Country music is pretty popular here at Hymie’s, but our first choice is rarely Johnny Cash. Our opinion really took a turn after reading his autobiography, in which we felt the country music legend came off as a boorish, self-serving boob. We’d say its all about the California condors, but if anyone here were judged on a single incident of stupidity we’d all be in real trouble.
And, as with so much other music, we’ve found approaching his albums from a new angle has improved our impression. It’s always interesting to re-visit records you didn’t enjoy in the past — your new reaction may surprise you.
More and more we’ve come to enjoy Johnny Cash’s records not for their rebellious themes, but for his consistently clever and dark sense of humor. “A Backstage Pass,” from his forgotten run at Mercury Records, is a great example. And of course, many of his early hits offer a humorous approach to hard luck through storytelling.
Recently, a friend loaned us copies of several of his 90s American Recordings albums, which we have enjoyed. At the time we’d thought the label’s model was gimmicky — taking a star whose career had long been floundering and having them cover pop songs still strikes us as tawdry — but the records undeniably resonated with a large audience. Too bad the same didn’t happen for Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs, which is a great album, too.
One can see how they re-framed Cash, (who was hardly a genuine outlaw in the sense that, say, Merle Haggard was) for generation X. And for whatever reason, we weren’t as tired of hearing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as our parents were. Fortunately, the sextenarian’s songwriting acumen was still sharp, and the original songs from his American Recordings run are ripe with his delightfully dark sense of humor.
Our favorite song from the period was not one of the Rick Rubin productions, but a song from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (a favorite disc which we have recently posted here). With its humorous approach to metaphysics, “In Your Mind” presages Cash’s appearance on The Simpsons as a coyote who serves as Homer’s spirit guide during a peyote trip. Ry Cooder produced the song, lending it his own irreverent approach.
When we found “In Your Mind” to post it this morning, we realized it recalled an older tune that’s likely far less known but a favorite of ours. “Let It Ride” is a single by country music songwriter Dick Feller from 1975. Feller had written a hit for Johnny Cash which made country music’s top ten three years earlier (“Any Old Wind that Blows”) and also a #1 hit for Jerry Reed (“Lord Mr. Ford”). His songs have a similar sense of humor, and his success led to his debut as a singer shortly after the release of “Lord Mr. Ford.” His first album, like those of many Nashville songwriters, played off his previous role and had him covering the tunes he’d written for others.
Never as famous as other country storytellers like Cash and poor, unlucky Tom T. Hall, Feller wrote some of the funniest songs of the seventies. Our favorite is “Uncle Hiram and the Homemade Beer.” Like Roger Miller, he lamented that nobody took him seriously when he wrote serious songs, such as “Some Days Are Diamonds,” which was a gigantic success for John Denver in 1981. If you ever come across a Dick Feller record give it a listen — you’ll probably laugh and maybe feel a little misty, too.
“Let It Ride” is a great gamblers’ tune, which captures the misplaced hopes of placing another bet. And “In Your Mind” sounds a lot like it. We’re not suggesting Cash and Cooder stole anything from Feller, just that they’re similar approaches to the mysteries of the unknown.
So it looks like we’re going to have to toss the Louis C.K. records along with all those copies of Bill Cosby’s Wonderfulness and his ironically titled 1969 album, It’s True It’s True. The latest celebrity disgrace made his case all the more loathsome with a languid and self-serving statement apparently intended as an apology. We were never fans to begin with — his comedy has always been sexist — so we’re not nearly as disappointed as we were when we had to say so long to Fat Albert.
The gloomy joke is that 2016 may have been the year your favorite celebrity died, but 2017 is the year your other favorite turned out to be a complete piece of garbage. The larger news story is the rapidity with which the entertainment industry has distanced itself from figures like C.K. and Cosby, and the head-spinning flow of additional accusations appearing in this new environment in which women feel safe speaking out about experiences of sexual misconduct.
The music industry has long been forgiving of many transgressions — for instance we’ve long been fascinated by fans’ willingness to forget Eric Clapton’s notorious ’76 endorsement of Enoch Powell, in a rant which included such nuggets as “keep the coons out” and “keep Britain white.” Clapton clearly hadn’t forgotten nearly thirty years later, when he declared Powell was “outrageously brave” in an interview with Uncut, adding that his feeling about this “had not changed.”
Clapton’s guaranteed escape from accountability — I was drunk — likely excuses Neil Young for his own offensive transgression. In a 1985 Melody Maker interview, at the height of homophobic AIDS hysteria, Young said, “You go to a supermarket and you see a faggot behind the fuckin’ cash register, you don’t want him to handle your potatoes.” He never apologized for the remark, but unlike Clapton he didn’t proudly reaffirm it either. Music blog Tunes du Jour points to a passage by biographer Jimmy McDonough to suggest why the singer never revisited the subject:
I found out that Young was planning on donating the proceeds from the ‘Philadelphia’ track to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center. He acknowledged it was true but didn’t seem anxious to publicize the fact. I got the feeling there were other chartable acts I didn’t know about. ‘I’m not trying to score any social points,’ he said.
We’re not trying to equate Eric Clapton’s implicit racism or Neil Young’s ignorance with sexual assault, but rather to point out how fans are able to separate the artwork from the artist in regard to popular music. The reason we personally don’t own any albums by Eric Clapton is their oppressive blandness, but to many his is perceived as a living legend and a progenitor of the blues — accolades we find absurdly misplaced in light of behavior we believe would not have been forgiven if he’d been an actor. There’s something about being a rock star which allows you to get away with just about anything.
Heaven help you if you dare suggest that David Bowie’s deflowering of fifteen-year-old groupie Lori Maddox was, by definition of California law, statutory rape. Fans will have your head for such sacrilege, but they’re strangely silent on the subject of the pervasive pedophilia of 70s rock stars. Lurid accounts are sensationalized in books like Hammer of the Gods, an unauthorized biography of Led Zeppelin, but its hard to un-see the dehumanizing, degrading attitude towards young women shared by Louis C.K. Consider what the now-disgraced comedian said in his bullshit ‘apology’ when he wrote, “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.” This is exactly what feminist author Rebecca Traister has pointedly observed in her essays for The Cut — the issue we should address is one of gender and power.
Fans of Led Zeppelin gleefully recount Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult and often work kink into to the same story, as though accounts of his traveling with a suitcase of whips is somehow connected. That Zeppelin’s legendary sexual conquests were over underage girls is left out of the narrative because it rightfully fits John Paul Jones’ description: “It’s a very sad little book. It made us out to be sad little people.”
We’re a neighborhood record store so we can’t afford to throw all the Led Zeppelin records in the same trashcan as the Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. albums, but that’s where we believe they belong. People expect to find their albums in a record store — this is a band whose licensed apparel is sold in nice stores like Target, and Rolling Stone reliably reminds us just how much we should admire them.
Bowie’s case is complicated by an AIDS scare he caused himself. It was a lot more alarming than Neil Young’s regrettable remark. In 1987 a woman named Wanda Nichols accused the singer of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room. Her criminal complaint alleged that after the assault he bit her and told her he had AIDS. A grand jury declined to press charges against Bowie, then forty, for lack of evidence, and after conceding to an HIV test requested by Nichols’ attorney the matter was tidily resolved. Like Eric Clapton’s xenophobic racism, the issue was never raised in one of Rolling Stones‘ laudatory lists of “The 100 Greatest Whatevers,” or “50 Most Important So and So’s.”
To us the most perplexing example of this selective recollection is the conventional image of John Lennon as a peace-loving guru, sanctified by his tragic death. His narcissistic misogyny somehow erased, even though accounts of his violence towards women pre-date the Beatles. A non-discriminatory piece of garbage, Lennon was equally cruel to his firstborn son, Julian, who he once described as “born out of a bottle of whiskey” and struck for minor infractions. In one of the cruelest accounts of his behavior towards the boy, Lennon once responded to his giggle by snarling, “I hate the way you fucking laugh.”
In the much celebrated tell-all interview with Playboy shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon responded to a question about the song “Getting Better”:
All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.
The monumental phony goes on to explain that this is why he’s “all on about peace and love,” but it sounds about as genuine an excuse as his song “Jealous Guy.” His tendency towards abusive relationships was earlier immortalized in a song on the Beatles album Rubber Soul in 1965. It seems forgotten classic closes with one of the most alarmingly predatory songs in the dinosaur rock canon, “Run For Your Life.” Based off a throwaway line in Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House,” Lennon’s song is both menacing and demeaning.
Lennon’s largely undiscussed but unpleasant legacy lives on in the enduring perception of Yoko Ono as an interloping shrew who broke up the Beatles by forcing herself into their recording sessions. In truth, she attended out of fear of Lennon, who was so consumed with jealousy that he also required her to follow him into the bathroom. In some ways Ono got the best of those sneering fans who derided her appearance, her art and even her race for decades as she is now regarded as something of an elder statewoman and a pioneering feminist, as well as a pioneering performer in what eventually became punk rock and new wave.
Again, no record store in America can afford to throw away all the John Lennon albums because they remain best-sellers. Fans remain ignorant of his horrendous behavior, attributing his violence towards women to his grief at the loss of his mother at the age of nine. Never mind that he enthusiastically expressed a regret he did not have the opportunity to fuck his mother, something he insists “she would have allowed.”
Maybe the subject is better served looking to the present rather than the past. In this post-Weinstein world the pop band Brand New has faced unprecedented consequences following numerous accounts of assault and predatory behavior towards young girls by its lead singer. The band Real Estate dumped its guitarist similar claims. Electronica producer Gaslamp Killer lost his regular gig with DJ showcase Low End Theory following the revelation of rape charges. Punk label Plan-It-X Records lost several of its top selling artists after accusations of assault by its owner surfaced.
Country musician Margo Price recently told the story of having a drink spiked by a Nashville producer. “I feel lucky I wasn’t raped .. and shouldn’t have to feel lucky about it.” Another country singer, Katie Armiger, detailed similar behavior in a lawsuit with her former record label, and believes speaking out was detrimental to her career. Details of the suit reveal a culture of sexism and abuse in the country music industry.
All of this returns to what Traiser has been writing about power dynamics in The Cut. Armiger has not named her harassers for fear of reprisal.
It has been eight years and a week or two since Michael Jackson passed away in a rented mansion in Los Angeles, and twelve years since he was acquitted on all counts by a jury after a trial so that bizarre the prosecutor himself was seen at one point with his head in his hands as one of his witnesses perjured herself.
The very idea that he was living in a rented mansion at the end expresses the absurdity of Jackson’s life. His residences are legendary locations: the Jackson’s Hayvenhurst mansion in Encino is set to become a tourist attraction and of course there is Neverland, the 3000 acre ranch whose zoo and carnival rides have not seen life in years. Also there is the Jackson’s original home in Gary, Indiana, which is a destination for devoted fans. A quick look over what folks have to say on Trip Advisor about their visit will remind you that there most certainly are two Americas.
If only people would recognize how transparent the motives of the Arviso family were, or how unethical television ‘journalists’ like Diane Dimond used the case to benefit their own careers, often making entirely unverified claims under the unscrupulous umbrella of ‘un-named sources.’ Anyways, we agree with Thomson’s argument that the media’s treatment of Jackson was “shameful.”
People seem unwilling to listen when you point out that the Arviso family had already filed a questionable lawsuit against J.C. Penny after the mother and children were caught shoplifting. Or that she had spoken with an attorney about suing Michael Jackson before her family had even met the pop star.
Instead they’ll be quick to point to the 1993 claims against Jackson as evidence of a pattern, but that earlier case was also fraught with suspicious motives. The father of that accuser, Evan Chandler, was ostensibly a dentist but also acted as a drug dealer to celebrities, as described in the late Carrie Fisher’s 2011 memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher, who admits having unnecessary dental work “just for the morphine,” described about how Chandler seemed to be scheming to put Jackson in a compromising position and was using his son as bait. “This was the time I knew I had to find another dentist,” she wrote. “No drug can hide the feeling of one’s skin crawling.”
The most unsettling aspect of this case is a recorded telephone conversation between Chandler and his ex-wife’s new husband, in which he describes how he will win the case against Jackson. It took place on June 8, but Chandler later claimed he learned about the alleged abuse on June 16.
In her book, Fisher defended Jackson:
I never thought that Michael’s whole thing with kids was sexual. Never. As in Neverland. Granted, it was miles from appropriate, but just because it wasn’t normal doesn’t mean that it had to be perverse. Those aren’t the only two choices for what can happen between an adult and an un-related child hanging out together.
Anyway, another year has passed and things will remain the same. Sony will make millions of an artist they could hardly recognize when he struggled, and people will stop in the record shop and make “Wacko Jacko” jokes.
Monday’s post about prison records included several poems read by Pat Parker at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. One of these makes reference to George Jackson, who also appeared in songs by Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Dylan, Archie Shepp, and others. His writings were enormous influential during the movement to advance prisoners’ rights.
Jackson was eighteen years old when he was accused of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station. Although the case was not strong, his court appointed attorney convinced him to plead guilty because he had a record of petty crimes. He was given an indefinite imprisonment sentence of one year to life, meaning that the State of California would determine the duration of his sentence based on his conduct while incarcerated. This is a real thing that exists in the country where we live.
He spent more than a decade in prison, first at San Quentin. Due to disciplinary infractions he was not eligible for release, and instead spent much of his time in solitary confinement. Jackson studied radical political theory, once writing, “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.” His became less of a disciplinary problems and more of a theorist. He wrote to friends and supporters detailed descriptions of the conditions inside San Quentin, and later Soledad, and also eloquent descriptions of daily survival in the face of oppressive racism. His letters to friends and supporters were collected and published in 1970 as Soledad Brother, selling four hundred thousand copies.
Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. — George Jackson
Jackson and two other prisoners were accused of killing a white guard at Soledad on January 17, 1970. The details of the case are murky at best, and when it finally came to trial the state of California was unable to prove its case. An effort was made to bring the three suspects before secret hearings in Salinas County, but before the third such hearing one of the other inmates was able to get a note to his mother, who secured the help of a state senator and an attorney. This attorney argued the reason the three were accused was not due to the presence of any evidence, but because they had been identified by the correctional authorities as militants.
Their case became a cause célèbre, but before it could come to trial there was a hostage situation and shootout at a Marin County courthouse created by Jackson’s seventeen year old brother, Jonathan. Three prisoners and a Judge were killed in the escape attempt.
Just over a year later, Jackson himself was killed in an escape attempt at Soledad, under circumstances which have long been the subject of question and speculation. The late, eminent James Baldwin put it best when he wrote, “No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they told us he died.”
The most famous event in the aftermath of Jackson’s death was the Attica Prison uprising, which began two weeks later. The subsequent hostage negotiations and violent conclusion, in which ten guards and thirty-eight prisoners were killed in a siege of the prison approved by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, put the brakes on the prisoners’ rights movement.
“So what is to be done after a revolution has failed? After our enemies have created a conservative mass society based on meaningless electoral politics, spectator sports, and a 3 percent annual rise in purchasing power strictly regulated to negate itself with a corresponding rise in the cost of living. …What can we do with a people who have gone through he authoritarian process and come out sick to the core!!!” — George Jackson
Still, prisoners and their advocates had established, most often through the courts, the defense of their basic human rights, as well as the opportunity to improve themselves through means which were unimaginable even a decade earlier. While many advancements remained — and still remains — to be done, the American correctional system moved away from the ‘hands off’ 19th century model which saw prisoners as little more than potential labor.
The largest setback for the prisoners’ rights movement in the years since was a 1996 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The only law of its kind in the western world, the Prison Litigation Reform Act severely limits the access prisoners have to the legal system, including those detained and awaiting trial who are presumed to be innocent. The result has a been a precipitous decline in civil rights cases brought by prisoners, and alarming changes to the conditions inside prisons. Through the PLRA, prisoners who have been sexually assaulted have had their cases thrown out because they did not adequately exhaust all available administrative means prior to filing a suit. Other prisoners whose religious liberties have been restricted have had their cases thrown out because they were not physically injured.
If George Jackson were alive and seated at his typewriter today, he would certainly continue to write about the institutional racism which led to inevitably destroyed lives such as his own, but he would also decry the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
Folk singer Phil Ochs left us with a heartbreakingly small discography. His seven albums only hint at the depth of his insight and wit, which is why his songs are so often performed by others. “There But for Fortune,” made famous by Joan Baez in 1964, is one of several of Ochs’ songs overdue for a revival.
The message of this song, heard here from Ochs’ last traditional folk album, Phil Ochs In Concert, is deeply relevant to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, although he does not explicitly mention race in the song. While Ochs often exercises his satirical side in his songs, “There but for Fortune” is distinguished by its sincere empathy.
Another often-recorded song by Ochs is “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which also made its debut on his live album.
We’ve read that Phil Ochs in Concert is one of those ‘fake’ live albums, because the recordings from the New York and Boston concerts weren’t entirely use-able and studio recordings were overdubbed with audience sounds. This potential inauthenticity isn’t as significant considering so many of the songs didn’t appear elsewhere on Ochs’ albums (a studio recording of “There but for Fortune” was released on a Vanguard Records compilation in 1964). One of the songs introduced on this album is “When I’m Gone,” which could be seen as the bridge between Ochs’ early political folk career and his later works as a more sentimental singer on albums like the ironically named Greatest Hits. This song is also often performed by folk singers (an especially beautiful interpretation appears on Ani Difranco’s 2000 EP Swing Set) but Ochs’ own recording takes on depth in the wake of his tragic passing in 1976. Like the stark cover of his album Rehearsals for Retirement, “When I’m Gone” is strikingly morbid, but unlike much of his music it offers an insight into the optimism buried deep in Ochs’ soul.
Folk music today is often frustratingly apolitical, and we ache for an Ochs out there today. We’ve heard enough well-heeled suburbanites sing about riding rails n’ ramblin’ to last us a lifetime, and we’d like it once in a while they’d say something about the shitstorm which is this election cycle or our collective denial of an entire generation of black men. Or the shocking extent to which we as a society have apparently decided we’re not going to do anything about climate change. Or the fact that the last verse Buffy Saint Marie’s “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” can be updated with a new alarming injustice to indigenous people basically every year. Instead folk music today seems to be the music of introverted heartbreak, self-loathing and cultural numbness. Phil Ochs probably wouldn’t move a single unit in today’s market.
We here at your friendly neighborhood record store generally eschew opportunities to share our political views — our thought is that its hardly our place to tell people what to listen to, so who are we to tell anyone how to vote? But that ever-charming ol’ 80s Dylan was right, “we live in a political world” (and, ya know, looking back we stand by our defense of Oh Mercy posted just after the Paris terror attacks of January 2015). That political world seeps into our daily lives, and in this near-daily blog about records we sometimes struggle to stifle that impulse to express our feelings.
That said, in exactly six months we will inaugurate a new President of our great nation. It will be one of two candidates who are so widely loathed by the majority of the American people that the situation we find ourselves in is utterly unfathomable. Take a look at this Gallup Poll chart of candidate approval ratings if you have doubted the news story’s about the alarming unpopularity of each major party candidate. Months ago we read this convincing case for offering voters the option of “None of the Above” on ballots — this isn’t a satirical scene from Brewster’s Millions but an actual article in the National Review!
And ol’ Barry O., who has gone grey speaking to the nation following a mass shooting seventeen times, he’s not looking so bad. Well, he’s looking older — look at the difference between this man announcing policy proposals after the first Fort Hood shooting in November 2009 and this exhausted man speaking about the Orlando nightclub shooting last month. We really cannot imagine either of the current candidates offering us condolence after the next such tragedy.
Any time we feel afraid for the future, we take a little solace in our record collection. It’s like our “safe place.” And that’s why these two albums hit our turntable after we saw that Gallup Poll chart.
But first, this: the editors of The Star Tribune should be ashamed of today’s front page story about Prince. Their speculation that Prince’s sudden death was due to drug use is based on “unnamed sources” which are clearly the half-brother who sued the rock star several times, and a downright greedy lawyer.
Where the Carver County Sheriff’s office has reminded people that Prince was “a very good neighbor” and declared they will respect his privacy, The Star Tribune has sunk to a new low by placing their unfounded speculations on the front page. Even their own local music writer called the article out as “pitiful.”
Let’s hope that’s the last word on our hometown newspaper, which once again proves to be an embarrassment.
Here’s something from the lighter side of music news:
The Louis Armstrong House Museum has shared with the world rare footage of the legend himself in the recording studio. It was discovered in a warehouse in 2012, and released through the help of his daughter Andrea Bass. One would think there would be more film of Armstrong recording, considering his long and prolific recording career, but there isn’t — making this glimpse into his work all the more valuable to fans.
This was followed by a second discovery which delighted jazz enthusiasts all over the world. In a storage facility in Germany, three metal mothers featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were found. They had been sent by Okeh Records for pressing by Odeon, but for some unknown reason were never used.
The result is magnificently clear sound for the recordings, made in 1928.
The metal mother falls in the middle of the process of 78rpm record production. It is cast from the lacquer first cut, called the master, on a lathe by a skilled engineer as the recording is in progress. These are very delicate and ideally cast as quickly as possible into a form called the matrix, through a process called electrotyping. In brief, the lacquer is dipped in a bath derived from metals, commonly copper or nickel, while an electrical current is passed through.
Thus far we have created one ‘positive’ image of the recording, and one ‘negative’ image. The difference is that the first, the master, could be played back on a phonograph (this would, of course, destroy the soft and delicate lacquer). The matrix, a reverse image of the master, could not be played back on a phonograph.
The third stage is the production of the metal mother, such as the three from 1928 recently discovered in Germany. These are likewise produced by the electrotyping process, but the results are once again a ‘positive’ image of the recording. For 78rpm records, the sound on a metal mother is stunningly clear. There will be none of the familiar frying pan. Engineer Nick Dellow transferred the three recent discovers, and kindly has shared them on Youtube for all the world to enjoy.
If you are curious about the remaining two stages of the process of production, here they are: the metal mother is used to create a new ‘negative’ image of the recording called the stamper. This is the piece used to finally press the records. Several may be made, depending on how many records the label intends to press.
These parts may all be stored, although after some use the stampers must be changed so they are often discarded. Discovering long-lost metal parts may provide an improved recording of recordings from the era. This is what inspires, for instance, the folks who have been scuba diving in the Milwaukee River for years, in hopes of finding metal parts from Paramount Records, the legendary blues label which shut down production in 1935. It has long been thought employees tossed hundreds or more metal mother and other parts into the river. There is a chapter devoted to this in Amanda Petrusich’s great book, Do Not Sell at Any Price.
Fortunately, these newly discovered recordings of Armstrong and Ellington are available for all to enjoy!