Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Spade Cooley &
the Western Swing
Dance Gang,
Shame on You

Western swing musician, big band leader, actor, nationally known television personality, and cold-blooded killer—you’ll have to look really hard to find a resume more varied than that of Donnell Clyde “Spade” Cooley. And you’ll also have to look even harder to find an album with a more appropriate title than Shame on You, seeing as how Cooley brutally murdered his wife in 1961 by pounding her head on the floor and then putting out a lit cigarette on her body to make sure she was dead. As if that weren’t horrifying enough, he forced his teenage daughter to witness the murder, saying, “You’re going to watch me kill her.”

It has become almost impossible—and appropriately so—to write dispassionately about Spade Cooley, the so-called King of Western Swing, given Spade Cooley the private citizen’s status as a convicted (and particularly bestial) killer. Cold-blooded murder will always be what Cooley’s best remembered for—thanks in part to noir writer James Ellroy, who has made Cooley a recurring character in his fiction—regardless of his musical accomplishments, which were considerable.

Cooley, who was part Cherokee, was born in 1910 in Grand, Oklahoma, a lovely part of the country that the Cooleys fled for California come the Dust Bowl in 1930. (Grand is now a ghost town.) Cooley’s skill on the fiddle and good luck saw him take over Jimmy Wakely’s big band after Wakely got a movie contract, and soon Cooley and band’s shows at the Venice Pier Ballroom were packed. By the mid-forties Cooley was a superstar of sorts, renowned for his songs (Shame on You came out in 1945 and led to six straight Top Ten singles) as well as for his numerous roles in films. And come the advent of television he conquered that medium too, with The Spade Cooley Show drawing in 75 percent of Los Angeles’ TV viewers each week, to say nothing of the viewers nationwide who tuned into his show, which was broadcast coast-to-coast by the Paramount Television Network.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Handsome Family,
Milk and Scissors

Brett Sparks is one somber fella. Or at least that’s the impression one gets from listening to The Handsome Family, the Americana band helmed by Sparks and his wife, Rennie Sparks. He may be a barrel of laughs in person, but on record he is always deadpan, never ebullient or excited or joyous.

And it works, because his devoid-of-passion vocals just happen to be the perfect vehicle for the weird and wonderful stories conjured up by his spouse, who writes the lyrics while he writes the music. Even when those stories are funny—as in the case of “Tin Foil,” which includes some hilarious lines (which are supposedly true) about how Liza Minnelli spent two months in bed because she was afraid a disintegrating Skylab would fall from space on her head—he sings them in that crisp and sober voice of his, and what you come away with is a case of the melancholies, but the good melancholies, the kind that let you know that life is hard but at least you’re still above ground.

The Handsome Family have enough great songs on the 10 or so studio LPs they’ve recorded since 1993 to fill the sinkhole behind the barn that a mesmerized farmer lowers himself into in an old clawfoot bathtub in their American Gothic classic, “The Bottomless Pit.” It was one of the first songs I ever heard by the alt-country band, and I was immediately smitten. Then I heard “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear,” and wham! I was in love. It’s rare to come across a song written with the craft and eye to detail of a good short story, and those two songs rank—as do others Rennie Sparks has written—alongside such great story-telling songs as American Music Club’s “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” Mountain Goats’ “Against Pollution,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman.” Oh, and let’s not forget Killdozer’s “Hamburger Martyr.”

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Graded on a Curve:
R.L. Burnside,
A Ass Pocket of Whiskey

Lookee here: This is not a review, but a tale told by an idiot, the idiot in question being yours truly. To wit: My brother, who has spent his whole life listening to the unlistenable in the form of avant-garde jazz skronk, has been recommending albums to me for years. But it was upon his imprimatur that I bought German free jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s 1996 LP Saxophone and Bleating Goat: Live at the Harrisburg Farm Show Arena. It’s a terrible album, although the goat has his moments, and it got a pretty good write-up in the pages of Goat Farmer Monthly, so maybe it’s me. Regardless, I vowed never to take jazzbro’s advice again.

And so it went with bluesman R.L. Burnside (1926-2005), the Holly Springs, Mississippi singer and guitarist who played a form of the blues so raw, groove-driven, and just plain weird he attracted the attention of Jon Spencer, who took his Blues Explosion down Muzzippi way in February 1996 to collaborate with Burnside on an LP full of sound and fury in the form of some rumbling, fuzzy, and feral blues. My brother kept telling me I had to hear it, but Saxophone and Bleating Goat was never far from my mind, and besides, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, I’ve never much cared for the blues, period. B.B. King bores me; his guitar Lucille bores me; and the blues in general bore me, although I’ve always made an exception for Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, because the legends surrounding their lives and their singing and playing transcend not just the blues, but music in general.

Your average Delta blues musician always seemed to me to be playing by pure formula, and a staid formula at that, when what I was looking for was something weird and wild, with that element of the uncanny that makes Johnson so great. And I discovered it in Muddy Waters’ 1968 LP Electric Mud, on which the guitarists from Rotary Connection play some far-out shit that takes you a long way from what I consider your academic blues. In Burnside’s case, what makes his music unique was his trademark drone, which was more characteristic of the North Mississippi Hill Country blues than the better-known Delta blues. He also played it fast and loose with traditional 12- or 16-bar blues patterns, although I can’t really tell you, musical dunce that I am, what that even means.

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TVD Live: Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds at Comet Ping Pong, 9/20

I have a rudimentary understanding of the science behind how creative genius works, and it goes something like this; an idea in the brain gestates very slowly into a pebble-sized tumor, which is then expelled via the left ear into the world as a full-blown work of art. I know this to be true, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the case of the legendary Kid Congo Powers, the musical legend who has played, or collaborated with, seemingly every cool band of the post-punk era.

Powers’ musical resume is as confusing as it is impressive: he co-founded The Gun Club with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce, left to join the Cramps, then returned to The Gun Club before quitting to join Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, then returned to The Gun Club while still playing with The Bad Seeds—and you get the idea. But what really makes Powers so fascinating is this: he spent years wandering the earth to and fro, endlessly searching for the perfect sound in this great band or that, when that perfect sound was with him the whole time, inside his head.

Since taking over as a frontman of his own band, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds—a nice nod, the band name, from a one-time glam kid and habitué of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco to the one and only Ziggy Stardust—Powers has demonstrated his formidable skills as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist over the course of the four excellent LPs the quartet (Powers, Kiki Solis on bass, Ron Miller on drums, and Mark Cisneros on guitar and keyboards) has recorded since 2006.

And the band just keeps getting better; their most recent release, 2013’s Haunted Head, is their coolest yet. Its fetching fusion of spooky swampy hoodoo garage (that’s right, there’s a swamp in your garage! Complete with Spanish moss and cottonmouths! And even a stray gator or two! I wouldn’t go in there if I were you!), psychedelia, southern soul, and cool 1960s Chicano Rock will leave you wanting to drop acid, cruise East LA’s Whittier Boulevard with Thee Midniters on the radio in a low rider with a makeshift shrine to Santa Muerte on the front dash, and just plain dance, dance, dance, dance, dance. And I say do it! Do it all! You only live once, although with Santa Muerte on your side, who knows?

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Graded on a Curve:
The Pogues,
Peace & Love

Before I get to my review, a bit of stereotype slinging. About the Irish, who are oft said (you can ask anybody) to have produced the greatest drunken poets the world has ever seen. Here in the States, a drunk is a drunk is a drunk. In Ireland, if you believe the hype, every drunk is a poet and every poet is a drunk, and when the pubs close every last inebriated man, woman, and child who spills into the dimly lit street to stagger home or fall fecklessly into the filthy gutter is conjuring brilliant quatrains in their brain.

It’s obviously shite, and to the part of my lineage that is Irish (or is it Scottish, who knows?) offensive even, but I do believe the Irish harbor a romantic soul and love their whiskey as much as they love a gift for high-blown (Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan, anybody?) speech. So just for argument’s sake, who is the greatest drunken Irish poet of them all? My vote goes to The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan, hands down.

He may be a spent force now; it’s been years since he wrote any new songs (that we’ve heard, anyway); his voice is every bit as much a ruin as the Acropolis; and the last time I saw him perform he hung precariously onto the microphone stand like a sailor clinging to the ratlines for dear life in the face of 90 mph typhoon winds. But the fact that he continues to draw breath at all is in itself a miracle.

I have done the math, and more whiskey has passed MacGowan’s lips over the course of his lifetime than was imbibed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Jones, Malcolm Lowry, and Dylan Thomas put together. Despite this dubious achievement, he has written some of the best poetry ever set to music, and has brought more happiness to mankind than a regimen of teetotalers.

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Graded on a Curve:
P.J. Proby,
Three Week Hero

When it comes to bizarre, eccentric, and just flat-out inexplicable rock stars, it’s hard to top P.J. Proby (aka Jett Storm, aka Orville Wood, birth name James Marcus Smith), the wild Houston-born master of vocal histrionics who never made much of a dent in the American pop charts, but was (and still is) a legendary figure in English music circles. I’d heard the name, but I never thought to check Proby out until Ian Hunter, in his Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, called him, “The ace punk of all time,” adding, “His own worst enemy, so what. P.J. Proby’s the greatest—he’s a fuckin’ pirate in this world of drudge. Wherever you are P.J., the world needs you now.”

Those words were written way back in 1972, but the world still needs P.J. Proby, because if there’s one thing he isn’t, it’s predictable. Over the course his 50-plus-year career Proby has released more outrageous—a word that hardly does his schlock-ridden catalogue justice—songs than perhaps anyone in the history of rock, and he has proven over and over again that there’s nothing he won’t do for a hit, or because he just fucking feels like it.

Proby began his career in the late fifties under the name Jett Storm, but both his acting and singing careers stalled in his own country so he set his sights on England. There he changed his stage name to P.J. Proby, perhaps because England already had a Rory Storm, who in a weird coincidence also briefly adopted the stage name Jett Storm. And before long Proby found himself a bona fide pop star with a series of saccharine, string-laden hits, including overwrought versions of “Somewhere” and “Maria” from West Side Story. He also appeared on the 1964 Beatles TV special and was given a song by Lennon and McCartney that they’d intended to include on “Help!” but could never get quite right.

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Graded on a Curve:
Angel,
Helluva Band

My favorite story about Angel, Washington, DC’s glammed-out, all-white spandex retort to Kiss, which seemed poised for superstardom in the mid-seventies (giant billboards on the Sunset Strip, selection by the readers of Circus magazine as the Best New Group of 1976, and tours of the great American arena circuit with the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, and Rush) is pure Spinal Tap.

The band, with some major financial backing from Casablanca Records mogul Neil Bogart, had developed one of the most elaborate stage shows in rock, a fantasia of smoke, magic, and mirrors that led one wag to suggest that the band might be better off staying home and sending its props on the road. One gimmick involved the band appearing magically on stage one by one in puffs of smoke, to be introduced by the face on the giant Angel logo—which none other than Ian MacKaye pointed out to me is ambigrammatic, meaning it reads the same when turned upside down as when viewed normally—that served as the band’s backdrop.

One night, as Punky Meadows, Angel’s guitarist and the most androgynous pretty boy in a band full of androgynous pretty boys, told me: “Of course, all we were doing was coming up through trapdoors from beneath the stage. Well, one night, the big talking head introduces [drummer] Mickie Jones, and Mickie isn’t there. We’re looking at each like, ‘Where the fuck’s Mickie?’ Turns out his trapdoor got stuck. And all those stoned kids in the audience are going [Meadows sucks on an imaginary joint], ‘That’s really weird, man…'”

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Graded on a Curve:
Foghat,
Fool for the City

Here’s an interesting historical tidbit: I was the geezer wot gave Foghat their name. It happened like this: we were all (the band and I) totally pissed in Rod “The Bottle” Price’s bedsit in manky Manchester, when “Lonesome Dave” Peverett rolled a J the size of John Holmes’ John Thomas and set it ablaze. It took some real hyperventilation-level huffing and puffing to get that monster going, and by this time Dave’s head was wreathed in a glorious crown of cannabis smoke, and I cried out, “Lonesome Dave’s sporting a Foghat!” And Bob’s your uncle, that’s exactly how it didn’t happen.

Anyway, I don’t know what you think about Foghat, and I don’t particularly care, because I love them. They may have been your bog-standard, no-frills British blooz and boogie rock band, all meat and potatoes but skimping a bit on the meat, but they had a great name and were likeable blokes and the punters loved them because they played an arse-walloping live set. What’s more they displayed a sense of humor, as proved by the cover of their finest LP, 1975’s Fool for the City, which depicts drummer Roger Earl fishing in a manhole in the middle of East 11th Street in New York City, looking as casual as if he were casting bait along Manchester’s own River Irk, which none other than Friedrich Engels described as “a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse.” All of which leads one to suspect that Earl had a better chance of catching a real, live fish in said sewer than he did back in grim and grimy old Manchester town.

I also have an abiding affection for Foghat because the band’s music features in the final scene of one of my all-time favorite films, Richard Linklater’s 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused. To wit, when Mitch Kramer, who has just returned home at dawn after having undergone all the requisite initiation rites and rituals (drinking beer, smoking pot, throwing a bowling ball from a moving car) of seventies teenagehood, puts on his oversized headphones, it’s the great opening of “Slow Ride” that brings a beatific smile to his face. Linklater could have chosen any song from the mid-seventies to produce that smile, but he chose Foghat, which raises my estimation of both him and them.

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Graded on a Curve:
Rowland S. Howard,
Pop Crimes

Some souls just weren’t made for this world. You can hear it in their voice, see it in their eyes—their shoulders simply aren’t strong enough to bear the weight of gravity, and their hearts are simply too tender, and they come and go from this our mortal coil leaving behind the sense, no matter how much they accomplished, that they were never here at all.

Such is the feeling I get from listening to guitarist/vocalist Rowland S. Howard, who obviously found life on this planet one long and painful trial. His 2009 masterpiece Pop Crimes makes reference to “this planet of perpetual sorrows,” on not one but two songs, which he must have felt was necessary to get his point—that living is a nightmare from which we cannot escape—across.

But if Howard, who passed away very shortly after the release of Pop Crimes at age 50, harbored a bleak and Baudelairian view of existence, he didn’t let it stand in the way of making lots of great music with lots of different people. His list of accomplishments is remarkably long, especially for someone who battled drug addiction for as long as he did. He began his career with Nick Cave in Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, went on to become a member of Crime & The City Solution, and finally founded Thee Immortal Souls before launching a solo career. Over the course of his too-short life he also worked with artists as diverse as Lydia Lunch, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Henry Rollins, not to mention numerous others.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mott the Hoople, (s/t)

The ballad of Mott the Hoople—the English glam band that gave us one of the most ecstatic moments in rock history with Ian Hunter’s “I’ve wanted to do this for years!” in “All the Young Dudes”—begins not in 1969, when the band was formed, but 3 years earlier, when one Willard Manus wrote a novel called Mott the Hoople, which rock visionary and total madman Guy “There Are Only Two Phil Spectors in the World and I Am One of Them” Stevens happened to pick up and read while in gaol for drug offenses.

We will never know what Stevens, a kind of manager, producer, and talent scout famed for his prodigious intake of mind-altering substances and eccentric behavior—his favorite method of inspiring a band in the studio was to destroy every piece of equipment in sight, or in the case of The Clash, pour beer on the piano—thought of Manus’ novel. But we do know Stevens loved its title, so much so that he saved it as a name for a truly special band. That band turned out to be Silence, which had been fecklessly wandering to and fro across the earth in search of a record contract. That is until Stevens, who worked for Island Records, saw something in them that no one else did.

That said, Stevens knew they needed molding, and he wasted no time doing it. The first thing he did after changing their name to Mott the Hoople—which nobody in Silence particularly liked—was dismiss vocalist Stan Tippins, and put out an advertisement for a new singer. The ad was answered by one Ian Hunter, a wild-haired punter who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be Bob Dylan or Sonny Bono (seriously). He auditioned by performing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him just the person Stevens was looking for, because it was the crazed producer’s goal to create a band that fused the sounds of Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

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