Monk's Attic

The other night, Sarah and I introduced her Arkansas cousin to the wonders of Croatian palinka and Thelonious Monk. There isn't much to say about the palinka except that it burns blue if you set it on fire. As for Monk, I could probably start saying things now and keep saying them until I die and never quite end up saying enough.

However, I will say this: Thelonious Monk's Underground has what could very possibly be the best cover of all time. It imagines Monk as a French Resistance soldier, complete with a captured Nazi bound to a chair in the corner.

Metapost: Your Number's Up, Alex Ross

Dear Eggheads, please contact Seth at Taken As Read and complain about the ill treatment we here at The Little Black Egg are receiving. My letter to Seth more or less sums up the issues at stake.

Act now. Together we can make a difference.

The New Yorker started stucking once they opened the door to advertisers and got Art Spiegelman to illustrate the cover anyway. Take it from me: I've heard the "Talk of the Town," and it's boring.


A PiL Primer

After the Sex Pistols split, Johnny Rotten reverted back to John Lydon and formed Public Image Limited (PiL) with some old pals. PiL was meant to be a “communications company,” not a band. Let’s not kid ourselves: PiL was a band. At first, they were a band that made a point of never practicing and seldom playing live. Later on they'd change strategies and release highly polished product.

PiL underwent a ton of personnel changes over the years. The general consensus is that they devolved over time, which isn’t necessarily true (but is sorta true). They just kept changing, with John Lydon’s vitriol and charisma holding the circus together. If you’re at all interested in Lydon’s unique vocal charms, acquiring the entire PiL catalogue is a must. I’ve split the band into four phases for your ease and edification.

This is the “classic” lineup.

First Issue

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar
Jah Wobble: bass
Jim Walker: drums

PiL squeezed their freshman effort out right before 1978 became 1979. The debut single, Public Image, is a catchy little ditty which more or less defines the PiL sound. The song is danceable and bass-centric, the guitar sort of plays around the melody, and Lydon indicts everyone for not getting it. A heft percentage of Lydon songs are about this. If you’re serious about collecting your PiL, you’ll get used to it pretty fast.

Anyway, Lydon’s message is clear: PiL is not the Pistols 2.0, although this is the album that sounds the most like his old band. A post punk classic, sure, and doubly impressive for being such a focused effort from a band that couldn’t have been together for more than a couple months at this point. Despite its many virtues, First Edition was easily overshadowed by the colossus that came next.

Please note: if I were a completist rather than a half-assed collector, I’d include the PiL official live releases bootlegs in this primer. But I’m not going to. However, I’d like to mention Nubes, a no-fi document of early PiL. The band is sloppier than a Parkinson’s patient trying to eat a meatball sub with chopsticks, and they run through the late-era Pistols tune “Belsen Was a Gas.” They also treat the crowd to “Public Image” not once but twice, and all the songs only go on for as long as everyone feels like playing them. PiL originally had an ethos of never practicing and seldom playing shows. The end product is actually very compelling, and Nubes gets more rotation with me than First Issue

Metal Box/Second Edition

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar, drums
Jah Wobble: bass, drums


Martin Atkins: drums
Richard Dudanski: drums
David Humphrey: drums

I bought this thing in 2000, threw it on the turntable, and went into involuntary spasms as my brain unpeeled in layers like a hot onion at the mercy of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel.

Released in 1979, Metal Box is a revelation. When critics lazily compare the “dance punk” bands of the 00s to PiL, this is the album they’re talking about. It’s a big, beautiful, sprawling mess. Jah Wobble really earns his keep here, although he’ll be gone by the next album. His massive, repetitive bass lines often get compared to dub, but they're somehow more than that. The only thing I can think of comparing Wobble’s bass to is the secret word that practitioners of Transcendental Meditation keep repeating in order drive away all rational thought.

Keith Levene, on the other hand, makes his guitar do things that guitars shouldn’t necessarily be allowed to do. He plays weird glassy arpeggios, seems to run it through a synth to create drones, and wrings robotic bird noises from it. Wobble never changes up his bass lines, and Levene never seems to play the same jagged noise squiggle twice: a simple one-two combo, but an effective one.

Lydon affects a very odd eunuch-with-bound-feet croon throughout a lot of the material here, with occaisional shifts into a sort of vitriolic narration/declamation. It’s absolutely gripping, and manages to string the whole thing together. A lot of bands pay lip service to making something, oh, alienated or what have you. This record really delivers, and manages to toe this weird line between dehumanized J.G. Ballard-esque post-apocalyptic ambience and (frankly) fun dance music—I didn’t even know they had a shared border.

Please note: This unphysiologically fucking impossible meisterwerk was originally released as a bunch of 45 rpm records in a metal film cannister and entitled Metal Box. Besides looking cool, the 45 rpm single format allowed for better bass response. Legend has it that Jah Wobble’s bass amps were pointed at a concrete wall and room mikes were placed about to pick up the ambient sound.

The prohibitively high packaging cost meant that Metal Box saw a limited edition release. A 33 rpm double album, containing the same songs, was later released as Second Edition.

Flowers of Romance

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar & stuff
Martin Atkins: drums

Sharing a name with the late Sid Vicious’ (and Keith Levene's) first, pre-Pistols band, Flowers of Romance came out in 1981, shortly after poor Sidney bought the farm. Jah Wobble splits from the group before this album was recorded, leaving a lot of empty space. Drummer Martin Atkins, who played on at least one of the Metal Box cuts, is mixed really loud on this record. He plays kind of like a drum machine, a sound that would prefigure his later work in Pigface and other vaguely shitty Industrial bands.

The rest of the album is filled out with samples, odd snatches of noise, and some very impressive banshee-with-nasal-congestion caterwauling by Lydon. There’s a vague Middle Eastern sound permeating some of the tracks, but the predominate feeling is that they wrote all this shit in the studio. In fact, I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. This album takes a lot of knocks for being under-composed or something, but it’s really one of my favorites. The band has been halved, but they decide to put something out anyway. Frankly, I’m glad a document of the band at that time exists.

Commercial Zone

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar and stuff
Martin Atkins: drums

At this point, band-aids, snot, and library paste are the only things holding the remainders of the first PiL lineup together. The band imploded before this album was even completed; in fact, it’s not even an official release. Keith Levene patched it together from studio tapes and released it in a limited edition. Some of the songs ended up on the next PiL album, albeit in different versions. As for the songs that didn’t, it’s just as well.

There’s a lot of mythology surrounding this album. Before hearing it myself, I’d built it up into the equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Smile, or maybe the lost chapters of Gogol’s Dead Souls. In reality, this gray market piece of PiL apocrypha is fairly dull and slightly crummy.

That being said, if you become a rabid PiL fan, there’s no way you can live without it. This is the last gasp of the old lineup. Have you ever been to the Natural History Museum, and seen a partially reconstructed Egyptian temple? You know, where the various chunks of temple are laid out, and the missing parts are filled in with cement or something? If you manage to find an original vinyl copy of this, treat yourself to a glass of champagne back at base camp, because you’ve unearthed the lost codex of a vanished people. Guard it for the enlightenment of future generations.

(Also, I’ve heard that you can get it on the internets. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there’s a rumor that you can “download music.” It’s probably just one of those rumors.)

Keith Levene splits from PiL and completely vanishes. Lydon retains Atkins and rebuilds the band with session hacks. This version of PiL doesn’t last long.

This is What You Want . . . This is What You Get

John Lydon
Martin Atkins: drums


Some Assholes: everything else

Three years have passed since the last official PiL release, and a lot has happened. Without Keith Levene acting as a tether, the PiL sound will now float all over the place like an out-of-control hot air balloon manned by really lucky blind retards. Any and all guitars are buried deep, but the ghost of Keith Levene still half-haunts the proceedings. Some of these songs can be found on Commercial Zone, but they’ve been polished and dressed in their Sunday best. Martin Atkins is still onboard, and the result is a kind of pre-Prince plus industrial pop sounding thing.

Gone now are the sprawling death dub epics, gone are the drum loops and out of tune violin ragas. Gone also is the adenoidal warble Lydon deployed on Metal Box and Flowers of Romance. The sing-shout he works out here is better suited to the new material, anyway. He’ll stick with this on the remainder of PiL releases.

It’s the 80s now, and the Lydon is making a big point of going commercial, or at least (ahem) “going commercial.” Lydon will work out this mass media obsession over the remainder of the PiL discography. And the track “This Is Not a Love Song” actually ends up being a minor hit of sorts, so there’s that. No previous PiL album sounds like this one, nor do any that follow; kind of a shame, really. This is a terrific release.

PiL was so far ahead of the curve in 1979 that they led the pack by about 1,000 lengths, but the Eighties sees the rest of the pack catching up with them. By the 1990s, they’d be surpassed. Still, not being ahead of the curve does not a bad band make, and PiL churned out a lot of top-shelf product before Lydon sent the band to the glue factory.

Since the personnel of PiL Mark II had been recruited from wedding bands, VFW halls, and leprosariums, the lineup was easily liquidated. Producer Bill Laswell is brought on board to sort things out.


John Lydon


Nicky Skopelitis: guitar
Steve Vai: guitar
Malachi Favors: bass
Jonas Hellborg: bass
Bill Laswell: bass
Ginger Baker: drums
Tony Williams: drums
Bernie Worrell: organ
Ryuichi Sakamoto: synth
Aiyb Dieng: chatan
Bernard Fowler: backing vocals
L. Shankar: violin

—and god help us—

Steve Turre: didjeridu

Bill Laswell fills PiL with his friends and cohorts; the results are weird. The Laswellized PiL is hard to take seriously, but it was 1986, so what the hell. Try to enjoy yourself.

Laswell’s crew creates a sort of hard-hitting, processed, shiny swirly thing. You can’t please all the people all the time, but they’re really trying for it here. The results? Fascinating in the way that, say, watching my friend Jake rollerblade around his apartment with a spinning circular saw in one hand and a small hatchet which he used as a can opener in the other while simultaneously singing a song over the phone to a friend was fascinating. Juggling dance music, pop, metal, and world music can’t be easy, and there’s only so long that PiL keeps all the balls in the air with this one.

There are a lot of good songs on this one, but it remains baffling. Steve Vai? Replacing Keith Levene with Steve Vai is like replacing Albert Ayler with Wynton Marsalis. Except that I like Steve Vai slightly better than Wynton Marsalis, that fucking putz. I’ve seen live footage of that band from around this time, and they play a couple tunes off First Edition as well as the olden Pistols chestnut “Bodies.” It doesn’t taste good.

This album contains “Rise,” which is probably the most famous PiL tune. It’s another zippy Lydon missive to a world that doesn’t understand his many-splendored complexities, but a good one.

Bill Laswell leaves and takes his little pals with him. I’m glad he split: by the end of Album I had a bad case of Laswellitis. Lydon manages to rebuild PiL with post-punkeroo John McGeoch, who played guitar in the mighty Magazine, and Lu Edmonds, who appeared on the Damned’s underrated Music For Pleasure album. This other guy, Alan Dias, is brought into the fold on bass.


John Lydon
Lu Edmonds: guitar
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass
Bruce Smith: drums

PiL gets the newspaper and brandy snifter and relaxes into a big, plush, leather evening chair to contemplate the sunset. This line up produces pleasant, unchallenging, mid-eighties tuneage. Imagine eating gumdrops that have been through a blender with a spoon, or something. Any given photo of Lydon’s stagewear around this time should give you some idea of the sound they were going for. Also, some guy from Art of Noise produced it.

Despite the formation of a new PiL sound, it's sonically, I don't know . . . typical. I guess that's all right. Way back when, PiL never practiced and seldom played live. This lineup got the shit toured out of it.

As you might imagine, the lyrics concern media, rules, hypocrites . . . all of the usual shopworn targets. Note that the album starts out with a frankly bizarre attack on the city of Seattle. Someone better versed in PiL history might know what that’s about, but I have no fucking clue. I guess he didn’t like Seattle much, and felt it was time to take a stand. Right on, brother.


John Lydon
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass
Bruce Smith: drums

It took them two years to come up with this piece of shit? Ha ha ha, just kidding. Sort of. It’s a piece of shit, but a qualified piece of shit. There’s a lot to enjoy here, although perhaps not in the way the band thought you might.

Speaking of you, you’re probably saying “Gee, Rick, why is this album called 9 when it’s only the seventh album, maybe the eighth if you count Commercial Zone, which doesn’t count? I’ll tell you why. PiL officially released two live albums that I’m not including in the primer. That’s a little something we here at The Little Black Egg like to call “Editorial License.”

9 has a delightful, 1989-vintage “adult contemporary” sound. It might not be easy for you to imagine Monsieur Lydon in an adult contemporary setting, but believe you me, this is the kind of music I’d put on to sip Chardonnay to whilst gazing down at a city of peasants from my glassed-in high-rise penthouse. Fuck you, you pathetic larvae. Squirm and die. That’s what I’d think to myself (if I were ever in a high rise with the Chardonnay, etc).

Come to think of it, I’m surprised at how often I listen to this album. Look at these guys! God . . .

This was the first PiL album I ever heard . . . I suppose I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time, having just been exposed to the Pistols. Needless to say, it was hard to believe the same guy made both albums. “Disappointed” is a great tune, but I’m disappointed in the rest of 'em. Ha ha ha!

That What Is Not

John Lydon
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass


Gregg "JP" Arreguin: guitar
Curt "Kirbee" Bisquera: drums
Tower of Power: horns (!!!)
Jimmie Wood: harmonica
Bonnie Sheridan: backing vocals
Julie Christensen: backing vocals

PiL Mark IV is now reduced to the Lydon/McGeoch/Dias axis. This thing came out in 1992, a year in which radio-friendly music was undergoing a sea change. This album is a confusing fucking mess with little in the way of good tunes at all—“Acid Drops” might be all right, but it’s hard to buy the sentiment at this point.

PiL collapsed under its own weight with this album. It’s easy to forgive for slipshod studio work, underwritten songs, shitty album artwork, and crummy production. They also haven’t broken any new ground. And if Lydon isn’t at least going to bring his remarkable charisma to the table, what’s left? This album has no shape, taste, or texture—to lift one from Gertrude Stein, “ . . . there is no there there.”

PiL dematerializes. John Lydon released one solo album, Pyscho’s Path, and has spent the bulk of his time making television appearances and sporadically touring with the surviving members of his first band, playing all the oldies but goldies. A lot of late-era PiL records languish in used bins these days like medical specimens in formaldahyde. Some PiL albums are better than others, but they’re all worth a listen. If nothing else, they're incredibly honest, even if it's just about shameless greed.

[A million thanks to the amazing Fodderstompf for some images, dates, and line-up info.]


Metapost: A Word From the Editor

Sorry for the staggered updates, Faithful Readers, but Sarah and I have been out and about for the past week or so. It’s my hope that I can get this blog running on a fairly regular publishing schedule. What this schedule is going to be, I dunno, but keep checking in.

I also urge you to check out the music websites I link to over there on the right. Those fine ladies and gentleman do music a great service.

Letters to the Editor
Since I don’t have any entries ready, let’s dip into the mailbag and see what’s come down the pike.

Writing from Chicago, Illinois, Amanda said:

I was eating dinner at either the Noho Star or Spring Street Natural with a group of friends once, and [Wallace Shawn] was there. He seemed like the best guy—acknowledging and seeming genuinely pleased by people's recognition, but not acting like a celebrity idiot. And people much less famous than he is are arrogant about their celebrity all the time. 

In short, a good man.

Wow! It’s always good to hear that your heros are nice folks. Please note that Garth also had a positive impression of Wally. Mr. Shawn, if you’re reading, and I’m sure you are, we here at The Little Black Egg would be delighted to interview you.

We also got a letter from Mike in Massachusetts. He had this to say:

Being exposed to actual Balkan brass band music, what do you think about the U.S. band Beirut, if you've heard them?

Unfortunately, we haven’t heard them, although various articles about the band make it sound like they’re a Balkan-influenced indie rock band. Weird to name your band after the capital of Lebanon then, but whatever. My guess is that they’re less exciting and have less emotional depth than your average brass band, and probably provide a less cathartic concert experience. However, if a Reader would like to provide The Little Black Egg with a track or two, we’re willing to change our completely ignorant assessment of the band.

From Oneonta, New York, Plankface writes:

FYI: that record store dude closed up his store without telling anyone and now works in a cheesy chain of some kind (i.e., FYE or some other corny store that sells CDs and videogames and DVDs and shit) at the Colonie Center Mall in Albany.

Oh no! For those of you Eggheads who haven’t been following our story, this record store dude is the “Paul Rieser-looking fella” mentioned here. I knew he closed his store, which was just as well since it was beginning to look less and less like a store and more and more like some metalhead hoarder’s disused basement. This is the guy who, after refusing to sell me No New York, tried to get me to buy an Accept album, as if that was some kind of acceptable substitute. I think the collective music store unconscious convened and voted “No Confidence” on this guy.

And finally, from Brooklyn, New York, Seth writes:

Rick, just wanted to make it official that I LOVE YOUR BLOG. It's even making me want to get my hands on some of this 'rock and roll' that I've heard so much about.

Thanks so much, Seth! The Little Black Egg loves to receive good timey missives like these.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Reader, if you like The Little Black Egg as much as Seth here, chances are your friends will as well. Do them a favor and direct them our address. And keep those letters coming!

The Little Black Egg—working hard to prepare each entry for your edification and amusement.


Wrath of the Elder

There was this record store not far from where I lived, owned by this Paul Rieser-looking fella with drugstore reading glasses hung around his neck with one off those . . . lanyards? One of those things that old ladies use to hang their glasses from. He used to let me into the storage room so I could paw through the unsorted vinyl. I was in there every week.

And then he got hip to eBay. I’m in the store, drooling as I watch the guy sell a pristine copy of No New York over the internet while he tells me he’s closing the store. I offer him $20 for it. He shakes his head.

“$30? Please?”

“No,” he says. I empty out my pockets.

“How about $34.72?”

“Look pal, I’m running a business here!”

With those nasal words from Record Store Guy, I realize that dark days had descended upon us all.

It’s just no fun to buy things over the internets. It’s fun to search for them with your hands in a cardboard box. I guess it’s this weird drive that made me obsessed with finding this one Kiss album, Music From the Elder.

Now, I fucking can’t stand Kiss. I like the idea of Kiss, and the Kiss Army, and all that crap, but the band is no good. I mean, I eventually bought a copy of Destroyer for a buck, and even that sucks.

The storied Kiss concept album, Music From the Elder, was brought to my attention by a good pal of mine. He said that Kiss had this concept album, and it was so bad that it caused Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to leave the band (true). There was some speculation that Kiss recalled this album much like the Ford Pinto was recalled.

Resolved to own a copy of this glorious flaming fiasco, I start looking through used bins. I probably could have gotten a copy on eBay for $0.12, but I’d resolved never to deal with eBay. So it took a few years to actually score a copy, which I finally did in Woodstock, New York.

Woodstock is basically a big outdoor wind chime mart. It’s a good place to get, say, a sculpture of a duck made out of wire, an overpriced burrito, or a Jim Morrison tapestry. It’s not a very good place to go record shopping. I was in the area to visit my friend Greg, who is Woodstock Harley Davidson’s official Chrome Consultant. I’m not shitting you. He has his own desk and everything.

Greg is also the world’s last True Believer (under the age of 30) in the power of Hard Rock. He pays his rock'n'roll dues in a hard rock cover band made up of 40-something cops plus Greg, and a power trio cover band made up of two normal people plus Greg. We spent the weekend hanging out, listening to Greg’s hard rockin’ music collection, and shooting the shit. In particular, I lamented at how Music From the Elder had eluded me for months. With steely resolve, I swore an oath that I’d acquire that record if it was the last thing I did.

“You should get one from eBay,” Greg said.

“I don’t do business with eBay,” I said. It would later turn out that, with those words, I'd painted myself into a corner.

Anyway, Greg and I were in Woodstock’s one used record store, run by a quiet, elderly, asshole scumbag who way overcharged for his records. He sat in the corner, this skinny little shit with his sweaty hands, glaring at the customers and gently passing gas. I hated his guts. I remember once seeing this old, beat-up sleeve for the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat in that store. I got all excited, it being my favorite Velvets album. How cool would it be to own an original pressing of White Light/White Heat, right? But my hopes were dashed when I saw the $50 price tag. That was a little out of my range. Fair enough, I thought, but what’s it doing sitting here in the same bin as the South Pacific Soundtrack and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass and all that? How curious.

I slid the record out for an examination. It was pristine . . . and pressed on 180 gram vinyl. It was a fucking reissue! That creep stuck a new record in a vintage sleeve! And charged $50 for it! Jesus, what a lousy trick. What did this guy do before he owned a record store? Snatch firstborn children and replace them with changelings?

So I was in that store, flipping through the records, muttering to myself. Then I saw it. Music From the Elder. My excitement was short-lived, though, because the goddamn thing cost $20. That was a good $19.75 more than I’d been hoping to pay for it, but after my steely oath I couldn’t back down.

It’s usually pretty hard to negotiate over the price of records. An overpriced record shop in Woodstock, NY is not a market in Istanbul, Turkey. And the Crypt Keeper manning the counter didn’t look like he was one for haggling. But I had to try.

“Is $20 the best price I can get for this?”

“That’s what the sticker says.”

“All right, but this is the worst Kiss record ever, if not the worst record of all time.”

The Crypt Keeper considered this for a moment.

“How much do you want to pay?” He said.

“I’ll give you five bucks.”

“Fifteen. I can do fifteen. It’s in good condition.”

“Every copy of this album is in good condition! No one listens to it more than once! Come on, man. Five bucks.”

“ . . . No. Nope.”

“Well, I’ll bet this record has sat in that bin for, like, five years. If it doesn’t go home with me today, it’s going to sit there for another five years. It’s not gonna go up in value, you know.”


So I began walking away.

“Ten!” He said, which was still way too much to pay, but I’d like to think I saved a little face.

On the way the Metro North station, we were talking about how bad the record would be.

“Greg, forget the fact that no one ever listens to this more than once. In fact, I’ll bet the needle never even got to the inner grooves!”

“Dude, you probably angered the Norse god of Rock buy purchasing that. I don’t think it’s meant to be heard by human ears anymore.”

“Look man, I’m just worried it’s going to make my other records bad simply by virtue of its proximity.”

Snow had begun to fall, and the roads were slick. By the time the train set off from the station I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the window. After about half an hour, the train came to a halt and the lights went out. It seems that pushing through the snow had drained the train’s batteries or some fucking thing, I don’t know, but it wasn’t moving.

Maybe I had angered some Norse god of Rock.

I regarded my recent purchase for the next three hours in the dark. It wasn’t clear if the titular Elder was a mystical being producing the music, or maybe an unfinished film that this was the soundtrack to.

Another train arrived and pushed our train very, very slowly to an Amtrak station. I waited another hour for an Amtrak train to come and take me, ever so slowly, back to the city, where the F train was shut down past Jay Street. It was still fucking snowing.

So I took a shuttle bus up 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and got off about two miles from my apartment. There was a foot of snow on the ground, and I was wearing polyester pants and canvas sneakers. A plastic shopping bag containing Music From the Elder dangled from the end of my arm, although I had to keep checking to see that it was still there. I couldn’t feel my fingers, or my toes. I remember reading that it wasn’t so bad if you lost toes to frostbite as long as you didn’t lose your big toe. That’s the one that helps you maintain your balance. Maybe this album was so bad that just by holding it in a plastic bag it was turning the rest of my life to shit.

Eight hours elapsed between my getting on the train and arriving, shivering and bedraggled, at the front door of my apartment. Sarah let me in. I kissed her and put the record on the turntable, made it through about three minutes, and then took it off. It wasn’t so bad it was good. It was just . . . tuneless and stupid.

“What the hell was that?” She asked.

“It's nothing,” I said. What else could I say? I guess I could have told her that it was the stuff that dreams are made of.

I took off my shoes and flopped down on the bed and put the pillows over my face. Jesus, I can’t believe I went through all that for a copy of Music From the Elder. It was like everything spun out of control, and reality got distorted. The same thing must have happened to Paul, Gene, and the boys. It’s funny how a silly idea can be buoyed up by absolutely no substance whatsoever.

YU Garage Lives

Sarah and I went to Serbia in 2005 to the Guca Golden Brass Festival. This is a week-long festival of Balkan brass band music, and was possibly the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life.

Anyway, we spent a lot of time hanging out with Sarah’s friend Nevena, and her friend Sasha, who as a real cool guy. Sasha was nice enough to fill two CDs full of Serbian music for me, including the Partibrejkers. They have to be the best garage band in the whole of the former Yugoslavia, and they just landed in my lap. Oh Fortuna.

The Partibrejkers have this grimy, uh, Pretty Things by way of Motley Crüe sound. The singer has a real scrappy delivery without a whole lot of pretense—he just belts it out. I have no idea what he’s saying, but he sounds really satisfied with how he’s saying it. Kind of like he knows that he’s doing a good job, and you know he’s doing a good job, so he’s not gonna work too hard to impress you.

According to the Partibrejkers website, they formed in 1982 and are still kicking around today, albeit with a different rhythm section. I keep hoping that I’ll be in the same place at the same time as these guys so I can catch their show.

Although I’ll probably look like a fucking idiot if I do, yelling “Yeah! Yeah! Yeeaaahh!”


Danger is My Beer: Learning Nothing About Jazz

All right, Eggheads, gather ‘round my crystal ball and peer through the misty veils of time, back to when I was a skinny, unhappy, nervous asshole who was getting bored with his music collection. In the back of my head, I had this vague idea I’d learn about jazz. See, I'd fallen in love with a girl who happened to be a jazz musician.

If you don’t have the correct exposure to jazz, it’s pretty easy to hate. Unknown forces make sure that only the shittiest jazz music makes it onto the airwaves for mass consumption. There are shadowy white guys with clean gums and short hair and blue shirts who spend their days in an office behind a door with a frosted glass window. On this window the word “Control” is carefully painted. Their sole objective is to ensure that mediocrity reigns supreme.

Using little more than soybean extract, xantham gum, monosodium glutamate, a pound of garden slugs, a peacock brain, and electricity, these Listerine-breathed meddlers created Wynton Marsalis in a laboratory at midnight. They covertly financed the career of Herbie Mann, establishing a flute jazz junta that blandly spread over the airwaves like a gentle case of ringworm. They broke into the Ken Burns’ editing room, held a gun to the back of his head, and said “Hey! Nice job on the jazz documentary, shithead! Now take your little x-acto knife and cut Albert Ayler and Don Cherry the fuck outta this thing.” Ever walk into, say, a Starbucks, and there’s something jazzy on the speakers? Those soothing totalitaritones you hear are the lullabyes of Control. Sounds innocent enought, but in reality Control is throwing you up against a car and slapping the Pat Metheny braincuffs on you.

The cheap jazz selection was limited around my neck of the woods, making it difficult to find the longed-for genuine article. Instead, there was a lot of Al Jarreau, which I didn’t buy, as well as flagrantly terrible bullshit, with sleeves featuring stuff like a guy with oily hair playing a white piano, the sleeves of his blazer rolled up, against a background of neon tubing, which I also didn’t buy. Like any tight-fisted, dollar bin grazing record collector, I was hoping to happen across, you know, something that would blow my mind, but I didn’t. No one ever sells the really good stuff. You’re not gonna come across a copy of, say, Ornette Coleman’s This is Our Music in a used record bin unless its owner died without a will.

However I did come across this:

The Reverend Fred Lane, From the One That Cut You. I don’t know if you can call it jazz. All right, you can’t, but stick with me. The point is that this record had a great cover, and the songs had names like “Fun in the Funduss,” “I Talk to My Haircut,” and “Danger is My Beer.”

In fact, there was a small, crudely-written note included in the cover artwork. It said:

I hope the pain is through. This is the one that cut you.

Fuear sounds like the kind of guy I usually have the misfortune to sit next to on any given bus ride lasting more than three hours. According to legend, the note was found, by one of the band members, wrapped around a butcher knife and stashed in a truck.

Fred Lane’s album also had this going for it—it got released on Shimmy Disc. Home to the early Boredoms, Daniel Johnston, Ween, and other noted musical fuckups, Shimmy Disc was a cool label. I’ll buy anything that gets put on certain labels, ya know?

Anyway, back to our story. I paid the three dollars, and five minutes later I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, peering at the record sleeve. There were a lot of personnel on the record, with names like Motor Hobson, Doc “Bob” Cashion, Bill the Kid Dap, Whitey Stencil, E. Baxter Put, Shep Estrus, Cyd Cherise, Dick Foote, and Ron ‘Pate. In fact, the record was billed as being released by Rev. Fred Lane backed by Ron ‘Pate’s Debonaires.

The paper sleeve featured fake covers for some thirty-odd fake records. Such as Fred Lane Sings Some of Your Fried Fish, and a record with a beachy Brian Wilson-looking fella staring contemplatively out at the viewer, entitled Get Outta My Gal.

There was a fake press release, Xeroxed on yellow paper, included with the record. The press release led one to believe that a Rev Fred Lane stage show existed. It was hard to tell. There was even a parody recording of the recording method used—it seems that the record was recorded at 93º Zagreb, for full Bolophonic Sound. The packaging for this album had more marginalia than the Talmud, is what I’m saying. It was exciting before even before I tossed it on the turntable.

From the above, you might think that Rev. Fred Lane would be more aligned with the Zappa/Beefheart nexus than he actually is, which is not at all. The record sounds like a bizarre fusion of Jackie Gleason’s Velvet Brass, novelty music, and vaudeville. The garagey instrumental “Danger is My Beer” inspired my friend Matty to emblazon the back of his jacket with a pictogram of a guy hitting his head on a pint glass, accompanied by the caption Danger is My Beer. It was hilarious-looking. Matty has since sent this jacket packing to a Goodwill somewhere in Boston, so should you be in Boston, and see some scrungy punkeroo wearing it, take a picture for me, all right?

Despite the fact that Fred Lane didn’t teach me anything about jazz, I hit upon an amazing plan: I would reverse-engineer my jazz knowledge. Starting from stuff that wasn't really jazz, I'd work backwards step by step, until I arrived at John Coltrane's Love Supreme.

It didn’t work, though. I had to do something else.


Hey, it's The Fever

Speaking of stuff that I've missed, Wallace Shawn, one of America's greatest playwrights, is staging his play The Fever in NYC right now.

Wallace Shawn is famous for the following:

1. Being that guy who says "inconceivable!" a lot in The Princess Bride
2. Being the guy who isn't Andre in My Dinner With Andre
3. Playing Annie Hall's nebbich lover previous to Woody Allen in Annie Hall. Woody says "Him? That little homunculous?"
4. Writing The Fever and other great works of American theater

I first saw this play by accident, when I was a mere fifteen years old. One guy, talking to an audience of about ten people, for two hours. I guess this was in 1995. I really hadn't thought much about anything. And while it's corny to say that something, you know, changed my life, this did. With all the gravitas that implies.

So if you're in New York, do yourself a favor and go see it. Garth has a write up of it over at his place.

Don't live in New York? You can go here and listen to The Fever.

There's another Wallace Shawn play I like even more, The Designated Mourner, which you can listen to here.

Sarah and I going abroad for a couple of days. I've been working on a post about 1940s radio drama, so stay tuned.


Jang Jang Jang: the A Frames

Hey, you like scientists and robots and molecules and plastic surgery and surveillance cameras and stuff like that, right? Right. Well, so do the A Frames.

A coworker at my old job turned onto these guys a few years ago. She said “If you like the Fall, you’ll probably like the A Frames. They sound just like Fall when they were good.”

And while I hate to say, you know, “The A Frames sound like the Fall during the good old days,” but they sort of do. Both bands have this out-of-tune, rhythmic, garagey kind of thing going on. Also, something like 2/3 of the A Frames used to be called Bend Sinister (named after the seminal 1986 Fall masterpiece), and released their stuff on Dragnet Records (named after the seminal 1979 Fall masterpiece).

However, it's just an influence—it isn’t, like, slavish Count 5 ripping off the Yardbirds-style imitation. The two bands are drastically different. The A Frames have their own particular sound and own particular lyrical concerns. Besides, who in their right mind doesn’t like the Fall? Even deaf people like the Fall! Unless they’re boring, illiterate deaf people.

The A Frames have three albums—A Frames, the imaginatively-titled A Frames 2, and Black Forest. All adhere to the patented A Frames Formula, which can be described thusly:

1.) Weirdly tuned, choppy guitar.
2.) Distorted bass played with a pick
3.) Robotic, clattering, polka-like drums
4.) A singer with really precise enunciation. It sounds like “arf arf arf arf arf-arf-arf”
5.) Somewhere underneath it all, good time sing-along melodies.

This clanky, mid-tempo steam train racket functions as a conveyance for the A Frames’ hilarious, semi-paranoid lyrical matter. Song titles include “Black Forest,” “Memoranda,” “Transgenic,” “333333333,” and the amazing archaeology stomper “Flies,” about a uniformed guy reading cuniform in the fertile crescent. That’s right, in a uniform, reading cuniform. Far out.

I waited for this band to play New York for years, but in interviews they claimed that their jobs would not allow them to tour. Bereft of hope, a single tear welling in my eye, I moved to another country. And then they played New York. Shit. They also undertook a European tour, but no bands ever come this far east, unless the only crowds that will pay to see them are out here. I’m looking at you, Toto and Whitesnake.

My profound sadness lasted until I cast my mind back to the summer of 2005, when Sarah and I traveled by rail from Germany to Serbia. We were the only passengers on a small, rickety train that was going through the countryside, passing by these tiny little villages. I waved to the townspeople as though I were a foreign dignitary while listening to Black Forest on my headphones.

The train was going “jud jud jud jud jud” and the music was going “jang jang jang jang jang” and the singer was going “arf arf arf arf arf,” and I was waving grandly, everyone was waving back, and the sun was shining. Not a lot of bands provide a good soundtrack for the listener to pretend to be a foreign dignitary to while traveling by rail through Eastern Europe. So if that kind of thing appeals to you, then you should check ‘em out.


Making Me Feel Like I’ve Never Been Born

Now, there’s a whole lotta writing about the Beatles, everyone knows the story, everyone has a favorite Beatle. If you don’t know who your favorite Beatle is, you probably also don’t know people shit their pants when they die.

There’s this Beatles joke I want to tell you—

Phil Spector is trying to complete Let It Be, but the lads from Liverpool are on the outs. He gathers them together in the studio and says:

Listen fellas, I know you got problems, but think of the music! You guys are the Beatles, for chrissakes! Four distinct personalities combining to make the perfect pop group!

“Paul . . . you’re the
voice and the face of the Beatles, you know? Without your charisma, the group would still be stuck hacking out Twist And Shout six times a night to bored Krauts in Hamburg. Instead, you guys are the Number One act in all of rock’n’roll!

“George . . . listen George, you make your guitar gently weep. You’re the
sound of the Beatles. No one sounds like you—you’re a true original. No one thought of taking Eastern instruments and making rock music with them. Guitar, sitar . . . you’re a unique and influential force in modern music.

“John . . . you’re the
heart, the very soul of the Beatles. A bona fide rock’n’roll poet. You’re passion and intelligence elevates these songs into the realm of the sublime. Yoko’s right—you’re truly an Artist in every sense of the word.

“Ringo . . . you’re the drummer.

Like many people, my favorite Beatle was John. His output tapered off at the end there, but man! Wonderful tunes.

As we all know, being in the Beatles began chafing John’s ass. A lot of his latter-day songs got pretty, well, famously negative. You know, “Yer Blues,” “Another Day in the Life,” stuff like that. But I always thought the most negative Lennon song was “She Said She Said.”

The first lines of the song are:

She said ‘I know what it’s like to be dead
‘I know what it’s is to be sad’
and she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born

Whoa! Pretty heavy, no?

According to legend, the song’s genesis lies in a brief interaction between Lennon and Peter Fonda. They were at a party, on acid, and a glassy-eyed Fonda turned to Lennon and casually mentioned “Hey, I know what it’s like to be dead.”

My first question is: was he telling the truth, or just trying to freak out a Beatle?

My second question is: Was this trip the influence for Easy Rider’s LSD premonition scene in the New Orleans mausoleum? You now, when Dennis Hopper is talking to the statue, and then there’s this tricky montage, and Peter Fonda forsees his own death?

I’ve been to that mausoleum, and the statue Hopper talks to is missing its head. According to the mausoleum people, who are still angered by the incident, Dennis Hopper stole it. Personally, I think it’s far more likely that some random hooligans took it, but I like to imagine Dennis Hopper displaying the head in his Hollywood home, or cradling it in his arms when feeling blue.

My third question is: What did Gentle George Harrison think of this song? He adds this cool spray of paisley guitar squiggle, which does a call and response with Lennon’s vocal, and I just can’t imagine—I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t have deep-seated hippie objections to the subject matter. “This song is a sad trip, man. It’s shrinking my ego,” or something. He’d be right. “She Said She Said” will shrink your ego into a bitter black jellybean of fear unless the proper precautions are taken.

All questions aside, it’s probably the most overlooked song on Revolver, but Revolver is a pretty fucking good album, so all right. I listened to the album hundreds of times before I noticed it.

Once Lennon started with his solo stuff, it was all primal screaming and dippy, insincere, sanctimonious bullshit like “Imagine.” Emotionally, 1970–1980 were John Lennon’s fat Elvis years. For whatever it’s worth, I love fat Elvis, but you know . . . honesty does count for something.