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When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.

But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.

James Carr – Dark End of the Street

James Carr died in January 2001. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare. His career had all but dried up. He was 58 years old, and living in a nursing home, battling lung cancer.

The sin here is that Carr was unknown. Never have I heard a voice that could gallop with such precision one moment, and slip into the shaking fears the next remaining absolutely convincing the whole time. Carr had soul dribbling out of his little pinkie finger. But mostly it leaked out of his heart, and up into his head, and he did his best to share it with the rest of the world.

If Kate Jacobs has learned one thing, it’s patience. Her latest release, Home Game (Small Pond Records), is her fifth full-length and comes seven years after her previous effort, 2004’s You Call That Dark. In that span she’s taken time off from recording and touring to raise a family while continuing to write the same vividly drawn narratives within perfect pop melodies that she’s been writing for years. On Home Game Jacobs reflects on “life among backpacks and lunches (who ever thought about LUNCH so much),” marriage, divorce, children, Ireland, the internet and the park. I spoke with the singer-songwriter from her home in Hoboken, NJ.

 

Morrissey++Siouxsie

The 1994 collaboration between Morrissey and Siouxsie—a cover of the love song “Interlude” by Timi Yoru—did not lead to a second Big Bang the way it should have. The universe didn’t turn inside out and collapse in on itself in a chugging and churning seizure of morbid irony. This should have happened but it didn’t. Do you even remember that the two singers ever recorded together? Nope, you don’t.

Rock of Ages

By Gloria Harrison

Notes

I’m three years old. My parents call me outside one day and point at the sky, from which water is falling onto the hard, dirt-packed floor of the Mojave. I can’t imagine where this water is coming from, but it’s everywhere, making the air smell like wet earth. I’m amazed. Later, I’m playing outside, digging earthworms out of the dirt with a spoon, when I spot the biggest earthworm I’ve ever seen. I’m thunderstruck with joy, but as I try to approach, my dog and my best friend, a cockapoo named Gnome, jumps in front of the worm, barking like he’s crazy. I keep approaching when, suddenly, the giant worm lashes out and bites Gnome, who yelps and falls to the ground. The worm rattles off. I run inside to get my mom, to tell her that a worm just bit the dog. She gets to him just in time to take him to the vet and save his life, as he has just done mine. My mom holds me on her lap and we sing my favorite song. “Say, say little playmate – come out and play with me. We’ll climb up my apple tree.” I think about how I wish I had an apple tree with rainbow slides and branches brimming with playmates.

1971: In Kindergarten, you participate in a “talent show” where you and Brian Clark lip-synch to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and the Beach Boy’s version of “Sloop John B.” You remember wondering at the time how much talent it takes to do such a thing, but somehow, you come in first. You also remember finding the words to “Joy to the World” ridiculous. Why would anyone have a bullfrog named Jeremiah who was “a very good friend of mine”? And how could that possibly relate to the world’s joy? Also, in thinking about “Sloop John B,” you, later that night, (after lip-synching to the line, “I threw up all of my grits”) ask your mother what grits are.

She tells you they’re something southern people eat.

“Yes,” you say, “but what are they?”

“They are a food,” she says. “A southern food.”

This is Part II of a post where I place the blame squarely on songwriters for screwing up their songs. See Part I here.

“I’ll work for your Love”-Bruce Springsteen

80% of all rock fans think the Boss is one of the all-time greats, putting him up there with John, Paul, Joni and Holy Bob. The other 20% look at the 80% and wonder what they’re thinking. We over here in the Other 20 don’t get it, folks.

For me, Springsteen’s voice does his songs a disservice. It always strikes me as over-earnest (and as I’ve written before, not liking the singer’s voice is pretty much akin to not liking the song). His singing reminds me of a soap opera star, torn T-shirt, struggling against some evil force, over-emphasizing each heavy breath.

“That’s not what it says.”

I stop singing. A moment of confusion. I’ve never questioned the lyrics to this song. They’re as burned into my head as my name across the back of my childhood belt.

“It says this,” and she gives me her take on the lyrics.

And guess what? Her lyrics actually make sense. And it isn’t until then I realize that my lyrics make no sense at all. It’s a little embarrassing; as a writer and songwriter, I’m supposed to pay attention to these things. I’m supposed to care.

But I don’t.

I first discovered the Reverend Al Green’s rich, tenor voice where many others of my generation did: the Tiki lounge scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Half a lifetime later, the brassy intro to “Let’s Stay Together” brings me to the sparsely populated bar where Marcellus Wallace does business. In the interim years I have used Green’s 1972 classic album Let’s Stay Together to set the right mood at a party, unwind after a night at the bars and separate young women from their clothes. It’s never failed me in any of these endeavors.

Utility aside, Stay Together is a classic of 1970s soul. It seamlessly straddles two subgenres, uniting the ‘60s and the ‘70s. First, Memphis soul: The harder-edged sounds of the ‘60s synonymous with Stax Records.  Memphis was on the wane in 1972, increasingly eclipsed by the funk of soul stalwarts like James Brown and younger upstarts like Parliament. Second, Philly soul: The ascendant smooth sounds that would dominate the ‘70s before morphing into quiet storm and adult urban contemporary.

“Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.”

-Chuck Klosterman

Okay. So. Part III.

One rule I set out for myself on my quest to vindicate Cobain from the evil clutches of Klosterman: I will not use the “you had to be there” argument to justify any of my feelings for Nevermind. Yes, much of the greatness of Nevermind lies in its social context, and especially its relationship to music that came before it like The Youngbloods, Aerosmith, Husker Du and so many more. But there is enough musical greatness within its contents not to need to resort to arguments relating to Nevermind’s “subversive effect on mainstream culture.” This is not a post about culture. It’s a reassessment of a great album 20 years later to see–with all of that other stuff out of the way–how great it really is, especially in relation to Appetite for Destruction, which I examined at length in Part II.

When the first song ended, I began to clap and suffered sharp rebuke at the hands of a middle-aged woman one row behind and two seats to my left.

“Shh!”

Clapping is what you do when a song ends.  I wasn’t the only one who screwed up.  How was I supposed to know?  Orchestra Hall–or its audience, rather–sat in silence for the next 45 minutes.

I felt like I was meeting an old boyfriend for coffee. I was nervous.  I was already under-dressed in shorts, a tank top, and flip flops.  Why couldn’t I have at least worn heels?  I should have worn the floral print dress.  It’s Orchestra Hall, for godssakes.

“Yeah, it’s Orchestra Hall,” my husband had reasoned soundly one hour prior as I tugged at the hem of my shorts in the mirror, “but you’re not going to see the orchestra.”

True enough.

Tommy Stinson, former bass player of the Replacements and also Axl Rose’s bass player-for-hire, once told reporters that Axl Rose is much easier to work with than Replacements’ lead singer Paul Westerberg, to which Westerberg’s responded, “Wouldn’t Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell?”

I’m reminded of this dig whenever I see more evidence of what’s becoming a decade-long trend in rock lit to laud Axl Rose at the expense of Kurt Cobain.

Two of my favs, Steve Almond and Chuck Klosterman, are guilty of this charge.

The Supergroup.  That mythical entity that carries such soaring expectations that it is remarkable that any of the bands ever make it into the studio.  It’s like the Honors Society kid who letters in three sports, dates a cheerleader, and is a top flight boxer- how can he fail, right?  Until it’s ten years later and the sheriff is tucking the eviction notice into the pocket of his work shirt while he’s passed out on the trailer floor with a needle in his arm.

What’s a Supergroup?  A gaggle of well-known musicians from different bands (and often different genres) who come together to form a new musical entity.

Just like the Honors kids, Supergroups start out with great pedigrees, lots of breaks, and doors swinging widely before them, but that doesn’t always mean that these advantages translate into something memorable.  But when they do click it can be one of the most exciting spectacles in music.

Supergroups are the embodiment of our musical fantasies come true.  “What if?” becomes reality.  This is the stuff that even casual music fans stop to ponder.  Die hard musos can come to blows over them.  Somewhere in the world right now, there is an intense, late night, cocaine-fueled debate raging about the ultimate Supergroup.

It’s hot here in Seattle. A scorcher. So my friend Lester decided to have a pool party. Does he have a pool? Of course not. He has a hose. With a special nozzle. Everyone was assigned a job. Potato salad, tongs, thongs, booze. I was asked to bring the music. Normally, I hate this request. Not because I don’t like picking tunes. I do. It’s just that, no matter what, someone is always pissed. You play Steely Dan? Too obvious, too boring. You don’t play Steely Dan? You’re an elitist ass. The night before, Lester called me up.

“Yeah, I don’t think so, man.”

“What? Why not?”

“I dunno. It’s too divisive. Everyone gets pissed when I don’t bring my Indigo Girls remixes.”

He laughed. I’ve been collecting vinyl since I was 15. It’s one of the reasons my friends tolerate me.

In the film The Big Lebowski, John Turturro plays a character named Jesus Quintana. Jesus is a competitive bowler, and a pederast, and he has no problem whatsoever with his self-esteem. It’s impossible for me to think of this movie without thinking of this character.

The irony of this is that “The Jesus” is only in the movie for a few minutes. He’s in a scene early on, and a scene towards the end, and that’s about it. Yet he steals the show.