Category Archives: Uncategorized

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

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*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

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10 more of the best Steely Dan lines

Presented once again without comment or context, 10 more magnificent lines from Steely Dan songs:

“Sure, he’s a jolly roger, until he answers for his crimes”
My Rival (Gaucho)

A tower room at Eden Roc, his golf at noon for free/Brooklyn owes the charmer under me
Brooklyn Owes the Charmer Under Me (Can’t Buy a Thrill)

Watch the sun go brown/Smoking cobalt cigarettes
King of the World (Countdown to Ecstasy)

I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets
Deacon Blues (Aja)

She takes the taxi to the good hotel/Bon marché as far as she can tell
Haitian Divorce (The Royal Scam)

Alan owns a chain of Steamer Heavens/And Barry is the software king
What a Shame About Me (Two Against Nature)

Well I hear the whistle but I can’t go/I’m gonna take her down to Mexico
She said “oh no, Guadalajara won’t do”
My Old School (Countdown to Ecstasy)

When Black Friday comes I’ll fly down to Muswellbrook/Gonna strike all the big red words from my little black book
Black Friday (Katy Lied)

You were a roller skater/You gonna show me later/Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening
Everything You Did (The Royal Scam)

Maybe it’s the skeevy look in your eyes/Or that your mind has turned to applesauce
The dreary architecture of your soul
Cousin Dupree (Two Against Nature)

Thanks to Nick Elvin for some more killer suggestions.

Double Live Gonzos, part 2: Miles of Aisles – Joni Mitchell

Permit me to get my obligatory annual Joni post in early this year. My apologies that this is slightly late. I wrote most of it on Friday and Saturday and then got sick and have been too fuzzy to finish it until now.

Largely recorded over four nights at the Universal Amphitheatre in August 1974, Miles of Aisles capped a very good year for Joni Mitchell. It was the year Mitchell broke into the Hot 100 for the first time as a performer, going Top 10 with the single Help Me, and going all the way to number two on the Billboard 200 album chart with Court and Spark. In short, it was the year that Mitchell became, briefly, a pop singer.

She did it by presenting her music with fuller instrumentation than it had had previously. Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Buffy Sainte-Marie had tended to make lusher recordings of Mitchell’s songs than their author did; little surprise, then, that they had the hits while Joni had to settle for the bedsit adulation.* When she made the fateful decision to hire members of the LA Express and the Crusaders to play on Court and Spark, and give a contemporary pop-jazz sheen to Help Me, Free Man in Paris, Trouble Child and the rest, it didn’t just make her songs chart ready; it also allowed for the possibility of her playing (more or less) rock ‘n’ roll shows to (more or less) rock ‘n’ roll audiences.

Miles of Aisles isn’t quite that. A double album, its first and last sides showcase Joni and the LA Express, while the second and third sides feature Mitchell with guitar, piano and dulcimer, and only minimal input from Tom Scott on flute and soprano sax.

The record follows the structure of the shows from that tour: the LA Express opened, playing an instrumental support set, then Joni joined them, then she played solo, then the band rejoined her for another half-dozen songs. So, while stiched together from various shows, the album captures the flow of the sets well.

The first side with the LA Express is up and down. It begins with a nice version of near-hit You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. I like how Robben Ford’s guitar gestures at country without playing country cliches, and Max Bennett and John Guerin are solid and supple on bass and drums. If the ending is a little protracted, it’s still a fine opener. More troubling is the take on Big Yellow Taxi, which acquires an unnecessary extra verse and a rhythm track that sounds like a bad attempt to choogle like Creedence. The less said about Tom Scott’s solo, the better. The band make the song song sound like a Coke commercial. Fortunately, there’s nothing else this bad on the album.

Things improve immediately with Rainy Night House, initiating a pattern: throughout their two sides, the LA Express sound much better at slower tempos. Ford and pianist and pianist Larry Nash are particularly effective here, and Scott, playing flute rather than sax, adds a pretty, spooky note to one of Mitchell’s spookiest early songs. Unfortunately some of the effect is undone by the version of Woodstock that follows. The intro certainly shows that Ford and Guerin can play fast and smooth at the same time, but it’s a rather strange arrangement that’s neither fish nor fowl; it’s not the spare, chilling reading of Joni’s recording, the blustering, stomping rocker that CSNY turned it into, or the acid-smashed folk-country-rock of Ian Matthews’ UK number-one recording, where Matthews sounds genuinely scared throughout.

At the end of the song, Mitchell announces an intermission. When she returns, it’s with her acoustic guitar, and the next two sides are pretty much just her alone, playing and singer unaccompanied. For fans of Joni’s earlier records, sides two and three are the reason to own Miles of Aisles. She’s on sparkling form, in absolute control of her vocal performances, and very impressive instrumentally too.

Cactus Tree (a song from Song to a Seagull, Mitchell’s debut), is taken from a show at the LA Music Centre in March 1974, and has a noticeably different acoustic to the other tracks. It’s a great performance, though, and demolishes the studio original. It’s followed by a likewise excellent Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, from For the Roses. Mitchell is joined by Tom Scott on soprano sax, and the song plays to his strengths far more than the uptempo tracks on side one, where he sounds cheesy. Here, he’s spine tingling – his phrasing acute and his melodies surprising. The one blot for me, though a minor thing, is the those repeated “downs” that Joni sings. The three-repeat phrasing of the original (“you know it’s down, down, down the dark ladder”), with each “down” on a chord change, had a lighter touch. Nonetheless, it’s a chilling performance of one of its author’s darkest and most troubling songs.

The version of Woman of Heart and Mind is preceded by an enthusiastic member of the audience shouting, “Joni, you have more class than Richard Nixon, Mick Jagger and Gomer Pyle combined”. Mitchell cracks up, but a more apt response to this puzzling comment might have been a shrug. I mean, obvs. The song itself comes from a different show, but it is really good, and the audible edit required to make it happen is justified, given how good the performance is.

A Case of You and the title track from Blue follow, and make you wonder at what it must have taken to play such vulnerable, personal material in front of audiences of thousands**. As with the rest of the songs on side two, the performances are excellent, though A Case of You is the one time on the record where I feel like there’s a measurable gap between the magic of the studio recording and the live version. A Case of You is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff. There’s no disgrace in not being able to get to such a place as a singer twice. The wonder is that she got there at all.

Side three begins with The Circle Game, before which Joni encourages everyone to sing along with the chorus, in emulation of the studio recording from Ladies of the Canyon. There’s something about this Circle Game that hits me in the gut in a way that the Canyon version doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the added depth and richness that Mitchell’s voice gained in the years between the two recordings, the changes she made to the phrasing and melody in the chorus, or maybe it’s the communality of thousands of voices rather than a handful, but whatever it is, for me this is the definitive reading of the song, and probably the best single moment on the whole album.

The jump from the philosophical universalism of The Circle Game to the intensely personal People’s Parties is a little jarring. Not that feeling awkward and out of place is not a universal emotion, but feeling awkward and out of place at Hollywood parties is a more shall we say exclusive experience. It’s not my favourite Mitchell song, but it’s a solid performance.

If any performance on Miles of Aisles could be called workmanlike, it’s probably All I Want. It’s a good version, dispatched with the minimum of fuss. For Free (here retitled Real Good For Free) improves a lot on the Ladies of the Canyon original, which I’m not that fond of. Partly, this is down to her flattening her delivery of the opening verse so she rhymes “jewels” with “schools”, rather than “joo-els” with “schoo-els”. More pressingly, I think the Joni Mitchell of 1974 was better placed to comment on the differences between her existence and that of the street musician than the Joni Mitchell of 1970.

The band comes back for the last song on side three, Both Sides Now, which features another clearly audible edit.*** It’s one of the best, most emotional, performances on the album. Their arrangement, while still perhaps a little cheesy in the coda, gives plenty of space to Mitchell’s vocal, and Nash and Ford in particular play beautifully; Ford working with his volume pedal to create gorgeous floating textures, while Nash sprinkles delicately metallic high notes from his Fender Rhodes.

The final side begins with Carey and The Last Time I Saw Richard. Carey is given a light, pseudo-calypso treatment, which works better than you’d think, although again, the dairy content is high. Mitchell’s vocal suggests she’s enjoying it, anyway. The Last Time I Saw Richard is, I gather from reading old reviews of the album, divisive. Some find the imposition of a full-band arrangement gives the song more shape and momentum, while others feel it removes the intimacy (and that Mitchell’s barmaid impression spoils the mood). My take is somewhat in the middle. I think the band play it well, and give as much room as they feasibly can to Mitchell’s long, unruly verse lines. I don’t mind her clucking-barmaid voice either. The Blue recording of Richard is one I don’t ever listen to out of context of the album, and don’t always feel works in context; its looseness sometimes feels like shapelessness, though when it does tend to hit me hard when I’m in the right mood for it.

The album ends with two then-new songs: Jericho and Love or Money. Joni would later record a cooler, sparer version of Jericho for Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. I prefer the Miles of Aisles recording for the way it’s anchored by Max Bennett’s bass; Jaco Pastorius (who played on DJRD) is a little abstract and in his own world for my taste. Love or Money is anchored by a cool groove from John Guerin and Max Bennett. Like a song from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, it has a melody that repeats over the course of a half-verse, rather than on a line-by-line basis. This makes it a little hard to get a handle on for the first half-dozen listens. I do think it’s a good song, but a curious one to end on.

The big question for any of us who weren’t there is, how closely does this resemble the sets that Mitchell actually played in 1974? As I said earlier, the basic shape of the set is accurate. LA Express first, then the band with Joni, then Joni solo, then with the band again. But the album release looks longer than those sets that are listed on Setlist FM for this tour. The closing pair of songs are apparently what was played to finish the show on 14 August at the Universal Amphitheatre, and I don’t hear any edits in the applause between the moment the song ends and when Mitchell says thank you and goodnight. So that seems an accurate piece of sequencing. The decision to include those but not the singles off Court and Spark is a bit of a shame, though; I guess that the label thought including new versions of older songs would likely lead to stronger sales and wouldn’t eat into sales of Court and Spark. I’d have loved to hear a live version of Help Me from 1974, though.

If you’re in the market for a Joni Mitchell live album, definitely go with Miles of Aisles. Its cross-section of material performed solo and with the band gives it wider set of moods and styles than the more narrowly focused Shadows and Light, and the songs are performed with a warmth and exuberance I find missing from the latter, even if its vocal and instrumental performances are more virtuosic. Other than a couple of questionable moments on side the LA Express, it’s solid front to back, and there are performances of early songs that outdo the studio recordings.

800px-1974_joni_mitchellMitchell, live in 1974, picture from inlay of Miles of Aisles

*Big Yellow Taxi only made it to #7 on the Hot 100.

**Later in 1974, she supported CSNY during their European tour, including a show at Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 people.

***I guess that Mitchell and her enginner Henry Lewy felt that the hiss and noise of vinyl (and the likelihood that few were listening on headphones) meant that they could get away with such edits.

 

The lay of the land, 6 December 2018

Six years ago today, I had a pacemaker fitted at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire. The year before that I was in an advancing state of heart failure. At that point of my diagnosis, I was Class IV on the NYHA classification chart; the subsequent class is “end stage”, which is what it sounds like. My diagnosis was idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease where the myocardium is enlarged, weakening the left ventricle and impeding the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively.

*

It’s nearly a year since Mel and I moved into our house together. Whenever one of us remarks on this fact, it’s in amazement. It doesn’t seem like a year. It doesn’t seem like five minutes, frankly. It’s been a wonderful year, in which we’ve done what we can to make the house into a home. Just a few more jobs to go now, then we’ll be done for a while, until it’s time to spruce everything up again. I can’t deny that the night I heard a dripping noise in our landing and realised that we had a leak, that it was coming from the roof, and that it was my responsibility to deal with it was a night I didn’t sleep much. But with great houses come great responsibility. Or something like that, anyway.

It’s been another good year health-wise. In the spring, my annual trip to St Thomas’s Hospital revealed that my heart is in very good shape for a man of my age with no medical history of heart problems, let alone someone who’s been where I’ve been. In fact, thanks to a renewed running regime, I’m fitter than I’ve been in at least ten years, and maybe since I left school. The next big goal is a half marathon in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in March. Last time I entered a half my training schedule was disrupted by a chest infection that took weeks to properly clear up. This time, all being well, I’ll make it to the start line. I’m confident I could run it tomorrow, if I didn’t care about the time. I care enough that i’ll keep running the 14 kilometres home from work once a week and get out at the weekend for a 5k to work on speed.

This year I finally did release an EP on CD (download or order here), played a bunch of gigs with Mel as a duo (some very good ones, too) and did more work on James’s new one (an EP came out in the spring – the full album should follow in about six months I would guess). Other than James’s album and my full album (defo in the spring), the next project is a duo EP with Mel – we’ve got a few songs that were arranged from the ground up to be performed by us as a duo, so we’re going to record them the way we play them live, just two guitars and vocals.

That’s the lay of my land. The world beyond our front door is more worrisome. With Brexit an all-consuming oncoming storm, I despair at the lack of real leadership from the left. Not merely in terms of the division in the Labour party between centrists and the left wing, either. My dread fear is that, with politics (and the culture more widely) as polarised as it is now, any social progress made by a future government of the left would be immediately undone by incoming Conservatives, in much the same way that, if there were to be a second referendum on EU membership and Remain were to win, the Leavers would howl and scream for however long it took them to get what they want.

In such a situation, the only victory that could stick would be a revolutionary one – one where it was impossible to put society back together again, and building something entirely new became the only option available. Which is a pretty scary thought, as in that situation the forces that retained the most economic muscle would do the shaping. In the meantime, there are forces at work to keep left and right as far apart as possible. The deliberately divisive language of the right-wing media (which is most of the UK media), of “crush the Brexit saboteurs” and so on, is repulsive, but it’s deliberate. Its purpose is to fix people into position: to radicalise the right, to alienate the left, and to tell both sides that there is, there can be, no common ground. That’s how the right sees us, the left concludes. We can’t hope to reach them, and why would we want to?

Yet to make positive changes within the system as it exists today, we have to. More than ever, we need someone to make a moral, persuasive case for progressive policies in a unifying, consensus-building way.

On that troubling note, I leave you. Back next week.

The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.

 

Home at Last – Yo Zushi

My friend and long-time musical compadre (seriously, we’ve got something like 18 years behind us now) Yo Zushi has released a new single, Home at Last, with a new album (King of the Road) to follow shortly.

Home at Last was recorded around two years ago, I think, at One Cat in Camberwell, with Jon Clayton engineering. It was the last song we cut during that day at the studio, but at this point I can’t remember what else we did during that session. I can remember that I played drums on the live take, and that Dan McKean played piano. I then took the basic tracks home and did what I do, adding electric, acoustic and bass guitars, while Yo worked up a vocal arrangement.

It’s a great song (one of the best Yo’s ever written, I think, and he’s written some doozies) and I absolutely love the way the recording turned out. There’s a bandcamp link at the bottom of the post, and it’s also available on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Music and all the other usuals. The cover features Yo and his friend Jazzman John Clarke, a performance poet well known in London, who sadly passed away last week. I only met Jazzman a few times, but he was a lovely man with music and rhythm inside him.

Yo will be playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston on Sunday 16th September, and I’ll be supporting, in what is for me a rare solo show. Nowadays I mainly play as part of a duo with Melanie (something we’ve been doing increasingly often, and dare I say, are now getting pretty good at), so this will be something different, by virtue of being something old-school.

New website up; EP to follow

Hi everyone. Just a quick one to let you know, if you’re interested, that I’ve got a new website up for my musical doings. You can find it at https://www.rosspalmermusic.co.uk/

I’ve also finalised the mixes for an EP that I’m going to actually release on physical media, which is the first time I’ve done this. Over the last year or so, I’ve frequently found that I’m the only guy at every show I play who doesn’t have any CDs for sale, and I figured it’s time I remedied that, so I’ve brought together a couple of songs I had up on Bandcamp as standalone tracks with two other songs never previously released in any format, one old and one new. The EP will be available on Bandcamp, Spotify and iTunes (if iTunes is still a thing – word is it may not be soon) as well as on CD. I imagine that most of the CDs I sell will be at gigs, but it’ll be available to order as a CD from Bandcamp too, just in case.

I asked an old friend of mind to do the cover art for me (the brief was for something autumnal and rural), and he obliged with this beautiful drawing of Belfairs Woods, near where we both grew up:

Last swallow mock-up

Exciting times! An album will follow later in the year – this EP is the first CD I’ve released, so as well as it being a good thing to have something I can sell at gigs, it’s also great to learn how to do all this stuff.

Back soon with a real post. Take care.