Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Valley of the New York Dolls

The first time I laid eyes on the New York Dolls, they were drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. David Johansen had lost the high heel from one of his shoes. He said, “I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss,” while inside the club, the group’s managerial brain trust planned the conquest of blue dawns over racetracks and kids from sweet Ioway. The rest of the band — Johnny Thunders, Syvain Sylvain, Jerry Nolan, Arthur Harold Kane — talked happily about early days spent practicing in a bicycle shop near Central Park. And me? I’m a fool. My heart went out to the hopeful sounds. We all thought the group would achieve success through the purity of their rock ‘n’ roll art.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

None of the above is true, of course — my apologies to Chandler and Kerouac — but some of it is, or could be. There was always a sense of American mythology about the Dolls, and those of us who spent three years of our lives working with them had to believe they were more than just another rock ‘n’ roll group, albeit the most misunderstood of recent times. We learned to measure our nights by Dolls concerts, spent even our holidays going to and from, and Mick Taylor’s cryptic putdown — “They’re the worst high school band I ever saw” — only further convinced us how right we were. Johansen shot back: “No — we ‘re the best high school band you ever saw! The kids will love us!” and the point seemed settled. For, after all, the New York Dolls tried to hit the longest home run in American rock ‘n’ roll: they tried to impose themselves upon a nation’s musical and cultural consciousness in much the same manner as had the Rolling Stones 10 years earlier.

***

Johansen: “In the beginning, we weren’t very good musically. That’s why we put up with each other. We were all fabulous people … We’re a lot faster than the Stones” … Laughter. “At least, younger.”

***

For all their claim to being a band of and for kids, the Dolls rarely listened to Top 40 music — like them or not, no one could accuse them of creating that music industry euphemism for art, “product” — and their notions of technique mirrored more the tough sparseness or Hammett, the avant-garde fragmentation of Burroughs, and the cruel inward-eye of Nathanael West than the easy flow of media favorites. The fact that AM radio reacted to their songs as if they had dropped from some alien sky was not, in the long run, surprising. Johansen-Thunders did not have the breadth of Jagger-Richards. While the Stones could have written “Bad Girl,” the Dolls could never have brought about “Moonlight Mile”: they lacked the smoke and duski­ness, and their nocturnal sojourn through the desert took them far too close to a deli for the tastes of most of Middle America. Whereas the work of the Stones could encompass the broad human comedy of a Breughel or a Bosch, the Dolls proved to be subgenre miniaturists. They were unquestionably brilliant, but finally too spare, too restricted, to reach the hidden places in suburban, small­-town hearts. In the end, they rode on real rather than symbolic subway trains to specific rather than univer­sal places, played for an audience of intellectuals or kids even farther out than they were; and, when they eventually met the youth of the country, that youth seemed more confused than captivated by them, and could no more imagine itself a New York Doll than it could some exotic palm tree growing in Brook­lyn. The Dolls appealed to an audience which had seen the end of the world, had in fact bought tickets for it but probably didn’t attend because lhere was something even funnier on television that night.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716846″ /]

Dave Marsh, who loved the group, put it best when he wrote: “The New York Dolls are the dead end of the ’60s approach. They presume a closed community of rock fans, a limited field with common interests closely held. The new kind of rock singers are different. They know how much greater the stakes are, for a rock star who wants to count, but they also know there isn’t any way to focus upon them, to make the meaning of having the whole world up for grabs come home.”

***

Nolan: “I suppose everyone will be like the Dolls in a few years. Like a fad. The public and people in general always pick up things from leaders, rock groups especially.”

***

To be the neo-Rolling Stones of the 1970s was to be a not-to-be, and, after two albums and much notoriety, the Dolls broke up in the final weeks of April; the legendary desserts having forever eluded them. If truth be known, the news of their death hardly produced a ripple throughout the nation they sought to win. Their demise was taken as inevitable. The dreams of rock ‘n’ roll’s Dead End Kids burned out like a green light bulb on someone else’s marquee, and nobody particularly noticed any loss of illumination. That must have been hard for the band to take, but per­haps no harder than some of the dates they had been forced to accept to remain even nominally solvent in the later stages of their existence. Somehow, everything had gone monstrously wrong, and, like characters in some tragicomic version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” everyone closely involved was innocent, everyone guilty. The only solution, finally, was to walk away from it, but none of us — musicians, man­agers (Marty Thau, Steve Leber, David Krebs), myself (the A&R man who signed the group to Mercury Records) — really could,

***

August 7. 1972: I see Dolls at Mercer Art Center, want to sign them to wary Mercury.

Late August: Dolls ask Merc for $250,000 deal. Merc blanches, sends in more scouts.

September 24: Merc VP Charlie Fach sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on three hours late. Fach stays 15 minutes, says no. I persist.

October 1: Merc VP Lou Simon flies in from Chicago main office, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on two hours late. Simon loves them, says nothing until he checks the current political climate in Chi, then says no. I persist.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

October 8: Merc A&R man Robin McBride flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on one hour late. Thunders, wearing platform basket­ball shoes, kicks a hole in stage. Kane’s bass comes unplugged: he plays last four songs wlthout making a sound. McBride says no. I per­sist.

Late October: Dolls turned down by every major label, go to Europe. Merc President I. H. Steinberg and Fach see them in London, say no. I persist. Steinberg becomes enraged, calls Dolls worst band he has ever seen, says I must be crazy. Dolls original drummer Billy dies in England in what is usually ref erred to as a drug-related incident. Nolan re­places him.

Late 1972: I keep trying to con­vince very leery Merc.

***

The Dolls first performance had been in July at the Diplomat Hotel in the seedy Times Square area (“You all know Times Square,” Johansen used to chide his audience. “It’s where we all met.”), but it was at the Mercer they gained their reputation in a series of concerts which built in momentum until the nights one spent there with 600 similarly delirious people simply were not sane. Those vivacious evenings were like a be­nign “Clockwork Orange” filmed in a packed-to-the-rafters Hollywood Mutant High wired for massive sound. There was something mar­velous about the band’s all-out as­sault, fashioned as it was from wit, homage, honesty, self-parody, urban cunning, and the virtuosity of crude­ness.

The Dolls and their early following were those kids who used to sneak into the Fillmore East every Satur­day night; years later, when their musical time came, they couldn’t wait to build their own homemade rocket ship and send it flying toward the moon on a return trip to innocence. If the fuel was more amateur energy than professional talent — well, one had to make do with what was at hand, surely the primary law of the streetwise. And it was a wondrous thing to see the group play rock ‘n’ roll with the enthusiasm of five people who felt and acted as if they had just invented it, hadn’t quite worked out the kinks yet, but what matter? — it was raw flash, honest fun, erotically direct, and seemed to define them to, and make them inseparable from, their own kind. While they invented nothing, they did present a peculiar vision — lost youths roaming the nighttime city “looking for a kiss, not a fix,” cosmic jet boys “flying around New York City so high,” the teenager as group Frankenstein — and carried the music back to simpler times: there were almost no solos, and everybody played and sang as hard as they could until they got tired. Which wasn’t often. Although some found their world dangerous and offensive — and not at all the dark side of sentimentality — it never seemed threatening to me. It must have been like this in London when people first heard the Stones, I kept thinking, secretly ruing the day when the Dolls would become stars and go public.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720617″ /]

But when the Dolls left their milieu in New York City (the Mercer Art Center, Kenny’s Castaways, et al.) something was lost. The many times I saw them in big halls in front of crowds of several thousand, the essence of their particular insular magic somehow became diluted. Even at the Felt Forum, in their first “legitimate” concert before 5000 “normal” people (most of whom came to see Mott the Hoople), the band appeared nervous, ineffectual, and — how can one say it? — some­what lost and harmless. Defanged. They never quite succeeded in find­ing a way to convey their intimacy and personal charm to a larger audience which ofttimes regarded them as technically inept, emotionally silly freaks — or worse. If there were ever to be a meeting between performer and potential fan, work needed to be done. The Dolls were something special. They required specific, sensitive handling and firm control. Unfortunately, they did not always get it.

***

January 30, 1973: Merc head of publicity Mike Gormley flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Kenny’s Cast­aways because he wants to, says yes. I am shocked. Gormley’s memo reopens Dolls case.

March 20: Dolls and Merc agree to a deal.

Late June: Dolls finish first album with Todd Rundgren producing. Mixing takes less than six hours. Johansen calls Rundgren “an expert on second-rate rock ‘n’ roll.”

July: Johansen falls asleep in Chi in front of Merc brass at special meeting to discuss Dolls. Steinberg isn’t sure whether or not to wake him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

September: Dolls play Whiskey and Los Angeles for first time. Five hundred kids line up each night. Thunders falls in love with groupie queen Sable Starr; they become rock ‘n’ roll punkdom’s Romeo and Juliet. Sylvain stays in biggest suite in hotel for week. How? I ask. “It was the room right next to mine,” he says, “and it was empty so I just stayed there.”

September 23: Johansen arrested in Memphis for stopping Dolls music while cops beat up a kid. He asks cops what they’d do if he were Elvis. “We’d love to get him!” cops reply.

Late 1973: Dolls named by Creem readers as Best New Group and Worst Group of Year. Despite Rundgren, the first album, “New York Dolls,” sells 100,000 copies.

***

“The Dolls are a vicious kick in the face to all that’s careful, passive and polished about today’s popular music. The record companies, most of which have a great investment in exactly the kind of music the Dolls are rallying against, have naturally been turned off …” (Bud Scoppa, Penthouse)

Kane, the shiest of the band, after having seen me for at least eight months: “Hi. I’m Arthur.”

***

If the Dolls were difficult to work with at times, it was because they understood nothing of the music business and recording, seemed naive or unable to learn about either, and were rarely encouraged to ex­hibit any kind or self-control regard­ing the bankbook or the clock. To say that their record company thought them a mere critics’ hype, did not understand them, and eventually grew to hate them would be an understatement; but, at the begin­ning, Mercury provided handsomely for the group’s every whim. Management started well, too: Thau, the band’s Napoleon, and Leber, their legal adviser and financial wizard, showed obvious devotion. As the months passed, trouble set in. The problems with Mercury rarely involved the Dolls personally, but had to do rather with mutual contempt among the men at the top on both sides, opposite viewpoints, management’s apparent disdain for necessary budgets and deadlines, the record company’s inability to get the group much AM or FM airplay, and — last but not least — money.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

The clash between the Dolls and Mercury was finally a classic confrontation between two immov­able objects: a company reluctant to spend any more money and a band that did not know how to stop spend­ing it. Thau and Leber’s penchant for potentiality required huge sums for bad-boy image-building and Stones­-style high living, while Steinberg preferred to drop anchor until the bottom line told him when to raise it. A hot war was being waged. Further, Thau and Leber had begun to quar­rel, a situation which proved very damaging at a time, when the band needed all the outer stability they could get. The bills were pilling up, and the hands at the controls had suddenly become fists.

One can learn much about the trouble among musicians, manage­ment and record company in these excerpts from a confidential report written by Patrick Taton, a Mercury employee in Paris, concerning the group’s 1973 French tour:

“November 28: Arrival at Orly. While camera went into action, Thunders got sick right on the airport floor and had to leave the scene for a minute to pull himself together and make a decent come­back. We spent the afternoon taking pictures at the hotel. The Dolls gave us a hint as to their drinking capacities, which we had to discover at out own expense. In the afternoon, Thunders got sick again and had to be replaced by one of the road managers for photo purposes.

“November 29: Press interviews began with the group, their ‘friends,’ and managers gulping down cham­pagne and cognac at an incredible speed, while we from Mercury were seated in the other corner of the bar. I was surprised when a not-so-sober Thau came up to us to remark that we weren’t really interested in the Dolls because we weren’t taking part in the interviews. When the interviews were over, I picked up the bill, which was incredibly high for so short a time. When I told Thau about it, he replied with utmost contempt, ‘Peanuts for a band like that!’ and continued with some of the most insulting remarks I’ve ever heard about a record company and its executives.

“Next was a live concert at Radio Luxembourg. Although they had been requested for rehearsals at 17:30, the group were not ready before 19:00 and went to the studio in a frightening state of drunkenness­ — one of the most nerve-shattering experiences of my ‘business’ life.

“December 2: Olympia concert. Surprisingly enough, by the time we went to pick them up at their hotel, the Dolls had already set up their gear and rehearsed. The hall was nearly sold out, and the evening ended in a triumph with two encores. The band were then taken to a top restaurant. They invited their friends — over 50 people altogether — all of them lavishly drinking cham­pagne and cognac, making an in­credible show of themselves, engaging patrons, and leaving us with a very nice bill.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724994” /]

“December 3: The day started with the news that Thau and Leber had gone back to America. The group were penniless and urgently requested an advance before they would fulfill their commitments: pure blackmail. The Dolls had to go to a TV studio for a very important show. Believe it or not, it took us over three hours to get them out of their rooms while a frantic and irate producer was calling the hotel every five minutes, threatening to cancel the program and never again work with Mercury. Also, the band’s equipment was set up five hours behind schedule. Finally, after a few minor incidents, the show was taped.­ It was a success from the first minute. The audience reacted very strongly to the storm of noise pro­duced by the group. There was even a fight, a thing that pleased the Dolls very much, although they found French kids not so tough as those from New York.

“December 4: The band were ready to leave, but they had no money with which to pay their bill (rooms, drinks, numerous overseas telephone calls): over $3500. Stuck again. If I may offer a personal opinion, the New York Dolls are one of the worst examples of untogether­ness I have ever seen. Johansen is a very intelligent guy. Sylvain is really clever and nice, the others are quite kind in their own way; but put them together, add their managers (each of them doing his own thing), mix with alcohol, and shake, and you’ve got a careless, selfish, vicious, and totally disorganized gang of New York hooligans — and I’m really sorry to say so.

“Despite all this. I believe we have managed to do good business.”

***

Sylvain: “I want a Cadillac car. Or a Rolls. I don’t care. I’m just dying for a car. I’ve had three cars, no license. I guess I’m a lucky person.”

Johansen: “I used to be lucky. What happened? I grew up. It changed everything.”

 ***

In 1974, the Dolls released a second LP, “Too Much, Too Soon,” pro­duced by Shadow Morton. It sold about 55,000 copies, and, like the first record, made the charts and appeared on almost every major crit­ic’s best-of-the-year list. Not bad for a new band, under the most convivial of circumstances; but the Dolls, un­fortunately, were mired in the worst. Thau and Leber split, the group not talking much to either party; and Steinberg, all ire and ice, demanded the repayment or certain loans and a third album, to be made only when management and monetary problems were rectified. They never were, of course. The band had no money, and their destructiveness and unpunctuality had alienated many promoters who no longer wanted to book them. Leber valiantly put together a lucrative tour of Europe and Japan. Krebs persuaded Jack Douglas to produce the third album, but the Dolls themselves­ — disillusioned and no longer trusting anyone — didn’t take the offers seriously, and everything eventually fell apart. Legally, the group couldn’t break free from any of their contracts. There was not much left to do but to go home and die.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

The Dolls did make one small comeback, a series of concerts at the Little Hippodrome earlier this year, but even these did little but add to the misconceptions which had always surrounded the band. In the early days, they were constantly referred to as a glitter group, a fag band, five transvestites who played inexpedi­ent rock ‘n’ roll and who were very offensive onstage. Needless to say, all of these “charges” were false. None of the group is homosexual, nor did the band ever dress as women. The infamous cover for their first LP was conceived as a deliberate eye­ catcher — the ultimate satirical statement on makeup and glitter (the group appeared as they natu­rally look on the back of the jacket — ­but somehow all too many people again failed to recognize the Dolls’ nihilistic riff raff sense of humor. At the Little Hippodrome, the band tailored their comeback around the comic conceit of what it would be like to see a rock ‘n’ roll concert in Red China, and, true to form, were quickly branded as Communists by many in the audience. With that maximum absurdity, perhaps it was indeed time to quit.

***

The dreams of so many good people died with the New York Dolls. I can still remember the night we finished the first album. Thau and I raced over to Mercury to have two acetates cut, and later we listened, the ghostly sounds of more than a year’s worth of the  group’s concerts ringing in our ears. I put the dub on the turntable, sheer terror in my heart. Thau, who had discovered the band and had cared enough to spend the very best of himself and all of his money on the project, felt the same. It meant so much to us then. I think both of us suddenly realized that everything had, to some degree, passed out of our hands and into the hands of those kids from sweet Ioway whose legion ultimately said no! in thunder to the hopes of the New York Dolls. As Jean Renoir remarked: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

***

I think those kids from sweet Ioway were wrong, or rather per­haps that they never really had a chance to encounter the group on any significant level: on the radio or as part of a major tour. Instead, the band’s philosophy or instant stardom and limited, headliner-only bookings proved to be the stuff of dreams. Even a cult favorite must eventually face the nation as a whole, but the Dolls never played by the rules of the game. Neither did the Velvet Under­ground, and their contributions will last. At times, when I am feeling particularly perverse, I can’t blame either of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

The New York Dolls sang and played terrific rock ‘n’ roll — their own and other people’s — and, in a better world, “Personality Crisis,” “Trash,” and “Stranded in the Jun­gle” would have been AM hits. (Perhaps two new songs, “Teenage News” and “Girls,” will correct the deficit on some future Johansen LP. ) Individually, each of the group will be heard from again — Thunders and Nolan have already formed a band called the Heartbreakers, Johansen and Sylvain have several plans, Kane is supposedly in California­ — but no matter. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” someone once said. The Dolls went out with their high-heeled boots on.

They did it their way and got carried out dead, but with their pride intact. True, they did not grow old with the country, but that’s probably the country’s loss, not theirs. Corporation rock ‘n’ roll, wherein musicians like Bachman-Turner Overdrive are more gray-flanneled than the businessmen who kowtow to them, is so formularized, homogen­ized, and impersonal it must surely cause the death of anything that is at all out of bounds, mythopoeic, and rebellious. The Dolls were alive.­ Perhaps it killed them not to become stars, darkened their personalities, drove some of them into private worlds; but at least they had the courage to become figments of their own imaginations —and those creations were not altogether devoid of nobility. I will cherish always the friendship of each of them. Their last words on record were: “I’m a human being.”

***

”Listen, bucko, these are the New York Dolls, the sweethearts of Babylon themselves, the band you’re gonna love whether you like it or not …” (New Musical Express)

***

I do not claim they were the best, but the New York Dolls are still my favorite rock ‘n’ roll group, although I will understand if you do not like them. I will understand, but deep down I will not want to know you. ♦

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1978 Pazz & Jop: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question

Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus, and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80% of the voters contributed with at least one selection.

Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars, or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses over so far with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone’s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.

Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ’n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are now being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.

As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez, and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press’s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — or principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.

For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts, and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692474″ /]

The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.

All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchycoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artist who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The two other most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.

One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:

1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13. 2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13. 3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13. 4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11. 5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11. 6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11. 7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7. 8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7. 9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7. 10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia) 7.

11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire). 12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA). 13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). 15. Television: Adventure (Elektra). 16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia). 17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi). 18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff). 20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).

21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum). 22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca). 23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song). 24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star). 25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island). 26. David Johansen (Blue Sky). 27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest). 28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt). 29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista). 30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).

And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.

Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave records are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.

I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots of rough, tough rock and roll.

It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemptive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to push the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 with “Take Me to the River” still breaking as a single, so who knows where that will end? This Year’s Model has also done 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.

For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Ramones and the Clash, especially depressing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and although his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.

Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland any more. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very ears. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.

If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of whom had little of his talent and less of his integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.

Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.

There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.

One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-called sophistication has always been conceptual, not technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.

The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-’n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ’n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.

I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to its right resemble, in their patterns of production and consumption, other eccentric, largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.

In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Finally, my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few samples:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Vince Aletti, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Anonymous, Lester Bangs, Michael Barackman, Alan Betrock, Michael Bloom, Steve Bloom, Jon Bream, Tom Carson, Brian Chin, Georgia Christgau, Jay Cocks, J. D. Considine, Noel Coppage, Bruce Dancis, Michael Davis, Robert Duncan, Lita Eliscu, Susan Elliott, Todd Everett, Jim Farber, Carol Flake, Mike Freedberg, Dave Frechette, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Deborah Frost, Russell Gersten, Harold Goldberg, Toby Goldstein, Jim Green, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, Bob Hilburn, Geoffrey Hines, Richard Hogan, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Scott Isler, David Jackson, George Lane, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, The Masked Marvel, Janet Maslin, Perry Meisel, Joe McEwen, Daisann McLane, John Milward, Rick Mitz, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Richard Mortifoglio, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Fran Pelzman, John Piccarella, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Joe Sasty, Mitchell Schneider, Dave Schulps, Andy Schwartz, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Bob Sheridan, Don Shewey, Michael Shore, Steve Simels, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Chip Stern, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Sam Sutherland, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Roy Trakin, Roger Trilling, Ken Tucker, Gregg Turner, Mark von Lehmden, Richard C. Walls, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Paulette Weiss, James Wolcott, Jon Young.

VINCE ALETTI: USA-European Connection (Marlin) 10; Don Ray: Garden of Love (Polydor) 10; Musique: Keep On Jumpin’ (Prelude) 10; Voyage (Marlin) 10; Sylvester: Step II (Fantasy) 10; Alec Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: Romeo and Juliet (Casablanca) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; James Wells: True Love Is My Destiny (AVI) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 10; Cerrone: Cerrone IV: The Golden Touch (Cotillion) 10.

LESTER BANGS: The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 30; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 20; Joe Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 15; David Johansen (Blue Sky) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 5; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 5; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 5; No New York (Antilles) 5.

TOM CARSON: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 18; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 15; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 12; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 7; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 7; Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff) 6; Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista) 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca) 15; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (Warner Bros.) 15; Tito Puente: Homonajo a Beny (Tico) 10; Eddie Palmieri: Lucumi Macumba Voodoo (Epic) 10; Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Secrets (Arista) 10; Chick Corea: Secret Agent (Polydor) 10; Tipico Ideal: Out of This World (Coco) 5; Van Morrison: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) 5; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 5.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM) 19; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13; Nina Simone: Baltimore (CTI) 12; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 9; Daryl Hall & John Oates: Along the Red Ledge (RCA) 8; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 7; Gerry Rafferty: City to City (United Artists) 6; Wendy Waldman: Strange Company (Warner Bros.) 5.

TOM HULL: Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 15; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 15; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 14; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 12; Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) 12; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 9; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song) 5; Silver Convention: Love in a Sleeper (Midsong International) 5; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 5.

DAVID JACKSON: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 30; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 10; D. J. Rogers: Love Brought Me Back (Columbia) 10; George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Move It On Over (Rounder) 9; Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists) 8; Joan Armatrading: To the Limit (A&M) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; 21st Century Singers: Sunday Night Fever (Creed) 5; Peabo Bryson: Reaching for the Sky (Capitol) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic) 30; Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 20; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 15; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 5; Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor) 5; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 5; Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.) 5; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 5; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5; Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 30; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 12; Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic) 12; Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone (Epic) 11; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 10; Steve Gibbons Band: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) 5; The Cars (Elektra) 5; The Who: Who Are You (MCA) 5; John Prine: Bruised Orange (Asylum) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 17; Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 16; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Eric Dolphy: The Berlin Concerts (Inner City) 12; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)(Warner Bros.) 12; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 10; Raydio (Arista) 6; Jack Clement: All I Want To Do in Life (Elektra) 5; Delbert McClinton: Second Wind (Capricorn) 5; Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest) 5.

JON PARELES: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Air: Open Air Suit (Arista Novus) 10; NRBQ: At Yankee Stadium (Mercury) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 10; Happy the Man: Crafty Hands (Arista) 10; Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (Columbia) 10; Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia) 10; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 10; Carla Bley: European Tour 1977 (Watt) 10.

TOM SMUCKER: Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia) 17; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14; Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (Capitol) 12; The Gospel Keynotes: Gospel Fire (Nashboro) 11; Bonnie Koloc: Wild and Recluse (Epic) 10; Alec R. Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Casablanca) 9; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 8; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 6; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5.

ROGER TRILLING: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 10; Conjunto Libre: Tiene Calidad (Salsoul) 10; Culture: Harder Than the Rest (Virgin Front Line import) 10; Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS/Sony import) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros) 10; Majestic Dub (Joe Gibbs import) 10; Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt) 10; Thelonious Monk: Monk at the Five Spot (Milestone) 10; Milton Nascimento: Milagre dos Peixas (Odeon import) 10; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10.

Top 10 Albums of 1978

1. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia)

2. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones)

3. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia)

4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)

5. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness at the Edge of Town (Columbia)

7. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire)

8. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise)

9. The Cars: The Cars (Elektra)

10. David Johansen: David Johansen (Blue Sky)

— From the January 22, 1979, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

Categories
FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

For Frites’ Sake! Frenchette’s Bistro Boys Shine in Tribeca

For weeks after chef-owners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson opened Frenchette this spring, getting to the host stand required besting a daunting gauntlet of New York’s well-dressed and well-heeled. Reservations were all but impossible to come by, waits could be taxing, and even early birds hoping to preempt the crowds were met with a queue of fellow hungry hopefuls spilling out from the vestibule entrance onto West Broadway. Though maddening at times, it was pretty nice to see people lining up for crunchy, gelatinous pig’s-foot croquettes and light-as-air fried anchovies.

[related_posts post_id_1=”603155″ /]

Frenchette’s torrential popularity was a foregone conclusion. Nasr and Hanson, who met working at Daniel Boulud’s Upper East Side flagship, spent years delighting the masses in tandem as part of Keith McNally’s empire, opening Balthazar with the prolific restaurateur in 1997 and heading up legendary nocturnal haunts like Pastis, Schiller’s Liquor Bar, and Minetta Tavern. Their reputation precedes them the way lightning does thunder. Frenchette, named for David Johansen’s 1978 song, is their long-awaited stand-alone debut. Auspiciously, it joins a recent surge of nouveau French cooking that runs the gamut from ultra-luxe Le Coucou and La Mercerie to tiny, ambitious MIMI, and safe bets like Lafayette and Augustine. To Nasr and Hanson’s credit, they’ve found a sweet spot that sits comfortably at the nexus of all three styles.

Owners/Chefs Riad Nasr, left, and Lee Hanson. Duck Frites.

Rocking since April, the duo have clearly picked a few things up from their former boss about how to design and run an irresistibly likable restaurant. In fact, under the glow of some very Schiller’s-esque, tubular-in-all-senses-of-the-word light fixtures, dinner here almost approaches the carefree joie de vivre of another Johansen tune: his cover, as Buster Poindexter, of Eighties earworm “Hot Hot Hot.” 

La Mortadella

Marvel at how two groups of would-be diners become comrades in waiting, toasting one another with $16 Armagnac cocktails and $14 spritzes before being ferried to opposite ends of the clubby front lounge’s parade of snug auburn banquettes. Nearby, one of the bartenders stirs two drinks simultaneously while discussing dessert options with the double date that just polished off a $134 côte de boeuf. Join the ranks huddled around the splashy, meandering zinc countertop and she might offer to send sommelier Jorge Riera your way to chat about whether the Slovakian pét-nat you’ve been eyeing goes with your order of sea snails ($14) accompanied by a ramekin of ruddy, saffron-kissed rouille. (It does.) A natural-wine whisperer, Riera previously ran the show at Wildair and Contra, and his deep but approachable list magnanimously includes several bottles in the $40–$50 range.

[related_posts post_id_1=”607052″ /]

Free to flex their creativity and clearly eager to do so, Nasr and Hanson oversee an ambitious, oft-changing menu of cleverly edited bistro fare that rewards risk-takers and traditionalists alike. And it’s not a strictly Gallic affair, either. There are borrowed standards, like the terrific wedges of tortilla española festooned with golden smoked trout roe ($9), as well as purely seasonal gambits such as a fluke tartare buzzing with shiso, salty sea beans, and tiny, coveted tristar strawberries ($18). 

Brouillade (soft scrambled eggs) with snails in parsley and garlic.

A classic guinea hen terrine ($20), here served with toast and celery remoulade, is streaked with so much gamey schmaltz it looks and tastes like bird Wagyu. The duck frites ($35), with its crunchy fries and textbook béarnaise, features equally impressive poultry prowess, the judiciously seared breast rosy throughout and capped with a burnished, crackly skin. For brouillade ($22), eggs are scrambled with an obscene amount of butter for fifteen minutes until they become a lush porridge, to which the kitchen adds a quartet of garlic butter–sloshed escargots raised on Long Island. Nearly as rich is a shareable spit-roasted lobster ($52) splayed down the middle and drenched in curry butter, its heaviness balanced by a salad of raw radishes and fennel.

Blowfish Tails

Robust and edging on custardy, Nasr and Hanson’s wondrously, defiantly summery blood sausage is one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. The paunchy slab of boudin noir ($24) arrived on a pan-fried corn cake surrounded by fresh raspberries and pickled mushrooms, draped with stylish pink chicory leaves and gossamer-thin ribbons of guanciale — a bitter, sour, fruity moshpit of ferric meatiness. You should also cross your fingers for blowfish tails ($16) coated in spiced breadcrumbs and espelette pepper butter, like the buffalo wings of the sea, though a main course of skate wing, similarly prepared, is a fine substitution. Portions can skew excessively generous: The gnocchi parisienne ($12), flecked with chives, is an entrée masquerading among the side dishes. Make sure the toasted cylinders of pate a choux dough, loaded with ham and smothered in melted Comté, find their way to your table.

Paris Brest a la Pistache

Meals end on a high note thanks to pastry chef Michelle Palazzo’s mostly traditional desserts. Peak-season fruit tarts ($14–$16) are especially dependable, made with buckwheat and shortbread crusts and layered respectively with pastry cream and fromage blanc, a fresh, yogurt-like cheese. To really match Frenchette’s party vibe, however, look to shareable sweets like perfectly cakey cherry clafoutis ($16) and a pastry called the Paris-Brest ($16) that’s named for a bicycle race but ends up looking more like the wheel of a monster truck once Palazzo is done piping in twirls of Sicilian-pistachio buttercream.

Frenchette
241 West Broadway
212-334-3883
frenchettenyc.com

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events Listings MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

‘A Celebration of the Legendary Don Hill’

Featuring David Johansen, Jesse Malin & the St.Marks Social, Manitoba, Lenny Kaye, The Toilet Boys, Daniel Rey, Triggers All-Star Band, Theo, Hired Killers INC., Bebe Buell Band, Adam Bomb, La Dolce Vita, Brucifer & Bitch Band, At War With the 60’s, Girl to Gorilla, Michael Schmidt and Squeezebox, Richard Butler, (Psychedelic Furs), and Royston Langdon (Spacehog)

Thu., Dec. 15, 6:30 p.m., 2011

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

LIPSTICK KILLERS

Only gravelly voice frontman David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain remain from the original New York Dolls, but the two have forged ahead with a reconstructed lineup, miraculously recapturing most of the vamp and bombast of their early days. They also recently announced that Todd Rudgren would produce their next album, 35 years after producing their debut namesake album that more or less founded punk rock. Expect a considerable age gap among the crowd tonight: Original fans—like Morrissey, who coaxed them into reuniting in 2004 after nearly three decades defunct—are still taken with the outrageous, goofy boys from Staten Island who lined their eyes, had aerodynamic hair, and were irresistibly defiant. With the Dirty Pearls.

Sat., Dec. 27, 9 p.m., 2008

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sensualistic, Polytheistic

“So everybody gets makeup, OK? You look dead on TV without it.” Back in the Conan greenroom from a Camel-stoked walk to the Hilton with his girlfriend Leah, David Johansen was taking charge of the reconstituted New York Dolls, who didn’t really need the help. The sextet showed a lot of denim in rehearsal, but all manner of magpie finery came out at the witching hour, with red-on-black a theme—Jersey guitarist Steve Conte’s red-lined frock coat, keyb pro Brian Koonin’s red derby, the red rose in nice-guy bassist Sami Yaffa’s hair. The multiple accessories to Syl Sylvain’s colorful costume include a snarly-wolf wristband and Max’s Kansas City kidney belt painted by his wife Wanda in Atlanta, whom he called before he went on. And Johansen—whew. Jean Harlow (?) T-shirt. Stovepipe flares. Belts and rhinestones and silvery chains. They were a great band dressed to kill again.

Many reunions never get past the tour that’s never as hot as true believers claim. And the creditable albums some bands manage never live up to old glories. The Dolls’ new album doesn’t either, but that’s compared to my desert island discs—with this band, I’m the true believer. Their second shot took nearly 30 years, a decade-plus more than Blondie or Mission of Burma or Gang of Four. With junko partners Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan gone since 1991 and 1992, three of the original Dolls survived till Morrissey engineered a London one-shot two years ago. His dream fulfilled, bassist Arthur Kane died of previously undiagnosed leukemia a month later, leaving David and Syl to ride the one-shot’s reverberations. But though the pace has slowed and the execution filled out, though Thunders’s squalling sound and drop-dead time are irreplaceable, they’re still the New York Dolls.

The Dolls came together at one of Queens’ less distinguished educational institutions—Sylvain, Thunders, and classic drummer Billy Murcia, who died in a 1972 drug bollocks, all attended Newtown High School, and Kane grew up nearby. Staten Islander David Johansen they met downtown, and he was different. Bluntly put, what Sylvain calls the Dolls’ “skyscraper soup” wouldn’t have been all that tasty without Johansen’s genius as songwriter and frontman. The forced rhythms and slapdash musicianship of this fast, noisy mix-up—comprising, Sylvain reckoned, girl group, blues, Eddie Cochran, Young Rascals, and Little Rascals—read radically anti-hippie and now just seems quintessentially rock and roll. But it presaged punk, and it influenced thousands of bands—none of whom sounded remotely like the Dolls because none of them had Johansen’s eye for a joke, nose for a hook, clothes sense, appetite, or humanity. Nobody does.

Since the Dolls fell apart without having approached the megasales dancing in their heads, Johansen has enjoyed a solo career that included a long stint as cruise-ship popmeister Buster Poin-dexter and a briefer one yodeling in the canon with the ad hoc Harry Smiths. But give the new album half a chance and it stands as a miraculous demonstration of how much this modestly cultured middle- class New Yorker—dad an opera-singing insurance salesman, mom a librarian—benefits from the proximity of dead-end kids. He’s written hundreds of songs with collaborator Koonin. But when sound-check riffs evolved into songs and then a deal with the metal heavyweights at Roadrunner Records for the first Dolls album in 32 years, Johansen knew he had to generate fresh material. “It’s like being the speechwriter for a party,” he told me, coyly leaving out the “political.” Fools will grouse about a 56-year-old pretending he’s 22 again, just as Mojo‘s Kris Needs recently groused that New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon were “neutered,” “limp” renderings of the band’s pansexuality. The Dolls always were over some people’s heads.

I’ve held off on the album’s strange title because it says so much: One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. The “even” is preemptive; those who level the self-evident charge that the Dolls don’t jam like they used to should check their own jam level and say something new. But what’s more mind-boggling is that after 30 years Johansen isn’t looking back from his earned maturity—he’s looking ahead. He has internalized his mortality so thoroughly that he realizes he won’t be 56 forever. This is a true Dolls album—as in the Conan-featured “Dance Like a Monkey,” which bids a “pretty little creationist” to shake her “monkey hips” now that “evolution is obsolete,” or the opening “We’re All in Love,” with its “Jumping around like teenage girls” and its “We all sleep in one big bed.” But it also expresses the worldview of a lean, strong-piped guy who understands what makeup is for and knows that he may not be pretty in pink forever.

Johansen scoffed at my suggestion that his new album harbored religious feelings, and I didn’t push it. Instead I’ll just mention the booklet’s Kali Yoga shout-out and quote a few lyrics. “Feel exiled from the divine,” for instance. Or “Nature with its true voice cries out undissembled, ‘Be as I am!’ ” in the one that ends “Sensualistic/ Ritualistic/Alchemistic/Polytheistic.” Or the loose talk about infinity in the two songs that lead into the perorating “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks,” which begins, “Spirit slumbers in nature/And awakens in mind/And finally recognizes/Itself in time.” The ghost track “Seventeen” is tacked on as a corrective. Begins: “I was down on the corner one night.” Continues: “I was made all of light.”

Fools may wonder why Johansen needs dead-end kids to write like this. Where’s the party? But the Dolls were dead-end kids in transcendence mode. Their goal was and is the unbounded, humorous humanism apparent in Bob Gruen and Nadia Beck’s circa-1973 All Dolled Up DVD, a far more vivid memento than any concert bootleg. Their summum was Too Much Too Soon‘s future Guns N’ Roses text “Human Being”; their big drug slogan was “I need a kiss not a fix.” They were anti-hippie only insofar as hippies were passive (the Dolls rocked nonstop) and pretentious (David and Syl rail at 20-minute guitar solos as if they just tuned one out on WPLJ). Heterosexuals all, they believed in universal love the way disco utopian David Mancuso believed in universal love—with a sloppy touch of the Cockettes. “I’ve been trying to convince Syl that what we had in the ’70s wasn’t sex,” Johansen explained at Randalls Island in 2004, and again at Irving Plaza in 2005. A Monica Lewinsky joke, he couldn’t resist. But think of it this way—maybe what they had in the ’70s was love.

One attraction of Johansen’s newfound Buddhist rhetoric is that it doesn’t shy away from the carnal. The knowledgeable lust of “Fishnets & Cigarettes” and the pussy-worshipping “Running Around” counter the lived despair of “Punishing World,” “Maimed Happiness,” and the hope- deprived “I Ain’t Got Nothin’.” And that draft for a suicide note leads into a redemptive earthly-love triptych that dovetails plausibly, if not definitively, with what is known of Johansen’s personal life, in which a long marriage to photographer Kate Simon was followed by his relationship with Leah Hennessey, whose teenage daughter designed the 10-page comic that comprises the notes. He remains a votary of l-u-v.

That is, he remains a New York Doll. “This is the most fun way I can think of right now to not work,” Johansen told me, but he has big plans for his lark. No “bar band” or “preaching to the choir” for this mature professional entertainer who began his career believing he was about to take over the world. “This is going to be a big record. It’s like there’s no rock and roll records out there. It’s a fait accompli.”

It isn’t, but don’t tell the folks at Roadrunner. Tell them they’ve underwritten another desert island disc. Because it’s quite possible they have.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Paint a Vulgar Picture

Surely there have been filmmakers who knew less about music going into their first music documentary than Greg Whiteley, but none springs to mind. (Ken Burns, maybe? Nah.) When Whiteley met Arthur Kane in the Mormon temple both attended in L.A., he had never heard of the New York Dolls. His decision to film Kane after Dolls fanatic Morrissey made a reality of the former bassist’s pathetic dream of a band reunion was, it turns out, fortunate. Still, one wonders whether Whiteley has absorbed how frequently those who taste a moment of pop fame obsess on it ever after. Or that Kane’s fame was only an intimation of the stardom he never got near. Or that Kane was easily the least talented of the Dolls.

“Arthur couldn’t breathe and play bass at the same time,” someone says early on, whereupon someone else explains that this is literal—Kane would take a deep breath, play a barrage of notes, stop, take another breath, etc. Kane’s technique did improve. But his limitations were a precondition of the punk forcebeat; he influenced Dee Dee Ramone, who had more chops, and Sid Vicious, who didn’t. Towering mute and motionless in his platforms and tutus, clueless and awestruck and scary and lovable and proud, he completed the chemistry of a great band. But despite helpful interviews from an honor roll of old new wavers—Iggy, Chrissie, Mick (Jones), Sir Bob—who attended Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival, Whiteley is too clueless himself to do more than surround any of this, and barely hints at Kane’s pre-Dolls youth. Instead he mixes some Punk 101 into the story of a failed rock-and-roll hero whose life was saved by Joseph Smith.

Fortunately, this improbable protagonist is immensely touching whether taking the bus to his menial job at the Mormons’ Family History Library or modeling a long concierge’s coat in London. He loves the autograph hounds, the pecks on the cheek, the hotel room, the “delicious” food at (what someone else calls) a “hideous” banquet. Whiteley will have your sympathy describing Kane’s 1989 conversion, and explaining how Kane’s faith helps him allay his insecurities and get his guitars out of hock. When the bassist leads the band in a rather lengthy prayer before they embark on one of the most enthusiastically received reunion sets in history, you’ll be damn glad everyone says amen.

Other subtleties, however, are lost. For someone who knows the Dolls’ history, it’s easy to imagine Kane both intimidated by and infatuated with the effortlessly charismatic David Johansen, who took over the band Kane had named in 1971 and dominated them till they disintegrated circa 1976—and thus to
understand both his paranoid resentment of Johansen’s post-Dolls stardom (which never exceeded cultdom) and his relief that Johansen loves him as warmly and sarcastically as ever (which no one else would have doubted). But that doesn’t mean it’ll get through to the average Punk 101 student. In the end, this is less a film about a rock and roller than a film about a Mormon. And
Napoleon Dynamite it ain’t.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Beware the Real Low-Rent Puke-and-Boogie Blues, Buster

A story in the L.A. Daily Snob recently mentioned how New York’s David Johansen was avidly embracing the blues. He was appearing at a swanky university on the West Side, a place where the trouble and suffering the locals have seen cannot be estimated. Solo and with the Harry Smiths (no relation), David said he was into the real blues. He brought the legitimate blues to the New York Dolls, you know—not the horrible “rock boogie till you puke blues” that made him feel “soured” on the music.

Ha. Good thing I had Dave and the Snob for bullshit detecting, else I might have given Eric Sardinas’s Black Pearls a nice review. Just in time I realized the title song—while being about tits and ass, I think—was not properly dried up and ancient. Sure, Sardinas had a good voice and could sneak hooks in. And his blurbs mentioned Big Bill Broonzy and Barbecue Bob. He’d even been able to trick record store flunkies into stocking his CDs in the blues-ghetto rack. But it was still the rock booglarization that has so soiled the genre.

Sardinas’s “Bittersweet” has a kicking beat, but it’s an amplified shuffle. And the man plays a Resonator—a real blues guitar!—but it’s loud and distorted, the snarl and snap appealing to low-rent boogiemen who bought Johnny Winter records when he was in the arenas. “Sorrow’s Kitchen” wasn’t a strict swamp country blues, either, but a triumphant “see what ya done” unloading on a disloyal girlfriend. Worst, Sardinas doesn’t even look the part of a bluesman. His previous album took a feeble stab at upholding the image, showing disfiguring tattoos, but there was no hiding “the face” and more of those boogie-fied slide numbers. Christ, he looks a little like Steve Vai!

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Too Sweet To Die

Introducing a “Richland Woman Blues” that began crude and ended up delivering the lyric at least as strong as Mississippi John Hurt, David Johansen told us the New York Dolls used to rehearse the song. He didn’t recall why they’d canned it, but hey, he wasn’t exactly into mnemonics back then. So assume they figured it would be bad for their image. Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, OK. But folk music was for hippies.

Still, you could see how perfectly its “fashion shop” detail— “With rosy red garter/Pink hose on her feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat”— would have worked for the Dolls. And Johansen himself has long since proven a great democrat of song. Proud to cover Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” when he saw an opening, he was just as delighted to celebrate the Bottom Line’s 25th anniversary February 25 by forming the Harry Smiths: longtime potna Brian Koonin on guitar, whiz-bang virtuoso Larry Saltzman on banjo and steel-bodied, and Kermit Driscoll and Joey Barron from Bill Frisell’s band on stand-up bass and brushed snare-and-cymbals. Although he donned an acoustic guitar for the occasion, Johansen didn’t stick as close to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music repertoire as the band name
suggested— the announced songs of “death, retribution, and rounders” included his old Bo and Sonny Boy covers. But if the late show started awkward— three songs in, the quintet seemed inordinately pleased by their ability to hit a stiff all-together-on-the-backbeat groove— it found itself on the Anthology‘s single greatest prize, Rabbit Brown’s “James Alley Blues”: “Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/And another time I think you oughta be buried alive.”

Resisting Jo-yokels who demanded that he stand up, placating them instead with a Jo-oldies encore capped by a mercifully understated “Heart of Gold,” Johansen played the folkie throughout. But of course the once and future Buster Poindexter didn’t project. Performing Dock Boggs like the jaunty party animal the young Boggs actually was, making you hope momentarily that Clarence Ashley would get away with murdering Little Sadie, milking Son House’s “Death Letter” for theatrical gestures that climaxed with the bluesman putting his arms around a memory, he expanded his image yet again. And if someone wants him for a hippie tribute, he’ll find great songs there as well. — Robert Christgau


Scott Free

Raymond Scott “never wrote a note for cartoons.” It’s not surprising that Irwin Chusid harps on this point, striving to separate Scott from the Bugs and Daffy arrangements that conferred his immortality. As founder of the Raymond Scott Archives, Chusid is promoting Scott from pop cult figure to Eccentric American Composer. Last Monday’s Jewish Museum program—
performance, video clips, and biographical slide show— was a step up the cultural ladder from Bottom Line Scott shows put on by the Loser’s Lounge crowd. Charles Ives and Harry Partch didn’t rake it in through licensing arrangements, though. Scott was eccentric, but prosperous, and way popular. Sitting among the alter kockers bobbing to his precision-adjusted syncopations, how’s a cognoscente supposed to feel superior?

By all accounts, Scott’s bandleading was fascistic, so it’s ironic that the Boswellish Chusid asked accordionist Will Holshouser and pianist Wayne Barker to arrange the compositions “any way they want.” Holshouser’s spacious, textural
revamp of “The Penguin” would have rankled the composer, to say the least. Since improving Scott’s intricate mechanics is out of the question, Holshouser idled the vehicle and flipped open the hood to inspect the gears. Scott’s electronic innovations, by contrast, remain esoteric, and five early-’60s commercials (bread, detergent, car parts— “Autolite, the spark plug that cleans itself . . . POW”) showcased the abstract bleeping and squeaking of his homemade synthesizer. The audience giggled uncertainly at the jittery, explosive animations with which the mundane goods were plugged. It’s no wonder the kiddies watching ended up wasted on the Haight.

Other evenings at the museum have included “Hanukkah With Betty” and “Sex in Yiddish,” to wit: this gig was an outing. In the photos, the former Harry Warnow’s boyish face makes his contemporary Benny Goodman look like FDR. The racially liminal status of Jewishness probably helped Goodman channel black music to white America. But Scott dubbed himself echt WASP, made swing that didn’t swing, didn’t give a shit about soul or any other trope of authenticity. His Ellingtonisms stick out their tongue at Wynton Marsalis. Scott enacted a cartoon of honkies playing jazz. It was so hard to pull off that he hired quite a few black musicians to do it. — David Krasnow


Dreaming Out Loud

It’s been 17 years since Blondie disbanded, and we’re still touched by their presence, dear: Luscious Jackson’s street-smart rapture, Madonna’s blond ambition, Shirley Manson’s scowls, and most recently, Harvey Danger’s “Call Me” riffs. WPLJ— the station that sponsored the ticket giveaway to last Tuesday’s Blondie reunion show at Town Hall— would probably play “Flagpole Sitta” right next to Blondie’s brilliant comeback single, “Maria,” a ’90s answer to “Dreaming.”

[

“Dreaming” is how founding members Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, and Jimmy Destri fittingly started the proceedings, with beauty and the beat. The Divine Miss H. was dressed in red and black, sunglasses, and the stare from the cover of Parallel Lines, while the boys (including newbies Paul Carbonara on guitar and Lee Fox on bass) were outfitted in leather. Dreaming, dreaming is free.

The band basically stuck to radio hits and some CBGB favorites, with “Shayla” and “Union City Blue” being the surprise selections. Harry’s voice soared heavenly through both as if she were lifting the song’s characters out of their blue-
collar factory worlds and into power, passion. But where the New Wave Queen Bee really ruled was in songs like “Rip Her to Shreds” and “One Way or Another,” where her deeper, wiser lower register added grit and sassiness. Her tenure with the Jazz Passengers paid off with “In the Flesh” and the new album No Exit‘s film noirish “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room,” which went from new wave to no wave when a gold lamé­jacketed James Chance joined them on saxophone. In a bizarre colliding of worlds, imagine Chance on VH-1, which was taping the concert. (“James Chance never won a Grammy but he certainly stirred things up in the Village!”)

This dynamic played itself out in the crowd as well. Headsets, clipboards, and laminates mingled with soccer moms, office clerks, pink-haired drag queens, New York dollbabies, and new wavers with old buttons: “Blondie is a band.” One woman in the audience did a T-shirt striptease, starting with the “No Exit” shirt and ending with AbFab‘s Patsy, which proves that all things fabulous lead back to Blondie. — Sara Sherr


Wait, Wait . . . Now!

Mogwai have never been tunesmiths, exactly, but judging from their preview of their forthcoming album Come On, Die Young last Monday night at Bowery Ballroom, they’ve all but shed the idea of the pop song. Only one piece involved singing, and most of them didn’t attach any other kind of hook to their tourniquet-tight pacing and dynamics— just an articulated chord or two, or a repeating, mutating spiderweb pattern. The obvious model was Slint, a lot of whose virtues they’ve borrowed: patience, spaciousness, and a micro-control of rhythms that gives them extra bite. Without some kind of melodic point hurrying Mogwai up, though, they tended to ramble. It’s nice that young people are interested in the scope of old prog, but God! do we really need to hear flute solos?

Purity of intent and execution is what gives Mogwai a lot of their power, though they’re getting so pure that the new stuff is sometimes arid. Even when they crank up the volume, they usually keep pivoting around the same old drone. And their approaches to their ideal can get kind of hard to tell apart: “Christmas Steps” is the one where the loud part starts with the bass; “May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door” is the one where the loud part isn’t all that loud. “Like Herod,” the one where the loud parts are really loud, has become as much of a routine for them as, for instance, “Blue Line Swinger” is for Yo La Tengo. It’s been in their set longer than anything else: crawling along note-by-note at whispering volume for five or 10 minutes until the audience is leaning forward for every brush of a string or cymbal, then snapping into an unexpected furnace-blast that pastes them to the back wall— twice. That’s the theory, anyway, though longtime fans can count in the kaboom by now. Still, by the time Mogwai segued into their closing cover of the old indie-rock standard “Six Minutes of Feedback,” the exhaustion of waiting had turned into the exhaustion that follows a happy shock. — Douglas Wolk


Carrying Two Babies

Aiha Higurashi, singer and guitarist for Tokyo’s Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, is four months pregnant, but she performed Saturday night at a Mercury Lounge smoky enough to toxify my blue jeans. Rockers can’t always be choosers, and with no American record deal yet and the South by Southwest music convention coming up, the band needed to show its wares. Higurashi got her doctor’s permission so long as she spaced the gigs and went home immediately after each set.

[

In Japan, SSKHKH record for Trattoria, Cornelius’s label, and sell about 15,000 records each time out. While Higurashi has dabbled in hiphop and loungey flourishes— her single “Pink Soda” begins as a finger-snapping “Fever” variant— she’s an art-punk at heart, for whom the ringing power chords of the Mekons’ “Where Were You” are manna from heaven, a gift she returns on sugar rushes like “Angel,” “Sweet Home,” and “Down to Mexico.” Since U.S. hipsters find the sound outdated, thank God it’s a big world. (PS: The Boredoms have just done a superlong freebopping of “Where Were You”— now give, skeptics.)

Sometimes called Japan’s PJ Harvey, Higurashi doesn’t tap an equivalent rage: even singing, “I cut myself into very little pieces,” she kept an ingratiating grin. But the tension between politeness and outburst, especially sexual release, gives her punk a distinct form; one number begins, “I woke up screaming/I know it’s already morning/I make a cup of coffee/I know he’s already gone/I drink the cup of coffee.” And a previous year and a half in New York has removed most of the typical Japanese cutesy pidgin from her English. Scattered over the inconsistent two albums and three EPs I’ve heard is more than enough for an eye-
opening U.S. long player. There’s an artist coming to term here. — Eric Weisbard