Friday, October 22, 2021

Hey, Hit The Highway

In a new biography loaded with family photos, interviews with dozens of bandmates, critics and associates, and spanning nearly 70 years, the best assessment of John Mellencamp’s career comes in a quote from the artist himself.

“[W]e weren’t playing the best songs in the world. A lot of my songs weren’t that great, but they were good enough,” Mellencamp remarks while discussing his all-conquering 1987-era touring outfit. “And as far as putting on a performance and entertaining goes, we were undeniably great. I wish I would’ve been able to enjoy it, but I was too busy slogging.”

MELLENCAMP, by the British music writer Paul Rees, tells the story of a belligerent and tightly-wound blue-collar outsider who through hard work as a creator and bandleader overcame those limitations over a 24-album, 45-year, hall of fame career, smoking four packs a day and fighting The Man the whole time.

Born in 1951 in Seymour, Indiana to an electrician and a homemaker, John Mellancamp grew up rebellious in the tradition of his grandfather Speck and others in a rowdy and downcast extended family around Southern Indiana. He barely escaped childbirth, Rees writes, requiring risky neurosurgery to remove a growth on the back of his head. Having survived the operation for spina bifida made him something of a favorite of his grandmother, who never let him forget he was lucky. “You get told that enough and you start to believe it,” he says.

Young John was a schoolyard bully, and a rebel who loved competing-- in sports, and in music, which he absorbed via late-night soul radio signals from Detroit, forced attendance at Church of the Nazarene and its Appalachian folk and gospel, his parents’ “bongo parties” and as a frontman for a succession of teenage bands, most notably, an interracial combo called Crepe Soul. Married and a father before he finished high school, Mellencamp became determined to try his luck as a recording artist, making several fruitless sojourns to New York with a homemade demo cassette before hearing from Tony Defries, the British Svengali who’d overseen David Bowie and Lou Reed’s careers and recognized in Mellencamp the raw materials for a project: “Puppy-eyed like a young Elvis, rough around the edges as James Dean,” Rees writes.

In a scene out a hundred music bios, Mellencamp signs on the spot, cobbles together some recordings with friends, and discovers to his horror that Defries would release it, as is, under a stage name—Johnny Cougar. The 1976 MCA debut CHESTNUT STREET INCIDENT is savaged by Rolling Stone, which writes “Johnny Cougar is a comically inept signer who unfortunately takes himself seriously.”

To his everlasting credit, Mellencamp took this and other criticisms to heart, and learned by listening to contemporaries he considered ahead of him like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, John Prine, the Kinks (opening for them, Mellencamp studied Ray Davies’ leadership on stage) and the Cars (“those motherfuckers know how to make a pop song,” he observes). Cut loose by Defries, he finds a second home with Rod Stewart’s manager, Billy Gaff, whose Riva Records releases A BIOGRAPHY in 1978, though only in Europe. This includes the majestic, misogynistic rocker, “I Need A Lover,” which goes to No. 1 in Australia, and is praised by Billy Joel, covered by Pat Benatar, and released in the U.S. as part of a next album, called JOHN COUGAR (1979).

Mellencamp’s next three records establish a pattern of similarly dumb, radio-friendly hits and accompanying filler of various quality. The pop-flavored NOTHIN MATTERS AND WHAT IF DID (1980) includes “Aint Even Done With the Night” and “This Time.” AMERICAN FOOL (1982) was another step ahead with hits “Hurts So Good” “Jack and Diane” and “Hand to Hold Onto.” The harder-rocking UH-HUH (1983) produced “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Authority Song,” and “Play Guitar.”

During early sessions for “Fool,” a herky-jerky song John had been at work on called “Jenny at 16” gets a lift when the Bee Gees, recording in adjoining Miami studio, loan them a Linn drum machine establishing a beat. Listening in, Bowie’s former guitarist Mick Ronson suggests adding an opening fanfare and the “let it rock, let it roll” bridge. It all comes together when drummer Kenny Aronoff connects them with an explosive fill. “Jack and Diane” is Mellencamp’s biggest hit. Mainman took leftover tracks and shoved out THE KID INSIDE (1983) to coast on the moment but it died on the shelf: Cougar had already changed his name.

By this time, Mellencamp had settled on an agreeable producer (Don Gehman), established a recording studio in Indiana, and assembled a crack band of local players (the thunderous Aronoff, who was made to observe session players for the NOTHIN MATTERS LP), guitarists Mike Wanchic and Larry Crane, Doc Rosser on keys, Toby Myers on bass) and a lyricist (George Green) who would absorb their leader’s admonitions, foul moods and abuse for years but provide him the words and music. 

Aronoff describes making AMERICAN FOOL “like going to Vietnam.” Mellencamp demanded his band come up with their own parts to accompany his songs, often gave them homework in the form of songs he wanted them to listen to and absorb, and demanded they learn new instruments as a means of changing the soundscape over time, but encountered frequent frustration expressing precisely the sound he wanted, and did so with little tact or sensitivity. He also taxed the band physically, quarterbacking a band football team which played hotly contested games in Bloomington against local radio stations.

Mellencamp had given up drinking and drugs following a beating he absorbed in high school, but found stress all around as he worked to take control of his career. He suffered regular panic attacks, exacerbated by his heavy smoking and coffee intake, and would burn through three marriages. He found touring stressful. He saw record executives, and often his bandmates, as his enemies.

Guided by Green’s Biblical lyricism and released just as artists with a social message were hot again, SCARECROW (1985) was a triumphant record spawning big hits (“Lonely Ol’ Night” “Small Town” and the excellent “Minutes to Memories”) that cemented Mellencamp’s identity as Midwestern Springsteen. Comparing SCARECROW’s highs to his previous work, Rees writes, required “a yardstick put up so far down the road as to be invisible, all but unimaginable from where he started.”  

Like Springsteen, Mellencamp’s songs now strongly imparted a sense of place and an underlying cause, though his own opinion of being tagged “the voice of the Heartland” was nuanced and reflected his considered perspective as an outsider. “Indiana is red state,” he explains, “and you’re looking at the most liberal motherfucker you know. … If I was the voice of the Heartland, my songs would be vastly different.”

SCARECROW, Rees relates, was something less than a true concept album, including as it did side B fillers “Rumbleseat” and “R.O.C.K. in the USA.” The latter was intended to have been a throwaway based on the 60s soul playlist Mellencamp had issued his band before recording but was included on the album at the insistence of Mellencamp’s then-manager, Tommy Mottola, who’d also argued that it be the record’s first single (it was the 4th). The book, and my accompanying streaming of the catalog as I went, didn’t quite disabuse the notion I’d had going in that most Mellencamp releases were weighed down by a few stinkers—as Robert Christgau described him, “a well-meaning cornball with Kenny Aronoff in his band”—that said, the overall quality of them holds up and will surprise.

During the stadium-filling tour, the band grew through new members Lisa Germano (fiddle), vocalists Crystal Talifero and Pat Peterson; and keyboard-accordian player John Cascella.

The sound of the fiddle and accordian awakened Mellencamp to new possibilities, and he moved toward a soulful Americana sound on THE LONESOME JUBILEE (1987). “Paper in Fire” lyrically and musically conveyed Mellencamp’s famous temper (“This is the best song I ever wrote. Don’t fuck it up,” Mellencamp warned his bandmates as the sessions began). Though an ordeal to record, JUBILEE also produced the hits “Cherry Bomb” and “Check It Out” with a sound that stood far apart from late-80s contemporaries, and was the best-reviewed LP of his career, but the above-mentioned tour burned him out and ended his second marriage.

The ruminative and melancholy BIG DADDY (1989), followed as a kind of TUNNEL OF LOVE to Springsteen’s BORN TO RUN. Mellencamp however refused to tour, preferring instead to paint in a home studio. Mellencamp had inherited painting from his mother, who advised him it was an outlet he could engage in throughout his life. One of his daughters tells Rees she thought he was a painter growing up.

Painting came with less associated stress than creating music, which “intensified and riled him, made him more antagonistic, combative and selfish,” Rees writes. More convinced than ever he was an artist, Mellencamp also wrote, directed and starred in a movie, Falling From Grace, which was a failure (Rees’ book also goes into deep detail on Ghost Brothers, a musical play conceived with writer Stephen King that became something of a long work-in-progress also meeting little success).

Two years in relative seclusion ends when he reassembles the band in 1991, giving each of Wanchic, Crane, Myers and Aronoff a $1 million loyalty check. This gesture causes mutinous tension when Crane expresses on behalf of his mates that taxes would make each payment closer to $600,000; Mellencamp responds by firing them all on the spot.

All but Crane—who is cast out forever—eventually are welcomed back to record WHENEVER WE WANTED (1991), whose rocking tunes, enhanced by replacement axeman David Grissom, recalls UH-HUH in too many ways—it’s “John’s least satisfying work in years,” according to Rees. Elaine Irwin, pictured on the album’s cover and in the “Get A Leg Up” video, becomes John’s third wife.

The arrival of grunge and hip-hop complicates Mellencamp’s musical direction for the next decade. HUMAN WHEELS (1993) took months to record. It produces hits “What If I Came Knocking?” and the resplendent grieving title track, but its recording is clouded by the sudden death of Cascella, to whom the album is dedicated.

“As HUMAN WHEELS slipped off the charts, with it he felt himself being shunted to margins, forced out to pasture,” Rees writes. A frustrated Mellencamp throws a punch at a record executive in a meeting in New York and departs the confrontation determined to make his next album in three weeks or less.

That becomes the slight, wispy DANCE NAKED. Time was saved in part through eschewing a bass guitar to Myers’ dismay, although Meshell Ngedcello is brought in as a bass player in the duet of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”—proving to be Mellencamp’s last visit to the Billboard Top 10.

The tour for DANCE NAKED is interrupted when Mellencamp has a heart attack and takes another two years off, returning in 1996 with the ironically titled MR. HAPPY GO LUCKY (1996), which like HUMAN WHEELS, is enhanced with hip-hop guitar and drum loops and features new band members Andy York on guitar, Moe Z on Hammond organ and violinist Miriam Sturm, who arranges an album-opening Overture. The single is “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).” The critical reception is muted.

Mellencamp blames Phonogram for disappointing sales and bolts for a new deal with Columbia but the self-titled JOHN MELLANCAMP (1998) is disappointing and chaotic even by Mellencamp’s standards. It’s the first to go off without Aronoff, who refused to bail on a gig backing Bob Seger. This album also led to a break-up with Green over a disagreement on the lyrics of the doomed single “Your Life Is Now,” whose recording included an incident where Mellencamp threw a punch at York (“I’d say John had serious confrontational issues,” York tells Rees). The band, now with the Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch on drums, was briefly fired during its recording. Myers quit on the ensuing tour. 

Bandmembers interviewed by Rees, many in oral-history style, will concede that Mellencamp meant well and approached performing and preparation as he ought to have given the material. “Come on—sell this fucking thing!” he'd admonish on stage, Aronoff relates. “He was unstoppable.” 

Columbia, according to Rees, was looking at Mellencamp with an eye toward Santana’s SUPERNATURAL comeback. But When CUTTIN HEADS (2001) failed to improve, Mellancamp released a blues cover album called TROUBLE NO MORE (2003) and departed Columbia.

FREEDOM’S ROAD (2007) is most notable for spawning a Chevrolet commercial accompanying “Our Country”—the kind of sellout Mellencamp had long resisted (he’d told a hot-sauce company to hit the highway when they sought “Hurts So Good” for a campaign) but reasoned was OK given the difficulty of connecting with listeners in a market yawning at late-career releases from heritage artists like Springsteen and Tom Petty. 

For 2008’s LIFE, DEATH, LOVE AND FREEDOM (c’mon already with these titles), Mellencamp engages producer T Bone Burnett, whose signature spare arrangements featured the singer’s roughening voice and was seen as something of a comeback in Americana/Folk and Adult Alternative radio formats. The same tact has since been applied to subsequent platters including the revisitation of Southern folk and gospel, recorded live at iconic studios, NO BETTER THAN THIS (2010), PLAIN SPOKEN (2014) and a half-done album of collaborations with country singer Carlene Carter, SAD CLOWNS AND HILLBILLIES (2017).

Mellencamp by now was divorced a third time, running with actress Meg Ryan, and exhibiting his artwork in galleries (Rees includes testimony from an art dealer disabusing the notion he’d used his celebrity to become a painter: “The reality is, a door may open if you’re a celebrity, but if you’re poor at what you do then it doesn’t stay open very long.”)

Rees' book comes to life when describing his personal interviews with Mellencamp, and while highlighting material that at once is overexposed and yet underexplored (the 2 or 3 cuts on each album you don't yet know by heart). The inevitable duet with Springsteen—a despairing, weepy folk-ballad called “Wasted Days”—was released in time for Mellencamp’s 70th birthday (and Springsteen’s 71st). Happy birthdays, guys. Don't celebrate too hard.

Monday, December 14, 2020

New Music for Old People

Pretend as we might to try to and keep up with new music we may as well also surrender to the notion that there's really no escaping our formative frames of reference. So when I come across New Music By Old People (politely called "Legacy" or "Heritage" I have learned) it's often a cool compromise, even if nobody buys it or hears it.

Following are a few unpopular comebacks from 2020 you may have missed. Thanks to my friends out there in space for the tips 


The Vapors were short-lived British new-wavers remembered for--and doomed by--"Turning Japanese," a semi-novelty hit that may not have aged particularly well. But the debut album that spawned it 1980's NEW CLEAR DAYS is loaded with similarly tuneful and frenetic pop with the same forgotten nervous energy. Thirty-nine years after the 1981 followup MAGNETS, three-fourths of the original quartet--singer David Fenton, guitarist Edward Bazalgette and drummer Steve Smith--reunited for TOGETHER and it's like stepping into a time machine.


Chrissie Hynde never really went away but the last thing I can remember streaming were goopy Cougar love duets with JP Jones. When I heard "I Didn't Want to Be This Lonely" for the first time this spring I could barely believe it wasn't a leftover from 30 years ago. Maybe it was. If you're a sucker for the Bo Diddley beat, and who isn't, good stuff. 

For their first new music since CAPRICORNIA in 2002 sees the Oils doing a guest-laden EP to support aboriginal rights in Australia. "Gadigal Land" is like the Oilest thing ever--righteous fury, a little guitar jangle, gigantic drums and a brassy arrangement, even brings back the breakdown technique of "Jimmy Sharman's Boxers" and their repeated phrases. Klabamm.

This is the second effort from a new wave era supergroup that plays 60s style garage rock (Romantics singer Wally Palmar, the Cars' Elliot Easton, Blondie's terrific drummer Clem Burke). I'm taking their advice and telling two people.

I don't know what I thought a combo of the unpredictable duo of Todd Rundgren and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo would sound like but it turns out, this. Not sure that accent is going to over well in today's sensitive environment but the message sure did. This one goes out to my Trump-addled Facebook polluters.

He had the very same idea. This song is probably three minutes too long.

This probably wasn't the right year to introduce a shout-out-to-every-demographic love-letter to NYC Nightlife but I admire Willie Nile's spirit and old-school directness and he's really become the elder statesman of NYC Dad Rock.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Tifford & Dillbrook

I'm pleased to learn it's not only me who occasionally conflates Chris Difford and Glenn Tillbrook, the co-founders of Squeeze. Chris Difford's memoir, SOME FANTASTIC PLACE, mentions it happens quite frequently, even with real media types who ought to know the difference.

For me the confusion was so intense I read several dozen pages of Difford's new book under the impression that it was guitar-playing singer and composer's work and not his froggy-voiced, dark-haired lyricist's. That's one issue I probably wouldn't have had without the darn Kindle which is nice for volume and convenience but pretty weak when it comes to absorbing the details that a physical-book reader wouldn't help but notice, like the cover, for instance.

It did seem strange to be learning our frontman was a daydreaming teenage skinhead writer wannabe with a pack of imaginary friends but I didn't put it all together till he told the story of posting a note in a London shop window seeking actual bandmates to join his imagined group. The only respondent was Tillbrook, and this combination of introverted lyricist and a differently introverted songwriter gave rise to one of New Wave's most tuneful combos and a kind of spiritual, durable and underrated successor to the Kinks and 10cc.

Partly, it's that same lack of a true, distinguished personality, along with multiple lineup changes and frequent break-ups over the years, that prevented Squeeze for all their quirky charm, pocketsful of terrific tunes, and critical praise, from getting wider recognition for how good they really were and are. As Difford relates in the book, it wasn't as though the quintet was populated with album-cover-worthy faces. Neither Tillbrook nor Difford were especially comfortable as showmen so it was left to original keyboardist Jools Holland to interact with audiences and that skill led his departure following 1980's breakthrough ARGYBARGY album and eventual career as a popular British TV host.

Holland's replacement, the gadfly singer-for-hire Paul Carrack, stuck around long enough only to lend his smooth lead vocals to perhaps the band's most-lasting U.S. hit, "Tempted" from the following EAST SIDE STORY album of 1981. (Carrack's vagabond career deserves its own examination I hope to get to someday but I keep learning about more and more bands he sung with everyday). Bass players and drummers also came and went (and several even came back again for a while and left again) but for my money the COOL FOR CATS and ARGYBARGY lineup of 1979-80 (Difford, Tillbrook, Holland, bassist John Bentley and the burly drummer Gilson Lavis) were the classic five, performing Tillbrook's distinctively catchy English-rockabilly-soul-pop-carnival tunes with Difford's lovelorn hungover sad-sack lyrics, often sung by both leading men not in harmony but an octave apart, a Squeeze signature. Lavis, Bentley and Tillbrook, on lead guitar, could also really play.

So many Squeeze songs came off as effortless big hits purposefully obscured by Difford's dense and descriptive lyrics. "Vicky Verky" for example musically conveys all the thrills of a summer teen romance, only one that races into an abortion, not typically Top of the Pops subject matter. The brokenhearted stoner in "In Quintessence" can't get out of bed despite the pop accompaniment that would have listeners dancing. Their skill had critics calling Difford & Tillbrook the Lennon & McCartney of the 80s and Squeeze drew lot of admirers among peers, but only "Tempted" the very English "Pulling Mussels," the Elvis Costello-influenced "Black Coffee in Bed" and later, "Hourglass" ever really penetrated everyone's radios.

As you wouldn't be surprised to learn, heavy drinking played a role in Squeeze's tumultuous rises and falls, particularly among Difford and Lavis ("He liked to drink, it's safe to say" is Difford's droll first impression) who burned out following SWEETS FROM A STRANGER (1982)--their fifth album in as many years--and they broke up for the first time, only not for the last.

Reading, I worried that the terrific highlights of the band's career until this moment were already covered well before the halfway point in the book, and sure enough much of the second half relates Difford's admirable and continuing efforts to live a 12-step life (he describes finally kicking his coke and drinking habits, and a few wagon-falls since), his delicate emotions (this man cries a lot), and so many failed relationships, so many managers and producers, so many homes, so many Squeeze reunions and dis-unions, its easy to lose track and/or interest, which is what happened to me. I get it, your life story can't be contained to your 20s and one takeaway is that life indeed goes on.

I also learned a little about Squeeze and how it all worked. The triumphant EAST SIDE STORY began with a vision as a 4-sided, 4-producer record (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Paul McCartney--all Squeeze admirers). I learned how they found their stride as a group only after awkward early sessions with the Velvet Underground's John Cale who wanted them to perform not as Squeeze but as Cum and seemed to want to package and sell the first album to a gay audience. I also took some interest in the many projects of Squeeze's second, third and fourth lives. Difford himself is indifferent to some of it, speaks highly of other projects (like the above from CRADLE TO THE GRAVE (2015), much depends on his own creativity or sobriety. Like a lot of their contemporaries that made a New Wave splash they were involved with Police mastermind Miles Copeland and Elvis Costello's Jake Riviera, and their influence is coming into perspective the more I read up on this era.

Virus-willing, Squeeze still record and tour with the two frontmen who share deep professional respect for one another if not the chummy relationship my teenage self imagined they would. Difford confesses he has no idea where Tillbrook lives anymore. I've seen them play several times (beginning with what we thought would have been their last-ever appearance 38 years ago!) and as Tillbrook ages his skill with guitar becomes ever more pronounced, his vocals more soulful and rootsy. Easy, Squeezy.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

And So It Goes

A newly published biography turns a rare spotlight on Nick Lowe, the clever British songwriter, producer and singer who influenced the New Wave and roots movements before crafting a second-act career that's become a refreshing display of cool dignity for aging rockers, with nearly all those developments taking place just below the radar.

CRUEL TO BE KIND, by musician turned writer Will Birch, features a lot of witty and wise quotations from the subject, with whom he has been acquainted since they each were struggling musicians in the 1970s (Birch was the drummer for the Records) and again as adults in lengthy interviews, funerals and projects with mutual collaborators. Birch relates an engaging if lengthy tale of a droll, versatile but fame-cautious pop craftsman who continues to evolve decades into a career of more near-misses than hits.

Nicholas Drain Lowe, born in 1949, was the son of a buttoned-up WWII Royal Air Force pilot, and a dancer mother from a long line of entertainers. He grew up in Surrey and for a time in Jordan and Cyprus, where his father was stationed in the RAF, taking an interest in the 50s rock and roll originating in America, and learning songs on a toy ukulele. At boarding school in England, teenage Nick played the banjo, spent more time discovering new music than studying, and assembles any number of bands as a means to attract attention from girls. Some of these groups would include fellow student Brinsley Schwarz, whom Nick joined with a homemade bass guitar he tuned with a pair of pliers.

A stint in a community college got Lowe a job as low-level gofer for a local newspaper, but that ambition took a back seat to a desire to sing in a band and drink with his Mod pals. Birch relates a tale of Lowe flaming out of the newspaper gig after sleeping through a film he was supposed to be reviewing. His school friend Brinsley Schwarz called asking Lowe to join his band, then called Kippington Lodge, and signed to EMI. Kippington played a brand of harmless post-Sgt. Pepper pop, and had a string of unsuccessful singles including the B-side "I Can See Her Face," Nick Lowe's first written-and-sung recording, at age 19.

Kippington was going nowhere, and after Nick is nearly killed in an on-stage electrocution, the band in 1970 rebrands itself after its guitarist's name and pursues a country-roots-and-harmony sound then becoming popular with the rise of Crosby Stills & Nash and The Band. A big-thinking Irish manager, Dave Robinson, pulls an elaborate promotional stunt-- flying a planeful of Brit music journalists to a showcase in New York where the rookie band was to make its stage debut. As Birch relates in detail, the promo was a monumental flop: The band encountered visa problems, the jet carrying the journalists ran behind schedule, and though the show went on, it badly underdelivered on the hype, with writers assailing them as "inept twerps" in Lowe's recollection and dooming them to a second-tier status.

So though Brinsley Schwarz had eyes on flying the world as a first-class attraction, they instead become a budget-friendly communal bar band, producing six albums over five years and performing not in arenas but in pubs. Lowe however was sharpening his pop songwriting chops, some in partnership with Brinsley's new addition, Ian Gomm. And in contrast to emerging arena rock performed by peers, the group developed a reputation as Britian's "quietest band," traveling with the smallest amps they could find to highlight the Americana/roots sound they were pursuing.

The approach yielded few hits but plenty of fans. Their influence helped to spawn a number of group with a similar grounding working the same circuit, including Graham Parker & the Rumour, Martin Belmont (of Ducks Deluxe), and Ian Dury. Fans included a Liverpool teenager named Declan MacManus, whom Birch says passed Lowe a homemade tape after a show and began a relationship that would eventually result in one of Lowe's Brinsley songs ("What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" becoming a breakout smash for MacManus under his performing name Elvis Costello. Lowe would become the producer of Costello's first five albums.

Lowe calls penning "PLU" as "the seismic moment" of his songwriting career. While there's obvious irony and hippy ridicule to the lyric, the delivery is just earnest enough. This sense of clever playfulness is a strain running throughout Lowe's writing, and can be seen in brilliant if sometimes over the top punmaking and wordplay that lent his work a sense that it was intended primarily for those who got the inside jokes ("The Abominable Showman," You Stabbed Me in the Front," "Time Wounds All Heels." He once titled an EP BOWI, a sly reference to a David Bowie album called LOW).

The Brinsley's broke up in 1975. Lowe fell in with manager Jake Riviera, penned and performed (as the Tartan Horde) a ridiculous novelty song "Bay City Rollers We Love You" and was recruited to produce the debut album for Graham Parker. Lowe had zero experience as a producer but didn't fret over the details, instead using his humor and his feel for musicians to inspire performances, earning the nickname "Basher" for the speed at which he produced.

Touring with Graham Parker as they opened for Thin Lizzy, the latter's "The Boys Are Back In Town" helped to inspire a Lowe original, "So It Goes" which became a Stiff Records single and a cut a 1978 debut solo album (called JESUS OF COOL in the UK and PURE POP FOR NOW PEOPLE in the US). Stiff was a spirited independent label co-founded by Lowe's manager Riviera and his former manager Robinson that collected a roster of pub-rock vets and others in the scene including Dury, Wreckless Eric, and MacManus, now known as Elvis Costello. The opening chords of "So It Goes" basically launched the New Wave movement on its own.

Lowe's records with Stiff drew strong reviews but the performer wasn't necessarily fit for stardom, Birch writes. Stiff package tours were to feature a rotating lineup of its acts but Lowe preferred to go first so as not to interrupt his post-show drinking time (Lowe spent much of the 70s and 80s drunk, Birch reveals, and his prodigious intake of acid interfered with Schwarz' success). In the studio he was frequently collaborating with older counterpart Dave Edmunds, the Welsh guitar whiz who'd produced Brinsely's last album. Those two, along with Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams, backed Edmunds on two albums for Swansong and Lowe on 1979's LABOR OF LUST but Rockpile, as they would eventually be known, weren't billed as such due to competing solo contracts of its co-leaders.

Rockpile toured as Edmunds' anonymous backing band, regularly upstaging headliners Bad Company on a U.S. tour, gaining Rockpile a stateside following and critical praise. But between songwriting, a solo career, production work and his drinking, Lowe was never fully committed to the band and didn't always see eye-to-eye with Edmunds, himself an enigmatic and committed drinker. Edmunds eventually tangled with Riviera and Rockpile died after one billed album, SECONDS OF PLEASURE (1980).

Lowe had much more still to pursue. He'd met the American county singer Carlene Carter--whose mother, June Carter, was the wife of Johnny Cash-- during a London recording session in 1977. It would be many years before Nick would summon the courage to write a song for his one-time father-in-law, but when he did years later, "The Beast In Me" was a standout of Cash's chilling 1994 AMERICAN RECORDINGS comeback.

Lowe's work in the 1980s showed an increasing increasing influence of American roots and country even if his popular reputation as a new waver never really went away as "Cruel to Be Kind" -- one of only two Lowe singles to reach the Billboard Hot 100 -- endured in popular popular memory (it peaked at No. 12 in 1979; "I Knew the Bride" peaked at #77 in 1986). This tune from 1984's NICK LOWE & HIS COWBOY OUTFIT should have been a hit but wasn't:

As he had with Rockpile in the 1970s, Lowe fell in with a pack of like-minded roots musicians backing one another in the studio. Lowe, singer John Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder and drummer Jim Kelner played together on Hiatt's excellent BRING THE FAMILY (1987) and Lowe's PARTY OF ONE (1990) and eventually the group recorded and toured as Little Village in 1992 but like Rockpile, the project died after a single album and tour.

Lowe's obscurity was only deepening when a performance of "Peace Love and Understanding" by singer Curtis Stigers latched onto the bazillion-selling soundtrack LP for the 1992 film "The Bodyguard," and the ensuing financial windfall allowed Lowe the freedom to hone his songwriting craftsmanship and release a series of paced-out late-career albums beginning with terrific THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD (1994) as a kind of hip white-haired grandfather of country-swing rock and songs with Sinatraeasque singing, Lowe-like wit and the ability to pack an understated wallop like the reflection on drinking from THE CONVINCER (2001). As Birch makes clear it's a refreshing break from the parade of contemporaries still trying the same act they did 40 years before. Most recently he is touring and recording with the American surf/roots band Los Straightjackets. That they perform while wearing Mexican wrestling masks goes unremarked upon.

Similar to the feeling I'd had reading Billy Joel's bio--another book relying heavily on after-the-fact reflections of the subject-- there's probably too much reflection on balance in Birch's book. Lowe gives great quotes but in his style they're arch and detached so much it reads more as look back then a as-it-happened bio, and it's awfully long even if you skip the family history in the appendix. But as a chronicle of a clever and important figure who's career is overdue for recognition and reflection, "it will make the hardest-hearted of critic's hearts melt."

Monday, January 21, 2019

Listenin' With A Young Man's Ear

“Any career disappointment I had didn’t center around the cliché of being the ‘New Bob Dylan’” Steve Forbert writes in his new book, BIG CITY CAT. “…In my case, my illusions were shattered when I didn’t manage to follow the success of “Romeo’s Tune.” I had been under the impression that I could accomplish pretty much anything I wanted to do. For a while I could. And then, lo and behold, I couldn’t.”

To the extent there’s blame to go around, Forbert confesses his part. He badly wanted success but was uncomfortable having attained it, and the same hard-headedness that allowed him to cut a path as a folksinger in New York’s punk-driven downtown of the 1970s played out in some bad decisions in the studio and in his personal life that eventually had professional repercussions.

Just as ALIVE ON ARRIVAL captured the energy of a wide-eyed Mississippi kid’s happy ambition to make it, BIG CITY CAT provides honest and at times funny perspective on that magical ascent, and then on a career once its trajectory had changed for good. Along the way Forbert conveys an underlying appreciation for music itself that has kept him going 40 years later.

The popular story Forbert fans (like me) knew until now was that he blew into New York from Mississippi with a denim jacket and acoustic guitar, but Forbert reveals that came only after years of trying to make it as a rocker down South. And New York was actually the second city he’d tried to establish himself, recounting a brief but futile trek to Atlanta with a bandmate.

Forbert was always absorbing a scene, listening and learning. “I began to see that one member with a discerning approach to material and some sort of original overall vision is worth at least three hot-shot guitar players,” he notes. Widening tastes lead him away from British-Invasion influences to Americana, he starts writing and playing more acoustic guitar, and departs for New York alone when he realizes his bandmates aren’t feeling it quite the way he is.

Forbert would render his struggle to make it in the city musically in ALIVE ON ARRIVAL, while the book provides the details including excerpts from a diary he kept then that are every bit as charming. He played anywhere he could, for anything he could earn, while holding down a day job as a messenger. He cracked the punk scene at CBGB’s on his personal appeal to owner Hilly Kristal, who fancied himself a country singer. Forbert soon picked up the same managers as the Ramones, who never got over the young singer beating them to a hit. A rave review of one of his performances in the New York Times – “Mr. Forbert is the kind of performer who makes you realize his worth the minute he begins to sing,” John Rockwell wrote – starts a label bidding war.

Forbert’s idealism could be his enemy. As a rookie recording artist, he brazenly overrules top-notch session sax player David Sanborn by keeping what Sanborn considered a goofed solo, and nearly sentences ALIVE ON ARRIVAL to death on arrival on an insistence that it not include reverb—only the opinion of Bonnie Raitt can convince him otherwise. He followed it up with the rockier JACKRABBIT SLIM (1979), containing his signature hit, “Romeo’s Tune” recorded with the same musicians he’d been touring with.

Forbert flubbed on “Romeo’s” momentum. He stunned management by refusing an offer of a ROLLING STONE magazine cover feature, and instead of giving fans more of what they wanted—there was more than enough material leftover from ALIVE and JACKRABBIT for a third record—opted for an abrupt sonic reinvention on LITTLE STEVIE ORBIT (1980). That record, led by the hard-drinking English producer Pete Solley, was a critical and commercial flop. And by the time he returned to ALIVE producer Steve Burgh for 1982’s STEVE FORBERT, his moment seemed to have escaped but his issues with the big time were only beginning. As an aside I’m one of the few people in America to have acquired that one, and I never had a problem with it (especially side A) or really with any of Forbert’s efforts.

Forbert attempts to restart with Columbia and engages Neil Girardo as a producer but the label rejects submitted tracks, and subsequently refuses to release him from his contract. Steve speculates that the freeze-out was personal in nature—he’d slept with the secretary of CBS boss Walter Yentikoff—and he’s in recording limbo for years but still writing and touring with crack bands, the Flying Squirrels and the Rough Squirrels. An encounter with a Steve Forbert fan--Springsteen’s bassist Garry Tallent—finally leads to a new contract with Geffen and STREETS OF THIS TOWN comeback, positioning Forbert somewhere in the Springsteen/Mellencamp arena, and a 1992 followup THE AMERICAN IN ME (1992), which leaned more toward Americana.

Back on the road as a solo performer Forbert has continued to release albums independently ever since, describing writing a new “manifesto” every couple of years. He describes raising a family—including twin sons who interestingly enough toured for a time in a death-metal outfit—in Nashville, a divorce, rehab for a drinking problem, a subsequent marriage to a Jersey girl, a budding photography hobby, and passing time between gigs listening to CDs in his car. “When you’re on top, the job—although stressful—is made as comfortable as possible for you, and it pays incredibly well,” he observes. “On less successful levels you do a lot of work all over the place but can soon wind up wondering if it’s all worth it.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

All About A Good Time On A Saturday Night

It was 30 years ago today -- 8-8-88 -- that Tommy Conwell's debut album was released by Columbia Records, which if you were around Newark, Delaware at the time was something of a big deal.

Conwell and his band, the Young Rumblers, played a brand of party blues pop that sort of bridged the gap between area icons: the more traditional R&B of George Thorogood, who'd been at it for 15+ years by that point and was a national star albeit with an older audience; and the bright, heartland dance-pop of The Hooters, who'd only recently raced up the charts on the strength of a radio-loving debut the kids ate up.

Conwell had the same management firm and record label as The Hooters, and similarly got a deal after demonstrating skill as a crowd-pleaser in live shows and locally released recordings that attracted airplay from Philadelphia's then-influential WMMR. Especially around the Delaware Valley, Conwell looked as close to a can't-miss rookie as comes along.

But top prospects don't always become all-stars, and sometimes the hype is all that shows.

By the time I wrote this article -- nine years after Conwell's debut and seven since he'd last released a record -- he had long since returned to the local bar scene that birthed him and obviously had had plenty of time to put the whole experience into perspective. I'd done a little bit of background work before we met, but it was a single, extraordinarily candid interview with the artist that really carries the story. I read where some interpreted Conwell's remarks in this story as bitter but let me assure you he was anything but. I've always thought this was one of my better attempts at writing about music, and about growing up.

Here's the album in all its overpackaged glory.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sharing This Night That Will Soon Be A Blur

Ignorance of contemporary music can have its rewards if you're not scared to arrive at a party a 20 years too late.

That's sort of how I felt watching Rhett Miller perform at City Winery this week. It was the first time I'd seen Miller, who is best known as the front man for the Texas-based alt-country rockers the Old 97s. That band's 90s and oughts heyday was largely overlooked by me: I'd vaguely known who they were, but until a few years ago hadn't done enough to distinguish them from others in their ballpark. For a while there I conflated the Old 97s and the Old Crow Medicine Show, in a manner not unlike my brain tangled the Hoodoo Gurus and Husker Du in the 1980s. I just didn't know better.

It wasn't until 2014 and MOST MESSED UP -- the band's 10th album! --  that I finally caught on. That album is so good -- funny, hardrocking, full of goofy energy, a classic of the life-on-the-road genre and only the slightest bit Western twangy -- to inspire a journey into the past where I discovered these guys had lots of terrific stuff I'd overlooked.

In the meantime, I'd had a second connection to make: the name Rhett Miller had bubbled up through my power-pop feeds over the years, and I was familiar with his album THE INSTIGATOR (2002). Eventually I pieced it all together and realized the singer and the band belonged to one another and had parallel careers. The whole load of it eventually worked its way into heavy rotation around the house and so for me, going to this show was as though I was seeing a hot band.

Little did I know there were still more surprises ahead.

Miller is something of the David Lee Roth of solo acoustic performers, bringing a huge physical energy, charm and a bag of tricks -- most notably a windmilling strum hand and shag-shakes -- to the act. He's got an expressive yelp conveying the sad-sack, whiskey-dicked losers at the heart of most of his songs. I can't imagine there were many at the show like us who hadn't seen Miller before, but that was our reward. We rocked and we laughed, totally entertained.

Recently, Miller authored this sobering takedown of the modern music industry, wondering whether domination by gigantic streamers, "Swedish hit factories" and YouTube leaves anything for young musicians to aspire to. I wish I knew a solution. I will note that the stream -- particularly the late lamented Rdio -- is what I have to thank for having discovered the Old 97's and Rhett Miller to begin with. The economic model is most messed up, if you will; and so it's not without internal conflict I am sharing the below sampler.