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No New McCarthy Era -- Music that Matters' Journal

Sunday, March 14, 2010

4:19PM - The Doors Redux

I've addressed Paul Nelson's writings about the Doors before, back in June of 2008 ("Perceiving the Doors"). In that same entry, I mentioned that award-winning director Tom DiCillo was at work on a Doors documentary. Now that DiCillo's movie, When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors, is preparing for its U.S. premiere (in select theaters on April 9) and the Internet is abuzz with anticipation, it seems like a good time to post this ad from July 1967, which incorporated part of Paul's Hullabaloo review about the band's first album. Just click on the image to enlarge it.

And, while we're on the subject, here's the trailer to DiCillo's film, which is artfully composed entirely of period footage, much of it previously unreleased.

Should you miss DiCillo's film in the theater, fear not: it's also scheduled to appear on PBS's American Masters series on May 26.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 1, 2010

10:00AM - "Mel Lyman's America"

Though I finished writing Everything Is an Afterthought over five months ago, hardly a week goes by when I don't receive an e-mail or a phone call that is in some way connected to Paul Nelson. (Thankfully, with publication imminent this fall, the Stewie Griffin-inspired "How you comin' on that book you're workin' on?" inquiries have pretty much subsided.) Recently, I heard from William MacAdams, author of Ben Hecht: The Man Behind the Legend. In addition to being a longtime friend of Paul's, in 1995 William coauthored a book with him: 701 Toughest Movie Trivia Questions of All Time.


You probably know that at one time (and perhaps to the end of his life?) one of Paul's favorite albums was Jim Kweskin's America. To Paul the creative force behind the music was Mel Lyman, thus he referred to the record as "Mel Lyman's America." He introduced me to it sometime in the early '70s, before I moved to Europe. I had a vinyl copy, which disappeared a long time ago. Just the other day, don't know why, I thought of Lyman and checked to see if someone on Facebook had a Mel Lyman page (there isn't one), which led me to search for a CD. There is a double Kweskin set including America. I bought it, wondering if it held up. Got it yesterday and couldn't stop playing it.

When Paul died I was saddened but didn't grieve (we had been out of contact for several years, as you know, Paul shutting me out, a deeply hurtful mystery that will never be explained). The music brought Paul back so vividly I broke down in tears, especially upon once again hearing "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight," "The Old Rugged Cross," and "Old Black Joe," Paul's favorites.

I thought you might be unaware of Paul's fondness for Lyman's music. If so, the whole saga of Lyman's remarkable life is worth reading about, the Rolling Stone hatchet job/exposé, et al.


I'd never heard of Jim Kweskin or Mel Lyman, let alone the album in question. Nor could I find where Paul had ever made mention of them in any of his writings. But, trusting William's judgment (he'd proved himself an invaluable resource regarding All Things Paul Nelson), I downloaded the album posthaste from iTunes. I wasn't disappointed. While I was familiar with many of the tunes by way of other artists' versions, there's something deeply felt and unique about Jim Kweskin's America. It reminds me of something Paul wrote about Jackson Browne's Running on Empty (and which was quoted in the program at Paul's memorial service):

It's simple enough to talk about lyrics, aims, structure, and all the critical etceteras, but it's very difficult to pinpoint what it is that's actually moved you. It has to do with essences, I think, and all those corny virtues like truth, courage, conviction, kindness, and the rest of them.
Jim Kweskin's America has all those corny virtues, I think, as did Paul.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

10:55PM - Andy Zwerling

Andy Zwerling was probably the youngest of the many young musicians whom Paul Nelson backed and/or befriended during his A&R years. Zwerling was only eighteen or nineteen when he first met Paul in 1973. One half of a brother-and-sister act that included his younger sister Leslie (who was still in junior high), Zwerling cherishes his memories of his friendship with Paul, which lasted well beyond their first meeting.

"A lot of people told me that I should contact Paul Nelson at Mercury," Zwerling e-mailed me before we spoke. "I tried calling Paul for a few weeks, but couldn't reach him. When I got him on the phone, he told me that he'd heard that my songs were good, but that he wouldn't be able to do anything for us at Mercury. I asked if we could come play him some songs. He repeated that it wouldn't do any good, but graciously told us to come in anyway.

"I knew that he had signed the New York Dolls. I halfway expected to meet some wild man instead of the quiet, soft-spoken guy Paul was. He immediately told us that since the New York Dolls weren't selling well, it would be impossible for him to do anything for us." [As a point of clarification, by the end of 1973 New York Dolls sold 110,000 copies—not bad for a first album. The problem was that the band was spending money faster than it was coming in, and that financial fact, along with their now legendary antics, was poisoning their relationship with Mercury management. Paul was stuck in the middle with the Mercury blues again.]

"I asked if we could play a few songs, and he gave a bemused smile," Zwerling continued. "We jumped up and started playing. He kept smiling, and we kept playing. Every few songs he'd say that 'I can't do anything for you.' He kept smiling. After a while, he picked up the phone and called a recording studio. He set up a session for us in a beautiful sixteen-track studio. That was a huge deal for us. We recorded two songs ten days later. We all had a great time in the studio. Those two songs are on our retrospective, Somewhere Near Pop Heaven." [In 2003, the album became an unexpected hit in Croatia.] "Paul was always soft-spoken, but he was very animated, encouraging, and enthusiastic during the whole day.

"I don't know how much longer he stayed at Mercury, but he continued to try to sign us. When he left Mercury he sent us to someone he knew at CBS, and we recorded a demo there, which would not have happened without Paul's recommendation. We didn't play live in the city very often, but Paul not only saw us four or five times, but he went out of his way to bring other writers with him [including Dave Marsh]. In 1980 we recorded a demo. It was cheaper to press it as an LP than to make cassettes. Paul sent a copy to Ken Tucker, who gave us a great review in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I'm sure he sent it to other people, including a writer named Leslie Berman. Paul was then then the review editor at Rolling Stone, and he ran her very favorable review of us.

"His support was always incredible. No matter how much Paul Nelson told us he couldn't do anything for us, he spent decades doing everything he could for us.

"I lost touch with Paul during the 1990s. I knew he'd gone through a very tough time after his mother's death, but I didn't know where he was. One of the last times I saw him was in the middle of the winter sometime in the Eighties. It was about twelve degrees and very windy. I had on a down jacket. Paul had on a very light jacket. I asked 'Aren't you cold?' 'Cold?' He literally laughed. 'I'm from Minnesota, this isn't cold. It gets cold in Minnesota.'

In 2001, "Ed Ward wrote a New York Times story about us. He wanted to talk to Paul about us. I e-mailed a bunch of people, and I was directed to Evergreen Video. I got hold of Paul, and I spoke to him regularly until a year ago. His only regret about the Times story was that he wished more of the compliments he'd given us had made it to the final story. That made three decades of 100 percent support."

Paul would have no doubt been pleased, then, in 2008 when Zwerling—a one-time rock critic himself (with a handful of Rolling Stone reviews to his credit) and now a practicing attorney—released Hold Up the Sky, his first solo album in 37 years. The CD is a joy, and Ken Tucker, now editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, featured it on NPR's Fresh Air, where he named it one of the best albums of 2008.

It's not difficult to imagine that Paul Nelson would've agreed.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

5:09PM - Lou Reed

One of the more frustrating aspects of selecting which of Paul Nelson's writings to include in Everything Is an Afterthought was deciding which works not to include. For a guy who's famous for his struggles with getting the word onto the page, he wrote a hell of a lot. As much as I hated to, one of the last chapters I deleted from the manuscript was devoted to Lou Reed. Reed was a frequent touchstone and reference point for Paul, but he wrote about the singer-songwriter-founding Velvet Underground member surprisingly few times. Fortunately, two of his best pieces about Reed are available online.

When Paul was still in A&R at Mercury Records, he seized the opportunity to acquire some previously unreleased tapes of the Velvets performing live in Texas, less than a year before Reed departed the band. When the album (a double) was finally released in 1974 as 1969 Velvet Underground Live, Paul penned the liner notes that appeared on the back of the LP’s gatefold cover. (For the inside, he invited singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, whom he was still trying to sign to Mercury, to compose some liner notes of his own. Murphy writes about the experience here and, although he misremembers the year—it was 1973, not 1972—offers a download of his original handwritten notes.)

In 1975, a few months after Paul left Mercury Records and returned to criticism, he wrote about Reed again, reviewing Lou Reed Live, the artist's follow-up to his classic Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. “Had he accomplished nothing else,” Paul wrote, “his work with the Velvet Underground in the late Sixties would assure him a place in anyone's rock & roll pantheon; those remarkable songs still serve as an articulate aural nightmare of men and women caught in the beauty and terror of sexual, street and drug paranoia, unwilling or unable to move. The message is that urban life is tough stuff—it will kill you; Reed, the poet of destruction, knows it but never looks away and somehow finds holiness as well as perversity in both his sinners and his quest.”

Paul ended his critique of Lou Reed Live on an optimistic note and, as his review the following year of Coney Island Baby attests, his faith in Reed was rewarded. The review contains some of Paul’s best writing, his usual well-chosen words expressing not only his aesthetic admiration for Reed’s new work but also the sheer pleasure he derived from listening to it. The review—one of the rare times that his writing reflected his love of sports—also boasts one of my favorite Paul Nelson last lines.

Which makes me want to enjoy the entire piece over again.

Copyright 2010 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

12:48PM - Stepping into People's Lives

I'm late in posting this, but Bruce Springsteen turned sixty one week ago today. Over at Mental Floss, Matt Soniak posted the very entertaining "60 Springsteen Facts for Bruce's 60th Birthday." 

Regarding Number 17 on his list—

Springsteen lore has it that Bruce was once spotted in a movie theater watching Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (which comments on artist/fan relations). The fan who saw him challenged Bruce to prove he didn’t regard his own fans with the contempt as the Allen stand-in in the movie by coming to meet his mom and have dinner. Bruce did so and supposedly still visits the fan’s mother every time he’s in St Louis.
—I was reminded of a passage from the "Two Jewish Mothers Pose as Rock Critics" chapter of Paul Nelson and Lester Bangs's Rod Stewart book wherein, during a give-and-take between the two critics about the nature of fame and what it can do to an artist, this same story about Springsteen came up. Paul said: 

I've been backstage at Springsteen shows where Bruce'll open the doors and let thirty kids hanging around outside come in and talk to him. Hope Antman [of CBS Records] told me a story that when Bruce was in Minneapolis and had a night off he went to a movie by himself, and this kid recognized him as he was buying a ticket and said, "Hey, you wanna sit with me?" And he sat with him, and the kid said, "Hey, you wanna come home and talk and my mother’ll fix us some things?" And Bruce went home with the kid and spent the whole night with the kid. And that ain't ever going to happen with Rod Stewart.”

I asked Bruce if any of this were true when I interviewed him in 2007.

"Oh yeah," he said, "oh yeah. I think it was St. Louis, though, or St. Paul. I forget where. I was by myself. I sort of enjoyed the license that that strange part of my job, where people recognize you, allowed me to kind of step into people’s lives, and it was just a night where I wasn’t doing anything and it just sounded like a good idea. The kid ran into his room and came out with an album cover and held it up next to me [laughs] after we came in the door.”

Springsteen volunteered that he does still see the kid's mother occasionally when he's in town (whichever town it may be), though it sounded as if such meetings were in the nature of a before- or after-concert encounters, not a visit on his own part.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

6:17PM - Paul Nelson's White House Connection

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, David Browne reports that in 1979 Paul Nelson was recruited as an advisor to a commission headed by legendary producer John Hammond to update the official White House Record Library. As a result of the commission's efforts, President Obama can enjoy vinyl versions of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Springsteen's Born to Run, Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, Led Zeppelin IV, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, the Ramones' Rocket to Russia, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, the Flying Burrito Brothers' The Gilded Palace of Sin, as well as records by Santana, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Isaac Hayes, Elton John, the Cars and Barry Manilow.

It's not difficult to surmise which selections were high on Paul's list of suggestions.

The entire article, "Obama's Secret Record Collection," can be found here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

7:15PM - Paul Nelson Mentioned

Last week, William Zantzinger, the murderer made famous not by his heinous act but by Bob Dylan having written a song about him, passed away. Michael Yockel's excellent article, "Willian Zantzinger's Lonesome Death," examines not only the man who inspired Dylan's classic "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," but also the truth behind the song. In doing so, he wraps up his article by quoting Paul Nelson.

The trouble is, as fitting as the quote may be in the context of Yockel's article, the words—critical of Dylan's having played fast and loose with the truth—do not belong to Paul. To the contrary, Paul had called the tune "Dylan's best protest song." 

The quote actually belongs to another fine writer, Clinton Heylin, from his 2001 book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. Circa 1999, he interviewed Paul and, in the book, writes about Paul's Dylan connection.

Monday, October 27, 2008

11:15AM - No More, No Less

In 1972, Paul Nelson was promoted from publicity to East Coast head of A&R at Mercury Records. His first real signing was Blue Ash, a band from Youngstown, Ohio. The group's 1973 debut album, No More, No Less, earned a place on several critics' best-of-the-year lists but, as these things often go, didn't make a connection in the marketplace. Blue Ash's MySpace page remembers it this way:

In July of 1972, the group signed a contract with Peppermint Productions of Youngstown and began recording and sending out demos. In October, legendary A&R man and rock writer Paul Nelson from Mercury Records flew to Youngstown to see Blue Ash "live" and immediately began signing procedures. They started recording their first album No More, No Less in February 1973 with Peppermint's John Grazier producing and with Gary Rhamy engineering. Executive producer Paul Nelson introduced them to a never-before-published, never-before-recorded Bob Dylan song called "Dusty Old Fairgrounds" and suggested they record their version of the Beatles' "Anytime At All" both of which appear on the lp...

On May 15, Mercury released the first Blue Ash 45 "Abracadabra (Have You Seen Her?)" b/w "Dusty Old Fairgrounds" On May 25, No More, No Less was released. Rave reviews and feature articles followed in Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, Zoo World, Circus, Phonograph Record, New Times, Record World, Billboard, Rock Scene, Fusion and many others. That summer they began touring and opening for acts like Bob Seger, Iggy and the Stooges, Ted Nugent, Nazareth, Aerosmith and more. Blue Ash along with Raspberries, Big Star and Badfinger became "critical darlings" of a new sound later to be called power pop. Despite the good press Blue Ash was not getting much national radio airplay or sales... 
Thirty-four years later, No More, No Less has finally been released on CD. As Blue Ash's bassist and vocalist, Frank Secich (now of the Deadbeat Poets), recalls in the Cd's liner notes, "In June of 1974, Blue Ash was dropped by Mercury Records (under heated protest from Paul Nelson) for lack of sales. Paul was subsequently sacked from the label, too, in large part for signing Blue Ash and the New York Dolls."

While that has indeed been the legend of Paul's departure from Mercury, it's not quite that simple. Reasons for leaving seldom are.

Blue Ash and friend in 1973 (left to right): Frank Secich, Jim Kendzor,
Bill Bartolin, Paul Nelson, and David Evans. Photo by Geoff Jones.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

7:35PM - David Forman

August of 1974 was a memorable month for singer/songwriter David Forman. A few days after being involved in the most benign and fanciful takeover ever of the World Trade Center—high-wire artist Phillippe Petit's 45-minute walk back and forth on a steel cable strung between the Twin Towers—Forman penned his amazing song "Dream of a Child" and somehow, in some way now lost to memory and time, came to the attention of Paul Nelson at Mercury Records.

While Paul was unsuccessful convincing his higher-ups to offer a recording contract to the artist (Forman says, "They looked at him like he was out of his mind"), Forman ultimately was signed by Clive Davis to Arista, where he recorded one classic, self-titled, and now very collectible album (there's a used CD on Amazon right now going for $109.99).

Forman, who went on to forge a musical career and an alter-ego with Little Isidore and the Inquisitors, can currently be seen on the big screen in James Marsh's brilliant documentary about Phillipe Petit, Man on Wire, where he even performs "Dream of a Child."

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

12:57PM - Max's Kansas City

In January of 1973, a few weeks after Elliott Murphy first played his demos for Paul Nelson, then an A&R guy at Mercury Records, Paul presented him the recently released debut album of another songsmith: Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Later that same month, Paul invited Murphy to join him at Max's Kansas City, where Springsteen was playing with a very early incarnation of the E Street Band.

This week over at Wolfgang's Vault—which features free streaming of vintage live concert performances—the featured concert is, with relative certainty, the show in question. Recorded January 31, 1973, after the show Paul introduced Elliott to Bruce, thereby launching a friendship that continues to this day.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 25, 2008

1:16PM - Bumping into Geniuses

Rock journalist. PR guy for Led Zeppelin. Nirvana's manager. Good friend to Kurt and Courtney. Record company executive. These are but a few of the descriptions you might apply to Danny Goldberg, whose latest book, Bumping into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, hits the bookstores next month. In addition to the appellations I've already dropped, among the many behind-the-scenes tales Goldberg tells are how he covered Woodstock when nobody else wanted to, when he talked Kiss into taking it all off (makeup-wise), and how he launched Stevie Nicks' solo career. What emerges is the profile of someone savvy enough to know that doing business is all about relationships—and that you can't succeed at either one at the expense of the other.

For our purposes here, Goldberg also writes about such Paul Nelson favorites as Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Ian Hunter (whom Goldberg now manages), and Neil Young. Most importantly, he writes about Paul.

Touching on Paul's five years at Mercury Records, when Goldberg was writing for Circus magazine, he also reflects on Paul's role in the Warren Zevon saga in a lengthy and loving chapter about the singer/songwriter's final years (Goldberg was head of Artemis Records and released not only Zevon's last three studio albums but also the fine tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon). He also reflects on Paul's memorial service at St. Mark's Church on September 7, 2006.

What emerges is Goldberg's admiration for both Paul the man and Paul the writer. As he wrote for RockCritics.com shortly after Paul's death:
Paul was hopelessly miscast as a PR guy. He was literally incapable of hyping an album or artist he did not believe in and was always apologetic when he called about a Mercury artist.... Paul was far more likely to go into a track by track analysis of the latest Leonard Cohen album on Columbia than even to mention a mediocrity on Mercury. I don't know how he got himself into a position where he was able to sign the Dolls (not normally the kind of thing a PR person could do at record companies) but I suspect he just wore out his superiors. But he did enjoy the expense account that allowed him to take a long list of writers to La Strada and other Midtown restaurants.

Towards the end of Bumping into Geniuses, Goldberg realizes that "People like me were only valuable to record companies to the extent we could identify and sign commercial talent. And the way that the business world judged your talent for picking and signing and working with artists was not how smart you were, how much you loved music, how hard you worked, what skills you had, or what critics thought of your taste. To be taken seriously by the grown-ups you had to be associated with big hits. That was the coin of the realm."

Which pretty much sums up why Paul Nelson's record company career ended in 1975.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

9:10PM - Bob Dylan Revisited

Paul Nelson wrote: "It is hard to claim too much for the man who in every sense revolutionized modern poetry, American folk music, popular music, and the whole of modern-day thought; even the strongest praise seems finally inadequate. Not many contemporary artists have the power to actually change our lives, but surely Dylan does—and has."

Paul wrote this in 1966, the year after Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival and left behind a heretofore devoted audience of dyed-in-the-wool folk-music enthusiasts (an event that also contributed to Paul resigning his post as managing editor of Sing Out! magazine—but that's another story). 

Performing Tuesday night at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Dylan remained just as artistically unyielding. 
The last time I saw Dylan live was 20 years ago and also outdoors, near Park City, Utah. His face was puffy and he was slightly hunched forward, as if he were being crushed by the weight of his own reputation. One of his surlier periods, he would just blast through song after song, each one almost indiscernible from the next. This wasn't Dylan gone electric—it was Dylan gone electrically bombastic.

But I was not surprised. I knew from recordings that Dylan performing live was a chameleonic chimera. There was the bellowing Dylan (with the Band) from 1974's Before the Flood; and two years later there was the punk-rock Dylan spewing fiery deliveries on Hard Rain. What we got at Prospect Park this week was a defiantly elegant Dylan, his voice at once ravaged and ravishing, as thin as a whip and just as dangerous. His band was sharp and exact—like a surgeon's knife, or Jack the Ripper's blade. He played his music the way he wanted to play it, everybody else be damned.

So it was with some amusement that, on our way out of the park after the concert, we heard grumblings to the effect that Dylan "didn't even know the words to his own songs," which "didn't sound the same," and (my favorite) "He didn't even play 'Mr. Tambourine Man'!" 

Forty-three years after Newport, he's still got it. And 42 years after Paul's words, even the strongest praise still seems inadequate.

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved. 

Sunday, June 22, 2008

2:43PM - Revenge Will Come

One of my all-time favorite records is 1982's Revenge Will Come, the debut album by a poet/songwriter named Greg Copeland. Produced by his good friend (since high school) Jackson Browne and released on the Geffen label, the album was at once critically embraced (along with Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, David Johansen's Live It Up, and Lou Reed's The Blue Mask, it landed on Time magazine's best-of-the-year list) and commercially forgotten. It has never been released on CD.

A few years ago, preparing for my move two-thirds of the way across the country and looking for ways to lighten my load, I sold off most of my vinyl collection, saving only those records that either had some sort of sentimental value or which were yet unavailable on CD. Revenge Will Come came to New York City with me.

Imagine my surprise, then, in January of last year when I discovered, among the hundreds of cassettes Paul Nelson had left behind in his apartment, two tapes in particular: a promo copy of Revenge Will Come and an interview that he had conducted with Greg Copeland. Surprise tinged with a little bit of confusion because, to the best of my knowledge, Paul had never written about the album.

Recorded over the telephone in late August of 1982, Paul began by telling Copeland how much he admired the album—that it was thus far his favorite of the year. He also divulged to the young songwriter that, though he indeed intended to write about the album for Rolling Stone (where he'd been record reviews editor since 1978), he had just resigned from the magazine.

When I spoke with Greg Copeland earlier this year, he told me: "I remember the room I was sitting in when it happened. I remember talking to him, but I don't remember anything about what he said or what I said. Until you reminded me, I'd forgotten about it." 

Unfortunately, Paul never wrote about Revenge Will Come—nor would he write much of anything else for the next seven years. His departure from Rolling Stone, combined with the upheaval that was his personal life, signaled the beginning of what his friend Michael Seidenberg calls "Paul's missing years."

The good news is that, twenty-six years later, Greg Copeland has recorded his sophomore album. "Now I'm back full circle," he says. "I work as a lawyer about half-time and write the rest of the time." The album is slated for release on Jackson Browne's label later this year. 

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

7:34AM - Perceiving the Doors

Paul Nelson didn't write a lot about the Doors--and he only briefly met Jim Morrison--but what words he did put to paper were poetic, to the point, and unashamedly revealing of a critic yearning to understand not only the the band's music but the nascent and far from established new art form called rock & roll. For instance:

And Jim. To see him sing is like witnessing a man dangling in some kind of unique and personal pain. Watching Morrison come face to face with some ultimate truth in song can be truly frightening. The shrieks and screams come from a subconscious layer under the conscious artistry: Morrison is levels, not all of them pretty.


When I learned that the intense and talented writer and director Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, and his most recent film, Delirious, are among his best) is feverishly at work on a Doors documentary, I forwarded him Paul's rare writings about the group, the best of which is "Perceiving the Doors," a piece written for the long out-of-print songbook We Are the Doors. "What an amazing writer," DiCillo responded. "It is pretty astonishing. I particularly liked his analysis of the Doors' sound":

When they play, they seem to be held together by both terrific, almost terrifying, strength and by sheer nervous tension. They expand, contract, and the song is stretched like a live thing to a point of birth or breaking or both. The passion is always contained within the control. Ray [Manzarek] plays the organ like a holy man, his thoughts almost as visible as smoke, while Robby [Krieger] oozes out those slow, melted flamenco notes as if he were shaking them from a slow-motion guitar. John [Densmore] is all speed and power on the drums, a perpetual-motion machine. And Jim. To see him sing is like witnessing...

"It is close to my own view of what distinguishes the group," DiCillo continued, "but he writes extremely eloquently and with real, knowledgeable detail. I thought his review of the first album showed real perception." In fact, so alive was Paul's forty-year-old prose that DiCillo had a request: "Can you please pass my admiration on to him?"

I informed him that Paul had passed away in 2006. "I had no idea," he replied, "It touches me deeply. It has much deeper meaning now." 

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

5:01PM - Rod Stewart

The backstory: In the early Seventies, Paul Nelson accepted a publicity job at Mercury Records. One of the artists with whom he worked closely, and with whom he became good friends, was Rod Stewart. During Paul's five-year tenure at Mercury (he eventually was promoted to A&R, in which capacity he would sign the New York Dolls to their first recording contract), Stewart produced some of his best albums, including Gasoline Alley, Never a Dull Moment, and one of the best rock & roll albums of all time, Every Picture Tells a Story.

In 1975, the same year Paul resigned from Mercury and returned to writing full-time, Stewart switched labels and landed at Warner Bros. where his first album was Atlantic Crossing. Writing in Rolling Stone, Paul gave the album a rave review, concluding: "If Atlantic Crossing isn't Rod Stewart's best record—and it isn't—it at least comes within hailing distance of earlier masterpieces."

In 1978, Paul wrote one of his best articles, a lengthy, praising piece that sympathetically depicted Rod at odds with his ex-lover, actress Britt Ekland, who was suing him for $12 million, at odds with the burgeoning punks, who had singled him out as their anti-poster boy, and at odds with the critical mass in general, who were of the opinion that he'd sold out and gone Hollywood (which he literally had, having relocated from England).

In 1981, Paul co-wrote a book with Lester Bangs that pilloried Stewart and his music, with Paul recanting much of his earlier praise. He wrote: "As a young man in his twenties, Rod Stewart seemed to possess an age-old wisdom: some of the things he told us we could've learned from our grandfathers. In his thirties, however, he suddenly metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield."

Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon when I received a phone call that asked: "Can you meet Rod Stewart for drinks tonight?" I'd been trying to secure an interview with him for almost a year and a half. Four hours later, I found myself at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, across the table from a very dashing and dapper-looking Rod Stewart. (Due to a miscommunication between his manager and publicist, he'd been waiting for me for twenty minutes there in the sedate Astor Court—while I'd been waiting for him for twenty minutes around the corner in the rowdy King Cole Bar and Lounge.) Looking still very much the young rogue on which he'd made his reputation, the 63-year-old Stewart was charming and funny and, of course, occasionally bawdy. My scheduled fifteen- to twenty-minute interview ended up lasting almost forty-five minutes.

Stewart fondly remembered Paul Nelson as I did my best to stir up his memories and remind him of incidents that had occurred more than three-and-a-half decades ago. As I sipped on my Bloody Mary (which, according to legend, had been invented by King Cole bartender Fernand Petiot, circa 1939) and he on his martini, we traded stories: his about the Paul he knew, me about what had happened to Paul in the many years since Stewart had seen him last.

I even quoted Paul's contention that Stewart had "metamorphosed into Jayne Mansfield" and asked him how it had felt having his friend savage him in book form. I asked him if there had been any validity to what Paul had written. And he answered every question honestly and to the best of his ability.

What he had to say will appear, of course, in the Rod Stewart chapter of Everything Is an Afterthought.

When Stewart's twenty-seven-year-old wife Penny Lancaster arrived, he announced that the interview was over and rose to greet her. When he introduced us, he told her, "We've been talking about a dear old friend of mine." And before we parted, he wished me luck with the book and added, "Thank you for just doing it."

Copyright 2008 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 24, 2007

11:47AM - Bruce Springsteen

"There were a few people who picked up on me very early before my first record, when I was playing solo at Max's Kansas City," Bruce Springsteen said about Paul Nelson, "and he's the one who stands foremost in my mind."

From 1975 to 1982, Paul wrote a series of infrequent but expansive meditations about Springsteen, his music, and his remarkable relationship to a rapidly burgeoning audience. How accurate were Paul's perceptions? "Oh, they could come out right now," Springsteen said, "and they'd be right on the money. That was my job the way that I saw it, and he perceived it. That's quite a connection to make."

I spoke with Springsteen Tuesday afternoon, an interview that, by the time all was said and done, took eight months to arrange. In the interim, Springsteen wrapped up his tour with the Sessions band and released a live album documenting it; recorded a new studio album with the E Street Band, Magic, due out October 2nd; and suffered the death of his longtime friend and assistant, Terry Magovern, who passed away in his sleep on the night of July 30th.

As an interviewee, Springsteen was open, funny, and philosophical without being pretentious. And on the subject of Paul Nelson, he spoke eloquently.

Paul entered Springsteen's life in 1972 when the young singer/songwriter (who was then 22 or 23) would take the bus from New Jersey into New York City to play the opening half of double bills at Max's Kansas City. Paul was impressed enough to keep coming back, bringing with him other writers and artists (including Elliott Murphy) and turning them on, too, to the New Jersey phenom.

Everything Is an Afterthought examines Paul's friendship with Springsteen (mostly in Springsteen's own words) and how the artist's special brand of rock & roll represented for Paul more than just music. The book will reprint all of Paul's articles and reviews about Springsteen, presenting for the first time Paul's preferred texts, based on his original manuscripts. (For instance, Paul's review of The River is considerably different than what got published in 1980 and which can be found online.) 

Documenting Springsteen's early career, Paul's writings reflect not only his fondness for the man but how he had to come to terms with his friend's music when it took turns down alleyways both unexpected and dark.

Copyright 2007 by Kevin Avery. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

6:12PM - Jackson Browne

Back when I first approached Paul Nelson about our working together to anthologize his best writing — before I knew whether or not he was interested in the project or whether he'd even received my proposal — I'd imagine the two of us sitting across a table, working long into his beloved night while we agreeably disagree which pieces to include and which ones to set aside for perhaps a different collection.

When Paul died, over a year ago now, leaving me to decide which pieces qualified as his best, I knew of less than 100 of his articles, reviews, and essays. Now I've collected more than three times that many, making the decision that much more difficult.

One thing was sure from the start, however: that my book would contain all of Paul's writings about Jackson Browne. Arguably more than any other artist about whose work he wrote, the pieces Paul penned about Browne and his music are among his most passionate, his most autobiographical. He wrote as if he completely understood Browne — because Browne seemingly completely understood him.

Paul's review of Running on Empty is available online. Along with everything else he wrote about Browne (including some previously unpublished material), it will be included in Everything Is an Afterthought.

When I interviewed Browne early this year, he had this to say about Paul: "I was always very grateful that he wrote what he wrote; and I don't want to give it a name or diminish it by encapsulating it with some sort of description of what that was. But it made me feel that I was being received, that I was being heard, by people who really got it." 

Indeed he was.

Read more about Everything Is an Afterthought by clicking here.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

10:48AM - Elliott Murphy, Part 2

Contrary to what the conventional hype would have us believe in this red-hot, media-dominated world (making even David Cronenberg's Videodrome seem staid and retro) -- and despite the pressure to crown each new work a masterpiece, the best, a tour de force -- each effort is in fact just another note, a few more strokes of the brush, one more page in the ongoing, overall work that is the artist's life.

Which brings us to where Part 1 left off: with the March release of Coming Home Again, Elliott Murphy's 29th album in 34 years. Like many of Murphy's albums, the new one's gifts are many; but, like a miserly old dowager (a Brooklyn dowager, even), the album doesn't give up its treasures freely. With each listening, however, the songs reveal more of themselves, slowly and steadfastly finding their way into your head and your heart.

Lots of good songs here. Right now my favorite is the opener, "Pneumonia Alley." That guitar line, that hook -- the song, so passionate that it's muscular, so tender it hurts, reaches out and grabs you by the collar and won't let go as delivers a deep kiss. "As Good As" presents Murphy at his wordplaying best, referencing James Brown, Mount Kilimanjaro and Hemingway's frozen leopard in the snow, and even Paris Hilton, while still managing to wax poetic ("I saw the continuous coexistence of heaven and hell") and confessing that he thinks Jewel is "kinda cool." Other favorites include "Johnny Boy Gone," the lovely, loping "A Touch of Kindness" and the stark but beautiful "Making Friends with the Dead." And I want to hear Lucinda Williams or the Rolling Stones (how about Lucinda Williams and the Stones?) cover the countryish "Losing It."

Check back with me in a few months or, especially, a few years, when I know all these songs by heart and understand them in the correct context of the albums that came before and after Coming Home Again. Then I'll tell you what I really think.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

11:19PM - Nirvana No More

I'd intended to post this one week ago today, on the thirteenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, but was vacationing and high-speed Internet-deprived in Florida. I wrote this piece for The Event, a now defunct Salt Lake City, Utah, alternative newspaper, where it was published on May 16, 1994. Read more...Collapse )

Thursday, April 12, 2007

11:37AM - Elliott Murphy, Part 1

Some say my songs are long and over-complicated
But they’re highly personal – I say they’re underrated

So sang Elliott Murphy in 1990, summing up the state of his now 34-year rock & roll career. The Long Island native debuted promisingly on Polydor Records in 1973 with Aquashow, which Rolling Stone graced with a sprawling, rave review by Paul Nelson (who, still working in A&R at Mercury Records at the time, had unsuccessfully attempted to sign Murphy to the label). Other feature articles appeared in Penthouse, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. Over the next few years, Murphy would record albums for RCA and CBS, among others. None of these corporate music giants had any idea how to publicize this young singer/songwriter who penned songs as literary as they were lyrical. (Columbia Records’ lofty but misguided ad campaign boasted “He Could Write a Book but He Chose Rock and Roll Instead.”) The critics were sold – the albums didn’t. Read more...Collapse )

Monday, March 12, 2007

10:58AM - Tom Pacheco

Back in 1976, Paul Nelson tried to sign Tom Pacheco to Mercury Records. For reasons that were commercial -- as in "not commercial enough" -- he failed. But Paul knew people who knew people and, as a result, Pacheco landed a record deal at RCA. About the first of those albums, 1976's Swallowed Up in the Great American Heartland, Paul, who by then had left his A&R post at Mercury and returned to criticism, wrote: "Tom Pacheco spent most of his early years listening to wild Texas music in the snowbound towns of Massachussetts, and his songs combine the best from both worlds."

Last evening, the forty or so people who filled the Uptown Coffeehouse at the Riverdale Society for Ethical Culture discovered that, over thirty years later, Paul's words still ring true. Pacheco, whose songs have been recorded by the Band, Richie Havens, the great Rick Danko, and Jefferson Starship, performed the first set by himself and the second set with the Bloodlines Band: his amazingly talented guitarist brother Paul Pacheco (who played with Jimi Hendrix and Howlin' Wolf) and his brother-in-law bassist Vern Miller (whose band Barry and the Remains opened for the Beatles on their final tour).

Pacheco's quavering voice well serves his songs, which range from the wildly fanciful ("Big Jim's Honey," inspired by Sam Love's novel Electric Honey, wherein the proximity of a beekeeper's hive to a marijuana patch yields interesting results) to the heartbreakingly real ("Walter," a worthy successor to John Prine's "Sam Stone" in the returned-vet-as-damaged-goods genre). Political songs of Guantanamo Bay ("My Name Is Hamir") and everything that's wrong with America ("When You're Back on Your Ranch in Texas") were balanced by not-so-simple love songs and "The Journal of Graeme Livingstone," an epic tale of an eighty-nine-year-old Florida hotel-owner who claims he killed Jack the Ripper.

According to Pacheco, Paul Nelson's early interest and encouragement are the reasons he's still in music today. A Woodstock residsent, Pacheco now has nineteen albums to his name and tours extensively in Europe. Paul, I think, would be proud.

Friday, September 22, 2006

5:30PM - Dylan 1991 Revisited

I'm not sure how so many years got by without my having seen this. I was alerted to it by a fine piece, "Why We Keep on Rolling With Dylan" (basically an onstage dialogue between critic Greil Marcus and novelist Don DeLillo), that appeared last month in The Daily Telegraph in the UK.

"In 1991, Bob Dylan was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy show," Marcus explains. "They now hand these out very promiscuously, but this was unusual at the time -- it was a big deal. So Dylan comes on with a very noisy, loud, small band, all dressed in dark suits with fedoras pulled down over their heads. And they go into the most furious, unrelenting, speeded-up piece of music.

"And Dylan is slurring his words, you cannot understand what he's saying, but you don't need to. The sound that's being made is so thrilling. And about halfway through, at least for me -- other people might have caught on more quickly, maybe later -- I realised he was singing 'Masters of War.' His most unforgiving, bitter, unlimited denunciation that he's ever recorded. It's a song about arms merchants. It ends with 'And I hope that you die, I'll stand over your grave, I'll follow your coffin.'

"Not too many songs really wish for the death of the subject, the person who's being addressed. Then he gave a little speech after his award, where he managed not to thank anybody."

Essential viewing for anyone interested in Dylanography.

Current mood: accomplished

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

8:33AM - Boys for Pele

What the hell. Tuesday's musings about Under the Pink got me thinking about all things Tori. Even though I haven't physically put on one of her CDs in years, it's comforting knowing that they're up there, boxed away in the attic, awaiting that day when I cannot go another minute without hearing a musical version of an Alice Walker book or a song about having tea with the devil. Which brings us to Boys for Pele, about which I wrote in 1996:

Because she rides her harpsichord as if it were an unbroken stallion. Because she continues to cultivate her gift for conjuring up musical mood and narrative that hang together and mean something while logically making little or no sense whatsoever. And because the photo in the CD booklet of her suckling a piglet transcends mere questions about bad taste and raises loftier ones about who knows what. 

Her third album proves F. Scott Fitzgerald right when he observed: “To most women art is a form of scandal.” 

Further cultivating her public image as freak extraordinaire, she employs lyrics as disturbing as “Sometimes you’re nothing but meat” and “I shaved every place where you been." She seems incapable of not putting her credibility -- first as an artist, then as a woman -- on the line. She again scores admirably on both counts. 

(Seek out the "Hey Jupiter" CD single for the "Dakota Version" of the song. Industrializing -- as much as a piano number can be industrialized -- and improving on the Boys for Pele take by adding some nifty background noise that might be a sump pump or a Jarvik-7 artificial heart, it now sounds like something out of a David Lynch film. Included among the four live cuts is a delicate rendition of the tune Amos was born to sing and which presaged her very existence, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”)

Current mood: eager to write

Monday, September 18, 2006

10:19AM - Under the Pink

Listening to a recent interview with Tori Amos on Studio 360, I was reminded of (a) what a good interview she makes, (b) this 1994 album, and (c) how many of her songs pose musical questions:

Why do we crucify ourselves?

Don't you want more than my sex?

God, sometimes You just don't come through
Do You need a woman to look after You?

For Amos, who was 31 years old when Under the Pink was released, the creative process represented as much an act of confession as it did an act of discovery. "Without the songs I wouldn't know that I feel what I feel," she told me in a telephone interview. "Let me tell you," she confided in a wispy voice, "sometimes I can go, 'I hate that motherfucker,' and I'll rip up his picture. Right? Then I'll start writing this song, this most beautiful--" Catching herself, she laughed and said to herself, "Oh god, you're just a sap."

And a successful one, at that. Her 1992 debut solo album for Atlantic Records, Little Earthquakes, revealed a bent for idiosyncratic lyrics, loopy melodies, and neoclassical keyboard work. It went gold in the US and sold more than a million copies worldwide. The follow-up album, Under the Pink, made its maiden landing at number twelve on the Billboard charts.

Born Myra Ellen Amos in North Carolina, her life from that point onward was atypical at best. A child prodigy who won a piano scholarship to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory when she was five, she grew up listening to the music of Nat King Cole and Fats Waller and Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. She was expelled when she was eleven. Her father, a strict Methodist preacher who believed you either support or lose your child, didn't stand in her way when, at the age of thirteen, she hit the piano bar circuit. At the Marriott, they made her play "Send in the Clowns" seven times a night. At Mr. Henry's, a popular gay bar in Washington, DC, the waiters used a cucumber to teach her how to give head.

All these daffily disparate ingredients -- combined with the sad truth that somewhere along the way she was raped and lived to sing about it on her own fruitcaky terms without reducing herself to martyrdom ("Yes, I wore a slinky red thing/Does that mean I should spread/for you, your friends, your father, Mr. Ed?") -- converge to create songs that are not about blame, but about taking responsibility.

Amos refused to take responsibility, however, for Womanhood or the feminist movement at large, an agenda that many critics (music and social) famously tried to foist upon her.

"I guess I'm kind of boring because I just go about my biz trying to work on myself. When I'm working and listening to my real feelings about things, and trusting them, then I just have to allow that to be enough. Whether I say something that offends somebody or gives somebody a giggle--" She paused. "You have to let go of the responsibility of people's responses. Sometimes I'll say things that I might not have said if I would have had more sleep. But, at the same time, that's real, too."

Between her first two solo albums, she released a hushed and breathtaking cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." When I asked if she felt any sort of psychic connection with Kurt Cobain (who had just committed suicide a few months earlier), she replied, "Totally." In the silence that followed, she whispered the word twice more.

“I think it could’ve gone either way for a while,” she commented on another singer/songwriter’s theory that, if left alone to deal with his demons away from the limelight, Cobain might still be alive. “If he would’ve been on medication for the depression. Put all the emotional stuff aside -- it’s hard enough waking up every morning -- it’s just that you’re a depressive and you have a chemical imbalance.”

Aware of life’s little imbalances, Amos found it difficult to take her fame too seriously. She knew from experience that there were worse alternatives. “Like, we have no idea what it’s like to live in Belfast with those people killing each other,” she said. When she had toured there recently, she'd done so with the reality of bomb scares and a guard at her dressing room door. Because of her name, in the demented minds of some of the more radical Irish there existed a connection between her and the Tories and their principles. “And my whole religious position," she said wearily, "blah, blah, blah. In Ireland, I always get a bit of a stink because I tell them that the Virgin Mary swallowed, and they don't like that shit."

She stopped reading reviews of her work. "It didn't make me feel good. You read the great ones, you've got to read the shitty ones. If you're going to walk into the 'opinion world,' then you have to listen to them from all sides. And I'm just not in the mood. I know when I suck and I know when I'm great. Grade me that all the elements came together, and it didn't overcook and it didn't undercook. You know, I got the baby out of the oven just in time."

Speaking of bad reviews, I mentioned the heavy-metal band that Amos fronted when she came to Hollywood in the late Eighties, called Y Kant Tori Read? While she could no longer worm her way into the plastic snakeskin pants that, along with thigh-high boots and big hair, that had contributed to her mode of dress at the time -- and contrary to most of what had been written about this period in her career (most likely because it wasn't something her more ardent feminist fans wanted to hear) -- she giggled and admitted, "Hey, I enjoyed some of it. I had great hair spray. Looking back, I was coming out of my skin as a person." Before the band, "I was so miserable. My jaw was in a constant clinch mode."

It was also a learning experience. "I have no illusions about this business. Not one. That's why I think I'm doing so well. When I say 'doing well,' I mean I don't cancel shows, I'm not jumping out of windows. That doesn't mean that it doesn't sometimes wear on me and I want to crawl into the corner with a friend."

Though she had no trouble getting down to brass tacks when it came to the business side of her music, the act of songwriting remained something of a magical mystery to her. Despite her professionalism, it wasn't something she could force to happen. "If the songs don't show up knocking on my door, bringing a bottle of chardonnay or a box of shoes, I can't even think about it. It's like they already exist, and I get a whiff of their perfume and I get inside of their essence and what they're trying to tell me. They show up, showing me who they are, and then I'm trying to translate their feelings. Sometimes I don't do a very good job, and they come back and harass me until I do."

Current mood: accomplished

Sunday, September 3, 2006

4:01PM - The Dean Gets Expelled

Last Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of sitting down with Robert Christgau, the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, in his East Village apartment. This was indeed a big thing for the kid here, considering that I've read Christgau's work, well, ever since I was a kid. His Consumer Guide to music has appeared in The Village Voice since 1969 and has since been collected in three volumes of books that have long shared a space on my reference shelf alongside the first -- and best -- edition (the one edited by Jim Miller) of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Greil Marcus's books, and all of Pauline Kael's collections. As a teenager in Utah, so that I might stay on top of what Christgau (and Sarris) had to say, I subscribed to The Voice

Through the years, Christgau became part of the very pop culture he writes about. On 1972's live Take No Prisoners album, Lou Reed wondered aloud from the stage: "What does Robert Christgau do in bed?" I'll forgo quoting where this line of thinking took him; suffice it to say that it culminated with Reed rhetorically asking, "Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you got a B+ from an asshole in The Village Voice?" In his review of the album, Christgau responded with his usual humor and aplomb by thanking Lou for pronouncing his name right. And he only gave the album a C+. 

"I always admired Christgau's writing and wit and courage," singer/songwriter Elliott Murphy wrote yesterday (before we even knew about Friday's goings-on at The Voice), "and when he gave Aquashow [Murphy's debut album] an A- it was the only grade I ever got that I was proud of." 

All of which brings us back to Tuesday evening in the East Village. Christgau had kindly consented to an interview for a book I'm putting together about the critic Paul Nelson. I didn't agree with everything that the Dean had to say, but what he said was never uninteresting. Such had been the tacit terms of our writer-reader relationship for over three decades (we should be so fortunate in all of our relationships). Earlier that day, he had even more kindly arranged for me to get into The Voice's library, where I was able to glean invaluable material from 30- and 40-year-old bound volumes of the newspaper. I owe him big-time.


So it was with considerable shock last night to discover an article in The New York Times that told, in part: 

In a move that decimated the senior ranks of its arts staff, The Village Voice, the New York alternative weekly, yesterday dismissed eight people, including Robert Christgau, a senior editor and longtime pop music critic who had been at the paper on and off since 1969. 

In a statement released yesterday, Village Voice Media described the layoffs as an effort “to reconfigure the editorial department to place an emphasis on writers as opposed to editors.” The company added, “Painful though they may be in the short term, these moves are consistent with long-range efforts to position The Voice as an integral journalistic force in New York City.”

The article went on to say: 

Mr. Christgau, 64, who noted that he had forged the paper’s style of music criticism, with its “serious consideration of popular music at a critical level,” said in a phone interview that before he learned he had lost his job, he had begun organizing the paper’s Christmas consumer review. “I was really thinking about what I was going to do. I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” he said. “I was doing my job.”

What befell Robert Christgau on Friday is not uncommon in everyday corporate America. I watched the same thing happen to people I'd worked with for years, as they fell victim to the ever advancing bottom line. Unlike Christgau, as it got closer I was able to make the decision, to paraphrase Keith Richards, to walk before they made me run. 

I have no doubt Christgau will do just fine, that this, like many seemingly life-crushing changes, will turn out to be an opportunity in disguise, an unexpected detour taking him down a path he wouldn't otherwise have taken to a better destination than he could have imagined. 

In the meantime, Christgau's website remains available online and, in an act of sheer generosity and (deserved) egoism, reflects virtually everything that man's put into print. With his recent review of the New York Dolls' latest album, his writing demonstrated the same thing that the resurrected Dolls did with their music: that rock & roll done right is ageless. 

Current mood: exhausted

Friday, August 4, 2006

6:21PM - Gone Again by Patti Smith

Ten years ago, in June of 1996 when Gone Again was first released, I had just received word from a friend, the terrific short story writer Alison Baker, of the untimely death of a mutual acquaintance. It had been the second such letter in about as many months. "Sorry to send bad news again," she'd closed. "As we age, you know, this sort of news becomes prevalent. One will come to dread the personal letter." I'd hoped she was wrong then and I today remain hopeful of the same. I love receiving letters -- even if it means suffering the occasional bad news. I've yet to reach the age where each morning I scan the obituaries, like a vulture scouting out carrion, looking for familiar names among the grainy black-and-white faces that have gone the way of all flesh. Instead, I prefer to mark my time on this earth by the friends I've made, the movies I've seen, the books I've read, and, perhaps most of all, the songs I've heard. 

The best rock & roll has always been a kind of musical letter-writing -- "song-mail," if you will. Given rock's roots and the social significance it has garnered through the decades, this is not an inappropriate view of the music that has documented my generation and perhaps yours. Always meant to do more than merely fill the space between our ears, rock combines words and music and provides a vehicle by which the artist can report in and say, "This is where I am at this point in my life. This is what I think. This is what I want." Or, like Rutger Hauer's replicant Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner, making sure his memories aren't lost like tears in the rain: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion..." 

It had been eight years since Patti Smith last graced us with a letter from home. Before that, Dream of Life, the album she recorded with her husband, ex-MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith, was the first time we'd heard from her since she dropped out of the rock & roll limelight in 1979. She'd moved to Detroit, married the other Smith the following year, and, by all accounts, had happily become a Midwestern mother of two. And, for the rest of the world at least, stopped making music. 

Happiness is brief. 
It will not stay. 
God batters at its sails.


Patti Smith's Gone Again is a musical letter of the sort that seldom gets released in the musical marketplace, mainly because it concerns itself with the aforementioned "bad news." Death inhabits the album, raises its impressive lizard-like head throughout, but is held at bay by Smith and her stalwart band of rock & roll argonauts. This may be Smith's show, but it's Death's dance, it's Death (this time, at least) making her sing. To wit:

All things considered, how could Gone Again be about anything but death? 

The fine album reunites Smith not only with her two bandmates of old, guitarist Lenny Kaye and drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, but also features Television guitar virtuoso Tom Verlaine, ex-Velvet Underground founding member John Cale (who'd produced Smith's debut album Horses in 1975) on organ, Tony Shanahan on bass, and Smith's sister Kimberly (immortalized in song on that debut album) on mandolin. 

The tone of Gone Again tends more toward the stately than the raucous, though the latter certainly finds its moments. There is a transcendent, mantra-like quality to some of the songs; the overall effect meditative. But within the music's self-imposed aural constraints a shitstorm brews, blowing in a full-force gale capable of taking out everything in its wake, as in the wash of droning electric guitar that becomes a tidal wave in the Cobain tribute, "About a Boy." 

The title cut is Native American in its rhythms, with Smith coming on like the "crazy and sleepy Comanche" she declared herself to be so many years before in "Babelogue." "Dead to the World" is a folksy, whimsical, Dylan-influenced death dream, proving that she isn't blind to the humor inherent in the subject matter she's grappling with. And, in a nod to Dylan himself, with whom she toured when she returned to the stage in December of 1995, she delivers a ballsy rendition of his angry anthem, "Wicked Messenger." 

But best of all there is "Summer Cannibals," the album's first single. With Daugherty's sinew-snapping drumsticks and Kaye's guitar lines shooting like spears around her, Smith erases any notion that eight years have passed since we last heard from her. Like a little girl reciting a jaunty, macabre nursery rhyme, she sings: 

and I laid upon the table 
another piece of meat 
and I opened up my veins to them 
and said, "come on, eat"

The anger. The joy. The sense of humor, funny and transcendent. Everything about the song, from her oh-so-perfect pronunciation to her guttural, Linda Blair-way of saying eat, makes it one of her best songs ever. 

And if, at the time, the album as a whole struck us as something less than we'd hoped for -- too subdued or contemplative in spots -- perhaps we should have questioned whether it was our own expectations that were out of whack. In Smith's absence, the value of her musical legacy, especially in light of the overdue artistic and commercial vindication of punk rock, had increased many-fold. 

Let's face it: If Jesus Christ had come down off the cross, JD Salinger had written another book, and Hillary Clinton had come clean about something going on back then called "Whitewater" -- it still wouldn't have been enough. We Americans, like Smith's own "Summer Cannibals," are insatiable in our wants.

Current mood: jazzed

Friday, July 28, 2006

2:37PM - Playing with Dolls

In the early Seventies, the New York Dolls were the reigning rock & roll band in New York City, the darlings of David Bowie and the avant-garde intelligentsia, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith rolled into one, and America's principal purveyors of such newfound concepts as deliberate musical primitivism and the punk rock of futuristic, haute-couture street children. A cult band, they were passionately loved or hated, and more than a few critics (myself included) saw in them this country's best chance to develop a home-grown Rolling Stones. The Dolls were talented, and, more importantly, they had poisonality! Both of their albums made the charts, but a series of stormy misunderstandings among their record company, their management and themselves eventually extinguished the green light of hope, and the group disbanded... Like all good romantics, they had destroyed everything they touched. 

-- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, May 18, 1978

The argument could be made that we have the Mormon Church to thank for One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the first studio album in 32 years by the New York Dolls. It may not be a particularly good argument, but all the components are there for a not even half-baked conspiracy theory: 

As depicted in Greg Whiteley's fine documentary New York Doll, original Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who, following an an act of self-defenestration, had converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was working in the church's Family History Center Library when he discovered that an almost 30-year dream, something he had prayed for again and again, was about to come true: the remaining Dolls (David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain) wanted to reunite. Not only are his Mormon coworkers and bishop supportive of their friend, whose life of drinking and drugs had gone out the window with him, they help fund the retrieval of his guitar from a local pawnshop so that he can start practicing for the reunion gig. Had they not and had Kane not rejoined the band, and had New York Doll never been made, you could argue that there would not have been the press and acclaim and subsequent momentum to get the Dolls back into the studio, back on the radio, back on TV, and back in the stores. 

If New York Doll isn't the best piece of pro-LDS propaganda the Mormon Church has ever had at its behest, it's at least some damn funny and insightful off-the-cuff filmmaking. (Has ever a movie come into being so accidentally?) The movie's wacky elements and plot twists -- a faded, jealous rock star, his bitter wife, a quart of peppermint schnapps, a handy piece of cat furniture, an open kitchen window, and an unexpected demise -- tell a tale of decadence and redemption worthy of Raymond Chandler.

But in the midst of all this craziness there beats a heart, and it's a sweet one. Such as when Kane, "the only living statue in rock & roll" and, in Johansen's words, "the miracle of God's creation," leads the group in prayer before they take the stage for the first time in almost 30 years. Or earlier, back at the library, when Kane explains the responsibilities of being a rock & roll bassist to the two little old ladies with whom he works. Or when he confesses to his Mormon bishop his apprehensions about getting back together with Johansen (who, when he finally arrives in the studio, looks like a haggard Allison Janney). 

Which brings us to the Dolls' third album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, which arrived in stores on Tuesday and which, like Bettie Page adorned in leather, is hard and soft at the same time. Lots of ricocheting guitar lines and anthemic pounding housed within four Phil Spectorish walls of sound; middle-aged men acting tough, vamping and posturing while sounding melodic as all hell. A reminder of how rock & roll ought to be. How it used to be. 

Combining clever wordplay ("Evolution is so obsolete/Stomp your hands and clap your feet," from the pro-simian/anti-creationist single, "Dance Like a Monkey") and wordy cleverness ("Ain't gonna anthropomorphize ya/Or perversely polymorphousize ya"), Johansen, whose vocalizing and songwriting have both aged magnificently, proves that, despite his Buster Poindexter detour, he remains one of rock's savviest practitioners. He leads the Dolls through a variety of subjects and styles while spewing his trash poetry lyrics ("All light shines in darkness/Where else could it shine?") with his heart on his sleeve and his tongue firmly in cheek -- often at the same time:

Yeah, I've been to the doctor
He said there ain't much he could do
"You've got the human condition
Boy, I feel sorry for you"

Funny is one thing, smart is another; but funny and smart at the same time, that's tough. Ask Woody Allen.

Listening to the new album, I couldn't help but think of critic Paul Nelson, whose words opened this piece and who, back in the early Seventies, was the A&R guy who put his job with Mercury Records on the line when he signed the Dolls to their first record deal ("I knew they were going to have to be a big success or I would lose my job, and I did"). What would Nelson, whose body was found alone in his New York apartment earlier this month, have made of the Dolls' new effort and return to the spotlight? And would he have seen anything of himself in the song "I Ain't Got Nothing"?

This is not how the end should have come
Who could imagine this when I was young?
Where is everybody?
It's not the way I wanted it to be

With One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, the New York Dolls pick up right where they left off over 30 years ago, as if no time at all has passed. Which begs the question (especially with all the dancing like a monkey going on): shouldn't there have been some kind of evolution musically? If the Dolls remain just as smart and funny as before, and rock just as hard -- if just plain surviving isn't enough -- what have they gained? 

Wisdom perhaps?

We all should be so lucky.

Current mood: famished

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

1:19PM - "Sip the Wine"

Asked by Rolling Stone back in 1977 to name his ten favorite records of the last ten years, Greil Marcus wrote: "Every record on this list includes some element -- a riff, a guitar line, a vocal inflection, a, shall we say, moment of truth -- that is beyond the ability of the mind to conceive, or even completely absorb. These records seem like miracles to me." 

For me that moment appears in the third line of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" ("They'll stone you when you're trying to go home)" when Bob Dylan cracks up and evokes a camaraderie that invites the listener to come along and have fun with him. It's how close Van Morrison's mouth is to the microphone on "Crazy Love" (I especially listen for his staccato inhalations at the beginning of each line in the final verse). Or the inflection in John Lennon's voice at the end of "God," first when he declares, "I don't believe in Beatles," then upping the ante with his simple and elegant phrasing of "The dream is over." 

There are similar moments in movies. For Harlan Ellison it's the pure cinematic note which ends Coppola's The Conversation. Werner Herzog never forgot the look on Klaus Kinski's face the first time he saw him onscreen, in a Fifties war film. For Pauline Kael it was the silence shared by Jason Robards (as Howard Hughes) and Paul Le Mat (as Melvin Dummar) in their drive across the desert in Melvin and Howard

Re-watching Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz the other day, I was reminded of -- and swept away again by -- a moment of truth that's cinematic and musical. It's not Dylan's fiery performance -- or his look, which falls somewhere in between a bearded Born to Run Bruce and Bella Abzug:

                          +    =     

Nor is it Van Morrison's marvelously mad leprechaun performance wherein he seemingly channels both James Joyce and the Radio City Rockettes. And it's not Neil Young's transcendental rendition of "Helpless" (so gorgeous that even the wad of cocaine lurking inside his left nostril, especially visible on DVD, doesn't detract). 

No, for me the defining moment of The Last Waltz occurs after the Band has purportedly played its last concert and the members have gone their separate ways. Away from the boisterousness and bravado of the rest of the group, bassist/guitarist/violinist/trombonist Rick Danko gives Scorsese a tour of Shangri-La, their recording studio, and the two men sit down alone at the mixing board.

                                                                                    Rick Danko

Scorsese asks him what he's doing now that "The Last Waltz" is over. Danko fumbles for words as he shyly looks around for his hat, which he puts it on as if to hide from not only from the director and his question but from his own new role as solo artist. 

"Just making music, you know," he says. "Trying to stay busy... It's healthy." 

He queues up a new song he's recorded, the lovely "Sip the Wine." As his heartbreaking vocals commence and the camera closes in, Danko, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 56, disappears into listening to his creation. And perhaps because he feels uncertain about sharing something so new with someone sitting right in front of him (let alone that someone being Martin Scorsese, who happens to be filming the experience), or maybe it's because he's embarrassed by the intimacy of the song's lyrics --

I want to lay down beside you
I want to hold your body close to mine

-- but Danko nods his head, and the camera captures in slightly slow motion his face completely disappearing into darkness beneath the brim of his noirish hat. 

The effect is breathtaking and, to paraphrase Marcus, ineffably honest.

Current mood: contemplative

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

11:19PM - Paul Nelson

Paul Nelson in No Direction Home 

I make lists. Before I moved to New York at the end of last year, I crafted a personal and professional to-do list. One item appeared near the top of both lists: reach out to critic Paul Nelson and let him know how much his work had meant to me. His writings, mostly for Rolling Stone and mostly about music (though occasionally movies and books, about which he was equally qualified to write), helped form what still stand today as my tastes in music, literature, and film. He not only made me want to be a critic, which I did for ten years, he made me want to write about music in a bigger context than just something that plays in the background or fills up the space between commercials on radio. 

Music mattered to Nelson and, if he thought an album worthy, he wanted it to matter to you, too.

Here was a man who was equally conversant writing about Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective fiction, the failed romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, the great heart that beat at the center of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and the magnificence of the Sex Pistols -- sometimes all within the same piece. He was instrumental in championing the early works of Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Elliott Murphy, and David Johansen, to name just a few of the artists who benefited from his critical eye. 

During his stint as an A&R man, he got the New York Dolls their record deal. He also went to college with Bob Dylan, and ardently and elegantly defended the singer/songwriter when he went electric. Forty years later, Martin Scorsese included Nelson in his Dylan documentary No Direction Home.

I wrote to Paul Nelson in February, in care of the Greenwich Village video store where he worked, but never received a response. Last month, when my best friend Ellis was in town, we happened into that video store one rainy Wednesday afternoon. I asked the kid behind the desk if Paul Nelson was around. "He hasn't worked here in about a year," he said. "But he stops in now and then." I left not knowing whether or not Nelson had ever received my letter.

Until yesterday afternoon, when I received a phone call from a gentleman who identified himself as Paul Nelson's friend. "I don't know if you know this or not, but Paul's body was found in his apartment last week." He told me that Nelson, who was 70 and whose obituary appeared in The New York Times on Monday, had indeed received my letter and that it had touched him. 

Paul Nelson was a brilliant writer who did for music criticism what Pauline Kael did for film criticism: he blew it apart and demanded more not only from the works he critiqued but of the forum in which he critiqued them. While well more than a decade has passed since his writing last saw print, tonight I find myself missing him and his work more than ever. 

To discover for yourself just how good a writer Nelson was, check out his reviews of the first Ramones album, Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps, Jackson Browne's Running on Empty, and his masterpiece, the feature-length article "Warren Zevon: How He Saved Himself from a Coward's Death."

Photograph: Paramount Pictures

Current mood: reflective

Sunday, July 9, 2006

11:55AM - Learning to Flinch

Live albums have always been a way for rock artists and record companies to put out product (a) at Christmastime, (b) after the artist has died, or (c) during creative dry spells. Learning to Flinch, the 1993 live album by the late Warren Zevon, qualifies on one count: (a) was released closer to Memorial Day than the yuletide, (b) predated his death by ten years, but (c) indeed was issued to bridge the four-year span between Mr. Bad Example in 1991 and Mutineer in 1995.

This live effort by a singer/songwriter who was never that prolific is well worth remembering for his arresting performances of songs both odd and personal. The album title came from what Zevon liked to call "the vicissitudes of life on the road" (it was recorded the previous summer and fall in concerts around the world); he said it also accurately described his attitude toward the then approaching millennium.

Zevon plays solo on the album, employing only guitars, electronic keyboards, and piano -- all with extreme prejudice. Going at his guitar with the lonely passion of a flagellant, when he's done it's surprising there's anything left of the instrument. But it's his work at the piano that reveals his early training. As a boy, Zevon's musical interests tended toward the classical, and by the time he was thirteen he was visiting with his Hollywood Hills neighbor Igor Stravinsky in the great composer's home. At the same time, Learning to Flinch demonstrates that Zevon's ivory-banging could be every bit as brutal as Jerry Lee's.

The album's centerpiece is a complex rethinking of "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." Utilizing a Bartok-influenced piano arrangement, for more than thirteen minutes Zevon sings "of arms and the men" and lays waste to his original 1978 version of the song. The album also introduced three new Zevon songs, the best of which was "The Indifference of Heaven," a quietly intense tale of raging existentialism that begins:

Time stands still
Time on my hands
Time to kill
Blood on my hands
And my hands in the till
Down at the 7-11

The song's protagonist finds himself waking to the "same old sun, same old moon" and, like Paul Schrader's Travis Bickle, moving each day closer to violence.

Learning to Flinch was Zevon's twelfth album (counting his stint as lead singer for the one-shot Hindu Love Gods, a blues unit he formed a few years earlier with R.E.M. sans Michael Stipe) and it still sounds sharp as a knife. It serves as a fine compendium of, or introduction to, the work of an immensely gifted artist whose own dark sense of humor finally caught up with him when he died from mesothelioma in 2003.

Current mood: stoked

Thursday, June 15, 2006

12:15PM - I, Jonathan

This morning I posted a review of this album by Jonathan Richman over at my blog Mere Words. I welcome your comments. Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

10:21AM - Essential Music #11

Lucky Thirteen, Neil Young's 27th solo album, samples that chunk of his career from 1982 to 1988, when he ditched Reprise (his label since his 1969 debut) and took up with Geffen Records. The five wildly uneven albums that came out of this unholy alliance were mostly savaged by the critics and left to rot on the shelves. It all came to an unseemly end when David Geffen sued his own artist for not being commercial enough, and Young returned to Reprise.

Lucky Thirteen's musical grab bag consists of previously unreleased material, alternate takes, live stuff, first-time-on-CD cuts, and a couple of songs culled from a concert laserdisc. Subtitled "Excursions into Alien Territory," Geffen's attempt to recoup some of its losses doesn't hang together like a bona fide Neil Young album (which sometimes have trouble hanging together themselves). Techno, country, rockabilly, R&B, blues, and rock served up on the same platter makes for some jagged listening; but taken individually most of these songs are first-rate, with at least two of them out-and-out classics: a slightly different version of "Sample and Hold" (robotic romanticism set against computerized grunge) and "Mideast Vacation" (politically incorrect military mythmaking that's right up there with Stan Ridgway's "Camouflage" and Warren Zevon's "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner").

Rock critic Dave Marsh once argued that Neil Young "lacks the commitment or the focus to develop his ideas (or even select well among them)." The extraordinary range of musical idioms evidenced on Lucky Thirteen -- and Young's command of them -- instead reveals a refreshingly peculiar artist who today remains significant for the fifth decade in a row.

Current mood: nervous

Friday, May 19, 2006

6:09PM - Essential Music #10

Dad to Martha and Rufus, Loudon Wainwright III has always been at his best when writing and singing of stark relationships or paying psychotic attention to minutiae. His songs, at their best, are remindful of Raymond Carver's poems and short stories. Compare this 1992 album's "When I'm at Your House" with Carver's "Neighbors," or "So Many Songs" with "Intimacy"; in both cases, former wives provide not only grist for the mill but also serve as unwilling vessels for self-discovery. History, Wainwright's thirteenth and arguably best album, could be Carver's Where I'm Calling From set to bass, banjo, violin, and drums.

A case could be made that History was Wainwright's first truly adult album. He sings and plays with his usual folky economy, only this time around, like John Lennon on Plastic Ono Band, he dispenses with allegory altogether. He comes across as a man whose days are numbered, a sad truth made real, no doubt, by the then recent death of his father. An urgency permeates the album. The only throwaway on History (from a man, thanks to introducing "Dead Skunk" to our popular culture, famous for his throwaways) is the a cappella misstep "Between." And the hilarious "Talking New Bob Dylan," which debuted on NPR to commemorate Dylan's fiftieth birthday, at first seems utterly disposable -- but turns out to be a nifty piece of rock criticism/self-appraisal and perhaps the most personal song on the album.

"Hitting You," wherein Wainwright confesses to spanking young Martha, is complemented by History's quiet centerpiece, "A Father and Son." Singing to an adolescent Rufus, Wainwright recounts his own father and his father's father, his mom's mom and dad, his ex-wife's family, and his own growing up ("Boys grow up to be grown men/And then men change back into boys again"). "We're having us a teenage middle-age war," he sings, searching for anything he and his son might have in common. All he can come up with is, "I don't wanna die, and you wanna live," which isn't much different than Carver's words to his own son years before:

We all do better in the future.

Current mood: hungry

Thursday, May 18, 2006

9:26AM - Tom Verlaine

Patti Smith described the man's sound as "like a thousand bluebirds screaming" and claimed the man himself "has the most beautiful neck in rock and roll. Real swan-like -- fragile yet strong. He's a creature of opposites. The way he comes on like a dirt farmer and a prince.’’

Robert Christgau called the man's work "Supremely self-conscious, utterly unschooled," but said he "writes like nobody else, sings like nobody else, plays like nobody else. His lyrics sound like his voice sounds like his guitar, laconic and extravagant at the same time."

Dave Marsh wrote that the man was "an interesting Jerry Garcia influenced guitarist who lacked melodic ideas or any emotional sensibility."

U2's the Edge cited him as "the only guitarist I heard who was saying something musically" and as a major influence -- "not stylistically, but in terms of approach and tearing up the rule-book."

Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill (whom Pete Townshend took to task in "Jools and Jim") dismissed him as a "fish-fingered axe-hero."

Of course, they're all talking about Tom Verlaine, frontman for the classic punk band Television and ongoing solo artist in his own right. Today in The New York Times, journalist Ben Sisario provides a nifty profile of what the 56-year-old singer-songwriter has been up to lately. In "The Return of Tom Verlaine: A Reluctant Guitar God Makes Up for Lost Time," the man who wrote "I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo" is quoted as saying, "It's nice when people say nice things about you," he said, "but I don't always know what they're talking about."

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

9:46PM - The American Conservative magazine endorses Kerry!


Well, the election draws near. The trick now is just to get people to vote. I am personally calling everyone in my neighborhood to offer them a ride to the polls. If you are in a contested state, own a car and know someone who's still undecided or who's "just not sure it really makes any difference", now is the time to pitch in, for this is truly one of the most important elections in recent memory.

Give this to the undecideds you know. It's a really well-reasoned argument for voting for Kerry from, astonishingly, the latest issue of Pat Buchanon's magazine The American Conservative (see http://www.amconmag.com/2004_11_08/cover1.html).

Good luck, vote early, and vote often!


Kerry's the One
By Scott McConnell
The American Conservative November 8, 2004 issue

There is little in John Kerry's persona or platform that appeals to conservatives. The flip-flopper charge the centerpiece of the Republican campaign against Kerry seems overdone, as Kerry's contrasting votes are the sort of baggage any senator of long service is likely to pick up. (Bob Dole could tell you all about it.) But Kerry is plainly a conventional liberal and no candidate for a future edition of Profiles in Courage. In my view, he will always deserve censure for his vote in favor of the Iraq War in 2002.

But this election is not about John Kerry. If he were to win, his dearth of charisma would likely ensure him a single term. He would face challenges from within his own party and a thwarting of his most expensive initiatives by a Republican Congress. Much of his presidency would be absorbed by trying to clean up the mess left to him in Iraq. He would be constrained by the swollen deficits and a ripe target for the next Republican nominee.

It is, instead, an election about the presidency of George W. Bush. To the surprise of virtually everyone, Bush has turned into an important president, and in many ways the most radical America has had since the 19th century. Because he is the leader of America's conservative party, he has become the Left's perfect foil its dream candidate. The libertarian writer Lew Rockwell has mischievously noted parallels between Bush and Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II: both gained office as a result of family connections, both initiated an unnecessary war that shattered their countries' budgets. Lenin needed the calamitous reign of Nicholas II to create an opening for the Bolsheviks.

Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation's children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliche about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy. Add to this his nation-breaking immigration proposal Bush has laid out a mad scheme to import immigrants to fill any job where the wage is so low that an American can't be found to do it and you have a presidency that combines imperialist Right and open-borders Left in a uniquely noxious cocktail.

During the campaign, few have paid attention to how much the Bush presidency has degraded the image of the United States in the world. Of course there has always been "anti-Americanism." After the Second World War many European intellectuals argued for a "Third Way" between American-style capitalism and Soviet communism, and a generation later Europe's radicals embraced every ragged "anti-imperialist" cause that came along. In South America, defiance of "the Yanqui" always draws a crowd. But Bush has somehow managed to take all these sentiments and turbo-charge them. In Europe and indeed all over the world, he has made the United States despised by people who used to be its friends, by businessmen and the middle classes, by moderate and sensible liberals. Never before have democratic foreign governments needed to demonstrate disdain for Washington to their own electorates in order to survive in office. The poll numbers are shocking. In countries like Norway, Germany, France, and Spain, Bush is liked by about seven percent of the populace. In Egypt, recipient of huge piles of American aid in the past two decades, some 98 percent have an unfavorable view of the United States. It's the same throughout the Middle East.

Bush has accomplished this by giving the U.S. a novel foreign-policy doctrine under which it arrogates to itself the right to invade any country it wants if it feels threatened. It is an American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, but the latter was at least confined to Eastern Europe. If the analogy seems extreme, what is an appropriate comparison when a country manufactures falsehoods about a foreign government, disseminates them widely, and invades the country on the basis of those falsehoods? It is not an action that any American president has ever taken before. It is not something that "good" countries do. It is the main reason that people all over the world who used to consider the United States a reliable and necessary bulwark of world stability now see us as a menace to their own peace and security.

These sentiments mean that as long as Bush is president, we have no real allies in the world, no friends to help us dig out from the Iraq quagmire. More tragically, they mean that if terrorists succeed in striking at the United States in another 9/11-type attack, many in the world will not only think of the American victims but also of the thousands and thousands of Iraqi civilians killed and maimed by American armed forces. The hatred Bush has generated has helped immeasurably those trying to recruit anti-American terrorists indeed his policies are the gift to terrorism that keeps on giving, as the sons and brothers of slain Iraqis think how they may eventually take their own revenge. Only the seriously deluded could fail to see that a policy so central to America's survival as a free country as getting hold of loose nuclear materials and controlling nuclear proliferation requires the willingness of foreign countries to provide full, 100 percent co-operation. Making yourself into the world's most hated country is not an obvious way to secure that help.

I've heard people who have known George W. Bush for decades and served prominently in his father's administration say that he could not possibly have conceived of the doctrine of pre-emptive war by himself, that he was essentially taken for a ride by people with a pre-existing agenda to overturn Saddam Hussein. Bush's public performances plainly show him to be a man who has never read or thought much about foreign policy. So the inevitable questions are: who makes the key foreign-policy decisions in the Bush presidency, who controls the information flow to the president, how are various options are presented

The record, from published administration memoirs and in-depth reporting, is one of an administration with a very small group of six or eight real decision-makers, who were set on war from the beginning and who took great pains to shut out arguments from professionals in the CIA and State Department and the U.S. armed forces that contradicted their rosy scenarios about easy victory. Much has been written about the neoconservative hand guiding the Bush presidency and it is peculiar that one who was fired from the National Security Council in the Reagan administration for suspicion of passing classified material to the Israeli embassy and another who has written position papers for an Israeli Likud Party leader have become key players in the making of American foreign policy.

But neoconservatism now encompasses much more than Israel-obsessed intellectuals and policy insiders. The Bush foreign policy also surfs on deep currents within the Christian Right, some of which see unqualified support of Israel as part of a godly plan to bring about Armageddon and the future kingdom of Christ. These two strands of Jewish and Christian extremism build on one another in the Bush presidency and President Bush has given not the slightest indication he would restrain either in a second term. With Colin Powell's departure from the State Department looming, Bush is more than ever the "neoconian candidate." The only way Americans will have a presidency in which neoconservatives and the Christian Armageddon set are not holding the reins of power is if Kerry is elected.

If Kerry wins, this magazine will be in opposition from Inauguration Day forward. But the most important battles will take place within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. A Bush defeat will ignite a huge soul-searching within the rank-and-file of Republicandom: a quest to find out how and where the Bush presidency went wrong. And it is then that more traditional conservatives will have an audience to argue for a conservatism informed by the lessons of history, based in prudence and a sense of continuity with the American past and to make that case without a powerful White House pulling in the opposite direction.

George W. Bush has come to embody a politics that is antithetical to almost any kind of thoughtful conservatism. His international policies have been based on the hopelessly naive belief that foreign peoples are eager to be liberated by American armies a notion more grounded in Leon Trotsky's concept of global revolution than any sort of conservative statecraft. His immigration policies temporarily put on hold while he runs for re-election are just as extreme. A re-elected President Bush would be committed to bringing in millions of low-wage immigrants to do jobs Americans "won't do." This election is all about George W. Bush, and those issues are enough to render him unworthy of any conservative support.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


musical_mangle wants you. join us.

Wednesday, April 7, 2004



anyone here know anything about working with a bandura? can you email or IM me?
(a bandura is a ukrainian stringed instrument, like a guitar with anywhere from 30 - 50 strings. if you know about stringed instruments, but not banduras specifically, please refrain from contacting me, ive already gotten input from string/guitar players, and i realize that i really need to talk to a bandura player.. sorry to sound so rude, but, you know.)

webmistress @ music - maker . org

Current mood: confused

Monday, April 7, 2003


I've commented on this topic elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating: any form of censorship sucks.

Even LiveJournal's relatively mild "members-or-friends-of-members-only" policy inevitably squelches free association, and promotes a certain clubbiness, a sort of us vs them culture. Can this be good? Is is so hard to limit spam and abusive posts that we have to build these all these little walled communities on the net?

I guess I'll find out. Anyway that's why this journal is open to all.

An interesting alternative to LiveJournal's policies (and for the record, I'm not attacking LJ per se -- they provide a great service, and millions of users are quite happy with it) is the self-ranking system of open posting used on Slashdot. [ For those of you unfamiliar with Slashdot, Slashdot doesn't compete with LiveJournal; it's a daily news forum for software geeks, not a place you can create your own forums. It's more like Slate, or maybe the review sections of Amazon.com] Anyway, each day Slashdot posts 8-10 news topics, and then allows people to comment on them. They get thousands of posts each day -- and NEVER have a problem with spam, or abusive posts. This is how they manage it:

Anyone, including non-members, can freely post comments in any Slashdot forum, even annonymously if they wish (of course, annonymous posts get the standard username "Annoymous Coward"). The really clever thing about their system is that each comment is rated by hundreds of hiigh ranking members who attained their lofty positiion by having earned consistently high ratings for their own comments. Thus, when reading a Slashdot forum, you have this great feature where yoiu can sort all comments by rank. When you do, voila -- all spam, trolls, abusive posts and inanities drop below the threshold, and what you get is just the good stuff --- but you always have the option of seeing ALL comments, if that's what you want.

I think this is an excellent model. Self organization, and no censorship. It'd be great if this were implemented by a service like LiveJournal someday...

Sunday, April 6, 2003



Originally voiced by the legendary American post-punk band Mission Of Burma, "No New McCarthy Era" is a wake-up call for all free-thinking people, but especially for those fiercely independent types who find salvation in less mainstream music. Mission of Burma's call to arms demonstrates how now more than ever, in the age of The Patriot Act, The Department Of Homeland Security, and the New American Empire, music matters.

The emerging self-awareness and connectedness of the post-punk / avant guard music community is the focus of this forum. Suggested topics: What music, if any, matters anymore? Where are we headed as a nation? Why do or don't we care about politics/society/people? Why don't we vote? If it's true that a people get the government they deserve, then who, ultimately, is responsible for the way things are today?

This is an open forum, which means that anyone can post. All opinions and voices are welcome and, except for spam or abusive posts, no posts will ever be deleted.

It's been said that nothing on the internet is ever truly lost, that by its nature the internet instantly makes each individual's contribution, however minute, a permanent part of recorded history. Post with this thought in mind.