Monday, March 22, 2010

Robert Johnson - "Hellhound on My Trail" (Vocalion 3823)
Charley Patton- "A Spoonful Blues" (Paramount 12869)

Mr. Law said he meet me in Itta Bena
Come next March
Says he'll catch up with me
Round the fifteenth then
Take me off to Shreveport
And I can play some more songs
Buy me a motel room
Buy me a woman
If need be
Put the plate glass up
Plug in those Micro phones
And record more songs
But there ain't gonna be no Shreveport
Ain't gonna be no March

The Greyhound should be coming soon
And I'll climb in back,
Shake the dust off and
Sleep til Greenwood

The broken sun will slide down the crooked sky
A chipped bottleneck
Slid across a splintered fretboard
And I can sleep til Greenwood

The sky right now it's
The color of Cora's eye I saw her last
A bruised sky it is, bloodshot,
Streaked with golden liquor and purple clots
But the sky don't sit on any porch
The sky don't cry and look up at me
Wondering why I hit so hard

Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings CD cover

The Greyhound should be coming soon
I'll mount them stairs
Climb in back, and
Sleep til Greenwood

That goddamned Son House it was
Said I musta drawn a pact with Satan
To play my slide so good
Way he tell it, one summer night
I met a man with horns
Carrying a Diamondback whip
Way he tell it, ole red skin devil
Dipped a quill in my wrist
And I signed his papers
Gave my soul over
And I could play.
Son House is a goddamned fool

The broken sun will slide down the crooked sky
Chipped away, chipped away by nightfall
We're all so chipped away
And I can sleep til Greenwood

Let me tell you what it's really like
After fourteen hours of strumming
On a ricketty stool, your back begins to howl
And your fingertips bleed red film onto flatwound strings
Even the fields don't hurt so much
Eight weeks of hopping buses
Sleeping in culverts
Tossing turning sopping wet
Dodging boss men hound dogs
At three AM

And some poor woman in Biloxi is crying
Why or some other woman you've bedded down is
Crying why, or some chile of yours
They want a dipper of water and you ain't
Got time, you ain't got time 'cause you're
Getting close the guitar sounds like a
Regular church bell and you're approaching
The Blues. Your grandma don't feel Jesus
That strong, but they want some drink of water
And you gotta give 'em the satisfying smack
Upside they're so dumb, and they ain't even
Got what little you do.

Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers album cover

The Greyhound should be stopping soon
And I'll climb in back,
Release my soul some and
Sleep til Greenwood

In Greenwood I'll drink his poisoned whiksey
Why do I gotta know I'll drink his poisoned whiskey?
Next week, I guess I'll meet his woman
At the back door, and then come Friday
I'll drink from his Mason jar.
And just like the hellhound on my trail
Just like the phonograph blues
Just like the beatup woman blues
Just like the whiskey-drunk blues
Just like the goddamned slide guitar blues
It's just got to be

You chase them and they chase you
And if you're dogged and driven,
You catch 'em
And if an evil rider drags you down,
They catch you
It's got to be

And you can tell Son House
I didn't meet the devil at no crossroads--
I met the devil at birth
And his name is 12-bar blues
He's the exhaustion that's spun from desire
The exhaustion that blackens your eyes
And puffs up your soul
He smells like woodsmoke and ash
The smell of two AM
A Friday gathering up in Copiah
And his words are joyous doom
Passages read while hugging the
Kind-hearted woman who knifes you
His signs are the bloody fingertips
And the broken jaw.
It's got to be.

So I'll drink his goddamned jealous lover whiskey
And lay me down.

The broken sun will slide down the crooked sky
A chipped bottleneck
Slid across a splintered fretboard
Amd I can sleep at last

Robert Johnson - Hellhound On My Trail (1937).mp3

192 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more) (Right click and save as target)

File Under: Delta Blues


I wrote the poem above--entitled "Hellhound," natch--a little bit short of 20 years ago. I was taking a creative writing class at FIU when I came across Tim's copy of Greil Marcus' Mystery Train and something therein caught my imagination.

In keeping with the vague idea that I should try to centralize my music writing here, I've edited a little bit, and here goes nothing, boosted the thing into the blogosphere.

As with the Beatles, as with The Talking Heads, as with Exile on Main Street, I think it is possible to overstate the importance of Robert Johnson. People HAVE overstated the importance of Robert Johnson. They have overstated how good he is.

Certainly his best tunes, like "Love in Vain," like "Travelling Riverside Blues," maybe even like the "Hellhound" presented here, almost live up to the colossal mythology. But c'mon, admit it with me: sometimes his underwhelming vocals play like vaudeville, or even worse, minstrelsy, and while Johnson is certainly an accomplished guitar player, he is to my ears not the best of the delta blues players. Skip James and Leadbelly come to mind as his superiors, and now, so does Charley Patton, to whose music I was introduced last week.

I've heard the complete catalogues of neither artist, but from what I have heard so far, I should say that Patton fairly cleans the floor with Mr. Johnson. Patton's gruff vocals are more powerful than Johnson's, and his slide guitar work is more deft, more strong, more blue.

"Hellhound" is pretty great, but you wanna hear some sick fucking slide that resonates even for those jaded listeners who are used to the rabid and amplified stylings of rock 'n' roll era players like Thorogood or Allman? Then check out "A Spoonful Blues" right here. Robert Johnson may have the core mythology that enchants the college students, but goddamn, Charley Patton's got the goods.

Charley Patton - Founder of the Delta Blues - 14 - A Spoonful Blues.mp3

192 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more) (Right click and save as target)

File Under: Delta Blues

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Helmet - "FBLA" from the album Strap It On

Helmet Strap It On album coverI've been looking for the reference for two weeks, and can't find it, shit. But when the world and I and were each much younger, I came across this interview with a musician (Mitch Mitchell? Steve Miller? Adrian Belew? *) who said something to the effect that Jimi Hendrix' musical ideas were so outside the box it was as if they "came from Venus."

Whoever it was who said it, dude could turn some righteous phrase, and I've never forgotten it.

Even though I'm not really that big a fan of Hendrix' psychedelic stuff, which, presumably, would be more likely than his other work to have come from Venus or Neptune or any other extraterrestrial location. Hendrix for me is worth listening to for his intense and immediate blues interpretations, stuff like "Red House" and "Hear My Train A Coming," and the brilliant synthesis of the blues with jazz/funk that was "Machine Gun."

All that other bloated psychedelic shit, that midnight oil-burning hall of whirling knives crap: it doesn't seem like it's from Venus to me. It seems like its from Nowheresville, or wherever else it is that silly excessive fads come from.

No, for a guitarist who regularly receives compositional advice from our Venusian brothers and sisters, give me Page Hamilton. And as best example of said extraterrestrial advice, give me the lead break at 1:34 of "FBLA," when the song ionizes, and Hamilton gives us 30 seconds of electrostatic discharge, a guitar solo that sparkles and crackles and resonates like a Tesla coil.

It's perhaps the greatest nonintuitive guitar solo ever played. IMHO, of course.

There're a bunch of good bands these days doing business under the "post-metal" flag, outfits like Isis and Pelican and Russian Circles. But of course Helmet was the first band to get themselves called post-metal, and though it's funny to see now that they sound nothing like what this post-metal genre would become, you can understand why the post-metal term is apt for them, probably more apt for Helmet than it is for Isis or Pelican.

Page Hamilton ca. 1993
Because Helmet stripped everything away from heavy music, all the baggage, all the cliches, and all the assumptions, and then rebuilt it from the chassis up, to their own unique specifications. The blues were discarded as irrelevant. Black Sabbath dirge, discarded as cliche. Keening, high-pitched cock rock vocals, ditched as past their prime. In their places, Hamilton and his fellows inserted John Coltrane and Glenn Branca. And to make sure we the listeners understood, the band kept their hair short and refused to wear black.
Sheesh, if the music hadn't consistently crushed your skull, we might not have recognized it for heavy metal at all. Helmet were, like mid-period Pink Foyd, a genre unto themselves. Not many had the hubris to try and copy them, and those who did failed badly enough that the band and its music were not sullied **.

Because of personality conflicts, and--perhaps--Hamilton's abrasive personality, the A-list version of this band was only together for eight years and four albums. Given the otherworldly nature of the sound that Hamilton achieved, I'd say those eight years and four albums were not nearly enough.

Helmet - Strap It On - 05 FBLA.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: Noise metal, Post-metal (in an older sense)

*Certainly not Robin Trower and certainly not Frank Marino in case you were wondering. (Return)

**I'm sure Led Zeppelin would be jealous if they knew. (Return)

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Mercury Program New Album and Tour

Longtime readers may remember the piece of practical poetry I wrote about a particular Mercury Program song one year ago this month. Particularly astute longtime readers may also remember the comment I appended to my post, in which I proclaimed how psyched I was that the Program would be releasing a new album in the summer of '09.

Well, I checked for the new album periodically as 2009 melted away into candle drippings and memories of financial angst, but never was greeted by a web page with a release date. I'd stopped looking, to be honest, figuring that some spat had ended the band's reformation.

So imagine my surprise last night, when Melanie, in the midst of a nostalgia trip for her one-time home of Tampa, discovers that none other than The Mercury Program had played last Friday at a bar she used to frequent.

It turns out Mercury Program had actually dropped their album in late December or early January, and that, further, they're playing tonight a mere 45 minutes up Interstate 95 from the world famous La Historia Corporate Headquarters.

Well, hot damn, gas up the Toyota, Holmes.

I haven't been to a show since I saw Hank III last summer, and I've been kind of jonesing for the concert experience. And Melanie's a fan, too. So it's the both of us who're driving up in about an hour.

I've ordered Chez Viking and it's on the way, though I haven't heard it yet. When I do receive it, I won't be posting anything, at least not immediately, because I don't think it's right to post an mp3 from a new release that the band hasn't uploaded themselves.

But while I'm enjoying the band's music tonight, or basking in its afterglow for the rest of this week, I urge you to check out the song I'd earlier blogged, "Nazca Lines of Peru." It's still up, six week notice or no, and if you like that, if you're struck by the band's work on the song, by both the parts that draw on their impeccable sources, and by the parts that rely on the band's own unique vision, well, you could do worse than heading over to the band's website and laying over 12 cyber-smackers for their new one.

I can say that without even hearing it. Mercury Program have already proved themselves to be one of the most adventurous bands of the last decade. Plunking down twelve of your hard earned for their product is no gamble, and in fact, I recommend wholeheartedly that you do so.

And if you're reading this on Monday the 15th, and live near Lake Worth, FL, well,a trip to Propaganda on J Street might not be a bad idea, either.

The Mercury Program - From the Vapor of Gasoline - 04 - Nazca Lines Of Peru.mp3

192 kbps mp3, still up (Right click and save as target)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Iron Maiden - "Drifter" from the album Killers

Iron Maiden Killers album coverThe Quāālude and Beer Generation's "Let it Bleed."

Spewed forth from the 6 x 9's flush mounted onto the rear decks of countless Chevelles idling in countless 7-11 parking lots, "Drifter" and all else on Maiden's second disc had as much urgency as the Stooges, and way more than anything else its own poor blighted zeitgeist could muster. I mean, British kids had been listening to Ultravox at the time. . . .

If Ultravox were labeled as one of the "New Romantics," Maiden could have in their own way been considered equally so, further refining their romanticism into a New Gothic, recasting "Thatcher's Bloody Britain" as a land of spirits, harlots, prowlers, phantoms, and yes, killers. If the evil Maiden sometimes conjured seemed a worse alternative to the times as they'd been, consider that if the late '70's and early '80's in England were bleak and grey, Maiden's songs never were.

"Drifter" may or may not be about that brighter day. It might actually be about the roamings of a serial killer. But even terror might be preferable to the hopeless.

And certainly Dave Murray's iconic wah-wah solo is. It kicks in at about 3:03, and goes on for 37 frenetic seconds, taking its place by its end at least in my mind as one of the greatest wah solos ever recorded, up there with Clapton's in "Presence of the Lord," and with the many short blasts from Jeff Beck in his version of "I Ain't Superstitious."

Killers was the end of a short era for Maiden. With their next album, The Number of the Beast, they'd change their lead singer, and break big in America. Bruce Dickinson's singing voice--likened by the band to an air raid siren, but just as likely to be labelled by detractors as the keening, annoying wail of a castrato--was to say the least different from predecessor Paul DiAnno's much more guttural style.

The Number of the Beast was the first Maiden album I ever purchased, so if anything, it was DiAnno's voice that seemed odd when, while waiting for Piece of Mind, I went back and bought the first two. Maiden had always been a natural for me, as Steve Harris' busy flatwound bass figures reminded one of nothing less than prog. But as I began to incorporate punk and noise into my listening, I found myself less and less able to relate to the Dickinson portion of the Maiden canon.

While no-one could ever assail the band's musicianship, by Somewhere in Time, probably by Powerslave, really, it had become apparent that, Up the Irons or no, the band had become waylaid in its quest for heaviness. What's with this guitar-synth shit, you know?

Tracing it back, at least for me, led to the inescapable conclusion that it all started going wrong when they sacked DiAnno. These days, I've got ten Maiden songs in my iTunes library, and eight are taken from one of their first two records.

When Maiden began, when they were still just one of a slew of new guard British metal acts like Saxon, and Diamond Head, and Holocaust, what made them different from what had come before was their incorporation of the speed, energy, and dirtiness that punk had brought to the table.

While the superb musicianship never went away, some of the rest of it did. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal will forever be associated with Iron Maiden, but to be sure, Iron Maiden haven't forever since been associated with it.

Iron Maiden - Killers - 11 - Drifter.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: NWOBHM

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bob Dylan - "Catfish" From the CDs Bootleg Series Vol. 1 - 3

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series CD cover
It's somewhere to the west of a darned shame, and someplace just east of a moral outrage, that there aren't more good songs about my second great hobby.

Nothing against John Fogerty, and the great songs he's written, "Commotion," and "Eye of the Zombie" and "Proud Mary" and "Fortunate Son," all of them and more are great. But if an uninspired effort of his like "Centerfield" is at the top of our list of notable baseball songs, then the list could use some expansion.

But as plain and generic as "Centerfield" might be, it's still a lot better than that corny and lame "Mickey and the Duke" thing you're always hearing before the pregame shows. . . .

I always liked Jack Bruce's "Boston Ball Game 1967," and I liked it even more when I learned about the Impossible Dream Red Sox of that same year. But even if I'm not being too improbable when I ascribe arcane American sportslore wisdom to Bruce's lyricswriter, the British hippie poet Peter Brown, there's no denying the thing is just a little too . . . abstract . . . to serve as the proper baseball anthem I crave.

I love it when Tom Waits "talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling" in "Shore Leave," but I'm grasping at straws there: the song is hardly about our nation's pasttime.

Jonathan Richman's "Walter Johnson" is pretty admirable in a SABR kind of historical way, but I've always found the manner in which Jonathan twists the character of a legendary competitor to suit his own naive fair play ideals more than a little annoying.

So it may just fall upon tonight's subject to carry the gonfalon as Greatest Baseball Song. Not surprising, I guess, when you consider that its performer has also done up the Greatest Highway Song, the Greatest Memphis Song, and the Greatest Tombstone Song, among many other Greatests.

But on second consideration, it could be found surprising indeed, given that the song was always an unreleased Rolling Thunder outtake until shown the light of day by an Odds and Sods collection in 1991. For a long time I thought this was Kinky Friedman's song: his was the only legitimate version you could listen to for a great long while.

Kinky Friedman Lasso From El Paso Album coverRolling Thunder was '75, and so was the coming of Jim Hunter unto the Yankees. Dylan may or may not still have been rock's greatest singer by this time, but there's no question that in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and seventy-five, Catfish Hunter was baseball's greatest practitioner of the pitching art.

Hunter never pitched a day in the minors. After dominating the hapless high school batters of North Carolina for three years, Hunter shot his big toe off in a hunting accident after his senior year. Most major league teams subsequently backed off the pitching prospect, but the renegade Charlie O Finley, owner and de facto General Manager of the Kansas City Athletics, sensed a blue-chip--and a bargain.

Though he was rarely successful at it, Finley the showman was always looking to increase the gate. Convinced that folksiness equalled marketability, he paid $300 bonuses to players who would grow those funny old-tyme mustachios. And he renamed his players to fit his own concocted mythology about them; John Odom became "Blue Moon," and Vida Blue would've become True Blue, if Finley'd had his way. Dick Allen became "Wampum" for the one year he played in Oakland.

So it was, Finley the Bluto Blutarsky of his time and place, telling his players their Delta Chi names are "Campy" or "Kooz"--or "Catfish." Finley even made up a cock-and-bull origins story for the media about the new Catfish nickname, how Hunter as a six-year-old had snuck away to go fishing one day, and how when his worried parents finally found him 'round about four o'clock, the boy had already caught two catfish.

Hunter, thrust at the age of 19 into the majors as another of Finley's publicity stunts, was never James Augustus again.

If Hunter had been unready for the AL in 1965, by 1968 he was a two-time All-Star and beginning to dominate. On May 8, 1968, Hunter pitched a perfect game for the newly-moved Oakland A's. I still remember seeing Hunter's picture in all the Guiness Book of Records I bought from the Scholastic Book Club as a kid. Every year a new edition, but the same picture of Catfish, as no-one in the 70's could equal Hunter's record-tying feat. It would be 13 years before another perfecto was pitched, and Hunter remains one of only two men in history to have spent an entire decade as the most recent hurler of perfection.

In 1974, the year before Dylan wrote his song, Hunter had led the American League in victories and in ERA,while leading his Oakland Athletics to their third straight World Series title. Little wonder he was awarded the Cy Young award as his league's best pitcher.

But at the same time, even as he was decimating the A's' opponents, Hunter was missing paychecks. Finley and Hunter had come to an agreement where half of Hunter's salary would be paid to an insurance company in trust for their client, but Finley had second thoughts about the arrangement when he found out that such payments were not immediately tax deductible. Finley spent most of Hunter's Cy Young season in arrears to the All-Star pitcher, and Hunter filed a grievance with the player's union after the season. In December 1974 an arbitrator ruled that Hunter's contract with the A's was null and void, and that Catfish could leave Mr. Finley's farm and become a free agent.

Then, as now, all the money was in New York, and on December 31, 1974, Hunter signed a five-year, 3-3/4 million dollar contract with the Yankees. The players and their counsel saw what a good player might make on the open market, and the Reserve Clause--which had tied players to their teams forever at the club's sole option--was not dead. But it was severely wounded, and would be overturned for good within two years of the Hunter deal.

Not sure how savvy Dylan was to all of this. The tone and cadence of the song suggests that Dylan bought into the fake "Catfish" nickname hook line and sinker, as it were.

But regardless, as Charlie Finley would have surely understood, a song entitled "Jim Hunter" wouldn't have been so redolent. And once you name it "Catfish," you've begun to channel the blues standard performed so famously by Elmore James and Muddy Waters (and later by Taste and Jimi Hendrix). In addition to his folk roots and the Newport Rock thing and the country stuff he did during the Nashville Skyline period, Dylan, of course, had a working familiarity with the blues. I'd say he was more or less obligated to write "Catfish" not as a rag or as a ballad, but as a blues. He does it so well that "Lazy stadium night"--in a 50,000 seat arena in The Bronx New York, mind you--somehow sounds as if it could be in a cozy amphitheatre located on the Mississippi bayous.

Funny how Finley's Fish Story ended up evoking something so much larger.

And funny how Hunter's simple quest for back pay owed from a flaky tightwad ended up toppling an unfair labor practice that stretched back 100 years. Here too, I wonder if Dylan is picking up on everything, whether he's aware of the momentousness of the Hunter signing.

The whole thing was big news back then, and as Dylan recorded the tune in July of '75 while recording what would become Desire, Hunter had just made yet another American League All-Star squad. So the Catfish name was on everyone's lips. Million dollar arm, pinstripe suits, all that, all that. But not everyone understood what it all meant, what it all would mean in the history of the game. Marvin Miller, head of the Player's Union, understood immediately. So did Charlie Finley, for that matter.

But did Bobby Dylan? Is this song a You-Are-There kind of thing, the always-savvy Dylan aware of the history he's been watching? Or is it just another gawk at a badass dude who makes the batter go sit down and smokes custom-made cigars?

Either way, there aren't too many songs tackling the subject matter that are any better.

No offense to the tasty song at hand, but I wish there were.

Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series Vol 1 - 3 - Catfish.mp3

This file was removed May 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File under: Outtakes, Baseball Songs