Black Flag’s April 1986 show at SUNY Albany, held about 30 minutes from my suburb of Niskayuna, New York, changed my life. The very instant singer Henry Rollins ignited – a human heat-seeking missile in shiny black track shorts – the crowd detonated, and any separation between fan & band, spectator & participant vaporized instantly.
I came curious, a bit compelled — 4 sweat-soaked hours later I left a life-long convert. In the years that followed, I’ve reflected on that show quite a bit. I’ve come to realize that what I saw then — before my eyes & in my very soul — was nothing less than the permanent melting of any barrier separating art from one’s own actual life.
This year, after the brutal interregnum of the plague years, live music came roaring back with the exhilarating bellow of a fire finally breaking up through a cold chimney; time & time again I felt the hot rushing updraft of the spirit that is live music’s promise & gift.
Shows by TSOL, the Exploited, Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, 7 Seconds all opened wormholes in space/time where I legit felt I could send a fleeting signal back to my teen self — a message that all that magic was all still happening, and was as rad & right today, right now, as it was way back when…
Comfort To Me, last year’s record by Amyl and the Sniffers, was my favorite punk album in decades; live I’ll just point out that at 1/20th the mass, Amy Taylor’s energy equals, and may actually surpass, that of Henry Rollins’; must be the shiny track shorts…
I welcomed the opportunity to celebrate Stereolab’s 30 years of Cusinart cut-ups of krautrock, lounge, ye-ye, surf, garage, 60s pop & Marxist fiber; and to salute La Femme for their Euro-millennial, joyfully sybaritic take on the same shiz… As I’m equally inclined towards labor theory & urbane decadence I’m equally delighted to shimmy to either.
Seeing Wet Leg live completely dispelled my initial allergic reaction to them as a novelty act. Fierce, quirky, utterly singular and endearing, playing to a jam-packed house, it was like watching a rocket launching. Metric left their launchpad a long time ago, ever-hurtling towards the stars & stadiums, riding a decent new record and an absolutely stellar light show. Meanwhile, I had completely lost the trajectory of the Joy Formidable, who’s early records I really dug. I went to go see them on whim with a pal and they knocked my noggin’. Led by a Welsh pixie with the vibe of an endearing, precocious Jane Austen heroine crossed with Kim Gordon, sporting an arsenal of sizzling guitar leads & squalls – in a year of sky-scraping shows, theirs may have been the most shredding.
Three other reflections on live music’s power: over the past year or so I started attending shows with my daughters, mostly as an enthusiastic chaperone. Sleigh Bells was slightly different in that I was always a bit intrigued by their electro-clash metal-dance mashup. Let them stand in, then, for all the moments I watched variations of the same energy I felt at that Black Flag show wash over my own girls. Variations of the same energy I still feel, just as powerfully decades later, like when my beloved Morrissey emerged on stage and, again — legit literally — swelled my very soul; or… when the Ukrainian quartet Dakha Brakha gathered the collective energy of the entire audience, many wrecked & keening for our homeland, and transubstantiated it into a force that could fortify – fortify individuals & peoples, here, there, everywhere, forever… and ninety nine red balloons go by….
Flyer Shawn Kerri; Common Objects poster Ed Ruscha & Walter Hoops; Sometimes in My Nightmares textile art Toni Brogan; The Roses of Heliogabalus Lawrence Alma-Tadema; donate directly to Ukraine at u24.gov.ua
The model and muse Pat Cleveland, challenged to explain why fashion (so frivolous! so repressive!) mattered, answered:
People hang on to fashion as it were the breath of life because it takes you into a world that protects you from the evils of boredom and loneliness and ugliness…. it lets you recognize beauty. And as long as you recognize beauty, you can have it in your life.
The musings of a model… it’s so easy to be cavalier and look past its implications. But a moment’s reflection will remind you that boredom, loneliness, and ugliness stretch eternally from the bedroom of the alienated kid to the killing fields. Thus reminded, you realize what Cleveland is saying is that simply being able to recognize beauty can make and save your life.
Cleveland’s quote is never far from my mind, especially nowadays, and I thought of it instantly when I heard that Dave Hickey – my favorite art & cultural critic – had died.
Because if Hickey showed us anything, across all his work and writing, it was that that art (or really beauty) is as plentiful and free as air. And like air (or really oxygen) it is both a nourishment and a fuel. And what it can fuel, quite literally if we care to tap it, is each and every one of us, alone and together; Hickey believed that art could fuel nothing less than a clean-burning, convivial, sustainable, self-replenishing democracy.
This wasn’t wooly aesthetic utopianism – to Hickey it was plain empirical fact. The boon and bane of being self-aware animals is that our beings require two types of sustenance, one for our bodies, the other for our minds. We live on bread and roses.
However, the quality of nourishment matters enormously – dirty fuel can make us run hot but will inevitably, over time, wear us down and out. The crudest fuels, like their terrestrial counterparts, spring from deep in our animal past – fear, tribal solidarity, worship. But, as we evolve another energy emerges — culture. Culture, as Brian Eno memorably defined it, as everything we do that sheer survival doesn’t require. This was, and remains, the lasting human miracle — our ability to self-generate interlocking, intersecting, interdependent federations of affinity.
It’s why Hickey riffed so much on small scale mercantilism – when he talked about “art” he really meant anything that could be appreciated and exchanged. And when he talked abut “beauty” he meant anything that moved and grooved you; You knew it when you saw it, it stimulated you and it formed a loose, joyous bond — for a moment or a lifetime — between you and any other single human who shared that groove.
Hickey therefore believed our happiest communal configuration was the marketplace, the gallery, the festival, the concert, the suk, or bazaar. In these sites of easy-going exchange and transmission curiosity can encourage among us what obligation or morality might sternly demand. What results is a stable, aerated, sloshy and unruly freedom for and amongst folk – a democracy.
But culture, as a vivifying fuel, is both potent and fragile. And, more crucially and fatefully, it is a direct and lethal threat to all the other modes of human motivation. Because free flowing culture and exchange dissolves and neutralizes our other major propellents: fear, tribal solidarity, worship.
It’s why, from the vantage point of the boot or the lectern, culture must be always be mediated, subjugated, tamed. The academy shrouds it in mystification; revolutionaries harness it to the movement; clerics denounce it as a false idol; reactionaries press it into propaganda… Mediated culture is always either a con or an expression of oppressive power – often both. These enduring, awful energies share a common ethos — to free us from freeing ourselves.
This, then, is where the Las Vegas princelings Siegfried & Roy burst be-sequined into the picture (or Waylon Jennings, or custom car culture, or, or…) and why Dave Hickey insisted they mattered. It shows how much we’ve adopted the framing of mediated culture that in death Hickey has been mostly presented as a caustic intellectual provocateur with some wacky low-brow tastes. Those above the common fray could cluck along knowingly as he shoved these preening Teutonic popinjays and their slinky white tigers back at the obscurantist priesthood of high culture.
Fuck that. Seriously – fuck that. Sigfried & Roy matter because they make certain people as deliriously happy as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jesus. And celebrating that, depending on your vantage point, is either an existential threat or the saving grace of our species…
Because to admit Siegfried & Roy into the palace of beauty and truth is to admit that grace and happiness are where we find them. That everybody’s got a thing and that is the beginning of our commonalities, not the end. That we will come into our own not by purification but by miscegenation. That we will find our best selves not by sniffing out the slightest bit of heresy but by honoring the merest flicker of common affinity.
Throughout his wild life Hickey undertook this fight with lusty joy and unflagging verve. However, towards the end we know Hickey grew despondent and depressed. The furnace of our current conflicts grows ever hungrier and demands a vast and ongoing subjugation of culture to feed it.1 Conscripted into tribes we recede more and more from direct, unruly contact with one another. Our ability to freely eat, dance, and fuck across our ingrown and proscribed borders becomes harder and harder. As walled gardens, moated citadels, and hermetic bubbles rise, thicken and harden all we hear in our heads is the beating of the drums. It’s all a giant fucking bummer, and Dave Hickey died feeling pretty fucking bummed out.
I sympathize. And it’s hard, really hard, not to buckle, subsumed and surrounded by this wasteful moronic inferno — but I will remain forever hopeful because I once had a vision of another possible future in, of course, Dave Hickey’s beloved city of Las Vegas.
Fremont Street is a covered open air promenade that houses the casinos and parlors of “Old Vegas.” Along its length a constant churning river of people flows in and out, around street performers, vendors, hucksters, entertainers. It is the very living model of a bazaar, of endlessly intertwining desires, appetites, talents & gifts.
I was parked underneath the gyrating caryatids atop the Coyote Ugly bar and began to take in the crowd. Spreading out in every direction was the single most organically diverse crowd I had ever encountered. To attempt a descriptive cataloging would be to instantly diminish the nearly psychedelic impact of human variety on display.
At the very end of the street was a stage on which a band was playing. The band was a Voltron robot of American mass-cult tastes – a hunky cowboy, a sexy belter, a toasting rapper, a goateed hipster, a scraggly hesher, etc… Everyone could sing and everyone could play and as they made their way through America’s pop culture songbook the band would reconfigure accordingly. And as each song cast its particular spell receptive segments of the crowd would begin to woop and shimmy while the rest amiably continued their rambles and their revelry… the vibe as groovy and genial as you could ever hope for.
Then, the sexy belter announced that they had one more song left – a really special song. “Do you like Journey?” she belted. The crowd returned a rolling roar of affirmation, enthusiastic but hardly electric. Sensing the need to take it all up a few notches she belted again — “Do you guys believe? Do you? Do you? Don’t! Don’t stop! Don’t. Stop. Belivin!!!”
And on cue the grand opening bars of the song unfurled, the band swung into it, and the whole crowd, seemingly each and every soul, together, boarded the the midnight train, together, going it didn’t matter to where, goin’ anywhere. And this mass, this disparate mass bloomed into a common moment, singing, dancing, bellowing in unison – strangers all, up and down the boulevard, among the streetlights, people, living… just to find emotion, somewhere… somewhere in the night…
I wept then, and I’m on the verge of weeping again just recalling this moment of pure total human communion. Because left to our selves we can be magic, just for a moment, just for 4 minutes or so. Which is just enough to save us. We could agree on one big, essential yet insignificant thing and feel rapture on earth, born aloft on nothing more than the fusion of loose human affinity. When the song passed so did the moment and people sifted back into their swirling groups with a glow verging on the post-coital.
Look — there will always be shit to do. There will be death and want, and riding along gleefully, there will be assholes trying to feed us their dirty fuel. But fortified by good cheer and good company mountains will move. It’s a beautiful feeling, happiness. Don’t stop believing.
Goodbye and thank you Dave Hickey.
1 This is why it’s so important to totally refuse conscription in the culture wars. To say, like Hickey, NO – Not even a little. Nope. Because it’s more than a bad strategy – it’s the anti-life equation itself.
It’s naive to ignore that in traditional war & conflict, once enjoined, culture plays a central role. It’s drafted, along with every other available resource, into the cause. What’s ultimately catastrophic is purposefully transforming violent conflict into cultural conflict. We toyed dangerously with this during the Cold War and are now fully sinking into it domestically and across the globe – the “weaponization” of culture itself as a direct proxy for combat and jockeying for power.
Because again, culture withers under conscription and captivity. In traditional wars this was collateral damage. When culture war is the war the psychic damage is primary… we’re literally driving ourselves mad.
This doesn’t mean the abandonment of politics and engagement. In fact, being able to draw on the genuine sustenance of culture and beauty can fortify us for the necessary fights for a just world. But if we burn up culture to fuel our politics, what exactly are we fighting for? What will be left? We need bread AND roses to flourish (This question is explored stirringly in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant and necessary new book Orwell’s Roses.)
My nearest and long-suffering dearest know the pinnacle of esteem to which I hold the boundless talents of Ivan Doroschuk and his band of hatless men – so I was delighted when the boundlessly talented Angel Olson elected to take the Safety Dance out on a foggy meandering night drive earlier this year… Foggy meanderings reliably drive me to distraction so I was an easy mark for the purring, prolix Ruski ramblings of Tema Kresta, who I hope never stop talking. I could ramble on about bliss-riding Martial Canterel’s liquid arpeggios but instead I’ll point out the cat is from Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland. A fact which, when you catch his arch, plummy, Euro-Transylvanian vocal inflections, should delight you as much as it does me, every time.
Felicitous appreciations to Baron Arch Plum himself, Bryan Ferry CBE, for taking time off from riding to hounds and presenting a splendid evening of rocksy music back in ’19, commemorated on this year’s excellent live LP. This year’s Arch Plum Award for meritorious service to the Perpetual Order of Glam Rock goes to Art d’Ecco, loyal queen’s servant of Victoria, British Columbia. And the Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers Award for the year’s best obscure, reissued discovery is presented to The Revelons — early CBGB’s scenesters who originally named themselves The Ramblondes, only to realize that they had unwittingly combined the Ramones and Blondie. Heh — which is exactly what they sound like, if you spike this already potent cocktail with a squeeze of Television. Imbibe!
Yearly, it seems, witchy women materialize from the ether and cast their witchy electric spells upon me, and I spend the year mesmerically groovin’ to their electric witch spells… You may well remember the late 60’s Dutch psych act Shocking Blue from their oft covered smash hit Venus, or their more obscure Love Buzz, covered by the rather less obscure Nirvana. For me it was all about rediscovering the stomping eldritch energies of Long and Lonesome Road – when I listen I imagine riveting singer Mariska Veres leading a motley army of electric witchy women like some cross between Stevie Nicks and Marianne in the Delacroix painting leading her people. In the first rank of this advancing coven we would surely find Jess of the the Finnish occult rock behemoth Jess & the Ancient Ones, whose organ drenched spooks held me helpless in their thrall. Hovering above, swathed in a shimmery elven mist, we find Mary Timony, transmuting swirling celestial energies into adamantine rock.
And, to complete this fantastic tableau — like dystopian warriors from a late 80’s low-budget VHS, the wiry, weathered, blasted Live Skull and Thalia Zedek stumbled from the rubble of club-land to play the year’s best show. Zedek in particular was astonishing — unfussy adamantine rock played with remarkable virtuosity and passion, absolutely fucking riveting, a total left field surprise, and fucking necessary. Bravo.
Du Blonde released the years best record, Homecoming. More than that, it stands as a perfect model of the form in every aspect. Each song interesting in its own way, each distinct in its vibe, and each a pleasure note for note. Exquisitely sequenced, each side judiciously composed. Masterful, controlled and yet wild-eyed and raw. Art direction – aces. A supreme feat of DIY, Beth Jeans Houghton produced, designed, played, released it all herself. Packed it in a box in her mother’s flat and sent it to each buyer with a note. And stickers. Total time 32 minutes long — perfection. Third astonishing record in a row — time to name a star or asteroid or some other celestial feature after this one…
…just not a meteor or a comet. Because that honor goes to Amy Taylor, the flaming ball of cracking energy behind Amyl and the Sniffers, who’s Comfort To Me is my favorite hardcore punk record since 2010’s OFF! EPs. Cause here’s the thing with hardcore, for me, because of how deep seated it is in me, down in my soul — at its best it’s not only the most profoundly exhilarating music I know but also the most soul-nourishing… OFF! moved me because it proved that hardcore’s elemental energy can still be accessed even, or especially, when we get old-ish… something I never took for granted. Amyl gladdens my heart because it proves that hardcore’s elemental energies will persist into tomorrow. Comfort To Me is the most profoundly zoomer record I’ve ever connected to — and the wisest. It’s a body slam and a body hug stretched across decades among misfits bending the world to their requirements and saving their own souls. The kids. Alright, alright, alright.
Comrades! THBBFT! BLARGH! ACK! Let the iridescent green dripping type and the hot magenta Friday the 13th titling of 2020’s For Your Pleasure stand in for adding even more word-things to the flaming pile of exasperated execration of this year’s collective dumpster fire.
Apparently quite late to the I Like Trains parade, I immediately fell into line 10 seconds into “A Steady Hand”, the lead track from this year’s Kompromat. Sometimes I groove spasmodically while lead singer David Martin seemingly channels the full sizzling charge of our current dystopia, and sometimes he reminds me of Peter Cook fronting Drimble Wedge and the Vegetations and I just swoon. See, look — swoon……
TOBACCO’s melted cover of Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” is the musical equivalent of American cheese – a guilty but irredeemably synthetic pleasure directly out of its original cellophane wrapper, yet sublime when melted at high heat. Fucking yummy.
Riki’s “Napoleon” has been lodged at #1 atop my daily Dinner Cookin’ Tube Rippin’ Hot Hot Hot Singles Chart since February. The whole record is a killer – the work of Bay Area musician Niff Nawor; a little poking around led back to her earlier band, the deathrock & hardcore hybrid Crimson Scarlet – an exhilarating revelation in two overgrown and often moribund genres.
Remember that part when Gandalf, after exhorting our shredded heroes to “Look to my coming, at first light, on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the East,” shows up atop that crest bathed in glowing magical light? That’s how I greeted Joe Banks’ sweeping history of the mighty Hawkwind: Days of the Underground (see more, with more unwieldy and over-egged metaphors, below) Besides being more fun to read than a barrel full of psychedelic monkeys, it led to fresh re-appraisals of singer/poet Robert Calvert (far more than a quirk, Calvert was a lost talent of significant gifts) and stranger-than-fictional discoveries like “Starcruiser” – a Roxy Music-esque collaboration with legendary sci-fi author Michael Moorcock. Joy, joy, joy in every note & blurt. (And joy, simple joy is one of the most endearing aspects of the book – because for all the general insanity, mental breakdowns, breaks ups, busts and the usual rock malarkey these big-hearted bohos had a fucking blast together…. with scarcely a bad word to say about one another, bound together by an overall bonhomie that I found infectious and most welcome)
The opposite holds for Maggot Heart’s Linnea Olsson and Lucifer’s Johanna Sadonis. Once blood sisters in the short-lived but almighty Oath, they fell out utterly, mysteriously, and permanently. Olsson is a feral Cuisinart, chopping and swirling bits of Siouxsie, early Pixies, and Christian Death in with the usual metallic soffritto. Abrasive yet bracing. Sadonis is an altogether kitschier, plunging & flying V, leather tasseled affair — equal parts Sabbath and Stevie Nicks. Being good and good for a laugh is no small thing these days.
Essex Greener Sasha Bell’s solo records are few and considerably far between (Your humble servant had a hand in releasing the last one, under the bullseye name Finishing School in 2003.) I missed last years release of Love is Alright and was delighted to catch-up — there’s an foxy, aristocratic burr to Bell’s voice that I’ve been besotted with for decades – imagine, if you will, Katherine Hepburn fronting a paisley soft-psych band. I do, and I dig!
A couple times a year I make a concerted effort to crack open canonical rock classics that have proven impenetrable or unappealing. Often I trudge away unconverted – sorry Nebraska, later Rumors, get thee behind me Queen – but this year I finally yielded to Steely Dan. Too many smart people kept on and on about how fucking smart this shit really was – high art and merry pranksterism flying under AM radio camouflage, etc… and although I still get the gas face from my skeptical wife when she comes home and I’m vibing on “Rikki,” I for one have finally had a change of heart, and when I’m in the mood for something shiny and smooth, I don’t wanna call nobody else. I wanna call the Dan.
In a year when ecstatic communion with like-minded folk at live shows was sucked into the void, I give thanks for our never-fading captain Robert Pollard. For me Guided By Voices fanhood is a sustaining & nourishing joy. Even though I lost the bead on the river of releases years ago, remaining part of a fervent, active fan community sweetens my soul. And this year’s single release of “She Wants to Know,” was, for us fans, nothing less than a legit miracle – a stomping remake of a beloved song from the long-disowned debut 1986 EP (apparently due to sterile sound and excessive REM sound-a-like-ism, according to Pollard.) When this tune was deployed live in the back half of ’19 people went. fucking. bonkers. Just when we needed it most, we can do the same in our living rooms, air jamming and high-kicking, until once again the clubs are open!
So, I turned 50 this year, which inspired no small bit of solipsistic navel gazing. I was 16 in ’86 when punk changed my life forever. Two books came along this year that managed to capture the some of the novel exhilaration of that time and scene: Texas is the Reason: The Mavericks of Lone Star Punk, by Pat Blashill (which may be, along with We Got Power!, the best photographic distillation of what it all felt like then,) and Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters (who came up in the same Albany, NY hardcore scene as I did).
Along the way McPheeters makes an observation that bowled me over with its retrospective clarity: “Not many people realize the power and rarity of a self generated, self reliant network – many people involved in 80s hardcore describe it as the most positive experience of their lives.” He’s totally right – so much of what I value in myself, and in life, was seared into me in those salad days – an everlasting personal, cultural and political rewiring, and a channel forever open to the power of art to shape & sustain a life. So it seemed like a gift from the uncanny when Jack Grisham & TSOL dropped a one-off cover of Rocky Horror’s “Sweet Transvestite” this year, featuring Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks & OFF!. Two artists I’ve loved for nearly 35 years covering a song I’ve adored for just as long; still pals, still making tunes, and at the peak of their powers. Joy joy joy.
As part of my Golden Jubilee celebrations I subjected two willing dear pals to a 3 hour and 45 minute mix of tunes covering my entire rock & roll life, starting in around 1980 when I taped Ozzy’s “Mr. Crowley” by pressing my dad’s mono cassette recorder up to a GE Superadio II. I leave you with just one selection – again, from Rocky Horror — “Science Fiction Double Feature” — my personal “Waterloo Sunset,” to my ears and mind the most beautiful song in the English language. Joy.
Fittingly, science fiction provides the best analogy for the experience of reading Days of the Underground, Joe Banks’ rollicking and magisterial history of the mighty Hawkwind…. the classic scene of the crashed, half buried space-ship, lights humming to life, and, as jarring seismic shocks begin to emanate, the firmament splits, cracks, boils and steams — then, after a shudder, an epic enormity slowly begins to rise, its true span and heft finally revealed, and as hunks of earth tumble down its surface, it finally rips free of its tethers and blazes off into the starry void of space. Legitimately legit like that! It’s a total joy — from tip to tail. If you think you adore Hawkwind now, wait ’til you read this book.
Also, the book provides a scrupulous accounting of their sprawling and unwieldy discography. As I read along, it was clear that these songs weren’t out-takes or otherwise surplus to requirements and over time the descriptions began to form a complete shadow discography…. Weirdly, they cumulatively reminded me of the outlines in 3D comics – the main studio albums being the blue outline and this run of songs, the pink. And together they vibrate and pop. Dunno – Something like that. But utterly compelling. So as soon as I finished the book I put together a comp of the alternate tracks scattered amongst the major releases. Together they make for an absolutely killer listen. Download the comp here.
Last year I had the distinct pleasure of making these collages for the interior of HomeMakers Bar in Cincinnati. Each collage spotlights a different era – 50’s, 60’s, 70s, playfully subverting the traditional iconography of homemaking, cocktail culture, and swank entertaining. In the words of their inspired founders Julia Petiprin, Catherine Manabat, HomeMakers Bar is “a slightly retro, mostly modern cocktail bar that feels like a house party.” While I can only admire the delightful food and drink offerings virtually, I can say that the space and decor is a showstopper. It is, I think, hard to pull of something fresh in a “retro” mode and HomeMakers Bar has clearly emerged as a singular creative and culinary statement that easily transcends its original inspirations. (More interior images can be found on the portfolio page, here.)
PLAGUE UPDATE: With considerable trepidation, I checked in on HomeMakers Bar recently and was ecstatic to see that they are rising to the moment with their signature verve and flair – sharing recipes, hosting cocktail hours, workshops, hangs, and general bonhomie. If you can support them in any way, do. Fucking bravo!
The year in boss tuneage began with a magical gift of the uncanny – Chris Connolly’s Bowie channelling collective Sons of the Silent Age full-dress live rendering of Scary Monsters and Super Creeps at the Metro in Chicago…. an album Bowie himself never toured. Amazing! — the searing opener “It’s No Game” with the Japanese verses live, while Connelly, in full sci-fi Pierrot makeup, screaming while a guy who looked like Martin Freeman dressed like Robert Fripp played the shredding Robert Fripp leads. I bought Scary Monsters when I was a kid and this song, especially, was, I’m certain, the weirdest piece of music I had ever heard and it stuck the weird in me deep, a weird which has never left me. I’ve loved it to pieces ever since.
Let me be measured here in my praise — Mary Timony has cast off her earthly bonds and risen Phoenix-like as the flame-winged incarnation of radness itself. Her accomplice in raditude, Betsy Wright, serves as the royal ambassadrix of Rock & Roll to the entire, ever-expanding, universe. Together in Ex Hex, their new record has given me more pure unalloyed rock pleasure than anything in years. It shreds, it rips, It’s Real. The record of the year doing donuts in the parking lot behind the mall of your teenage dreams.
Let “A Shot at Love” by VR SEX, from this years’ re-issue of an out of print cassette EP, Horseplay, stand in for the new VR SEX EP, Human Traffic Jam, as well as the terrific new Drab Majesty record Modern Mirror. All these are snaky tendrils and foggy manifestations of Andrew Clinco, finally having achieved escape velocity from mere gothy, synth-punk revivalism into a glorious trajectory of his own. Rushing over from seeing Bryan Ferry that same night, the killer live set Drab Majesty delivered was a revelation — a Saturnalia of weirdness packed to the gills with weird kids weirding all over each other.
Two 80’s hardcore titans delivered mind-blowing, and distinctly definitive, live shows. Flipper, with a feral David Yow on vocals, conjured the vibe of a classic DIY basement show – a reminder that before they became a thing shows like this were motley, random, shambolic, wet, sloppy, scattered, immediate, joyful, confrontational, and above all – super fucking weird. Speaking of which, it’s worth remembering just how super fucking weird the Misfits were back in the 80’s. Because for all of his subsequent goofiness and cult popularity, Glenn Danzig was as much a foundational hardcore pioneer as Henry Rollins, Ian Ian Mackaye or HR. It’s why their recent sellout of Madison Square Garden and stadium show at the Wells Fargo Center here in Philly was felt like such a triumph — because the weirdest band of all the hardcore weirdos took it all the way to the top of the heap (and because for all the preposterous Liberace robo-demon costumes and flaming pumpkins onstage, as song followed song it became clear that Glenn Danzig might not have written a single bad one) Hearing a stadium full of humans bellow “There’s some kinda love, and there’s some kinda hate. The maggots in the eye of love won’t copulate” in ecstatic union suggests there may be hope for the species after all.
2014’s Welcome Back to Milk by Du Blonde began began as a nervous breakdown, exploded like an estrogen fueled roman candle, and was my favorite record that year. Waited, bated, and finally Beth Jeans Houghton issued another beautifully rendered sizzler, Lung Bread for Daddy, but this time she did everything herself. This record is so primitive, so primal that it reminds me less of other musical references than of, of all things, the lone wolf artist Joseph Beuys, wrapped in his grey thick felt sculpting sublime forms out of raw animal fat. Primitive like that. Weird like that. Art like that.
Mittageisen (named after the German version of Siouxsie’s “Metal Postcard”) belongs to a quirky subset of now beloved records that I bought, unheard and unknown, solely on the basis of the record cover. This one flashed its weird in all the right ways and delightfully delivered — moody, Swiss cold wave soundscapes of intense instrumental impact.
There’s a limit to how many rock and roll basket cases you can healthily adopt, and I’m constitutionally resistant to the skeezy charms of heroin junkie pirate types… let someone else feed the memory of Johnny Thunders, or genuflect before Keith Richards’ skank-ass skull ring, blah blah… but I happened to hear this, second recent record by the Only One’s Peter Perrett and I gotta say, pretty charming skeez from this legendary heroin junkie pirate.
Another archival score this year was discovering Boys Next Door, Nick Cave’s disowned, or at least disparaged embryonic stage of the Birthday Party. I get it I guess, from his Olympian vantage its nervy scribblings must seem oh-so-conventional… but the weird was there from the beginning. Hearing the band playing their way out from under post-punk and new wave forms, almost literally song by song, arriving by the end of the record at “Shivers,” — the first acknowledged Birthday Party classic — is thrilling. No such anxious complications get in the way of Shellac’s meticulous vinyl re-issue of their Peel/BBC sessions. Now comfortably settled into a beloved institution for the converted, the initial four song session from 1994 is a stunning reminder of their live-wire novelty.
Ladytron become one of my favorite bands largely during their absence so their return to active service was a cause for celebration down our way, where this reunion record was played repeatedly at loud volume, occasioning appreciative gestures, head nodding, rhythmic tapping of nearby objects in time to the various fat beats of its excellent grooves… also, many additional groovy moods throughout this year were accompanied by the bleeps, blips & bloopy pleasures of Xeno & Oaklander.
“it was the late ’80s…. Everything that was popular then in Los Angeles was starting to irritate the shit out of me. I was getting really bummed. Stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening and I was like, ‘I fucking hate them so much, I have to write the anti-Red Hot Chili Peppers songs’” Goodbye Kim Shattuck, thank you Muffs.
DOWNLOAD THE COMP HERE.
The pulpit beneath a carved depiction of the daily ecstasy and rapture of Mary Magdalene, The Basilica of St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • the pulls of a small organ in the same Basilica • a standard roadside boulangerie, the A52 at Roquevaire, Aix-en-Provence • Some opulence in the Palace of Versailles • some unruly triffids spilling out in the 7th arrondissement • a mannequin on the Rue de la Fontaine au Roi • I spy you up there, above the frieze, amidst yet more opulence in the Palace of Versailles • Welcome to the opulence of the Palace of Versailles! • a folio at Les Puces • Dior Barbie • A horn of plenty amidst the opulence of the Palace of Versailles • An antique pair amongst antiques, St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence • Caryatids by Pierre Lescot in the Louvre • Marianne above the Place de la République
All the two headed dogs, bloody hammers, blieb alien uncreators, the wind and more were lurid carousels for our delight; they also drew off the heat and fevers from his sazzled soul. And his exquisite love songs are the tributes he paid to rock & roll for making his demons dance.
I think thinking about the physics of sadness can tell us something about the person we’re sad about, especially when we don’t know them personally. Like when Bowie died it felt like a celestial object had imploded and vanished. That feels about right. I was in the record store earlier this evening when I found out Roky died. As I took it in, I swear it felt for all the world like he physically left my body. For me Roky lived inside, wound deep and flowering in and around the bright, hot-house things and love, utter, primal, starry eyed love, the kind of love that when you see it, it’ll free you, like magic.
(bottom photo: Roky @ Underground Arts, Philadelphia on September 12th, 2017 / sitting in utter serenity like a psychedelic Totoro amidst a cyclone of sizzlin’ fuzz)
Recently I was staying in a country house in Arkville, New York, nestled in the western Catskill mountains. The house was furnished in fine, spare retail-modernist Design-Within-Reach style and, as a seemingly grand accent, featured a stately grand piano. Lovely. Easy enough to take for granted. However, my brother-in-law, a gifted musician and programmer, sensitive to things like instruments, systems and the built environment, was naturally drawn to inspect this rather grand grand piano a bit more closely. What he discovered was nothing less than an astonishment – grafted throughout the body of this Steinway piano was a massive electrical, analog, mechanical self-playing (or “reproducing”) mechanism. Just exploring the machine, with no understanding or appreciation for its functions, was incredible in itself. Exquisite construction, the combination of engineering, instrumentation and carpentry. It was also profoundly otherworldly, like actually discovering some marooned technology from an alternate steampunk version of our reality. For real.
Reading about it later only deepened my fascination. The excerpts below, taken from two restoration companies, give a sense of the breathtaking ingenuity of these devices. Consider they debuted in 1914, only a few years after commercial electricity itself…
For anyone with even a glimmer of interest I highly recommend fully going down the rabbit hole on this technology – following the technological details of how these functioned, and how the rolls were recorded – all of it. Gobsmacking.
The Reproducing Player Grand Piano was the most technologically advanced form of home entertainment during the early 20th Century. Designed to reproduce a live performance, these instruments could mimic every nuance of a real pianist, giving the illusion of a true live performance in real time. These instruments would have cost as much as $3,500+ new in the 1920s, the cost of a small house. The ultimate home entertainment system of the Gatsby age, these rare pianos were built in small numbers and are quite rare today.
The Steinway & Sons Duo-Art player consists of over 8,200 moving parts… as in all standard reproducing pianos, an electric suction pump powers the playing mechanism and supplies a sufficient level of suction for the maximum loudness needed by the piano. Proprietary dynamic control devices reduce this suction level in various sophisticated ways so that a wide variety of dynamic effects is possible.
A perforated music roll passes over a tracker bar, which has holes in it connected via many small tubes to the individual note mechanisms of the instrument. At the left-hand edge of the music roll (and also at the right-hand, which is not shown), there are four special perforation positions which do not operate notes…the four dynamic coding perforations on the roll can be combined, allowing for sixteen degrees of dynamic control.
Duo-Art used a real-time perforator to produce an original roll as the artist played. Dynamics were not recorded automatically but were created on the roll as the artist played, by two dials and their associated mechanisms, controlled by the recording producer, who sat to the left and slightly behind the pianist.
Under the keys of the recording piano was a series of electrical contacts which ran through a cable to a separate room, where the rather noisy perforating machine was housed.
Once an Aeolian Duo-Art information original roll had been perforated, the roll was then copied to a much longer stencil roll, on thicker paper, which was then used to produce several copies for editing purposes, known as trials… Lastly, the final trial was approved and signed by the pianist, and became a pattern, to be used as a proofing copy in the manufacture of the roll for commercial sale.
To be great, to be a man of genius, to be famous, to be much loved and much hated; to be much praised and much dispraised; to have a passion for creation and passion for women; to be descended from one of the oldest French families; to be abnormal and inhuman; to have sardonic humor and intense presence of mind; to adore nights more than days—to adore and to detest immensely; to squander much of one’s substance in riotous living, to have a terribly direct eye and as direct a force of hand; to be capable of painting certain things which have never yet existed for us on the canvas; to be angry with his material, as his brutal instincts seize hold on him; these, chosen at random, are certain of the distinguishing qualities of Lautrec.
There was a moment, live, as the first half of “Jubilee Street” was rounding the bend that the music suddenly lurched, as if unexpectedly struck with a great force. The band rumbled, then just — detonated; Nick Cave stood, stock still, seemingly absorbing the full force of the blast behind him. Then — he cracked, lengthwise, like a thunderclap. “LOOK AT ME NOW / I’M TRANSFORMING, I’M VIBRATING, I’M GLOWING / LOOK AT ME NOW.” For the rest of the night Nick Cave kept scraping the clouds.
Remember the way the locks, switches and gizmos worked in Aeon Flux? Inscrutable components, switches, and dials would click, whirr, latch, and trip in improbable combinations until the lock gave way, blossoming open like a mechanical flower. Belbury Poly’s groovy puzzle-box collage instrumentals worked on me the same way – BBC library grooves, spooky Hammer film soundtrack flourishes, tinkling harpsichord, hazy bits of stoned dialog, click, whirr, clank, trip, click, release, besotted. High Church of Geek ambient.
Dunno ’bout you but my theory is that Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Album is, in fact, the latest in the series of mysterious dark Monoliths left scattered across the universe by forgotten extraterrestrials lost forever to the hazy mists of galactic time.
Musically, Philadelphia is generally pretty lush, but surf-wise it’s a parched, horizon blurring desert. It was fortuitous then, that live, California’s La Luz were short a keyboardist, because guitarist Shana Cleveland just flat tore up — shredding, barreling, spraying gnarly surf leads all over every tune. A mirage on fire, a mirage dressed in fetching matching sailor suits, on fire, to be precise. It was awesome. On the Bandcamp page for this year’s Floating Features, one “Ingwit” sought to congratulate La Luz “for somehow managing to take the heat shimmer on a long stretch of summer blacktop and press it onto vinyl.” I’m with Ingwit – well put, and well done ladies. \shaka/
My enthusiasm for Liz Phair used to run from the beginning of the song “Supernova” to the end, peaking with “Your kisses are as wicked as an F-16. And you fuck like a volcano, and you’re everything to me.” Maximum hella romantic! “Stratford-on-guy” randomly unspooled one afternoon from the depths of my electric phone and I was totally mesmerized. What a weird, gorgeous fever dream. I immediately played it a few more times in a row, hungry for its hypnotic incantations. “It took an hour, maybe a day. But once I really listened the noise just fell away.” Nice then, that this little epiphany coincided with this years’ 30th anniversary of Exile in Guyville releases. I guess I’m finally far enough from Guyville to dig the exile.
The recently revivified Chills have been a deeply welcome gift these past few years. On his new record Snowbound, Martin Phillips finally leaves behind his legendary cache of demos and sketches he’s mined for nearly four decades. The new, freshly written songs are largely a collective atonement – grappling and reconciling with years of travails, addiction, sundered relationships and shredded dreams. “Complex,” while rooted in those themes, utterly transcends them, emerging as one of best songs in an already storied songbook. A giant tune, a world in miniature, a new wave roller-coster inside a snow globe. Literally literally.
It took a while, but I finally fully grok and groove the jittery, grimy white heat rhythms of mid 70s New York City punk and their sonic cousins in likeminded boroughs. Human Switchboard’s Who’s Landing In My Hanger LP was a crate-digging score based on a recollected shard of a positive review from an old Trouser Press record guide. What a blast! NYC by way of Cleveland like the Dead Boys, it’s all glorious fan-fic takes on Deborah Harry and Lou Reed stylings, Modern Lovers primitivism and Television’s ramshackle ambition.
The first fang is is for all the rad bell-bottomed boogie bands led by badass lasses this year: Lucifer, Death Valley Girls, Ruby the Hatchet – non of whom, however, could match the bite of fang two – Betsy Wright. Wright took a break from being Mary Timony’s swashbuckling wing-woman in Ex Hex to grand marshal the 28 minute hesher parade that is the Bat Fangs LP. One of their t-shirts depicts a screaming bat with three yellow eyes, ears pointed like spikes, surrounded by concentric bands of melting neon. Every song on this record sounds just like that bat looks. Live — goodness gracious — Wright is a sneering, kicking, grinning, soloing, guitar-pointing total fucking rock monster. She also has a supremely boss collection of catsuits, boy’s small-town athletic shirts, and vintage metal T’s. Between the chops and the flair Wright might be the foxiest performer I have ever seen on stage, ever. When we need someone to represent *rock-n-roll* to aliens, send Betsy Wright.
In 2002, on Halloween, the Essex Green played a CMJ Music Marathon showcase at CBGBs dressed as the Royal Tenenbaums. Their autumnal reunion this year was a welcome occasion for this aging hipster to revisit a time when everything about that sentence was still fresh (or simply existed.) And I never tire of their erudite preppy boho fixations (“Slone Ranger” indeed) nor the burr in Sasha Bell’s voice.
With the release of Silhouettes and Statues Goth rock finally has gotten its archeological exhumation — the results of which are as dense and indispensable as the full Nuggets box set was for garage rock. Released in mid-2017, it’s taken me the better part of a year to explore its murky depths. Treasures and pick-ups abound, (amid swaths of utter muck – nothing rots like bad Goth) Zero Le Creche’s glammy-boomy obscurity “Last Year’s Wife” led down a hidey hole to the wonderful Psychedelic Furs/Bauhaus (right? right.) mashup of “Falling” which dominated the front half of this year’s groovin’.
This year the Sevateem self released Caves, a 16-track indie-electronic pop album inspired by an iconic classic Doctor Who episode from the early 80s. In “Anywhere In The Universe” the Doctor’s companion wonders why he never takes her anywhere nice. (The rationale for the spareness of description, of course, is that even plainspoken it will either engender waves of high geek appreciation, or remain as profoundly un-compelling as the manner in which its been described. Care for a Jelly baby? )
When I first tuned in Meg Remy’s US Girls were a profoundly insular affair, jerry-rigged transistor-kit transmissions of girl-group glitch outs. But recently she’s pointed her antenna towards the outside world, moving from secret wavelengths to broadcast frequencies. Her sound has filled out, shaped by wily and pop savvy comrades with some seriously deep chops. Live, touring behind her astonishing In a Poem Unlimited, I kept thinking of, honestly, Bowie. Bowie the avant grade pied piper, moving from station to station, seducing listeners into his jangled, cut up art along danceable grooves and modern love. Remy’s weird is going pro.
Alice Bag’s reemergence has been absolutely exhilarating. Bag was a major dynamo in the early LA punk rock scene, fronting the band the Bags, appearing as the Alice Bag Band in the seminal Decline of Western Civilization documentary, running wild in the streets with accomplices like Belinda Go-Go, Patricia Morrison and Pleasant Gehman (go google ’em all). She later worked for many years as a teacher, while remaining politically engaged as a Chicana and feminist activist. In 2016 she released her first solo record (and first LP ever, considering the Bags never released more than a few singles) and it was a total knockout — a swaggering blend of snarling punk, brassy girl group and Mexican folk. The record was personally and socially political – a bracing reminder how essential and genuinely inspirational punk could and can be. This year she released Blueprint, a another equally urgent and beautifully arranged salvo. Live, the double barreled opening of Bag’s classic “Babylonian Gorgon” into the new “Turn it Up” was seismic — raw, snarling righteous punk bliss as urgent, and more necessary, than ever.
Ok – straight up – The last track will be of limited or little interest to some, perhaps many. I thought it would be of limited interest to me, to wit — Finnish, operatic, power metal. Again — Finnish, operatic, power metal. Perhaps the phrase repels? For me it beckoned – strictly at first, as a curiosity. Encountering a passing reference to this curious amalgam I was led, as all quests for the essence of Finnish, operatic, power metal do, into the realm of Nightwish. First I read, amused; then I listened and was — utterly delighted (that is, while listening I experienced a high degree of gratification and pleasure.) It was gloriously absurd, but breathtaking in the scope of its foolhardy earnest bat-shit-ness. I immediately ordered their 1998 album Oceanborn, roundly considered definitive. While I waited for it to arrive I did experience a spasm of second guessing, a shuddering sense of “Surely not seriously.” One spin through Oceanborn’s rainbow laser glitter symphonies and I was even more delighted – that is, experiencing even higher degrees of gratification and pleasure. I could go on, and on, and many do, the earth over (Vice Magazine even prepared a thorough guide to the world of Nightwish, should you, um, wish.) Then I saw them live. Fucking lords of Asgard they were astonishing!! 6 magnificent Vikings by way of Marvel ‘s Jack Kirby or Branagh’s Thor — a chimera of Iron Maiden, Meatloaf and Brünnhilde fronted by a legit Valkyrie named Floor Jansen! Every song sounded like 20 technicolor rockets red-glare, even before they actually fired 20 technicolor rockets from the stage. Again. And again. A Ragnarock of delight, gratification and pleasure.
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BONUS COMPILATION: This year also marks the 10th year of consecutive yearly mixes. As such, I’m commemorating this anniversary with a special compilation featuring a track from each year. Unlike the main mixes, which mix new, live and discovered music of the past year, each track here was released in the year it represents. Enjoy, cheers, etc.