Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die." Some of the Best and Worst of George Carlin

“No one I ever met in the business of being funny, and I’ve met a few, was more the antithesis of Happy the Carefree Clown than George; no one understood better that comedy at its finest is a dark and beautiful art.” Tony Hendra, from “Introduction”, Carlin, George, with Tony Hendra. Last Words. New York: Free Press, 2009.

“Sometimes, in comedy, you have to generalize.” George Carlin, “Free-Floating Hostility”: w) “Whining Baby Boomers”, from Back in Town (Atlantic, 2006)

“I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is .… because every joke needs one exaggeration. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.” George Carlin, “Rape Can Be Funny”, from Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (Eardrum Records, 1990)

“Pushing the envelope for Carlin eventually meant pushing it in front of a truck. … George’s philosophy devolved (actually logically evolved) along an inexorable, philosophically shitty direction.”
Jason Roth, “The Day the Laughter Died: George Carlin Kicks the Motherfucking Bucket”, savethehumans.com (paraphrased from memory)



In the interest of full disclosure and objectivity, George Carlin once went out of his way, at a crowded book signing in New York, to send me an unsolicited, rare, autographed compact disc. He did this shortly after I asked him if he minded if I asked him a question—while he was signing the book that may have been the one in which he criticized people who asked that question. (His cheerful, enthusiastic response was, “Sure!”) For many reasons, I will forever be grateful to him for that, for more reasons than a typical individual likely would. While it precludes me from being “objective” (impersonal) about him and his work, I do not think it precludes me from being actually objective (realistic and rational) about him and it. This personal experience I had with him and his magnanimity is certainly relevant to an objective individual’s context in grappling with his new, posthumous album’s disturbing and troubling content. (As of publication, two photographs of George at that signing are on his Wikipedia page.)



George Carlin spent months (at least) refining his material. Typically, he would start gradually integrating new material into his shows not long after his latest live album recording session/HBO special, on tour and in residencies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, reading the very new material from a script at first. After he had memorized a good portion of it, he would leave notes on index cards onstage, referring to them when necessary and spending more time practicing timing, tone, and delivery of the memorized words. Eventually, the show was entirely (or almost entirely) new and unreleased, no cards were necessary any longer, and he was ready for his next live HBO broadcast (which would be released as his next album a few weeks or months later). The title of the show was there almost from the start of the process.

On Mother’s Day, 1997, George’s longtime wife (and HBO special co-producer) Brenda died with her husband and daughter by her side. A bereaved George took a year off.

Whether or not that cataclysmic event had anything to do with it, George performed You Are All Diseased, his most cynical, misanthropic, and nihilistic show yet, on February 6, 1999 at the Beacon Theater in New York.

On June 23, 2001, presumably at the start of a summer Las Vegas residency that year, George read a piece for the first time. He told the audience (presumably at MGM Grand, though liner and promotional information is vague and confusing) that he was reading it for the first time and that it shared a title with his then-forthcoming HBO show: “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die”. The piece sardonically and malevolently celebrated the extinction of the human species; it would be the closing section of the special. The show was scheduled for November 2001 at the Beacon Theater. It was arguably his most nihilistic and misanthropic material yet. Someone recorded it; it is not clear whom. One review asserted that the recording (a bonus track on his new album) is from a bootleg audience recording.

On or around Friday, September 7, HBO sent George and his team advertisements and poster artwork for the forthcoming show. On Sunday, September 9, George recorded his show at the MGM Grand that evening. There was no longer a script. “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die” had been revised somewhat and was now called “Uncle Dave”. [Those familiar with its final version, “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” from Life is Worth Losing (Atlantic, 2006) will have some idea why.] It was less waggish and more sardonic than its original incarnation (though more waggish and not as sardonic as “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” would be). The title of the forthcoming show had not changed. George played exactly the same set on Monday, September 10, and taped it as well. The set opened with a withering piece called “Rats and Squealers”, which ridiculed and lambasted police to an extent that would cause all but the most virulent police critic to bristle; “The Fecal Differential”, which mentioned Osama bin Laden by name and jokingly exonerated him and his ilk from causing airline disasters; and the uproarious “The First Enema”, which I saw George perform while referring to his index cards live in Atlantic City several months after You Are All Diseased. George was proud of the material and looked forward to performing all of it for HBO’s cameras in New York in November.

The following morning, plans changed. Some of them, anyway.

Before the dust settled, HBO and George agreed that the special would go on as planned with a different title. George scrapped “Rats and Squealers” and “The First Enema” as well as other bits titled “Cocaine” and “Tired of Songs”. He reworked part of “The Fecal Differential” into the beginning of the new show to brilliant, inoffensive effect in a post-9/11 context. He salvaged part of one line from “Uncle Dave” and developed it into a funny piece called “Guys Named Todd”. He shelved the rest of “Uncle Dave” and the original title of the show for the time being. He wanted to revive both of them at some point. He only revived one of them before his 2008 death.
George related his Complaints & Grievances on schedule on November 19. It was a memorable evening for all who watched it, in person or on television. George, onstage in his hometown, showed appropriate solidarity with his fellow man and fellow Americans that was exceptionally out of character in the final decade of his life. The closing piece was “Why We Don’t Need 10 Commandments”, a masterpiece of comedy and philosophy that is inestimably better than “Uncle Dave” (in any of its iterations). Atlantic, which distributed George’s Eardrum Records, released it on December 11. It is required listening for just about anyone over the age of twelve.

Last Friday, The George Carlin Estate released an album titled I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. (the spelling is not entirely consistent with the spelling on the scrapped HBO artwork). It is the first “new” material from George since 2008. It is not as essential, but it is important.

The album opens with a recording George made at home in Boston in 1957. He is a twenty-year-old disk jockey. His voice’s tone (which changed remarkably over the decades until it calcified into a cranky curmudgeon’s croak around the time of Brenda’s death) is strikingly youthful, but his attitude is much older and wearier. Sounding not unlike a young Frank Zappa as well as the “Old Fuck” of his It’s Bad For Ya (Eardrum, 2008), he castigates not only police but firefighters as well. (In 1957.) “You can never expect a fair shake from anyone who is involved in government. … No one involved … has ever been fair and righteous.” George, reminding us of a better time, continues, “In America, people answer to each other.” The track concludes with an extended soliloquy on individualism and its essentials. George perspicaciously concludes that individuals not only think for themselves but act on those thoughts. In an instance of mind-body integration that would become increasingly rare in the culture, George says, “You must plan and live up to those plans.” He adds that he considers himself one of the rare individuals left. (In 1957.) He sounds like a young Zappa not only in tone but in timbre and content.

With a barely perceptible edit, the album continues with “Rats and Squealers” from September 9 and/or 10, 2001 and the rest of the remaindered and recast material from those two nights.

It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with George’s work and the worst depredations and degradations of the Endarkenment. It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to “Rats and Squealers” for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with the depredations and degradations of the worst twenty-first century U.S. police and prosecutorial misconduct. In a classic George objurgation, police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”. What he says about prosecutors is even more effective and vividly contemptuous. I won’t ruin the effect here. And he criticizes David Kaczynski for turning in his brother, the Unabomber, “one of my heroes”. “You don’t do that to family.”

It is difficult to determine just how serious George was at certain moments. His daughter Kelly (who co-produced this album) once told an audience, “It’s humor; it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally.” Kelly presumably would not release material in which her father joked about his loved ones being killed if he really meant it. And I don’t believe the man who went out of his way to send me a free, rare, autographed CD (unsolicited) was as misanthropic and nihilistic as he comes across in his work. However, certain topics are never funny in any circumstances. Certain topics are inappropriate subjects for humor, in any context. George pushed the envelope with “Rape Can Be Funny” on Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics in 1990. By 2001, he was pushing it in front of a truck.
At the Beacon Theater on November 5, 2005, with Life Is Worth Losing and its extended, quasi-humorous bits about suicide, autoerotic asphyxia, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” (an even bleaker and more remorseless “Uncle Dave”), he pushed it in front of a nuclear warhead.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. is better and funnier than Life is Worth Losing (which Atlantic released on CD in January 2006). Even the material it sort of shares is gentler and more affable. Jason Roth, in his part encomium, part autopsy of George quoted above, noted that George’s work devolved, or logically evolved, in a philosophically shitty (his word) direction. From 2001 to 2005, George, his philosophy, and his delivery had continued to devolve, from avuncular fellow with a taste for the morbid and bizarre to morose misanthrope who was morbid and bizarre. Even the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” (a bonus track on the new album), “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” betray the transformation. Listen carefully. George, thankfully, may have known he went too far. Immediately after Life is Worth Losing, he uncharacteristically scrapped it all and came up with a full show of new material for the road, which turned out to be his last: It’s Bad for Ya. He told audiences that the last show was too saturnine, even for him. He was more the avuncular fellow than the morose misanthrope, and the new show was a much better swan song than Life is Worth Losing would have been. He even stammered significantly less than he did in 2005. I was privileged to see the show live twice in New Jersey, before and after the March 1, 2008 live broadcast from Santa Rosa, California. Eardrum released it about a month after his June 2008 death.

In between “Rats and Squealers” and “Uncle Dave” is classic Carlin that is no more inappropriate than anything else he did. There’s no point in spoiling it here. 

Like the best mainstream cultural figures of modern times (with the exception of Ayn Rand), George Carlin was a contradictory mixture of good and bad who reminded us that there were plenty of legitimate complaints and grievances in the Endarkenment. His philosophy was an inconsistent farrago, congruent with his times in its nihilism and misanthrophy—but more than tinctured with reason and good nature. [An example: he shared the man-hatred of consistent, extreme environmentalists while rejecting their environmentalism. Cf. “The Planet is Fine” from Jammin’ in New York (Eardrum, 1992).] He didn’t understand that, in a culture of conventional cynicism, amorality, and apologia for man and Western civilization, the sine qua non of actual “edginess” and “pushing the envelope” would have been understanding and propounding a body of work of unapologetic pro-Western sacred secularism and liberty that realized that most human beings (even now) are basically good, potentially noble, and valuable. His politics was, to say the least, inconsistently anti-authoritarian. He was most wrong about the profession he mastered: rape is not funny; suicide is not funny; and the harrowing, excruciating extinction of the human race is anything but funny. 

       Even when George was questionable, he was often trenchant and topical in crucial ways. Although as funny as anything else in his career, “Rats and Squealers” is a predictable mixed bag philosophically. He recalls rooting for the crooks when he watched movies as a child. He even praises Bill Clinton. However, George was entirely correct that “people have no principles any more. We’re living in a nation of stool pigeons.” And whether or not most police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”, and whether or not most prosecutors are worse, it is true that many of both are evil. They all have a lot to answer for in professions that have arguably become systemically corrupt. Even the baleful trilogy of “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001”, “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” contains writing and performing that has a rare perspicuous, pugilistic quality and effect that is downright stunning, regardless of the content. And, in this obscurantist, vapid, vacuous, prosaic culture of anti-intellectualism, George’s learned, rigorous, sapient, profound intellectual comedy always commanded a certain respect.

The album is seamlessly produced from the flawed, archival source material; Logan Hefted deserves special praise. It contains bonus tracks that are insightful, instructive, and essential. George’s longtime manager Jerry Hamza and longtime producer/director Rocco Urbischi are interviewed. Hamza recounts the production history of I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die/Complaints and Grievances as well as his day with George on September 11, 2001, including a wild ride from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. He recounts George’s understanding of what Zappa called “contrast and relief”. “You can’t go out and keep an audience up all the time. It’s got to have a flow to it. It’s got to go up and down … and if you left them up all the time, you could never sustain it.” Urbischi recounted his career with George and his facility with titles. “The title was always there [from the beginning of the long creative process], and it never changed. This is the only time it changed.” (According to Wikipedia, Life is Worth Losing was originally titled I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die until Hurricane Katrina.) Urbischi contextualized Complaints & Grievances: “That show, to me, will always be special because of that event. … The audience was great. I think they were looking for some relief. I think they were grateful that he came. We were kind of in this fog, and I remember it not being a joyful experience, but I think it was a grateful experience. He’s from New York. It’s his hometown. Maybe people didn’t understand at the time, but it’s pretty historic that a major figure would have the balls to do a comedy special this close to a horrific event [and] make it funny, entertaining, and political. I think that that’s incredible, but that’s George!” And the birth of “Coast-to-Coast Emergency”, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” is, if nothing else, fascinating.  The bonus tracks are available on a digital download card in the vinyl edition. The packaging includes relevant handwritten post-it notes by George and liner notes by Lewis Black.

Three of the four George Carlin albums released since 9/11 are closely connected and interconnected. Only one is essential to the general listener. All are essential to the Carlin aficionado and the aspiring or professional comedian, whether writer or performer. Together, they provide remarkable insight into the creative process of the Miles Davis of comedy, likely the greatest comedian the world will know for an eon or two. They are also shamelessly politically incorrect treasures of free speech in an increasingly politically correct, statist culture whose jejune inhabitants understand and value free speech less with every passing day.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die., warts and all, is much more of a treasure than anything else with that title could possibly be. It’s not for all ears and stomachs, but for those who can stand it and have an idea of how dark the Endarkenment is, it is more than a historical document.









George Carlin
I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.
Eardrum Records LP, CD, and digital download
Produced by Jerold Hamza, Kelly Carlin, and Logan Heftel 
Recorded live at George’s Carlin’s home, Boston, MA, USA, 1957 and MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, September 9 and 10, 2001 
Bonus tracks recorded live on June 23, 2001 and in the studio in 2016
(The bonus track are included on a digital download card in the gatefold vinyl packaging. Although the card implies that the entire album is part of the download, only the bonus tracks are part of it.)


Postscript: In 2009, I pitched Kelly Carlin-McCall a book idea for a tome documenting all of her father’s known live performances in detail. She rejected it at the time but added, “maybe someday”.


Post-postscript: That Eardrum Records label looks gorgeous on that long-playing record.



Update (09/25/16): Yesterday, the George Carlin Memorial Facebook page posted an update stating that the Estate's intention was for the entire album to be available on the digital download card and that any customer who E-mailed the pressing plant would receive a new download code. I am waiting to receive a reply. The poster (Kelly?) implied that some of the cards do have the full album.

Update (09/29/16): The pressing plant replied and reactivated my digital download code. I now have the entire album plus bonus tracks as a digital download (including a longer version of the Hamza interview than that on the previous download). If you purchased a vinyl copy and your download did not contain the full album, contact the plant at testpressing@urpressing.com.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wonderful Crazy Night: Elton John at Disneyland

On March 25, 1947, the individual now known as Elton John was born.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened.

The culture of the middle of the twentieth century was an alien realm, mostly for worse, from the perspective of a perspicacious observer today. However corroded “serious culture” and politics already was, the results had not yet metastasized in popular culture and economics. Americans, still relatively free and on the gold standard and the Breton Woods monetary system, produced genuine wealth and real prosperity on a grand scale in nearly every corner of every city and town, from the enterprising small business owner to … Walt Disney. Motion picture studios and record labels still produced large quantities of intelligible, stylized “products” that depicted life as exuberant, or, at least, exciting and fascinating, with characters that were heroic and dignified, or, at least, not depraved. Musical compositions had melodies and a modicum of instrumental skill and complexity, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to the early rock and rollers who also inspired … Elton John. He would synthesize both styles into something unprecedented during what was arguably popular music’s apogee. Introducing him and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as they were inducted into a worthless, meaningless institution not worthy of inductees or even orator, W. Axl Rose referred to it as “my classical music”.

Popular music has long since degenerated into the worst kinds of rap and punk (and worse), and even The Walt Disney Company now dabbles in aesthetic modernism (and more than dabbles in propaganda of the worst sort). But the Enlightenment has not entirely faded yet, and when two of its waning rays meet, it is a cause for celebration.

Last night, Elton John and his tight, versatile band performed on Disneyland Park’s Plaza, in front of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, while cameras were rolling for a forthcoming television special celebrating Disneyland’s sixtieth anniversary. Thousands celebrated.

Although rumors had been circulating for days, they were not entirely confirmed even after Friday morning’s park guests saw a stage set up with a draped grand piano. (The “release form” signs acknowledging the ongoing filming of Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special were not out of the ordinary.) Throughout the day, after a soundcheck with a choir exposed said piano as a familiar red Yamaha, they were just about confirmed.

After an unusually early iteration of the nightly Disneyland Forever sixtieth-anniversary fireworks display, an emcee greeted the gathered crowd and gave the usual directions/encouragement for the sake of the camera crew and television footage. Around 7:59 PM, the choir and band took the stage. Band members included original Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson (unfortunately, bass guitarist Dee Murray died over twenty years ago). Flamboyant erstwhile percussionist Ray Cooper may have been present; my view of the auxiliary percussion stand was blocked. The percussionist behind the bass drum emblazoned with Wonderful Crazy Night", the title of the new Elton John album, was likely John Mahon. Normally, I would complain, but Elton’s piano and, later, Elton, were blocking the percussionist (and Davey Johnstone). To a roaring ovation, the star singer/composer/performer/knight ascended the temporary stage in a characteristic full-length coat with his initials embroidered on the back. He’s older than Disneyland, and he and Taupin addressed some of the concerns of advancing age more than a decade ago in “Weight of the World”. Although my companion said he was transported to and from the stage in a wheelchair, he looked nimble and agile enough onstage, and his voice, while worn with age, has the weathered strength of experience. Unlike many of his peers, when he started singing, he sounded indubitably like himself.


What he started singing was “Circle of Life”, the song he wrote with Tim Rice for Disney’s The Lion King, the first John/Disney collaboration and one of the more satisfying cultural artifacts of an otherwise dismal decade. It’s not one of my favorites (even from that film), but it was hard for anyone but the most cynical modernist and pop culture detractor not to feel empowerment from the music (including that voice) and gratitude for life itself. Indeed, Elton John, even Disney at its best, is more than pop culture. It is art in a culture of dumbed-down pop non-art and modernist anti-art, from the ironic realism, surprising subtlety, and texture of the animators to the rock-classical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA, 1975) (which I had the privilege to see Sir Elton and company perform in nearly its entirety at Madison Square Garden in 2005). The band’s and choir’s performance was a harmonious blend. Johnstone was hard to hear in the mix, but the “pop” aspects of Elton John’ s pop have never overemphasized the talents of the backing band. The entire ensemble contributed to an integrated whole that emphasized the quality of the songs over the competent musicianship. For the first song in question, Rice’s lyrics are slightly too maudlin in their post-hippie ethos, but they are well-written and do not detract from the music’s majesty. The musical, exuberant “Yeah!” that climaxed the song cemented its effectiveness in the moment. Afterwards, Elton enthusiastically engaged the audience with his trademark earnest gestures and expressions without any of the smug self-importance and seeming condescension of so many performers. The audience chanted his name. When he sat back down at the piano, he said, “It’s great to be back at Disneyland. I’ve never played here. I’ve never been here at night!” He announced another run-through of “Circle of Life” for the audio and video crew. Before running through the song again, he puckishly banged the F major seventh chord that punctuates the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by the impish grin and finger to mouth of a lovable child caught doing something vaguely naughty but harmless. Then he sang “Circle of Life” with the same conviction and soul. Keyboardist Kim Bullard’s synth doodles added whimsical color. Afterwards, Elton said, “How about a cheer for the choir; they’re amazing.” 

After doodling at the piano a little (it sounded like “Take Me to the Pilot”), the pianist said, “No fireworks from beginning to end of the song, all right? This is a song called ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’. You’ve never heard it before, and it’s the title song from our new album. So, pretend you know it.” Wonderful Crazy Night (Capitol/Mercury) will be released February 5 and is available for pre-order in multiple editions and formats. All of its songs have Taupin lyrics, and it is the first album with the band since 2006’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sequel The Captain & the Kid (Interscope). “Wonderful Crazy Night” may or may not become a future John/Taupin classic, but the songwriting team is an active cultural treasure, and the song is a joyful, rollicking romp that was perfect for the occasion. Elton’s welcome and familiar skillful piano fills, chords, and glissandos do provide the song with the characteristics of a John/Taupin classic. A fireworks spectacle lit the castle and backdrop. At song’s conclusion, Elton remarked offhand that they had to wait for another set of fireworks.

During downtime, he continued, “About 50,000 people work here every day … 80,000 people come through the park every day. That’s 130,000 people a day that come through this park. When I came over on December the 23rd, I thought there was 330,000 people: the busiest day of the year.” He announced another run-through of “Wonderful Crazy Night” for the camera eyes and microphone ears. “And they’re going to spend more money on fireworks! You’ve been amazing, by the way. Thank you so much.” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re the amazing one!” and the amazing one bounced another F major seventh chord off his red Yamaha, with the predictable response. He followed this with a longer “teaser”: a full chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the perfect song from The Lion King with perfect, enlightened Tim Rice lyrics. It seemed much longer in the moment, and the absence of the rest of it was acutely felt. Then the ensemble played another rousing version of “Wonderful Crazy Night”, and the glorious twenty-five minute set was over, capped by a director’s further instructions for the capturing of incidental B roll footage.

These are trying times, and the continuing popularity of perennial icons like Disney and Elton John is a testament to the paucity of artistic culture in the West’s post-twentieth century doldrums. The audience gathered last night seemed to have some idea of the significance of the occasion even if few had the slightest idea why it was significant or how profound it really was in an unspeakable culture of vulgar, atonal, cynical, snarky trash. To the credit of the institutions behind the performance, what could have been pointless nostalgia was not. “Circle of Life” may have been predictable, but it is still relatively new in the context of a songbook of hits and artistic obscurities stretching back several decades now. And it was not only new; it was appropriate as well. And “Wonderful Crazy Night” is not even out yet. In a time when even Bruce Springsteen (of all unlikely artists) has succumbed to the nostalgia of “The River Tour 2016”, Elton John’s indefatigable commitment to new music is notable and admirable.

I recommend Disney animated classics (through The Lion King, but no later), even with their necessary limitations, and I recommend a visit to the Disneyland Resort if it’s logistically and financially feasible in the false, government-engineered "prosperity" of this "extended recovery". I cannot recommend Elton John enough [personal favorites include the aforementioned John/Taupin autobiography Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the secular gospel Peachtree Road (Universal 2004) among many others]. But if neither is to your taste, find your own skillful, representational celebration of life. Or, better yet, make your own, if you can. And support others who do, from your local school/theater group/small concert hall to the aging baby boomers who still fill the arenas and stadiums (and movie screens). You need it, and so does a dying culture.



Capitol and Mercury will release Wonderful Crazy Night on February 5, and the Disney ABC Television Network will air the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special later in February. Check the listings.


Elton John

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special
The Plaza
Disneyland Park
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA, USA
Friday, January 15th, 2016

set:
Circle of Life
Circle of Life
Wonderful Crazy Night
Can You Feel the Love Tonight [excerpt]
Wonderful Crazy Night





My friend Mindy captured all of the spectacular images. Thanks, Mindy.

Words and music, impeccably integrated and impeccably delivered ...

Nigel Olsson, who started playing with Elton in 1970, looks on.

Important, but not self-important.


My sources tell me that Kim Bullard is the brother of underrated vocalist/lyricist Mike Tramp, best known for fronting White Lion.


Band of brothers: Matt Bissonette's brother is Greg, best known for providing the beat behind David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Billy Sheehan.



Nigel Olsson, senior band member--even more senior than Davey Johnstone

Captain Fantastic--not self-important, just important


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Jesse Malin Comes Home: Velvet Elk Records First Anniversary Holiday Party

Early this morning, as the first annual Velvet Elk Records Holiday Show was winding down, headliner Jesse Malin recontextualized remarks he made earlier in the show (and on many other occasions, in song and elsewhere) and dedicated a rare cover to two people who died suddenly very recently. One of them was Nick Alexander, his former merchandise manager who was killed at Le Bataclan in Paris during an Islamic terrorist attack in November while he was working at an Eagles of Death Metal concert. The other was Lemmy Kilmister, the legend from Hawkwind and Motorhead (and a close friend of several friends of mine) who died on Monday, four days after his seventieth birthday and two days after he was diagnosed with cancer. Jesse fondly remembered his friend and employee. He told the packed Bowery Ballroom not to mourn Lemmy’s death but to celebrate his relatively long life (especially considering his life’s style and pace). He commented that they heard the news about Lemmy after finishing rehearsal Monday night, implying the performance of the next song might be less than stellar. It wasn’t. Harry, Jesse’s assistant, placed lyric sheets onstage, and Jesse, multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz, bass guitarist Catherine Popper, and drummer Randy Schrager launched the perfect tribute to both men: Motorhead’s “(We Are) The Road Crew”.

     It has been quite a year for Jesse and company. In addition to releasing two albums and experiencing much else (some of which is summarized above), Jesse and his collaborator Don DiLego launched a new record label. In 2015. (Jesse humorously considered it “the worst decision” they could make.) Both of Jesse’s 2015 albums were released on it. Although they both own (or at least manage) The Bowery Electric nearby and traditionally perform a holiday show there, they decided to hold a first annual holiday show for Velvet Elk Records at the larger Bowery Ballroom nearby (formerly a shoe store, according to lifelong New Yorker Jesse). Jesse headlined; Hollis Brown, Don, and Hidden Cities opened.

     Jesse’s set was similar to the one he played in Philadelphia on December 17, but it was longer, better, and had many more special guests, including members of Hollis Brown. Although he didn’t play on the aforementioned cover, an extra keyboard player not present in Philadelphia, Everett Forman (if I heard Jesse correctly), played during most of Jesse’s set to resonant effect. Also, Jesse’s usual loquacity returned at home. (“A former manager told me not to talk so much.”) Although New York was at least as loud and often as raucous, the slower songs were a little more subtle, and the horns and Derek’s vocals were much more audible and felt. (Don’s extemporaneous set was significantly different from his opening set in Philadelphia and included Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.) I have written about and praised Jesse and his music at length, and I don’t have much to add anymore. His themes of “P.M.A.” (positive mental attitude) and reveling in the joy of being alive were never more acute and emphasized than they were last night and this morning. He has peeled the “P.M.A.” tape off of his black Les Paul, but his attitude has never been more positive. Highlights last night included Ryan Adams, the producer of “The Fine Art of Self Destruction” (Jesse’s first solo album), joining the band with his black Fender Mustang or Jaguar on four songs from the album. The magnificent and exuberant “Oh Sheena”, one of the best songs on the two new albums, was not played in Philadelphia. And the self-described “Mr. Rogers of emocore” entered the audience and exhorted its members to sit down during the reflective “Bar Life” (also not played in Philadelphia), turning the Bowery Ballroom into a kind of secular church. Jesse has frequently commented that he is not religious and that the live music venue is his church. He said it again last night during “Bar Life”. While I would never put words in his mouth, my notes include his remark, “People go to war over this shit.” He was talking about religion. I think he was commenting about his reluctance to embrace religion. His art and his secular sermon early this morning indicate that he understands religion’s destructiveness as well as what is good about it that must be salvaged and secularized.
      
     If you enjoy or tolerate rock music, do yourself a favor and give Jesse Malin a listen.

Jesse Malin
First Annual Velvet Records Holiday Show
The Bowery Ballroom
New York
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Support: Hollis Brown, Don DiLego, Hidden Cities

Set:
She’s So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
Addicted
The Year That I Was Born
Fall From Grace [? unidentified cover--title from stage setlist]
Mona Lisa 
San Francisco
The Fine Art of Self Destruction [with Ryan Adams]
Downliner [with Ryan Adams]
High Lonesome [with Ryan Adams]
Wendy [with Ryan Adams]
Turn Up the Mains
Outsiders
Whitestone City Limits
She Don’t Love Me Now
Here’s the Situation
Bar Life
Death Star
All the Way from Moscow

encore:
Brooklyn
Oh Sheena
Frankie* 
Society Sally [with Don DiLego]
Winter [with a member of the Counting Crows]
(We Are) The Road Crew
You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray [with Don DiLego]


*The setlist says “Frankie”; I think it’s D Generation’s “Frankie” (and I think D Generation’s Richard Bacchus joined for that one). It might have been a cover of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”.
The disco ball hovers over the disco stomp of "Boots of Immigration".

The neck of Jesse's guitar obscures the visage of Ryan Adams.


Jesse amongst the audience for a solemn discussion during "Bar Life".

"Brooklyn" in Manhattan

"(We Are) The Road Crew"


Don DiLego covers "State Trooper".

Friday, December 18, 2015

Jesse Malin "Turns Up the Mains" in Philadelphia

UPDATE, 12/21/15: Johnny Brenda's is, in fact, featured fairly prominently in Creed, the new film featuring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa.


It was loud and raucous.

     That is the most succinct way to describe Jesse Malin's set at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia last night. Jesse and company were splendid (as usual) but some of the nuances of the slower songs were lost (the only serious criticism, if indeed that's what it is, of the festivities).

     And festivities they were. When he introduced "Turn Up the Mains", perhaps the loudest and most raucous song from either of his two 2015 albums, Jesse noted that the song and song title was about celebrating life and being alive (I hope my memory is accurate and I'm not paraphrasing too much). The chanteur of P.M.A.--positive mental attitude, as he calls it--delivered it again.

     Perhaps the artist knew what he was doing being loud and raucous in Fishtown, the "working class" Philadelphia neighborhood of Rocky Balboa. Perhaps it was a flaw in the sound design. Either way, it wasn't such a flaw at all because the show's dynamics fit the rough-and-tumble neighborhood well. Johnny Brenda's Tavern and its neighborhood look like a scene from Rocky or Rocky Balboa. The small, high stage is on the second floor, and a balcony serves as a third floor. It's an intimate venue and a perfect one for an extended evening of art and entertainment from Jesse Malin and friends.

     Don DiLego, a songwriting and production collaborator of Jesse's, opened the show with a thirty-one minute set that was much more relaxing, even after he brought his band on after the first song. His music is new to me and has a folkish feel to it; a pedal steel backing brought effective texture and lightness. The rest of his band was filled out with keys, a weather-beaten Fender bass, and a four-piece DW kit. Jesse's trumpet player Indofunk Satish made an appearance during Don's set, reinforcing the connection and communion between the two artists. Don noted that one of his musicians was furious because he had a ticket to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but he can still see that. (Naturally, "Death Star", which Don co-wrote, was included in Jesse's set.) This was a much more intimate and irreplaceable experience, and it won't be repeated. Don told the audience that his next disc will be released in the spring, and several of its songs were being debuted. He told me after his set that all but two of the songs in his set were from the forthcoming disc; he also told me a bit about working with Jesse. What I heard last night inspired me to purchase his new album when he releases it (I bought one of his older discs). One of the old tunes used the A-Bminor-D chord progression of "Never Say Die", the most optimistic Black Sabbath song, effectively amidst an evening of Jeffersonian forlorn optimism (see my review of Jesse's albums linked above). Fittingly, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence about two miles away.

     The Black Sabbath relevance continued with Dead Heavens, the second opening act, who are sort of a hybrid of Pink Floyd and the aforementioned bone crushers from Birmingham. Their set sounded like a series of Almost Famous outtakes, which means they're better than most of their peers these days. I had never heard of them, but they're apparently attracting a following. Their forty-two minute set included their most recognized song, "Adderall Highway", and songs called "Basic Cable" and "Hyacinth".

     Then the master took the stage at 11:00 PM Eastern Standard Time for ninety-nine minutes of high volume. He opened with this year's "She's So Dangerous", which sounds like a quiet song on disc. Nothing was quiet last night. I sympathize with those who didn't wear ear plugs and wonder how their day is going. By song two, 2015's frenetic stomp "Boots of Immigration", the theme of the night was more than established. Jesse was backed by multi-instrumentalist Derek Cruz (as usual), bass guitarist Catherine Popper, drummer Randy Schrager, and, intermittently, saxophonist Danny Ray and trumpetist Indofunk Satish. All of them were integral performers on his latest, Outsiders, and Derek and Catherine co-wrote some of its songs. Unfortunately, it was often hard to hear the horns on account of the guitar volume (I couldn't really hear Danny at The Viper Room last August either, but the slower songs were more effectively mellow and felt that night). The explosive band played eleven songs from the two new albums, several old ones, and a seasonal Rolling Stones cover to compliment the Rolling Stones-inspired "Turn Up the Mains". Jesse entered the audience once or twice (as he often does). He didn't talk as much as usual, but he did include one of his humorous "bits", mocking his father's criticisms of some of his more outlandish, spirited, manic, and youthful stage movements ("Jesse, you're in your forties!"). There was no encore, and an impertinent woman took Jesse's Sharpie-penned handwritten setlist that was right in front of me before the lights came up. Fortunately, a stage hand gave me a pen-scrawled setlist from Randy's drums (as usual, Jesse didn't follow it to the letter).

     After the show, I thanked Jesse for his continued art and artistry and requested "In the Summer", my favorite song from Outsiders, for the forthcoming December 29 Bowery Ballroom hometown gig. He said it was a possibility, but he implied they hadn't rehearsed it yet on account of the season. I did ask him about the "Cassavetes bar" reference in the song, and I was pleased to hear that his favorite Cassavetes films overlap mine. His merchandise manager informed me that the vinyl edition of Outsiders has a unique bonus track.

     Overall, it was a rewarding night of music, community, and camaraderie in the Stallone bar. I expect December 29 to be even better.

     Rock music may or may not have been a mistake, and some of the louder and more frenzied moments and forsaken nuances of last night's set were difficult for me to overlook. But rock unquestionably has its empowering moments, art, and artistry, and Jesse Malin, turning up the mains with his P.M.A., is a master of all of the above. Surely the Endarkenment needs such enlightenment.


Jesse Malin
Johnny Brenda's
Philadelphia
Thursday, December 17, 2015
Support: Dead Heavens, Don DiLego

Set:
She's So Dangerous
Boots of Immigration
Addicted
Mona Lisa
High Lonesome
Death Star
She Don't Love Me Now
Outsiders
Whitestone City Limits
Turn Up the Mains
All the Way from Moscow
The Fine Art of Self-Destruction
Almost Grown
Wendy
Here's the Situation
Society Sally
You Know It's Dark When Atheists Start to Pray
Brooklyn
Winter



Indofunk Satish brought out his trumpet during Don DiLego's opening set (apparently to Don's surprise).

Jesse Malin and Catherine Popper

Derek Cruz soloing

The horns

I listed "The Fine Art of Self-Destruction" (not planned and not listed above) as "26" in my notes. It had something to do with Jesse's spoken introduction to the song, but I can't recall the details now.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Two 2015 Jesse Malin Albums

Is it 1975 or 2015?
Jesse Malin released two artistic, uncompromising studio albums of new (previously unreleased) songs this year—on analog and digital media. Perhaps it is the best of both worlds.

As what is left of the music industry continues to revert to the worst of both worlds (the singles-without-the-B-sides, small venues, small labels, and local circuits of the 1950s with the aesthetics and auto tune of the dark century), a few artists defy the times and deliver the best of both.

Jesse Malin is not well known, but he is cherished by those who are fortunate to know of him. His winsome, sensitive voice sings thoughtful songs in an era of brash, snarky insensitivity and thoughtlessness. Part punk (he founded the punkish hard rock band D Generation, memorably characterized by Robert Christgau as “the part of Aerosmith that loved the New York Dolls”) and part ministerial, he is a multifaceted phenomenon—like many successes, a hybrid (but a paradox, not a contradiction).

He found time to release two studio albums this year: New York Before the War and Outsiders (both on Velvet Elk Records and One Little Indian). Like the Seventies dyads Led Zeppelin & Led Zeppelin II and Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ & The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Destroyer & Rock and Roll Over (all label- and year-mates), Malin’s 2015 releases are very much sister records, related but distinct. And “popular” music fans who recognize that art is a human need and that art in “popular” music continues to ebb should find tremendous value in both of them.

Both albums include road-tested material and incorporate all of Malin’s styles to an extent even as the forty-seven-year-old continues to tone down the punk rock. New York Before the War (released March 31 on CD and April 28 on vinyl) was his first release in five years (he toured extensively in the interim) and, like its sister record, was mostly co-written and co-produced with longtime cohorts and multi-instrumentalists Derek Cruz and Don DiLego. The title itself, just like a stellar Jesse Malin song, repines for that other century while acknowledging that it is gone forever. It starts and ends with contemplative, quiescent bookends: “Dreamers” (alternately titled “The Dreamers”) and “Bar Life”. The latter may have been inspired by Robin Williams’ suicide: It includes the line “they say the best comedians often battle with depression” and Malin dedicated it to Williams at The Viper Room in West Hollywood on August 14, 2014, three days after the actor/comedian’s death. (Several songs from the forthcoming album were performed that night—see the handwritten setlist below—but, with one exception, I am not aware of any of this disc’s songs existing before that night.) Along the way to “Bar Life”, New York Before the War turns up the volume with “Turn Up the Mains” (also performed at the Viper Room), a Seventies Rolling Stones homage with honking saxophone and four-on-the-floor drums. Every track is a highlight in its own way. Particularly notable tracks include the instantly infectious “Oh Sheena”, the pulsing “Freeway” (which has the rhythm of Interstate 5 at a good and swift hour), the resigned “She Don’t Love Me Now” (also performed at the Viper Room), and the slow but happy “I Would Do It For You” (the mellower flip side to “Oh Sheena”). But the entire album should be absorbed as an integrated whole. (“Freeway is the one song that I can confirm long predates this year; I saw Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social perform a song by that name, likely the same one, at The Bowery Electric in New York, which Malin co-owns, on December 22, 2011.)

Outsiders, released October 9 on CD and November 20 on vinyl, should also be experienced as an integrated whole, like a Seventies album. Outsiders is more concise but is otherwise similar to its immediate predecessor.  It likely has two of the oldest songs on either album (I saw Jesse Malin and the St. Marks Social perform “San Francisco” at The Slidebar in Fullerton, CA on August 5, 2011 and the raucous “Here’s the Situation” not long after that) but the disc’s highlights are apparently new. “Edward Hopper (Somewhere in the Night)” is a sparse but representative work of art, “like an Edward Hopper painting” (to quote from the lyrics) and a tribute to a fellow New Yorker. It is appropriate that Malin would select Hopper as a subject as the artist eschewed modernism and pretension much like Malin’s “indie” music avoids the avant garde exemplified by fellow New Yorkers Suicide, whose “Frankie Teardrop” is ironically name checked in “Edward Hopper”. “In the Summer”, perhaps the best song on either album, is to celluloid what “Edward Hopper” is to canvas, evoking “the Cassavetes bar” and the sweltering Manhattan August much like U2’s “New York”. The Clash’s “Stay Free” shows up in a bare-bones slow piano arrangement, emphasizing the lyrics in an age-appropriate rendition. “In the Summer” (at least the second Malin track to reference the cinema of John Cassavetes) was co-written with D Generation and St. Marks Social guitarist Todd Youth (best known for his work with Danzig and Glen Campbell). Unfortunately, he did not play on the track, but someone (likely Cruz) adequately fills his performing shoes with emotive lead guitar climaxing in a descending, sustained bent note of subtle sorrow that sounds like the most harrowing end of a track since The Beach Boys’ “In the Back of My Mind”. The album ends with the Malin/Cruz composition and production “You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray”, a gentle, jaunty romp and ironically sanguine tune that seems to exhort the listener to revel in being alive even as darkness encroaches.

Discerning, art-savvy “pop” consumers can’t go wrong with either or both of these companion pieces, and this one looks forward to seeing most (or all) of these songs performed live by Malin and company at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on December 17 and The Bowery Ballroom on December 29. DiLego will perform opening sets at both shows as well as at a gig at Cafe Nine in New Haven, CT on December 18.




New York Before the War
[Track listing, including side designations, from CD back cover—credits from booklet.]
Side A
The Dreamers [listed as “Dreamers” in the booklet]
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Addicted 
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Turn Up the Mains
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Oh Sheena
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

She’s So Dangerous 
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Don DiLego

The Year That I Was Born
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego


Side B
Boots of Immigration
Jesse Malin/Holly Ramos/Derek Cruz
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Freeway
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Bent Up
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

She Don’t Love Me Now
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Death Star
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

I Would Do It For You
Jesse Malin
Produced by Don DiLego

Bar Life
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz
Produced by Don DiLego




Outsiders
Outsiders
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

San Francisco
Jesse Malin
Produced by Don DiLego

Here’s the Situation
Jesse Malin
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Society Sally
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Edward Hopper (Somewhere in the Night)
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

Whitestone City Limits
Jesse Malin/Catherine Popper
Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz

Stay Free
Joe Strummer/Mick Jones
Produced by Jesse Malin

The Hustlers
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

All Bets Are Off
Jesse Malin/Don DiLego
Produced by Don DiLego

In the Summer
Jesse Malin/Todd Youth/Johnny Martin
Produced by Jesse Malin, Derek Cruz, and Diane Gentile

You Know It’s Dark When Atheists Start to Pray
Jesse Malin/Derek Cruz

Produced by Jesse Malin and Derek Cruz


Correction (10:05 PM PST): Malin co-owns (and performed at) The Bowery Electric in 2011; he will perform at The Bowery Ballroom on December 29.




One of Malin's handwritten setlists from The Viper Room on August 14, 2014 (I saw another one that didn't exactly match this one). As many as ten songs from this year's albums were performed. The Clash's "Stay Free" was skipped during the show, but it appears on Outsiders.