Sunday, November 10, 2013

Overdosed On Pleasure: The Book of Nilsson

Biography Schmiography
"Neither of us could stop laughing, and finally I said, 'I can't take any more pleasure, John. I can't take any more pleasure. Stop! It's gotta stop!'" That's John as in Lennon, of course, being yelled at by Harry Nilsson in one of the haunting episodes in Alyn Shipton's fine - and necessary - new biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. Nilsson and Lennon were in the midst of their famous "lost weekend" and were in the second continuous day of dropping acid and getting up to no good with two young women. This outrageous escapade began when Lennon said to Nilsson, "I'd love to get some girls and some acid and fuck'em," and Nilsson responded by saying he could get it done with one phone call. And he did.

Something about the gluttony described in that story, which Shipton gleaned from Nilsson's unfinished autobiography (a major source of information in the book), resonates with many of the themes in Harry's life and music. Even from his first album proper, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson was loading on piles of horns, strings, carnival barkers - everything AND the kitchen sink seemed to be the operating principle - enough that even when he's at his best you might find yourself saying "Stop! It's gotta stop." But he was so unique that you'll go back for more in fairly short order.

One doesn't need to be a psychologist (or even a pop-psychologist) to figure that Nilsson's need for surfeit, and ability to provide it, came from the gaping emotional wound left behind when his father abandoned him, an act compounded by his mother's lies about why he had gone. The final blow came when Harry later learned that for part of his childhood his father was nearby and was uninterested in seeing his son. Shipton deals with Nilsson's early life with brisk efficiency in the first chapter which ends as he is recording his earliest demos in 1962. By then he had a respectable job in a bank, showing an early aptitude for the computers that financial institutions were adopting at the time. However, he had already lived a couple of lifetimes at that point: born in Brooklyn, he criss-crossed the country both with his mother and sister and without, played high school baseball with Carl Yastrzemski, knocked over a liquor store to put food on his mother's table - practically the only thing he didn't do for his first 17 years was make music.

Even after he started it still took several years for his career to take off, but when it did it was obvious that a serious talent had arrived. From the beginning, RCA marketed him as "The True One," and even before his smash hit Nilsson Schmilsson album (his seventh for RCA) he had attracted the attention, and eventual friendship, of all four Beatles, had songs covered by everyone from Astrud Gilberto to Glen Campbell, worked on prestige projects such as John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (winning a Grammy for Everybody's Talkin') and Otto Preminger's Skidoo, and created a nationally televised animated special called The Point. By any lights, he was in the midst of an extremely interesting and richly musical mid-level career. "Mid-level" because, despite all his successes, RCA was not really making back their investment on his albums.

Enter Richard Perry, one of a swinging new breed of record producer, with whom Nilsson decided it was time to "' some rock and roll and get down." The resulting concoction was Nilsson Schmillson, an album I have dubbed "the white Thriller," both for its quantity of hit songs and its variety of material, which offers something for everybody - and every radio format. It went gold in a matter of months, earned him another Grammy, and has stood the test of time as one of the most enduring classics of the 1970's. The million-selling status of Nilsson Schmilsson may be unique in the annals of rock when you consider that it was achieved without any touring or live performances to speak of. However, it also sowed the seeds for Nilsson's personal and professional destruction, a transition which was stunningly rapid and which Shipton delineates in detailed reportage, with rueful affection but no judgement or sensationalism.

It's hard to imagine the deep feeling of worthlessness that must have fueled Harry's descent into a life of monstrous excess. Since he was joined in his descent by such fellow travelers as Lennon, Ringo, and Keith Moon, there is some entertainment value in the wild tales but it can make for painful reading when you consider the cost to Nilsson's music. Fortunately, Shipton is clear-eyed in his assessment of the patchy years that followed Nilsson Schmillson. The casual listener will likely be unaware of at least five of the seven albums (not including the somewhat bizarre soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye) Harry made from 1972 to 1980 - his last album wasn't even released in the U.S. But each one has something to offer and, with Shipton's guidance, I've assembled some of the tracks worthy of reconsideration in a Spotify playlist called Later, Harry. If you want to go all in, The RCA Albums Collection has everything he recorded for the label including many rarities and unreleased material.

One of the most remarkable parts of this remarkable story is Nilsson's third marriage to Una O'Keefe, who he met by chance in NYC when she was a nineteen-year-old on a student visa from Ireland and waitressing at Rumpelmayer's. After waiting for her to finish college, they married and went on to have five children. She stuck with him to the end, and it gives the reader comfort to know there was someone who cared for him unconditionally. Like Una, we have to accept the good Nilsson and the bad, and Shipton's book, along with the must-see documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, gives us the definitive take on an American original. So, put the lime in the coconut and read it all up.

P.S. Part of the fun of reading the book is running to YouTube to confirm that some of the crazy stories are really true, like the tale of the $5,000 TV commercial:

Holly Miranda In Her Element

Domino Kirke was first up at Knitting Factory on October 29th, and she played a sweet, short set of her dark-hued psychedelic ballads, growing more comfortable with each song. It seems her career as a superstar doula had kept her from the stage for a while and she was blowing the rust off as the opener for a triple bill of singers with Holly Miranda as headliner. Her sister Jemma is one of the stars of the HBO series Girls, but fortunately nothing went awry during her performance, as so often happens on that brilliant show. Domino is rock royalty, being the daughter of Simon Kirke, who as the drummer in Free and Bad Company helped define the soundtrack of the 70's. While Domino's music has none of the blues-based swagger those bands did so well at their best, perhaps her father's wonderfully spacious drumming had an influence on her open and uncluttered songwriting. Hopefully the warm reception she got at the Knit will encourage her to follow up The Guard, her four-song EP from 2012, with some new music.

While the stage was reset, a woman who had just come in asked me and my friend if the middle act, Kendra Morris, had gone on yet. No, she's next, we explained, you just missed Domino Kirke. It turned out that she was a friend of Kendra's and she wondered what had brought us to the club. "Holly Miranda," I said, "I've been following her for years but I haven't seen her perform in a while." She hadn't heard of Holly before and wondered how I had found out about her. I wasn't surprised by her surprise to my answer: "The New York Times." Nobody really thinks about finding out about cutting-edge rock music in the sometimes risible pop music coverage featured in the Gray Lady, which often takes the form of lengthy disquisitions on such non-entities as Brad Paisley. But every once in a while you learn about something amazing - I can recall first reading about Gang Of Four and Public Enemy in the paper - so I try to keep up with their features and reviews.

It was back in March 2009 when I first read about a Holly Miranda show at Zebulon. Something about how the music was described and the evident passion in the accompanying photo drove me to MySpace (yes, MySpace) to listen. The sounds were hypnotic, the voice was mesmerizing. She had nothing released at the time so I bookmarked her page and listened every day. I was apparently not the only one who was impressed - Kanye West shared Slow Burn Treason on his blog. I downloaded it from there and soon began to assemble a little playlist of free stuff as she made it available.

It turned out that she had quite a story: raised by fundamentalists in the Midwest, she had almost no exposure to popular culture until she fled for NYC at the age of 16. She fell in with some unscrupulous music biz types (who turned out to be mob connected) and recorded her first album, which can definitely be filed under juvenilia. Soon she was fronting a punky band called the Jealous Girlfriends and started having some success, with songs featured on Gray's Anatomy and other shows. But her vision was more expansive and she went solo, which is where I came in.

During her time in NYC, she became friends with the members of TV On The Radio and Dave Sitek began producing her demos. Eventually they made an album together, the Magician's Private Library. It's a fine record but I couldn't help thinking that Sitek's somewhat heavy-handed production had muted Holly. This was borne out when I finally had a chance to see her perform at Celebrate Brooklyn in August 2010. The sense of dynamics was far more pronounced than on the album and her gorgeous voice had a better chance to shine. This was also my daughter Hannah's first rock concert (she was 11) and she was riveted. One highlight was Holly's cover of the Etta James classic, I'd Rather Go Blind.

Holly moved to California and embarked on her next record, financed through PledgeMusic. The two songs she has released so far, Desert Call and Everlasting, are easily among the best songs of the year and lead me to believe that my hope that the album will be the full expression of her unique voice as a singer and songwriter will not be unfulfilled. When she's at her best, as in the new songs, she has the rare ability to induce me to stop what I'm doing and just listen. She seems incapable of being insincere, a quality borne out by the startling version of Alphaville's Forever Young included on the album of cover songs that was my pledge reward. I'd always dismissed this song as pure pap, but she approaches it without a shred of irony, finding a kernel of soulful truth in it and making me hear the song the same way she did.

Unfortunately, insincerity was not a problem for Kendra Morris, whose set stood between us and Holly's performance. I won't belabor the point but her clich├ęd belting drove us to get a drink in the outer room, where we remained until she left the stage.

Good company and good whiskey made the time pass quickly, however, and soon we were watching Holly take the stage, her spangled shirt sparkling in the dark. Her band included another guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and, in an interesting addition to this standard line up, a baritone sax player. As soon as the first song started, you could tell we were in the presence of the complete package. In the years since I saw her in Prospect Park, she has become a commanding bandleader and a versatile rhythm guitarist, while harnessing her remarkable vocal instrument with complete control. The sound was far from ideal - over-amped and a bit too bright - but the power of her music was undeniable and felt too big for the room, a quality noted by Jon Caramanica in that long-ago review.

When she played the new songs, it also became clear how far her songwriting has come. She has left behind the sing-song melodies that were sometimes a crutch in her earlier songs and and has developed a style both more sophisticated and more elemental, seeming to tap into the mainline of why we humans started writing songs in the first place. Perhaps singing songs associated with Etta James and Barbara Mason, not to mention embodying the live-wire emotion of a song like God Damn The Sun by Swans (also included on the covers album) has left its mark on her own writing. Whatever her process, throughout the concert I couldn't shake the feeling that her craft has now risen to the level of her talent.

Even the songs from The Magician's Private Library sounded more alive. The sax turned out to be a canny choice, sometimes doing the job of a horn section, and sometimes providing a drone or wash not unlike a keyboard. I'm not sure who was playing it, but she brought the house down with a melodic and surprisingly nimble solo. However, most of the bravura moments came from Holly herself - her voice, her stage presence, her songs - and I think the she might finally find herself in rooms big enough for her music when the next album comes out in spring 2014.


Thursday, November 07, 2013

Multiplicities Of Genius, Part 2: Sly Stone

Am I the only one who felt a slight sinking sensation upon realizing that Scorcese's brilliant film about Dylan, No Direction Home, was not going to go past 1966? One would think that by 2007, it was time to see Dylan's sixties work in context with the rest of his legendary career, which includes over 25 albums since 1970. I'm as capable of fetishizing the sixties as anyone else, but in the case of some of the music legends that came out of that time, it actually diminishes them to confine them to one era.

Sly Stone is another such genius. While his post-Woodstock career is nothing like Dylan's, his later work still deserves to be assessed and not dismissed, as it often has been. In the early 90's a friend sent me an import CD of Fresh, Sly & The Family Stone's album from 1973. Sony/Columbia/Epic had not deigned to include the gold-selling record that contained If You Want Me To Stay and In Time in their first round of CD issues. Why? "Too funky," my friend opined. "Too personal," I thought. Small Talk (also a gold record) and High On You, from 1974 and 1975, were also left out in the cold, along with the three albums that followed. Whatever the reason for the revisionism there has been a gradual correction, if an incomplete one, to the official canon. A huge step in the right direction was made in 2007 when Epic/Legacy put out a box set of the first seven albums, newly mastered and featuring bonus tracks.

It was a delight to hear beautifully prepared releases of Fresh and Small Talk, and to have a real opportunity to consider them in relation to Sly's more lauded work. Even considering the travails caused by his personal problems and addictions, he managed to keep the quality up. While the later albums didn't always innovate on a sonic level, they certainly held their own against the likes of Kool & The Gang and the Ohio Players, to mention just two of Sly's progeny. For the deep fan, however, there was still that twinge: What about High On You (represented only by a demo of Crossword Puzzle tacked on to the end of Small Talk) and the other albums? Shouldn't we have the opportunity, with an artist of Sly's stature (and one who has sold millions of records) to grasp the whole achievement?

Well, now another step has been taken, with the release of Higher, the lavishly packaged four CD set, which includes some pre-Family Stone work and goes right up through Heard Ya Missed Me, Well I'm Back, the last Sly album on Epic before he decamped to Warner Bros. There's also 17 unreleased tracks, including a few spectacular live performances, and many of the most famous songs are issued in their mono single masters for the first time on CD. There are some real gems among the rare material, like Remember, a swaggering blues that came out of a collaboration with Billy Preston (Free Funk from his Wildest Organ In Town is his version), and You're The One, a hit for Little Sister and performed furiously by the Family Stone on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in 1973.

The live material from The Isle Of Wight festival is also stellar, but some of the newly unearthed material is strictly for bragging rights, such as a number of so-so instrumentals. There's a telling remark by drummer Greg Errico appended to one of them in the book included in the set: "These aren't instrumentals per se; they are tracks before the vocals were added," and that weren't completed for one reason or another. While the instrumentals aren't that memorable in their current form, they do serve to throw into relief the brilliance of Sly's lyrics, vocal melodies and arrangements. As for the classic material, much of it is well-chosen, although I would argue against including the nearly 14 minute Sex Machine (from the Stand! album), which I've always found leaden. The valuable real estate it occupies could have made room for two or three more songs from the final three albums, represented here by six songs in total, or accommodated one or two cuts from Back On The Right Track, Sly's first album for Warner Bros., such as the wry groove of The Same Thing (Makes You Laugh, Makes You Cry) or It Takes All Kinds.

On the whole, while the true fan will want all the complete albums as well, Higher comes closer than anything else to displaying the breadth of Sly's achievement. The book includes a decent essay, song by song descriptions with many quotes from band members (including Sly), and a timeline, along with great photos of the group and associated memorabilia. If you can find it, the "Amazon exclusive" version of the set is highly recommended as it comes with a bonus disc including six more tracks, including Sittin' On My Fanny from 1975.

While the essay does mention the "excess, strain, and recklessness which sometimes follow fame," there is no visual representation of the darker side of Sly's life. I have often wondered what it looked like as he made There's A Riot Going On, a dark murky album that still managed to produce three or four hit singles. I'll have to keep looking because all the pictures in the book show Sly smiling and seemingly in full command of the situation. This makes it easy to avoid thinking deeply about why Sly fell victim to drugs - was it just brain chemistry and opportunity, or could he feel the walls closing in as the culture's definition of him as a cartoonish avatar of sixties optimism grew more and more sealed? I believe that until we address questions like that head on, we will not be taking Sly's full measure with all the love and compassion deserved by someone who has brought the world so much joy and insight.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lou Reed

"Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us." - from Laurie Anderson's obituary for her husband, Lou Reed

Thanks to the ongoing slow-motion train wreck tragedy that is classic rock radio, it is all too possible that a majority of the people in this country associate Lou Reed with one song, the canny concoction known as Walk On The Wild Side. This is not an entirely bad thing as it is a brilliant song, and one that that managed to get both "head" and "colored girls" - i.e. transgression - on radios across the land. However, it is also shameful when you consider the gratitude we owe Lou Reed, both for his music specifically and for his ambitions for rock music in general. In countless interviews, Reed made it plain that his "life was saved by rock and roll," and that he wanted to return the favor by creating music that would align what was seen as teenage fare with the literary and artistic movements of the day, i.e. the great American novel in song.

For this reason, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the first album by his seminal band, is at least as important as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in affecting the transformation of rock music into an art form on the same level as books, movies, paintings, etc. What's more remarkable, he was able to accomplish this without losing sight of the blues and soul that made the music great to begin with. And why should we thank him for this? Simply because it meant that he made the rock and roll that saved the lives of a new, more sophisticated audience while inspiring some of the finest music of the seventies and beyond.

Even if he had burnt out and faded away after Loaded and being forced out of his own band, the songs he wrote for the four Velvet Underground albums (not to mention others released later) would have established him as one of the finest songwriters of the century. His novelistic eye for detail, ability to deal with multiple viewpoints and the compassion he almost always had for the characters he created and often portrayed in his songs enlarged the parameters of what a song could do. While he was sometimes accused of misogyny, it's remarkable how many songs he wrote from the point of view of women, from Nico's songs on the first album to Candy Says, Lisa Says, Stephanie Says and Caroline Says. That's not to mention She's My Best Friend and the tongue-half-in-cheek rebuttal of Women ("I love women, I think they're great") from 1982's The Blue Mask.

I'm not going to spend any more time defending him - as a man he was more complex than most, which fed into his complexity as an artist. I will say that the one time I encountered him face-to-face, at a Tower Records autograph event, he was friendly and patient with the long line of fans. Funnily enough, while people love to attack him for being a bit of a bastard, there are few figures outside of hip hop besides Lou whose street cred depends on them being the hard man. Concerns about him going soft are ridiculous, in any case, when you consider that the first track on VU's debut was the achingly beautiful Sunday Morning. By the time that record ended, Lou (and his cohort of John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Mo Tucker) had cleared so much artistic space for himself that to try to put a simple box around his talent was a fool's errand.

Defying expectations was a big part of his m.o., driven partly by the joy of taking on new creative challenges and the satisfaction of keeping people guessing. But to those of us who followed along closely, there was the excitement of being shown new perspectives on truth and beauty on a fairly regular basis. Here are a couple of snapshots of my own personal thrills of being a Lou Reed fan.

1983: I can distinctly remember the night air on Central Park West as I walked down to catch what was then the CC train for an important errand: a trip to the Bottom Line on West 4th Street to acquire Lou Reed tickets for me and my friend, Leo. This was a crucial concert and I was not leaving anything to chance. I was especially happy that Leo could join me as he was a bit of a project of mine where music was concerned. Just a few years earlier, he had called The Beatles "just a lot of loud guitar," so the fact that I had been able to move him off that and then get him into the Velvets and Lou Reed (not to mention a lot of punk, post-punk and new wave) was quite gratifying. Once the tickets were purchased, all we had to do was wait a few weeks, which time we spent listening to The Blue Mask, his complete return to form that had been released about a year earlier, as well as as much of the back catalog as we could get our hands on.

Anticipation was high by the time the night rolled around, and even a little anxiety. Which Lou would we get? The one capable of putting on a devastatingly effective rock show or the rapier-witted and sometimes downright nasty stand up comedian who appeared on Take No Prisoners, a live album recorded at the Bottom Line just five years earlier. In short, would he mug us on the way out, as he threatened to do on that album, or would he move us to tears with fragile and carefully observed songs like The Day John Kennedy Died?

We lined up outside the legendary club, our excitement immunizing us from the frigid February air. What passed for conversation was Leo saying, "Lou Reed, Lou REED," and me saying, "I know, I know!" Finally we were let in and grabbed a couple of spots at one of the long tables that abutted the stage. Since the drinking age had recently been changed to 19 I ordered a screwdriver by using the fake ID I bought in the back of a Times Square arcade. This was Lou Reed's New York, and we did dangerous stuff like that.

There was little fanfare before the man himself and his crack band appeared before the sold out house and launched into Sweet Jane. A shiver went through me as I took in every detail of the performance. The way his eyes would almost shyly rake the crowd, as if he was taking it all in. The precision of his guitar playing, locked tight with Robert Quine (the other genius on stage that night). The glances to Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Fred Maher - communicating what looked like satisfaction and pride.

Before Sweet Jane had even ended, it was clear that Lou was in full command of his powers, excited and in total control all at once. The rest of the concert, a concise hour, did nothing to disabuse us of this first impression. The set list was well chosen between Velvet Underground classics and more recent material, with everything sounding homogenous due to the distinctive sound world of the quartet. There was Lou's guitar, dark and powerful, and Quine's trebly jangle, which could go into full on skronk at a moment's notice. Underneath was Saunders's very distinctive bass patterns, all swoops and glides, and Maher's drumming, which was both flawless and explosive.

Leo and I were hypnotized for the whole show, bobbing our heads like most of the crowd (maybe not Andy Warhol, whose table was not visible to us), in a perpetual state of joy and wishing it would never end. One moment that stood out was Lou's solo during Women; prefaced by some careful adjustments to his amp and axe, Lou uncoiled long, gorgeous notes, masterfully matched with overtones, the result sounding more like a viola than a guitar. It was jaw-dropping and I tried to hold it in my mind for as long as possible.
I made a tape of the concert, which was unnecessary as they were filming the whole thing. It was later issued as a video called A Night With Lou Reed and it is well worth watching. At the end of the video, we get to follow Lou backstage, where he greets well wishers (including his then-wife, Sylvia Morales, who deserves a lot of credit for his resurgence at that time), and makes a few telling comments about the show. "That was short and delicious," he says, and then "I hit one note that actually caused me to levitate about half a foot. I'm not sure if it was pain or pleasure that did it." Watching this a few days ago, I simply thought: I can relate.

I was lucky enough to see Lou four other times, and except for one over-amped sonic travesty at The Ritz, they were all great shows, especially the pioneering concerts where he played New York and Magic and Loss in their entirety.

1983, part 2: In September 1982 I became a believer in love at first sight when I met the woman who later became my wife. About a year after that, I transferred to her college and, after dealing with the end of her previous relationship, we became an item. When November was on the horizon, all I wanted was that we could be together over Thanksgiving break. However, it was not to be: I was laid low by a bad case of mono and was not able (or allowed) to travel to Syracuse (Lou's college town) to be with my love. I was lonely, wiped out and miserable. I did not want to listen to any music, which is very unusual for me, when a half-remembered sound came to me, a sound that might be the only thing to fit my mood.

A couple of years earlier, I had paid a pretty penny for a copy of Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed's fifth solo album. I had done my reading so I had some idea what to expect but bought it anyway, partly as a completist act and partly out of curiosity. At the time, I dropped the needle down on a few spots on the album's four sides and thought it was both a noble experiment and a brilliantly conceived fuck you. I loved the liner notes ("My week beats your year") and appreciated the irony of seeing RCA's Red Seal label - normally reserved for classical releases - applied to Lou's evil slabs of wax.

Now, however, my black mood called those little snippets back to my mind and I knew that no other record would do. I played all four sides and it fit my psyche like a glove. While I can't say I listen to Metal Machine Music frequently, I have always been grateful to Lou for helping me through that tough time. And fortunately, I didn't ruin everything when I played Berlin for my girlfriend some time later, even though she was actually angry at me for exposing her to such a depth of sadness. In the fullness of time, both albums, denigrated upon release, have become classics. That was Lou's final reward for staying true to his vision.

In the end, that is one of the central messages of Lou Reed's career: don't believe what you read, don't believe what people say about you, hone your internal compass and let it guide you. The same can be said for the artists who inspired him, from Hubert Selby, Jr. and William S. Burroughs, to Doc Pomus and Dylan. As a thought to end this, I urge you to follow Lou's example and find your own points of reference in his remarkable body of work. Don't believe the obituaries with their lazy shibboleths and bits of received wisdom. Transformer is not perfect (in fact, it's quite uneven), The Bells is not the great lost album (that might be Rock And Roll Heart), Take No Prisoners is not just a comedy album (stunning versions of Berlin and Pale Blue Eyes put the lie to that view), Lulu, his collaboration with Metallica, does not suck (it's a brave and bloody album, worth it for Iced Honey and Junior Dad alone). Listen for yourself. Do it for Lou.

"Take me for what I am, a star newly emerging." - Lou Reed, Set The Twilight Reeling (1996)