“The Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright III
“Swimming” by Breathe Owl Breathe
“Nightswimming” by REM
“The Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright III
“Swimming” by Breathe Owl Breathe
“Nightswimming” by REM
The other night we were lucky enough to catch a late night set by our favorite local band, Pennyroyal, at the Dakota. We were elated to hear them soundcheck with “Wild Iris”, a song we hadn’t heard them perform in ages. Even more surprising was Angie Oase’s solo opening set, which brought together disparate covers and Pennyroyal favorites. One of the songs was this moving old blues standard, often mis-credited as a Bob Dylan song.
The earliest recorded version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” was captured by John Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax at a state workhouse on the southern coast of Texas in 1939. The Library of Congress records the performer as Smith Carson, although he’s known to history as Smith Casey. The eleven songs he performed for the Lomaxes that April day are the sole document of his time on this Earth.
Bob Dylan recorded “He Was a Friend of Mine” for his first album, but it was ultimately cut. His interpretation found its eventual official release on the first of the ongoing “Bootleg Series” collections, and was perhaps the rarest recordings to appear on that overdue compilation. It is likely that Dylan learned the song from Dave Van Ronk, one of the most remarkable and under-appreciated figures in the history of American traditional music.
Some facts about Dave Van Ronk:
*He was considered by promoter Albert Grossman for a folk trio which included Peter Yarrow and eventually became Peter, Paul and Mary. Van Ronk was rejected because Grossman found his unique and personal performances too un-commercial.
*He incorporated New Orleans jazz and ragtime into his performances, connecting the traditional jazz revival of the 50s with the folk and blues revival of the following decade — Van Ronk’s breadth of historical knowledge and his good nature led him to be a mentor to many of the folk singers who settled in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, including Bob Dylan.
*The Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is said to be based on Van Ronk’s experiences (taking its title from his 1964 LP) but it does not represent the rich background he brought to his performances — from barbershop and traditional jazz to classical music and ragtime piano.
*Dave Van Ronk was one of the thirteen people arrested at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.
*He performed “He Was a Friend of Mine” at the memorial service for Phil Ochs after his death by suicide in 1976.
The song’s singular place in the sixties folk revival is on this 1963 Prestige LP, where it opens the second side. It appeared on the Hymies blog a couple years back here. Van Ronk’s performance of the song, then largely unknown, is dynamically idiosyncratic, reflecting Grossman’s concerns that he couldn’t contribute to a folk/pop group like Peter, Paul and Mary.
Since the sixties the song has become more of a standard, and has been recorded dozens of times. Search its title on Youtube and you’ll find hundreds of homemade performances. A song first recorded by a prisoner, a song with stark spiritual overtones, it is an unlikely favorite but there it is — and always achingly sincere. One does not set out to perform “He Was a Friend of Mine” without the the sorrow of grief in their heart.
This weekend millions of punk rock hearts were broken when Tommy Erdelyi passed away at the age of sixty-five after a fight with cancer. Erdelyi was the last of the original Ramones, having taken that name when the band released its first album in 1976. Growing up with the others in Forest Hills, New York, Tommy was originally to be the group’s manager — he ended up in the drummer’s chair when no one else they auditioned was up to the task.
When I was a kid you couldn’t rent Rock and Roll High School at a Blockbuster or Video Lease (what a terrifying name!) or the neighborhood shop because the it was out of print. This is actually a thing that happened, that there were out of print VHS tapes and people looked for them. We finally found a copy at a strange little corner shop on Hennepin Avenue called Discount Video, which specialized in the sort of stuff weird people would want to bring home and watch.
My weirdest friend thought this was going to be a video we’d watch over and over again (a premonition that did not prove accurate) and so ran the video from his parent’s camera into a VCR to make a dub of the Ramones’ 1979 feature film, which has been in the same place in my mother’s basement ever since. Balden, who last appeared here on the Hymie’s blog when we posted a mix tape he made around the same time, also made himself a copy of The City of Lost Children that night, which was at the time a new release.
In this fairly representational scene, the film’s heroine smokes a joint and imagines the Ramones have appeared in her bedroom. Tommy is relegated to the yard, a position only slightly better than that of bassist Dee Dee Ramone, who is found in the shower. At least it is Tommy upon who Riff Randall swoons at the end of the number. The entire film straddles a strange line between absurdity and aching sincerity, a fine line you could say defined much of the Ramones catalog.
I was fortunate enough to see the Ramones perform around the same time, courtesy of another friend. Their last album, Adios Amigos, was reliably in the player in our house and Joey Ramone’s take on Tom Wait’s “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” something of a personal anthem. By this time Marky Ramone had long passed Tommy as the band’s longest serving drummer. I did not know at the time, nor did anyone, that Joey Ramone was at the beginning of what became a long battle with lymphatic cancer. It wouldn’t be proper to eulogize Tommy Ramone with a track on which he didn’t perform, but Joey’s lighthearted, soaring “Life’s A Gas” would be as apt as any track from those first four albums.
With a nod to his local connections, a better choice may be “Bastards of Young” or “Here Comes a Regular,” songs from the Replacements’ Tim, an album Erdelyi produced in 1985. The thing is, Tommy Ramone was never the sort of reckless his music may have inspired — in fact, he once released an album of bluegrass duos with Claudia Tienan on which he played the banjo, pointing out in an interview that there are a lot of similarities between punk rock and traditional American music. “Both are home-brewed music as opposed to schooled, and both have an earthy energy,” he explained. ” Anybody can pick up an instrument and start playing.”
The bands so curiously defined as cow-punk may agree. The folks from Blackbird Raum surely would — they performed here just last week. A Ramones cover in their acoustic set wouldn’t have been out of place, even though they were performing to a packed room without amplification.
But the most recent Ramones cover here on the Hymie’s stage was yesterday, Sunday evening, when Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band introduced several new songs and stretched out on a few favorites. These guys are our favorite local purveyors of the spirit of rock and roll, and we knew — there wasn’t a moment we doubted it — they’d do a Ramones songs.
And they chose “Cretin Hop”:
There may be a time we believe we’ve outgrown the Ramones and their distinctively, unabashedly juvenile music, but they are in fact as indelible as any homemade tattoo. The Ramones’ music celebrated everything magical about rock and roll, even when that magic was kind of stupid (as in “Every Time I Eat My Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You”). They may have been a ‘right place at the right time’ kind of band, but most people who find themselves in that position put a thumb up their butt and complain something is uncomfortable. The Ramones aced their opportunity, casually and clumsily saving rock and roll.
It was right around this time last summer that Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band released their debut LP, Promises to Deliver, with a show here at Hymie’s followed by another at the Turf Club. Since they’ll be playing here again this Sunday at 4pm, we thought we’d rerun our review of the album, still a favorite around here, originally posted on June 21st of last summer.
Drop a needle on your new copy of Promises to Deliver, the worth-the-wait first album by Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band, and you’ll know why we love this guy before the end of the first verse. The last time they performed here on the Hymie’s stage Nato (as his alter-ego, the bespeckled “professor”) offered an impassioned lecture on places that have soul, including our record shop in a list that also named our favorite venue in town, the Turf Club. If you can’t get enough of Nato and his reliable Blue Diamond Band you’ll be able to see them perform on both stages tomorrow, along with some awesome supporting acts as part of an epic celebration for the release of their first LP.
The awesome story by Zack McCormick for the City Pages‘ blog Gimme Noise (here) captures him insisting he’s not a “Springsteen-clone” but you can’t seriously sing a song like “Julie (Hang Out a Little Longer)” and express surprise when people note similarities. Besides, a couple track – especially “Econoline” – are more Bon Jovi than Boss.
Seriously, there is a lot of range to Promises to Deliver that was only hinted at in the band’s previous release, a 45rpm single that pretty much solidified Coles as the Cities’ purest purveyor of genuine rock and roll. “Play Loud” has already made a few appearances here on the Hymie’s blog (like this one) and taken up residency in our jukebox. Its an anthemic paean to the pleasures of rock and roll, one of the most joyful singles to come out of Minneapolis in decades, and a sure cure for the blues. And its a song I don’t think Springsteen could write anymore.
Promises to Deliver maintains the furious intensity of that 45 for more than thirty-five minutes in a stunning race that captures Coles’ wanderlust. Hardly a “Springsteen clone” indeed, this album draws from the country rock of the bible belt as tactfully as it does the hard rock of the rust belt. From one moment to the next it will remind you of every rock and roll album you’ve loved since you first heard Jailbreak – you’ll find yourself variously wishing you were cruising east on I-80 or west down the Will Rogers Highway. Either way, you’ll wish you were heading somewhere.
In the Gimme Noise story Coles talked about putting more work into his lyrics, throwing away the throw-away lines, and the result is nine narratives as concise as the arrangements that frame them – simple descriptions and pedestrian, working class settings (a record store, a neighborhood bar, an Econoline) set the stage for real emotions. Excitement, anxiety (“all day long I’m climbing the walls”), loneliness, restlessness.
Lead guitarist Sam Beer’s work is integral to that drive that makes Promises to Deliver such a fun listen. Without walking over the dynamic bandleaders’ delivery, Beer turns in an exceptional tour de force performance. His solos and short fills match Coles’ energy bar for bar – sometimes heavy and bluesy, like borrowed from Joe Perry’s solo at the beginning of “Mama Kin,” other times more earnest honky tonk than anything on a Steve Earle record (check out what he brings to “Hard to Hear the Truth”). Beer frequently recalls those classic metal records we never really outgrow, as in the warm lead that launches “You Can Count on me Tonight” and throughout the album’s opening track, “See Some Lights.” There’s even a solo in the middle of “Econoline” that could have come off the last Nightosaur disc! His playing in each track fits the epic feeling of the album perfectly, so as far as his role is concerned this album could have been called Promise Delivered.
That’s not to say fellow Blue Diamond boys Kyle Sando and Mike Cranberry don’t deliver. Keeping up with Nato Coles must be an extraordinary challenge – there’s moments Promises to Deliver where it feels like the only thing that keeps the band from exploding to a frantic 200 bpm is Cranberry. Restraining a band with deep punk rock roots in a track like “Hard to Hear the Truth” is no small feat. Here and there bassist Sando seems like the most driven to play faster, and some of his playing (at, say, the end of “See Some Lights” or throughout the aging lamentation “Late Night Heroes”) shows shades of punk rock in an otherwise very much “classic rock” album.
Classic rock. Yep, stuff our dads listened to when we were growing up. Stuff you hear in the background of TV commercials today. Stuff those of us who worked in construction are goddamn sick of thanks to KQRS. We’re pretty sure that if the people at that station didn’t have their heads so far up their corporate Cumulus Media butts, they’d be spinning this record (if they even spin records at all anymore). Here it is the longest day of the year, the midpoint of 2013, and we’ve got a leading contender for our favorite local album of the year.
Addendum: Nato’s response was that he “had never, willingly, listened to a Bon Jovi record.” And that he, not Sam Beer, played the lead on “Econoline.” “Sam can play all kinds of things. He’s awesome, but anytime it sounds like Neil Young, that’s me.”
“Someday my Day will Come” by George Jones
It seems unlikely that George Jones meant this single from his 1981 album Still the Same Ole Me to be a gay anthem, but it’s hard to hear it any other way. Tony Washington could have sung the hell out of this song!
Actually, Jones sang the hell out of this song. It’s a testament to his unique talent for conveying feelings that this song could be so mis-interpreted but just as moving.
Gay country music gets a bad rap — tied for some years to ‘out’ acts like pop-oriented kd. lang or novelty songs like “CB Savage” (which we posted here). It’s silly stuff. Willie Nelson contributed to the silliness a little with a cover of Ned Sublette’s “Cowboys are Frequently, Secretly, Fond of Each Other” the year after he contributed a song to the soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain (you know, the “gay cowboy movie”). There’s just a little too much ‘tee hee’ about it all.
It seems like every country singer who gets divorced must deny that homosexuality caused the breakdown of their marriage — just ask Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. It also seems coming out puts a country singer in a new box, maybe smaller than the closet — the “gay country singer” can only go so far. Just ask k.d. lang, or Chely Wright, or Steve Grand, the whose “All American Boy” garnered instant enthusiasm online but whose first album (funded by — ugh — kickstarter) will be under intense scrutiny from two of the most discriminating demographics in America: country music fans and people who write for blogs about LGBT issues.
Vernon Dalhart’s 1939 single “Lavender Cowboy” was banned from the airwaves. Cowboy Jack Derrick’s “Truck Drivin’ Man,” a 1948 single for King Records, was pushed off their airwave and into obscurity for a couple curious lines
When my truck drivin’ man comes into town
I’ll dress up in my silken gown
Billy Briggs recorded a single just a couple years later — “The Sissy Song” — which left listeners wondering what he was really up to. It’s not like there have never been gay cowboy records.
Maybe the ‘wink-wink’ of “The Sissy Song” was a little too much for country music folks, because it was nearly a couple decades before the first openly gay country band made an LP — Lavender Country’s first record is recognized today in the Country Music Hall of Fame (you should visit it!) but on its 1973 release was privately pressed and limited to a thousand copies. It’s songs (“Cryin’ in these Cocksucking Tears” and the lampoon “Back in the Closet Again,” for instance) were a little too much for mainstream folks, let alone good ol’ fashioned country folks.
The post-Stonewall organization of gay communities coupled with the seventies boom in independently released albums produced a lot of fun stuff, from Lavender Country to Geof Morgan (whose “Penis Song” comes from his album It Comes with the Plumbing) to the sometimes forgotten but often awesome independent lesbian-oriented label Olivia Records.
Geof Morgan’s songs are not always as silly as “The Penis Song,” and are often insightful. Although this album also contained a song called “Homophobia,” (which laments how he is unable to connect with his male friends) according to our copy of the mid-70s Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Walls to Roses: Songs of Changing Men, Morgan (who wrote one of the songs) was one of the collections’ only heterosexual contributors.
While around the same time Jim Staford sheepishly beat around the bush, so to speak, in “My Girl Bill,” the Folkways compilation made very clear its intentions of changing common perceptions of gay men, and did so in a folky, country style.
Olivia was a label for women, and its most successful releases were from singer-songwriter oftentimes similar (if more serious) Morgan. Beginning in 1973 they found a remarkable level of success with releases by folk singers like Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. Their clever retort to Anita Bryant, Lesbian Concentrate, is a unique and classic compilation LP — and the label was one of the most admirable independents of the 70s. Other releases on the label were some really funky jazz (like Linda Tillery’s first album), but eventually it fell from fashion. Once very successful, Olivia Records evolved into a cruise line — not a future you would expect for a record label.
Garth Brooks got into all manner of trouble with for a line in a song from his 1992 album, The Chase. “We Shall be Free” features his dreams for a world where people everywhere live in peace with one another. In it he imagines a world “where we will be free to love anyone we choose,” a lyric which led the song to be (according to the liner notes to The Hits) “easily the most controversial I’ve ever done.”
“We Shall be Free” was also easily one of the best songs Brooks had ever sung, although its backlash pressured him into rarely singing the song in concert. One audience that was able to get it out of him was the Muppets, when he appeared on the second episode short-lived, long-forgotten Muppets Tonight revival.
Local musician Willie Murphy’s dog Clyde jumped out the window of a car yesterday and has been lost ever since — it happened in the neighborhood just west of the shop on East Lake Street, on the other side of Hiawatha.
Since so many of our readers seem to be from the neighborhood, we thought we’d share this. If you find Clyde, you can let us know and we can contact Willie, or if you know him you can call him yourself.
This week we’re going to start putting some paving blocks into the weedy boulevard in front of the record shop. It’s a project we’ve been talking about for a while, but are just getting around to now.
We’re very excited about it, and think it will make the record shop, and the whole neighborhood, a little nicer. This classic Slim Gaillard song is the closet thing we could think of which fits.