Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Mystery Train" - Elvis Presley (Sun 223)
And Three Other Versions

Elvis Presley - "Mystery Train" Sun Records # 223AI'll tell you what, after listening to this tune repeatedly, and researching its broad roots, for the past three days: this is a very rich, and very important song.

Like The Crossroads, like Stagger Lee, like The Day The Music Died, like Woodstock, the Mystery Train has transcended mere songhood, has transcended even its own storied circumstances, and has become one of the core mythological elements of rock and roll.

This is no mean feat for a song that uses only 77 words, a mere 34 of them unique, but it pays to get in on the ground floor, I guess. Now, I'm no cultural anthropolgist, I'm no ethnomusicologist, I'm no Alan Lomax. I'm not even Greil Marcus, who managed to whip up 432 pages on those 34 words 35 years ago, and is now in his fourth printing.

I'm just a guy who used to have too many records and now has too many mp3's. But still, I'm pretty sure that Elvis' "Mystery Train" was not the first rock and roll record. The song was Presley's fifth single for Sun Records. Bill Haley had charted with "Rock Around the Clock" before Sam Phillips even knew Elvis Presley's name.

Little Junior Parker & The Blue Flames  - "Mystery Train" Sun Records # 223AAnd it was Junior Parker, not Elvis Presley, who had first recorded "Mystery Train."

But Haley's tunes, though seminal, never quite reached Into the Mythic, and Parker's original--though it features a lead guitar break possibly superior to the one Scotty Moore provides for Elvis--wasn't really rock and roll.

So it is, perhaps, "Mystery Train," and specifically Elvis' version, that laid in place for us one of the very first building blocks of a rock and roll mythological vocabulary, a dynamic foundation piece that artists like Jimi Hendrix, Blackfoot, and Horton Heat among many, many others could draw on, and could expand upon.

The song is dynamic, and it is flexible, and was written that way on purpose, it seems. Parker's original was a dark, downbeat and smoky rhythm and blues number, while Presley's version has a brighter and more country sheen. In both versions, though, the words as sung manage to invoke both the pain of loss (as his baby leaves on the long black train) and the delicious anticipation of reunion (as the train comes round the the bend with his baby on).

Still From Jarmusch Film, Mystery TrainFor an easy and quick illustration of this duality, just think of how Jim Jarmusch, in the film he made that borrowed its title from Elvis' song, both opens the proceedings (as the characters file into Memphis) and closes them (as our changed characters split town, or attempt to) with the very same version of the very same song. Coming and going, absolutely.

So a duality common to both, yes, but there is a difference in the two readings of the song at hand: in Parker's take, the joy of reunion is muted because he knows his baby is just gonna leave again. In Elvis' version, it's the pain of separation that's muted, because he knows she won't be leaving anymore.

It's the difference between a blues and a raveup, between a dirge and a jubilant stomp.

For ever and after the "celebratory whoop," as Rolling Stone calls the cry with which Elvis ends his vocal*, the lexicon of rock and roll had been altered and enriched immeasurably, and artists who might have been little children when Elvis, Scotty and Bill stepped into that Memphis studio, or who might even have been unborn, would later know that a very powerful connotative tool had been added to their kit.

It's not the train that took Jimi Hendrix' girl away, in "Hear My Train A-Coming." Actually, Jimi's looking to leave town so he can make it big, come back and buy that lonesome town. No matter. It's still impossible to think of Hendrix' song without thinking of Elvis'. Though Hendrix is known to have been a fan of Presley, and is known to have attended a Presley show in Seattle in 1957, this is not to claim---necessarily--that Hendrix had "Mystery Train" in mind when first performing "Hear My Train A' Coming." But if not, I will say it's impossible for the listener to hear the second without conjuring the first.

Blackfoot Strikes Album coverIn other cases, the overtones are more overt. When I was 14, start-up (and now long-gone) Ft. Lauderdale radio station K-102 was playing the shit out of Blackfoot and their debut album Strikes, with special preference given to the lead single, "Train Train." And in December of 1979, at the infamous Hollywood Sportatorium, I even saw the band play the tune live, during a set which seriously blew away Foreigner, their headliners. Boy, thinking back, it's almost impossible to describe how much heavier Blackfoot was than those lame-ass Brits . . . .

Anyway. It was kinda interesting with "Train Train," because when I finally heard the chorus to "Mystery Train," it was like an old friend, because I already knew it in its guise as the chorus to the Blackfoot song. And I see now, as I refresh my memory, that Mssrs. Medlocke and Spires even made sure in their lyrics to namecheck the town where "Mystery Train" was recorded. Just to, you know, make sure that everyone understands what the deal was, that everyone understands what all this smokin' southern rock was ultimately drawing from.

That's how that mythological vocabulary I was talking about earlier develops its depth of meaning: newer songs influenced or informed by the older are layered onto the original, alternate readings, alternate interpretations get heaped on top, making the whole mythos that much larger, with that much more heft. Back when I was in college, I studied how things went much the same way in the development of the Grail legends: at a certain point, consonance or consistency ceases even to matter, because discrepancies simply add to the richness of the whole cycle. The mythos can be omnivorous. If you're singing about trains, it'll likely take you on. It never mattered to the mythos whether she was coming or going, and it doesn't matter anymore where that train station was, or why you get on board, or what color the train is, or who the conductor is.

Of course, not every artist who writes or performs a song with the word train in the title is necessarily referencing this vocabulary. "Train Kept A-Rollin'" in any of its guises is a lot more about the woman than the train. The Cure's "Jumping Someone's Train" is about the bandwagon nature of fads and fashion. The Melvins' "Goose Freight Train" seems to be, like most of their songs, about heroin.

But "Mystery Train" runs so deep as an archetype; if you're employing the image of a train as a metaphor for some larger concept, you've likely conjured up the powerful spirit of "Mystery Train." Even if you've never even heard of the thing. Whether that metaphor's of flight in the face of ennui, escape in the face of oppression, for the loss of someone gone without, or for the lack of any someone at all, the Mystery Train has some gravitas to impart, and some context to add.

Which is how Horton Heat's "Lonesome Train Whistle" or the Velvets' "Train Round the Bend" or even the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" can also be found without too much trouble to reflect back upon Sun Records catalog # 223A.


Actually, the first version of the song I heard was by UFO, and it probably remains the heaviest cover of the song I've heard. And my favorite is probably the one done by The Stray Cats. So I'll include them, too, what the hell.

Elvis Presley - Mystery Train

File under: Number one Country Hits

Little Junior Parker & The Blue Flames - Mystery Train

File under: Less Famous Originals

UFO No Place To Run  Album cover

UFO - Mystery Train

File under: Bands Named After Unexplained Phenomena

The Stray Cats - Mystery Train

File under: Tattooed Love Boys

These files were removed June 30, 2010 after I received a DMCA takedown letter. 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.









*Sam Phillips claims the cry was Presley's laughter because Elvis had thought he'd fucked up and ruined the take. Sounds like a true story to me, but keep in mind we're talking more about mythology here than we are the truth. So "celebratory" it is . . . . (Return)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Dwarves - "Fuck You Up and Get High" - From the EP Blood Guts and Pussy

Dwarves Blood Guts and Pussy EP coverThe "Machine Messiah" thing got in the way--it was pretty insistent about getting written--but even as I was writing the Lasorda post, I knew that I was gonna end up writing its inevitable musical tie-in with a post about The Dwarves.

Everyone loves Tommy Lasorda, yet his words have often been patently offensive and obscene. His language is of the gutter and supposedly unfit for civilized conversation. But somehow we all understand that Tommy's harmless and that Tommy's a good guy.

Neat trick, that. How does he do it?

Well, what I'm coming up with is that Lasorda is so gleeful in his offensiveness. He is truly a man who doesn't give a fuck. And I think that, as we have become more constrained as a society, more worried about who we're going to offend, more unable to get past the 99.9th percentile consequences, we begin to find that dontgiveafuckitude rather admirable.

Which pretty much brings us as well as I'm able to The Dwarves, and to their EP Blood Guts and Pussy, which in its brief but intense 13 minutes and 6 seconds gleefully bleeds that same dontgiveafuckitude, and which--very much not incidentally--Rolling Stone has proclaimed to have the most offensive album cover in history.

I'll just say that Rolling Stone, besides being factually incorrect on the matter, has once again clearly missed the joke.

Or if finding fault with Rolling Stone seems too easy, try to digest AMG's stern tone of moral disapproval in their 4-1/2 star review of the EP. I'd be able to compute the concern over statutory rape if rock 'n' roll hadn't been about fucking 17-year old girls from the get-go . . . .

The Dwarves are I'm sure of the opinion that fuck 'em if they can't take a joke, but clearly, this whole Blood Guts and Pussy joint is nothing but a pre-emptive cannonball shot across the bow of an America that has sunk up to its gunwales in political correctness over the last 20 years.

Hell, when offensiveness is outlawed, only outlaws will offend us.

Or something like that, anyway. It's 2009, and the thug rappers get to say whatever the fuck they want, but the rest of us can't even find something offensive in our cache of porn mpegs. Janet Jackson's nipple was sacrificed so that no more would be seen. They threw Howard Stern and his cruder cousins off the air, and something called "Emo" is the lame substitute that now passes for punk rock among the poor young fools who don't know any better.

Three cheers for The Dwarves, harmless good guys, who just wanna fuck and get high, who were born when we still had the capacity to be shocked, back when we still got the fucking joke, back when we weren't too afraid.

The Dwarves - Blood Guts & Pussy - 06 Fuck You Up And Get High.mp3

192 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more)

File under: Scum punk

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Yes - "Machine Messiah" - From the Album Drama

Yes Drama album coverNow here's a song that has no right to be as good as it is . . . .

Don't take that the wrong way, however.

I grew up with prog, fell in love with it almost as soon as I had my early teen Elton John phase out of the way. And I stayed in love with it, or at any rate I stayed in love with what it had been, even after it jilted me, and morphed into lame AOR pop/rock beginning in the early '80's.

Although my introduction to X and Black Flag at about that time changed everything for me, I've never stopped loving progressive rock of that earlier era, and I've never stopped loving Yes, or at least Yes in their classic phase, in their incarnations through the album from which our cut today is taken.

I mean, I have no idea what a Key to Ascension might be, and really, I'd stopped listening to new Yes about the same time Jon Anderson made the questionable decision to write a tune about the "harmonic convergence," whatever the fuck that might have been. But still, I'm pretty sure that my view of things is more or less canonical among the hardcore Yes fans who never got off the boat: Drama represents the last album of Yes' iconic period.

But, getting back to how I led off, if Drama is indeed "iconic," it sure overcomes a lot to achieve that status. It's a good record, but . . . how do I explain this . . . even as I say so, I can't help feeling that it's somewhat tainted.

And that's not a rip on Geoff Downes or Trevor Horn, or at least it's not a rip on them from these quarters. Never mind that Jon Anderson refuses to perform "Machine Messiah" or any of the other five songs on Drama to this day, and never mind that even Steve Howe called the lineup at this time "hodge-podge."

Yes as they looked in 1980
Love the tie, man.
Never mind all that, 'cause if you're gonna try and make the case that whatever is troublesome about Drama would have become moot if just the original players had been there, you're gonna find that the parts simply won't dovetail.

If the day needed saving, who was gonna do it? Anderson? Well, the reason he couldn't make the Drama sessions was that he was busy making Short Stories with Vangelis--an album that is described by the superior minds (and the evidently more tolerant ears) at AllMusic as "underwhelming."

And Wakeman? Well, after he left the band in early 1980, he was so charged up about the creative differences which led to his departure that he immediately . . . did nothing. Wakeman released no music at all in 1980, so it's hard to say that Drama is lacking in the ideas Wakeman might have contributed. He doesn't appear to have had any at the time.

Instead of looking at who wasn't there, look at who was. Steve Howe is a freak, with fingers flexible enough to be rubber bands, and a compositional mind that came up with both the crankin'ness that is "Würm" as well as much of the labyrinthine complexity that is Tales From Topographic Oceans. But at the time of Drama, Howe was also less than 12 months away from joining the sessions that produced the first Asia album--a vapid arena-rock record that, in retrospect, I think we all understand represents a pox on music, and one that still, unfortunately, provides a handy template for any talented musician considering The Big Sellout. And on closer inspection, the keyboard player in those Asia sessions, on that Asia album, was the same as the one playing on Drama: Geoff Downes

Alright, I promised no Buggles jokes, but take a look at the bands with whom the other Buggle, Trevor Horn, would work in his second career as producer throughout the '80's. I won't name names, because they are best left forgotten, but at some point during that decade, the synthesizer went from being an emblem of challenging progressive rock to being a tool of the opportunistic would-be pop star, and Horn was an enabler as this happened.

Listen: Drama is haunted by the spectre of the commercial sell-out. This (finally!) is the taint of which I spoke earlier. Obviously, these people aren't hacks--they are enormously talented musicians. But three out of five of them have at some point demonstrated their willingness to co-opt their art for profit. 60% of the band are sellouts! And them who left were too lame to matter!

How is it even possible that Drama is a good record? Because somehow it is.

I was driving home from the Publix earlier this evening, and of course I've got Jr. playing, it was kind of briefly amusing actually, Jr. was playing Dinosaur Jr. "The Lung," but then the J Mascis thing ended, and at first I didn't know what the next song was, with the heavily cranked guitars fading in. I'd figured it out, though, by the time the first doom-like organ chords descend through the metallic haze. It's Yes, perhaps a bit heavier in spots, but--even with Horn's vocals--all constructed to sound as authentic as possible. Which is funny, considering how 60% of the band members would spend much of the decade to follow being inauthentic.

I love the circular church organ run at 2:07. OK, Geoff Downes didn't call in the part from some cathedral in Switzerland, it's probably Horn's Fairlight, but still, the whole thing sounds very Wakeman. And dig that whammy bar freakout from Howe at 5:22! The production is fantastic, too: at 5:46, and then again at 8:58,
are two immediate and vibrant acoustic guitar strums that, along with those from that unbelievably stark section midway through Floyd's "Dogs," represent some of the most gorgeous acoustic guitar sounds in all of prog.

That's how it is. "Machine Messiah"--and Drama in its entirety actually--hold up well, not only when compared to the rest of Yes' work, but also when held up against the light of the best in the entire progressive genre.

I sat in the car, listening to the music until it had roiled to its tympani-and-Les Paul conclusion, even after I had pulled into the driveway, even with the frozen pizzas inching upward in temperature back in the trunk. Transfixed with the tune, it'd been a while since I'd heard it, no doubt. Being reminded of it. "Machine Messiah" in its three parts is a great song, one of Yes' best. One of Yes' best and one of Yes' heaviest, even if no-one talks about Drama, or when they do it's about Squire's bass part in "Does It Really Happen?" But given the environment in which these people were working, given that most of the band were on the cusp of betraying the very kind of music this record contains, it all makes no sense whatsoever to me.

I've got this book, Yes: The Authorized Biography, written and released shortly after Drama came out. The author, Dan Hedges, concludes by calling Drama "Yes Nouveau," and "Yes after a 30,000-mile tuneup," as if the whole Downes/Horn thing was positive change that had recharged the bands' batteries.

We know better now. The UK tour was a disaster and Horn bolted at first opportunity. The follow up, 90125, made scads of dough, but also lost the band scads of fans (like me) that they never would get back. Drama and "Machine Messiah" did not represent a recharge: they were one-off miracles. Thirty years later, it's still hard to figure out how, exactly, they ever happened.

Yes - Drama - 01 - Machine Messiah.mp3

128 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more)

File under: Progressive Rock

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Spoken Word Interlude:
Tommy Lasorda on Dick Williams and Kurt Bevacqua

You know, I tell people that I have a music blog. A couple people even acknowledge it. But it's not true. What I have is a blog about my iPod. The two things are similar, admittedly . . . .

Yet now it occurs to me that I have been somewhat remiss in my efforts to convey the complete La Historia de la Musica Rock experience to my readers. While, to be sure, Jr. gets Autofilled often with the same frothy mixture of feedback, backbeats and tra-la-las as is featured regularly on this page, I've also loaded into my iTunes mothership a variety pack of spoken word stuff. Just to, you know, mix things up a bit.

It started with movie dialogue, Quint's USS Indianapolis speech from Jaws, or Carl Spackler's "Cinderella boy" monologue from Caddyshack, and the like, scraps of Willard from Apocalypse Now and little Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Then I added pieces and bits of old John Peel shows, whatever Henry Rollins I could stand, and, because I'm something of a baseball fan, a representative sampling of baseball's oral history. . . .

Like the audio document presented for you now.

Tommy Lasorda is of course best known as the legendary ex-manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but given his florid reputation, and of course the extremely persuasive evidence I deliver unto you here, he might also very well be The Most Profane Man Who's Ever Lived.

What's great about the clip is how Lasorda begins so mildly, how he at first seems to be resisting his natural urge to express himself obscenely, allowing simply that his accusers have done "a very bad thing." But before long Tommy has succumbed to his Inner Blasphemer and is letting the F-bombs fly with relish and gusto.

Just to set the thing up, on June 30, 1982, in the ninth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres, a pitcher for Lasorda's Dodgers, one Tom Niedenfuer, hit Padre outfielder Joe Lefebvre with a pitched ball. Coming as it did immediately after the Pads' leadoff man homered off Niedenfuer, San Diego's manager Dick Williams was of the opinion, when asked about it after the game, that the hit-by-pitch was "chickenshit" "retaliation."

And later, after Niedenfuer was fined 500 bucks for doing the deed, Padre utility player Kurt Bevacqua said, "They ought to fine that fat little Italian, too. He ordered it."

Shortly after that, a reporter made the mistake of asking Lasorda what he thought of Bevacqua's comments, and you get what we have here.

I sure as fuck hope you enjoy it as much as I fucking have.

Lasorda on Dick Williams and Kurt Bevacqua.mp3

192 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more)

File under: Spoken Fuckin' Word

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Three Versions of the Jagger/Richards Tune "Rocks Off"

Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street Album Cover

Pussy Galore Exile on Main Street Tape Cover

I never was much for the Dead, never much for the jam bands in their wake, and I've certainly never been much for Phish. I remember that to celebrate Y2K with their followers they came down and did this three-day Woodstock-type thing a little west of where I live, out in the middle of the fucking Everglades. And I remember hearing sometime around the middle of the Bush administration that they'd broken up.

I remember hearing, and I wasn't like 'good riddance' or anything, although if I'd have heard then that Rolling Stone had called Phish "the most important band of the Nineties," I might have hated them more in their death, just on general principle, and in the clenched-fist support of visionary bands like Pavement or Nirvana or Alice in Chains or Kyuss or Earth or any other that might actually have deserved such a highfalutin' acolade.

But anyway, Phish were gone right around the time John Ashcroft was, and without making any hippie jokes, both of these things were A-OK with me.

Then a couple weeks ago, Melanie came home, and told me how a customer had come in and bought all these cartons of clove cigarettes. "Trying to stock up against the Obama ban?" I asked her, and she told me, no, the customer was gonna take 'em to the Phish Festival and sell them there. Maybe the proceeds would defray the costs of getting out to California. . . .

Well, I thought, how about those industrious hippies? And that was how I found out that Phish had reformed.

Phish Festival 8

And now I'm finding out that on evening two of their festival at Indeo, California, on Halloween night, the band covered Exile on Main Street in its entirety.

My second reaction is that covering the Stones' greatest and strangest record all the way through is pretty cool. But that's after I get over my first reaction, which is that Pussy Galore did it first, and probably did it better, plus they did it, like, 25 years ago.

Before getting carried away with words like "menacing" and "chaotic" Allmusic accurately says that "Rocks Off,"--Exile's opening track--"perfectly sets the mood for what's to follow," and I'm down with that, so why not let's take a listen to three versions of it, and see whether Phish can make the grade with either the original or the original copy?

"Rocks Off" Attribute Presence in version by
The Stones Pussy Galore Phish

Psychotic Spoken Intro 4 10 0

Mariachi Horns 10 0 8

Sound Quality 5 2 7

Consistency of Mix 4 3 8

All-Important Scuzz Factor 7 10 5

Incoherence of Background Vocals 3 3 6

Bludgeon You The Fuck to Death Rhythm Guitar 8 10 4

Let me be upfront: I wanted to dislike the Phish version. But you know what? It's alright. The vocals are a little ragged, but at least Phish can cop to the excuse that Mick and Keith and Jon and Neal cannot: their take on "Rocks Off" was recorded live in concert.

Beyond the fact that of the three versions of the song we're looking at, the Phish cover is probably the only one where all the players are absolutely certain of where they're supposed to come in, and of what they're supposed to play when they do, it probably has the smokinest lead guitar work, and those guitars are also probably the most intune.

Of course, none of those things are all that important, and some of them might even be detrimental.

Tucked away somewhere on one of my computer's many hard drives is yet another version of "Rocks Off." This one is also by The Stones and is culled, if I can believe the ID3 information attached, from "Unreleased Decca Live Album 19." Jagger's singing, as it does on most of the lesser Stones live albums, booms forth sloppily, and the title to the song under consideration ends up sounding like it's "Roax Oaf."

Still, this Decca Live Album 19 version of the song might have been pretty great, because the rhythm guitars are even more muscular than on the Exile original, and the horns are motherfuckin' tight. But the problem with this version is that it has no center, and no climax.

The Wikipedia article on "Rocks Off" tells us that

The song is possibly best remembered for its sudden divergence near the two minute fifteen second mark into what has been called a psychedelic jam of sorts, with Jagger's vocals electronically distorted and the guitar chords stretched

As they do with the rest of the song, Phish plays the "divergence" pretty straight: it comes at more or less 2:20; you get a little flange poured over a sinewy little guitar figure, and a couple mutterings about hypnotized and mesmerized.

The break occurs at about 2:35 in the Pussy Galore edition, and swirls many times more madly than the Stones' original before cohesing again into furious rhythmic downstrokes. The tune is absolutely ripping when they shift the song back to as it was before the "divergence," and "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me!"

That line in all its paradoxical glory is the absolute center of gravity for the song, the emotional and oddly exuberant climax from which it must naturally recede. Somehow, after 20 seconds in the heroin wilderness, all is alright again with the dark. It's not a solution that is as they like to say these days, sustainable, but it works just fine for a song that's right around 4-1/2 minutes long.

And that's what was missing from the Decca live version. Jagger, as he was slurring his way through another concert performance, just sort of mumbled the sunshine bit, de-emphasized it, and there was nothing around which the rest of the song could revolve.

So let's give Phish some credit: they get the sunshine, and they get the daylight, absolutely right. But so do the Stones in their original, and so do Pussy Galore.

So we go to the tiebreakers, and though I'm tempted to simply make that "the all-important scuzz factor" and have done, the divergence just prior to the sunshine, and the way that Pussy's rhythm guitars just shred the fuck out of it in ways even The Stones for all their genius never did, gives me much more solid evidence as to why the verdict is Phish in a one-way tie for last.

A for effort, goddamn, 'cause it sure beats covering "Dark Star" again, but let's call Phish's cover a C+ for execution.

Now then, before I'm done writing this, I can't help but note that the rawness and the noisiness of both the Stones' Exile on Main Street and its lead track can be and have been overstated. Both are subtler than generally stated. The genius in some parts is in the windows opened rather than the vistas displayed. Still, both the Stones song and the Stones album are gonna get an A from this grader, even if some of it sounds less like the Replacements than like rural country to me.

In some sense, it is good that we have Pussy Galore, who keep some of the promises made on behalf of the Stones record. The PG cover is actually as noisy and as debauched as those going overboard have claimed the Stones record to be. "Rocks Off" is a Jagger/Richards tune, just like it says in the blogpost title, and creation is always the hardest part, but the song's greatest, loudest, noisiest, most fucked-up expression to these ears came when the band was named Galore, and the Twins' names were Haggerty and Spencer.

The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street 01 - Rocks Off.mp3

File Under: Heroin Rock

Pussy Galore - Exile on Main Street - 01 - Rocks Off.mp3

File under: Covers Where They Forget the Words

Phish - Rocks Off at Festival 8 10.31.09.mp3

File under: The Great Jam Band/Heroin Rock Mashup

These files were removed April 9, 2010 after I received a DMCA takedown letter. 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.