Mark Eitzel, American music’s poet laureate of the alcoholic undertow, has never gotten his props. During his time with his band American Music Club he put out a number of great albums, each one more besotted than the last, and managed to write what I consider the best song (by far!) of the nineties, “Johnny Mathis’ Feet.”
So what if he brutalized me in comments following a review I wrote of a show at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. What really hurt was his saying, “If I’m as down as you say I am – then what gives you the right to kick me?” I wasn’t kicking you, Mark, I love you man—I was just unhappy that you were moving in the direction of stripped down torch songs, which have never been my cup of meat.
Ah, but that’s bourbon under the bridge. I will always consider Eitzel a genius, what with his way of both bumming you out and making you laugh with his songs about himself and his burned-out friends. He can turn a phrase and has a surgeon’s eye for just where to put the scalpel in, and these gifts are, I think, on best display on 1991’s Everclear. It led Rolling Stone magazine to declare Eitzel the Songwriter of the Year in 1991, but didn’t up his band’s exposure any; as Eitzel sadly noted later, “The next show there were about 20 people in the audience. And they were army guys and they thought American Music Club were some righteous American freedom-fighting, cool ass Springsteen-influenced Guns N’ Roses kind of guys. And we did not rock.”
And we did not rock. Sad words, those. And inaccurate to boot, because on Everclear American Music Club does intermittently rock, in a way that brings to mind another great underrated indie band, Lambchop. Take “Crabwalk,” a herky-jerky revel that opens with the great lines, “He reels around the nightclub/Like the hubcaps off of a car/That just crashed into a sign that said/‘This way to the nightclub’” and proceeds to compare said nightclub, due to alcoholic lack of equilibrium, to the rolling deck of a ship at sea. There’s also some stuff about fishing for tires and staring down jukeboxes, if they float your boat.
The life of a repo man is always intense. I know this because I have, at last count, watched Alex Cox’ 1984 film Repo Man 123 times. Its storyline—shiftless punk finds himself part of a motley crew of repo men, while a mad scientist roams LA in a car with some highly dangerous nuclear materials in the back—is both whacked and hilarious, and it’s as full of classic lines (“I don’t want no commies in my car. No Christians either” says jaded repo man Bud [Harry Dean Stanton] to young acolyte Otto [Emilio Estevez]) as Apocalypse Now. What’s more, it boasts a better soundtrack, thanks to the contributions of Iggy Pop, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, Fear, and The Plugz.
The film does a wonderful job of capturing the aimlessness of LA’s hardcore youth, and is so full of catch phrases (Bud: “Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”) you could spend the rest of your life, or at least a day or two, speaking only lines from the movie, and never repeat yourself. It’s not impossible, either. I have a friend who took a whole lotta acid and spent the next four days speaking only in song lyrics. Seriously. You might ask him how his day was going and he’d reply, “I’m easy, easy like Sunday morning” or “I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.” I didn’t witness this, but I believe him. He’s not a pathological liar like yours truly, of whom Mary McCarthy once said, “Every word he writes is a lie, including and and the.” Come to think of it I’m lying again, because McCarthy was actually referring to Lillian Hellman.
Anyway, the soundtrack (and the movie) open with Iggy Pop’s “Repo Man.” He recorded the song with Blondie’s former rhythm section (Clem Burke on drums and Nigel Harrison on bass) and ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on guitar after hurriedly scribbling some lines in his notebook. Jones’ opening guitar riff is titanic, oceanic, and BIG, and the rhythm section is spot on. Jones then plays a sorta secret agent man riff while Iggy sings one of his greatest couplets: “I’m looking for the joke/With a microscope.” Okay, so it’s not as good as 1969’s “Now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my and a boo hoo,” but that line’s one in a million.
Poor Eric Clapton. Having been through the supergroup wringer with Cream and Blind Faith, there was nothing he craved more than a little anonymity. No more “Clapton is God”; all he wanted to be was a player in a band that wasn’t being hyped to the stars, and where he could perform his six-string pyrotechnics in the background, as it were. Those are rich man problems, for sure, but Clapton was truly burnt out, and given the opportunity to tour with the American soul/rock/blues band Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, he happily said yes. It was a respite and it paid off, as his guitar playing on the resulting LP, 1970’s On Tour with Eric Clapton, testified.
During the early seventies the Bramletts fronted a musical family that saw them taking in lots of famous orphans, including Duane Allman, George Harrison, Rita Coolidge, Dave Mason, and King Curtis. Despite a host of studio LPs Delaney and Bonnie were best regarded as an incendiary live act, one that led Clapton to not only say, “Delaney taught me everything I know about singing,” but “For me, going on [with Blind Faith] after Delaney and Bonnie was really, really tough, because I thought they were miles better than us.” In any event his time spent with Delaney and Bonnie was a happy one for the troubled musician.
On Tour with Eric Clapton didn’t just feature Clapton. In fact it was populated by a veritable who’s who of the best of rock’s supporting musicians, many of whom also played on that same year’s LP Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Clapton’s next project, Derek and the Dominos. You’ve got Dave Mason on guitar, Bobby Whitlock on organ and keyboards, Carl Radle on bass, Jim Gordon on drums, Bobby Keys on saxophone, Jim Price on trombone and trumpet, and Rita Coolidge on backing vocals; the folks who saw this iteration of the band live were lucky indeed.
Well, there goes another theory shot to shit. I always thought Genesis hit the aesthetic skids the moment Peter Gabriel split and drummer Phil “The Anti-Christ” Collins took over on lead vocals, but I’ve been listening to 1976’s Trick of the Tail, the first post-Gabriel LP, and I’m afraid I was sadly mistaken. Trick of the Tail is not a great album but it’s a very good one, packed with well-constructed tunes with lovely melodies that occasionally, but not too often, stray into the prog trap of technical virtuosity purely for virtuosity’s sake.
Peter Gabriel’s departure threw Genesis’ future into question. A Melody Maker writer went so far as to declare Genesis officially dead. But the band committed itself to proving it could make good music without Gabriel, and after a fruitless search for a new lead vocalist Collins, who wanted to turn Genesis into an instrumental act, reluctantly agreed to take on the vocal duties himself. Which in hindsight seems like a no-brainer, as Collins is a virtual vocal doppelganger for Gabriel and the obvious candidate as a replacement.
Album opener “Dance on a Volcano” has muscle and a fetching melody, to say nothing of some powerhouse drumming by Collins, whose exhortations (“Better start doing it right!”) sound convincing. There is some technical showing off for its own sake, especially at the end, but this one is more hard rock than prog, thanks to Steve Hackett’s guitar work and Tony Banks’ synthesizer. “Entangled” is a bit fey for my tastes, a quiet little pretty ditty, but it wins me over with its melody, which is simply lovely. There’s a beautiful synthesizer solo, which doesn’t attempt to mime classical tropes the way your more virulent and dangerous progmeisters would, and I like it for that.
Ah, the Kinks. Of all the great bands to come out of England in the 1960s, they were by far the most English. Their music hall inclinations and deadpan irony simply didn’t translate, and until they reconstituted themselves as a hard-rocking touring band in the 1970s their only claims to fame here in the U.S.A. were “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” Ray Davies was simply too smart, and had his tongue too far in his cheek, to win over U.S. fans, although I do remember—because it was, I think, the first 45 rpm record I ever heard—my older brother’s copy of “Apeman.” Nor did it help that the band was refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians to tour the U.S. for 4 years, ostensibly due to over-the-top on-stage band mate on band mate violence.
Of course, the Kinks always had their Kultists, people who lovingly cuddled their copies of 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society the way you might your dog Blighter. As for the rest of us, we listened to our Beatles and our Stones and The Who, and the rest of England be damned. This was especially true if you were raised, the way I was, in a rural outpost of provincialism, where the Klan once marched through town and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was considered the pinnacle of pop sophistication.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was a real latecomer to Ray Davies and Company, but have come to love their music, including Muswell Hillbillies. It’s one of the bleakest and funniest albums I know, and it deals with a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart—namely, the failure of everything. Tormented character follows tormented character on this LP, and I can’t get enough of it. Davies sings about paranoia, rampant alcoholism, and the myriad other complications of life, all from a working class perspective. Only Randy Newman could compete with Davies in the hilarious downer department, and while I prefer Newman, Davies more than holds his own.
When it comes to 1970s faux evil rock bands that didn’t have a bone of true evil in their bodies, Blue Öyster Cult comes in right behind Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath. BÖC flirted shamelessly, tongues planted firmly in cheek, with the iconography of the dark side (they sang about S&M, made references to Martin Bormann and put Nazi jet fighters on their album covers, and let’s not forget the Patti Smith-penned “Career of Evil”) and people bought it until, like the previously mentioned bands, the boys from Long Island took it right over the top, and it became obvious that it was all a big joke and they were about as evil as Debbie Gibson.
But if it was all a shuck—and it was: even the rock critic Richard Meltzer, who wrote some of the band’s songs including “Burnin’ for You,” noted, “This is really hard rock comedy”—it led to some pretty great music, culminating Agents of Fortune, which was so wildly successful Robert Christgau dubbed BÖC “the Fleetwood Mac of heavy metal.”
Formed in 1967 as The Soft White Underbelly, the band subsequently changed its name to Oaxaca, then the Stalk-Forrest Group, then and the Santos Sisters before finally settling on Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. They were the first band to employ an umlaut in its name and came up with the most instantly recognizable band logo this side of Black Flag, and were guided step by step by manager Sandy Pearlman, who got them signed, wrote a lot of the band’s lyrics, helped produce their LPs, gave them their name, etc. As for the band’s members, at the time of Agents of Fortune they included Eric Bloom on lead vocals and “stun guitar,” Albert Bouchard on drums and backing vocals, Joe Bouchard on bass and backing vocals, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, and Allen Lanier on keyboards, rhythm guitar, and backing vocals.
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.
I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, here we go, effete and impudent music snob turns his nose up at poor REO Speedwagon, and proceeds to incinerate them with the flamethrower of his adamantine scorn. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. I LIKE REO Speedwagon, or at least their whimsically titled 1978 release You can Tune a piano, but you can’t Tuna fish. I love Gary Richrath’s guitar, I love Neal Doughty’s keyboards, I almost (but not quite) even like Kevin Cronin’s vocals. Sure, they’re metal lite and as often as not too sappy for words, but when they’re on—well, let’s just say I crank them up on my radio and sing along. At the top of my voice.
Formed at the University of Illinois (home of ROCK) in that great state in the latter sixties, the band stole their name from a mid-century commercial delivery truck and went through lead singers the way Oprah goes through empty platitudes. They seemed destined to journeyman status until Tuna came out. Sure, lots of people hated them, and for valid reasons; they’re MOR at its queasiest and most vapid, but on Tuna they miraculously got it right, with a score of up-tempo raves and a few power ballads that I almost like.
The stormtrooping opening track “Roll with the Changes” has it all; superb guitar solos, one mean organ solo, excellent backing vocals, and lots of cool jamming right there in the middle. I don’t care what anybody says; Richrath plays one mean guitar, and he plays for keeps. As for the power ballad “Time for Me to Fly,” I’ve searched my brain for years for the reason I like it. The acoustic guitars? Cronin’s sensitive guy vocals? The way it kicks into gear just long enough to escape utter pussification? I just don’t know, but I know this—I like it as much as like some of Elton John’s ballads, and I like Elton John’s ballads a lot.
Oddballs; you’ve got to love them. Just recently I was happy to happen upon a great band in the grand tradition of English eccentrics, namely Family, who failed to make much of an impression on anybody over the course of their 7 studio LPs, and may well best be remembered as the temporary home of Ric Grech and John Wetton. A psychedelic band boasting a lead singer (Roger Chapman) whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Peter Gabriel (that is when he doesn’t sound like Steve Marriott or Ronnie Lane), Family hung in from 1966 to 1973, when they released their final LP, 1973’s excellent It’s Only a Movie.
To be honest, they sound more like an English folk band with mild progressive pretentions than a psychedelic band to this critic. Songs like the title cut are mildly freaky music hall tunes, while “Leroy” (and this is one of the reasons I love them) sounds like a great lost Faces tune. Meanwhile “Boom Bang” kinda reminds me of Steve Marriott, and I think you know what I’m getting at. It’s Only a Movie is an LP that’s all over the place, but it works magnificently.
I’m going to tell you the plain truth: Family will not blow you away. But they’re a great lost link in the English music time line, and they’re fun and funky, and you could do much, much worse. Unlike Marriott and the more overtly proggish bands of their time, they never hold you hostage with 17-minute songs full of feudal synthesizers (see Gabriel’s Genesis) or inter-song rants about this social issue or that (the Humble Pie era Steve Marriott’s great downfall). No, they keep ‘em short and sweet, and just weird enough to keep you intrigued.
Yeah, let me reiterate: Family sounds like a union of Genesis, Faces, and Humble Pie, with some eccentric theatrics tossed in to liven up matters. And while there’s nothing as good as the bellowing “Sat’d’dy Barfly” (from the band’s 1971 LP Fearless) on It’s Only a Movie, the LP has plenty to offer. Take “Buffet Tea for Two,” which incorporates some great power chords with a folksy melody, then adds lots of slightly off-kilter lounge piano and strings as it climbs and climbs to a marvelous crescendo. The guitar towards the end is pretty cool too.
When it comes down to my philosophy of life, everything I believe I stole directly from the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran. A master of detachment and nattering nabob of negativity who wrote in a pithy and crystalline French, you can distil his entire work to one of his marvelous aphorisms, to wit: “No one has been so convinced as I of the futility of everything; and no one has taken so tragically so many things.” Just how much did he hate life and his fellow man? Let’s see: “Sometimes I wish I were a cannibal—less for the pleasure of eating someone than for the pleasure of vomiting him.”
I’ve long wanted to write a concept album to him, but it seems Melville A.D, who entitled a 2015 LP 11 Electric Poems for E.M. Cioran, has beaten me to the punch. I’m not typically much of a fan of abstract electronic music, but Melville A.D—one of the musical projects of Frenchman and long-time New Yorker Didier Cremieux—strikes exactly the right bleak but still funky note on his songs, which are entitled “Emc 01,” “Emc 02,” etc. Like Cioran’s dark aphorisms the songs on the LP strike an unflinching and elegiac note, one appropriate to the man who once wrote, “To live is to lose ground.”
Cremieux’s other musical projects include Mr. Untel, collaboration with fellow Frenchman Gerard Iangelia. Cremieux described Mr. Untel’s electronic music it to me as “cosmic music for cocktails in the bayou.” According to Cremieux, another project, Firefly Choir, is “a pure electronic project characterized by longer, slower pieces,” featuring “processed organic sounds and as little structure as possible.” Cremieux told me he is inspired by the written word: “I often find myself with many sound ideas after reading words and always try to create a soundscape or a sound illustration to such works.”