TOP TEN: November 2013

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1• Talking to Lou Reed

The changes Lou Reed wrought on rock’n’roll have been the subject of much writing over the years, and have been revisited in the countless tributes over the past week. I attempted to itemise his contributions in a piece I wrote for The Listener twenty years ago, when The Velvet Underground had briefly reformed. You can read it here.

But along with these latest tributes has been the revival of an old cliché: the one about Lou Reed’s legendary hostility to journalists. Without making any special claims for myself, I have to say that in my single journalistic encounter with Lou Reed he was anything but hostile. In fact, he exhibited more humility and good humour than just about any other rock musician I have ever talked to.

It was ten years ago and he had just released The Raven, a slightly forbidding double-album of songs and spoken word based around the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. I was offered fifteen minutes with Reed; the standard record company promotional phoner. Aware of the stories of journalists being abused, belittled or simply hung up upon, I accepted the assignment with trepidation.

As it turned out, Lou couldn’t have been nicer. It may have helped that I expressed early on my delight that jazz innovator Ornette Coleman was on the record. This, it turned out, was one of the things Lou liked best about the record too. In fact, he could hardly contain his enthusiasm, telling me in detail about the numerous different yet equally inspired takes Coleman had recorded, and then singing me his saxophone solos, note for note, down the telephone line.

He also raved about the genius of Poe, his brilliance in exploring the themes of duality and obsession. When I suggested that Lou had, over the years, done a pretty good job of exploring those same themes himself, he became genuinely humble. “Oh we try”, he murmured. “We do our little bit.” I told him he was being self-deprecating. “That’s my middle name”, came the droll response.

In trying to demonstrate the universality of Poe’s work, he asked me whether I smoked. No, I replied. Are you overweight, he went on? Pass again. “Well there must be something you do… You’re not in any kind of 12-step programme?” When I again replied in the negative he let out a heavy theatrical sigh. “I might be talking to the wrong person”, he lamented, “but I think anyone who does a lot of things that are quote ‘bad for you’ can identify with Poe. I think most people have done something on occasion that they know is not in their best interests but nonetheless finds it attractive.”

Again, it sounded to me like a summary of Reed’s own writing. Eventually the telephone operator interrupted to tell me my time on the line was up. “There you go”, Lou sighed, then carried on talking and answering my questions until we had completely finished.

2. Watching Television

People talk about ‘a New York minute’, but it has been more like a New York week here, with a visit from the fabled Television and the death of Lou Reed occurring within just days of each other. The two events were a powerful reminder of how much a musical subculture from lower Manhattan helped shape music in a place as distant and unlike New York as New Zealand.

The often-repeated line about only a handful of people ever buying Velvet Underground albums but every one of them starting a band was never truer than here, where - particularly in the South Island - a stream of bands poured forth from the late 70s on, none of whom would have been conceivable without the Velvets.

Of course the Velvets weren’t the only thing these groups were listening to. Almost as omnipresent as the Velvets – and as damn-near perfect - were the two initial albums by Television.

Television themselves had been heavily influenced by the Velvets. Their founder Tom Verlaine had seized on the literary possibilities that Reed’s songwriting had opened up. He also gravitated to the Velvets’ stark palette of guitars and drums. He liked modal stuff. As a jazz fan who had started out on saxophone before picking up the guitar, he immediately grasped the improvisational options opened up by Velvets opuses like ‘Sister Ray’.

But Television quickly established their own aesthetic: crisper, more musicianly and certainly cleaner than the Velvets. Guitarists Verlaine and Richard Lloyd played with bright bell-like clarity, more reminiscent of the Shadows’ geeky Hank Marvin than the Velvets’ Reed and Sterling Morrison, let alone any hairy blueswailing guitar hero of the day.

In their original incarnation, Television didn’t last any longer than the Velvets had, though they achieved a fair amount, including two great albums and establishing the Bowery venue CBGBs, which went on to spawn such influential names as Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Blondie and The Ramones, and is arguably the birthplace of punk.

After disbanding in 1978, Television reconvened in the early 90s for one further album, and have continued to work in bursts ever since, though the last 20 years have seen no more new recordings. Lloyd left in 2007, replaced by seasoned pro Jimmy Rip. Otherwise, the group that stepped onto the Powerstation stage (to the accompaniment of tolling bells) for the first ever New Zealand performance was the same quartet that had made those influential records.

And in many ways they might still have been at CBGBs. No showbiz moves, no scripted patter. The diligent tune-ups between songs emphasised that the song is the thing. The volume was restrained, the drums sounded like drums rather than cannons, and the whole band played dynamically.

Essentially they performed the Marquee Moon album, almost in its entirety, with one song from each of their other two albums (the opening ‘1880 Or So’, from the third album was chiming and exquisite) plus an expansive ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, their original single from 1974. There was one new song – a long, modal thing with a Turkish-sounding melody. I liked it a lot, and Verlaine appeared genuinely appreciative of the response. ‘Marquee Moon’ itself was symphonic.

The material still sounded fresh, hadn’t been worn slick with repetition, and Verlaine still couldn’t play a cliché if he tried.

When I interviewed Verlaine for The Listener a few weeks before the show, he had dismissed the notion of a band evolving. (“Evolution might be kinda overrated, in terms of what human beings are now. It’s kind of worrisome. Like, if this is evolution, maybe it’s not so good”.)

And it is true that when a group arrives as fully-formed as Television, the traditional rock idea of a band that progresses or develops its style over a period of time becomes irrelevant. Rather, like a Chuck Berry, Skip James or Motown’s Funk Brothers, they had their sound worked out from the first notes of their first recording – complete, distinct and eternal. If it hasn’t shifted beyond that original template in almost forty years, it doesn’t matter. It could hardly be improved.

3• More Manhattan: The Mayor Of MacDougal Street

Early reviews suggest that Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ portrait of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the days before Dylan, will be a winner on the scale of O Brother Where Art Thou?, with its smart casting (Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and lesser-known Oscar Isaac in the title role) and a purpose-built T Bone Burnett soundtrack.

Reviewing it’s premiere at Cannes, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says the film (which opens in January) is “brilliantly written, terrifically acted, superbly designed and shot… a sweet, sad, funny picture about the lost world of folk music which effortlessly immerses us in the period.”

But it is unlikely that the Coens could have recrated the period nearly so convincingly without The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, the memoir of the late Dave Van Ronk, which was completed after the author’s death by Elijah Wald and was a vital resource during the making of the film.

The book not only evokes and makes sense of the volatile mix of music, politics and sex that drove the small Manhattan folk scene and would ultimately spread through the world, but it does it with much humour and real literary flare.

4• The Handsome Family’s Wilderness

With a fine new album, Wilderness – a collection devoted to some of the world’s less celebrated creatures (spiders, flies, glow worms, eels each get their own song) – The Handsome Family’s October tour of New Zealand included gigs in Lyttelton, Masterton and a Napier living room. The living room show (capacity: 40) must have seemed the most natural, as the Albequerque-based husband and wife duo have made all of their albums in their own living room back home. Still, their final show at Auckland’s Galatos was plenty relaxed, with Rennie’s rambling introductions and Brett’s rumbling performances of their fabulous, faux-gothic country songs.

5• Luigi Wewege: Mr Bad Example

For some reason, the image of South African import Luigi Wewege – political advisor to unsuccessful mayoral candidate John Palino and apparent orchestrator of the Bevan Chuang/Len Brown revelations - flying out of the country, destination unknown, leaving scandal and skulduggery in his wake, made me think of this great song by the late Warren Zevon, with its great closing stanza:

“I bought a first class ticket on Malaysian air,landed in Sri Lanka none the worse for wear, I’m thinking of retiring from all my dirty deals, I’ll see you in the next life, wake me up for meals.”

6• The Beatles Second Album

The first brick-size volume of Mark Lewishon’s ultimate Beatles biography All These Years has arrived: its thousand-odd pages takes you more or less up to the release of their first single – in other words, they’re not even famous yet. He intends it as a trilogy. I can already see Peter Jackson, a big Beatles fan from way back, bidding for the film rights.

The subtitle of part one, ‘Tune In’, has already got me worried. Does this mean Lewishon intends to name the subsequent volumes ‘Turn On’ and ‘Drop Out’ respectively? And if Timothy Leary’s battlecry of the 60s really has to be invoked, does Lewishon realise he’s got them in the wrong order?

As a lifelong Beatles fan, the idea of reading once again the story of “the act you’ve known for all these years” both exhausting and impossible to resist. I can already see where my Christmas holiday is going to go.

Contrast Lewishon’s maximalist approach with that of Dave Marsh, whose slim volume The Beatles’ Second Album (Rock Of Ages, 2007) is the best book in years on the over-biographised band. It doesn’t look promising. It’s subject is the US-only 1964 release, widely reviled as the Beatles’ worst record. With its odd track-listing, bizarre remixing and short-changing the buyer by having only 11 tracks totalling 22 minutes, it seems to be a subject of which the less said the better.

Marsh exposes the man responsible for the abomination – a Capitol Records executive named Dave Dexter Jr. (or ‘The Man Who Hated the Beatles’, as Marsh christens him). Yet he also shows how this record, in spite of its shortcomings, was enough to clinch the Beatles’ hold on the American popular imagination, Marsh included. There was clearly some essence of the Beatles that was indomitable, could not be destroyed – even by Dave Dexter. It will be interesting to see how many pages Lewishon devotes to him.

7• Everly Brothers

…and, don’t ask me why, but I’ve been having an Everly Brothers binge. Maybe it was thinking about the Beatles that led me back to their eternal catalogue. Don and Phil’s singing is the obvious model for Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies. And they still sound so fresh, particularly on the records they made in Nashville in the pre-Beatles 60s, where the backings are so cooly sparse. There is not a superfluous note, Don’s acoustic rhythm and the sparkling electric leads (is it Chet Atkins?) never intrude on the crucial thing: those voices. Try this one:

8• Tex Morton and Ry Cooder

Boomer’s Story was the title tune of an early Ry Cooder album. It told the tale of an itinerant railroad worker and was always one of my favourites. A few years ago I was led to the song it derives from ‘Railroad Boomer’, recorded in the 1930s by the blind hillbilly singer and guitarist Riley Puckett. That’s a great record too, but until Helen Keivom brought it to my attention last week I never knew there was also a version cut by New Zealand-born country pioneer Tex Morton. And it’s great -especially the yodelling! Listen here:

9• Tamikrest

These Tuarag exponents of the so-called ‘desert blues’ are currently exiled in Algeria, but their excellent new album Chatma was recorded in Czechoslovakia. Though the dark modal guitars and rolling-egg rhythms are typical of the genre, these are interspersed with passages of ambient sound, fragments of field recordings and spoken word, helping to make this arguably the first desert blues concept album - and with the songs themed around the importance of women in Tuareg society (Chatma translates as ‘sisters’) the concept seems like a good one.

10• Wisdom

'There are two kinds of music, the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah' - Bukka White (practitioner of the former)

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