Saturday, March 18, 2017

Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry


Where to start with Chuck Berry, dead today at the age of 90? How about his first record, Maybellene? As he told a Soul Train audience 15 years later, "it was about a car and a girl," which means it was about rock & roll. He was a hard man to love as a person, but his best songs defined the word "infectious," inducing you to move and dropping perfect little lyrical couplets into your head. He was a keen observer, especially in the early days, and wrote songs about what teenagers did and what they wished they could do. Put all the classic songs together and it becomes clear that he created an American iconography as clearly defined as that of Norman Rockwell. 



And then there is the guitar playing, a combination of jump blues and country twang that defined the instrument as THE sound of rock & roll. Each solo is a clinic, linking riffs together in various combinations, always driven by electric energy. Live, he played with casual mastery, tossing his guitar this way and that, indulging in a wild array of entertaining poses and creating another iconography, this one of movement, like the famous duck walk.

Sounds, words, sights - Berry was the full package. As John Lennon said, "If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." If you still house physical product in a collection, then your shelves are not complete without a copy of The Great Twenty-Eight, which features most of the classic songs from his early years.


While the really creative part of his career ended in around 1965, when he adapted the Liverpool sound for I Want To Be Your Driver, his last great single on Chess Records, he continued to be a live draw for nearly the rest of his life. There is the matter of My Ding-A-Ling, a puerile song that caught people's fancy at the dawn of the rock & roll revival in 1972, becoming Berry's only number one hit. It was an artistic injustice but commerce and art don't always get along, even when you're getting paid in cash. Despite the renewed interest, his tours were often slapdash affairs, with pick up bands, no rehearsals, and rote performances. His last album, 1979's Rock It, wasn't terrible - just indifferent, which may be worse.




We have Keith Richards to thank for convincing Berry to try a little harder, leading to the 1987 film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. While there are some unnecessary guests, it's filled with wonderful performances of some of Berry's greatest songs, putting a fine cap on the legend's indomitable legacy. While the arguments with Richards got a lot of attention, one of my favorite Berry moments comes at the end of the movie. While the credits roll, we see him alone in his nightclub, playing the loneliest sounds known to man on a pedal steel guitar. Was this a glimpse of his heart? As the great man himself once sang, you never can tell.

 

Postscript: In 2016, on his 90th birthday, Berry announced a new album called Chuck, to be released in 2017. According to his son, Charles Berry, Jr., "These songs cover the spectrum from hard driving rockers to soulful thought provoking time capsules of a life's work." Whatever it turns out to be, Chuck Berry will always have a place in the firmament of American music.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Velvet Underground & Nico at 50

Beyond the banana: The inner gatefold of The Velvet Underground & Nico
There was a time in the late 1970's when the first album by The Velvet Underground seemed to be more talked and read about than listened to. The radio only played Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll from their last album, Loaded, which was the easiest of their albums to find - and the most conventional. When discussing The Velvet Underground & Nico, their first album, the most common words were along the lines of "dark," "gritty," "uncompromising," even "scary." So for those of us who were freighted with all this baggage when finally dropping the needle on side one, the initial shock was how unexpectedly gentle it was.

The first song, Sunday Morning, starts with a childlike glockenspiel melody straight out of Buddy Holly's Everyday, accompanied by a sliding bass line soon joined by a viola drone and drums that were more of a hint than a rhythm track. Lou Reed enters, practically whispering: "Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side." THIS was the fearsome VU, this was Lou Reed, who taught us to walk on the wild side? Sunday Morning is an absolutely gorgeous study in optimistic melancholy - and love at first listen for me - but clearly, this legendary record was more complicated than we had been led to believe.

Musical pioneer and producer extraordinaire Brian Eno famously said that almost no one bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, but that everyone who did formed their own band. This is partly why the album sounded so different than expected - after living with its influence for 15 years, with some of the resulting music pushing the envelope even further in terms noise and volume, the incredibly nuanced original was bound to take some getting used to.

Now, the second song, I'm Waiting For The Man, was more as advertised. Over a pounding two chord vamp, in an unmistakeable New York accent, Lou speak-sings a tale of meeting a drug connection on "Lexington, 125." This was a level of cool that is still, even at this late date, mostly only being attempted and approximated. In March 1967, when the album was released (on the heels of The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single), it must have sounded utterly bizarre. I grew up less than two miles away but Reed might has well have been singing about another planet. Besides Dylan, whose producer Tom Wilson worked on this album (and the follow-up, White Light/White Heat), perhaps the only preparation for what was going on here came from The Doors debut, which had come out about six months earlier, and which drew on some similar strains of dark poetry, but with a more radio-friendly sound and image.

Also like The Doors, The Velvets never turned their back entirely on the blues, which is how Jimmy Page was able to fit I'm Waiting For The Man in to the set list of The Yardbirds in their final days. Another early adopter was David Bowie, whose manager had brought a test pressing of the album back from New York. While the gestation was long, Bowie's love of the VU came out in Queen Bitch from Hunky Dory in 1972, and in the many performances of I'm Waiting For The Man (and White Light/White Heat) in the Ziggy Stardust era. The circle was finally complete when Reed joined Bowie to perform both songs at Madison Square Garden in 1997.

One thing that makes the Velvet Underground & Nico so astonishing is that the entire album was in the can and ready to go in April 1966, before The Doors album even came out. Release was delayed for nearly a year by their label, Verve Records, which was more familiar with marketing jazz and was also caught up in putting out the first album by Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. It's a compelling mind game to imagine the album coming out in an even more innocent context. Maybe it would have made a bigger splash, like a hand grenade in a Disney film, but it's just as possible that it would have been actively suppressed rather than benignly neglected. One thing that is unquestionable, that the VU were consciously going head to head against the Summer of Love ethos. "We were pretty much appalled by what was going on on the West Coast," John Cale has said. "The hippie scene was not for us. They were scruffy, dirty people."

So how did The Velvet Underground come together to create such a unique and prescient sound? The core of the band was made up of Long Islanders Lou Reed (guitar, vocals, lyrics) and Sterling Morrison (rhythm guitar, bass, backing vocals), who had met and played music together at Syracuse University in the 1950's. Out of college and trying to make it in music as a staff songwriter and session player at Pickwick Records, Lou met Welsh violist John Cale (also bass, keyboards, backing vocals) at a recording session and they hit it off. Cale was classically trained, had written symphonies now lost to time, and had washed up in NYC after a scholarship at Tanglewood Music Center brought him to the States. When original drummer Angus Maclise quit on the eve of their first live performance, Maureen Tucker, also from Long Island and the sister of one of Morrison's roommates, was brought in on drums.

That first gig was not a success - they only performed three songs before being given the hook - but they persisted and landed a residency at a Greenwich Village club. The night they were fired from there was also the night Andy Warhol was in the audience and they were soon under his wing and providing a soundtrack to his performance art piece, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol is credited with producing the album, which seemed to consist mainly of insisting the engineers not clean anything up. After Warhol died, Reed and Cale reunited to record Songs For Drella, a richly emotional exploration of their time with the pop art master, which also illuminated his involvement in the VU's early days. It seems that, besides providing the instantly iconic album cover, the other important thing Warhol did for the nascent band was model an incredible work ethic and indomitable self-belief. His example forced them to sharpen their craft and push their art further, so by the time they were in the studio their material was honed to a fine point. There is nothing on The Velvet Underground & Nico that is not meticulously planned and prepared; even the exploratory freak-outs had a roadmap.

The other element Warhol brought to the band was German "It Girl" Nico, essentially untrained as a singer (her credit on the album is "Chanteuse," which is somehow perfect), but with a spectacular look and natural charisma. Lou wrote three classic songs for her that provide crucial variety to the album and in their sensitivity belie his reputation for misogyny. Femme Fatale comes third on the album and demonstrates Reed's complete absorption of 1950's ballad style, down to the backing vocals on the chorus. Of course, in the 1950's there were no songs sung by a Teutonic ice-princess about a rapacious woman's sexual conquests - maybe Kurt Weill comes close.

The title of Femme Fatale also hints at the roots of Reeds lyrical interests - hard-boiled American literature by the likes of Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. Incorporating their dark themes of transgression, obsession and betrayal into a rock and roll context is perhaps Reed's greatest inspiration and most revolutionary act. He has often said that he wanted to write the great American novel as an album and, besides Bob Dylan, no one else did as much to singlehandedly expand the vocabulary of rock music than Lou Reed.

The fourth song on the album is a perfect example. Venus In Furs was based on the 19th century novella of the same name by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the word "masochism" is derived), which explored themes of sexual dominance and submission. Surely, Reed must have thought, nearly 100 years after Venus In Furs was published, the world of rock and roll was ready for lyrics like "Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather/Shiny leather in the dark/Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you/Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart." Not quite ready, Lou, but thank you for forcing the issue!

Run Run Run, which follows, is blues-based bit of Dylanesque rock, mainly distinguished by Reed's distortion drenched six string shamanism, which, like Roger McGuinn's work on Eight Miles High (1966), was likely based on John Coltrane's "sheets of sound" sax solos. All Tomorrow's Parties comes next, a spooky and hypnotic vehicle for Nico, which presages post-punk explorations by Siouxsie & The Banshees and Nick Cave's first band, The Birthday Party.

As great as the album is up to this point, it can seem like mere preamble when it comes to the next song, Heroin, which starts side two. This novelistic look into the mechanism of addiction, and the mindset of an addict, doesn't just realize Reed's literary ambitions - it propels him into the company of his heroes. The fact that it's set to mesmerizing and (yes) melodic music only makes the band's achievement here more impressive. Such is the power of Heroin that not only were other musicians absorbing its lessons, but authors, too - like Denis Johnson, who titled his breakout book Jesus' Son (1992) after a line from the song.

Sequencing There She Goes Again after Heroin was a wise choice. It's a charming, if somewhat slight song that's probably the closest thing to an actual pop song on the album, and it gives listeners a chance to catch their breath. The final Nico song, I'll Be Your Mirror, is the first of Reed's indelible ballads, and one of the most poetic love songs ever written. So much of Reed's achievement over the years is based in acceptance and compassion, so neatly embodied in the lyrics to this song. For example: "When you think the night has seen your mind/That inside you're twisted and unkind/Let me stand to show that you are blind/Please put down your hands/Cause I see you." Nico's restrained delivery is perfect, and, matched by the band's delicate accompaniment of guitars, bass and tambourine, demonstrates what can be accomplished when convention is set aside to pursue artistic truth.

The last two songs, Black Angel's Death Song and European Son, are examples of the VU at their most avant garde, with the former being the reason for their dismissal from the club after the concert Warhol witnessed. Lou's delivery and stream of consciousness lyrics are direct descendants of Dylan's work, but he goes a little further, spouting nonsense syllables for part of the song. European Son is truly psychedelic music, an attempt to alter consciousness rather than describing a state of altered consciousness, as most psychedelic songs do. The full band receives songwriting credit and it is a bit freeform but moves along and doesn't overstay its welcome. Its complete title is European Son to Delmore Schwartz, name-checking another hero, the poet who wrote "In dreams begin responsibilities" and mentored Reed in college. When European Son ends in a nasty haze of amplifier noise, there is a distinct sense that something has happened, which could be said for the whole experience of listening to the album.

If The Velvet Underground & Nico had been the only album they recorded, The Velvet Underground's place in the music firmament would have been entirely secure. It is hard indeed to imagine how bands and performers like The Stooges (Cale produced their first album), Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith, Suicide, Television, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Feelies, The Pixies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and many others would have even existed, much less gone on to influence so many others on their own, without the example The Velvet Underground provided on this record, which is well worth celebrating 50 years later.

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Lou Reed

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage


There's something about this album, the second by the Icelandic chamber ensemble Nordic Affect, that made me collapse a little, a kind of swoon almost, even into that word: raindamage. It evoked for me not something that would lead to a call to your insurance company, but the image of a leaf, bedraggled by rain drops but still clinging to a branch, the last one there. Or pounding sheets of winter rain seen through a picture window, moving across a field, one stalk of growth bent double and vibrating from the impact, the rest standing tall. A childhood memory from the Pyrénées also comes to mind, of watching a massive storm cover the valley below, lightning doubling itself in huge solar reflectors. It's that kind of record, one to send you spinning within yourself.

Raindamage is also the first piece on the album, a composition by Valgeir Siguròsson for violin, viola, cello and electronics, which perfectly combines the physicality of the plucked and bowed strings with the abstraction of the synthesized sounds. It's brief but epic, which can also be said of the other Siguròsson piece, Antigravity, which is solely electronic and descends into a space most wondrous dark.

Two other composers are included, Ùlfur Hansson and Hlynur Aòils Vilmarsson, and in each case they've composed one work for chamber instruments and one for electronics. The combinations of sounds in all cases evoke the interaction between nature's creations and those assembled by man, a gnarled vine ensnaring a power cable. [:n:] by Vilmarsson features the full complement of Nordics - the three strings and harpsichord - and seems to ask a series of unanswered questions, limning them with shimmering harmonics. Vilmarsson's electronic piece, NOA::EMS, hearkens back to the test lab sounds of pioneers like Manny Ghent and Ilhan Mimaroglu, without seeming at all experimental. It's a portrait of sound, in sound.

Hansson, who also created the wonderful White Mountain album in 2013, adds voices to his acoustic composition, Þýð, to spine-tingling effect. He also gets even more physical with the string instruments, gathering them all up into violent skirls of sound - you can feel the horsehair bow catching on the strings. Remember to breathe while listening. The playing by Halla Steinunn Stefásdóttir (violin), Gudrún Hrund Hardadóttir (viola), and Hanna Loftsdóttir, is almost frighteningly assured here, as it is throughout. Harpischordist Gudrún Óskarsdóttir is also excellent. Skin Continuum, Hansson's electronic work, folds an Uchwa Daiko drum into its soundscape, ratcheting up the simmering tension. Then it ends, as all pieces of music must, but it will last in your memory.

You will be left wanting more in any case, so head back to their gorgeous 2015 release, Clockworking, or catch them on their first U.S. tour. Maybe I'll see you at National Sawdust on April 19th!

Note: The word "raindamage" apparently comes from a "poetic fantasia" by Angela Rawlings called A Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists - worth investigating!