Southern Nights

A couple of friends and I drove south this week for Merge 25, a four-day celebration of the Merge Records silver anniversary. For the fourth time we’re immersing ourselves in North Carolina’s Research Triangle (or more specifically its small-town neighbor, Carrboro) to toast the record label that has meant more to us than any other since 1989.

It’s been said that there’s something in the water in places like Chapel Hill and Athens, GA, that fuels the spirit and leads to fertile underground music scenes. For me there’s just something about heading south PERIOD.  Sure it’s hot and more humid, but I like it when shade is valued and ceiling fans become indispensable. I get a feeling, a vibe, from certain locales to the south — the places where you can feel your hair getting a little messier, your cut-offs getting a little more frayed, and the beer getting a little colder. It’s The Flat Duo Jets. It’s The Rock*A*Teens. It’s the Elephant 6 Collective. It’s Superchunk.

I think I first felt it in a little burg called College Corner in southwest Ohio. It felt like a frontier at the edge of my buttoned-up college town.  It was there at the Southgate House in Newport, KY. I’ve felt it in The Triangle, Richmond, Hampton Roads, and at a little treasure of a place called Mex-Econo in Kill Devil Hills. It was heavy in Austin, and I know it will be there someday when I get to Memphis, New Orleans, and Athens.

I have felt it as far north as Columbus, OH, where one of these same buddies (We’ll call him Rick) and I went to see Superchunk, Merge’s flagship band, play with Cowtown faves Scrawl almost exactly twenty years ago. That road trip expanded to two nights and included a Mekons show at Stache’s and an afternoon hanging out at the annual Boho-gathering Comfest.  Heck, that trip gave me one of the final pushes to relocate there a couple months later.

OK. So I acknowledge that this whole feeling may not be defined by a place’s geographic relationship to the Mason-Dixon line. It also has to do with hitting the open road and usually involves a journey to a live music event and a temporary freedom from the daily grind. The fact is, too, when you’ve spent the larger part of your life in close proximity to Lake Erie — and what many around here call The North Coast — that journey has to almost always start by heading south.

Of course, one could head east to NYC or west toward Detroit or Chicago. I drive south.  It just feels right.

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Down In The Bowery: Soaking Up CBGB

CBGB, the movie, is available tomorrow on DVD.  I haven’t read/heard anything positive about the film set around the famed NYC music venue.  Apparently it displays such outright atrocities for fans of the early punk rock scene as a depiction of Patti Smith performing “Because The Night” at her club debut. (Of course that song would not emerge until a couple of years later.) One would think that the music history aspect would have been the easy part to get right.  Negative buzz aside, the temptation to see portrayals of folks like Cheetah Chrome, Stiv Bators and Genya Ravan is just too much for me.  I am currently 14th out of 102 on the “holds” list through my county library system.

Just over twenty years ago, I made my one and only pilgrimage to this legendary dive in the Bowery.  It was my last night in NYC for the New Music Seminar, an adventure that has surfaced on this site before (and probably will again).  Here’s my brief description about my visit to CB’s as originally shared in The Stew:

We would be closing out the week at the venerable punk rock club CBGB on Bleecker Street. Everything that we had heard about the famous “hole-in-the-wall” was true.  The club was soon celebrating its 2oth anniversary, and the original dust was still on the baseball pennants behind the bar.  The bathrooms are literally backstage, and nobody pays any mind to modern concert trappings like security.  I was just happy to hang out in the hallowed hall that was the old stomping grounds of The Ramones, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell.  I was nearly starstruck too as Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth brushed by my barstool on their way out.

CBGB

“Country Bluegrass Blues and Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers”
The famed CBGB awning now hangs in the lower level of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Unfortunately the performances on stage that night were not as memorable as the mystique of the room. The bill was made up of bands from the Caroline label.  We learned that St. Johnny was average, the Action Swingers have a bad attitude, and Paula Kelley from Hot Rod is not afraid to display affection publicly.  Walt Mink, who most everyone was there to see, played at a chest-vibrating volume level that easily surpassed The Fluid as the loudest band that I have ever heard.  (This also confirmed reports that the club’s regular soundman is already deaf and would like to inflict that disability on others.)  Richmond’s Fudge closed out the night, but by this time it was anticlimactic. The next day we were to head back west.

Sure that’s just a memory snapshot and just one segment of an article about a jam-packed week of live music, and I am sure that I figured I would return to the venue many more times.  I can still picture those small dusty baseball pennants on the wall including one featuring the Washington Senators, a team that hadn’t existed for over twenty years. Most of all, though, I think one never forgets the bathrooms, scuzz monuments which are well documented elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see if my recollection of the long, claustrophobia-inducing room with the big sound matches up at all with the setting of the film.  CBGB was shuttered for good in October 2006.

In My Room: From Captain & Tennille to Captain Beefheart

I am essentially a self-made music nerd. The number of individuals that have influenced my love of rock and roll and specific tastes in music can easily be counted on one hand. When it comes to my musical education, I have pretty much found my own way.

It was in the mid-1970’s that my obsession took hold against an aural backdrop of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 and its opposing world, the legendary FM rock radio of the Northeast Ohio Greater Listening Area. As far as cultivating a fledgling fanatacism for music goes, it was a privilege to be in that time and place.

Recording songs from a radio speaker to a tape recorder soon led to buying records. (Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was my first 45.) I quickly became a serious student of pop and rock music. At the time I didn’t think that I had too far to go to catch up on things.  The rock era was still relatively young. Heck, I watched Happy Days. I read about Elvis and The Beatles in the pages of Dynamite Magazine.  Little did I know that the depths of rock music were murky, even boundless, and I am still filling in the story today.

Dynamite Elvis

In addition to constantly soaking up Top 40 and AOR radio, I sought out music on television as much as I could.  Variety shows and American Bandstand were in regular rotation, but Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special were the real treats if I could manage to stay up late enough.

Dynamite Donnie

By 6th grade I had a subscription to Circus Magazine, and instead of baseball cards I began to spend my lawnmowing money on copies of Creem and Hit Parader at the Quik Shop or People’s Drug. I quickly learned that the consensus was that the Rolling Stones were “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” and this thing called Punk Rock was exploding.   I started recognizing the name “Lester Bangs” at the end of record reviews, and I knew “The Last Waltz” had nothing to do with ballroom dancing. By the time I reached high school,  I could tell you the difference between Gram Parsons and Graham Parker and that The Clash was “The Only Band That Mattered.”

Now don’t get me wrong. There was no real “cool filter” in place. I wasn’t some kind of junior rock critic wunderkind. A highly questionable middle-of-the-road Arena Rock phase figures in my background, and I don’t really remember NOT liking much music. I was just absorbing it all, taking it all in.  In fact those aforementioned swings between Top 40 and album rock radio still inform my tastes today.

I would continue to explore through the college years with SPIN magazine and MTV’s 120 Minutes program steering me to out of the way musical places. I discovered the Velvet Underground and all of the non-mainstream artists in their long shadow. One only had to see the VU’s albums listed in Rolling Stone Magazine as some of the greatest ever so many times before taking the plunge. Besides they were REM-approved. Another college favorite, The Replacements, led me to Alex Chilton and Big Star. Once in my twenties armed with more discretionary time and an employee discount,  I delved deeper into cult figures.  I invested in music-geek-must-have boxed sets from Robert Johnson and Phil Spector, and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Deities of the Rock Snob world like Captain Beefheart, Roky Erickson, Arthur Lee, Gene Clark, Skip Spence, and Jonathan Richman were not far behind.

I am really still catching up today as I educate myself on the pioneers of the early 1950’s R&B and the songwriters, producers, and arrangers of the Rock Era’s first couple of decades.  Had he known that this education would take decades, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that my ten-year-old self would have still been up for the trip.

Hold My Life

In recent years I have contemplated how my musical obsession may have started and attempted to pinpoint the stages of its evolution. I’ve been dissecting how my tastes may have formed. Why do I like what I like? How did I get this way? My story is a fanboy trip that would never unfold the same way today with the digital landscape of instant info and seemingly boundless listening access. Unlike Nick Hornby’s Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, I won’t claim to be “able to see how I got from Deep Purple to Howlin’ Wolf in twenty-five moves.” We’ll just piece things together as inspiration hits, as my collection is sifted through, and my boxes of rock ephemera are explored.

Since music has always been top of mind for me, I recall many of the moments where rock and roll and the minutiae of day-to-day life have intersected: an older cousin turning up the volume on a certain K-tel track, an elementary school classmate’s essay about AM radio songs, an LP trade with a next door neighbor to name a few. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today, but I can recall who played second on a three-band bill at the Euclid Tavern on a Monday night in 1993.

With the Greater Listening Area the hope is to sort out some of these memories and their accompanying soundtrack and maybe shake loose some more recollections in the process. Hopefully you will see yourself in some of these posts regardless of your depth of immersion in music. (Some of you may actually be in these posts.) We can collect your stories and comments as well and laugh together at how terminally uncool I am. At best, we can celebrate (and maybe in some small way help preserve) the disappearing culture of the physical recordings, the printed matter, the record stores, and the radio stations that shaped us.