Box Full of Letters

The remarkable entity that is the band Wilco really knows how to celebrate an anniversary. Their debut album, A.M., turned twenty years old this past Spring, but their commemoration of two decades as a group really began late last year with a “best of” compilation and a boxed set of rarities. 2015 has brought a coffee table book of show posters, a film celebrating Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival and then the triumphant return of the festival itself. Oh yeah…and Jeff Tweedy and Co. seem to be on the road touring all the time. (You can of course check out all this stuff and make purchases at Wilcoworld.net.) If all that wasn’t enough for us already, July happened. On the evening of Thursday the 16th came the announcement of a surprise album, STAR WARS, which is still currently available as a free download. The following night Wilco performed the new material in i’s entirety and more as a headliner of the Pitchfork Festival in their hometown of Chicago. It was their week, and it turned out to be their month.
 wilco-star-wars
Through the wonder of Twitter, I read about the surprise release of STAR WARS that night and immediately provided my e-mail address for the download. After a short delay I was soaking it up on my screened-in porch.  As with most of the group’s 21st Century output, the more that you listen, the more you will unpack and the more you will be rewarded. It struck me on this occasion, though, how few bands have remained relevant for two decades or more. Sure the Wilco line-up has changed through the years, but that makes it even more amazing that folks still care what the band is up to. Yo La Tengo might be the only other band that has endured continuously for twenty-plus years and remained really relevant in my book. Sure there are bands that I love that have been around that long — Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr. and The Cynics come to mind if you overlook some hiatuses  — but their post-heyday catalogs don’t have me reaching for their respective shelves in the collection all that often. There are bands with the longevity out there, but I am thinking of artists that have had consistently great output and keep us anxiously waiting to hear just what they’ll do next.
Wilco A.M.Wilco’s evolution has been well documented in print and on film so that’s not really what we’re here for.  Of course this wouldn’t be a Greater Listening Area post unless we made it about me and how the music intersected with my experience. Wilco’s A.M. album being released just over twenty years ago is significant as I consider it the subject of my first published record review. That is, the first in a publication that I did not print by myself at Kinko’s.
The June 1995 issue of MOO Magazine out of Columbus, Ohio was where you could find it. My ramblings ran as part of a point-counterpoint feature that would kick off the review section each month.  In this case I provided the “thumbs-up:”
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Except for that last sentence which comes off as a bit of a cliché, I think it holds up pretty well. This particular review was a submission of my own because I was excited that a member of Uncle Tupelo was putting out new music, but I was assigned a few things for the issue as well. An LP from East River Pipe, a compilation from Tsunami and a 7″ single from the Smoothies were all part of my MOO debut.
MOO June 1995
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Bang The Drum

 

I recently uncovered a copy of the final installment of my little zine that surfaced sporadically from 1990-1994. We happen to be just a few weeks beyond the 20 year anniversary of when I served that final batch of The Stew.

This is the “epilogue” that put a coda on that endeavor:

Well, there you have it folks. The last trickle of The Stew is running down your chin. I hope that you garnered some enjoyment out of this erratic series. I hope that at the least you were intrigued by our rantings and musings. Hopefully we were able to coax you out to see a show or listen to a CD. Maybe you were appalled by our head-over-heels pursuit of the “Rock moment.” Maybe you had a good laugh. The important thing is that you felt something.

The Stew, however rare in its actual fruition, was a labor of love. Not the love of struggling for words or a love of late nights at copy shops, but a love of the music and subjects that were documented. Whether or not The Stew fell on deaf ears or was even understood did not always matter. At the very least, personal experiences were documented.

Ah yes, the head-over-heels pursuit of the rock moment, this is what powered these pages. THE MOMENT. That moment when a band kind of makes you grit your teeth and smile at the same time, and you think “this is IT. “It” is something that is felt and is nearly impossible to convey on the printed page no matter how hard this was attempted.

Punk rock. Indie Rock. The labels do not matter, but if you get it… “It” can change your life.  Maybe for you it was seeing The Clash, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Sebadoh or Bikini Kill. For me it was these moments and several in between that prompted a serious gut check. The Stew was about defining those moments and urging others to search out their own.  So keep taking a chance. You may see people and things differently or at least experience some great music.”

                                                                           Yours in concluding sappiness,                            

                                                                           M.R. Sumser

Looking back at the shortlist of life-altering rock shows that I rattled off there, it should be pointed out that while I did see The Clash in 1984, it was the short-lived Mick Jones-less band that recorded and toured behind the CUT THE CRAP album in 1984. The happening was still a pretty “Punk Rock” moment for four teens from Stark County as a mohawked Joe Strummer led the band through an opening rendition of London Calling and then promptly proceeded to send his guitar bouncing off  the floor to stage right. This was the first time my cohorts and I witnessed slam dancing (which began on the floor of Cleveland’s Public Hall even while the local reggae band First Light opened the evening). This era of The Clash is just a footnote to most, but it was the late Joe Strummer, and wouldn’t we be thrilled to see him now backed by anybody?  

I haven’t compared the excerpt above to my initial ramblings on this site, but I don’t think the passing of a couple of decades has done much to diminish my earnest approach to devouring music and pursuing those rock and roll moments.

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.

Milk It: Nirvana in ’93 (Marking Another 20th Anniversary)

A couple of weeks ago, Geffen Records released a deluxe 20th anniversary package of Nirvana’s third and final studio album In Utero. It has been 20th Anniversary-Mania for music scribes, labels, and fans this year as every week seems to bring another waft of nostalgia.  Not only was 1993 the heart of the alterna-boom, it really did produce some classic and career-defining albums. As “modern rock” exploded I was fortunate enough to have a great vantage point from both the music retail trenches and the beer-soaked floors of the shows as we watched our favorite bands go from underground heroes to MTV regulars.  In July of 1993,  I ventured to New York City for the New Music Seminar with a buddy — we’ll call him Rick. I chronicled this vacation road trip at length, and you’ll find more from that excursion and 1993 in general in future posts. For now here’s an excerpt detailing one memorable night:

Tonight was a “surprise” show from Nirvana and the Jesus Lizard at Roseland.  Announced only two days prior, this was the event of the week.  We figured it would be the only chance to see them in such a small venue, and we could hear them perform material from their long awaited forthcoming LP In Utero.  Nirvana in N.Y.C. — maybe something to tell the kids someday.

Anticipation was high for the show as epitomized by a Swedish tourist whom we met at the front of the stage. He had paid $75 to a scalper for his ticket just to see the Jesus Lizard and was equally eager to see Cop Shoot Cop on the following night. Shrugging off the price he paid, he summed up our week well.  “You know,” he said, “it’s New York. Everybody wants to take your money.”

The Jesus Lizard was phenomenal.  They thumped it out as tightly as ever as vocalist David Yow chain-guzzled cans of Bud.  We had staked out some ground near the stage and helped Yow stay afloat during his many sojourns into the crowd.

When Nirvana hit the stage, we were bounced back to the “old guy section” even though we were wearing sensible shoes.  The only escape from the rampant teen spirit of the N.Y.C. youthful would have been the special guest area above us that seated the Kurt Loders and Courtney Loves.

Anyway, the barrier-breaking trio turned in a set that was musically better than what I had experienced on ’91’s Nevermind tour.  Included were new ones like Heart Shaped Box and older faves like School,  and they also debuted their female cellist friend for some quieter moments.  The show was a classic example of what Nirvana was all about, characteristically sloppy at points and brilliant at others.  Kurt Cobain ended the show on the floor, drenching us with and basking in his guitar’s feedback.

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This magnet just showed up on the refrigerator one day a couple of years ago. (Audrey picked it up at Big Fun in Cleveland.) The realization eventually hit me that I was actually at the gig commemorated on the magnet. Note Pat Smear (pictured lower left) had become a touring member of the band which I failed to mention in the brief review.

Nirvana would swing through our Northeast Ohio Region about three months later for a Halloween show at Akron University with their upstart labelmate Beck and their heroes, the Meat Puppets. I decided to sit that one out as my tastes leaned almost exclusively to smaller underground club shows.  It turns out that that would be Nirvana’s last Northeast Ohio appearance.

A Place In The Sun: The Great Yacht Rock Countdown of ’11 – Part 3

This holiday weekend in the Greater Listening Area we have been taking a look back at some words I typed before this site existed. After spending the Summer of 2011 indulging in the soft rock sounds of the 1970’s, I made a case for this wave of nostalgia as a guilt-less pleasure.  Again this year we’re marking the unofficial end of summer by revisiting a countdown of my Top 3 all-time fave Yacht Rockers:

I know you’ve hardly been able to contain your excitement so here goes…  My #1 Yacht Rock act of all time is none other than Pablo Cruise.  While late ‘70’s hits like “Love Will Find A Way” and “Whatcha Gonna Do” electrify on land or sea, it’s tracks like “Island Woman,” “Ocean Breeze,” “Sailing To Paradise,” and “ A Place In the Sun” that propelled the band to the top of the 8-track pile and the top of this prestigious list.

Thunder Island: The Great Yacht Rock Countdown of ’11 – Part 2

From time to time in the Greater Listening Area, we will take a look back at some of my ramblings from before this site existed. After spending the Summer of 2011 indulging in the soft rock sounds of the 1970’s, I made a case for this breeze of nostalgia as a guilt-less pleasure.  Over the Labor Day Weekend that year I launched a countdown of my Top 3 all-time fave Yacht Rockers:

I am celebrating my musical guilty pleasure of the summer over this holiday weekend.  Checking in at #2 on my mammoth list of Yacht Rock favorites is Jay Ferguson!  The former lead vocalist of the arty band Spirit and then 70’s boogie rockers Jo Jo Gunne, Ferguson foreshadowed his Yacht Rock prominence runnin’ away  “To the Island” on his debut record.  It was “Thunder Island” though, the title track from his 1978 album, that floated onto the FM airwaves and into Yacht Rock immortality.  The song is a true pop classic, and the presence of Joe Walsh on guitar appealed to even the manliest of Yacht Rockers.  The following year Ferguson returned to high seas adventure with the song “Shakedown Cruise.”

Sailin’ The Wind: The Great Yacht Rock Countdown of ’11 – Part 1

From time to time in the Greater Listening Area, we will take a look back at some of my ramblings from before this site existed. After spending the Summer of 2011 indulging in the soft rock sounds of the 1970’s, I made a case for this breeze of nostalgia as a guilt-less pleasure.  Over the Labor Day Weekend that year I set adrift the following confession:

I am usually regarded as a “Rock Snob,” but I am coming clean about my musical guilty pleasure of the summer – “ Yacht Rock.”  That’s right…  the soft rock from the 70’s usually played by bearded dudes wearing white tank tops under brightly colored button-downs with band names like Firefall, Starbuck and Orleans.  Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” is often viewed as Yacht Rock’s pinnacle, but I think of it more as the nail in the coffin for the genre (sort of like the way Altamont snuffed out Flower Power).  By the time “Sailing” faded away with the summer of 1980, folks were ready for a new wave.

While Labor Day Weekend usually signals the unofficial end of summer, a true yacht-rocker knows that there’s still a good 4-6 weeks of smooth sailing even on the Great Lakes.  The waters are still warm and less crowded, and Seals and Crofts sound ridiculously awesome blaring from the 8-track player on deck.  So pass out the cans of Narragansett.  In honor of this summer’s guilty pleasure, I will be counting down my Top 3 Yacht Rock artists of all time over this holiday weekend.

Ok. The wait is over.  In honor of this summer’s guilty pleasure, my #3 Yacht Rock artist is Loggins & Messina.   Before Kenny Loggins was alright with Caddyshack,  rode right into the danger zone, or cut Footloose as the king of the soundtrack, he was part of this successful duo.   Best known  for “Danny’s Song” and “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” these twin sons of different mothers cemented their Yacht Rock legend with the 1973 album Full Sail.  Nautical references?  Check.  Facial hair?  Check.   The opening track, “Lahaina,” points us toward Hawaii and the closer, “Sailin’ the Wind,” anchors this one as a Yacht Rock classic.