Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Trashmen,
Live Bird 65-67

The great state of Minnesota invented ice surfing, and the great Trashmen invented ice surfing surf rock, which required an immense imaginative leap because ice surfing is a rural legend, I mean who was going to go stand on the ice of Lake Winnibigoshish on their surfboard in swimming trunks and turn into a human popsicle while going nowhere, which is just one of the reasons why Minneapolis’ Trashmen were so awesome, that and the fact that they bequeathed us (even if they stole it) the timeless and brilliant “Surfin’ Bird,” which could well be the most loony tunes (and hence best) song to come out of the Gopher State this side of Cows’ “Whitey in the Woodpile.”

Yep, there’s no gainsaying the mad amphetamine rush of Bob Reed’s frenzied vocalspiel on “Surfin’ Bird”; he basically invents the Ramones, barks and squawks, cackles maniacally, flaps his gums and produces raspberries and stutters, and finally gives up on human speech altogether as an inadequate tool for imparting the World Changing message that he has to convey, namely that the bird is the word, man, the bird is the word. You can travel all ‘cross this crazy land and never hear anything like it, Reed’s demented siren call to arms, and I’m here to tell ya that nobody, not Syd Barrett or Arthur “The God of Hellfire” Brown or Britney Spears even, ever went this far out on the limb of total insanity and lived to tell about it.

1990’s Sundazed Records release of Live Bird 65-67 is pretty much self-explanatory; on it the Trashmen roam the U.S. spreading dementia the way that apocalyptic cell phone pulse does in Stephen King’s Cell, playing songs like “Surfin’ Bird,” the great follow-up “Bird Dance Beat,” the very cool “King of the Surf,” and “Ubangi Stomp,” all of which are guaranteed to jump-start your bing-bang-boom heart in ways having nothing to do with the lobes of your cerebral cortex. Which is tremendous; who needs free moral agency when they’ve got “Mashed Potatoes?” Or one of my own personal faves, the raucous “Henrietta”?

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Tonight’s the Night

On 1974’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (a band that was hoovering so much coke at the time they became known as “The Frozen Noses”) cash cow reunion tour, Neil Young fought to include a frenetic tune he’d written about the Manson Family, “Revolution Blues.” Unfortunately, the song’s incendiary lyrics (“I got the revolution blues/I see bloody fountains/And ten million dune buggies/Comin’ down the mountains/Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers/And I’ll kill them in their cars”) so unnerved counterculture scaredy-cat David “Almost Cut My Nose Hair” Crosby that he was afraid to play it. Thought Squeaky Fromme might come after him. As for the rest of the band, they found it too much of a bummer. As Young himself put it, “They all wanted to put out the light, y’know, make people feel good and happy and everything, and that song was like a wart or something on the perfect beast.”

Neil Young was far from “good and happy and everything” at the time. He had come to regard the success of “Heart of Gold” as a curse–as he famously wrote in the liner notes to greatest hits LP Decade, “[“Heart of Gold”] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Worse, he’d lost two close friends, CSN&Y roadie Bruce Berry and Crazy Horse guitarist and vocalist Danny Whitten, to heroin overdoses, and their deaths had hit him hard.

The result, which came at the recommendation of The Band’s Rick Danko, was 1975’s Tonight’s the Night, one of the darkest, sloppiest, most-wasted-sounding and greatest LPs ever made. Indeed, the album–which was recorded by a scratch band Young dubbed The Santa Monica Flyers, who included Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on bass and drums respectively, Nils “Grin” Lofgren on guitar and piano, and Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar–was so slapdash-sounding, unrepentently out of key, and unremittingly bleak that the mortified execs at Reprise, Young’s record label, not only refused to handle it without gardening gloves, but declined to release it for two years.

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young,
Time Fades Away

Neil Young’s years spent “in the ditch” (his words) remain, for me, the most vital of his entire career. As the hippie dream fell apart so did Young, and on albums such as 1975’s Tonight’s the Night (a “howling facedown with heroin and death itself,” in the critic Robert Christgau’s words) and 1973’s live Time Fades Away Young proceeded to disintegrate, sick unto death with the deaths of his junkie friends and dissatisfied with the folk-rock box he’d put himself in with 1972’s mellow Harvest, the LP that made him a superstar.

On Tonight’s the Night the songs bear an almost unbearable weight of sorrow, and Young’s mournful wildcat yowl is a million miles away from the peaceful vibes of Harvest; one can only imagine what Harvest’s diehard fans must have thought of it, just as it’s hard to imagine what his concert-going fans made of the never-before heard songs on Time Fades Away, on which Young and his Stray Gators ripped into such raw, electrified (and electrifying) numbers as the title track, the great “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” and “Last Dance.”

Me, I’ll always think Tonight’s the Night is the greatest LP ever made about the demise of the Age of Aquarius, but Time Fades Away has its pleasures as well, even if Young himself has dismissed it on multiple occasions, saying in 1987 that it was “the worst record I ever made—but as a documentary of what was happening to me, it was a great record.” And on the original, unreleased liner notes to 1977’s Decade, he again expressed his unhappiness with the tour and ensuing record, before saying, “… but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while.”

So what we have here is as sort of rock version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, with Neil coming to pieces in the spotlight, as it were. Fortunately Young is hardly the best critic of his own work, because despite his bad memories of the tour that brought us Time Fades Away, the resulting LP is tremendous—not nearly as chilling as Tonight’s the Night, for sure, but a howl of pain and disaffection nonetheless.

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Graded on a Curve: Kansas,
Leftoverture

I’m listening to Kansas. My shrink gave me explicit directions not to do this. But what does he know? He’s the same fool who tells me I’m sane, hah! As for me, I say, “Pop prog from America’s wheat belt, what could possibly go wrong?” Why, I’m listening to 1976’s Leftoverture as I write this, and–Gak! Erk! Blagh! What Lovecraftian horror is this? Quick, Thorazine! Shock treatment! Gag and glumph, I should have listened to my shrink! I’m vomiting poisonous toads! And giant black death buzzards are hurling themselves against my glass patio door! Oh, I know they’re an appalling hallucination brought on by Kansas poisoning, but still! Their shrieks sound real enough! Must turn off! Must (review ends here; writer vanished, and has yet to be found).

Three days later: Okay, so I’m back. And perhaps I overreacted. Kansas may carry the horrid prog virus, but its music isn’t as infectious as that of its compatriots across the pond. And Kansas did, much to its credit, write Thee Definitive Eschatological Dirge in the great “Dust in the Wind,” something you can’t say about Grand Funk Railroad or Jackson Browne or the Velvet Underground even.

And frequently Kansas actually rocks, instead of slavishly aping that geriatric classical sound, the way Emerson, Lake & Palmer were wont to do. Why, the big guitar riff in “Carry on My Wayward Son” off Leftoverture is deserving of kudos, and it’s not until the hackneyed Icarus allusions that the song threatens to go downhill. But instead the band launches into a hard rock jam featuring a vicious guitar wrapped around a muscular organ. And if that’s not enough, vocalist Steve Walsh tosses off the truly profound lines, “And if I claim to be a wise man/Well, it surely means that I don’t know.”

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Graded on a Curve: Lester Bangs and the Delinquents, Jook Savages on the Brazos

You gotta love the late Lester Bangs, who departed this mortal coil in 1982. He remains the greatest rock critic who ever lived, by dint of his Gonzo-style journalism, scathing wit, and refusal to accept the premise that it was the critic’s duty to praise (and hence help sell) the music he was reviewing. No, he called them like he saw them, and wrote exactly what he believed in a miraculously entertaining prose style that transformed “mere criticism” into true literature. As Greil Marcus wrote in his introduction to a 1987 posthumous collection of Bang’s writings entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews.”

As for me, I think his genius shone most brightly in his contentious interviews, conducted late at night and with both parties very wasted, with Lou Reed. Bangs had a love-hate relationship with Reed, and he channeled it into hilarious essays like “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or, How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake.” It’s a landmark of bile and vitriol, as is the equally wonderful “James Taylor Marked for Death,” but neither is mean for meanness’ sake. No, both demonstrate a sense of moral purpose that infused all of Bangs’ writing.

Before I move on to the subject of this review, to wit Lester Bangs and the Delinquents’ 1980 LP Jook Savage on the Brazos, I would just like to quote a tiny fraction of what Bangs had to say about Lou Reed. “Who else,” asks Lester, “would get himself as fat as a pig, then hire the most cretinous band of teenage cortical cavities he could find to tote around the country on an all-time death drag tour? Who else would doze his way back over the pond in a giant secobarbital capsule and labor for months with people like Bob Ezrin, Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce to puke up Berlin, a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressing album ever made?” And things go radically downhill from there, with the two snarling and sniping viciously at one another until both were too wasted to continue their scabrous dialogue.

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Graded on a Curve:
X,
Los Angeles

When it comes to LA punk, nobody played it with such urgency and fuck-you desperation as X. Everybody on the LA punk scene may have been a nihilist, but only X could open a vein and let you see how it felt to bleed, and show you how Hollywood was, in one famous guy’s immortal words, “a tour through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.”

Exene Cervenka’s great punk poetry and wild cat yowl, which meshed in a wonderfully off-kilter way with John Doe’s deep pipes, Billy Zoom’s hyperactive rockabilly guitar, and D.J. Bonebrake’s pounding rhythms all contributed to make X the first LA punk band to make a reputation for itself on both coasts. They were smarter, and seemingly more personal, than their LA compatriots. Black Flag dealt in satire, as did Fear, but X gave you the impression that they weren’t joking around, and were really on the down and outs: “We’re desperate,” they sang, “Get used to it.” Only Darby Crash, who burned himself down like a mad farmer might his own cornfield, could even come close.

They were pissed and not just at society; “The Phone’s Off the Hook, but You’re Not” is strictly personal, as is “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss.” And thanks to the production and contributions on organ of ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, they even had a wider palate than their cohorts on the scene, at least on their debut 1980 LP, the great Los Angeles—a title that let everybody else know X was putting dibs on the city of motels, money, murder, and madness, to quote the Lizard King who once ruled the Hollywood scene.

Los Angeles is frequently an ugly album, coupling as it does unremittingly catchy melodies with lyrics that unflinchingly explore the dark underbelly of the City of Damned Angels. With the exception of their wonderfully speeded-up take on The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” on which Cervenka and Doe sing in demented synch, and “The Unheard Music,” a screed about the radio punk blacklist (“Some smooth chords on the car radio/No hard chords on the radio”), Los Angeles is a non-stop sleazefest.

“Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” is a sordid tale, one of the most sordid you’ll ever hear anywhere, about a meth addict and serial rapist and his savaged victims. The song is Chuck Berry on crystal meth, and Doe is unflinching in his depiction of the perp’s victims: “When he was waking up/Beside the bed/He found clumps of hair/The last Paulene wouldn’t cooperate/She wasn’t what you call living really/She was still awake.” If you can show me a more emotionally wrenching set of lyrics, well, I’m not sure I want to see them. Then there’s the “pain of masochism is better than not feeling anything at all” trope of “Sex and Dying in High Society,” a song which could be The Eagles’ “Lying Eyes” (speeded up 1,000 times) until X gets to the part where, “And now you tell the maid/To burn you on your virgin back/With a curling iron/Hotter than hot.””

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Graded on a Curve:
Hüsker Dü,
“Metal Circus”

Lookee here; I didn’t become the world’s foremost rock critic (in my mind, baby, in my mind!) by keeping my crackpot opinions to myself. No, I share them with everybody, because the way I look at it, why should I suffer for my art when you can do it for me? Anyway, I’ve been listening to Minneapolis hardcore kings Hüsker Dü for the first time in several decades, and it is my infallible critical opinion that the trio of guitarist Bob Mould, drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton (of the great handlebar mustache) commenced to go downhill the moment they ditched legendary SST record producer Spot—who got a bad rap, in my opinion, for his murky productions—in favor of handling the production duties themselves.

Sure, they cleaned up their sound and made it more pristine, but I loved Spot’s murk, because it lent every album he produced an aura of post-punk primitivism and disdain for the sparkling productions of every artist not part of the hardcore community. His was the DIY sound of the hardcore underground, and I am of the opinion that the three albums Hüsker Dü produced after giving poor Spot his walking papers (i.e., 1985’s Flip Your Wig, 1986’s Candy Apple Grey, and 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories) are polished to the point of sterility. Not for nothing did I stop listening to Hüsker Dü after their high-water mark, 1985’s Spot-produced New Day Rising, which was about the time they were poised to break through big time thanks to their heavy presence on college radio.

Me, I’m still attached to their “Metal Circus” EP, on which Hüsker Dü first began to differentiate themselves from hardcore’s fast and hard ethos. Nobody ever played it faster and harder than they did on their 1980 debut, the appropriately titled “Land Speed Record” EP, but by the time they released 1983’s “Metal Circus” they were introducing harmony and melody into their tunes, especially on the Grant Hart contributions, “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and “Diane.”

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Graded on a Curve: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery

Jesus Christ, life is an awful thing. And as if it weren’t awful enough, Donald Trump is officially slated to become Fuhrer of that Fourth Reich known as the United States of America, and I for one can’t think of any music, besides that of Richard Wagner of course, that so celebrates the grandiosity and pomposity of our new fascist state than that of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The works of the troika of Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer were oversized explorations into the gigantism that characterized Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, from the mammoth scale of his Nuremberg Rallies to the monolithic architectural projects the Fuhrer spent so much time planning with Albert Speer.

And what I’m wondering is, will Donald Trump replace “Hail to the Chief” with the fanfare that opens “Toccata” from 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery, or the pomp and circumstance that signals the beginning of the insufferable “Jerusalem,” which does a great disservice to the mystical English poet William Blake and which I once had to sit through live, and what’s more not completely stoned into a blissful state of virtual obnubilation, an experience that so unnerved me that I refused to leave my apartment for a month?

I can’t tell you what our new President will do, because he’s crazier than a shit-house rat, but I can tell you this: ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery isn’t even the worst of their albums (that honor goes to 1971’s Pictures at an Exhibition), and that is a horrifying thought indeed. Don’t get me wrong; Brain Salad Surgery is an abomination and a crime against all sentient beings. Hell, it’s a crime against dumb stones even. But despite its myriad shortcomings, it at least boasts two short and actually listenable tracks in “Still… You Turn Me On” and the amusing “Benny the Bouncer,” to say nothing of a cool album cover by H.R. Giger, which you could stare at while on acid while losing yourself in the shadowy intricacies of the three monstrous movements of “Karn Evil 9,” which go on for thirty minutes or so but seem to natter on forever.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan & The Band,
The Basement Tapes

Well, here I am at last, in a deserted warehouse on Desolation Row, about to realize my lifelong dream of interviewing the legendary Bob Dylan. It’s a rather odd place to meet, I know, but I got absolutely nowhere with Dylan’s PR people, so I decided to exercise my First Amendment rights by abducting him, duct-taping him to a rickety wooden chair, and shining a very bright light in his eyes. It’s an unorthodox arrangement, to be sure, but then Dylan is a famously uncooperative interviewee.

“Okay, Schmylan,” I say, opening the interview on a light note. “You’re going to spill or I’m going to shave Vincent Price’s mustache right off your face.”

“You don’t like it?” says Bob in that unintelligible frog-with-emphysema croak that makes his present-day concerts such wonderful exercises in collective audience incomprehension.

“Not really. I think it’s creepy. And if it’s creepy I want, I can always listen to Saved.”

“Vince bequeathed it to me in his will,” says Dylan, unfazed by my criticism. “And I happen to like it. It’s so Dr. Goldfoot and The Bikini Machine. I kept it in the freezer for years, on top of a box of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks. Hey, would watch the parking meter?”

“Quoting your old chestnuts will get you nowhere,” I say. And to prove it, I slip a cigarette between his lips and smack it out again.

“No, I mean literally. I only fed it enough quarters for two hours. And the last thing I need is another ticket.”

“You’ve got bigger worries than a parking ticket, Zimmerman. Like your legacy. You’re the guy who put out Bob Dylan at Budokan. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way that album blows.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Insect Trust,
Hoboken Saturday Night

If this 1970 LP by folk-jazz-rock ensemble The Insect Trust is considered an almost mystical object by the souls who are hip to it, it’s due as much to the people who are said to be on the LP as for the album itself. In hushed tones, it is said one of its horn players was Robert Palmer, later to become a renowned music critic and historian; that several of its tracks featured the great Elvin Jones, the long-time drummer for John Coltrane; and finally, and most intriguing to the people who are drawn to it, that America’s most reclusive and arguably most brilliant novelist, Thomas Pynchon, was somehow involved in the LP’s making.

Well, first the good news. Robert Palmer did indeed play alto saxophone, clarinet, and recorder (alongside Trevor Koehler, who played more horns than I can name here, and a couple of guys who played trumpet) for the band, and Elvin Jones does indeed play on two of Hoboken Saturday Night’s tracks, along with the great funk drummer Bernard Purdie, who also contributed.

Now for the bad news, at least for you Pynchon fans. I always imagined Pynchon showing up at the studio’s back door in the dead of night, in a stained bathrobe and camouflage boonie hat, to play some primitive guitar riffs and smoke lots of very high quality Mexican dope. Unfortunately, Pynchon’s only input to the LP consists of the lyrics to “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” and they weren’t even original lyrics but simply words lifted from his novel V. I know, bummer. How the band got the rights to use Pynchon’s words would probably make for an interesting story; did they actually know literature’s most mysterious figure, who makes J.D. Salinger look like a publicity hog, or did they deal solely with a third party?

And now for the rest of the good news. Hoboken Saturday Night is one very eclectic and enjoyable album. The Insect Trust, whose name came from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and which came to be in Our Year of the Lord 1967, are all over the place. Horns blow ersatz ragtime or simply wax lovely and wild (see “Our Sister the Sun”), vocalist Nancy Jeffries has a delightfully folksy voice (see “Our Sister the Sun, “Reincarnations”), and the rockers actually rock, despite the fact that the band was short on rock musicians and heavy on jazz musicians, folkies (multi-instrumentalist Luke Faust, formerly of the Holy Modal Rounders), and blues guys (guitarist Bill Barth). That the Insect Trust made such excellent music from such a hash of musical styles is nothing short of miraculous.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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