Saturday, January 29, 2011

Record Store Reflections

When I first moved to Washington, DC in the early seventies, Saturday mornings involved a regular shopping trip on foot before the crowds arrived from the suburbs. First was the Georgetown Coffee Tea and Spice, then Meenahan’s Hardware and finally Orpheus Records on M Street. That was last so there was time to linger, to leaf through plastic covered albums and listen. Orpheus was actually more concert hall than record store, two stories of open space with exposed brick walls and an oak floor. The speakers were mounted high on the walls and I can’t remember whether they were Klipsch or JBL or something else, but they were good.  In fact the acoustic effects were what the Who had in mind when they coined the term Quadrophenia.  They were so good I often took visitors to experience the music much as I would want them to experience the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial.

Of course the exquisite sound was also a  problem because, more often than not, whenever I asked, “What’s playing now?”  I ended up walking out of the store with that under my arm.  And it may explain why my music collection outgrew my bookshelves and required construction of a special rack.

I think this memory was prompted by news of the imminent demise of Borders Books and Records.  Our neighborhood store is still open but over the past year I have watched their music and video department shrink from hundreds of square feet down to a token few shelves.  The other day I looked up to see that a furniture store had replaced what was once our local Tower Records outlet.

While these antiseptic chain stores would never measure up to the music store standards set by Nick Hornby (and John Cusack) in High Fidelity, at least they offered a place to spend some peaceful hours thumbing through the cases, looking for deals or trying some new group the kids are listening to.  It’s the same serendipitous discovery process that I still enjoy at the library,  bookstore or wine store.
(I was pleased to see that one of my old haunts, Karma Records, is still in business in central Indiana.)

As for Orpheus, it moved to Arlington to cheaper digs and Rick Carlisle kept it going in a smaller shop until it succumbed to internet competition in May 2009.  I stopped by for its final, final sale (its “going out of business” sale lasted a year) and picked up a Johnny Cash album from the Sun collection that included “Teenage Queen” and a Bobby Bare collection so I can listen to “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life)” whenver I feel a need.

Speaking of surviving, here is a link from my old friend Benner about Arhoolie Records in the Bay Area.

For now, visit your local record store soon and while you are at it, buy a newspaper.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Dream Question

This is the question every music fan dreams of hearing:

“Would  you like to come hear our concert?”

The story of how my daughter heard that music to her ears seems worth telling. Returning to Scotland from DC last week, she struck up a conversation with her seatmate on the plane to London who was a radio producer (and musician) from West Virginia . He was traveling with 18 others to the Celtic Connections Music Festival in Glasgow. (1500 Artists, 300 Events 18 Days 14 Venues 1 Brilliant Festival: )
She offered some tips on where to find the best pubs, best fish and chips, etc.  He asked if she knew about the town named Phillippi in WVA, the site of the first land battle of the Civil War. She said she had been there and had a t-shirt with the covered bridge on it.

Several days and several emails later, he casually popped the question, adding why don’t you come early and spend some time backstage! By then she had established the group was from the Mountain Stage radio program ( which broadcasts weekly over a syndicate of radio stations. Her new best friend was Michael Lipton, who sings and plays electric guitar in the Mountain Stage band and they were in Glasgow to perform live and tape it for broadcast April 1.
So for a couple of hours she hung out with the good ole boys who have been playing together for 25 years, got a free meal ticket from the host Larry Groce, listened to jam sessions  and was offered some moonshine the guys brought from home in a Mason Jar.

Then she got to watch a fabulous show from backstage at the Royal Concert Hall as Tim O’Brien, Dougie MacLean and Joy Kills Sorrow performed.  The headliner was Mavis Staples with guitarist Rich Holmstrom.  Jessica described Mavis as a combination of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, with a rich and sassy voice.  Her only disappointment was that when Mavis rocked out, the staid Scots didn’t get up to dance.

Other than that, as we used to say in high school, a good time was had by all.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hey Hey We're The Monkees

While playing some oldies the other night I came across Bob Rafaelson’s name as co-producer of The Monkees’ television series. Although their hits remain a staple of classic rock radio, it still seems to be a guilty pleasure to admit liking The Monkees for their music and their television series (which won an Emmy for best comedy in 1967).

Their music was good because it was written by Brill Building superstars, including Carole King and Gerry Goffin (brought to the project by Music Supervisor Don Kirshner). Of course Mike Nesmith was a major musical talent waiting to be discovered.

The TV shows (and movie, Head) were fun to watch because they were produced by Hollywood’s new superstars of the late 1960s.  I recognized Rafaelson’s name for his directing of Five Easy Pieces. His co-producer, Bert Schneider was not familiar.  It turns out they were partners in a production company and Schneider was a producer/executive producer on such famous films as The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider, and Days of Heaven.  His 1974 Vietnam film, Hearts and Minds won  the Oscar for best documentary. A new DVD compilation, American Lost and Found: The BBS Story,  released last year includes most of the films that Bert and Bob made along with other members of their troupe, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Ellen Burstyn.

Those films seem to echo the line from The Monkees theme: “We’re the new generation and we’ve got something to say.”

So the next time you want some easy listening to sixties nostalgia, Take the Last Train to Clarksville and do have a Pleasant Valley Sunday.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hot Stuff: The Book

The book arrived with a note from the friend who sent it, “Who would have thought Disco was the defining cultural expression and experience in 70’s America? Where was I ? Not under the glitterball, apparently."  Neither was I.

But I have to admit that Alice Echols makes a very convincing case in her new book, HOT STUFF Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (W.W. Norton 2010).

A former disco dee jay at the Rubyiat in Ann Arbor and now a professor of America studies and history at Rutgers, her prose is often often encumbered with academic wordiness but her research is exhaustive (61 pages of footnotes, 30 pages of indexes and a playlist). She also has a real affection for all kinds of music and a knack for seeing the connections between artists and their influences.

She starts her saga with the Supremes (“I Hear A Symphony”), James Brown and Isaac Hayes  and traces it through the gay disco scene and into female superstars like Labelle, Chaka Kahn and Donna Summer. While there is more detail on New York clubs than I ever wanted to know(“…the Sanctuary, a club whose scandalousness earned it an appearance in the psychological thriller, Klute…”) and the psycho-sexual theorizing can get tedious at times, there are some terriffic stories.

One is how the Village People were conceived by Jaques Morali and sold to Casablanca Records as a concept before  he managed to put together a group. Morali was “a gay Frenchmen and Eurodisco producer…first introduced to disco in the early seventies through a hairdresser who worked for Cher and Elizabeth Taylor.” They became second only to Kiss in Casablanca’s music empire. Who knew a gay macho burlesque group would create a song that we sing out loud in unison at every major sporting event, weddings and sock hops?

The second great story is the making of Saturday Night Fever. Based on a New York magazine story (that the author admitted later he made up) bought by music mogul Robert Stigwood it was shot on a shoe string budget at the Odyssey in Brooklyn (the $15,000 lighted dance floor added for the movie was the biggest expense outside actors’ salaries).  Fever had songs from The Bee Gees that the cast did not hear until three weeks into filming. Again the rest is pretty amazing history: Fever grossed $300 million worldwide, the soundtrack  dominated the charts for six months and sold 30 million copies, the largest selling album of all time until "Thriller."

Ms. Echols opens her first chapter with this line: “Disco snuck up on America like a covert operation.”  Her book did that to me, overcoming my scepticism about a pop phenomenon with the real story of the music behind it. She concludes in part with this:
“Pop music is full of unlikely turnabouts, but surely disco’s history—its shift from hot to safe music—is among the strangest.”

RIP: Don Kirshner

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Revisiting "Heaven's Gate"

In 1980 we were checking into a Best Western in Kalispell, MT when the cast from Heaven's Gate got off the bus and wandered through the lobby. I guess that's the reason I have always had a soft spot for Michael Cimino's magnificent flop. I watched it again recently just to see if it deserved the firestorm of bad reviews it got.  While it was not that bad, it is still a series of episodes (some of them beautiful and some of them powerful with some great performances) in search of a story. While I can't really recommend watching it (unless you treat it like a miniseries and watch it in segments), it was fun to see Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges and Sam Watterston when they were young.  And you can see the stylistic influences on many western films since then, especially the HBO series Deadwood.  Nobody did gritty or dusty (or gun battles) as well as Cimino except Sam Peckinpah.
Despite some impossibly muddy soundtrack problems (at times it seemed like the horses were miked instead of the actors), the music is quite good, especially the kid who played the fiddle while roller skating.  My reward for sitting through the movie was this gem from the credits:
The Heaven's Gate Band included T Bone Burnett

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy Holidays

If you have been wondering why The Beach Boys had such a major hit with their Christmas album, it may be because they recorded it with a 40 piece symphony orchestra. Their first time ever with such a large studio group of musicians.  That may explain why "Little Saint Nick" has had such radio airplay over the years.