Saturday, May 4, 2019

This Train of Lovin’ - Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community (Reflections on my first ever academic conference)

(by Bill Glahn)

Where I'm going I don't know
But you tell me I must go
When we're leaving I don't know
But you tell me now
(Station Man, Danny Kirwin)

Trains. They’re an often-used metaphor in song for a reason. They symbolize movement. But what kind of movement – forward, backward, tangents? I’ve always approached the metaphorical train with a great degree of trepidation. Is the destination toward a removing of shackles (Harriet Tubman) or death camps?

I’ve written about Danny Kirwin several times over the years, a primary songwriter, singer and guitarist for Fleetwood Mac who took the reigns following the departure of Peter Green and prior to the mass-popularity of the Buckingham-Nicks era. I was singing in a teenage band when Kiln House, the first post-Green album, was released. We were primarily a rock & roll band, with an attachment to the Blues. We played the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, but mostly channeled the songs of The Rolling Stones, Johnny Winter, and Alice Cooper. There was something about those Danny Kirwin songs that spoke to me, a sensitivity that we weren’t capturing. Our band included two very talented guitar players who both took lessons from Paul Plumeri, who would later be a member of Duke Williams & The Extremes (one of the few northern acts on Capricorn Records) and an inductee into the Trenton Blues Hall of Fame. As we shifted more towards electric blues more akin to Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, I introduced Kiln House to the band. I found an ally in John, our more creative guitar player. Not so much in Sergio, who was all about guitar solos and getting laid. “Station Man” and “Jewell Eyed Judy” made it into the set list. A couple others made it into rehearsal. It didn’t matter. John was the child of a broken home and part of that was that he lived with his father in the summer months in Atlantic City. I was spiraling deeper into drug addiction. And that was the end of Overneath. But “Station Man” has remained one of those lynchpin songs that have kept the wheels from falling off up to this day.

I suppose my attitude toward academia started early in high school. I was something of a whiz at standardized tests – tests designed by and for the folks that can afford a secondary education – a class that didn’t include me. I simply took the tests because they were required and somehow aced them. I was always good at math. Comprehension was something that I had a good handle on. I could comprehend that these tests were designed to split up classes of folks into their “place” in society. Throughout high school my curriculum was chosen for me. I always got placed in academic courses with the “smart” kids, most of whom I had NOTHING in common with, economically or socially. I was a misfit.

It didn’t help any that one of the first lessons I learned in high school came in an English class when we were assigned to do a paper on one of 5 song lyrics assigned by the teacher. Part of the assignment was to deconstruct metaphors. I chose “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.”

I worked hard on that one. But I didn’t meet the teacher’s expectations. I wasn’t “hip” enough to know that the presumed metaphor alluded to shooting heroin, not suicide. I got an “F” on the paper. It was the first time I ever felt compelled to argue with a teacher. I took the position that what the listener hears is often as important as what the writer was writing about. And, anyway, aren’t suicide and heroin addiction closely related? The grade stood. Inflexibility in an academic course was my lesson for the day. As well as the detachment of academics. I made a call with that essay. I was met with a big “Fuck You.” Fortunately, I had a more experienced and encouraging English teacher my junior year, an elder with no predisposition to hipness. It didn’t change my opinion of academic courses any. But it helped to soften it a bit.

I see it's coming
And bringing something
This train of lovin'
I see it's comin'

Fast forward to the mid/late ‘90s. I was several years into publishing a magazine called Live! Music Review. It was primarily a magazine that featured reviews of bootleg music. We had an editorial policy designed after another publication that I greatly admired since the ‘80s, Rock ‘n’ Rap Confidential. We covered different topics, some that overlapped what RRC was doing, some different. I realized from the first issue that in order to make it worthwhile, I needed people on board who knew how to write and could approach our topics with something deeper than “good recording, good performance, the RIAA are bastards.” Somehow, I managed to attract a group of experienced music writers looking for a chance to address topics that were usually KO’d by their editors. Somewhere in the first two years of the magazine, my path crossed with Dave Marsh. Although never a member of the L!MR writing staff, Dave provided some much needed guidance and mentoring, as well as an article or two along the way. I think it was sometime around 1998 that Danny Alexander, an associate editor at RRC started a sort of idea-exchange/writer’s group called Strat. It focused on the intersection of music, culture, and politics. Race and class played a big part in our discussions. By necessity, it had a limited number of members. About a month or two after it started I got an invite from Marsh. I think his comment (paraphrased) was “I think your addition to the group will be mutually beneficial.” I trusted Marsh. He was a great writer and thinker sans an academic background. Without knowing who was in the group, I jumped in lock, stock and barrel.

It was a group that included some of the most forward-thinking individuals that I knew of, and then some. Academics, teachers, socially aware musicians, veterans of the Poor People’s March, political activists, writers, and even a “Republican” music industry attorney. I was overwhelmed and more than a little intimidated. One of those academics was Professor Craig Werner from the Humanities Dept. (Afro-American Studies) at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Through a continuing correspondence over the next 20-something years, I found Craig to be a patient and understanding teacher, one who was just as adept at listening as lecturing. This was a new experience for me. I received a new reading list that included such authors, previously unknown to me, as James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou. Plus Craig spoke and wrote about music in a deeply understanding and passionate way. I’ve had a growing desire to witness Craig in a classroom setting. Finances and increasing job pressures kept that from happening. Having retired last year, I had a newly acquired availability of time, and come hell or high water, I was going to make that happen. Then Craig announced his retirement.

I would never get to see Professor Werner in the classroom, but another member of the UWM staff and a member of Strat from the beginning, Alexander Shashko, organized a two day Symposium called “Calls and Responses: A Symposium on Teaching, Writing and Community.” Largely made up of panels that featured veterans of Craig’s Afro-American Studies, I was surprised that some of the participants came from backgrounds much like mine. I was amazed at the places they had gone with their knowledge. I wasn’t surprised at all that Craig had found it necessary to protect his students, on occasion, against the hierarchy of academia and the type of sexism and bigotry that infests such places. And I wasn’t surprised at how frustrated some had become in post-graduate studies. Or that Craig’s department was considered an oasis of community building in a desert of class conformity. I heard the term “lean into your ignorance” for the first time.

This had been a practice of Strat from the beginning. I just never had a term to describe it. That Craig, a lifelong member of academia, would lean forward to listen to and examine the words of a low-wage warehouse worker (which is how I spent the first and last 10 years of my working career) was something I had never expected when I first entered Strat. It was something I had to learn to do in return. It’s the most fundamental principle in community building. I was astonished that such a symposium could take place in any institution of advanced learning.

This essay is not an exoneration of academia. It is meant more as an exposĂ© on the possibilities of academia – something the institutions of advanced learning seem reluctant to incorporate. I asked Craig why he chose to retire at this point in his life. He said he needed more time for writing and was tired of the ever-increasing demands on his time for meetings and increasing administrative loads. I’ve heard this complaint from college teachers over the years, and it’s getting worse. I heard it repeated in the panels. There has to be more to college and post-graduate studies than the paper chase and getting published in academic journals. It’s not all that different on the shop floor level. Anytime we heard the word “meeting,” whether we were included or not, it always translated to more bullshit ahead. I’m proud to have had Craig Werner as a friend and mentor for over 20 years. I feel I got the best parts of advanced learning without any of the crap. Or the student debt. And Danny Kirwin’s song still plays in my head after all these years.

Danny Kirwin? Kirwin spent the last 30+ years of his life as a homeless alcoholic in London hospices, visited sporadically by his former band mates, but detached from the world. He had lucid moments, more towards his final days. Kirwin felt the world more deeply than most and cracked under the pressure. In an article by Jim Farber, Fleetwood Mac’s Forgotten Hero, Mick Fleetwood stated, "I cared for Danny a lot and I care for his legacy. Danny was a quantum leap ahead of us creatively. He was a hugely important part of the band." Kirwin was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 as a member of Fleetwood Mac. Often described, by group members as the most sensitive and talented songwriter in Fleetwood Mac, I still carry “Station Man” around in my heart to this day. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on Kirwin. Explore the footnotes.

Community is important. Choosing the right community can lead to salvation. Expanding those communities is essential. Those are lessons I learned at my first academic conference. Who woulda thunk I would find one within the walls of an historically wrong way train?

Midnight train
Now is leaving
Engine screaming
ah, ah
ah, ah
ah, ah
ah, ah

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Good for The Body, It's Good For The Soul

Mott The Hoople’s Magnificent Return
(Bill Glahn)

Hope I die before I get old” (Pete Townshend, The Who)

No, you're never too old to rock 'n' roll
If you're too young to die” (Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull)

Once you're gone
You can never come back” (Neil Young)

Behind these shades, the visions fade, as I learn a thing or two
Oh but if I had my time again you all know just what I'd do” (Ian Hunter, Mott The Hoople)

It’s hard to believe that anyone ever took the first of those song lyrics as anything other than youthful hyperbole or overstatement. Sadly, some did. Even more sadly, some never got the choice. For the rest of us aging music fans that have been more fortunate, sometimes despite our worst flirtations with self-destruction, it’s that last lyric that retains the most meaning.  But there’s more to this story than that.

Mott The Hoople has embarked on their first tour of the United States in 45 years. Officially dubbed “Mott The Hoople ’74,” the line-up consists of the 3 living members of the band that infiltrated Broadway (The Uris Theatre) on their final U.S. tour, making no concessions in the process. That riotous affair is well documented on their Live album, with an even better documentation coming later on the 30th Anniversary edition of that record. This time around, the band would be supplemented with Ian Hunter’s Rant Band, a superbly talented group that has been backing Hunter for well over a decade. But what can be expected of a band that is fronted by an octogenarian (I’m not going to split hairs here), a septuagenarian, and another soon-to-be septuagenarian?

Ian Hunter is 4 years younger than Elvis would have been. He’s older than Bob Dylan. He’s had major hits as a solo artist, including the massively popular “Cleveland Rocks.” Simply put, he’s the spiritual link between rock ‘n’ roll and rock music. And he’s made some of the best music of his career in the last decade with little fanfare.

Ariel Bender (Luther Grosvenor) cut his teeth in Spooky Tooth before joining Mott The Hoople. He closed out his career as a “rock star” a few years later in the under-appreciated Widowmaker. High profile sightings since then have been scarce. Occasionally he pops up on some albums by British Blues artists such as Peter Green.

Morgan Fisher has had a more illustrious post-MTH career, even as the least recognizable name of the three. He’s been a member of Queen’s touring band. He’s produced records by the Dead Kennedys, Jayne County, and Cherry Vanilla. He’s worked with artists as diverse as Robert Wyatt, Yoko Ono, and Jah Wobble to name but a few. He was the last of the three to leave the band, soldiering on with the truncated moniker Mott. But you’re more likely to find his name in the credits than on the marquee.

I caught the current tour on its 2nd night – a packed house at Minneapolis’ fabled club, 1st Ave. The opening act was The Suburbs, a hometown act that has received some acclaim nationally and hero status in Minneapolis. They didn’t fail to disappoint, delivering a short, though high-energy set. The Minneapolis music scene has always been one noted for looking more forward than backward. The Suburbs would be a hard act to follow. They’ve been around a long time, but on this card they would still be the young dudes.

Then intermission, that time when smokers gather outside before re-entering for the headliners. Except few were willing to give up their spots in the front rows, no matter how serious the addiction. I would have to view Mott from the back near the soundboard – not the greatest visual advantage, but at least the sound would be the best in the room.

Mott The Hoople began their 2019 show the same way they started the 1974 shows, with a short rendering of “American Pie.” When Hunter gets to the line “the day the music died,” he asks “Or did it?” And the band tears into “The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The subtleties of the lyric are often overlooked. This song is no nostalgia trip. It isn’t “it was the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll” - rather Hunter sings in the present tense.  And he’s always sang in that way whether it be 1974 or 2019. Morgan Fisher pounds the keyboards Jerry Lee Lewis style. Ariel Bender, like a mischievous leprechaun, moves towards center stage for some youthful shenanigans and some heavily amplified guitar. If Hunter’s songwriting provides the spiritual link, Bender and Fisher are the perfect vehicle to provide the aural one. Onward.

What followed for the next 35-40 minutes was a trip into the deep tracks. Some REALLY deep. For those who have followed Mott The Hoople with a high degree of attention from the beginning, it was a rare treat to hear these songs in a live situation. But for a lot of the crowd who had been weaned on classic rock radio, songs like “Alice,” “Rest In Peace,” and the complex tenderness of “I Wish I Was Your Mother” didn’t resonate so well. And just when they seemed to gather the crowd back in with a scorching version of “Sweet Jane,” Mott proceeded to play “Rose,” the non-LP b-side to “Honaloochie Boogie.” Blank stares. No matter. Ariel Bender was in the building.

“Mott The Hoople 1974! …1974!! …1974!!!” he shouted as he crossed the stage, which was being cleared by the members of the support team. Hunter, for the only time in the show, grabbed his famed Thomas Maltese Cross guitar (most likely a replica, the first sold years ago). Only the rhythm section of The Rant Band remained with the featured front three. Could the old geezers do it – blow this crowd away like they did 45 years ago? In spades. “Walkin’ With A Mountain” rocked the building so hard that it could have blown the roof off. If only the roof hadn’t been replaced a few years ago. This is the band everyone came to see. From then on, there was no turning back. And like the invasion of the “sanctity of Broadway,” no concessions were made. No key changes for aging singers. In fact, Hunter’s voice seemed to grow in strength with every note. Ariel Bender worked the stage hard and the amplifiers harder. When The Rant Band came back to the stage, nothing changed. By the end of “All The Way From Memphis,” Morgan Fisher was blowing on his fingers. Hunter’s scathing rebuke of predatory Capitalism, “Marionette” was never more appropriate than in times like these. And for the rest of the show, MTH ’74 had the crowd. They left the stage almost void of sweat and big on smiles, returning for a 2-song encore of their most famous song (“All The Young Dudes”) and the late-period single, “Saturday Gigs.” What a show!

.But as I said at the beginning of this ramble of a review… There’s more to this story. Sure – it put some spring back into these old legs, as I’m sure it did for many. But there was something more than feeling invigorated. The final line of “I Wish I Was Your Mother”… And then who knows / I might have felt a family for a while. Morgan Fisher is shooting home movies of this tour just as he did in 1974. In one of the better uses of social media, you can keep up on Fisher’s Facebook page. It should become immediately apparent that this tour is just as much about family connections as it is about finding new vitality in old bodies.

In between the Suburbs’ set and Mott The Hoople’s, I stepped outside to feed the nicotine dragon and ran into the manager of one of Minneapolis’ trending young bands, The Carnegies. Barely legal to be in a club serving adult beverages, Jacob Harmsen was clutching a couple of records (vinyl!) that predated his birth by a good 2+ decades. He was eager to get back inside to try to work his way to the front of the stage to see his musical heroes close up. And maybe, just maybe, get his records autographed at the end of the show. I recognized that youngster. It was me many, many years ago. And I’m willing to bet he made it. No matter what form it may take, rock 'n' roll is in good hands these days. It's good for the body, it's good for the soul. And the future looks just a little more optimistic today than it did yesterday.

Bonus views:

Friday, January 4, 2019

Black Dog in the Land of the Ice & Snow

[Most of my energy these days is focused on Travels With Sally, more of a cultural review than a travelogue. I’m finding that, in some cases, those travels include stories that don’t quite fit the narrative of the book-in-progress, but are nonetheless worth writing about. This is one such story. (Bill Glahn)]

I made a mix CD of “Sally” songs and “Dog” songs for Sally a few years back. Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” “Sally G” by Paul McCartney. 3 versions of “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley” (Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint, Robert Palmer). Humble Pie’s “Big Black Dog.” Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” And of course, among others, Patti Page’s “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.” She seems to like them all - at least she doesn’t leave the room when they’re playing. Most of all, she likes the ones with her name in them. For those, Sally moves closer to the speakers. Sally is very self-aware.

On a trip through the heartland this past Fall, things were cut a little short due to foul weather and mechanical problems with Rocinante Jr’s power plant – a 2001 Ford F-150 extended cab pickup. For the uninitiated, Rocinante Jr. is a tiny cabin on wheels – home away from home when we are traveling the country. After a few weeks of home-stay, Sally was itching to hit the road again by late October. So was I. This would be a short trip, though, a 2-day quickie up to Minneapolis to see Zeppo film a live promotional film.

“Do you want to see Zeppo play ‘Black Dog?’” Sally raised no objections. With our chariot still on the blink, this time it would be in the more comfortable (and dependable) confines of the Chevy and a hotel. Onward to the land of the ice & snow.

I’ve known Zeppo guitarist and lead vocalist John Eller for almost half my life. We met sometime at the end of the ‘80s at a record convention in St. Paul (The old Kelly Inn show). But the first time I really took notice of his singing talents was at the annual Philadelphia Record Convention – a huge affair held every Thanksgiving weekend at the Valley Forge Convention Center. As was the tradition, when a lot of record dealers and music fans from around the globe met up, there were always some late night eats, drinks, and catching up to do. On this particular night we ended up at a dining facility that also served as a karaoke bar. A few vendors, seasoned veterans of defunct bands who found better economic rewards in selling music rather than playing it, signed up to sing. This would be a much better than average night of karaoke singing. With some encouragement, Eller scanned the play list and picked out an Aerosmith song. Then proceeded to slay everyone in the joint. Not even the host singer wanted to follow THAT act.

Eller, who had already had regional success in the Minneapolis area with Paradox, a glam metal outfit that included some originals mixed with covers in their live act, would release his first CD of original tunes the following year with his band, The DTs.

Eller’s musical path has taken a lot of tangents since then (Eller-Lynch, Retrofit, The Shiny Lights, Shabby Road Orchestra, countless studio sessions). But the origins of Zeppo lie in a basement jam session in 2016 – the kind of thing musicians who have love and respect for each other do for fun. It was there that Eller, drummer Noah Levy (Brian Setzer Orchestra), guitarist Terrance J. Fisher (Run Westy Run), and bass-player-about-town Paul Boblett (Fathom Lane, Faith Boblett, and King James Version) discovered that they all had a mutual love of Led Zeppelin. With prior commitments, the idea of forming a Zeppelin cover band would be put on hold for a couple of years. When Brian Setzer decided to pursue a 40th anniversary Stray Cats reunion tour and album, that freed up the globe-trotting schedule of Levy. Done deal. Almost. The band would add Zach Sershon,  a classically trained keyboard player and the organ player for The Minnesota Timberwolves, to add the final touches on those epic Zeppelin tunes like “No Quarter” and “Kashmir.”

But this would be no Branson-style stage show. Zeppo’s motto would be “no wigs, no bullshit.” The band’s approach would be to explore and expand (in some cases) on the nuances and subtleties of those well-known Zeppelin grooves. And to rely solely on their musical and vocal talents to get the job done.

Sally and I made the trip overnight, checking into the hotel on the afternoon of the show. It was the longest I’d driven in one stretch in years. Of course, we took a few stops to pee and stretch our legs, extending a 7-hour drive into 9 hours. Sally endured without ill effects, but my legs were cramping up. We took a nap before heading out. Sally did her job as a service dog, supported me as I struggled to maintain balance and walked me around the parking lot a few times to get my “legs” back. Sally’s job was done for the day, but I wasn’t sure if the staff at A440 Studios would allow her in the building without her service cape. Sally, a veteran of music venues, can usually go into places in “off-duty" gear where she is known. This time I dressed her up and we headed out.

I’ve been in some nontraditional studios in the past – but A440 Studios was something new to me. Located in an industrial park, A440 Studios not only included the latest in recording technology, but also a concert stage (including a dry-ice machine), an elaborate lighting system, filming gear, enough space in front of the stage to accommodate over 100 guests. AND a knowledgeable staff sufficient to coordinate all of it. Off to the side was a Bohemian-style “lounge” area that included a couch and comfortable chairs.
(L-R: Sally Bill Glahn, John Eller)

Sally and I greeted John outside in the parking lot, caught up a little on things, took a few photos, and proceeded into the building. Studio manager Steve Kahn would not only welcome us, but ask permission to pet Sally (usually a no-no for service dogs on duty). OK! Steve Kahn is a dog person. Permission granted. This was a welcome sign and a signal to Sally that she could proceed in a more relaxed atmosphere. Sally did her thing as the crowd began to trickle in - working the room like the ambassador of good will that she is. I met up with some friends that I hadn’t seen in far too long, sought out Facebook friends that I have never met in person, and made some new friends in the process.

Then Zeppo took the stage. “Misty Mountain Hop.” The joint was rockin’!

But how would Zeppo measure up compared to the live Zeppelin experience? As editor of the defunct Live! Music Review magazine, I wrote the Z-files monthly bootleg column for 7 years. I’m overly familiar with the excitement and the pitfalls of that legendary band in concert. The phrase “tight but loose,” has often been applied to Zeppelin by fans. But all too often (especially in the middle years), that would translate to “far too loose, self-indulgent, sloppy and boring.” Any semblance of “tight” would come late in the band’s touring history – the 1980 final tour where the set list was trimmed from 4 hours to 2, and onward to the Page/Plant tours where a similar approach was used.

With two excellent guitarists on stage, Zeppo would follow a template laid out on the Zeppelin studio albums – tight arrangements, exemplary guitar interplay, not a bad vocal performance in sight (Plant was notorious for experiencing throat problems on any given night), and a rhythm section that kicks ass. Sershon was a much welcome addition, resorting to some variations on the keyboard parts without overextending them. But don’t get the idea that Zeppo performed carbon copy performances of Zeppelin records. To ears tuned into those records for decades, the differences come in subtle places and add, rather than detract, from the performances. That’s what musicians of this caliber do.

Sally’s highlight? It was hearing her name mentioned in the intro to “Black Dog.”

A needed night of sleep for Sally and myself followed, before a morning breakfast (NOT at the crack of dawn) at the Bandbox CafĂ© with John & friends, including John’s canine companion, Shilo. Then off to the old Eller homestead, occupied currently by pal Dave Biljan. Sleepy-eyed Dave had a no-miss work commitment the night before and missed out on all the fun. We kept him from his own much-needed sleep for a few hours, but he was a trooper. Oh the joys of being retired.

See Zeppo's promotional clip here: Zeppo live