Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Black Oak Arkansas, Raunch ‘N’ Roll Live

Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim “Dandy” Mangrum is the Ryne Duren of rock. Duren was the journeyman pitcher who could throw the ball like 167 mph. His only problem? He was legally blind. Not even Coke-bottle-thick glasses helped. From 1954-65 batters suffered nervous breakdowns at his appearance, because as famed Yankee manager Casey Stengel noted, “If he hit you in the head you might be in the past tense.” It didn’t improve batters’ nerves that Duren’s first pitch generally zoomed 20 feet over the catcher’s head. You never knew if Duren was going to hit the strike zone, the third base coach, or some poor kid in the bleacher seats.

Jim Dandy’s voice, same deal. I’d call it a wild pitch, but Mangrum has no pitch, and no control of his amazing instrument whatsoever. He might hit a note, or he might hit some stoned head in the 43rd row. But that’s what I like about Black Oak Arkansas; it managed to become one of the premier live acts of the seventies with a tone-deaf singer with mighty pipes, while playing a lascivious acid-fried hillbilly boogie you have to hear to believe.

Unlike its Southern Rock brethren, BOA was a band of bona fide freaks, LSD-soaked long-hair rednecks who lived off the land commune style (to avoid a felony warrant, basically) in the hills of rural north-central Arkansas. Black Oak played a whoop-ass psycho-boogie that might include Mangrum soloing on the washboard and drummer Tommy Aldridge playing the drums with his hands on such cosmic cornpone as “Mutants of the Monster” or “Lord Have Mercy on My Soul,” with its monologue by Jim “Aldous Huxley in bib overalls” Dandy about the Halls of Karma and how we can all be as one if we only do enough bong hits, like the one the boys do at the beginning of unreleased 1972 studio cut “UP, UP, UP.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Alex Chilton,
Like Flies on Sherbert

When it comes to your storied—and star-crossed—careers, Alex Chilton is one hard guy to top. From a number one hit as vocalist for the Box Tops—at the tender age of 16, and on his first time inside a studio yet—to his 3-LP stint as co-founder of the brilliant (if erratic) and commercially unsuccessful power pop band Big Star, Chilton had both the chops and the genius to become a star in the glittering rock firmament.

It never happened. Sure, everybody from Michael Stipe to the Replacements loves him now. He’s an indie rock saint, and Big Star is every other band’s biggest influence. But Big Star’s was a right songs/wrong time sort of fate, and that fecklessness followed Chilton all his life. His post-Big Star years were one long unhappy tour of rock’s Stations of the Cross: addiction problems, poorly received solo albums, even a stint in New Orleans spent doing odd jobs—washing dishes and trimming trees.

I saw Chilton play once, not too long after the song “No Sex” came out, and he was wasted (I think—I was totally trashed) and took swipes at the audience, and the audience took swipes right back. I remember not particularly liking what Mr. Nasty was playing. But I was an idiot then, and I’m a different sort of idiot now. And having finally listened to Chilton’s 1979 debut solo LP Like Flies on Sherbert, I suspect the now idiot would have loved the show.

And I have Kiki Solis, the very talented bassist, baritone guitarist, and vocalist for the sublimely wonderful Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, to thank. Solis recently gave me some neighborly advice. I say neighborly although we actually live five states apart. But we both have very loud voices, and there’s no law against shouting across state lines. Anyway, Kiki’s advice was this: listen to Like Flies on Sherbert. Do it today. You could die tomorrow, following an attack of sudden onset rickets, and you would have missed out on some brilliantly fucked-up trash.

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Graded on a Curve: David Lee Roth,
Eat ‘Em and Smile

David Lee Roth was Thee Consummate Showman of the Hair Metal era. With Roth you got the whole shmeer; a natural-born ham and song and dance man, he would gladly have set himself alight and turned flaming cartwheels over the squat Michael Anthony if that’s what it took to keep Diamond Dave in the limelight. Not for nothing did the one-man parade once say, “The world’s a stage, and I want the brightest spot.”

Diamond Dave’s fashion sense may have been deplorable (I’m looking at a photo of him wearing leopard-print spandex leotards and a chest-pelt-revealing v-neck t-shirt complete with—yes, the t-shirt—suspenders), but he more than made up for it by being rock’s preeminent komiker, or comedian. Forever “on,” and with a touch of the old-school vaudevillian in him, you got the sense Roth would have been just as comfortable playing the Borscht Belt as he was playing rock’n’roll. This made him a refreshing anomaly in a genre that depleted the world’s stockpile of hair spray yet still took itself very, very seriously. Thanks to David “I don’t feel tardy” Roth, Van Halen wasn’t just the premier hair metal band—or metal band, period, for that matter—of its time; it was the funniest one (“Have you seen Junior’s grades?”) as well.

And I suppose still is, since Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2006—21 years after departing in 1985, unhappy with the band’s pop turn, adoption of keyboards and synthesizers, and increasingly “morose” (his term) sound. During the interim the Dean Martin of Rock (what else are you going to call a guy who once quipped, “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out my glass”?) released a series of increasingly less successful—grunge killed the vaudeville star—solo albums; put together a Las Vegas lounge act complete with a star-studded brass band and exotic dancers (whom Roth described as “so sweet, I bet they shit sugar”); hosted a radio show; and even worked a stint as an NYC EMT. I don’t think this was a poverty move; he probably just wanted to know how to resuscitate himself in the event of a coke-induced heart attack.

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Graded on a Curve: Pussy Galore,
Exile on Main Street

Somewhere in the interstices between adoration and desecration lies Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street. It’s hard to decide whether the noise/trash rock band’s song-by-song cover of the magnificent 1972 Rolling Stones LP is an act of veneration or demolition. Personally, I think it’s both. The Pussies’ Exile on Main Street isn’t an album—it’s a loving assassination, murder as homage, Willard slaying Kurtz in the remote jungles of Cambodia. While the arty poseurs in Sonic Youth were singing about killing your idols, Pussy Galore was out there putting the knife in.

Whether you think Pussy Galore’s Exile on Main Street is a disgracefully amateurish and inept piece of garbage or the high-water mark of nihilistic rock primitivism (I’m of the latter camp), you have to concede that Pussy Galore was up to more than just taking the piss. Sure, Jon Spencer et al. gleefully mangled a number of my very favorite songs beyond recognition, but I’m happy to forgive them because they reminded me that sometimes the wronger you play, the righter you are.

Punk talked a good game about anarchy, but you rarely encountered the real thing on record. This is what makes Exile on Main Street so refreshing. Its sloppy playing, no-fi recording, and chaotic, ramshackle covers are a merry “fuck you” to the dubious notion that great rock’n’roll need have anything to do with good musicianship. Pussy Galore happily reduced what may well be the greatest rock album ever to a fascinating shambles because they were snotty nihilists with a knack for outrage who didn’t give a soaring shit. And that, so far as I’m concerned, is the true spirit of rock’n’roll.

Me, I’d happily trade every slick studio LP ever recorded for Exile’s inspired (and inspiring) ineptitude, which makes Neil Young’s torn and frayed 1975 masterpiece Tonight’s the Night sound like it was produced by Boston’s Tom Scholz, the insane studio perfectionist who, or so the legend goes, once forced his drummer to play his kick drum some 9,000 times before finally giving its tenor his grudging okay.

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Graded on a Curve: The New Lost City Ramblers, American Moonshine and Prohibition Songs

Ah, Prohibition: that 13-year experiment in teetotaltarianism that proved you can’t keep a man from his true love. Take my great-uncle Brooks. He couldn’t afford the bootleg hooch that was readily available, so he took to making that abominable-tasting home brew known as bathtub gin. Where his poor family bathed, I haven’t the faintest.

One day Brooks returned home to discover his bathtub was drier than a county in Kansas. He howled, full of the grapes of wrath, and out the front door he charged. Sure enough, a neighbor recalled seeing an elderly scoundrel slip out the back door of Brooks’ house, a half-dozen newly filled bottles in his arms. Whistling. Who was the dirty palooka as would purloin a souse’s precious store of shine? Why, none other than Brooks’ own father, whose thirst was the stuff of legend. Prohibition turned brother against brother and father against son, just like the Civil War.

1919’s Volstead Act put the kibosh on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, making social reformers and Christian fundamentalists gladsome indeed. But the new prohibition left an ombibulous populace to fret over how to finagle it next fifth. The stewed and the snooted need not have sweated it. The ink was hardly dry on the Volstead Act before bootleggers and moonshiners took on the philanthropic task of ensuring no wet need ever go dry, while crime—organized, disorganized, and otherwise—skyrocketed. From 1920 until 1933, when prohibition was finally repealed, America was one ripped and roaring Republic.

And I can think of no better way to recapture the spirit of that Dark Age than to listen to The New Lost City Ramblers’ 1962 LP American Moonshine and Prohibition Songs, one great collection of tunes about the 18th Amendment’s impact on America’s alcohol-loving Southern mountain populace. Originally released by Folkways, the LP includes 17 songs from the Prohibition era, although several songs feature new lyrics.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Bonzo Dog Band, Tadpoles

I am tempted to call The Bonzo Dog Band (or the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, take your pick) the greatest group in the history of rock. And this despite the fact that they only occasionally got around to playing what could be called a rock song. They were too far too busy cracking themselves up with their hilarious, brilliantly surreal, and utterly deranged wit. If Monty Python had turned to music full-time, they might—although I honestly doubt it—have been as funny as The Bonzo Dog Band.

The genre-hopping mobile insane asylum that was The Bonzo Dog Band might throw anything at you: trad jazz, oldies covers, bizarre street interviews with perplexed normals, and parodies, heaps of parodies—of thirties songs, music hall songs, fifties songs, blues songs, hard-rock songs, psychedelic songs—you name it. And they were excellent musicians—when they wanted to be—with a genius for arranging songs. Your average Bonzo tune may sound anarchic, but you can be certain it was put together with an exacting eye for detail, and every detail is in its right place.

There’s really no one to compare The Bonzo Dog Band with except Frank Zappa, and the comparison is a poor one. Zappa’s humor was sneering and juvenile; his Brit counterparts favored an intelligent and good-natured Dadaism. Just check out “The Intro and the Outro,” a parody of a band introduction that grows stranger and stranger as it goes on, with the announcer snazzily saying, “And looking very relaxed on vibes, Adolf Hitler… niiiice” and “Representing the flower people, Quasimodo, on bells.” No yellow snow here.

Formed in London in 1962 as a trad jazz band, The Bonzo Dog Band’s core line-up included the mad and brilliant Vivian “Ginger Geezer” Stanshall on trumpet and lead vocals; the equally demented Neil Innes on piano, guitar, and lead vocals; Rodney “Rhino” Desborough Slater on saxophone; Roger Ruskin Spear on tenor saxophone and assorted mad sound-producing contraptions, including the trouser press and “Theremin leg”; Dennis Cowan on drums and vocals; and the legendary “Legs” Larry Smith—the tap dancer extraordinaire who played one of rock’s few tap solos on Elton John’s “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself”—on drums.

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TVD Recommends: Horse With Knife at Benefit for Rickets Research at St. Fiacre Catholic Chuch, 4/5

Pete “Panza” Bondurant, the guitarist and vocalist of up-and-coming noise rock trio Horse With Knife, did not have a good 2012. Horse With Knife was playing an outdoor show in Reno, Nevada in support of their critically acclaimed debut LP, A Useful Man Is a Hideous Thing, when Panza’s guitar shorted out, catapulting him 35 feet onto the roof of a porta-john occupied by concertgoer Cyndi King, who told reporters, “I heard a LOUD whistling noise. It sounded like a buzz bomb. I was for goddamn sure I was defunct.” Bondurant was lucky to escape with two broken legs.

But worse was yet to come. Bondurant, a real trooper, took to playing in a wheelchair, which at a show in Boise malfunctioned (faulty brakes), causing Bondurant to roll off the stage and topple nine feet onto the concrete below. On his head. Bondurant suffered a severe concussion. Then, back in Horse With Knife’s hometown of Riddle, Texas, he got into a drunken barroom brawl (in his wheelchair) and broke his left hand. He won the fight.

A lesser man would have spent the rest of his life cloistered in a monastery. I know I would have. But no sooner was Bondurant back on his feet than he went into the studio to record Horse With Knife’s stellar sophomore LP, Let’s Go Hurt Myself.

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Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
Viva! Roxy Music

I am writing these lines in my own blood on a sheet of homemade papyrus, which I will then shove into a bottle and toss into the sea. Why? Because this review is about Roxy Music, and Roxy Music fans are a deranged and dangerous lot, known for issuing fatwahs against people who disagree with their fiercely held opinions—that or just plain fopping them to death.

So coward that I am, I took the precaution of relocating to a deserted archipelago in the remote vastness of the South Pacific—you know, to lie low until the spear-shaking dies down. Unfortunately, I now find myself a castaway (can’t believe I forgot to book that return trip) and have been reduced to a diet of stump-toed gecko and fermented 190-proof coconut hooch, a volleyball with a face painted on it for company.

Because what I’m about to say is sure to cause every Roxy fan on earth to howl and then hunt me down. To wit, Roxy Music’s best album is NOT one of the fetishized Eno-era LPs, or the critically acclaimed 1973-75 albums that followed, or even the much-beloved late-period Avalon. No, Roxy Music’s best LP is—prepare to go apoplectic, Roxy lovers—1976’s live Viva! Roxy Music.

There, I said it. And I can hear the howls of outrage way out here in the middle of nowhere. Thank God for good old Wilson—at least I know he agrees with me.

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(Re)Graded on a Curve: Faces,
A Nod is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse

Faces were The Replacements of their time. Their live shows were raucous, good-natured, often sloppy affairs, fueled by hard liquor, Ronnie Wood’s roar of a guitar, and the sandpaper vocals of Rod “The Mod” Stewart and sad croon of the late, great Ronnie Lane. They were the best party band of their era, or perhaps any era, despite critic Robert Christgau’s equivocal verdict of their legacy: “Their music was so loose and that was such an up; their music was so loose and their songs fell so apart. Come to think of it, bar bands are generally tighter.” Tighter maybe, but not 1/100th as fun, rowdy, or brilliant; show me a bar band that can write a song as great as plaintive as “Ooh La La” or as hard-edged and funny as “Too Bad.” Besides, if it’s tight you’re looking for, go listen to Emerson Lake & Palmer. Just don’t blame me for the brain hemorrhage.

And while the Faces’ LPs may have been uneven, their irresistible mix of hard rock, boogie, and doleful, lovely ballads (most of them sung by Lane, the band’s bassist) still sounds as fresh today as it did before Faces came to their ignominious end, with Wood defecting to The Rolling Stones and Stewart, who owned the best cackle in rock history, commencing his sad slide from one of rock’s great vocalists and songsmiths (“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May” are stone brilliant, two of the best coming-of-age songs ever) to the pathetic Top 40 panderer and low-brow prat of a balladeer he is today.

Briefly, Faces evolved from The Small Faces, the mod group that gave us “Itchycoo Park” and the great Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Faces = The Small Faces minus guitar hero/vocalist Steve Marriott (who went on to form Humble Pie) plus the rooster-coifed Stewart and Wood, and the ace new line-up lost no time in establishing a reputation as loveable rogues: happy-go-lucky, down-to-earth punters always ready for a drink, a hasty knee-trembler, or a bit of innocent off-hours mischief–they were every bit as adept at getting banned from hotel chains as Keith Moon–an image best expressed in the tune “We All Had a Real Good Time” or the title of their 2005 greatest hits collection The Best of Faces: Good Lads When They’re Asleep.

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(Re)Graded on a Curve:
Pulp,
This Is Hardcore

Some albums give off light; others suck it up like a black hole. They’re so dark you’d need Diogenes’ lantern to negotiate their lightless depths. Such an album is Pulp’s 1998 release This Is Hardcore, one of the most unremittingly bleak LPs this side of Lou Reed’s Überbummer Berlin. The brainchild of Jarvis Cocker, jaded romantic in search of purification through immersion in the squalid, This Is Hardcore is a joyless (but always melodic) diagnosis of the human condition, and the diagnosis isn’t good.

You’ve got the Fear, says Cocker, because you’re taking too many drugs, and you equate sex not with love but with pornography, and you fail your young and are terrified of growing old. And there aren’t enough kicks or kink out there to save you; and even the man who does right is dissatisfied. Cocker is the same fellow who 3 years earlier had written “Sorted for E’s & Wizz,” which eviscerated rave culture and reduced it to a lost soul who’s seriously lost the plot: “And this hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows/And you want to phone your mother and say/’Mother, I can never come home again/Cos I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere/Somewhere in a field in Hampshire.’” A nattering nabob of negativity he may have been, but no one else of Cocker’s time–which was marked by a rebirth of pride in the culture of the UK–wrote so cogently and forthrightly about the “hollow feeling” at the core of Cool Britannia.

Pulp was formed in 1978, but it wasn’t until 1995′s Different Class–with its hits “Common People,” “Mis-Shapes,” “Disco 2000,” and “Something Changed”–that the band became bona fide rock stars and reluctant members of the Britpop movement. And while Different Class was chock full of class-conscious satire and dark sarcasm, it sounded upbeat; “Sorted for E’s & Wizz” may well be the cheeriest-sounding song ever written about the down side of a drug culture, while “Common People,” as sarcastic a song as any ever written, is also perky and upbeat sounding.

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