Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fleetwood Mac You Don't Know

Fleetwood Mac has gone through guitarists the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. They don't spontaneously combust. But they self-destruct in the usual (and a few unusual) ways just the same, giving way to their addictions, to mental illness, and, at least in one case, to religious brainwashing and the influence of bizarre cults.

That young, handsome fellow on the left is Danny Kirwan, who played guitar for Fleetwood Mac from 1968 through 1972. Incredibly enough, that was already "mid-period" Fleetwood Mac, the original blues/boogie band led by Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer (two of the early guitarist casualties) giving way to a kinder, gentler jamband led by Kirwan and Bob Welch. The coke-addled, mate-swapping pop juggernaut led by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks was still a few years off.

Frankly, that mega-successful incarnation of the band never measured up to the band of the early '70s, in my opinion. That's because Danny Kirwan was a brilliant guitarist and a fine, sensitive songwriter. The three albums on which he has the spotlight -- Kiln House, Future Games, and Bare Trees -- are unheralded masterpieces. I've been listening to them again over the past few days, and they've held up as well as any music from the period. At least a few of Danny's songs, among them "Station Man," "Child of Mine," "Dust," and "Sands of Time," deserve to be staples on classic rock radio. But you'll never hear them.

By all accounts, Danny Kirwan was a difficult son of a bitch to work with. He was fired from the band in 1972, not because he wasn't talented, but because he was a drunken, drug-addled asshole whose perfectionist tendencies (he was known to spend an ungodly amount of time tuning his guitar in the middle of a concert) exasperated and alienated his fellow band members. He recorded a couple solo albums that died a quick commercial death. And since the late '70s he's been in and out of mental institutions and homeless shelters. He's now 61 years old, a seemingly hopeless alcoholic, mentally there some days, and others off on another planet.

For my hard-earned record money, he was the best part of the long history of one of the most successful bands in rock 'n roll. It's a sad history, in spite of the massive success. Danny Kirwan is a big part of the reason why.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Charlie Louvin

Charlie Louvin died earlier today. I first heard The Louvin Brothers' songs through the usual Baby Boomer sources -- Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. But the real deal, courtesy of Charlie and Ira, was even better. Nobody ever sang harmonies better. Ever. He was a great one.

In honor of his passing, I'm resurrecting an old article from Paste.


It may be the most startling and strangest album cover in music history. In 1960 the Louvin Brothers, arguably the greatest country duo of all time, released an album called Satan Is Real. The cover art has become something of a kitsch classic. A beaming Charlie and Ira Louvin stand in the foreground, adorned in snowy white suits, arms outstretched in a come-home-to-Jesus pose. Behind them a bed of smoldering lava threatens to inundate the would-be evangelists. And in the background is the cheesy masterstroke: a 12-foot cardboard cutout of Beelzebub himself, a crude rendering of the devil complete with horns, slanted eyes, a pitchfork and vampire-like protruding fangs. It is so garish, so over-the-top, that it would have amused even the most zealous of Bible-thumping fundamentalists.

The devil looks like he’s ready to pounce. And Ira Louvin would have certainly confirmed that that was no laughing matter. Ira would have told you that the album title simply reflected personal experience. He alienated and abused almost every single person who crossed his path. He drank constantly, cheated compulsively, married and discarded three wives, and walked around with three bullets buried near his spine — the work of his third wife, who shot him five times after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. “Ira Louvin was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met,” one of his former managers stated flatly. And therein lies the conundrum; Ira Louvin lived like he was haunted by demons, and sang like a slumming angel.

Ira Louvin and his brother Charlie, three years younger, were born and raised in the hills of northeast Alabama, and even when their music took on a more sophisticated, urbane sound in the late 1950s, they never lost the characteristic bite and yelp of their Appalachian heritage. They also never lost their lifelong enmity for one another. They occasionally loved like brothers, but mostly they fought like brothers, and when their voices intertwined, they sang with a transcendent beauty and a palpable tension that perhaps only brothers can create.

It was a tension between the sacred and profane, and it defined both the lives and the music of the Louvin Brothers. Ira, the raging drunk, and Charlie, the pious churchgoing teetotaler, could not have been more different in temperament, and their differences reveal themselves repeatedly in the music. Sometimes they played it straight, and songs like “The Family Who Prays,” “The Christian Life,” “The Angels Rejoiced Last Night,” and the be-saved-or-be-nuked Cold War classic “Great Atomic Power” are now recognized as standards of the country gospel genre. Sometimes they played the part of grieving, heartbroken lovers, and songs like “When I Stop Dreaming,” “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” “You’re Running Wild,” and “You’re Learning” provide the template for the close-harmony singing of The Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. Gram Parsons, who recorded their songs as part of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, brought the Louvin’s music to a new generation of rock ‘n rollers, and then passed it on to Emmylou Harris, who has carried the Louvin torch throughout her career.

It is as fine a body of work as country music has produced. But it is Ira’s gospel songs, the songs of the conflicted, raging drunk -- full of not love, but fury, not grace, but judgment, not joy, but deep regret – that continue to haunt and trouble me. Ira fought a pitched battle with God and Satan, who were very real -- and lost on both counts. In early 1965, on a song called “The Price of the Bottle (Is Just a Down Payment)” he sang:

I talked to myself one night in my room
And looked back on my wasted years,
Just me and my conscience while facing my doom …
A slave to the bottle that makes a man fall
And sink to a life of regret.

It’s the stuff of classic country music, played on honky-tonk and truck stop jukeboxes all over America. But Ira Louvin was simply singing his life.

So maybe he knew, somehow, what the end was to be. It is startling, in retrospect, to hear the number of Louvin Brothers songs in which drunk driving and violent death figure prominently. It is the logical end of those for whom Satan is all too real, who cannot escape the clutches of their addictions, and Ira sings these cautionary tales with the sure knowledge of one who wishes to be saved and yet knows he is doomed. One of the last songs the brothers recorded, the suitably melodramatic “Wreck on the Highway,” finds that potent mixture of the sacred and profane that characterized all their best work. Now it sounds prophetic:

O who did you say it was, brother?
Who was it fell by the way?
When whiskey and blood ran together
Did you hear anyone pray?

In June, 1965, Ira and his fourth wife, singer Anne Young, were killed by a drunk driver in a fiery collision outside of Williamsburg, Missouri. He was forty-one years old. At the time of his death, he had a warrant out for his arrest on DUI charges. Charlie, now in his late seventies, still occasionally performs, and toured with the rock band Cake as recently as 2003.

The brothers’ harmonies remain; soaring and otherworldly, alternately sweet and jarring, beautiful and harrowing, a musical tug of war that echoes into eternity.

Roger Miller

When I was a kid my parents owned about 20 albums, and they played them over and over again: Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, Ferrante and Teischer, The Ray Conniff Singers, Andy Williams, etc. It was a representative if small collection of what suburban adults were listening to in the mid-60s. The album that didn’t make sense, that never quite fit in with the rest of the collection, was Roger Miller’s Golden Hits. Naturally, that was the album that I listened to over and over again. Those songs may be imprinted in my DNA.

Roger Miller was, ostensibly, a country singer. That’s how he was categorized and marketed, and that’s how the Country Music Hall of Fame considers him. But to my pre-adolescent ears he simply wrote funny songs. Aside from his biggest hit “King of the Road,” which still doesn’t sound like a country song to me, his best-known songs were novelty numbers full of goofy lyrics. “You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,” one of his songs proclaimed, and I never doubted it, although I sang along like a fanboy. Another one announced, “Roses are red, violets are purple, sugar’s sweet and so's maple surple." As a ten-year-old, I was enthralled by the poetic genius. It was a neat dozen songs in about half an hour, and it was my favorite childhood album.

A few weeks ago I picked up the expanded version of Roger Miller’s Greatest Hits. There were 20 songs this time, and at least a few of them sounded like country tunes. One of them was on the original Golden Hits from my childhood, but it was the song I always skipped in favor of the novelty tunes. This time I listened:

Two broken hearts,
Lonely, lookin' like houses
Where nobody lives.
Two people each havin' so much pride inside,
Neither side forgives.

The angry words spoken in haste,
Such a waste of two lives.
It's my belief pride is the chief cause
In the decline in the number of husbands and wives.

A woman and a man, a man and a woman.
Some can, and some can't, and some can't.

Maybe I knew even as a kid. There might have been a reason why I skipped that song. Pride is as good a reason as any, and Roger had that right. Other contributing factors might have included adultery, alcoholism, and mental illness. At any rate, I listened to these songs from my childhood and wondered what in the world had drawn me to them in the first place. But not “Husbands and Wives.” I love that song, and now I listen to it again and again. Next week would have been my parents’ 57th anniversary. They’re both long gone. They were both long gone even when they were alive.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Aradhna - Namaste Sate

Aradhna's new album Namaste Sate is out today. You can find out more details, and listen to some song samples, here.

I will reiterate what I’ve said before. I’m not really a fan of contemporary worship music, but I love this band, and what they do. In a sea of virtually interchangeable worship music, Aradhna sounds like nobody else. Nobody else could possibly sound like they do, because they write out of who they are, and who they are is an utterly unique mixture of east and west. They are Canadians and Americans and Brits raised in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. They love Jesus, and they love India.

And that’s a hopeless mixture that probably dooms them to perpetual obscurity. Most Americans won’t know what to do with a bunch of hippies in weird robes who sing in Hindi, and most churches won’t touch them because Hindi sounds a lot like Hindu, and we can’t have that. But at some visceral level that can’t be fully articulated this music touches me in ways that no other worship music has ever done. It reaches me at the level of Miles Davis and Sigur Ros and Van Morrison, pretty much my holy trifecta of worship musicians. It goes deep down.

I would like to say that this is worship music for people who don’t like worship music, and I suspect that will be true for at least some portion of those who hear this album. But it’s also simply glorious music. It’s quiet and contemplative at times, other times bursting with the kind of pent-up passion that Sigur Ros delivers at the end of those long, glacially slow buildups. It’s soul music in all the best senses of the term.

I suppose, in the interest of full disclosure, that I should also admit that I’ve done some PR work for the band. But I’m first and foremost a fan, and I assure you that I’m not writing these things because I’m compelled to do so in any business sense. I’m writing them because I think they’re true, and I hope, as a fan, that more people will discover this marvelous music.

Friday, January 21, 2011

When You Are Old

I might end up like this. Most white Americans do. They live to a ripe old age for the most part, 78.1 years on average, and if cancer doesn't get them earlier, they tend to fade away gradually, the organs sputtering and eventually shutting down, the eyesight and hearing failing, the bowels loosening, the bladder slackening. We come in peeing and shitting the bed, and we tend to go out the same way. Perhaps we are fortunate if our memory goes before we have to suffer these indignities.

In any case, we are not in control. We think we are for a while, but life has a way of battering such nonsense out of us, and if job loss or wayward children or the death of those we love doesn’t do the trick, then the ultimate ignominy of bedshitting will. What, you think you’re somebody special? You’re soiling your sheets, Skipper.

I once had a pastor who hammered home the point, in sermon after sermon, that one of the toughest aspects of the Christian life was holding on loosely, and then letting go. He said we either learned the lesson a bit at a time, over the long course of a life, or we learned it the very hard way toward the end. Either way, we learned it. If we hold out for some sort of doctrine of fairness, of just rewards, of getting what is coming to us, then it is likely that we will only learn it the very hard way toward the end. But perhaps we can pick up a few lessons along the way. Here is one: I am so thankful for my wife and kids. I am blessed beyond measure. And here is another: I am so thankful for my sister Libby, celebrating her 47th birthday today. Cancer has spread throughout her body, and she will not live to be old and gray. This saddens me beyond measure. And I am thankful for her beyond measure. I am learning to let go, and it’s a hell of a classroom. But I am learning.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
-- W.B. Yeats

Monday, January 10, 2011

America's Next Top Homeless Person

Meet Bart “Scoop” Scrivener, America’s Next Top Homeless Person. Scoop may look like a derelict. In fact, he is. But he’s just waiting to be discovered by a camera toting, kind-hearted passerby who happens to stumble upon his makeshift campsight behind an abandoned warehouse in Youngstown, Ohio. Will today be the day that changes Scoop’s life? Will you be the angel who helps him find his deserved fame and fortune?

A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in 2003, Scoop fell on hard times when his former employer, The Ashtabula Times Picayune, laid him off in favor of carrying shorter stories via Twitter. At first Scoop tried adjusting to the new format, with his “Am I doing this right? WTF?” @Scoop tweet considered one of the finest early examples of meta-tweeting. But the past three years have been brutal. “I tried being concise,” he says. “I tried not using adjectives or verbs, abbreviating wherever I could, using smiley faces. It was no use. I couldn’t say anything worthwhile in less than 140 characters.” Left to fend for himself, but still driven by the insatiable need to use words, Scoop took to ghostwriting books for former Presidential candidates. When that well dried up, there was nothing to do but post lengthy diatribes on his personal blog, bitter harrangues that would have constituted dozens of individual tweets. “It’s sad,” he admits. “But nobody reads blogs anymore. At one time I could count on 10, 20 comments per day. Now I’m lucky if I get spammed for erectile dysfunction medication.”

It doesn’t have to end here. Will you help Scoop become America’s Next Top Homeless Person? Scoop is available for interviews (in-person or Skype), the occasional journalistic puff piece, and celebrity endorsements.