Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Plastic Ono Band, Live Peace in Toronto 1969

If I’m recalling the story correctly, a very young nephew of the great Lester Bangs once told him sagely that “Heroes are for zeroes.” This is a cynical way of looking at things, sure, but I can apply it to most of my heroes, and John Lennon isn’t even one of them.

I never put the hippest and most outspoken of the Fab Four on a pedestal, which saved me the effort of having to knock him off again, and I have no idea what became of the only album I ever owned by him (1975’s best-of compilation Shaved Fish) nor do I much care. I can count on one hand the number of songs by Lennon the solo artist that I love, and philosophically I’m inclined to dislike all of the naïve and even disingenuous attitudes he struck (confused hippie political agitator, dim-bulb idealist and peace activist, “happy househusband,” etc.) after leaving the Beatles.

Hell, I never even liked “Imagine,” which makes me a monster I know, but something about the way Lennon asks us to “imagine no possessions” and then rather self-righteously tacks on “I wonder if you can” when he was happily collecting grand pianos, jukeboxes, guitars, homes, additions to homes, expensive boats, dairy cows, and the like just plain irks me. I was never much of a fan of “Give Peace a Chance”—he should have asked Neville Chamberlain how that worked out with Adolf Hitler—either. And that goes double for “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” which I imagine led many a person of color to snigger down her sleeve (or worse) whenever it got played.

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Graded on a Curve,
The Mountain Goats,
Goths

Nobody I know has John Darnielle’s uncanny ability to wear the skin of other people. Over the course of several brilliant concept albums The Mountain Goats’ songwriter/singer/resident creative genius has played the roles of a gleefully self-destructive husband trapped in a marriage of the damned, a young meth head in a crew of doomed young meth heads riding a crystal high leading to an inevitably catastrophic plummet to earth, and now a Goth amongst other Goths trying to find his pale way in an unfriendly world.

The newly released Goths demonstrates Darnielle’s amazing capacity to craft intimately detailed short stories that pass for songs as well as the empathy that makes him the best chronicler of the trials of being young and different since Pete Townshend and the Who bequeathed us Quadrophenia. Darnielle, who has a rocket scientist IQ and has written a pair of simply wonderful novels about fucked-up and fucked-over teens for adults, cares about the characters he invents, cares so much indeed that you’ll find yourself captivated by their plights long after you’ve turned off your record player.

Darnielle first captured my imagination with 2002’s “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” a feverish salute to a pair of Texas kids who try to start a death metal band and get screwed over royally by their fearful parents by way of thanks. His cry of “Hail Satan tonight!” is both dizzying and delirious, and he’s been showing off his amazing ability to put himself in the skins of misunderstood maladapts ever since.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen,
Chapter and Verse

Most artist compilations serve a single purpose—to give the listener who doesn’t want to spring for more than one LP of a musician or band something to buy. This is not the case with 2016’s Chapter and Verse, which offers both casual and hardcore fans of the Boss two great reasons to shell out their hard-earned shekels.

First, it includes five previously unreleased tracks of Springsteen’s early work—two with the Castiles, one with Steel Mill, and two 1972 tracks one of which, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” is a flat-out triumph. Second, it offers up a couple of recent brilliant Springsteen tracks that offer a damn good reason for lapsed fans like yours truly to check out what he’s been up to since we tuned the poor fellow out. I’ll say right now that they establish him, along with the rare likes of Neil Young, as a musician whose work remains not just exciting but vital.

Springsteen himself chose the eighteen tracks that make up this cursory overview of his long career, and frankly the whole contraption would collapse for sheer lack of meat—a simple cut from most of his studio LPs simply isn’t enough—were it not for the unreleased early tracks, which date the whole back to 1966 when Springsteen was a member of a forgotten garage rock band called the Castiles. “Baby I” may not be a song for the ages but it generates pure raw-boned excitement, and that goes double for the Castiles’ live cover of Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” which jumps and shouts to the sound of one great Farfisa organ.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen,
Born to Run

Well here it is—the most operatic, overblown, bombastic, and yes wonderful slab of vinyl that has ever caused my ears to cry hallelujah. On 1975’s Born to Run a cocksure Bruce Springsteen went right over the top, blew a fuse, and tried to pack as much of the majestic mystery of the New Jersey night as he could onto one LP. It was a desperate gamble but it paid off in spades, and we’re all the richer for it.

On such Phil Spector-worthy epics as “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” and especially “Jungleland” Springsteen risked all trying to say all, and the results are indeed awesome. To a small town kid like me, Born to Run captured the wild and inchoate delirium of coming of age—of wanting to go out and explode like a skyrocket in the warm summer night. Is the whole contraption at the risk of overheating? Sure. But listening to this album never fails to return me to that innocent kid desperate for experience, and for that alone I will always love it.

To more jaded ears Born to Run may have sounded hokey, but therein lies the genius of Bruce Springsteen; on Born to Run he’s as shameless a romantic of the American Night as Jack Kerouac, and he captures the wild and heedless excitement of being young and mad with an unquenchable thirst for everything. On Born to Run Springsteen says yes to the night and to all it represents. “Roll down the window/And let the wind blow back your hair,” he sings in “Thunder Road,” “Well the night’s busting open/These two lanes will take us anywhere.” On Born to Run Springsteen sings of the possibilities, and of risking it all to run the backstreets, and I’m not certain if anyone has ever come even close to doing a finer job of doing so.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Crosby,
If I Could Only Remember My Name

Cosmic flapdoodle. That’s really all I have to say about this execrable 1971 David Crosby solo LP, which you will likely love or hate depending on how much you love or hate the heavenly harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Me, I hate Crosby, Stills & Nash. I consider them the most overrated supergroup of all time, and that’s saying something. And If I Could Only Remember My Name takes Crosby’s overheated psychedelic folk-rock jazz schlock to its logical conclusion, aka total hippie horseshit.

David Crosby, ex-Byrd and the fellow whose head explodes in Bob Dylan’s “Day of the Locusts,” recorded this debut LP in the wake of CSN&Y’s hugely successful Déjà Vu, and he dragged his band mates (as well as the better parts of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane and the whole part of Joni Mitchell) into the studio with him. The resulting LP is every bit as self-indulgent as it is insufferable, although (believe it or not, but it’s true!) the Vatican likes it, to the extent that in 2010 the Holy See’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano listed it second on the Vatican’s list of the top ten pop albums of all time. Evidently the pope really does smoke dope, and extremely potent dope at that.

The LP memorably inspired a horrified Robert Christgau (who wrote it off as a “disgraceful performance”) to launch a “rename David Crosby (he won’t know the difference)” competition; his rebrands included Rocky Muzak and Roger Crosby, while I prefer Bong Crosby or The Great Crapsby. But I digress. The point I wish to make about If I Could Only Remember My Name is that it should be entitled If I Could Only Forget This Album, because once you have suffered the indignity of hearing it there’s no unhearing it.

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Graded on a Curve:
Derek and the Dominos,
In Concert

For folks like me, who would argue that his stint as leader of Derek and the Dominos constitutes the high point of Eric Clapton’s long and checkered career, 1973’s In Concert, which was recorded in October at the Fillmore East in New York, is a secondary but nonetheless important piece of evidence. Exhibit A, it hardly needs saying, is 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, on which Clapton and a crack ensemble of musicians including the not long for this world Duane Allman would produce some of the fiercest and most deliriously lovely rock music ever committed to vinyl.

And at first that would seem to be the thing that damns In Concert—Duane Allman is nowhere to be found, although he would appear at several other Derek and the Dominos shows on the same tour. Another thing that seems to cloud the air is that only three of In Concert’s nine tracks come from Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs—such utterly brilliant cuts as “Layla,” “Anyday,” “Keep on Growing,” and “It’s Too Late” are as MIA as guitar slinger Allman himself.

But Clapton—and the trio of Jim Gordon (drums), Bobby Whitlock (piano, Hammond organ, and some really stellar backing vocals), and Carl Radle (bass)—was riding a wave, and In Concert would be an undisputed triumph if it weren’t marred by the drum solo madness that spread like the Ebola virus through the rock world at the dawn of the seventies.

Clapton and the lads get a chance to spread out playing live, and the results—with the exception once again of the drum solo that shoots “Let It Rain” in the leg—are lovably loose but never formless. The band stretches the great “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” to twice its length without adding an ounce of fat, and not once do you ask yourself, “When is this goddamn song going to end?”

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan,
Bob Dylan at Budokan

The only thing that’s more fun than picking the high point of Bob Dylan’s long career is picking the low point of Bob Dylan’s long career. Was it 1970’s dumbfounding improvised explosive device, Self Portrait? The concert in 1982 when, upon being heckled by college students unhappy with his New Puritan material, Born-Again Bob told them they’d probably have a better time at a Kiss concert, adding that there they could “rock’n’roll all the way down to the pit!” Or the moment shortly thereafter, when he told Maria Muldaur that such ill-behaved young people were a sure sign the End Times were nigh?

They all work for me. But when push comes to shove I have to go with 1979’s Bob Dylan at Budokan, the double live atrocity that chronicles Dylan’s willingness to sell his much vaunted principles at a steep price to the poor Japanese people as strolled into Budokan not knowing they were walking into a kind of Pearl Harbor in reverse. Dylan was fronting a slick band (in uniforms!) complete with brass and backing singers, and had rearranged his songs like he was preparing to play a long stint at a Las Vegas casino.

The results are sometimes bizarre; he recasts “Shelter From the Storm” as a plodding 1,2,1,2 march across an endless desert, with horns dressing up the choruses like cheap tarts. And he turns “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” into an overblown show number that sounds like the theme music from a bad 1970’s cop show. It takes a brave man to butcher his own sacred cow, but Bob is up to it.

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Graded on a Curve,
The Grateful Dead,
Blues for Allah

When the Grateful Dead were great, they were great indeed. They were perhaps the most formidable improvisers in rock’n’roll, and at the turn of the seventies they turned out a pair of LPs—I’m talking, of course, about Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty—that established them as tunesmiths capable of churning out marvelously concise and musically expansive songs that evoked, better than almost anybody else, both America’s mythical past and its weird and wild present.

What a long strange trip indeed. Alas, the trip ended badly, as prolonged trips tend to do, with a series of albums that just got worse and worse. 1975’s Blues for Allah was far from the worst of them—I’d give that award to either 1977’s Terrapin Station or 1978’s truly fetid Shakedown Street—but it was the first of the Grateful Dead’s LPs that truly had no reason for being, other than as a demonstration that an object in motion tends to stay in motion long after the sputtering demise of the inspiration that put it in motion in the first place. Unfortunately for us all, the Grateful Dead were not equipped with a dead man’s switch.

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau hit the nail on the head when he said, in his typically cryptic way, “I find the arch aimlessness of their musical approach neurasthenic and their general muddleheadedness worthy of Yes or the Strawbs.” And Christgau was a champion of the band. Even yours truly—a heavy-duty stoner at the time—found Blues for Allah tedious, irksome even. Where were the songs? Whatever was the band mucking and meandering on about? And why was the long and abysmal title track so utterly annoying that even I—a clueless kid who actually owned and paid serious attention to the monumentally shitty Shakedown Street—had to give it a pass? Stoned out of my gourd yet?

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Graded on a Curve:
Old Crow Medicine Show, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde

You have to hand it to Old Crow Medicine Show, the mountain music revivalists best known for infusing traditional rags, hollers, and old-timey tunes with good old-fashioned rock’n’roll attitude—not many bands could summon up the chutzpah to take on Bob Dylan’s brilliant 1966 double LP in its entirety, and live at that. The quintet, who come from everywhere but settled in Nashville, serve up Blonde on Blonde mountain style, and the results are well worth a listen.

Let me get my quibble out of the way first. Dylan may have famously—and surprisingly—chosen to record Blonde on Blonde in the home of the Grand Ole Opry with Nashville session musicians along with such non-natives as Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper, but Blonde on Blonde is anything but a country album. On it Dylan achieved that “wild mercury sound” he’d long been hearing in his head, and that sound is the result of a head-on collision between New York City and Nashville. It’s a haunting admixture of urban amphetamine energy and laid-back country cool, and Dylan would never find it again. And if I have any caveat about Old Crow Medicine Show’s 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde it’s this—you can take Dylan out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of Dylan. (Personally, I don’t think even Dylan could do it, although he came close on The Basement Tapes.)

This simple truth knocks some of the steam out of the knocking steam pipe in the very New Yawk “Visions of Johanna” and leads to the LP’s only flat-out failure, “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” And the band’s penchant for galloping fiddle does serious structural damage to the Chicago blues-inspired “Pledging My Time,” which they take at triple time. As for “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” Old Crow Medicine Show handles it less than reverently by adding some swing (as well as some fancy banjo picking), but I’ve come to love everything about their take but the chorus.

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Graded on a Curve:
Destroyer,
Destroyer’s Rubies

I can sum up the genius of Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer) in two lines of his inimitable verse. To wit, “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd/I cast off those couplets in honor of the void.” They come from “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point,” one of the many wonderful songs on his brilliant 2006 LP, Destroyer’s Rubies.

The Vancouver native’s cryptic lyrics and dramatic vocal stylings—he takes flamboyance to the point of hilarity—make him a one of a kind performer. It’s not every day you run across a fabulous glam/folkie who sounds like a cross between Al “Year of the Cat” Stewart and Donovan on crank, and croons things like this, from “Looter’s Follies”:

I lifted the veil to see / nature’s trickery / revealed as pure shit / from which nothing ever rose / because nothing ever could / I swear somewhere the truth lies within this wood / and I swear looter’s follies has never sounded so good / and win or lose, what’s the difference?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking who is this pompous jerk? But here’s the thing—he sings those words in a histrionic fervor that practically screams, “I’m just fucking around here people–maybe!” My favorite “artistes” often walk the tightrope between sincerity and total shuck, and half the joy of watching them is wondering if even they know where their sympathies lie at any given moment. It’s called the pleasure of irony, and it’s what separates the hotshots from the hooples. Take it away, and what are we left with? So much earnest turdage.

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