November 24, 2010

Libra (Part One)

Much of America heard about the death of John Lennon from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football or from Tom Brokaw on the Today Show the next morning. I was a 13-year-old delivering the NY Daily News.

I remember the news death of John Lennon and the week following it extremely well considering all the things I’ve forgotten over the years.

One cold and early Tuesday morning, early in December, 1980, I was delivering the Daily News for my neighbor Ralph who couldn’t deliver his “paper route” that morning. (Yes, back then we still had young people delivering newspapers at 5 in the morning!)

Riding my bicycle and throwing the folded, bagged and rubber-banded papers to the doorsteps, most of the fifty or so papers I had to deliver were in garden apartment complexes on a fairly busy road called Liberty Street.

As always, when I filled in for these morning deliveries, I took notice of the cover story as I was bagging the papers: “John Lennon Slain Here; ex-Beatle shot.”
I knew the name Lennon because a month or two earlier, around the time of my birthday in late September (Lennon was a Libra, like myself, you see). I had received a bunch of “hand-me-downs” from an older cousin. My cousin was also a huge Elvis and Beatles fan and had sent a few Elvis and Beatles 45’s along with the sweaters and corduroys whose hem would have to be let down.

Having just turned thirteen years old, I had certainly heard of The Beatles. At that age though, my previous exposure was only through promotion for things like ‘Beatlemania’ on Broadway and the promotion of the cheesy Sergeant Pepper film with the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton.

Listening to the records from my cousin during the month of October and November was my real introduction to the band. It was also how I immediately knew the “Lennon” to which the headline was referring because most of the songs had the familiar “Lennon-McCartney” songwriting credit below them of course. I had also watched the film “Help” (or was it “A Hard Days Night”?) when it was aired on one of the local channels sometime that Fall.

So as little as I really knew about the man, I knew that this was simply very sad news.

I was not so young that I didn’t know that people kill for all sorts of bad reasons. After all, a few summers earlier all of the neighborhood kids were fascinated with the ‘Son of Sam’ murders. But this was different. The ‘Sam’ killings were the random efforts of a psychotic. This was the targeted killing of a well-known husband and father who, from what I was reading, was simply on his way home from work.

While the story was in the back of my mind the entire morning at school, it hadn’t really pre-occupied me. It was the typical Tuesday eighth grade experience, including the (dreadful) daily reading from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer which our teacher, Miss Rotini, would read for about twenty minutes every day before lunch.

That Tuesday was different though, because before she dismissed us for lunch, Miss Rotini, a 60-something year old, unapproachable but entirely adequate (for what I knew back then) teacher gave us a warning. “You’re going to go home later and hear news about a man who lived a life of doing drugs and not following the rules,” she said. “He questioned the good people who lead this country, but don’t let them fool you –there’s a phrase ‘what goes around comes around’ and sometimes you pay a price for not following the rules.” She said nothing more or less and most of the kids didn’t even know who she was talking about because she didn’t allow him the dignity of even mentioning his name.

Immediately, I wondered – had I misread the newspaper? Had he overdosed on drugs or been killed trying to overthrow the government? During the short walk home for lunch, I wondered the whole time how I could have misunderstood that morning’s newspaper.

Of course I hadn’t misunderstood and I realized that shortly after as I heard more about what had happened and learned more about the life of the man.

And by presenting the story to me this way, my teacher taught me an early lesson. That was to always question, at least in my own mind, the information I was being given. Later, i learned that this rule was especially relevant if it came from the people who are the elected leaders of this country.

Imagine that.


Best Music of 2009

February 11, 2010

I know that many of you are too busy to even buy/download or listen ten albums in a year, but if you know me, you know I try to find the time.

Feel free to listen to some samples at Amazon or elsewhere online and consider giving them a spin. No particular order — my top ten, and then some, for 2009:

With cameos by Calexico, M. Ward, and the New Pornographers, Case’s fifth studio effort, Middle Cyclone (Anti), finds its heart in the middle of America. Probably my favorite album from the past year, I cannot say enough good things about it. Amazon named Cyclone its best album of the year, and continues to price it so low that you can’t afford not to get it.

Wilco: WILCO

The Chicago sextet’s seventh studio album, Wilco (Nonesuch) is a modest collection of solid, well-written songs. Turn it up!

A brand new studio album from Bob Dylan, Together Through Life (Sony), finds Dylan successfully collaborating with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on all but one of the songs here. A few clunkers, but all in all worthwhile.

Dan Aeurbach: KEEP IT HID
As the frontman for blues rock duo the Black Keys, Auerbach is known for his powerful songwriting and guitar playing. His first solo effort, Keep It Hid (Nonesuch), highlights the simpler moments. Not a “wimpier Black Keys album” as some have said, but a solid collection of well-crafted songs.

The Avett Brothers: I AND LOVE AND YOU (Sony)
American roots music put forth by the two multi-talented brothers from North Carolina. I And Love And You is their sixth full-length album since their debut in 2001 and their first major label release. The Avett Brothers’ words paint pictures and short stories in your mind and they do it extremely well. The three words that the title refers to, when said from the heart, can rock your world.

The Decemberists: THE HAZARDS OF LOVE

The band’s fifth album, began as an attempt to write a title song for The Hazards of Love (Capitol), Anne Briggs’ fabled 1964 EP of unaccompanied singing, but seems to have grown out of control. This 17-track concept album tells the story of a fair maiden called Margaret who is ravished by a shape-shifting demon. Prog-Folk concept album is more than a bit self-indulgent, but still one of the best releases by far. Check out some samples.

Bruce Springsteen: WORKIN’ ON A DREAM

Apparently Springsteen is dreaming that it is the mid-1960’s in Phil Spector’s America, and it works for him on this, his sixteenth studio album. Like 2007’s Magic, these sounds could be coming from a mono am radio during the Johnson administration as easily as an iPod during the first days of Obama.

The title track and song “This Life,” feature some of the best vocal harmonies this side of the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. A few tracks have an obvious Byrds influence — the guitars on “Life Itself” sound like they are right out of “Eight Miles High.”

Much like Magic before it, I’m not happy with what sounds like over-compression on the Brendan O’Brien production, but O’Brien and Springsteen insist that it was the sound they were going for. Musically, it is a gem and worth seeking out, no matter which decade you may have come of age. (Sony)

Andrew Bird: NOBLE BEAST
This record is a constant pleasure, offering the sort of tunefully creative pop that combines some of the emotionalism of Belle and Sebastian with the whimsy of Badly Drawn Boy and the croon of Rufus Wainwright. He stumbles here and there with some uneven lyrics. The songs on Noble Beast (Fat Possum)are a bit complex, with unexpected left turns and unusual structures and they take a few listens to sink in. I highly recommend the US vinyl version.

(Geffen Records) For those of you, like me, who have been carrying around the cassette of this show for over fifteen years, this official 2-Disc set is a Godsend. Wait — fifteen years!?! An impressive, if not essential look at their catalog back in the day. Highlights include songs from the then forthcoming In Utero album, including the first ever performance of “Tourette’s” and the soon to become classic “All Apologies.” The DVD , has a 5.1 Surround Mix by Robert Ludwig and might be a better option for the A/V geeks -Audiophiles among us.

Monsters of Folk: MONSTERS OF FOLK

For those caught unaware, Monsters of Folk is comprised of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, singer/songwriter M.Ward and producer Mike Mogis, four of this generation’s most critically acclaimed artists. Great teamwork here recalls the happier days of CSNY or the one-off Thorns release of a few years back. All four songwriters sharing vocals and songwriting duties. M. Ward is a wonder: an amazing multi-instrumentalist with an interesting, quirky voice and appreciation of musical history. His solo album, also released this year, is worth seeking out. Monstrous and folkie, I was introduced to this via WFUV-FM. I give this my highest recommends. (Shangri La)

Tons of great reissued/legacy stuff this year, most of which I haven’t had a chance to hear…

    2009’s Top Five Legacy Releases (Live or Compilations)

(Mono and Stereo) You may have heard something about these tuned-up compact discs…

Ella Fitzgerald: TWELVE NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD 4-CD box set of 73 completely unreleased live recordings from Ella in her prime.

The Doors: LIVE IN NEW YORK 6-CD box set that contains all of the Doors’ performances in their entirety recorded in 1970 at the Felt Forum in New York. All four shows were mixed and mastered by the band’s long-time engineer, Bruce Botnick.

Nirvana: LIVE AT READING (See above)

Perhaps too mammoth for me to digest in less than a year, I honestly haven’t listened to quite all of it yet. 8-Disc CD Set (or 10-disc DVD or Blu-Ray) appears to be the definitive, chronological survey of his entire body of work. Volume I covers the period from his earliest recordings with the Squires in 1963, through to his classic 1972 album, Harvest. I’m sure that whichever format you end up getting this in is fine., but if you’re a classic rock collector, you definitely should pick it up…



With Kurt Cobain long gone and after eight years of George Bush’s America, PJ starts its own label, with their ninth album as its first release. With longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, the boys still want to stick it to “the man” and “corporate America,” even though it is a Target exclusive release. A marked improvement over recent offerings, dig out your 90’s flannel shirt for “Amongst the Waves” and “The Fixer.” “Just Breathe” might be the greatest love song Pearl Jam has ever written.

Forgive me! I had a busy year with changing jobs, getting married and buying a house, all in the matter of six months. I haven’t listened to this, but its got to be great, no?

Regina Spektor: FAR
Don’t just write her off as another girl with a piano. The emergence of the Moscow-born, Bronx-raised Regina Spektor is a great story and this, her third album. Mid-tempo and pleasant, there’s alot to like here.

Various Artists: DARK WAS THE NIGHT
31 exclusive tracks were recorded for this compilation. Available as a 2-CD, 3-LP and will benefit the Red Hot Organization – an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. Contributors include Andrew Bird, Iron and Wine, Spoon and Conor Oberst. The few tracks that I’ve heard sound terrific and there was a great deal of buzz around this collection at the end of the year.

A sort-of sequel to his widely-acclaimed 1978 release Stardust, American Classic revisits some old favorite standards, covered previously by Nelson and others. Unremarkable, but solid. I think it is a “grower.” Just avoid the vinyl version. Ticky and surface noise, the bastards. If you’re going to do vinyl, do it right, for the love of all that’s holy.

Yeah, so I’m pretty bad at keeping my “Top Ten” lists to ten.

Lost My Driving Wheel

September 27, 2009

It’s amazing, how quickly our daily routine can be interrupted, or worse, shattered by a significant event. We are often forced to be strong when we are actually at our most vulnerable, such as in cases of loss or grief, where we need to support others and postpone our own inevitable mourning.

The words to this haunting song sound as if they could have been written a hundred years ago. Like Hank Williams’ “So Lonesome I Could Cry,” from earlier in the century, the evocative and solitary lyrics of “Driving Wheel” are undeniably American, despite its writer’s British roots. So literate, you find yourself listening intently. So sad, you find yourself sobbing for this person as if he were sitting in front of you.

With a steam locomotive, a driving wheel is a powered wheel which is driven by the locomotive’s pistons (or turbine, in the case of a steam turbine locomotive.) It is used in the song as an analogy that most of us can easily identify with.

Tom Rush (1970), Roger McGuinn (1973), Cowboy Junkies(1993) and Jayhawks (2000) are among the artists who have performed this song, originally written by Canadian singer-songwriter David Wiffen in the late 1960’s.

Wiffen originally released it on his early 1970’s album. The Cowboy Junkies’ version above is great, albeit a little sleepy. Vinyl collectors are encouraged to hunt down Wiffen’s original 1971 LP…


Lost My Driving Wheel
Well I just came up on the midnight special how about that
My car broke down in Texas she stopped dead in her tracks
Just called to tell you that I need you
Just called to tell you how I feel
I feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel
Feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel
Took my money on the night train what a terrible fight
I gave my promise I would be there with you by Saturday night
I wanna tell you that I need you baby
I need to tell you just how I feel
I feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel
Feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel
Can’t say much in a phone call baby you know how it is
I have to tell you one short thing oh won’t you listen to this
I want to tell you that I love you baby
I want to tell you just how I feel
I feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel
Feel like some old engine lost my drivin’ wheel

-David Wiffen

Magic and Loss

September 11, 2009


When you pass through the fire
you pass through humble
You pass through a maze of self doubt
When you pass through humble
the lights can blind you
Some people never figure that out
You pass through arrogance you pass through hurt
You pass through an ever present past
and it’s best not to wait for luck to save you
Pass through the fire to the light

As you pass through the fire
your right hand waving
there are things you have to throw out
That caustic dread inside your head
will never help you out
You have to be very strong
’cause you’ll start from zero
over and over again
And as the smoke clears
there’s an all consuming fire
lying straight ahead

They say no one person can do it all
but you want to in your head
But you can’t be Joyce
so what is left instead
You’re stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment
This wonderful fire started up again

When you pass through humble
when you pass through sickly
When you pass through
I’m better than you all
When you pass through
anger and self deprecation
and have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
and there’s a door up ahead not a wall

As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
trying to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
you cannot remain the same
And if the building’ burning
move towards that door
but don’t put the flames out
There’s a bit of magic in everything
and then some loss to even things out

Written by Lou Reed


This story comes from an online friend of mine, from a few years back. The local waitress still tells the story…

Keith Richards lives a good part of the year in Weston, CT, next to the town of Westport. There’s a mom-and-pop coffee/donut shop in town. Everybody goes.

One day around opening, like 5:30 a.m., Keith ambles in and orders takeout coffee and donuts. God only knows what he did the previous night, but he was bleary-eyed and dressed in his usual rags outfit. A local sitting at the counter noticed and insisted on paying. “Thanks mate,” said Keith, obviously thinking it was a Stones fan.

The exact same thing happened a week later. Same guy, same thanks from Keith. The owner goes over to the guy after Keith leaves and says something like, “Ya know, he can afford to pay his own way. The Rolling Stones make millions.”

“Ohmigod,” says the customer. “I thought he was homeless.”

Alanis Morissette

Alanis Morissette is a great, but I think we can all agree that her career would have benefited from a lethal overdose after her 1995 debut album.

In addition to Morissette, Michael Penn (Aimee Mann’s husband) is a very talented and busy singer-songwriter who has had one hit with “No Myth” but is otherwise missing in action from the mainstream.

Which one-hit wonders are some of your favorites who never really went beyond one song or album?

When the bubble bursts

June 26, 2009


“What are you going to do when the bubble bursts?” was the question – a running gag, really – that the Beatles would often field from reporters at press conferences in the early days. “We’ll burst with it, ha-ha,” the boys would sometimes sarcastically reply. John once replied with “I haven’t a clue, you know. I’m still looking for the bubble.”

With Michael Jackson’s death this week, the bubble is back in the spotlight and apparently alive and well. While Marilyn, Elvis, the Beatles and many others have resided in the celebrity bubble, Jackson may have been the only modern day celebrity so popular or prolific, to still be there. (Just think of the current crop of celebrities whose photos are taken as they run out to the supermarket for some Ben & Jerry’s at midnight in sweatpants and Ray-Ban’s.)

Plastic surgery made him a bizarre laughing stock for the final years of his eccentric adult life. At the same time, his wealth allowed him anything he wished, giving way to the “Wacko Jacko” persona which was reinforced by the later interviews with outlets such as ITV/Martin Bashir and CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes.

Jackson and many other of the ‘usual suspect’ dead celebrities may have been born to be great, but at the end of the day they were still human and flawed.

This leads me back to the bubble of my first paragraph. With all drug-related celebrity deaths, from Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley to Heath Ledger, the news media always locks in on the question of why these people couldn’t simply “see all of this coming.”

I always laugh at this assertion. (“Hah!” I say) If humans were only wired that way! If we only concerned ourselves with the far-reaching consequences of our actions as easily as that so we could “see it all coming.” But, of course, we cannot.

Most non-celebrities, including myself, are in self-imposed bubbles of their own. Whether it is being oblivious to our own bad health habits, or other behaviors or simply failing to see things that are right in front of our own eyes, it is often difficult for many of us to see beyond our own bubble.

While we all may not have habits and behaviors which include ingesting enormous amounts of pharmaceuticals, the basic premise is the same – each of us is essentially a cigarette smoker. We aren’t bad, mean, selfish people. We just have a bad habit or three.

So, what about you and your bad habits?

What are you going to do when the bubble bursts?