I’ve long admired musicians who find it easy to collaborate, moving seamlessly (or so it seems) from group to group while maintaining their own careers. Neko Case and Emmylou Harris do this all the time, as do others, but Dave Alvin and John Doe are experts in the art of the side project.
The longtime friends have worked together off and on for almost 40 years, since the heady days of The Blasters and X, forefathers and fixtures of the early 1980s Los Angeles punk rock scene. At one point, between leaving The Blasters and going solo, Alvin joined X for a brief period and gave the group his classic “4th of July” for their “See How We Are” album.
Over the past three-plus decades, I’ve managed to see Alvin and Doe live as part of two side projects — The Knitters and one-off supergroup The Pleasure Barons (still one of my favorite shows ever). But it wasn’t until Saturday night, at Union Stage in Washington, D.C., that I managed to catch the elusive Flesh Eaters.
Understandably, The Flesh Eaters does not sound like a natural fit for a website that focuses on Americana music. But given the group’s makeup, and the way its members have toggled effortlessly between genres, it makes perfect sense.
A fun mix of blues, punk, country, and garage band pop/grunge, with plenty of saxophone and occasional forays into jazz, the show presented an opportunity for musicians who genuinely seem to enjoy playing together to do so. After 16 songs and almost 100 minutes of music, which followed a set by opener Porcupine, the audience walked out knowing they had seen something that may never happen again.
Founded by singer-songwriter Chris Desjardins, self-described as a morbidly romantic punk poet, The Flesh Eaters have had a rotating cast of musicians during an off-and-on history that dates back to 1977. In 1981, Alvin, Doe and other members of X and The Blasters backed up Desjardins (known as Chris D) on the album “A Minute to Pray.” The album was put out by Ruby, a Slash Records subsidiary. (Subsidiary, in this case, meaning you had next-to-no budget to record.)
After recording the album, Doe and percussionist/drummer D.J. Bonebrake went back to X, while Alvin, drummer Bill Bateman, and saxophone player Steve Berlin returned to The Blasters. (Berlin later left and joined Los Lobos, with whom he plays to this day.)
The group did not play together again until 2006, when they performed three shows in California and one in England to mark the album’s 25th anniversary. They reunited briefly in 2015 for a five-show tour and again for an eight-show run last year. That convinced Desjardins to ask the other members to return to the studio.
“I Used to be Pretty,” released earlier this year by YepRoc (the label home to Alvin and Doe), does not deviate from the formula that had many searching for out-of-print copies of its supergroup predecessor. (“A Minute to Pray,” was re-released in 2015.) The band members sound like they’re having fun. Some songs work better than others; some focus on affect when effect would do.
Live is where you see it come all together. Berlin’s sax figures prominently, and Alvin cuts loose on lead guitar. Doe has always been somewhat underrated as a bass player, and taking him off lead vocals shows you how good he is. Bateman and Bonebrake provide a solid backbone to the music.
Highlights included the opener “See You in the Boneyard,” a cover of “Cinderella” by The Sonics, “My Life to Live,” “Black Temptation,” and “Miss Muerte,” which closed out the set before the two-song encore. I enjoyed hearing “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” which Doe wrote for “A Minute to Pray” and later repurposed for X, as well as the blistering set closer, “Ghost Cave Lament.”
Desjardins seemed to be having a blast. He mentioned this may be the one and only time we are able to see this group on the East Coast, which may be true. But his temporary bandmates made sure it was a memorable evening.
As much as I enjoyed the headliner, I also was impressed with Porcupine, the trio that opened the evening. The group’s 45-minute set was highlighted by songs from its recent EP, “What You’ve Heard Isn’t Real,” released in November.
Led by Casey Virock on guitars/vocals and drummer Ian Prince, the band received a boost when former Husker Du bass player Greg Norton joined the group in 2016. Norton, who hasn’t been on an extended tour since 1989, clearly enjoyed playing in Washington, D.C. for the first time since Husker Du broke up. If you’re a fan of late 90s alternative music “without compromise,” as the band describes its sound, check them out.
Every winter, Steve Earle takes a “break” from touring with The Dukes and performs a solo acoustic residency at City Winery, a gig that started when he moved to New York in 2005 and has since expanded to include stops in the venue’s other locations across the U.S.
The partnership has proven fruitful. City Winery has benefitted from having a proven performer with a dedicated base guaranteed to sell out most shows, while Earle gets to play select dates reasonably close to home during the winter months. The restaurant’s New York location also has been the site of annual fundraisers Earle holds to benefit the special needs school his son attends.
This winter, Earle performed his first residency — one show in January and two in February — at the Washington, D.C., location that opened in April 2018. It marked the fourth time he’s played in the DMV in just the past 12 months, but his first solo outings.
After opener Shannon McNally’s short but strong set, which concluded with a lovely duet on Earle’s Lonely Are the Free, the 64-year-old singer-songwriter took the stage for a two-hour show. Totally comfortable in a solo setting, Earle seemed relaxed and engaged throughout, playing seven different instruments (including harmonica).
Politics, humor and “chick songs” dominated much of Earle’s set as the audience got a mix of the classics — Guitar Town, My Old Friend the Blues, Someday, the inevitable show closer Copperhead Road — as well as an intriguing series of deep cuts, a Guy Clark cover, and a new song that will come out on an album in 2020. As any longtime fan would expect, he also sprinkled caustic, funny and often sobering observations between songs.
Here are some:
After performing The Devil’s Right Hand: “Most homicides in the home take place in the kitchen unless there’s guns in the house. Then it’s the bedroom. And that’s a fact.”
Before performing Now She’s Gone: “This goes out to what’s her name, wherever the hell she is.” The next song, the lovely and heartbreaking “Goodbye,” was introduced with “Same girl. Different harmonica.”
Introducing the “chick song section of the program”: “I grew up in Texas and I didn’t play football so I picked up a guitar. … I started playing my first gigs when I was around 15 years old. I realized Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan scared the f--- out of 14-year-old girls so I learned a lot of Donovan songs.”
After playing “Sparkle and Shine” and “Lonelier Than This,” Earle introduced his 1995 song “Valentine’s Day” as “the flagship of the whole chick song fleet.” The song was accompanied by a sobering story.
“It was February 13, 1995. I was recently back in the world and could not get a license,” Earle said, referring to the drug addiction that threatened his life and career and landed him in prison for four months. “Remarkably, I never had a DUI. I just let my license expire, so I had 13 or 14 charges in three or four states, and it took a while to clean that up. Anyway, I didn’t have a driver but I had a legal pad and a pencil, so I did this.”
Earle wrapped up the section with You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had, then took a sharp turn with South Nashville Blues, a song about scoring drugs that “makes it sound a lot more f---ing fun than it was.” He noted that he’s been sober since September 13, 1994 and introduced CCKMP with “Lest I forget, welcome to my nightmare.”
The final third of the show included the night’s sole cover, Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” The song is part of “Guy,” an album of Clark compositions that Earle will release on March 31, in part because “I do not want to run into that muthaf---er on the other side” after paying tribute to his other mentor, Townes Van Zandt, on 2008’s “Townes.”
Earle then performed a new song, “John Henry is a Steel Driving Man,” a tribute to the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died in Upper Big Branch in 2010. It will be part of the country record he is releasing in 2020.
“I’m not preaching to the choir,” he said of the new record. “I did that, and I believe every word I wrote. In fact, I’m probably more radical now than I was then. But we do have a responsibility to listen to each other, and we’re not doing a good job of that right now. I want to make a record that speaks to people who didn’t vote the same way I did, so I’m swinging for the fences and trying to change hearts and minds. That’s how arrogant I am.”
After two more songs, the sing-along “City of Immigrants” and a lovely “Galway Girl,” Earle finished his set with “Copperhead Road” before returning to encore with “Christmas in Washington.” Introducing that song, his words hit home:
“What’s important, I think, is that people suit up and show up and vote,” he said to cheers from the audience. “But let’s go through it with as much kindness as possible. It’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to be mean.”
Jon Dee Graham is nothing if not a realist about life in the music business. As his 60th birthday approaches at the end of February, the acclaimed Texas songwriter is working to raise money to make a new record he hopes won’t be his last.
“Acclaim doesn’t put food on the table,” Graham says. “It’s adorable and I’m touched, but I cannot possibly be more tired of the phrase ‘Best songwriter you’ve never heard of.’”
Graham has self-funded every album he’s recorded since 2012’s “Garage Sale,” selling music and watercolors of bears out of his car when he tours. From now until midnight Wednesday, he is raising money to document a “milestone.” You can make a donation here.
“I’m turning 60 and I never really expected to find myself here,” Graham says by phone from his Austin home. “This is not like grave portent or foreshadowing of anything, but my contacts list on my phone is full of people who are not here anymore. You just don’t know. You never know.”
Over 45 minutes, Graham and I talked about his impetus behind the new album, mortality, his songwriting process, and the state of the music business, among other things. I have long been an admirer of his work. The photos accompanying this feature are from a 2015 show I shot of Graham performing in his weekly residency at Austin's Continental Club; you can see that essay here, as well as another one here.
Here are edited highlights from our conversation. All of the quotes are Graham’s:
The new album
“Potentially this will be my last record. I hope not but what if it is? At my age and the crowd I ran with, let’s just say they were enthusiastic about living (laughs) and a lot of them are not with me anymore. If this turns out to be the last record, I want it to be right.
“I’m not writing a death record. I was talking to Terry Allen a few years back. He was working on a new album and then got stuck. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong and then he realized he was working on a death record. So he scrapped it and started over again. I thought about that when I started this. I’m carefully conscious that I’m not making a death record. My approach is, ‘Let’s say this is your last, what do you want it to accomplish?’”
Life as a working musician
“I have to leave Austin to make money basically. Truly I do. I’ve never played a club that does not want me back. That seems like a small measure but in our business that’s what it’s really about. The audience doesn’t owe me anything. It’s my job to convince them that they need to hear what I have to say.”
Self-funding his music
“I invented crowd funding. ‘Garage Sale’ was done completely on pre-orders. That was the same year Kickstarter launched, and they didn’t have a platform in place that was functional until after I did that album. Now I’ve been doing it on my own for so long that I don’t know there’s any other way.
“I make a record, put it in my car and drive around playing and selling it to people. We’ve done alright by it. We’ve never missed a meal and almost own our house, so it works. It works really well.”
Graham is famous for austerity in his writing. In a lengthy 2013 essay for the Bitter Southerner, editor Chuck Reece marveled at how Graham’s “$100 Bill” has only 28 words. That led us into a discussion about his songwriting process.
“What I learned pretty early on was the stuff that moved me was simple. Not in the sense of the obvious but in the sense that the fewer moving parts a machine has, the less likely it is to break or to do something that’s not its job. … There’s so much to be said for letting the listener’s imagination do what it’s there for.
“I had a writing teacher during my brief tenure at (the University of Texas) who told me, ‘Words are under no obligations to you.’ That is so true because I can write these very simple lines that mean what I want them to mean. Then three different people can listen to it, be deeply moved and it means something completely different to each of them.
“I wish I could say this is how I write my songs, but I can’t because they come at me all different ways. Some of them arrive fully conceived and take about as long to write them as to sing them. Some are like feral cats. You leave a bowl of milk out on the porch and coax them in. Gradually you get to pet them and eventually they come indoors. … Sometimes if I try and write a song before I’m ready or before I can see it clearly enough to catch it, I’ll scare it off.
“My process is I say a prayer and pick up a guitar and a legal pad and see what happens. But that being said, I’m a harsh critic. I’m hard to please. I don’t put a word on the paper unless I believe it. If you go through my notebooks that I use to work on songs, there are not a lot of different versions. There’ll be some aborted versions, and there will be versions that are slightly different, but I know in my heart when I hear the right line. That sounds corny but it’s true. In order for me to write something down I have to believe it’s going to work.”
Superstitions and Faith(less):
At this point, Graham and I talked about how thoughts are at times so quick to disappear, and why capturing a thought is so important, no matter when it occurs. That led into a discussion on superstitions, religion, faith and one of his two best loved songs — “Faithless.”
“Let’s be square about this here. Who knows where this stuff comes from? It is a superstitious process. If I have one of those feelings, what I want to capture is that certain feeling. If I don’t sit down and start to write it, it can leave the tracks and I can’t get it back.
“Faithless — I’ve played it in a couple of churches as well as at a couple of funerals. People get confused with the terms spirituality and religion. Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell.
“Literally the definition of faith is the belief in things unseen. If you can’t muster that up you’re going to have a hard time in this world. It does not have to be the belief in the white robe bearded God. It can be whatever but you can’t live in this world and not realize that something is going on, that something happening that is not you and is not me.
“My friend Hal is an astrophysicist. He said to me once, ‘If I gave you a box with all the molecules you needed you still could not build a tree.’ In that sense you’d be a fool not to have faith of some sort. So much of what happens in our lives and what goes into our lives is necessarily unseen. When they smash atoms in the collider, you don’t actually see the electron, you just see the passing of the electron. With love, friendship, fidelity, loyalty, you don’t see it, you just see it pass through your life. That’s why we need faith.”
The music business today
Graham’s youngest son, William, is a singer-songwriter who has a new album (“Jakes”) coming out this month. I’ve seen William open for his dad at the Continental Club. The apple, as they say…
“He’s an amazing, amazing songwriter. He’s the real thing. I feel so bad for him because there’s no infrastructure anymore in music. At least I got in on the tail end. As the empire was crumbling, I still got to walk through the streets of Rome, and it’s helped me in my career to at least have gotten that initial push. If I was starting out again, if I were in William’s shoes right now, I don’t know what I’d really do.
“There used to be artist development. Record labels really didn’t expect to make their money back for the first three records because artists were encouraged and allowed to grow? Who on earth would give Tom Waits a record deal today, or for that matter, Neil Young? These were artists who were nurtured and allowed to move forward in ways that are just actually impossible now. Even if someone wanted to do it, they couldn’t.
“I don’t think I’d still be doing this if what I was doing wasn’t up to par, and I think with William it will work the same way. But the old paradigm is dead and no one knows what the new one is yet. How is any musician supposed to make money, other than touring, when you can pay a subscription fee to Amazon Prime and get any song for free?
“My oldest son, Roy, who is 25, his generation looks me in the eye and says music should be free, in the same sense that beauty should be free. What about the people who have to execute it? What about the people who have to make it? I hope William and his generation figure out how to save music. Between people staying home and not going out as much, and the stranglehold that streaming music has put on all of us, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make it.
“I’m not one of those people who is bitter about it, or pines for the old days. There were a lot of problems with the major labels. Every friend I know who had a major label deal has a horror story to tell. It’s to varying degrees, but they all have horror stories.
“What I do miss is that music used to mean more to people. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t still. How many times do you hear a song on the radio and go back instantly to where you were when you heard the song the first time. There’s so much value in that. I just don’t think people feel the same way anymore. … Music has become very disposable.”
Wrapping it up…
At the end of the conversation, Graham tells a funny yet profane story. He refers again to his friend Hal, the astrophysicist.
“One of my favorite stories he’s told me pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here. He said that with the best observatories we had that astrophysicists came up with pretty clear mathematical layouts and descriptions of how things worked in the universe.
“Hal said, ‘Then we set the Hubble (telescope) up and we all looked at each other and went, ‘Fuck. We were wrong.’ So we set up a new lens and a new mirror and lens so we could see further. And then we said, ‘Fuck. We were wrong again.’
At this point, Graham laughs.
“So the further you see, the more you realize how wrong you were. It made me realize, ‘Well, hold on Frances, take a few steps back. You don’t know everything yet.’ I’m still teachable after all these years.”
This feature also was posted to Americana Highways. You can see it here.
This story is about the night Pearl Jam's lead singer went Americana, singing a cover of a Jason Isbell song. And how, despite the odds, my wife and I were there to see it.
On Sunday, closing out the Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona, Eddie Vedder broke into "Maybe It's Time," the song Isbell wrote for Bradley Cooper's character to sing in "A Star is Born."
I was walking back to the spot Jill had saved for us while I shot the first three songs of Vedder's set. After we purchased VIP tickets to see the festival's second day, I sought a photo pass to shoot and write about it. My pitch, which the festival's PR team graciously accepted, was an essay on how seeing Eddie Vedder live was a bucket list item for my wife of almost 23 years.
We traveled from our home just outside Washington, D.C., to Tempe to attend the festival, now in its second year. Our purpose was to hear someone whose voice and songwriting my wife appreciates as much as Isbell, a performer we saw live in several venues last year.
Little did we know what was about to happen.
Released in late 1994, Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" was a multiplatinum behemoth that completed a trilogy that started with "Ten" and continued with "Vs."
The album included several hit singles. But no song was bigger or has had a more lasting impact than "Better Man," an album-only track never released as a 45.
The story of a woman trying to get out of an abusive (physical, emotional or both is not specified) relationship, the song's protagonist fears she'll never be able to leave her partner. Vedder wrote the song in high school and later pitched it to the other Pearl Jam members, but the band initially refused to record it, feeling that it was too accessible for the style of music they were making.
Shortly after Jill and I met, "Better Man" started receiving airplay on the stations we listened to from nearby Greensboro and Raleigh. Trapped at the time in a cyclical relationship with no end in sight, "Better Man" particularly resonated with her during what is described most succinctly as a difficult time.
Fortunately, unlike the song's protagonist, Jill finally got the courage to terminate the relationship. It wasn't too long after that we married and had three children within the span of a year.
Flash forward a decade. Vedder has written the songs for 2007’s "Into the Wild," a soundtrack that is an unlikely — though deserved — hit. Although our fandom doesn't come close to matching that of Pearl Jam's most ardent admirers, my wife always has had great admiration for Vedder's playing and voice, especially solo. "Into the Wild" sealed it for her, and for me too.
Then, in 2009, Pearl Jam released "Just Breathe," one of the three most beautiful love songs we know. (The other two are Isbell's "Cover Me Up" and "If We Were Vampires, further completing the circle.) After hearing "Just Breathe," Jill tells me Vedder is someone she's like to see live.
Trouble is, between kids and busy work schedules, plus scant availability for any Pearl Jam show that plays within reasonable distance, we couldn't seem to make it work.
Enter the Innings Festival.
In 2018, organizers took advantage of Arizona's springtime climate — or what we call May in the rest of the world — and the start of baseball's spring training to throw a music festival at a park overlooking Tempe Town Lake.
When I saw Vedder would headline the second day of the festival this year, I moved quickly (for once) to snap up tickets. With the kids grown and out of the house, we have downsized and are working to check items off the bucket list when time and opportunities allow.
Like other events of this nature, the Innings Festival draws a diverse range of acts as well as a few baseball legends. Last year, for example, the Avett Brothers and Chris Stapleton were headliners along with Queens of the Stone Age, Phosphorescent and The Decemberists.
This year's lineup included Sheryl Crow, Cake and Incubus on Saturday. Sunday's lineup was an eclectic mix as well, with performances by The Record Company (a helluva opener), G. Love and Special Sauce, Jimmy Eat World, Shakey Graves, Liz Phair (strong), St. Paul & the Broken Bones (good in spots but not on their A game), Mat Kearney and Band of Horses (our favorites other than Vedder).
When we arrived Sunday so I could pick up the photo pass, Vedder's soundcheck was coming through the PA. Although he was not singing, he was playing "Better Man." Jill squeezed my hand. She had been waiting to hear this song live for almost 25 years, a sort of closure for something that dominated her life almost half a lifetime ago.
What I like about Vedder's solo shows, based on bootlegs and videos from his sporadic acoustic tours over the past decade, are the variety of covers he chooses to play.
His loose, free flowing Innings Festival set featured, in addition to various Pearl Jam and solo pieces, covers of songs by Warren Zevon, U2, Tom Petty, and The Beatles. He shredded the ukulele on a cover of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," followed by Bruce Springsteen's "Open All Night."
Nothing, not even the appearance by Chicago Cubs manager Joe Madden (one of Vedder's closest friends) and several Cubs players "singing" back up on the "Hard Sun" closer, prepared us for "Maybe It's Time."
Vedder's sublime rendering of Isbell's song, a huge headline in music circles on Monday, makes sense. Cooper mannered parts of his "A Star is Born" role, who was from Arizona, on Vedder and met with the singer while developing the character.
But, as Isbell tweeted later, "Holy shit."
Having shot the start of the set, I was making my way back to Jill when the song started and pushed my way through the massive crowd to reach her for the last two-thirds.
There we stood, amid thousands of Vedder and Pearl Jam fans, lost in our thoughts and alone together.
That moment eased the sting a bit when Vedder, for whatever reason, ended his set without playing "Better Man." As I mentioned to my wife, his cover of a song by a writer we so appreciate may be the gateway to the next chapter, allowing us to put those long-ago memories behind us.
"Maybe it's time to let the old ways die..."
This essay, along with more photos from the festival, was posted on the Americana Highways website. For more photos from the various acts, check out my Concert Photography page soon. You also can find photos on my Instagram (@glenncookphotography) and on my Facebook photography page.
“Here you go. Want to try and do something with this?”
John Simsen, my boss at the Texas City Sun, was going through the daily stack of mail when he tossed a Rounder Records/Bullseye Blues press kit onto my desk. He knew I was into music, and opportunities were rare to do much regional or national entertainment coverage. Writing a profile on a musician opening for Bonnie Raitt would be a nice change of pace amid the daily grind of cops, obits and meetings.
I called the press contact and set up a phone interview with Charles Brown, having no idea that I was starting an eight-year friendship with a future member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Chances are you’ve heard Charles’ music, even though it’s been 28 years since that interview and almost two decades since his death. He is responsible for two holiday classics (“Merry Christmas Baby” and “Please Come Home for Christmas”) that are piped through stores and Starbucks in a never-ending loop from Halloween to New Year’s Day.
The stories behind those two songs are fascinating. But then, Charles had a fascinating life. Our interactions, mostly over the phone, were memorable too.
Yesterday, eating lunch with a friend and freelance colleague, Charles’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” started playing through the restaurant’s speakers. He recorded the song — as have more than 90 others — numerous times from the 1940s to the 1990s and played it at every concert, no matter the time of year.
My favorite version is the one he did with Bonnie Raitt in the midst of his comeback. You can listen below and judge for yourself, but I think you’ll agree: Charles Brown was one of a kind.
When we first talked, in 1990, Brown was in the midst of a comeback that was getting a huge boost from Raitt, whose own comeback had started the year before with the release of the Grammy Award-winning “Nick of Time.”
“I love her,” Brown told me over the phone. “She’s been very good to me.”
By this point, approaching 70, he was nostalgic, grateful, and quick to turn on the charm. He described growing up in Texas City in the 1920s and 1930s, raised by his grandmother, Swannee Simpson, after his mother died when he was 6 months old.
Brown’s grandmother started teaching him church music on the piano when he was 4, pushing him to play more with his left hand than his right. “She liked the deeper sounds you got from your left hand, and said you were taking the easy way out if you spent most of your time on the right side of the piano,” he said. “She’d make me hold my right hand behind my back and play with just my left.”
When Charles was 11, his grandmother took him to “the Rev. Cole’s” Baptist church. Cole, Brown said, was so charismatic that “he had the sisters rolling. They were carrying them out on stretchers.” He also was “jazzing up those spirituals just like the blues, and I was hooked. I wanted to play like that.”
Charles started taking lessons from one of the church members, but his grandmother pushed him to get an education. He graduated in 1942 with a chemistry degree from Prairie View College, worked as a high school teacher for a year, then as a junior chemist at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. Ruled ineligible for the draft due to asthma, he moved to California in 1944 and started playing music.
B.B. King, who I was fortunate to interview in 1991, said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician.
“We were all jealous of him because he went to college,” King said. “He had so many more options than the rest of us.”
Within months of moving to Los Angeles, Brown had abandoned chemistry and joined Johnny Moore & The Three Blazers. In 1945, Brown had his first hit song, “Drifting Blues,” which has been covered several times by Eric Clapton. Soon, musicians such as Ray Charles started copping Brown’s mix of jazz and blues.
“I loved and imitated Nat Cole and Charles Brown,” Charles wrote in his 1979 autobiography, Brother Ray. “I had been stealing their licks and singing and playing like them for years. I had my first hit with a Charles Brown-influenced number, `Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand'."
Brown went solo in 1948, signed to Aladdin Records and saw his music shoot up the charts. Between 1949 and 1952, his songs spent 103 weeks on Billboard’s Race Chart, including 29 weeks at No. 1.
“I was living it up,” Brown told me, noting that his next-door neighbor at the time was Billie Holiday. “But things change.”
What changed was the music business, as Charles’ smooth, mellow blues/jazz hybrid fell out of favor with the birth of rock and roll. He continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s for multiple labels with limited success. Like many African-American musicians of that era, he was prevented from getting royalties to his songs, or sold off the rights to fuel a ferocious gambling habit.
Although Charles didn’t drink, he loved to gamble. He refused to play piano for Sam Cooke’s “Night Beat” album in 1963, noting that he was offered only $75 for the session and “I could make more than that at the track.” Cooke cut the album in four days and featured two of Charles’ songs on it.
Middling gigs and stints as a music teacher and with a janitorial service led Brown to consider quitting the music business by the early 1980s. But a chance encounter with a Steinway piano in one of the houses he was cleaning started his comeback.
“We were working in one of those big houses, and I saw this piano,” Charles told me. “It was a Steinway, and no piano player would turn down a chance to play a Steinway, no matter if you had permission or not. So I sat down and started playing, and the owner of the house found me. She liked what she heard and asked me to play for a party she was having.”
It was at the party, in 1986, that a record executive for a small label asked Brown to return to the studio. The subsequent album, “One More for the Road,” received enough notice to get Brown back on stage, where he struck up a conversation with Raitt at the Blue Note in New York. A longtime fan of Brown’s work, Raitt offered him the opening slot on her tour, which is how we met.
Two hours into our conversation, Brown asked if I was going to the show and offered to leave tickets and a backstage pass for me at will call. Afterward, we met in his dressing room and started talking like we had known each other for a lifetime.
A few minutes into the conversation, someone opened the door and asked if a few people could take a picture. Charles obliged, and into the room walked Raitt, Lyle Lovett, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, and Jeff Healey.
If I had been chewing gum, I would have swallowed it then and there.
After the picture was taken, Raitt stayed behind and sat in the chair next to me. “Who the hell are you?” she asked, before Charles made a formal introduction and noted I was from his hometown.
“I love this man,” Raitt said. “If more people were like him, there would be no war. He is just filled with love.”
The day before the concert, Raitt had performed “Amazing Grace” with Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s funeral in Dallas. I had snagged the wire photo from work and gave it to Raitt.
She sighed. “That,” she said, “was a day I’ll never forget.”
A few minutes passed and Charles had to change and get on the bus that was taking the tour to its next stop. But before he left, he gave me his home phone number and asked me to give him a call when he got back to California.
“It’s always nice to talk to someone from my hometown,” he said.
For the next eight years, every four to six weeks, Charles and I talked on the phone. He’d tell stories about Texas City and the musicians he’d encountered, ask questions about my work and family, and then cut the conversation when it was time to leave for the track.
I saw him perform twice more in Houston before I moved to North Carolina in 1993 and was thrilled to hear he would be touring with Raitt and Ruth Brown on the “Caravan of Blues” tour in 1995.
We met for dinner in Raleigh, and he regaled me and others at the table with tales of love and marriage and music. He talked about betting on the horses, saying simply, “It’s my hobby.”
On the way back, Charles asked how I was doing. Jill and I had met, but we were both going through divorces and the relationship was not yet on solid ground. I mentioned to Charles that “All My Life,” the title track from the 1990 album that led to our interview, was a perfect summation of my feelings for her. I also mentioned that Jill didn’t fully believe me when I told her of the friendship Charles and I shared.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s do something about that.”
Sitting in the hotel lobby, he proceeded to ask for a piece of paper and a pen, then took 10 minutes to write her a one-page note. The note mentioned what I told him about “All My Life” and ended with “Forget my concern, it’s only real.”
I knew it was.
Flash forward four months. Charles is on the road with his small band, playing in Carrboro. He wants to meet Jill, so we arrive for the soundcheck. I asked him to play “All My Life” for us.
“Can’t do it,” he said, picking at the piano. “Don’t like the introduction.”
That night, at the show, he asked the two of us to stand. He told the audience the basics of our story, and of how I had bugged him to play the song. He then told us to look into each other’s eyes as he sang “All My Life” just for us.
Charles and I continued our long-distance phone conversations. Finally financially stable, he had moved into a one-bedroom unit in a Berkeley senior-citizen housing project.
In 1997, he went to the White House, where he received a Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. The next month, he was feted at the end of the San Francisco Jazz Festival by Raitt, Ruth Brown and John Lee Hooker, among others.
In 1998, we talked only two or three times. Jill and I were busy with a toddler and two newborns, and Charles’ health was starting to fade. When the notice came in December 1998 that he had been selected as an “Early Influence” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I tried to call but could not reach him.
In January 1999, just two months before the induction ceremony, Charles died of congestive heart failure at age 76.
Eight years before, during the meeting in his dressing room, I asked Charles if he had ever been recognized in his hometown. He laughed and said no, but “That sure would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
After writing the story and a subsequent column on him, I thought Texas City would find some way to honor one of its most famous residents, but it took 19 years. Today, a bust of Charles hangs in the Charles T. Doyle Convention Center, and he is recognized annually during the city’s Juneteenth celebration.
Willy Braun made a distinction that explains a lot about the state of today’s music business when he introduced the first of two songs from Reckless Kelly’s most recent studio album at a concert last week.
“I say it’s the new album,” Braun said before breaking into “The Champ,” a song from 2016’s Sunset Motel. “But it’s not new anymore. It’s the current album.”
After a prolific near decade on the Sugar Hill and Yep Roc labels, the Austin-based group joined the DIY movement in 2011 when it formed No Big Deal Records. Since, they have released only three albums, a single and a 20th anniversary edition of their 1997 debut, “Millican.”
These days, Reckless Kelly spends the majority of its time playing live, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma, where they have a devoted and loyal following that follows them from small bars to clubs and midsize theatres. To boost income, they sell autographed posters — doesn’t everyone? — and offer exclusive meet-and-greets that include a four-song acoustic set before the show.
And, three or four times a year, they venture out on short tours concentrated in different parts of the country, such as the one that stopped at City Winery in Washington, D.C., last week.
In an almost two-hour show with songs that spanned Reckless Kelly’s 22-year career and included a variety of well-chosen covers, the five-piece group demonstrated yet again that they are a formidable stage presence deserving of a larger audience.
The show started with Braun playing solo on a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Blues Run the Game.” He was joined by the rest of the band for “Desolation Angels,” which was followed in succession by a lovely “Back Around,” “Detroit or Buffalo,” and “Mirage” before Braun’s pre-“Champ” story.
At that point, the entire show took a turn, starting with a terrific version of “Volcano,” also from “Sunset Motel” that served as a reminder that “Mother Nature bats last,” in Braun’s words. After a brief sidestep to cover Marah’s “Round Eye Blues,” the band moved into the meet of its mid-2000s catalogue with “Break My Heart Tonight” and “Wicked Twisted Road,” the latter of which had the now standing audience singing along to the chorus.
Next, guitarist David Abeyta contributed a cover of Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year,” which he said the band asked him to start singing after it “got me through a real tough time.” Then Cody Braun took over for “Wild Western Wind Blown Band,” playing the instrumental at 110 mph as the audience clapped along.
While Cody Braun, playing fiddle and mandolin, and Abeyta provided many of the musical highlights with their interludes, Jay Miller on bass and Jay Nazz on drums showed repeatedly that they are the backbone of the group, making sure things are running smoothly.
The final third of the show was devoted to songs any RK fan would appreciate, including their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the beautiful “Seven Night in Eire,” and “Nobody’s Baby.” Why “Vancouver” and “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah,” the last two songs played before the encore, were not mainstream hits perplexes me.
Jeff Crosby, who opened the show with his band The Refugees, joined Reckless Kelly on stage for the two-song encore. After performing Tom Petty’s “Two Gunslingers” during the meet-and-greet acoustic show with Crosby, they returned to Petty’s catalogue for a ear-rattling version of “Listen to Her Heart” and then concluded the show with “Fortunate Son.”
Willie Braun quipped he’d been waiting to play the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic all night, not surprising given that today’s politics make even less sense than the music business. And that pent up anticipation did not disappoint, providing one of those stand-on-the-speakers moments that makes you love a great live band all the more.
I need live music. It feeds my soul. Since my late teens and early 20s, when I lived in Houston, I’ve found myself in bars and clubs, absorbing the sounds of musicians telling their stories and pouring out their souls to crowds large and small. Usually small.
Most of my family doesn’t understand this need; at least I don’t think they do. The music I typically enjoy is miles from the top 40, although I’ve been known to embrace the occasional pop song that is played ad infinitum on the radio. But mostly I appreciate singer-songwriters whose music strikes a common cord with who I am, who I’ve been, or who I wish to be.
Jon Dee Graham cuts across all three. His music touches and informs; the honesty with which he writes and plays is something I related to immediately. He writes as a father and a husband who has acclaim and hardships in equal measure. I’ve been a fan for almost two decades, albeit one who has experienced the topics he writes about both vicariously and up close and in person.
Like The Replacements, another band I tried to see but couldn’t manage to connect with live until a few months ago, my attempts to see Graham seemed thwarted at every turn. I’ve caught Dave Alvin, Steve Earle,John Hiatt, and Buddy Miller — other genre-crossing favorites in my ongoing music queue — numerous times. Other than one show in the mid 1990s when he was the opening act, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I missed Graham by a day or a week, seemingly caught in an inextricable conflict that prevented me from making that live connection.
Still, I’ve bought everything he’s released, ranging from the music on mid-major labels (New West) to his self-released material. I made a contribution via mail when I heard of his son’s rare disorder, which led to a live album/DVD that I also purchased and lapped up with the fervor of the fans who’ve seen him live hundreds of times. I’ve read with envy of his weekly 17-year residency at the tiny, infamous Continental Club in Austin, and wondered how I could catch a show at the infamous small club in my home state’s capital.
This past Wednesday, thanks to a fortuitous spur-of-the-moment trip and my wife’s indulgence, I finally managed to see Graham live. In Austin… at the Continental Club … with Jill and I sitting on a former car seat against the wall.
And it was worth every penny, even if the cover charge was only $8. I gladly would have paid much more.
These photos (plus the ones on my Facebook page here) tell the story of that night. They alternate between photos of the club and the groups we saw — Graham with his incredibly tight band, the Fighting Cocks, and his tremendously talented teenage son, William, leading his band, the Painted Redstarts.
The best part for me was seeing my wife enjoy one of my favorite musicians in a club in my home state. The next best was seeing Graham standing on the opposite side of the room, watching his son perform and leading the cheers. Just like any other proud dad.
The first time I tried to see The Replacements, my grandfather died. The second time I tried to see them, almost three years later, my grandmother followed suit. Two years after that, the band broke up.
Given the seeming effect on my family’s mortality, I chalked it up to a curse, a weird piece of karma that seemed on the fringes of a fate that seemed to have befallen one of the most influential groups of my generation.
Of all the bands I listen to, and I listen to a lot, The Replacements are the ones that should have made it. They should have been playing to stadiums of 15,000 instead of clubs of 150 and small venues of 1,500.
On Sept. 19, they played in a stadium — one that held the U.S. Open for more than 50 years and, like the band, is making a comeback of its own as a neighborhood concert venue. Unlike the other times, I was there, despite some hurdles.
But no one in my family died — thank God. And the show was even better than I imagined.
Explaining my lifelong affair with music is difficult. As a writer and photographer, I love songwriters who capture life’s little moments and tell complete, visual stories with smart and clever turns of phrase in 2½ to 4 minutes. I greatly admire musicians — especially guitarists, piano players, and a good horn section — whose passion seeps through every chord change, whether you hear them live or in the studio. And, even though I can’t carry a tune, I appreciate singers who can push the limits of their instrument to bring intense feelings of emotion and release to the songs.
My grandmother, who loved music of all kinds well into her 80s, believed very strongly that the best songs are reflections of their time in a way that's somehow timeless. It’s through this lens that I hear music. How does it relate to a specific era? Does it sound dated, or is does it mean as much today as it did when it was first released?
I’m not nostalgic for my childhood or, even worse, my teenage years or my early to mid 20s when I hear music. I’m looking for timeless, and for the most part, Paul Westerberg’s songs are just that, just like the cover songs the band plays (some successfully; others not so much).
I did not become a Replacements fan until "Let it Be," then became obsessed when “Tim,” their major label debut, was released in 1985. At the time I was just really starting to get into contemporary music, having grown up on a steady diet of Elvis and the 50s groups and singers that my father and grandmother loved.
“Tim” was unpredictable, a mashup of different genres and styles that combined yearning and attitude, disenchantment and hope, anger and heartache, with a sound that ranged from acoustic to punk. You could never tell where the band was going next, but their diversity of styles shaped my tastes in a way that no group has done before or since.
Like too many of the great ones, The Replacements’ influence was much greater than their reach, with only one song approaching the Billboard Top 50 while they were active. They alternated brilliance with self-destruction, always coming this close to success before imploding on themselves in some way.
When they broke up in 1991, it felt right at the time, but wrong nonetheless.
“God, what a mess, on the ladder of success. Took one step and missed the whole first rung.”
I followed Westerberg’s career — in part because he was the chief songwriter and lead singer — the closest after the band drifted apart. I read the stories about the demise of Bob Stinson, the original lead guitarist who was fired from the band for erratic behavior and a Keith Richards-like habit (though, sadly, not professional constitution) of ingesting various legal and illegal substances.
Westerberg stopped touring in 2005 and, despite the reissue of The Replacements’ catalog three years later, stubbornly refused to get the band back together. Chris Mars, the original drummer, became a painter. Tommy Stinson, the teenage bass player, started lucrative gigs with Guns ‘n Roses, among other bands.
It wasn’t until Slim Dunlap, who replaced Bob Stinson as the lead guitarist, suffered a massive stroke a couple of years ago that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson decided to resurrect the band’s name. They recorded a five-track EP to launch the Songs for Slim project, raised more than $100,000 to help pay for Dunlap's medical care, and — just as important — enjoyed it so much that they decided to play together again.
The tour — actually a series of one-off concerts at major summer festivals — coincided with my layoff last May. The timing, along with the easy availability of concert tapes that surfaced as mp3s within days after each show, gave me a chance to listen to the group in a way I hadn’t done since the mid 1980s. And ironically, as I approach 50, the lyrics resonated in a way they hadn’t when I was in my 20’s.
I hoped Westerberg, Stinson, and the replacement Replacements would come our way at some point. When they announced the Forest Hills concert, I had my chance. And, short of family members passing away, I was determined to take it.
Forest Hills Stadium is located in a residential section of Queens. It hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 and, despite some renovations and the addition of some seating and a permanent stage, remains the same horseshoe-shaped concrete landmark befitting of the quiet neighborhood.
Concerts were held during the stadium’s heyday, with The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Steisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix and others performing there. The venue was reopened to live music last year, with a strict curfew of 10 p.m. to keep the residential peace, and was a perfect place for an outdoor show just before the official start of fall dawned.
Since taking up photography professionally, I’ve tried to shoot concerts on the now-rare times that I go, partly because of the challenge of live events and in part because I want to capture the groups that I enjoy. The ubiquity of camera phones has made it impossible to police the taking of stills and video, but Forest Hills had a strict policy of no professional cameras.
I tried to contact the promoter, the band, and the stadium, but was unsuccessful. Finally, I just decided to say to heck with it, take my camera and see what happened. Because Jill couldn’t come due to circumstances at home, I was meeting our friend Bernadette at the venue, so I had some extra time.
Arriving an hour before the two openers — Deer Tick and The Hold Steady — began, I was promptly stopped by security and told I couldn’t take the camera in. Rather than take the train back to Manhattan where I was staying — there was no parking at the stadium — I managed to convince security to let me in with the camera, but no battery.
The security guard, a nice guy that I chatted with for a half hour, told me as I left that I could get the battery back if I could somehow manage to swing a press pass. He too had been a photographer and sympathized with my situation.
Walking in, I looked around the stadium and thought back to all of the events and history that had occurred there. Readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by history, an interest that dates back to my grandmother and dad. I walked over to Guest Promotions and talked to the two women sitting at the table as the sun set, talking to them about the stadium, the musicians that performed there, and my desire to photograph my favorite band. They too were sympathetic, but said they could not give me a press pass.
Instead, they did me one better, giving me a sticker that allowed me to go to the VIP tent and score free beer and food. I showed it to the security guard, noted my dumb fortune, and he fished the battery out of his pocket.
“I guess it’s your lucky day.”
Lucky, indeed. The pass allowed me to walk through the floor area and snap away, although I also wanted to experience the band from my vantage point in the lower bowl (which happened to be close to the VIP tent). When I returned to my bleacher seat off stage left, I had a stack of photos on my SD card and the feeling of finally being close to the band I could have seen almost 30 years before.
That allowed me to sit back (and stand from time to time) and listen to The Replacements perform their catalogue of should-have-been hits. This time, however, it felt like a valedictory lap as the crowd sang along to a band firing on all cylinders. Song after song, anthem after anthem, I found myself moved during each verse chorus verse.
I could never be a music critic. I love what I love too much to pick things apart and I dismiss the stuff I don’t like with barely a passing glance. A flubbed lyric here, a missed chord there — it means little to me if emotion and passion are in its place. Watching The Replacements become the rock stars they once ached to be, seeing the faces and hearing sing-along shouting of fans old and new, was more than worth it.
In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.
It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.
My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.
“Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”
The “guy” was Elvis Presley.
Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.
I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.
I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.
Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.
In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.
For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.
Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.
Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.
The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.
Still, Elvis seemed to top them all.
The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.
The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)
Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)
Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.
To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.
1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.
By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.
The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.
My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.
We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her.
Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.
“Elvis is dead.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.
Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.
There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.
The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.
The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.
And that means more than you know.
About the Photos:
Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."
I can’t put a finger exactly on when I became a Lou Reed admirer — fan is a word he alternately would have loathed and loved. But I'm sure he would have appreciated that I came to admire his music — or at least a great deal of it — in backward fashion.
My appreciation started, I guess, when a neighbor passed me “New Sensations” in the mid 1980s, roughly 20 years after Reed founded the Velvet Underground and more than a decade after his only hit ("Walk on the Wild Side").
At the time, I was living in Houston’s museum district, an area that opened my eyes in ways my parents had always feared. But in the grand scheme, it was a quiet rebellion; I sat on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle while working nights and going to school during the day, unsure of what the next chapter would bring.
Lou Reed’s music — along with that of X, R.E.M., the Talking Heads and, somewhat belatedly, The Replacements and The Clash — pointed me in directions that clashed with the grounded emotional reality I experienced growing up. I still find those directions intriguing and exciting, especially from a distance. To this day, I can quote Reed’s 1989 album “New York” verbatim, and find myself looking for the very characters he describes when I walk the city’s streets.
My last trip to New York was in late October, the day after Reed died of liver failure at age 71. In the brief time I was there, I made sure to find a minute to walk to the Chelsea Hotel, where a makeshift memorial with candles, flowers and notes had been placed at the entrance. Someone also put a small plastic Ziploc with a powdery substance among the memorial items.
While I stood there, a woman bent over and moved it out of sight. Another woman said, “He wouldn’t have cared.”
Two doors from the Chelsea, painters were finishing work on the bright orange and green sign for a new 7-11 that's opening on West 24th Street. On that note, I get the feeling Reed — always the social critic of cool — would have had something caustic to say.
Or maybe not. I’m not sure.
Moving backwards: My first exposure to Reed's music and the Velvet Underground came the summer before my freshman year in college, when I picked up and consumed Edie, the biography of socialite and Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. Masterfully presented in an oral history format by Jean Stein and editor George Plimpton, Sedgwick’s story is part of the bigger tale that was New York in the mid to late 1960s, a tale that also included the Velvet Underground.
For a brief period, Sedgwick was the brightest star of Warhol’s voyeuristic faux reality show, so captivating that she inspired Bob Dylan to write “Just Like A Woman.” But within five years, she was dead of a drug overdose at age 28.
Edie never stood a chance, given the Warhol-level indulgences and the Sedgwick family tree — a generationally unstable lineage with a history of great wealth, mental illness, breakdowns, and suicide.
At the time, I did not understand why someone with so much would piss everything away in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. Thirty years after reading the book, I still have trouble reconciling her path toward self-destruction, although I’m more understanding than ever of the causes and of how fragile life can prove to be.
Just after finishing Edie, I met and quickly became good friends with Brian, a fellow student at the University of Houston. I didn’t have many male friends growing up — it’s always been easier for me to talk to women — but we formed a bond that lasted for more than 20 years. He was like the older brother I never had.
When we met during my freshman year, Brian was a sportswriter at the university newspaper, an erstwhile English major on the slowest possible path to graduation. He was putting his life on the right path, he said, in the same sentence claiming he had been so stoned that he could not remember his last three years of high school. Going back to school at 23, he said, was his chance to make something of his life.
Brian, who was five years older, and I bonded over sports, music, movies, and journalism. We talked about New York and he handed me my first copy of the Village Voice. For a naive kid from Texas, this seemed like a big deal.
Over time, I learned of the struggles he had growing up. He was the oldest child of alcoholic parents involved in a toxic, codependent relationship. Brian had identified his parents’ issues and tried to work his way through them, but life proved to be a constant struggle to get over his self-created humps.
For a time, our lives paralleled. We participated in each other’s weddings. He had children. I had a child. Then I moved from Texas to North Carolina, and naturally the time between our conversations lengthened, buoyed when I returned and we managed to connect in person.
He did not understand why I left my first marriage, at least in the beginning. I did not understand why, if he was as miserable as he claimed in his relationship, he did not do the same. Brian insisted that he could not leave his children, no matter how many times he wished his parents had divorced when he was growing up.
A few nights ago, I found a Fresh Air segment devoted to Lou Reed’s life and legacy. The primary interview subject was Bill Bentley, Reed’s publicist from 1988 to 2004 — no easy task given the songwriter’s notoriously prickly nature.
The program, which featured clips of interviews with former band members and others close to Reed, was an intriguing listen. But one quote in particular stuck with me:
"Lou's whole contribution to rock 'n' roll was — at the very start of his career he said, 'You should be able to write about anything.' Anything you could read about in a book, or talk about in a play, he felt should be in a rock 'n' roll song,” Bentley said. “He set that out as his No. 1 goal: to change the parameters of what rock lyrics could be.”
And he did, writing honest pieces about life on the fringes, with New York as his backdrop and muse. To the listener with a pop ear, much of his music can be tough sledding, although he wrote some cool pop songs. (I’m not a huge fan of feedback and extended drone, and “Metal Machine Music” is almost as bad to me as “Having Fun with Elvis on Stage,” for many of the same reasons.)
The riches for the reader, and occasionally the beauty, are found in the lyrics. The best are three- to 10-minute short stories and poems bursting with vivid characters and the spectre of tragedy lurking nearby.
Like his parents, Brian had a love-hate relationship with alcohol and the blues. He fought his demons, but the demons fought back. Eventually, in 2005, he and his wife separated — apparently for good this time. He also took a leave of absence from his job.
No matter how many times I asked him to call if he needed help, I had to initiate the conversation, and for a dozen years we spoke every four to six weeks. In 2005, however, we talked only three times — once when I went back to Texas, and at two other points on the phone.
The last conversation, in June one weekend evening when I was working late, seemed like old times. We didn't talk much about families, but had a passionate discussion about sports and music. The Houston Astros were making a run that eventually would land them in their first World Series, and now that I lived near Washington, D.C., we trash talked about the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry. We finished the call saying we needed to have more talks like that one.
In early September, two weeks before the Redskins/Cowboys game on Monday night football, I called his office and was told he wasn’t there. I also called his apartment, but got no answer.
On Sept. 19, the Redskins won 14-13 on two huge plays. I thought about calling again, but was leaving for a meeting in Las Vegas that week and decided to wait. While in Vegas, I received a call from a mutual friend who told me the news.
Brian hadn’t seen the game. In fact, when had I called his office earlier in the month, he already had been dead for two weeks. He had taken his own life, apparently so miserable, tortured, and hopeless that he decided to leave his sons behind after all. His soon-to-be-ex had buried him with no obituary notice and no calls to his friends.
Apparently no one at his office knew what to say either.
I’ve thought many times about Brian, but standing outside the Chelsea Hotel and its many ghosts last month, I felt his spirit more strongly than I have in years. Listening to the Fresh Air program, I felt it again. And I feel it every time I think of Reed's song “Perfect Day,” one thing that prompted me to write this sort-of eulogy eight years too late.
It’s easy to be lulled into the lyrics at the start of the song, “Just a perfect day/drink Sangria in the park/And then later/when it gets dark, we go home … Oh, it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spend it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.”
But then the song turns dark: “Just a perfect day/you made me forget myself/I thought I was/someone else, someone good.” And even darker still with the refrain at the end: “You're going to reap just what you sow/You're going to reap just what you sow.”
If you know me, you know how much I love music. All kinds, live or studio. Ones that play to the masses — there’s nothing better than a good pop song — and ones that draw a handful to each show.
My primary requirement is that the majority of the instruments be played by humans, not machines. Also, as a writer, I greatly appreciate anyone who can tell a story through words and/or emotions. The best performers can do both.
Here are a few other thoughts I’ve had recently…
• I'm an Elvis fan. Not a member of the cult, but one who recognizes his appeal, talent, and ability to cut across generations. (I'm also a big fan of the TCB band. Damn, they were good.)
• Have you ever listened to an album and wondered, "What were they thinking when they chose THAT as the first single?"
• Jon Dee Graham has long been one of my favorite artists, in part because he’s so freaking smart about the small things in life. Here is a quote in which he paraphrases Bruce Springsteen, another favorite:
"Springsteen was here for South By Southwest and, the one thing that he said that really just killed me, because once again, it proves to me that artists are all the same…he said you must have absolute confidence and you must doubt completely, and you must be as brave as possible but you need to worry all the time, and you need to know that you're the best act in town and yet at the same time know in your heart you suck. And that's it, right there, that's it."
• Milkduds and Merlot: Sounds like the end of a long day, the name of a country song ... or both.
• And finally, a belated RIP to Etta James, who died in mid January. This song is not one of her best known, or even one of her best, but it’s definitely one of my favorites.
“The story of our lives. Written page by page. Careful what you write. You gotta read it all some day.”
When I was a child staying at my grandmother’s in East Texas, inevitably I had to take food to Mrs. Douglass’ house.
I viewed this as penance for some yet-to-be-committed sin, in part because Mrs. Douglass and I had nothing in common and I was not interested in a career in the pharmaceutical industry at age 11. At this point in the story — Mrs. Douglass was a white haired, frail widow in her early 80s — conversation revolved around the variety of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions she was taking.
Mrs. Douglass was inevitably polite — although bitter about her lot in life, it seemed to my childhood self — and she always seemed to enjoy my visits. The pattern rarely deviated: I sat on the couch and, after a 30-second description and acknowledgment of the home-cooked meal my grandmother had made, listened to her describe her various ailments and what they prevented her from doing. After 15 or 20 minutes, I was escorted to the door and told to come back soon.
“I never want to be like that,” I told my grandmother more than once.
She nodded, pursed her lips slightly, and gave me a half smile.
“You can give away some things. That you never will get back. One piece at a time. And you never will get them back.”
My father-in-law is 80. Over the 15-plus years I’ve known him, the conversational window has narrowed considerably. At one point we could talk about photography; recently he barely looked at the pictures I showed him, even though most were of his grandchildren. At another, he could provide you with a dissertation examining the merits vs. the weaknesses of any sport involving the University of North Carolina. Now he barely talks about his beloved Tar Heels.
The relationship Jill and her brother have with their father is fractious, prickly, and tense. This is nothing new, but rather an extension of feelings that have been there since childhood. The undercurrents of lives that constantly overlap and occasionally intersect are never far from the surface.
Jill (I know) and her brother (I’m sure) have spent countless hours trying to figure out the enigma who is responsible for their place on this planet. And while it’s not my place to say what they think, I believe it comes down to this: Don’t mistake gratitude for kindness.
Like Mrs. Douglass, Bob’s life seems to revolve around two things — his visits to the doctor and the various prescriptions that he is taking to extend his life. He too is bitter, so focused on those things that he doesn’t seem to care about much else.
Recently, I drove to Boone as part of a Virginia/North Carolina trek that also involved parents’ weekend at Nicholas’ college (more about that in a separate post). Jill and her brother are trying to see Bob at least once a month and this gave me an opportunity to help.
Bob appeared grateful. He appreciated my taking him to the doctor and taking care of the things he has on a never-ending list. He talked of wanting to leave the assisted care facility to return to his house full time, although he’s not in good enough health for that to happen.
His charm with others not close to him remains intact. The person who has cut his hair for years spoke of his wit (and his love for Carolina sports). As he shuffled through the lobby, where a community band honked through the “Gilligan’s Island” theme at a 5:30 dinner concert, a couple of his fellow residents perked up, said hello, and waited for his acknowledgment. He gave them a nod, but didn’t sit with them.
Meanwhile, his temper simmered just below the surface, and he struggled not to bark or bellow. His temper, while infamous, is not something his children talk about, and you can tell he struggles to control it.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Jill mention that her father is not a kind man. I didn’t see it fully, however, until this visit, when I realized all along that I had mistaken gratitude for the kindness I had hoped to see.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
Four years ago, on Sept. 11, my second “mom” passed away. In many ways, she had died 3 1/2 years earlier.
If you follow this blog for any period of time, you will discover that I had two sets of “parents” — my biological ones and Fran and Bill, who lived across the street from us growing up. We moved into my childhood home on 22nd Avenue in Texas City when I was 4, and my parents became fast friends with the couple across the street and one house over to the left.
Much more than my parents, Bill was my personal familial enigma, although unlike Bob we reached a much more peaceful resolution in the end. With my mom facing a much more difficult juggling act (work, kids, sick husband) than any of us knew, I often turned to Fran for advice and support.
And Fran freely dispensed it, in what my mom called her “Yankee” way. (Ironically, it took me a while to realize that mom’s definition of Yankee includes the south side of Chicago.) Fran was always quick with an opinion and never afraid to share it, whether it was about my choices in music or literature. Unlike my grandmother, she didn’t partake in the rock and roll era (more about that in a future post, too).
Like my father, Fran had health issues for much of her adult life, and it took me some time to realize just how much she relied on Bill for everything. Without children of their own, all they had was each other, even though they treated us like their kids.
Fran marched in lock step with her Catholicism, never missing a mass and politically aligned largely with its beliefs. But after Bill died in 2004, she started questioning everything, including her own belief about the end of life.
One afternoon, during one of my 14 trips to Texas in 2007 to see my dad in the hospital, I stopped by Fran’s house for a visit. She was using oxygen, largely confined to bed or her chair.
Like Bob and Mrs. Douglass, most visits with Fran at the time were conversations about doctors, her various caregivers, and her medical treatments. The conversations had narrowed so much that a person I once could talk to at any time ran out of things to say in just minutes.
But on this mid-May day, we sat in her bedroom, went through pictures of the kids — unlike Bob, she remained interested — and talked about life’s trivia. She even endured a song I could not get out of my head at the time — Jon Dee Graham’s “Faithless.”
She put her head back on her chair and listened, eyes closed.
“In the deep blue dark down under. Tell me what you’re thinking of…”
“The things we find. The things we lose. The things that we get to keep. Are so damn few. And far between. So far between…”
She teared up, but rebounded at the conclusion.
“You need a strong heart. You need a true heart. You need a heart like that in a world like this. So you don’t get faithless.”
For a moment, she seemed more confident. “That’s how I feel on so many days,” she said. “I get so frustrated. It’s so easy to do.”
Fran told me how much she enjoyed the visit. I gave her a kiss and let myself out. In less than four months, she was dead.
Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.
An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ.
Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.
Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.
My wife’s words rang through my head, at times louder than the music: “Damn those stigmas.”
As parents of a child who has mental health issues, one of our largest fears is that she will use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Mental health and substance abuse are linked in another way, through the stigmas that prevent many people from talking about them openly and publicly — as the illnesses they are, not just the poor choices we make.
A new organization, Facing Addiction, is working to change that perception. And they took a huge step Sunday with UNITE to Face Addiction, a five-hour rally and concert that drew thousands from across the U.S. to the National Mall Sunday in Washington, D.C.
The audience, a vast majority of them recovering addicts or people who had lost a loved one, slowly grew throughout the damp and dreary day. Many carried signs with pictures of loved ones who had been lost to addiction; others were there because they are in long-term recovery. They cheered each of the artists, but individual songs or performers brought many to tears, especially when The Fray — a personal highlight, along with Isbell — performed “How to Save a Life.”
Facing Addiction, a recently formed organization that has been working to focus attention on the cause, organized the rally. Officials with the organization say addiction affects one in three households and 85 million people in the U.S. It also cuts across all class, socioeconomic, and racial lines.
Among the speakers: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; Michael Botticelli, a recovering addict who now is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; and syndicated talk-show host and surgeon Mehmet Oz. Others included Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney, whose role in the sitcom “Mom” drew loud cheers; and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who is battling a family legacy of substance abuse and mental illness.
The biggest piece of news at the event was when Murthy, surrounded by three of his top staff, announced that his office has commissioned the first-ever Surgeon General’s report on alcoholism and addiction.
And the numbers are there to justify it: Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in people under 50. Stigma or not, that is a sobering fact.
A few thoughts on music from a 50-year-old white guy… (Photos are mine, too.)
I’ve spent my life trying to explain to people why I enjoy the music I like, and (usually unsuccessfully) why they should, too.
Leave it to Jason Isbell to explain it better than I could: “It’s punk, but it doesn’t sound like punk. It’s punk with different instruments and different songs.”
Isbell then goes on to explain, “It’s people who are trying to do the right thing. When it’s at its best, it’s people trying to make music because they love music, and they’re not trying to swindle anybody, they’re not trying to get rich and famous immediately, they’re trying to make music that goes back to their roots, they’re trying to have some credibility, they’re trying to be authentic.”
I recently saw Isbell at the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C., where he was on the bill with Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Steven Tyler, the Goo-Goo Dolls, and The Fray, among others. As a freelancer, I received a press pass to take pictures at the event, but my primary interest was seeing Isbell live for the first time.
All afternoon, I found myself telling people about Isbell’s music. Despite critical acclaim, especially for his last two albums, and growing awareness, many in the crowd didn’t know who he was.
“Just listen,” I said. “Then you’ll know.”
I turned around to look at the crowd during “Cover Me Up.”
I wish I could be a music critic or a concert photographer. I love capturing live events and think I’m pretty decent at it, but I'm not sure I'd be the most objective critic (if there is such a thing). I know what I like, what I don’t, and even though I’m open to anything that catches my ear, I’m reasonably sure my opinions wouldn’t gibe with much of what passes for criticism these days.
That said, here are some things I’ve heard recently that I’ve enjoyed and put into heavy rotation:
• Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “SOB”
The best, most unrepentant song I’ve heard since “Rehab.” It brings a smile to my face everytime I hear it, and the video is terrific. Their self-titled album gives me the same warm feeling that “St. Paul and the Broken Bones” did last year.
• Tommy Stinson: “Can’t Be Bothered”
I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, but only recently have gotten into Stinson’s solo work. This is his latest, a single from a yet-to-be-delivered album, and it’s really good. It made me go back and revisit Bash & Pop’s “Friday Night is Killing Me,” the first Stinson solo effort and best album that came from The Replacements ashes. That is, until Paul Westerberg delivered “Mono.”
• Keith Richards: “Crosseyed Heart”
“Live at the Hollywood Palladium,” an out-of-print live album from 1988, remains in my rotation because it represents the best of what made the Stones great. And that, at least for me, is Richards. His new album is more of the same, which is plenty good.
• Dave and Phil Alvin: “Lost Time”
The follow up to the brothers' “Common Ground” is better, more lived in, and always welcome, although I find myself yearning for an album by Dave and his Guilty Men lineup.
• Amy Helm: “Didn’t It Rain”
On what is an admittedly male-centric list, the solo debut by Levon’s daughter more than holds its own. Terrific harmony, nice songwriting, and a couple of cuts that feature Helm’s late father on drums.
• Ryan Adams: “1989”
Everyone it seems has an opinion on Adams’ track-by-track cover/reinterpretation of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum album. No matter what you think about Swift, and I’m an admirer of her talent (although I could do without the rest), Adams’ effort ranks up there with his best and ballsiest work.
• William Harries Graham and the Painted Redstarts: “Foreign Fields”
Damn, this is good, and Graham is at least 20 years younger than anyone on my current list. Jon Dee Graham’s son contributes an album that is nothing like his father’s work musically. And when it’s this good, who cares?
Great quote: “I suppose that I didn’t know what I would become, but I always wanted to be extremely brave and I wanted to be a constant reminder to the universe of what passion looks like. What it sounds like. What it feels like.” — Lady Gaga
Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of The Replacements, and saw them twice on their all-too-brief (though highly entertaining) reunion. Still I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this comment recently: The Replacements and REM were the Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the fucked up.
An EP not on my earlier list but also worth mentioning is Glen Hansard’s tribute to Jason Molina, the Songs: Ohia and Magnetic Electric Co. singer/songwriter who died two years ago from alcohol-related complications at the age of 39.
“It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina” is Hansard’s five-song tribute. It includes loyal covers of two of Molina’s best-received compositions, “Hold On Magnolia” and “Farewell Transmission,” either of which makes the entire EP worth owning. “Farewell Transmission” is especially melancholy and beautiful, and a reminder of how too many musicians leave us too soon.
To see Molina perform “Farewell Transmission,” just click on the video. (Song starts at the 1:20 mark)
Great quote finale: From Jason Isbell, pretty much summing up my attitude toward writing about music in this or any other space — “I’m happy [for] anything that’s given me more of a home to do what I like to do.”
Pat Conroy’s death last week brought back a tide of strong memories. The first was when I read the “Lords of Discipline” in high school, and the second was when I saw Conroy at a talk/book signing in Greensboro almost two decades later.
Like “The Great Santini,” perhaps the book he is best known for along with “The Prince of Tides,” Conroy’s “Lords of Discipline” draws upon the author’s struggles with the military’s hardness, born of traditions that encouraged prejudice and misogyny in the Vietnam-era South.
Published in 1980, the book was being made into a film a couple of years after “Taps,” another fictionalized drama about a military school. As I’ve often done, hearing about a movie based on a novel makes me want to read the book before seeing the film, so I picked it up.
What “Lords of Discipline” taught me was how hard it must be to do a novel justice on the big screen. Even though the film was OK, there was no way it could capture the depth of Conroy’s work, or the (occasional) pulp of his prose. The book captured a South I had long heard of, but never wanted to be part of, in such a way that I became determined never to experience it.
This has been a terrible winter for artists, and the world of classic rock-era music has been particularly hard hit. Add to that list author Harper Lee and actor Alan Richman, and it has been seemingly a never-ending roll call.
In the first three months of 2016, we’ve lost Beatles producer George Martin, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Vanity, Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer, Maurice White of Earth Wind & Fire, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of Jefferson Airplane.
In some ways, the deaths of most of those who passed away should not come as a shock, given the hard living that many of those musicians lived during the substance-fueled 1960s, 70s and 80s. Bowie, still working until right before his death, was the exception, even though he had been battling (quietly except to those closest to him) cancer for 18 months.
The reason, I think, that the long list of deaths surprises and gives me pause is because each of these artists was popular during my childhood. And with each passing, that childhood recedes further into my life’s rear view.
One singer’s illness, in the midst of everything, caught my attention. Joey Feek of the country duo Joey+Rory, whose public battle with cervical cancer was chronicled every step of the way by her husband, died this month at the young age of 40.
I didn’t know much about the couple or their music. In fact, I’ve heard only a few of their songs, which are pretty enough (especially their cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”), but not cutting edge or truly memorable. What caught my attention was their openness about the illness, the way Rory Feek wrote about and cared for his wife and young daughter as Joey moved into hospice care.
There is something wrong about a person having to suffer in such a way, especially just a couple of years after having a child with Down’s Syndrome. But the grace and dignity they showed throughout is both commendable and memorable, and will outlive the songs they leave behind.
Pat Conroy wrote about life, death, family, dysfunction, mental illness and life as a military brat in the South. He too was open about all of his family’s foibles, so much so that many of his relatives would no longer speak to him.
He joked about this at the speech and book signing I saw him at in Greensboro, when he was promoting “Beach Music.” I had the chance to see him when Sarah Bullock, one of Jill’s co-workers and a second mother to her in many ways, invited me to come along.
Conroy’s sense of humor, always bubbling under the surface despite his lifelong struggles with depression, was in fine form as he told stories about his father meeting Barbra Streisand, and writing. When I mentioned, during the book signing, that I had worked as a newspaper editor before moving into communications, he complemented me on “escaping my career choice.” He then signed my copy of The Lords of Discipline — a hardback I bought that day, with the phrase, “For the love of words and books.”
Seeing Conroy was a highlight of my seven-plus years in North Carolina, and it’s rare that Sarah or I fail to mention it when we see or speak to each other. I still have the book, and last Christmas, Sarah sent me Conroy’s last work — “The Death of Santini.”
My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.
Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.
I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.
Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.
"To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."
Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.
“I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”
I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…
The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)
For some reason, I’ve been having trouble writing about the death of Prince. So many words have been said and so much purple ink spilled that there really isn’t much more that I can contribute.
But damn, that dude was talented. All you have to do is watch his Super Bowl halftime show.
No matter what you thought about Prince, he was a visionary in the music world. Like David Bowie, he mixed fashion, androgyny, funk, and throwback rock and roll into an always fascinating stew.
The results pushed the entire music industry in directions it did not anticipate; who would have thought he could almost turn Tipper Gore into a Republican? (If you don’t believe me, look it up.)
I wish 2016 would just let up when it comes to the deaths of people I’ve admired and appreciated as a fan of music and the performing arts. If I was a popular performer in the 1970s and '80s, I'd be more than a little scared. (Unless my name was Keith Richards, of course.)
Here are some excerpts from a Rolling Stone interview with Paul Westerberg after Prince’s death. The two were acquaintances who played the same clubs in Minneapolis; Westerberg also recorded at Prince’s studio, Paisley Park, after The Replacements broke up.
• He was like a ray of light in a very cautious place. He was a star. He made no bones about it. He was glitz to a place that wasn't used to it. I remember a little scuffle broke out in front of the stage one night and Prince said, "Stop fighting, you'll mess up your clothes."
• People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I'm gonna cry.
• I've spent more time with Bob Dylan, and I've got to say that I was more in awe of Prince. I can't think of anyone better – an all-around composer, musician, guitarist, star, showman, the whole package, anyone better. If Elvis wrote all of his songs and played guitar, it still wouldn't quite be there.
• When I got word today, I was trying to write a song. I put it down. I found myself walking up to the store, and I bought myself a handful of colorful clothes. I was just drawn to do something that he would have done.
My favorite post on this topic:
If you give us back Prince, Merle Haggard, David Bowie and Alan Rickman we will gladly give you the top 4 presidential candidates in return.
This is appropriate song, given the type of year we’ve been having.
"Elvis Presley wouldn't have been Elvis Presley without Scotty Moore."
Of all the musicians who've died this year, this may be the toughest one yet. Scotty Moore, who played lead guitar on all of Presley’s biggest hits of the 1950s and early 1960s, died yesterday In Nashville at age 84.
Moore and bassist Bill Black were part of Presley’s original band that started on Sun Records and moved over to RCA in 1956 after cutting a string of singles that are now considered the foundation of rock and roll. Even though the two left in a money dispute in 1958, Moore returned after Presley’s Army stint ended in 1960 and continued to play for him all the way through to Elvis’ comeback special in 1968.
The following year, Presley (without Moore) recorded “From Elvis in Memphis” and started touring again regularly for the first time in almost a decade. Ironically, his “From Elvis in Memphis” producer, Chips Moman, also died earlier this year.
The list of musicians that Moore influenced and the genre he helped develop is staggering. Among the guitarists who cite him as a direct influence: Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and the White Stripes’ Jack White.
Take a moment and watch Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” with Moore in this clip from the 68 Comeback Special. Presley started off acoustic, then traded guitars with Moore and lit the place on fire.
Lori McKenna started her “Wreck You” tour to promote her new CD a week before it was released, and was surprised to learn she could sell copies of “The Bird & The Rifle” before it becomes available to the general public.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” she said during her show at Jammin’ Java just outside Washington, D.C.
Such is the state of the music business, where release dates have been moved from Tuesdays to Fridays and smaller labels (such as McKenna’s) operate much differently than the now shrunken behemoths. Today, however, you and anyone else with an iTunes account can purchase “The Bird & The Rifle,” the latest in a series of gems from this mother of five who lives with her husband of 28 years outside Boston.
In a just world, McKenna’s music would get the same level of promotion — and subsequent sales — as the increasing number of artists who cover her richly detailed songs. One of those songs, “Humble and Kind,” topped the charts when Tim McGraw — whose wife, Faith Hill, helped McKenna get her big break as a songwriter in 2005 — released it last year.
McGraw’s mainstream sincerity (and video with connections to Oprah Winfrey) made the song a hit, but McKenna reclaims it on her new album. At the Jammin’ Java concert, she talked about writing the song at her dining room table between dropping off and picking up her kids from school. When you hear it on the CD, you can almost see her writing in longhand.
Hold the door say please say thank you Don't steal, don't cheat, and don't lie I know you got mountains to climb but Always stay humble and kind When the dreams you're dreamin' come to you When the work you put in is realized Let yourself feel the pride but Always stay humble and kind
Don’t expect a free ride from no one Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why Bitterness keeps you from flyin’ Always stay humble and kind
As a longtime fan — I have all 10 of McKenna’s albums — I’ve always appreciated her eye for life’s little details and ability to capture with grace and empathy the struggles of people just trying to get by. In concert, she almost apologizes for writing so many sad songs — the first single on the new CD is titled “Wreck You” — and while it’s true that none of her work qualifies as summer beach music, what she manages to capture is much more real instead.
“The Bird & The Rifle,” however, has a new wrinkle: Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb, who has worked wonders for Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. Cobb and a host of Nashville’s top musicians compliment McKenna’s words in a way I haven’t heard before. It is, without question, the best sounding record she has made.
So, if you can, try to catch McKenna live sometime this summer. And stick around for the encore, where she performs “Girl Crush,” a song co-written with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and recorded by Little Big Town. That one won McKenna a Grammy, and long overdue recognition that her words speak volumes.
Continuing what has suddenly become a music thread….
Billy Joel became the first performer to play three times at Nationals Stadium on Saturday, and he did so despite a torrential downpour that delayed the start of the concert by more than an hour.
You can't carry a "professional camera" into events like this without a press pass. (I would not have brought my camera in anyway, given the rain.) However, this is one of those times when iPhone photos usually come nowhere close to the images you can get with a regular camera.
Still, if you're lucky and recognize the shutter delays, you can occasionally get a decent image.
Let me know what you think of these and the ones on my Facebook page here.
Joel, as usual, was terrific in concert. He hasn’t written new music since the early 1990s, but embraces one of the best and most popular catalogues with enthusiasm. In turn, the rain-soaked crowd embraced him.
“What’s it like sitting there with a wet ass?” Joel asked the cheering crowd.
Fortunately, after seeing the Piano Man multiple times in multiple places (North Carolina, Madison Square Garden), we splurged and bought tickets on the stadium turf. No wet butts for us.
Unfortunately, we were among the large contingent of the 40,000-plus fans who came to the concert via Metro and were left stranded due to the storms, which delayed the show by more than an hour. Thanks (or not) to “SafeTrack” maintenance, the subway system closed at midnight, and there was no way we could see the encore and make it to the last train.
Joel even made a joke about the troubled transit system — “Is the Metro running tonight? … So basically, you’re (expletive).”
With no warnings in advance from stadium officials or Metro — a transit worker at the Navy Yard said they had not even been told about the heavily promoted concert (cough) — we were stuck with a long wait and a very expensive Uber ride.
An excerpt from Patti Smith's recent book on the creative process:
“Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras had her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed."
I have Starbucks.
More on the creative process, courtesy of John Doe, another of my favorite musicians:
“One of the reasons I'm here is to make stuff. To make songs and to be an actor and do art and things like that, so that's what's important. You shouldn't worry about what your rewards are. Your reward should be having created that thing.
“I hardly ever wake up and think, ‘Oh, today I'm gonna write a song.’ It just happens. And I think it's the same as — again, to get philosophical — a lot of things, the more time you put into it, the more reward comes out of it. So if I'm writing and playing most every day, then more stuff will come out of it. If I put it away, then there's other stuff that's going on in your head. If you have a down period, try not to get frightened of it or don't get spooked by it. Just let it go. Let it go until you feel like playing again.”
Simon Wright, in his “Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” blog, has summed up my musical tastes perfectly: “The uncomfortable reality is that my record collection is peopled with screwed-up individuals who self-medicated themselves into oblivion and/or an early grave but made some fine rock ’n’ roll along the way.”
And finally, a Replacements-related note: Playing the Live at Maxwell’s version of "Hayday" is oddly soothing while shopping at Home Depot, aka the ninth circle of hell. Check it out here and see if you agree.
I’ve always admired and appreciated X, the L.A.-based band that straddled the world between punk and country and remains incredibly relevant. They were part of the great Sire Records roster in the 1980s that also included Lou Reed, Talking Heads, The Replacements, The Blasters, and Los Lobos, among others, and X’s first four albums are considered classics.
As much as I enjoy those albums, which featured the original lineup, I’ve always had a soft spot for “See How We Are,” the 1987 album that includes Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” and the terrific title track. In the wake of the election, “See How We Are” has become my earworm.
Recently, on Facebook, I decided to ask my friends which hit song best describes the Cold War flashbacks we’ve been having since January 20. My suggestions were R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but they came up with a fascinating playlist that includes:
• Sting: “Russians”
• Billy Joel: “You May Be Right” and “Big Shot”
• Gary Jules: “Mad World”
• Gus Black: “Today is Not the Day to F--- With Me”
• Eurythmics: “Sex Crime”
• The Clash: “Rock the Casbah”
• Nena: “99 Red Balloons”
• Tears for Fears: “Everbody Wants to Rule the World”
• David Bowie: “This is Not America”
• Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime”
The more I thought about it, I realized X had another appropriately titled song — “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
Guy Clark leads an all-star cast in a performance of his "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" on the Letterman show. Clark, the de facto songwriting leader of so many people I like, died Tuesday following a long illness.
And the world just got a little smaller ... again.
As tributes pour in about the death of David Bowie, a recurring theme resonates about this boundary pushing and genre-bending artist: He was always living in the moment and looking to the next.
At the same time, Bowie seemed to enjoy revisiting his past, especially over the past few years. Whether it was a calculated business move, an ongoing assessment of his place in popular culture, or a combination of both, it has been an fascinating journey.
Bowie’s back catalog has been recycled and repackaged so frequently that even his earliest box set (“Sound & Vision”) has been remastered and re-released on two different labels. Over the past two years alone, we’ve seen more best-of sets and a massive 12-disc look at his first five (very heady years) on RCA.
This repackaging is typical for someone approaching 70 who had not performed live in almost a decade. But Bowie was far from done.
Two days before his death at age 69, Bowie released his most recent CD, “Blackstar,” which long-time producer Tony Visconti called a “gift” about his approaching mortality to his fans. “Lazarus,” an Off-Broadway continuation of "The Man Who Fell To Earth" featuring old and new music from Bowie, has been one of the hottest tickets in New York since it opened in December. In terms of buzz, it is almost as hot as “Hamilton,” another genre-bending musical currently in New York.
Putting music, or any art for that matter, into the context of its time and place has been a lifelong fascination. I want to know about the musicians the artists are working with, who the artists are influenced by, and what makes their creative juices flow. In the end, for me at least, context matters as much as the words, rhythms and beats.
With Bowie and his mentor, Lou Reed, the leap for readers stops at the doorstep of Alejandro Escovedo, who has worked with Visconti on his last several CDs and cites both as giant influences on his career. The reason I like Escovedo and admire the work of Reed and Bowie so much is that they always are looking to try something new with little regard for the genre. Regardless of whether you enjoy the result, you have to appreciate their restless and boundless approach to creativity and art.
It is ironic that both Reed and Bowie likely died from liver cancer, an end result of decades of hard living that both had overcome. Escovedo has dealt with the health effects of Hepatitis C that were caused by years of heavy drinking.
Fortunately, Escovedo is mostly healthy and taking care of himself, based on all available reports. But you just never know.
Starting with a Memory
I started to work on this tribute, as most of these things begin, working from a memory. Not of seeing Bowie live, which I did in Houston on the 1988 “Glass Spider” tour, but of a museum exhibit.
Last Christmas Eve, my wife and I were fortunate to see the “David Bowie is Now” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the only U.S. venue to host the show that has traveled the world since 2013. We were in Chicago with the rest of our family to see our son perform in a show, so getting a ticket was an unexpected treat.
If anyone deserved a museum exhibition devoted to his style alone, it was Bowie, but this was much more, proving to be a multimedia feast for the eyes and ears. It also was a fascinating history lesson, showcasing his artistry and chameleon-like nature while providing excellent, thought-provoking insight into his career. Afterward, I found myself reaching yet again for one of those retrospectives to see what I had missed.
My only wish is that I could have taken pictures, but they were strictly verboten, and security was tight. I understand why, and wondered at the time if I could have done it justice, given how difficult it is at times to get good images in museums. At the same time, I’m sure copyright and intellectual property were not the only reasons Bowie refused to allow photography. If anything, he was always the one in control of his ever-shifting image, right until the end.
After missing them repeatedly for years, I saw The Replacements live for the second time in nine months on Friday night. A crowd of around 3,000 stood in the jammed Echostage in Washington, D.C., to catch a glimpse of a band that shapes my life as much today as it did during its 1980s heyday.
Jill went with me to the concert, which was loud, fun, and slightly frustrating because it was tough to see the band play as it tore through its catalogue during the two-hour show. However, I have to agree with Mike Snider’s assessment in USAToday, especially this part:
“The Replacements rekindled the mixture of punk ferocity and melodic musicianship that, two decades ago, brought them a die-hard following and, eventually, major-label acceptance. Noticeably absent was the messiness of the past when the band would sabotage live performances, especially important gigs…”
I didn’t take photos this go-round, but you can see my pictures from the band’s Forest Hills, N.Y., show here and read an earlier essay on why the band means so much to me here.
In 1991, I was fortunate to have an hour-long, one-on-one interview with B.B. King at a hotel in Houston. The interview covered much of the terrain you'll see in the various tributes to the blues legend, but I have three random — though distinct — memories from that day.
First, King had the biggest hands of anyone I've ever met, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali (that's another story). Just huge, with a diamond on his left hand that could have paid for my college education.
Speaking of college, I asked King about Charles Brown, a blues pianist from Texas City who started around the same time and was then enjoying a revitalized career thanks to Bonnie Raitt. King said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician. "We were all jealous of him because he went to college," King said. "He had so many more options than the rest of us."
Finally, King said his only option was to work harder and longer than everyone else. "This is what I do," he said in a matter of fact manner. "I don't play golf. I can't imagine playing golf."
I recoiled the first time I saw the video of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.”
One of the best songs off of one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, the video tells the story of a couple who becomes entangled in the throes of the woman’s mental illness. It ends, as do too many of these stories, tragically, leaving the survivors to cope with unspeakable grief.
“The song is about loving someone unconditionally through not so easy times. The concept of the video came to me as that would be the hardest possible space in which to love somebody,” Stapleton says in an interview on the Campaign to Change Direction website.
Stapleton’s debut album, “Traveller,” has sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. It won two Grammys and drew attention for its mix of old-school country and Southern rock. The video for “Fire Away” has been viewed almost 15 million times, creating awareness around an issue — mental illness — that is too rarely mentioned or not seen at all.
Until it’s too late.
I’m a lucky man.
I’ve known two people — one a close friend; the other the daughter of family friends — who have died by suicide. I have a daughter who is ADHD/bipolar and struggles to maintain her equilibrium at times. An uncle and an aunt also have suffered from severe mental illness.
Their experiences have helped shape me as a person and as a father. I feel fortunate to have known these people, and lucky to have a daughter as kind at heart as Kate is. And I’m committed to sharing our family’s struggles in an effort to draw some attention to mental health issues.
Hearing that Stapleton would be performing in D.C., I noted the show was scheduled during an intense period of travel and was unsure if I could make it on a Sunday night after returning from a second trip to Pittsburgh in two weeks. Then, when I went to buy a ticket, all that was left was a single seat in the upper nosebleed section.
Jill had a dinner to attend that night, so she told me to go ahead. The cause is the right one, and that’s what’s most important.
The Campaign to Change Direction is a national initiative designed “change the culture of mental health in America.” Its goal is to get people to learn and share the five signs of emotional suffering — change in personality; agitation; withdrawal; decline in personal care; and hopelessness — so that we can prevent tragedies and help others to heal.
When Stapleton had the idea for the video, he didn’t work with a specific charity on mental health issues. Actor Ben Foster, who is in the video, suggested the campaign, which has received the support of Prince William, First Lady Michelle Obama, and actor Richard Gere, among others.
Stapleton agreed to work with the organization, although he had no idea about the video’s potential impact on his audience. He also had to get his record company to buy into the project, noting that label executives “looked at me like I had three heads” when he told them the idea.
“I didn’t want to be in the video. I wanted to make it with these actors because it felt more artful and meaningful,” Stapleton says. “It was just a notion, but then we made it and it became real and useful and something that hopefully can make the world a better place. … That notion became a good thing.”
The DAR Constitution Hall is a great place to hear a show, but a tough venue to maneuver. The lines are long. The bathrooms are in inconvenient places. The seats, especially in the upper reaches, have extremely limited legroom.
Having driven more than 500 miles over the previous two days, I had to get up midway through the show and walk around a bit, so I went down to the restroom and saw an usher I had talked to while waiting in line earlier. Listening to the music, we made momentary small talk about the show and I mentioned my connections to the cause, then told him I had to go back up. I didn’t want to miss “Fire Away.”
At that point, the usher opened the door and said, “Go on in,” pointing me to an empty seat in the orchestra section. “Wait a few minutes,” this random stranger said, “and I’ll take you up a little further if I can.”
After standing in the back of the orchestra for a few minutes — by this point no one was sitting — the usher tapped me on the arm and escorted me up toward the front, just five rows from the stage. “Stand here,” he said. “You won’t have a problem.”
And then he left without a trace. Two minutes later, Stapleton started playing “Fire Away,” just in time for me to pull out my phone and record it. At the end, he asked the boisterous crowd to repeat the last chorus, holding up their phones to shine a light on issues that are underreported and often unseen.
The audience complied. Here is the video I took of the performance.
Last month marked the 12th anniversary of Brian’s suicide. Next Monday marks the sixth anniversary of Lindsay’s. That time has passed so quickly is sobering in and of itself.
Steve Earle is one of three performers — Dave Alvin and John Hiatt are the others — I’ve seen live more than a dozen times in various configurations over the past 30 years. All three rarely disappoint because they are outstanding musicians and storytellers.
Last night’s show, featuring Earle and his band The Dukes at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., was no exception. It was, as usual, a goulash of various genres that ranged from pedal steel country to hard rock, all serving to promote Earle’s latest album, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” which was released last month. It also was the first time Earle, who is outspoken in his political views, has performed with his band in the D.C. area since the 2016 presidential election.
Politics were part of the equation — how could they not be? — but Earle’s canvas was broad, nostalgic and even melancholy at times. He spoke of being an a romantic in the widest possible sense, noting that he hasn’t done as well in the personal department (seven marriages, including a recent divorce from singer-songwriter Allison Moorer). Now 62, he talked being an optimist, largely because of his 7-year-old son with Moorer, who has autism.
Earle’s mentors and mortality also were recurring themes. “Outlaw” is inspired by Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and its closing number, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” is dedicated to Guy Clark, who died last year. He spoke of performing at Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year, having attended the first one as an 18-year-old and others since.
After more than two hours, Earle’s encore closed with “This Land is Your Land,” and “Christmas in Washington,” which namechecks Woody Guthrie and serves as a call for unity in a fractured world. It was a fitting end to a lovely night.
• The talent of the musicians in Earle’s band is outstanding, although there were some sound issues last night. Earle has worked with bass player Kelly Looney since 1988 and with guitarist Chris Masterson and fiddle player Eleanor Whitmore since 2010. Two new members, drummer Brad Pemberton and pedal steel player Ricky Ray Jackson, also were terrific.
• Masterson and Whitmore, who are married and perform separately as “The Mastersons,” again are the openers for the tour. They showcased songs from their third album, the recently released (and excellent) “Transient Lullaby.” Having seen them now four times, the first time at a Joe’s Pub release party for Moorer’s 2010 album “Crows,” I’m a true fan.
• Both Earle and Whitmore astound me with their versatility. Earle played eight different instruments and Whitmore four last night.
• I love The Birchmere, my go-to club for music since we moved here in 2001. It’s nice to be in a venue where folks sit and listen to the music, and it’s great to be able to take photos without issues with something other than a phone. The $8 charge for a beer came as a shock though.
• I got lucky. Not sure whether I’d be able to go to the show until the last minute, I went to the box office and was told it was sold out. Fortunately, a man was sitting in the lobby trying to sell an extra ticket, which I got at face value. Then, getting into the general admission area late (some folks had been there since noon), I managed to score a seat with members of The U-Liners, a DC-area Americana and roots-rock band with many shared musical interests. They were great; I hope to see their next show in DC in August. Check them out at www.uliners.com.
• Interesting trivia only to me: Earle and I share the same birthday — January 17 — 10 years apart.
• Additional musicians I would like to add to my 10-plus list: Moorer, who will be at The Birchmere next month with her sister, Shelby Lynne, behind a new album; Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, who I saw for the second time last month at Merriweather Post Pavilion; and Chris Stapleton, who I’m seeing at Jiffy Lube Pavilion this weekend. Good summer for shows.
Forty years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of Scott White Hospital in Tyler when I heard the news: Elvis Presley was dead.
I’ve written about my family’s history with the King of Rock and Roll, but this Places entry is related to Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis, where more than 100,000 visitors have descended to mark the annual Elvis Presley Week. I made the pilgrimage in September 2012 and took these (and countless more) images while basking in the city’s musical history.
Elvis-related tourism is worth an estimated $600 million annually to Memphis’ economy. Graceland is second only to the White House as the most visited home in the U.S. Sun Records, where Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash (among others) made their first singles, draws 160,000 visitors a year.
As Mojo Nixon once said, Elvis is everywhere. Go here to see my 2013 essay, “My Grandmother, Dad, and Elvis,” and here to see the rest of the album.
Live music — and most live performances, for that matter — is one of my favorite things to photograph. I’ve been fortunate to be close to some fantastic performers over the years, but it is difficult to get into that select group of freelancers who can score the elusive photo pass.
Without the pass, it’s impossible to bring a professional camera into a large show. So, like everyone else, I take photos with my iPhone and opt for the abstract rather than realistic look.
That’s what happened on the first of a two-show long weekend that saw my wife and I closing out August with a trip to Chicago, where we saw family and the band Green Day live at Wrigley Field.
It was the first time Jill and I have had the chance to go to Wrigley, and Green Day put on a terrific show. I also enjoyed pushing the phone to its limits to see what I could get. Sometimes it’s nothing but bad blur; at others, the phone can surprise you.
Part 2 of this weekend is the Allison Moorer-Shelby Lynne show at The Birchmere, which does not have the same restrictions on professional cameras, thank goodness.
Since I was out of town yesterday, I didn't get a chance to pay homage to Fats Domino, one of the pioneers of rock and roll who died yesterday at age 89.
Like many people my age, I grew up on "Happy Days," and my first exposure to Fats' music was seeing Ron Howard do "I found my thrill..." on the show. Soon after, my dad played me the "real Fats" on one of his treasured, beaten up 45s that were stacked in the giant home stereo that could have doubled as a buffet stand.
Reading through various tributes this morning, a Facebook friend noted Fats' connection to Elvis Presley, which led to an interesting discussion on race and music. Presley was never a songwriter, but an interpreter of "all kinds" of music — white and black.
Because the music charts were segregated (like everything else in the 50s), white musicians such as Pat Boone, Fabian and Ricky Nelson (among others) covered songs that were moving up the R&B charts. A long list of black musicians who wrote these hits (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats) were often screwed out of royalties — and other things — that should have been given to a song's author.
Presley, however, was different. He was quick to point to his many influences, especially black artists, and Domino was at the top of the list. I picked up the following quotes in reading the tributes to Domino.
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” Presley told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ’n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In 1969, at a news conference to announce the resumption of Presley's live concerts in Las Vegas, Elvis interrupted a reporter who called him “the king.” He pointed to Mr. Domino, who was in the room, and said, “There’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll.”
Scott Miller is another one of those songwriters who leaves tiny Post-It notes on your soul. Take, for example, his new song "Epic Love." It is by turns humorous, mournful, and a symbol of every relationship that started out passionately, only to crash and burn.
And then there is this: "For Jack Tynan," which came out on Miller's live album with The Commonwealth a couple of months before my dad died. In a mere 2:59, he captures perfectly my love for Nick, Kate, Ben, and Emma. Definitely worth a listen.
Four years ago tonight, The Replacements at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens...
Somewhere around the one hour, 13-minute mark in this recording, Paul Westerberg makes my all-time favorite live show a classic. At the end of "Love You in the Fall," a song from the animated movie Open Season, Tommy Stinson talks about the project and tries to give a nonessential piece of The Replacements canon a boost.
At which point Westerberg says, "This one's better," and launches into "Can't Hardly Wait." 15,000 fans roared and sang along. It was a moment I will never forget.
(BTW: The photo on this video is one I took, which makes it even better.)
Our personal summer concert series began tonight with the first of three shows I'll see this week. First up was Lori McKenna at City Winery in Washington, D.C., and she proved again why the small stuff in life means so, so much. If you haven't heard her music — chances are you have and don't know it — by all means go have a listen.
Next up: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at Wolf Trap on Tuesday, followed by the Cowboy Junkies on Thursday at The Birchmere.
Summer Concert Series Week #2: Jill and I saw Jason Isbell for the fifth time in a year last night at Wolf Trap. Another terrific show, highlighted by an encore of Crosby Stills Nash & Young's "Ohio." We also saw Sarah Huckabee Sanders walking in to the show; two songs later, Isbell played "White Man's World."
Coincidence? I think not.
If you're keeping score, we've now seen Isbell & The 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland and Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina. Both shows featured Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife, on fiddle and background vocals. We saw Isbell and Shires play acoustic at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville as part of the 2017 Artist-in-Residence series and again at a benefit at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C.
This show did not feature Shires, who is on a tour of her own to promote a new album. (We'll see her at the Birchmere next week.) The dynamic, as a result, was different. Isbell dug more deeply into his catalogue and the show had a harder edge, highlighted by the "Ohio" encore.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed shooting a number of concerts this summer, mostly at The Birchmere, where Sean Rowe opened for Amanda Shires last night. Jill and I first saw Rowe last summer in an outdoor show in Denver, and I became a fan of his singular voice and work with just a tricked-out guitar.
Shires’ performance came the night before her terrific new album, “To the Sunset,” was released. Shires, who supports husband Jason Isbell in his band The 400 Unit, is touring with her own group in support of the new CD, which shifts to a poppier sound. (Check out the current single, the earworm “Leave It Alone,” as a prime example.)
Some random thoughts on Aug. 16, an infamous day for music fans:
• RIP, Aretha Franklin, and on the anniversary of Elvis' death too. Wow...
• Agree with this statement wholeheartedly: Some days I need the music and some days I need the lyrics. And this song is one of the best examples of that. It's a wonderful tonic for the soul.
• Another music note: If the Dixie Chicks are recording (as has been rumored), I wish they would cover "Young and Angry Again" by Lori McKenna. It’s a great song they could do a lot with from her new album, The Tree.
On a sweltering summer evening, with the August humidity drenching performers and audience alike, The Avett Brothers performed before a raucous, sold-out crowd Saturday at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.
The group, which has toured steadily behind its 2016 album True Sadness and was the subject of an acclaimed HBO documentary, “May It Last,” earlier this year, performed 22 career-spanning songs in just under two hours. With isolated exceptions, the show led by brothers Scott and Seth Avett did not disappoint, never flagging in energy, harmony, or superb musicianship.
Serving as bookends were the stark ballad “Shame,” from the group’s 2007 breakthrough Emotionalism, and the gorgeous and sublime “No Hard Feelings” from True Sadness. The recording of the latter is a highlight of the HBO documentary, and a perfect closer.
I’ve been an Avett Brothers fan since Emotionalism, but circumstances have prevented my wife and I from seeing them in concert. It’s almost a given with four live albums, that they thrive in front of a crowd. The concert sold out in a matter of hours, and walking into Wolf Trap, we saw a woman holding a sign touting this as her 50th show. The merch line was twice as long as any of the bathroom lines, another sign of the group’s devoted fan base.
Not surprisingly, True Sadness songs — including the title cut — dominated the setlist as the seven-member group performed five of the album’s 12 tracks. Highlights included the funky and fun “Ain’t No Man,” in which Seth ran from all the way from the stage to the top of the lawn, and “I Wish I Was,” described as a song “about wanting something but not wanting to ruin something by wanting it so much.”
Other highlights: “Orion’s Belt,” an energetic rocker that has not been recorded but played in concert since 2017; The Carpenter’s “Live and Die” and “Down with the Shine,” which featured five band members on vocals; and encore number “Morning Song” from 2013’s Magpie and the Dandelion. Shoutouts also to Bob Crawford, the core member and upright bass player who soloed on “Old Joe Clark,” and fiddle player Tania Elizabeth, who took over on the instrumental “Le Reel Du Pendu/Les Bars De La Prison.”
Cellist Joe Kwon, drummer Mike Marsh and the brothers’ sister, Bonnie Avett Rini, on keyboards rounded out the seven-member group. All are phenomenal musicians. Opener Nicole Atkins, who performed led her four-piece group in an energetic set, joined the headliners on stage for “Pretend Love” (from 2006’s Four Thieves Gone”) and “Ain’t No Man.”
It’s easy to be hooked by the brothers’ story — by all means, watch the HBO documentary — energy and enthusiasm. It’s also easy, in these jaded times, to see why snarky critics would dismiss the Avetts’ simple, yet ultimately intricate and complex songs about family, friends and relationships. I was grateful that for two hours on a sweaty Saturday night, I could forget the toxic swirl that often surrounds us in Washington, D.C., and revel in the power of life stories set to music. No hard feelings, indeed.
This was my first review for the websiteAmericana Highways. You can see the reviewhere.To see more photos, go to myConcert Photographypage here.
These photos are of Nicole Atkins, the opening act who performed selections from her retro country/soul/jazz funk album, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.”
FYI to those who haven’t shot a show in this type of venue: Photographers with a pass usually are only allowed to work during the first three songs, which means you have to get everything done within 10 to 15 minutes per set. Wolf Trap does not have a formal pit area close to the stage, so you’re restricted to the sides and behind the soundboard. It’s a fun challenge.
If pressed to name my all-time favorite song, I go through the lengthy mental rolodex of artists I appreciate most — Elvis Presley, The Replacements, Jason Isbell, Dave Alvin, Steve Earle, X, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Scott Miller, Lori McKenna, Chris Stapleton — and come up with the same answer every time.
It’s John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
Since the song appeared on his 1987 album Bring the Family, I’ve seen Hiatt perform it live more than 20 times in all kinds of settings, both solo and with various backing groups. And it still gets me — every single time.
Naturally, it’s an encore number, so you have to wait for Hiatt to take off his guitar and walk over to the keyboards. Earlier this week, for the second show of a two-night stint at The Birchmere, “Have a Little Faith in Me” was the next-to-last number of a two-plus hour show that focused primarily on Bring the Family’s follow-up — 1988’s Slow Turning.
The 30th anniversary Slow Turning tour featured The Goners (Sonny Landreth, David Ranson and Kenneth Blevins) performing the entire album as well as the three-song encore. Hiatt opened the show solo with seven songs from other parts of his vast catalogue.
Slow Turning is Hiatt’s most commercially successful album, and many of its songs (“Drive South,” “Trudy and Dave,” “Icy Blue Heart,” “Paper Thin,” and “Feels Like Rain”) have been covered by other artists. For me, the centerpiece is the song, “Is Anybody There?” another keyboard-based ballad that just guts you.
On Tuesday, despite sounding a little hoarse toward the end of the summer-long tour, the 66-year-old Hiatt was full of energy. It’s obvious that he has a special connection with Landreth — also a fine solo artist — and the rest of the Goners, and I wish that they would be his regular backing band.
But Hiatt, whose daughter Lily is a terrific songwriter in her own right, is too restless for that. He continues to look for ways to write and perform new material (a new album comes out in October) and seemingly is always on tour.
And that’s fine by me. I’ll take any chance I can get to hear my favorite song live. If you haven’t heard it yet, look it up.
On a side note, this is the fourth time I’ve shot a Hiatt show (including one with Lyle Lovett in New York City). And I think this set perhaps is my best yet. What do you think?
I’ve always wondered why some people follow their favorite bands around the country, catching them at every stop on every tour in every type of venue. Then, about a year ago, I found myself doing the same with Jason Isbell.
In just over a year, Jill and I have seen Isbell twice at outdoor arenas in Maryland and Virginia, once at a benefit in Washington, D.C., at the Durham Performing Arts Center and at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I firmly believe he’s one of the best songwriters — hell, writers if you check his Twitter account — we have in music today.
Still, a reasonable person would ask, “Why would you want to drive to New York City to see him again, especially when he’s not the headliner but in a supporting role with a shortened, one-hour set?”
In a word: nostalgia. (And, if I’m being honest, an opportunity to take photos of one of my favorite artists for the second time.)
Four years ago, I saw The Replacements on their reunion tour at Forest Hills Stadium, a magical evening that remains my all-time favorite concert, in part because I was able to take my camera inside and capture the night.
I also found myself intrigued by the venue and its history. Located in a residential section of Queens, the stadium hosted the U.S. Open from 1924 to 1977 as well as some of the largest acts in music history from 1964-67. Among them: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix. It stopped hosting concerts, in part due to the noise in the quiet neighborhood, before reopening for shows in 2013 with a strict 10 p.m. curfew.
I’ve been looking for a reason to return to Forest Hills since, but nothing caught my eye until I saw Isbell was playing as part of a two-day festival headlined by The National — “There’s No Leaving New York.” My wife was out of town at a work obligation, leaving me with a rare weekend free.
That coincided with Isbell answering a question on Twitter about his all-time favorite opening verse. “Write you a letter tomorrow. Tonight, I can’t hold a pen,” Isbell responded, quoting from The Replacements’ 1987 classic, “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
I saw it as fate.
As summer gives way to fall and the outdoor festival season winds down, it felt appropriate that The National — whose reputation as an outstanding live band is without question — would conclude its year-long tour at Forest Hills.
In a pre-show interview with the blog Brooklyn Vegan, guitarist/keyboard player Aaron Dessner called The National’s October 2017 show at Forest Hills “one of our favorite shows in the history of the band.”
Dessner, The National’s primary songwriter with lead vocalist Matt Berninger, said after the show they “started talking immediately about finding a way to come back for multiple nights with friends.” He cited the venue’s “incredible legacy” and noted how it manages to feel intimate “even given its size.”
Cut to this past Saturday. Five groups are on the bill, with Isbell and the 400 Unit — minus his wife, Amanda Shires — performing just before The National. The first three groups — Adia Victoria, Phoebe Bridges and Cigarettes and Sex — play short sets of 30 to 40 minutes. Victoria shows range, and Bridges is a devastating songwriter (“Motion Sickness,” from her debut album, is written about Ryan Adams). Cigarettes and Sex belongs in a small, smoky club.
To most in the audience, Isbell’s songs represent the outlier/musical stretch for the day, making it all the more appropriate that his set stretches from twilight to dark. A few minutes in, the connection becomes clear. While recording 2013’s Southeastern, his first album sober, Isbell said he only wanted to listen to The National when he left the studio.
Isbell’s song list is short — 55 minutes — and typical for anyone who’s seen him over the past year or two. Ten of the 11 songs are from his last three albums; the Drive-By Truckers era “Never Gonna Change” is bookended by “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires.”
Still, no matter how many times I see him, I never tire of these songs. Without Shires, who’s touring with her own band right now, the five-member 400 Unit rocks harder and the jams seem longer. “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” gain poignancy in part because she is missing.
When The National appeared for its 90-plus minute set, they were primed for a much-deserved valedictory lap. Their set focused primarily on Sleep Well Beast, the group's 2017 album. Berninger told the audience he was “too freaked out to have any fun” the last time the The National was at Forest Hills, and more than made up for it on this night. Bridgers, who has been opening for The National on the tour, joined them on stage for two songs, the lovely “I Need My Girl” and “Sorrow.”
The communal feeling you sometimes get from live music was in true evidence throughout the day, and it showed during the final song of the night, “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” as the crowd sang each verse with Berninger conducting from the stage. It reminded me of the night the crowd sang “Can’t Hardly Wait” back to The Replacements, sending shivers down my spine.
As a music fan/evangelist, I’m happiest when I see friends enjoy the bands I love. Walking to the subway with a close friend (Bernadette Jusinski), who had accompanied me to The Replacements show and bought an $80 ticket on my faith that Isbell would not disappoint, I knew I had another convert.
In the mid 1980s, I was a reporter at my hometown newspaper in the refinery town of Texas City, Texas, and commuted to school at the University of Houston. For the most part, I worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, although the days often started early and the nights rarely ended before bars closed at 2.
That meant my opportunities to immerse in Houston’s fertile music scene were limited, but I took every chance to see shows whenever and wherever possible. I found myself putting my limited funds into cassettes I could play in my car on the commute and to pay the relatively small cover fees that most places charged at the time.
Houston had started to lose a bit of its luster as its more successful artists moved on to Austin and Nashville, but you could always find reliably strong acts at Rockefeller’s and Fitzgerald’s, and folk and acoustic music was played throughout the city.
On a rare off night, I went to Anderson Fair and Retail Restaurant, a barn-like building on Grant Street in the Montrose district. Lyle Lovett, who would soon release his self-titled debut album, was performing and a classmate had given me a sought-after ticket. (Sought-after because the place held only 75-80 people and required its audience to be quiet when the musicians played.)
I left that evening a fan, impressed by Lovett’s original songs and not knowing then that the only way you could play at Anderson Fair was if you wrote your own. At the time, I also didn’t know that one of the songs played that night — “The Front Porch Song” — had been co-written by Lovett’s college friend, Robert Earl Keen.
Cut to last week, more than three decades later, when I saw Keen and Lovett perform in the first of a two-night stop at The BIrchmere in Alexandria, Va. The venue is larger than Anderson Fair, but the emphasis on listening to the musicians’ stories and songs is the same. The performers, in their late 20s when I first saw them, are now in their early 60s.
Keen and Lovett are road warriors who have toured together on occasion since 2013. (Lovett has his Large Band and also goes out with John Hiatt in a similarly formatted show at least once a year, while Keen is often on the road with his regular band.) But their friendship is so deep that they work without a setlist.
Dressed in a blazer, jeans and an open shirt, Keen is the more fluid and colorful storyteller, spicing his tales with self-deprecating anecdotes. Lovett, as always, is in dark coat with tie, quick with a dry one-liner and awkwardly drawn out pauses that drew huge laughs from the audience.
The two met at Texas A&M in 1976. Keen, two years older, lived in a house near campus that Lovett — then a freshman — rode past on his bicycle. Keen, whose background is in bluegrass, would jam with friends on his porch and Lovett, who favors jazz and western swing, soon joined them.
“Corpus Christi Bay,” Keen’s opener, was accompanied by an anecdote about his brother driving backwards at a Jack-in-the-Box drive thru. Then, after performing his classic, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” he said his mother was offended by the song because of its references to drinking.
Before singing Guy Clark’s “Texas 1947,” Lovett told a story about opening for the legendary songwriter at the “old Birchmere.” He then talked about the opening act who played when he brought his Large Band to The Birchmere for the first time in 1986. The opener, Mary Chapin Carpenter, signed a record deal that night.
Midway through the show, Lovett said, “When I reached 50, journalists started asking me the ‘r’ word.”
“Are you thinking about retiring?” Keen asked. “I’ve been retired all my life.”
“Then he asked me, ‘How would you like to be remembered?’” Lovett continued. “I said to him, ‘First you were trying to get me to quit. Now you’re trying to kill me off.’ But then I thought about it for a little while. I called the journalist back and said I would like to be remembered as a really good dresser.”
He then sang “Pants is Overrated.”
By the end of the two-plus hour show, when they played “The Front Porch Song” just before the encore, you felt like you’d been sitting on the back stoop listening to family members swap stories about days past. Except the “family members” in this case are two of the best songwriters Texas has produced, and the stories served to deepen songs we’ve come to know and love.
I can’t wait until they come back for another visit.
This review, along with more photos, also was posted to the Americana Highways website. You can see it here.