sounding like a retro Gwen Stefani, singing
deadpan against a thick hip-hop beat.

 

When the saucy Lana Del Rey reverts back to 24-year old
Lizzy Grant, she admits to owning an embarrassing amount of self-help books:
“It’s gotten to the point where I can’t hide it anymore!” she giggles. She is
also hesitant to call herself a “blonde bombshell,” despite all her
Harlow-esque come ons. “One time I dyed my hair brown,” she says, “but I got in
some trouble for that.”

 

***

 

Such prophetic words. Just the same, the David
Kahne-produced record failed to make an impact, and as every current Del Rey
profile now takes pains to point out, it was unceremoniously yanked from the
market after a couple of months. (Scroll to the bottom of this article to view
a list of early Del Rey/Grant tracks and links to downloads, courtesy the “Lana
Del Rey aka Lizzy Grant” Tumblr blog
. Note that according to the BBC, Lana del Rey aka Lizzy Grant will
probably resurface officially soon, as Del Rey has recently purchased the
rights to the master tapes. “I’m re-releasing it, maybe in late summer,” she
told the BBC
.)

 

 

 

 

Del Rey/Grant next basically disappeared from view, busied
herself writing new material and creating a series of quirky/charming home
music videos. After the “Video Games” song and video went viral, the rest is
history – including, it should be noted, all manner of piling on by members of
the media and blogosphere who questioned the woman’s “authenticity” and groused
about her “overnight success.” This despite the fact that Del Rey had been
performing since she was 18, had both and EP and an LP under her belt, and
evidently decided to learn from the failure of the latter and bear down on
becoming a stronger artist.

 

It will be awhile, of course, before she attains genuine pop
diva status (if at all), and there’s no doubt that her artistic credibility has
taken a considerable hit. The backlash already feels like overkill; even
mainstream outlets like Time and USA Today set their best assassins on Del
Rey, hot on the trail for the pungent odor of faked orgasms. The young lady may
or may not be stunned by the level of attention; she may or may not have
colluded with her handlers in shaping her current image to result in some of
the most brazen manipulation of the entertainment media we’ve witnessed in
recent years. But if she’s smart, and there’s a strong likelihood she is,
she’ll figure out a way to leverage all the attention for the long haul.

 

Born to Die is everywhere this week. You won’t have
any trouble locating it. Let’s rewind to Del Rey’s pre-Lana period and decide
for yourself how all that fits into the contemporary picture.

 

(Below image is the
actual page from issue #7 of BLURT. Note how the singer’s first name is
spelled, per her publicist at the time. By early 2010 most profiles were using
the alternate “Lizzy” spelling.)

 

 

 

 

DISCOGRAPHY & DOWNLOADS
(source: Tumblr)

 

Demos as Lizzy
Grant (2007-2008)

Disco (originally
billed as “Lizzy Grant and the Phenomena”)
For K Part 2 (ditto; later
featured on Lana Del Rey aka Lizzy Grant)
Elvis
Axl Rose Husband

Kill Kill (EP as Lizzy Grant, 2008 – these songs are
also on the LP)

Kill Kill
Yayo
Gramma (Blue Ribbon Sparkler
Trailer Heaven)

Lana Del Rey aka Lizzy Grant (LP, 2009)
Queen of the Gas Station
Oh Say Can You See
Jump
Mermaid Motel
Raise Me Up (Mississippi
South)

Pawn Shop Blues
Brite Lites
Put Me In A Movie
Smarty

Born To Die (upcoming LP, 2012)
Video Games
Blue Jeans
Born To Die

Miscellaneous Demos and B-Sides
Lolyta
Hundred Dollar Bill
What Makes Us Girls
Driving in Cars With Boys
On Our Way
National Anthem
Kinda Outta Luck
Kinda Outta Luck (Video
Version)

You Can Be The Boss
Video Games (Video Version)
Diet Mtn. Dew
Daddy Issues (feat. Aaron
LaCrate)

Trash (Live)
End of the World (Live)

 

 

Photo credit (top) Edward
Smith