A Beautiful Spring Evening with the Prince of Hip Darkness

Keep your eyes wide open and my shotgun loaded
Cause I don’t want to leave this heaven so soon

Mark Lanegan Band at Autry Museum

Mark Lanegan has many opposites.

Will you walk with me underground
And forgive all my sicknesses and my sorrows?

The Autry at Griffith Park was a strange place to see Mark Lanegan, the prince of dark, gloomy, somber yet groovy, gritty, hypnotic, hyper-masculine rock. The Autry specializes in western American history – Cowboys and Indians. It was my first time there, but it seems to be a very bright and positive place. The concert was in a courtyard, in the most pleasant of spring evening weather. In the cafe where I got a hamburger and beer before the show, the woman at the register called everybody mami and papi. The crowd of a couple hundred mostly wore black (for instance, my pants), but not the goth type, more the arty type – there were plenty of blazers over t-shirts. There was very little attitude in the crowd – it was relaxed and civilized. In fact, the concert was sponsored by KCRW — an NPR affiliate from Santa Monica College, but more importantly, the home of Morning Becomes Eclectic, a real taste leader in hip music circles. And unlike some concerts, there were plenty of women!

Come to me
burn your starry crown
my dark angel

So, bring on the music that seems inspired by highs of drugs and sex but dominated by the lows. Music from bars, shabby apartments and gutters (he was even in a collaboration called The Gutter Twins), but different bars, shabby apartments and gutters than Tom Waits – he has none of that hopeful romanticism (and musical nostalgia), he seems more familiar and comfortable with despair and addiction.

Turn out the lights
Don’t see me drawn and hollow
Just blood running warm

Showmanship was spurned, and properly so for this music. There was no jumping, spinning or arm thrusting. I didn’t see Roger Waters perform The Wall 3 nights before, but this was assuredly its opposite. It really seems to be indoor music. Onstage, the band were bathed in red light provided in part by 3 lamps that you would find in a neglected living room – trying to bring a little claustrophobic dinginess to this airy courtyard on a fine spring eve. Perhaps it was fitting that his vocals should have been a little higher in the mix.

From my fingertips, the cigarette throws ashes to the ground
I’d stop and talk to the girls who work this street, but I got business farther down

Mr. Lanegan was going to come out after the show to sign things. Yet another way in which this brooding music was presented in such a civilized setting. Even though I had bought the poster for the show, I wasn’t in the mood, so I took off and enjoyed (not-even-all-that-) late night driving on the empty freeways through Los Angeles. But now I’m curious as to how he carried himself. Was he bright and cheery? Or just polite enough?

Stared down the past and just scarred my eyes

In the car I had been listening to another favorite of Morning Becomes Eclectic, Brendan Benson. He’s rather the opposite of Mark Lanegan – poppy and somewhat feminine (his album My Old, Familiar Friend is great). After the show, I popped that out and grabbed at random another disc. It was King Crimson – a completely different type of opposite – aggressively musical – I enjoyed a good Thrak-ing. But their concerts had an absolute dearth of women, and more guys in t-shirts without the blazers. I think even MBE would look the other way, I guess eclectic has to be hip, as well.

Some jack of diamonds kicked her heart around
Did they know they were walking on holy ground?

Here, chew on some Bubblegum:

Tremble Like Flowers

This was almost 10 years ago. I was half asleep, half awake. My alarm was set to a radio station, WERS from Emerson College in Boston, and as it came on I was drifting in and out of consciousness… perhaps more balanced between the two than ever before. I heard a little piano, than an acoustic guitar. I thought maybe the piano was from the station was getting interference from a neighbor station. The guitar quickly settled into a very gentle, understated groove. I can’t tell you how fast I knew the song – I got it right away. Within seconds, maybe five. But I couldn’t believe it. It sounded so different than the original version… could it really be? I was also surprised at how recognizable the tune was. There is very little to go off of, but it couldn’t have been anything else. I knew the proof was coming soon – how many song lyrics start right off with the title? A croaky voice crooned, “Let’s dance.” I laughed in my head, giddy with what a wildly different interpretation this was shaping up to be. And I was still completely drunk on sleep, gravity was at a delicious quadruple strength.

As he started the chorus, I was on the edge of my seat, lying in bed, ready to go back to sleep if it came, wondering how he was going to handle the climax which is just bombastic in the original and that wouldn’t make sense for how he was doing it and I didn’t think he could pull that off anyway. Then he creeps up into falsetto and tenderly sings, “Because my love for you / would break my heart in two / if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers.” What a perfect delivery for those words! I was practically ecstatic, and still totally sleep-drunk.

The piano crept back in and confused me again. More importantly, I didn’t want to lose the signal. A harmonica came in for an instrumental section. Not playing too many notes, it was weird-sounding, but fit perfectly, thought that piano was still wandering in. Well, the song goes along, just killing me the whole way through. It ends with him singing, in falsetto like before, “if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers” several more times, letting me enjoy that bit of prettiness and contrast against Bowie’s original.

What a 5 minutes! That was a perfect, and unrepeatable, listening experience.

Well, after that, I had to get up and make some notes, then email the station later that morning to find out who did that. M. Ward was the answer and I have been a fan since – he’s quite a fine guitar player. Actually, I’m not such a fan of his more popular work with Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, but then I haven’t given them much of a chance. He’s got a new album coming out soon, I hope it’s good!

Here’s a video of Bowie’s original:

For the record, Bowie sings, “tremble like a flower,” but it sounds like Ward has it like the title of this post.

How I became a
Richard Thompson fan

In the year and a half between Berkeley and Berklee (late 1990 – 1991), I had a job at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel as a bellman. One afternoon I was wheeling a bellcart back to the lobby when I passed a meeting room that had a function going on for some music label people. I heard a man playing acoustic guitar and singing. While I’m no guitar expert (and was certainly less so then), I could recognize that he was playing it well, not just strumming big open chords, but very specific stuff. So he could play. But I heard that voice and said, well, he’s not going to be the next big pop star. But fine, so what, I did notice that at least he had a distinctive voice, and that counts for a lot.

So, maybe 6 months later (I can’t be sure at this point), I wandered into Rhino Records (the store, not the label office) on Westwood Blvd. Right inside, where they were pushing the new releases, I saw a handwritten write-up for a new album by Richard Thompson. I didn’t know him from, well, from anyone else I didn’t know. The write-up mentioned that he had been in Fairport Convention, and damned if that didn’t sound like a classic band that I should be familiar with (I was about 24 at the time, just for reference) even if I couldn’t think of just who they were. (Years later I would finally read a bit more about Fairport Convention and realize that I didn’t know them even a little bit.) Anyway, the write-up basically said, that after his time in that important band, he has had a long and, if underappreciated, damn fine solo career* and here was his latest, and it’s damned fine, too, so you really oughta pick it up right now!

So I did. I kind of liked it at first, but there was a lot to chew on, and something else kinda bothered me about it… I could swear I knew that voice. Hmm, from where… Then it dawned on me that this was the guy I heard singing in a meeting room at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel!!!

Well, I have no proof, but I still believe that it had to be him showing off his shiny, new material to industry types before the release of the album – I’m 99% sure of it. I’m in LA now (though he is of English extraction, he lives in LA these days) and hope I run into him so I can bombard him with this story and have him corraborate it. (Teddy, do you read music blogs? If you see this – ask him for me! By the way, A Piece of What You Need is a great album, Teddy!)

So Rumour & Sigh will always seem like one of his most important albums to me, but I have almost all of them and have become a huge fan, and I must say, I think my favorite must be Mock Tudor. In fact, I suggest you go buy it right now! If you don’t know anything about RT, well, now’s the time to start learning. I’ll keep it simple: he writes great songs and plays awesome guitar. At #19 on that Rolling Stone link, I think he might still be under-rated.

The first song is, to me, very representative, and a charmer at that. The second one is for my friend Helen, she has a horse (Hi Helen! Hi Chris!) (No, Chris is not the horse.) The third one is the most famous song from Rumour & Sigh, and quite a dramatic story! The last one ROCKS. Enjoy!

And here’s one from Teddy (that would be RT’s son, Teddy Thompson):

* I don’t recall if the write-up mentioned anything about the Richard and Linda years.

Pretty, Noisy

The last post featured pretty Brazilian music, so this time let’s bring da noise.

I was very late in coming around to Mission of Burma. Sure, I grew up in LA, so I liked X in the early 80s, but for Mission of Burma, I had seen their name here and there but never gave them a try. Their first go-round was short-lived, but fortunately they reformed for a few more albums. Even then, I didn’t catch their first album as a reformed band, but their second – The Obliterati. Ah, such delicious noise! And they can be catchy and even anthemic when they want to. Once I started playing that, I had to get everything. Now I love Mission of Burma. When I lived in the DC area for a year not long ago, I finally got to see them live at the Black Cat for short money – it was awesome.

So, if you need to kick out the jams a bit, give ’em a try:

Here’s the albums these songs come from:

Nice Moves

Let’s do a video today, “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. There is some conjecture as to the true meaning of the song – whether it’s really about Major Tom in space, or drug problems here on earth, perhaps Bowie’s own. I’ll let others hash out all that.

Don’t ask me why he’s dressed as a clown. I think it was just a phase (and goes with the album cover for Scary Monsters – see the bottom of this post).

OK, here’s what I really like about this song. “Space Oddity” certainly doesn’t shy away from pathos and alienation, but for revisiting his first big hit, Bowie doesn’t just try to cash in on it. “Ashes to Ashes” has such interesting sounds (futuristic, spacy… and a particularly woozy guitar line in places) and somehow succeeds in grooving to this ambivalent-to-alienated/depressed funk. But there are a couple things in particular which really sell this song for me.

First, at the climax of the chorus, “Strung out in heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low” the words “all-time low” are not belted out. Instead they are delivered with some reservation, perhaps with a bit of “it’s a shame” in his voice. And rather than having some musical climax at the end of the chorus, those words are accompanied by a return to the woozy funk from the beginning of the song.

Next, in the section where he sings, “I never done good things, I never done bad things…” he sings (speaks, really) a background vocal which repeats the words in a low and echoed voice. What kills me is that the last “word” is woh-o-oh, and even that little bit of decoration is repeated by the low voice. I love that! I hope after recording that, they all had a good laugh. For all the seriousness in the song, that detail is hilarious.

Finally, here we have David Bowie, one of the hippest stars in the world, who had just spent several years in bohemian Berlin, which was preceded by his glam phase, singing a moody and heavy song to woozy funk. Perfect time to wrap things up with a nursery rhyme, don’t you think? “My mother said to get things done / You’d better not mess with Major Tom.” I read that he got that idea from a Danny Kaye song, “Inchworm,” from the movie Hans Christian Anderson, but still rock and roll stars can pull that off convincingly? If you can think of some other nursery rhymes in rock, please tell me about them in the comments!