Nanci Griffith

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When I saw this morning that Nanci Griffith had died, I was shocked. She’s one of my favorite Country/Folk singers, but to be honest she hadn’t been on my radar lately. She was also pretty young, all things considered. (As people get older, 68 starts to sound pretty young.) Her death makes me rather sad. She had one of those pure, clean voices, as clear as water, that could handle pretty much any song or any emotion. Yes, her music could be overly mawkish and sentimental (think “From A Distance,” which was probably her biggest hit). She could be problematically reductive and simplistic (“It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go,” a song I love even though it reduces a lot of complicated problems to an admittedly catchy chorus). But I always found it difficult to resist her voice. And when she hit on the right song with the right emotion, she was breathtaking (see “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”).

I’m a little surprised I didn’t choose a different song for my little tribute to Nanci. There are a lot of songs I love a lot more by her (see “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”). There are many others I find more ethereal and moving. But when I saw the headline with her name and knew that another musician I admired was being called onstage in the Great Concert of the Afterlife, the song I heard in my head was “Ford Econoline.”

Maybe it’s because this song is essentially an origin story, and who doesn’t love a good origin story? Maybe because it’s a rags to riches story, and who doesn’t love a good rags to riches story? Maybe it’s just because it’s got a kind of propulsive rhythm, like the sound of tires on a long stretch of highway. Maybe because it’s a good song. Sure, it suffers from a lot of Country music cliches. But it’s warm and idealistic and cheerful. Exactly the way I want to remember Nanci Griffith.

“They’re Blind”

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I’m a Replacements fan. There. I admitted it. At least I didn’t vote for Trump.

Being a Replacements fan isn’t a bad thing, but you do have to put up with some quizzical looks from people sometimes, which is a damn shame. Because the Replacements are one of the best Rock & Roll bands a whole lot of people have never heard of. They are, in my view, Criminally Underrated. My love for them was recently reignited by watching Color Me Obsessed, a wonderful documentary about the band and the people who love them. (It’s on Amazon Prime if you want to watch it. . . and I recommend that you do.) So I’ve been listening to them on the way to and from work the last couple days. This morning, I decided to see what was available to download, because I knew I had a glaring hole in my personal collection (which I filled). But there was another glaring hole I didn’t know about. Or did know but had forgotten. Or didn’t think it was a glaring hole at the time but was so, so very wrong about.

The ‘Mats (look it up) released Don’t Tell a Soul in 1989, and many fans and critics took an instant dislike to it. It was considered their sell out album because it was on a major label and very heavily produced. Personally, I’ve always loved it; it contains several of my favorite songs and one of my favorite lyrics ever, from any artist (“They play with your head, but they’ll never stroke your hair.”). But it was much more polished than anything else they put out.

in Color Me Obsessed, they interviewed Matt Wallace, who produced the album along with the band (well, Paul Westerberg, anyway). He talked about the sound they were originally going for, and how the label had the album remixed (by Chris Lord-Alge, no less) in an effort to make it more commercial–an effort that was decidedly NOT appreciated by the fans or Matt Wallace. The general assumption was that the original master tapes of the original mix were lost.

They weren’t. According to the write-up on iTunes (yeah, I know, but it’s still one of my best and most convenient sources of music), the original master tapes were found “squirreled” away in Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap’s belongings. And it is a revelation. When I first listened to a sample of the first song, I almost cried. Not only did it sound like the Replacements, it sounded so much better than the album the label released. All the overdubbing and reverb are stripped away to reveal a damn fine album. To whit, listen to “They’re Blind” from the original 1989 release.

Not a bad song at all. Very heartfelt and emotional (a trademark of Paul Westerberg’s songwriting, and apparently something the other members of the ‘Mats made fun of). It’s always been one of my favorite tracks. Now listen to the remastered Matt Wallace mix from the stellar 2019 compilation Dead Man’s Pop.

This version fucking aches. It’s incredible how open and raw it is, filled with such yearning and sadness. Would this version have been more successful than the version the label put out? Probably not. The Replacements were at least decade ahead of their time. Or a decade behind. It’s kind of hard to tell with them, sometimes. And they were masters at self-sabotage. But if Sire Records had just released the original mix, they would have given a great band a chance to shine the way that band was meant to.

I called Dead Man’s Pop a stellar mix a little earlier in this post because I know it is–even if I’ve only listened to a handful of tracks so far. I know it’s stellar because it’s the Replacements, and I am a Replacements fan. Because even at their worst, their most drunken and angry and irresponsibly lazy, the Replacements were never boring. And their music is great, running the gamut of genres and emotions from punk anger to emo tender. I’m considering starting a petition to get them inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Yeah, I’m a Replacements fan. Color me obsessed.

Eddie Van Halen

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I’ve been off in the ether since John Prine died. And I’ve missed a few deaths; I’m sorry about that, but focusing on musicians we lose gets depressing sometimes. What have I been doing? Worrying about my mother, working at a bookstore, writing poetry, and getting new kittens.

But this one pulls me back in.

With all the smoke–both literal and figurative–that surrounded Eddie Van Halen, it was easy to forget how astounding he really was. I was barely in double digits when everyone started talking about Van Halen. I didn’t really listen to them until I was in high school. And they were always fun: easy to sing the choruses, light and breezy in a hard rock kind of way. Lead singers came and went. David Lee Roth tried really hard to make Van Halen his band, while Sammy Hagar just rolled with it. But Van Halen was always more about Eddie and his meteoric, pyrotechnic fret work. Everything else was negotiable, but Eddie wasn’t. A man didn’t just die. A band did.

Thanks for all the music, Eddie.

John Prine

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I’ve been MIA again.  Sorry.

And there’s been lots of significant passings in the music world that I haven’t noted here.  Sorry.

It’s just that all the death and sadness and silence of losing good music got to me a little bit.  And all the COVID-19 stuff lately has got me feeling extra worried and fearful, which means I’ve been withdrawing even further into myself.

But this is drawing me back out.

John Prine was one of those superb musicians that was mostly only listened to by other musicians and a cult of knowledgeable fans.  That was always a criminal shame.  No one could break your heart with the grace, literacy, and humor of John Prine.  And my heart feels just a little bit broken right now.

But I am grateful for all the beautiful music he left for us to enjoy. It seems so massively unfair that this man who beat cancer twice was done in by this stupid little virus.  No, not unfair.  Unjust.  Because if there were any justice, Prine would still be alive amd singing.

“Angel from Montgomery” will always be more famous.  “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” will always be more acclaimed.  And “The Speed of Sound of Loneliness” will always be my favorite.  But I’ll leave you with what is the most appropriate song in Prine’s stellar catalog.  Because even if a lot of people feel like crying right now, even if we feel like raging at the wrongness of the world, Prine would rather we laugh.  With just a enemy little bit of anger at the end.

Kiss my ass, COVID-19.

“Persuasion”

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I’ve thoroughly fallen down on my Team Tiny Peppers duties, but at least I’m here.  Sometimes.

But I haven’t been neglectful without reason.  In addition to all the general business of life, last Tuesday I saw the great and criminally underrated Richard Thompson at the Teregram Ballroom in Los Angeles.  It was a wonderful show, but left me with a pressing question: What does it say about the state of music today when a 70-year-old muslim from England with nothing but a slightly amplified acoustic guitar can rock harder than most everyone two generations younger?  Not much that’s very good or kind.

Of course, I didn’t take any pictures or video, partly because the Teregram said not to and partly because I choose not to live my life through the camera of my iPhone.  And of course, the song I decide to include with the post is not one of Richard’s harder rocking numbers (but here’s a little clip if you want a taste of that).  But it does represent, a little poorly, what I considered the highlight of the show.

Richard brought his son Teddy out to join him onstage for a couple songs, and “Persuasion” was the best.  Because it represents the kind of melancholy longing mixed with resigned cynicism that Richard Thompson excels writing.  Because it showed his delicate and deliberate skill with the guitar.  Because it allowed his beautiful baritone to soar.  And last, but certainly not least, because it surprised me with how glorious Teddy’s voice is.

Now I knew Teddy was talented; with Richard for a father and Linda Thompson for a mother, how could he not be.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was to hear this emotional, clear, rich combination of the best of both parents’ voices.  This clip from a few years ago isn’t anything close to the breathtaking experience I had a week ago, but it gives you a sense of it.  A couple times during the song, I saw Richard glance over at his son with the Proud Dad smile.  If I was his parent, I’d be pretty proud of Teddy, too.

“Rock and Roll”

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One of the things I think is going to happen with this restart is that a lot of songs are going to get fresh takes.  Or at least looked at again with eyes that are a few years older.  Notice I did not say wiser; the paradoxical thing about getting older is that you learn just how much it is you don’t know.  Things that seemed so black and white, so life or death, when you were 20 just aren’t the same when you’re 50.

I first posted on this song back when Lou Reed died six years ago, and I still feel pretty much the same way.  Rock & Roll is home in a way that not many other things are for me.  Music in general is home.  It’s been a sadder home for my the last few years, but it’s still mine.  It’s where the misfits and the weirdos can find each other.  And I’m one of the misfits and weirdos.  I’ve never really been able to conform with expectations and norms. I’m not just a square peg in a round hole; I’m a Lincoln Log in roomful of Legos.  And maybe in some ways that makes my life a little harder, but it makes me a hell of a lot happier than I would have been trying to fit in.

My life was saved by rock and roll.

“The Bitch is Back”

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Hi there.  It’s been a while.  Not quite as long as I thought it had been, but still.

I’m back.

I’ve not been posting for a variety of reasons: caregiving, general laziness, dying pets, dying musicians, political exhaustion, rage, regular trips to Disneyland, reading.  You name it, I’ve been doing it.  I’m also gainfully employed once again.  (I’ll go into that in some near-future post.  I’ll probably go into all of it in future posts; I’m not afraid of oversharing.)  But I committed to this year’s Nano Poblano (go Team Peppers!) and while I’m probably not going to follow the rules Ra set, I will use this committment to bring myself back into the blogging world, which I’ve missed.  It’s a way to get me writing again, which I’ve REALLY missed.  And I can once again harangue people about the music I love more than just about anything else.

Yeah.  The Bitch is indeed back.

You’re welcome.

“Asking Me Lies”

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Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?  It’s the question Johnny Rotten (nee, Lydon) asked at the end of the final Sex Pistols concert in the 70s.  (“Final,” of course, until they reunited with original bassist Glen Matlock in the 1990s.  I saw them in L.A.; it was awesome.)  That’s kind of the feeling you get from “Asking Me Lies.”

Not like you’ve been cheated by the song, mind you.  This is a fabulous song by an even more fabulous band.  (The Replacements, the true voice of my generation, remain to this day Criminally Underrated.)  But the narrator of the song–who for argument’s sake lets just agree to assume is the ‘Mats lead singer and main songwriter Paul Westerberg–is pointing out there is something of a disparity in the world: “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting drunk.  In a black and white picture, there’s a lot of gray bunk.”  He’s feeling just a little cheated.

Can’t blame him.  Nearly thirty years on, this song is still relevant.  He is still getting cheated (most recently by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which still hasn’t admitted the Replacements).  We all are.  We are living in a fucking Orwell novel; I’d feel less dystopian about things if the Cheeto in Chief had not literally said that what we are seeing and hearing is not what is happening.  (For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, google it; I’m not kidding.)  The gap between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us just keeps growing.  The climate has gone to hell, or at least it feels that way.  There’s even word that the Trump-driven EPA wants to relax rules governing the restrictions on asbestos.  Asbestos.  You know, that horrible thing that causes mesothelioma, aka the disease that killed Warren Zevon way too soon.  There’s more mass shootings, more public bigotry, more of everything that’s bad.

I get that this is part of the political cycle.  The price we are paying for having had a black president is this spray-tanned yahoo who’s only goal is to undo any and everything that has Barack Obama’s name on it.  And it will pass.  If nothing else, we’ll get a new president at the next major election, although I think it will happen sooner with a proper impeachment.  The bricks for that are falling into place slowly, but Mueller is building the wall that Trump promised.  Too bad for him it’s going to be a wall that closes in around him.  And for every step backwards, there will be a commensurate step forward.  It’s just kind of hard to remain zen about the whole thing when all this injustice and unfairness and damage is being wrought with the United States’ stamp of approval, even if it is just nominal.

I have to admit, I didn’t really expect a political rant when I chose this song.  I heard it this afternoon on my way to buy grapes and strawberries on sale.  It’s kind of stuck with me ever since.  But the sadness and anger lends itself to the times.  They are indeed “telling you questions and asking me lies.”  Just don’t expect me to shut up and take it.

Aretha Franklin

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Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin.  They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure.  They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine.  But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha.  The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you.  Aretha Franklin was awesome.

I’m not going to try to explain why.  Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios.  Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times.  Yes, she was physically beautiful.  But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible.  Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical.  Supernatural, if you will.  It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others.  There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.

Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),”  or even “Natural Woman.”  I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers.  It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites.  I only wish it weren’t still relevant.  After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.