When a Woman Appropriates Cock-Rock

Face hidden by long hair, blasting overdriven bolts of atonal noise through sheets of white-hot feedback that obscure the instruments and the unintelligible vocals. Is this rock&roll?

The same night (24 November 1961), the Beatles played "Operation Big Beat II" at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton.

The same night (24 November 1961), the Beatles played “Operation Big Beat II” at the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton.

If the face is a white man, and the atonal noise is blasting out of an electric guitar, hell yes. Fists pump and the crowd screams “rock on dude!” But what if the face belongs to an Asian woman who was performing internationally before any of these men were born? Then the rocking-on dudes are screaming something very different. Suddenly the noise is not rock&roll dude. Suddenly the rocknrolldudes are so tremendously offended by this noise that they cannot seem to summon enough vicious racist misogynist venom for it, and the woman making it. It’s music when it comes from a thrusting pelvis. Not when it comes from a woman’s mouth. Especially not an Asian one. Who isn’t even pretty. No centerfold she, you ignorant yobs.

Yes, I’m talking about you, beatlefans. The ones who think John Lennon was a genius except for when he married someone smarter than him. The ones who wanted nothing more than to be part of the coolestboysclubEVER until Their Hero said, no thanks. Done with the boys. No more club. He didn’t believe in Beatles but they did. He believed in Yoko. Yoko and him. And they never forgave him for it.

Whatthefucksishedoingthere? How dare this (Yes I’m A) witch get on stage with John Lennon and Eric Clapton? How dare a woman add her voice to our noise? When we unzip and wave our guitars around in front of an audience we want one thing from open-mouthed women and it is nofuckingwayNOT outdoing us and making our guitars go all limp. Jimmy Plagiarism can shatter our eardrums all night, copping ideas from all over Asia and we’ll burn our fat stupid fingers with our cigarette lighters but out of a woman’s mouth? Oh no no no. Get that freak off the stage. Why doesn’t she shutthefuckup?

She’s ugly. Oh no wait that’s a picture of John. He was so handsome.

She can’t sing. My guitar mentally screeches but she can’t sing like that. Women can’t sing like that. Women are supposed to be folksingers. Or sexy and drunk and die young while they’re still pretty. Janis Ian, Janis Joplin, but no Jap artists please.

What makes she think she’s a musician? What makes John Cage think he was a composer? What made Laurie Anderson think she was a singer? What made Ornette Coleman think he could play a plastic saxophone? What made George Maciunas think he could swipe her ideas and call them Fluxus? What made La Monte Young think drones were music when he performed at one of her Chambers Street loft concerts? What made all these artists come to her? What made John climb that ladder?

The problem is, beatleflimflams, you have it backwards. The superstar avant-garde artist married a drunken pop star losing interest in the only thing he’d ever done as an adult. She went from putting on shows on three continents and collaborating with the best artists of her time, to helping overgrown pop boy move out of his fraternity house. She told him to his face what he couldn’t admit to himself. He was bored, he’d done all he could with these guys, it was time to move out and get his own apartment. She told him she’d love to be with him if he’d grow up and be himself instead of being one of the lads.

She didn’t give a shit about Beatles. ’What the fuck are The Beatles? I’m Yoko Ono! Treat me as me!’From the day I met her she demanded equal time, equal space, equal rights. I didn’t know what she was talking about. …

Yoko really woke me up to myself. She didn’t fall in love with the Beatle … she fell in love with me for myself, and through that brought out the best in me.

And that best meant leaving the club behind and throwing out the comic books and taking the pinup posters off the wall and sorry beatlewanks he had better things to do with his life sorry you didn’t. Poor pussywhipped rock star staying home baking bread and raising his son and finally not having to deal with all the sharks. Feed them to Mother. Let all the sleazy suits who ripped him off for so long have themselves ripped a new one by the dragon lady. What else could she be? How could a woman stand up to Allan B Kreep and the worms in the Apple and the bankers and the beatlefangerson?

Yes she’s a witch.

What’s saddest of all is we’ll never know. We’ll never have John to balance out his more-talented but always safe partner. Poor Sir Paul, forever on the road to damask sofas. Trudging around playing I’ve Just Seen a Facelift note for note the way he wrote it in 1965 – the same year Yoko performed Sky Piece to Jesus Christ at Carnegie Recital Hall – performing it yet again when he hasn’t been 64 in as many years as The Beatles were The Beatles. Would John be hauling the old hits around behind him like Marley’s chains? Or would he have been onstage at BAM playing killer freakout guitar and beaming at Mother finally getting her due? Getting off on the downtown bands Sean was playing with? And maybe one day he’d have taken Lorne Michaels up on it and blasted through some old fifties rock&roll til Paul’s makeup finally cracked.

And maybe he would have been at MOMA, ignoring the sad little DO NOT TOUCH sign and climbing the ladder again.


I think that’s where he would be. Where he’d rather have been. Where I’d rather be. When I’m 64.

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Tom Baker

Tom Baker, The Human League, b-side, 1981

Tom Baker, The Human League, b-side, 1981

Tom Baker was my first doctor, and even Peter Capaldi can never replace him in my heart. Near the peak of my obsession with the show, shortly before Baker’s departure, the Human League released “Tom Baker,” an instrumental b-side with a photo of him on the sleeve. But somehow until I saw the 45 on eBay recently, I’d never known the song existed.

The eighties tend to blend into one long synth-pop bad-hair decade, but in fact, synth-pop was almost unknown in 1981, especially in the U.S. At the time, I was deeply into Bowie, Eno and Talking Heads, and therefore aware of Kraftwerk and Cluster and Neu!, but there wasn’t much electro-pop just yet. There were some interesting things on indie radio (Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” followed by the great early New Order singles, Laurie Anderson’s fascinating “O Superman” video, the newly reformed King Crimson) but most of the synth-pop records that made their way across the pond was dull and/or derivative. Gary Numan’s “Cars” sounded like an outtake from Bowie’s Low, “Turning Japanese” was not only dumb but kind of offensive, “Just Can’t Get Enough” was bubblegum pop. The only interesting single I remember from those early days was OMD’s “Enola Gay.”

I never paid much attention to the Human League. They had a couple of great singles but otherwise sounded like every other generic synth-pop band of the era. However, I’d never heard of them in 1981 and neither had pretty much anyone else. The Human League that hit the charts a year later with “Don’t You Want Me Baby” was a completely different band from the one that released “Tom Baker.” Shortly after that single came out, the original band, which was edgy and experimental, broke up due to a stunning lack of commercial success. Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh left to form Heaven 17, and Phil Oakley hired a couple of high school girls (literally) and kept the Human League name. Both bands were considerably poppier than the original.

According to this somewhat uninformed article (Dr Who, and the entire BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was “not afraid to go electric” going back to before there was a such thing as a synthesizer), the original band were huge fans of the show and often covered the theme song live in concert. They jumped at an opportunity to visit the Workshop and wrote the “Tom Baker” song shortly therafter, probably trying to channel their theme-song cover without getting sued. Today, it sounds more dated than Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 original, but it’s still a great analog-synth-fest. You can find it nowadays on the rerelease of Travelogue, their first album to be released in the US. It also features a few other gems like the deeply weird “Only After Dark” and their medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll” and David Bowie/Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (the latter also covered, devastatingly, by Grace Jones).

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Amazon: Impudently Twisting the Facts

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.

George Orwell, “In Front Of Your Nose

Amazon is losing it. Answering the open letter from 900 authors asking them to stop strong-arming publishers into lowering book prices, its publicists twisted the words of George Orwell, of all people, in a bit of selective quotation worthy of marketers trying to find review quotations for the world’s worst movie.

Amazon’s response, posted at "readersunited.com" (a name as truthful as that of the Western Fuel Association’s so-called Greening Earth Society), quotes Orwell:

The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

It must take an extraordinary amount of self-delusion (and/or a terror of questioning Jeff Bezos) for Amazon to claim with a straight face that Orwell would have supported their blackmail. What he actually said, in a 1936 review of several new Penguin paperbacks, was

The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them.

Yeah. He’d be right there supporting Amazon, were he alive today. Especially after they deleted all copies of his most famous novel from Kindles a few years back. Amazingly, their screed remains uncorrected as of this writing.

Orwell’s point in the article was actually that cheap books are good for consumers, but bad for writers and publishers. So, not only did Amazon twist his words around, they took those words from an essay arguing that it was foolish to keep driving the cost of books down:

[I]n my capacity as writer I pronounce [paperbacks] anathema. …[T]he result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money well, finish it for yourself.

I am an Amazon customer, but I am becoming increasingly ashamed of that fact. I was angry enough at their extortionate behavior, but when they lie outright to our faces and tell us they’re on our side, they can’t be ignored any longer.

At the end of the same essay I quoted to start this piece, Orwell answers another question ("Why bother writing these things?):

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events.

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“Just when you think you’ve scraped the bottom…”

“…you find that you’re just scraping the surface.”

For a few years in the early 1990s, during my exile in New Jersey, I worked a genuine 9-5 job. WNYC was my lifeline, and Chopin’s Marzurka in C Major (Op. 24 No. 2) was my signal that I absolutely had to get out of bed and into the shower in order to get to work on time.


The mazurka was the theme song to Steve Post’s Morning Music, which held down the 8am slot on WNYC-FM for years, until it was canceled by new management after ex-Inferior Giuliani privatized the formerly NYC-owned station. (The new station president, Laura Walker, allegedly told Post, “I don’t like your sense of humor. I don’t get it. I don’t get your show.”)

I “got” Steve Post, and loved him dearly. I “don’t get” WNYC’s current alternative to Morning Edition, The Takewaway, and I would have loved to hear Steve Post mock its jejune mockery. I miss him, and his attitude, and the station that once saw him as a New York City treasure, and now can only muster up a four-paragraph obituary for him. (But follow the link to listen to Sarah Fishko’s memories.)

“Mayor” means “higher” in Spanish.

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Streaming Music Down the Drain

I hate streaming music services. I hate them as a listener, I hate what they’re doing to music, and I hate their business models. I believe these services are harmful to listeners as well as musicians, and that music lovers should not spend money on these services any more than food lovers should go to McDonald’s.

People are generally surprised by my vehemence on this topic, and I generally let it go rather than have an argument. But I am not only surprised, but somewhat horrified, by what I see as a staggering level of carelessness and thoughtlessness in how we consume our music. Why don’t we consider our principles when we spend our music dollar, the same way we do when we spend our food or clothing or reading dollars?

In short, you should cancel your streaming music subscriptions and find better ways to spend your money.

Streaming services hurt musicians

Do I really need to explain this? These services are evil. Just like Walmart sells you cheap clothing by abusing and underpaying their workers, and using overseas sweatshops, streaming music services offer you the ability to enjoy all the music you want for a very low price by paying essentially nothing to the musicians you love. Why are you participating in this abuse? Poor families buy clothes at Walmart because sweatshop goods are all they can afford, and the kids have to have clothes to go to school. What’s your excuse?

It’s hard not to support corporate abuse nowadays. We all do it sometimes, whether by ordering from FreshDirect, buying iPhones, or buying those cheap clothes. But don’t we at least consider alternatives? Don’t we try to make better choices when you can? And isn’t it easier to make the right choice when buying a non-necessity like music than when buying food or clothes? If you cancel your streaming service, you’ll have enough money to tip ten subway musicians a month. And you can listen to better music, chosen by real people who will challenge and surprise and delight you in a way that your streaming service never will, simply by listening to free online feeds from the dozens of good radio stations online. And perhaps the money you’re giving to the streaming pirates would be better spent on a membership for one of those radio stations.

If you hate music so much that you’re willing to participate in this abuse, why are you paying to listen to it at all?

Streaming services are bad for listeners

You think you have access to all the music in the world, but that’s almost the same as having access to nothing. How can you possibly choose what to listen to? Nobody listens to streaming music with intention; these services are the modern equivalent of Muzak. They provide a continuing stream of enjoyable and inoffensive music that requires no work, no participation and no thought on the part of the listener. I would not have thought it was possible to create something even more mindless and damaging than top 40 radio, but the streaming services have done so.

Yes, you get new music recommended to you based on what you listen to. But has anyone ever seen an algorithmically created recommendation list that wasn’t laughably off-base? Have you looked at your “recommended for you” list on Amazon lately? Or the ludicrous list of “Pages you might like” on Facebook? What makes you think the streaming services do any better? The only reason they don’t offend you as often as Facebook or Amazon is that they have a larger pool to choose from, and therefore can make safer (i.e., unchallenging and uninteresting) recommendations. They eliminate the possibility of howlers by eliminating the possibility of delight or surprise.

And do you really think these companies spend vast amounts of money to surprise and interest you with new music? Or are they feeding you the music they’re paid to feed you (or, as with Youtube’s recent action against independent record labels, withholding music unless they’re paid)?

Sure, you can build playlists of the artist you like and only listen to them, just as you would if you had bought their music. But you didn’t. And if everyone did what you’re doing, the music you’re enjoying would not exist. Sure, successful artists don’t need your money, but unless you want to live in a world where all of your music is created by corporations according to a business plan, you had better start supporting musicians so they can become successful.

Streaming services are a lie

“Why buy music?” you ask. “What’s the difference between owning a song and listening to it online? Either way I have it whenever I want.” Never mind the question of economics, you don’t have what you think you have. If a song is banned, if an album is pulled because of a lawsuit, if controversial lyrics are removed from a song, the streaming services will immediately remove or change that music, and you will no longer have what you thought you had. Albums routinely go out of print because of contractual problems or label disputes. Digital releases are sometimes travesties of the originals (for example, the butchering of ZZ Top’s first six albums for CD release, finally made available in their original form last year in an expensive boxed set; the troubled CD release (and withdrawal) of David Bowie’s catalog, the delayed and erratic handling of the Beatles’ music in digital form).

In short, why on earth would you trust Amazon or the major record labels to decide what you have a right to hear? When the next generation’s Prince decides to rebel against the system, what are the odds that Amazon will quietly remove his or her music from their service, or ensure that it never comess up in playlist or recommendations? What happens the next time a band like the Dixie Chicks stands up against an unpopular war, and thousands of people pressure these services to remove their music? You think you’ll still own that music then? Or that it won’t be quietly dumped it down or censored before you even realize it? Is anyone going to circulate lists of music soon to disappear, the way Reddit readers do for Netflix?

Streaming services rob the future

What would the world be like if we only had the music judged important by powerful record industry executives at the time? Would 60s music be the same without Jimi Hendrix? What about 70s music without the Ramones, the Velvet Underground? What about 80s music without old-school hip-hop? What about the entire careers of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and all the other folk revivalists, if record collectors have not been able to find forgotten music in attics and basements across the South?

With streaming services, you own nothing. Forgotten music is just gone. You have nothing to pass down to your children, or to look back on. You have nothing for another generation to rummage through, sample, and rediscover. Sure, that music is all available online (maybe, or maybe not) but your music, your taste, the things you discovered and loved, are gone. No one will ever find anything beautiful in your attic.

Eat real music

Stop buying processed corporate music that sounds like crap and won’t last. By real music from real musicians. Buy less, listen more. Listen consciously. Read album credits, learn who you are listening to, find out who they listen to. That’s how you find new music. Talk to your friends and listen to their music. Go see live music.

In the 1950s, people welcomed sliced white bread and canned vegetables and TV dinners. They were cheap and quick and convenient; you wouldn’t have to spend all day baking bread like your mother did. As a result, the health and ecology of the entire country has been suffering for more than a generation, and people now devote themselves to rediscovering the value of slow food, home cooking and local ingredients.

Do you want future generations to mock you the way we mock those sitcom mothers and fathers? Or does music matter enough to you that you will spend a little more, and work a little harder, to have the real thing instead of the processed substitute? Do you want the Velveeta, or do you want the Parmesan Reggiano? Surely a generation that spends $5 or more for a good cup of coffee can spend more than $10 a month on good music.

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The Original Walk On the Wild Side

Fawcett paperback edition

I don’t even remember where I bought the book. It was probably at a used bookstore; the title caught my eye immediately. I didn’t know someone had written a book based on the famous Lou Reed song. But it’s actually the other way around: Lou wrote the song based on the title of an unjustly forgotten novel by Nelson Algren, author of The Man with the Golden Arm

A Walk On the Wild Side was his last successful novel, in 1956. Lou Reed scorned this book in his classic monologue, and it has nothing to do with New York City, mostly being set in New Orleans. But the pimps and hustlers, the legless barroom fighter Schmidt on his wheeled platform, the homemade O Daddy condoms, the Navy commander wanting to be “made to behave” by the Black matron of a whorehouse – all of them would have fit perfectly into a Lou Reed song.

The book is famous for something else as well: the “three rules of life.” I didn’t realize it until the very end, when Dove (the main character) is getting advice in prison from Cross-Country Kline, “the only true criminal in the whole tank full of fools.” He’s an old-timer “with a battered and seamed old round brown ball of a face that looked as if it had been lined into the grandstand and lined right back,” and near the beginning of his monologue he outlines the rules:

  1. Never play cards with a man called Doc.
  2. Never eat a place called Mom’s.
  3. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.

There are more than three rules, though. Kline continues:

Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried them all and I know. They don’t work.

Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.

I had never heard the term “shaking another man’s jolt” before, but from the way it’s used in the rest of the book, it means interfering with how another prisoner is serving his time. The old man later dies in the same cell, shot while trying to escape a 99-year sentence.

It’s a magnificent novel, full of bitter observations about depression-era propaganda and politics. Algren reads like a somewhat more urban version of Sinclair Lewis, and I wonder if Lou ever went back and reread the novel when he was older. Algren’s bitter humor is certainly appropriate to modern New York City:

In the cheery old summer of ’31 New Orleans offered almost unlimited opportunities to ambitious young men of neat appearance willing to begin at the bottom and work their way up the Ladder of Success rung by rung. Those with better sense began at the top and worked their way down, that route being faster….

Self-reliance for the penniless in government aid to those already had more than they could use was the plan. But park benches were wet of a morning whether it rained or no; and it was possible to tire even of bananas.

Still at all, times weren’t as hard as some people grew fond of pretending. All that it happened really was a withdrawal from abnormal prosperity with business progressing on a downward grade toward new planes of normality and increasing equalization of opportunity. In short, we were going full steam ahead. Only this time one exciting opportunity was precisely as good as the next exciting opportunity. Which was to say, simply, that no one got paid any more.

Does that sound familiar? In that section Algren also makes a brief New York City reference as he lists the events of the year: “The President pressed a button in Washington that lit a fifty two million dollar building, the highest yet raised by the hand of man, at Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York.”

In one of the novel’s most gruesome scenes, Dove walks into a restaurant, shortly after arriving in New Orleans. In the back of the restaurant, a man is beheading turtles for soup.

Now the trouble with turtles is that they believe all things come to him that will but struggle. There’s always room at the top for one more, they think. And in this strange faith the snapping kind is of all the most devout. For it’s precisely that that makes them the snapping kind. Though the way be steep and bloody, that doesn’t matter so long as you reach the top of the bleeding heap.

The pile of turtle bodies grows as the butcher throws the heads on the floor, and the bodies keep fighting even after their heads are severed. Algren continues at length with his bloody noir predecessor to Yertle the Turtle.

Losing his head didn’t lose one his footing. His legs kept seeking yet bloodier heights. … Sensing that time was against him, he worked all the harder to succeed. Until the floor about the pyramid streamed black with blood, with some on their backs and some of their bellies.

Stepping on the stumps of a hundred bleeding necks, hauling itself over other backs, giving one a kick there and one a shove there, the body sent a dozen rising climbers sprawling over the cliff to failure. … Driven by some strength greater than that of others, waiting contentedly over mothers and orphans, it got its blind flippers at last onto the tail of a red snapper, hold itself onto the snapper’s back, pushed Red out from under, and landed smack in the middle of the heap.

He was the King of the Turtles.

The king waved his arrogant flippers triumphantly – “Always room for one more at the top” – just as something bumped him hard from behind and his short day was done. Sliding, sprawling, skidding, he slipped off the heap in a bloody skein and landed flat on his back below the table wigwagging frantically.

And as he lies there, Algren imagines the dying turtle’s pleas for help from his comrades.

“I never knowingly harmed a fellow creature unless he got in my way. I never took unfair advantage unless it profited me. … A devoted father, loyal citizen, a faithful employee, a kind employer, a considerate neighbor, regular churchgoer. Out of purity of heart I respected the laws of God and man. Purity, and fear of jail. Could you really stand by and watch associate the internal die?

Dove, of course, learns nothing.

“What’ll it be, boy?” the waiter asked.

Dove didn’t hesitate. “I’ll take the tarpon soup.”

He didn’t yet know there was also room for one more the bottom.

Algren wasn’t a middle-class moralizer; in a book of essays Doubleday refused to publish, he said, “You don’t write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich. A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”

He grew up in working-class Chicago and spent his entire life fighting injustice (as well as drinking heavily, suffering from depression and breakdowns, and gambling). Like most “radicals” he was involved with the Communist Party in the 1930s but grew turned off by its racism and its ideological rigidity. He wrote blistering books about Chicago corruption, and his last book (published posthumously) was about the Rubin Carter murder trial. His only lasting romantic relationship was with Simone de Beauvoir.

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters shortly before he died in 1981. The Chicago Tribune awards a Nelson Algren Award every year for short fiction, and the Nelson Algren Committee has an active Facebook page and holds a birthday party for him every year.

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Why Didn’t You Just Tell Them You Were a Moderate Man?

“Oh mighty thing!” said Vera to Frank, “Why didn’t you just tell them you were a moderate man and leave it at that instead of goosing yourself all over the room?” “Patience, Vera,” said Frank. Terry Shute, who was sitting over by the curtain cleaning an axe, climbed to his feet, walked over to Vera’s husband and placed his hand on his shoulder, “Yuh didn’t hurt yer hand, didja Frank?” Frank just sat there watching the workmen replace the window, “I dont believe so,” he said.

In the liner notes to his 1968 album, John Wesley Harding, the three Kings have shown up at Frank’s house to ask what the new Dylan album is about. Frank runs around like a lunatic for a few minutes, tearing off his clothes and stomping on a lightbulb, and then puts his fist through a window. The Kings aren’t sure of the explanation, but leave happily, having been cured of all their ills.

Dylan chose not to share the Kings’ reaction, if any, to his follow-up, the infamous Self Portrait, but critic Greil Marcus spoke for everyone with a Rolling Stone review that asked, “What is this shit?” A hopelessly disorganized mess of half-written originals, indifferent cover versions, and odd performances of traditional tunes, it’s frequently thought of as Dylan’s kiss-off to Columbia Records, cutting two albums off his contract (he was soon to leave the label), or as a deliberate attempt to knock down the public’s idolized and idealized version of “Bob Dylan.”

Whatever the reason, this legendarily bad album came at the beginning of his strongest period, the period that got me started on Dylan. One Christmas my parents gave me George Harrison’s 1971 Concert For Bangladesh album, a necessary but far too expensive purchase for a young Beatles fan with a $10-a-week allowance. It was largely a disappointment, but side five blew me away. Appearing live for the first time in many years, Dylan performed a half dozen of his classic songs accompanied by Harrison on guitar, Leon Russell on bass and Ringo Starr on tambourine. I knew very little about Dylan at the time, just the few songs that were played in the late 70s on rock radio. But I played that one album side over and over, completely blown away by Dylan’s voice and the power of the songs.

Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2

Blue Green, 1971

And it’s all about his voice. Harrison plays near-perfect accompaniment, but doesn’t take a single solo. Ringo is as perfect on tambourine as he is everywhere else, doing just enough and no more than is necessary, without a shred of ego. And Leon Russell plays simple and melodic bass. Dylan’s acoustic guitar is strong but not even slightly showy, and his harmonica playing solid, melodic and inventive, but neither take away from the sheer power of his voice.

He starts “Just Like a Woman,” the closing song, with a nice bluesy run up and down the neck, as Harrison and Russell confer behind him. But the band doesn’t pick up on it, so he pauses, waits, and then strums his way gracefully into the song. “Nobody feels any pain,” he starts softly, pushing it a bit harder as he sings the second half of the line, “tonight as I stand inside the rain.” Harrison and Russell sing harmony with him on the chorus, but leave him to sing the closing line alone. You hear a hint of the old sneer as he sings, “but she breaks just like a little girl,” or “her fog, her amphetamine and her pearls,” but this is not the vicious anti-ballad of the mid–60s. In the heart of the song, the camera closes in, and the bridge starts to build – “It was raining from the first so I came in here,” his voice rises not with venom but with pain, and by the time he gets the climactic line, “Ain’t it clear that I just don’t fit?” his voice pierces every heart in the room, and you’re still recovering as he winds down to the sarcastic (or not) “please don’t let on that you knew me when….I was hungry, and it was your world.”

(I’m not going to have the “Dylan can’t sing” argument. It’s simply ridiculous, like arguing about creationism or whether the Earth is round. If Dylan can’t sing, then neither can Tom Waits or Howlin’ Wolf or Woody Guthrie. If Dylan can’t sing, then Picasso can’t paint, and you can pour out your aged whiskey and get a wine cooler instead.)

Back in the real world, the early 70s were his high point as a singer. He didn’t have the sheer go-for-broke power and range of his younger years, and he hadn’t yet acquired the depth of feeling and experience he has now, but in this period (say, 1968 through 1975), he had the perfect balance of both. He was relaxed, smoking less and taking better care of himself, no longer “burning the candle at both ends and using a blowtorch in the middle.” He had shed the hard-edged armor of the mid–60s, and the Woody Guthrie imitation of the early 60s.

He was comfortable in his own skin, and had found his own voice: A gorgeous, weathered baritone that could spread butter (just think of “Lay Lady Lay”), stab deep, or slice close to the bone in an old-time song or a blues. But at the time, we hardly ever got to hear that voice. Through that period, he released very few albums. There were some masterpieces (John Wesley Harding, the first appearance of that gorgeous voice, Planet Waves, Blood On the Tracks, Desire). There were some solid second-tier albums like New Morning and Street Legal, the puzzling but sometimes wonderful Live at Budokan and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and absolute dreck like Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. (I’m not including the bizarre Dylan album, which I assume was Columbia’s revenge on him for Self Portrait.)

All through his long slide in the 1980s, where every album was worse than the one before, I remember hoping desperately that Dylan would once again release an album at least as good as Street Legal, wondering what had happened to that singer and why there was so little of him to hear. I bought his early albums, only to find that the original versions of those songs were mostly not as good as the live versions from 1971. I bought the new albums hoping for a “comeback” and never finding one. I consoled myself with a cassette tape (now an iTunes playlist) of the songs from Bangladesh plus a half-dozen new tracks recorded in 1971 and sprinkled among the reissues on Greatest Hits Volume II. (I called it “Blue-Green 1971” for the Bangladesh photographs that provided the cover art for Greatest Hits Volume II, dominated in hue by his blue denim jacket). And wished there was more where that had come from. Where was that singer from that summer night at Madison Square Garden, the one who sounded so good singing harmony with Happy Traum on “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere”?

It turns out he was locked in the vaults. The latest release in the “Bootleg Series,” Another Self Portrait, offers two discs of evidence that while publicly releasing some of the worst albums of his career, he or his record company held back some truly wonderful music. Song after song of Dylan alone, or with David Bromberg and Al Kooper, perhaps Charlie McCoy on bass, singing songs we haven’t heard before, or songs that were released with poor choices in overdubs and production. Bromberg’s guitar reminds me of David Rawlings in its relaxed and melodic pyrotechnics, while Charlie McCoy plays the perfect bass that stood out so beautifully on Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding. George Harrison joins on a few songs with great harmonies and stellar country electric solos. There’s another song with Happy Traum. Some old songs sung well, and some songs we remember him singing terribly (“If Dogs Run Free,” “Alberta”) in better versions. And we have the full concert from Dylan’s appearance at the Isle of Wight that same year, singing beautifully, backed by The Band at full force. Dylan’s singing is top-notch, he’s playing harmonica like he means it, and his guitar and piano are a joy to listen to.

“What seems to be the problem?” Frank turned back to the three kings who were astonished. The first king cleared his throat. His shoes were too big and his crown was wet and lopsided but nevertheless, he began to speak in the most meaningful way, “Frank,” he began, “Mr. Dylan has come out with a new record. This record of course features none but his own songs and we understand that you’re the key.” “That’s right,” said Frank, “I am.” “Well then,” said the king in a bit of excitement, “Could you please open it up for us?” Frank, whom all this time had been reclining with his eyes closed, suddenly opened them both up as wide as a tiger. “And just how far would you like to go in?” he asked and the three kings all looked at each other. “Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there,” said the first chief.

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This Is, Indeed, a Disco

This ain’t no disco? Oh really? That Talking Heads lyric was always misquoted (as David Byrne complains in his new book) but from the look of the charts, this is, indeed, a disco. The two biggest hits of the summer (certainly my two favorites) are straight-up, unashamed, and wonderful disco songs.

Daft Punk already has my vote for album of the year. I’ve enjoyed their other work, but Random Access Memories is absolutely brilliant. Recorded straight to tape with an all-star cast of live musicians, it combines their electronica work with their love for old R&B and disco, and features the playing of some of the greatest musicians of that era, like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers.

And for you those of you still trapped in the segregated 1970s: While we were all chanting “Disco Sucks!” we were also, without realizing it, listening to and enjoying the work of both of those musicians, and many other “disco” artists besides. And our “rock” heroes worshiped them.

Moroder became famous in creating Eurodisco with Donna Summer hits like “I Feel Love,” but he went on to produce brilliant work for “rock” musicians like David Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Adam Ant, Blondie and Freddie Mercury.

Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, was the founder of Chic and the writer of songs that wedding DJs use to this day to fill a dance floor. He was the driving force behind Bowie’s Let’s Dance, and produced records for Southside Johnny, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, and so on.

In any case, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is driven by Rodgers’ killer guitar. Daft Punk recorded a demo, featuring Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Nathan East, who’s played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder. Rodgers stripped it down to the drum part, and worked out one of his signature guitar parts. Then East rerecorded his bass part to match Rodgers’ playing, Pharrell Williams sang the vocal, and a monster single was born. No drum machines or samplers, a minimal number of tracks: Disco the way it was recorded 35 years ago.

And then there’s Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which was the result of a deliberate attempt to recreate Marvin Gaye’s 1977 disco smash, “Got To Give It Up (Part I).” (The attempt may have been a little too successful, as it turns out; Thicke is facing lawsuits from Gaye and from George Clinton, whose “Sexy Ways” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Blurred Lines.”)

I’m not sure “Blurred Lines” qualifies as plagiarism; the similarities are obvious, but more in groove and style than in specific lyrics or hooks. (Although the bass line is pretty damn close.) If it’s plagiarism, so is a good chuck of Prince’s early work. You also have to wonder why George Clinton didn’t sue Marvin Gaye, considering that “Got To Give It Up” came out three years after Funakdelic released “Sexy Ways.” But then maybe Gaye might have had an issue with the Funkadelic record, whose title (Standing On the Verge Of Getting It On) clearly referenced Gaye’s own “Let’s Get It On.”

But I am sure that “Blurred Lines” is a killer single. And that Pharrell Williams is having a very good summer.

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Irregular Language and Regular Expressions

The other day a friend tweeted about “a regular expression to tell if a number was prime.” I followed the link with my eyebrows raised, because I was fairly sure that was beyond the capabilities of a regular expression.

As I suspected, it is. The post she linked to described a lovely piece of programming, but not a regular expression. Being an inveterate blue-pencil wielder, I pointed this out, and she (not incorrectly) said I was being fussy.

She meant that I was insisting on the formal definition of “regular expression,” which is much stricter than the common informal usage. However, in my own defense, I’ll point out that the programming trick in question wasn’t (just) a regular expression, even by the more common definition.

By now, you probably realize two things. First, this post involves the kind of nitpicking that will aggravate anyone who doesn’t like being corrected when they use “they” as a singular pronoun. Second, we’ll be discussing regular expressions, which to the untrained eye look like line noise from the old dialup modem days. If your eyes cross when reading  s/^[!\]]+/\[/, you may want to move on.
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Dancing to a Found Harmonium

Perhaps it is a good sign that I welcomed summer with an all-day outdoor gig yesterday. I didn’t play all day; Big Road in Chelsea sponsored a stage for Make Music New York so I played a set with Big Road Blues, sat in with a few others, and ran sound for most of the day.

It was a beautiful day to play, across the street from the Chelsea Hotel, where construction workers stood on the scaffold to watch the beautiful Highland Divas and their harmonies. Believe it or not, an irate resident of a nearby apartment building came down to complain, asking us to turn the music down. Given that the audience was already struggling to hear the singers over the traffic and the construction, I didn’t pay her much mind. But apparently she or someone else then called the police, Who showed up and demanded to see our sound permit. Which, at first, we couldn’t find, but fortunately Alan remembered the name of the officer to whom he had spoken, and the sergeant was able to confirm it with the precinct.

I saw some old friends, including Melissa Tong who did a great Mississippi Hill country blues set with Bill Hammer (of Porkchop Willie). I jammed for a bit with Fuzzy Island, and sat in with Sasha Papernik on her lovely and original take on the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.”

The day ended (for me) with a set by Irish musician and dancer Niall O’Leary, accompanied by some of his students and the reigning All-Ireland button accordion champion, Martin O’Connell. In the video below, they play for a bit and then Niall and his student get up to dance, while Martin plays a version of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s wonderful “Music For a Found Harmonium.” I love the tune but sadly had to admit that while I had worked some years ago to learn it, I cannot play it at speed. So perhaps this will inspire me to practice it again. (The B part is an extremely hard-to-remember series of Philip Glass-like chromatic arpeggios.) (Here’s a nice version on acoustic guitar, which sounds great despite the player’s admission that he doesn’t even necessarily know the correct notes for the B part. That makes me feel better.

(Video removed by request of the subject.)

I had been scheduled to do my own set, but I wasn’t feeling really given that I’ve played and practiced so little for the last year or so. But it was an inspiring day so hopefully I’ll be out playing more soon.

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