Wednesday, December 29, 2010

San Francisco Day

"It's the American in me that makes me watch the blood pouring out from a bullet hole in his head" 
(The American in Me- Penelope Houston 1977)

One dreary day at Union Square,  April, 1977, I ran into Penelope Houston, the lead singer for San Francisco punk rock legends, The Avengers.  She was flanked by two guys, one with a mohawk, a really high punk rock mohawk, not the chickenshit kind that Brian Bosworth made popular a few years later.  As they stood next to me, they sort of sneered and then ignored me.  Dressed as I was in my Air Force field jacket with my fucked up Air Force haircut, it was understandable.  Penelope looked at me and said "Are you in the Navy?"  I replied "No, I'm in the Air Force", I then said "I know who you are, I've heard you on KSAN"  Her reaction was "So What"  the mohawk just kind of growled and acted bored.  She asked me if I had ever been to the Mabuhay Gardens, (San Francisco's premier punk rock venue), I said I hadn't, "You should go" she told me "We're playing there with The Nuns"  the silence that followed was awkward, but then it hit me, "Wanna get stoned?" I asked them.  You see anytime I ventured into The City, I would pre-roll about 10-12 joints of primo columbian to take with me.  It was a really nice icebreaker and what the fuck, tripping around San Francisco stoned was pretty fucking cool.  Standing there hitting a joint in the waning light of  a San Francisco day, it all felt so right, I got lost in my thoughts until one of the guys asked me "What's the Air Force like, I'm thinking of joining up" I looked at him, he was dead serious, "Cut your hair first" I told him, I had reported for basic training with a big bushy Tony Iommi hairstyle and the T.I.s gave me all kinds of shit about it, I had made the biggest mistake you can make when you join the military, I gave them a reason to notice me.  "Yeah, cut your hair" I repeated "If you have to join up, join the Coast Guard, if they won't take you, join the Air Force"  he nodded, relaxed, with his guard down, I saw that he wasn't much different from me, "We gotta go" Penelope said, "Alright" I said and they took off, causing the people walking towards them to part like the Red Sea.  As I watched them, a black guy with no front teeth sat down next me, "Can I have a hit of that?" he asked, "You can have it" I told him, "I have to get to the Mabuhay" I scurried down Geary as darkness creeped in, lured by the promise of rock & roll.  San Francisco,  nothing would ever be that uncomplicated again.
"Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country has been doing to you"
(The American in Me, Penelope Houston 1977)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Billy Miles Brooke- All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

The big question of the mid-sixties, The Beatles or The Stones, who do you like? The mop tops had the early advantage, they wrote their own songs, they had cool hair cuts, the pre-fab four was corporate.  The Stones on the other hand had bad teeth, they were surly, their image was strictly street.  Although the scrawny Stones weren't any tougher than the Fab Four, it was the public perception that they were that made the difference.  The Stones were blues, they were rockers, they had attitude and swagger.  By comparison the Beatles were pussies, your parents  liked their music.  

Whatever edge the Boys from Liverpool had gleaned during their days in Hamburg was gone by the time "Meet The Beatles" was released.  They sold out, pure and simple, blame Brian Epstein or blame Paul's natural tendencies to create muzak.  Either way by 1969 they were nothing more than four blokes in a studio, out of touch with their fans, swirling just above the drain.  In 1970 as internal squabbles and creative differences finished off the Beatles.  The Rolling Stones were in the midst of creating and releasing some of the greatest rock music ever.

The release of "Beggars Banquet" in 1968, marked a return to the band's primal roots.  The album hinted at the turmoil and drug abuse that would affect the band in the future. The next album was influenced by California's cosmic cowboys, "Let It Bleed" came out in 1969,  it was  released to the public the day after the infamous Altamont Concert, it was a darkly shaded dispatch.  Writer Stephen Davis described the album this way; "No Rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era."

"Sticky Fingers" released in 1971 followed on the heels of a bitter  split from their old record label Decca. It was the first recorded without Brian Jones (his input on the previous two had been minimal) It was also the first album on their new vanity label, Rolling Stone Records, featuring the familiar "tongue & lips" logo that would become their trademark. The cover designed by Andy Warhol, featured a working zipper, which of course led to people in stores, tearing the cellophane wrap in order to zip it open.   

The era would culminate with what many call the greatest rock album ever recorded, "Exiles on Main St."  Forced to flee the UK as tax exiles, the band members settled into the south of France. There equipped with their mobile recording studio they recorded tracks for their next album. Bill Wyman noted in his memoir "Stone Alone" that drug use was  widespread during the sessions, to the degree that Wyman refused to attend recording sessions at Keith's villa.  That something so cohesive would come out of the chaotic maelstrom that surrounded them is a miracle in its self.   Even though the album is often described as being The Rolling Stones finest moment, "Exiles on Main St." was in fact  the high water mark.  The next album "Goathead's Soup" would signal a creative slide, Keith addled by  addiction, deferred to Mick, who changed the band's direction. 

So what does all this have to do with a review of  "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go"  Billy Miles Brooke's first solo album.  For starters, CD Baby describes the album: "As the imaginary great lost studio album between “Let it Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers.”   The Stones influence is apparent, but while it pays homage to the Stones, it's not a tribute album. It's a mostly autobiographical collection of soul-in-torment songs.   Billy Miles Brooke writes and sings about coping with the reality of living the rock and roll dream. Billy has deep roots in the local scene, going all the way back to 1982 and Gypsy Rose, a true bar band in every sense.

They were all destined for day jobs, with one exception.  Lead singer Billy Brooke (then known as Billy Sundae)  rose out of the bush leagues and on to the majors.  In Billy's case that was Los Angeles and the Sunset Strip glam metal scene.  His next band, Tragic Romance was lean and mean, they hit the scene becoming a favorite of both fans and fellow musicians.  They seemed poised for prime time success, but the major labels never came calling.  Tragic Romance may have been ahead of their times, while most glam metal bands reveled in excess (drugs and sex) Tragic Romance was different, darker, more introspective.  They would sign with Century Media, who only gave them half-assed support, at best.  An album "Cancel The Future" (recorded live) was released in 1993, followed by a couple of appearances on MTV and a national tour. After the demise of  Tragic Romance, Billy Brooke took off for Europe, where for five years he traveled and played his way across the continent.

Upon his return to the States, he lived in Nashville for a year, there his solo project was conceived and brought to fruition. On "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go", Billy ponders the question that has plagued musicians from Mozart to Jagger, what to do after the cheering stops?  Searching for answers Billy takes us back to Villefranche-sur Mer in 1971, or Muscle Shoals in 1969, back to a time when The "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom"  was sucking up nose powder like a damn shop vac.  Billy doesn't do well with women, he loves them, they leave him, maybe it's the type of women he's drawn to, as he sings about the  "the moulin rouge and raven haired dancers, I dreamed of all my life"  with their cocaine eyes and speed freak jive, high maintenance gals, for sure. 

Sticking closer to Tragic Romance than the Stones, the eternal quest continues,  under "The Lights on Lonely Blvd. "You think that I'm not there, but I'm all around you", but love is blind and you soon will find "I ride the wind, it's freedom I adore" ultimately that's all we really have to lose.  Billy continually goes back to common themes  on "Tears and Wine" he just can't seem to drink her off his mind  "Raise a glass to old memories, all the times we had it made in the shade"  you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need  "I'm blown away when I said stay and you stayed"  Never blow a second chance on love.  "All Wound Up", is a Tragic Romance tune redone by Billy  "Many's the time that I thought that I knew you" haunted by a girl, who's been less than faithful, "I know when I look in your eyes"  Billy sings with a steady urgency, shadowed by a circling piano, "I know about all them lies...I don't care...if you must know the truth...I'm still in love with you." Romance it seems is not out of fashion, for if it were, that would truly be tragic. 

"Around the World" is an achingly personal narrative, the road beckons, "when there's a whole world calling, you've got to hit the road"    Billy's vocals always resonate without resorting to the thunderous shrieks so common to  the metal genre.  "I've been around the world, I've seen so many things, But I still can't tell a Joker from a King." 
The "Midnight Rain" keeps coming down and she just hydroplaned his heart  "a reflection on wet pavement as my whole world slips away" when he tries to sleep he keeps having a recurring dream "I'm in the desert, lost and forgotten, and then I hear you very far away" No dream analysis is needed "just as I'm getting close... you start to fade"  The last of the romantics or just a glutton for punishment?  Billy soothes his pain with some "Sloe Gin" and a long lost weekend  "Oh! I hear that strip and those lights beckon"  ying yang, you're my thang!  "I'm back in Vegas again!" let's "light up the city of sin"  where there's many a barroom queen, ready to love you until your money's gone. For Billy that happens fast "My stash was gone like the wind" it's only money, you say with a sigh,  we'll drink a round to this town and bid goodbye.  

"Moonlight Boogie" is a straight up boogie rocker "I was searching for a long legged lover  late on Saturday night"  Seek and you shall find, Boogie rock was a sub-genre that sprouted from the Blues Rock of the late 1960's and early 1970's.  While Blues Rock bands preferred to play slow songs with each instrumentalist taking long solos, the Boogie rockers started uptempo and just plowed ahead. It was quite the style for a while, giving birth to such sayings as "Boogie on", "Boogie Down", "Born to Boogie" and of course "Boogie till you Puke."  A bleary eyed Billy finds himself alone in New York City to face "The Raging Light of Dawn" mournfully  he sings  "It was just a dream, opened my eyes you're nowhere to be seen"  solitude is overrated "I can see you in that Hudson River rain, and if I cry that don't ease the pain" putting the Big Apple behind him, he returns to L.A. where he proceeds to  "Drown my sorrow in a pool of alcohol"  a pool equals how many bottles of gin?   

The rollicking  "Tearin' up the Town" closes the album in fine fashion, the album is in the can, it's time to let loose "looking fine in your leathers and lace and eyetalian (sic) shoes" it's a classic working for the weekend song,   "Work like a dog just to get to the weekend, count the minutes down till Friday night, it's 5 o'clock and you know I'm busting"  Billy throws everything at the wall, rockabilly, boogie, honking sax and cascading piano in a mad dash to the clock and out the door.  "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go" is an objectively good record of retro 70's guitar rock. It's neither flashy nor rough, the music is lean and concise, the singing is controlled and effective. The lack of  instrumental excesses allows Billy's  soul to wrap around each song.  

Billy Miles has stayed busy since his return to New Mexico, he was an integral part of The Dirty Novels and is currently involved with Dirt City rockers, Panic.  Always classy and gracious, he's also an advocate for live music in his home of Santa Fe.  Billy Miles Brooke is one of the most important and influential musicians  to come out of the Albuquerque music scene, and the hardest working man in rock and roll. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Western Skies

Early in radio's history, music publishers demanded royalties for any records played on the air. In order to avoid this fee, live performances were preferred over recorded music. The Dept. of Commerce regulated the fledgling radio industry and they favored live music over recorded music. Top artists of the day also played along, routinely denying permission for their records to be played on the air. The old American idiom of "Why give away for free, what you can get paid for" applied.  However after 1940 that would start to change, that year a federal court ruled that once a record was sold, artists had no further claim to control how or where it was played. Radio stations now had the freedom to program and play music as they saw fit.  Slowly the bias against recorded music was overcome, after all it did eliminate the need to keep musicians on the payroll.  I don't know if the idea or concept of ranking music was an American invention.  We do love our polls, lists and ratings so it was only natural that eventually someone would program a radio station around this premise.
In the early 1950's Todd Storz (The Storz family owned several Midwest stations) and his program director were sitting in an Omaha tavern, so the story goes, when they started to notice how often customers kept playing the same songs on the jukebox.  Storz,  armed himself with music sales charts, compared them to jukebox sales figures, then he started programming the Storz stations.  What Todd Storz invented was Top 40 radio, the format would eventually sweep across the nation.  In 1958, Storz purchased Oklahoma City station KOMA and transformed it into a Top 40 giant.   KOMA  had a tremendous reach with its directional antenna array and 50,000 watt transmitter.   Ironically, while KOMA reached beyond the Rockies to the Pacific ocean, in Oklahoma City they played second fiddle to crosstown rivals WKY.  For many small rural towns across the western United States, KOMA was the only Top 40 station available.  KOMA covered New Mexico like a blanket from Raton to Deming, from Gallup to Tucumcari, and of course Albuquerque.  KOMA's signal was so strong at night that Duke City  station owners quickly learned to avoid the 1520 frequency on the am dial, fearing their signal would be canceled out after sundown.  KOMA's Top-40 era would officially end in 1980 with a format change to country.   However, KOMA's grip on the western night time airwaves had already been broken by the mid 1970's.
Leased by American investors, XEROK-80 a Mexican station located in Ciudad Juarez (across from El Paso,Tx) was blasting 150,000 watts using  three Continental 50,000 watt transmitters in series, non directional, clear channel.  Started up in 1972 (formerly XELO) XEROK was live at first,  with local radio legend Steve Crosno working the afternoon spot. Using a format called "Rock of the World" XEROK took its first shaky steps, however this version of the station was short lived. The top 40 format was dropped and replaced by syndicated and pre-recorded programs.  A year later Jim White was hired as program director, Kent Burkhardt joined as a consultant and the task of turning this  150,000 watt blow torch into a super station began.  Life at the West Pole (the dj's nickname for El Paso) was slow and easy, the cost of living was low and the sin city of Juarez was just a short walk away.  Since XEROK-80 was a Mexican station, it was required by Mexican law to broadcast at least 50% of its programming in Spanish, unless... it was pre-recorded.  All shows were pre-taped in El Paso and carried across the border by couriers to the studio where Mexican engineers cued up the tapes, sometimes in the right order or at the right time, there was no news, no time checks and no weather. The players were in place but the chemistry was wrong, what XEROK lacked Jim White couldn't muster from his troops.
Early in 1974 a notice published in Radio & Record offered up a clue that something was up "John Long formerly PD at WROR-Boston is the new PD of XEROK -El Paso  No word on what happened to Jim White,  Long says that he's excited,  and that it's going to be a m-therf---er."  The first thing Long implemented was strict rules about when shows should be taped.  He reasoned that the morning show (6-10 am) should start taping at 6 am and finish at 10 am.  Before then the dj's had a habit of stretching out their recording shifts, often recording the morning show late in the day.  Long also demanded that as one dj signed off, the next dj would join him in the studio for a few minutes.  By doing this it tied the shows together and gave the impression that everything was done live.  John Long's hard work would pay off with XEROK-80 "The Sun City Streaker"  pulling a 21.4 total share and a 48.9 in teens. Unheard of numbers in any market, making  XEROK-80 the highest rated top 40 in the United States.  The euphoria was short lived, given the volatile relationship between management and staff, friction soon ensued.  Within a year John Long was gone, XEROK-80 continued to be a force, but much like KOMA its biggest competition was local.  KINT the El Paso Top 40 stalwart withstood the initial onslaught from XEROK-80 and regained its accustomed spot atop the ratings book.  The combination of  radio vet Jim Taber and the irrepressible Jhani Kaye was too much to overcome.  In 1977 XEROK-80 tried to shake things up by going live, the on-air staff would commute into Mexico everyday to broadcast from the studio.  By 1980 both KOMA and XEROK-80 had seen better days, both stayed on the air, but with radically different formats.  While KOMA switched to country, XEROK-80 reverted to Mexican management and was reborn as Radio Canon, a Spanish music station that literally  blasted across the southwest (dedications were accompanied by a cannon blast)  Today, XEROK is still broadcasting in Spanish, but at a greatly reduced 5,000 watts, an attempt was made to fire it back up to the 150,000 watts of its glory days, but the overburdened grid couldn't muster enough juice.
Originally the Mexican border stations were a response to the U.S. and Canada monopolizing clear channel radio frequencies at the expense of Mexican stations.  The Mexican govt. started granting licenses to U.S. operators along the border in the early 1930's, these X- stations could range in power from 50,000 watts to 500,000 watts.  The border blasters gave us the legends of Dr. Brinkley and his goat glands, mail order baby chicks and of course Wolfman Jack.  In 1986 an agreement between Mexico, The U.S. and Canada, to share clear channel frequencies effectively ended the era of the megawatt stations in North America.  In our lifetime we will witness the death of terrestrial radio.  This format of communication and entertainment that we once knew simply as "radio" has been supplanted. Did video kill the radio stars?, nope, it was a combination of mobile phones capable of storing and playing music combined with internet services  that allow users to download directly to those phones.  The  phenomena of creating your own soundtrack as you go about your daily routine started with the advent of the Sony Walkman.  What we have today is far advanced from that bulky battery and tape devouring behemoth.  Every person is now a program director and who knows your taste in music better than you?  Before the purveyors of satellite radio start rejoicing over the demise of their  earth bound competitors, I'll remind them that they are the next dinosaur that will soon be extinct.  The satellite format has never really caught on and you don't really have that much more control over what you listen to. Both forms of radio broadcasting have only themselves to blame for their impending expiration.  Boneheaded format changes, limited play lists, and greed, have driven listeners to seek out a more personalized listening experience.

"Do you remember
back in nineteen sixty-six?
Country, Jesus, hillbilly, blues,
that's where I learned my licks.
Oh, from coast to coast and line to line
in every county there,
I'm talkin' 'bout that outlaw X
it's cuttin' through the air."
(Heard it On the X- ZZ Top)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fear of a Blank Page

Writing about rock music is silly, it's an extraneous digression from reality, but it's also fun.  Anybody that writes about rock music,  started out reading about rock music.   I want to introduce you to my favorite writers, some wrote about rock music and a couple did not.  Hunter S. Thompson invented a totally different way of writing, gonzo journalism.  Lester Bangs changed the way a rock journalist could or should write.  Ira Robbins introduced intelligence to American rock journalism. Greg Shaw chronicled a library's worth of rock history and music during his lifetime.
Ring Lardner never wrote about music, rock or otherwise. His style of writing now seems dated yet still worthy of admiration and imitation. He was in his prime writing for the Saturday Evening Post in  the years after WW1.  Lardner wrote about sports, but not in an ordinary way, he wasn't about stats or balls and strikes, he focused on the human angle.  Ring Lardner was far more than just a sports columnist, as he dabbled in poetry, prose and short stories as well.  He made good use of vernacular slang, misspellings, grammatical errors and run-on sentences.  This gave his articles a down to earth, homespun feel that endeared him to his readers.   Lardner blended sarcasm, cynicism and sardonic wit with warm affectionate observations of everyday events.  He died of a heart attack in 1933 after a long battle with alcoholism. Hunter S. Thompson was the originator of gonzo journalism, a style of writing wherein the writer involves himself in what he is reporting to the point of almost becoming a part of the event being covered.  Hunter became a journalist  while serving in the United States Air Force.  However, his deep rooted contempt for authority soon led to a recommendation for an early honorable discharge from his commanding officer, who noted: "In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy"  Following his discharge from the Air Force, Thompson drifted in and out of a variety of jobs, before being hired at The National Observer.  In 1965 an article he wrote for The Nation about the Hell's Angels motorcycle club led to Hunter living and riding with the Angels for a year, gathering material for his first book.  "Hell's Angels" was published in 1966,  the book caused a sensation, The New York Times described Hunter as a  "spirited, witty, observant and original writer; his prose crackles like motorcycle exhaust."  Hunter paid a heavy price for his fame. A falling out between himself and the gang led to a brutal beating at a Hell's Angels gathering.
In between books, Hunter joined the staff of Rolling Stone magazine which, would publish his most iconic articles and stories.  Hunter's next book took us on "a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream"  published in 1971 "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a combination expose and myth buster.  It was made into a movie in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp.  His next book was a brutal take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. Fueled by his long-standing hatred of Richard Nixon, he deconstructs the notion that either   man could  lead the nation.  In his later years, Hunter managed to stay relevant if not always fashionable, while holed up at his home in Woody Creek,Co.   Unfortunately, he was hard wired to self destruct, gonzo journalism demanded that you live a gonzo lifestyle.  That life would take a toll on Hunter in his later years.  Troubled by a number of health problems, he committed suicide on Feb. 20, 2005, at the age of 67. 
Greg Shaw's first serious attempt at publishing was Mojo-Navigator Rock & Roll News, a fanzine that covered the Haight-Asbury music scene in his hometown of San Francisco.  He moved to Los Angeles after landing a job at United Artists as Assistant Head of Creative Services.  His job was to write artist bios, press releases and reviews for all artists on the U.A. roster.  When U.A. launched an in house music publication, Phonograph Record Magazine, he was named as editor. The magazine sold no advertising and was handed out to FM stations to use in promotions. This enabled Shaw to turn it into a kind of fanzine, covering all kinds of obscure music, cult favorites, critics’ bands and new trends. In addition to his job at U.A., Greg continued to publish Bomp Magazine.   Bomp featured exhaustive discographies, band history profiles and detailed reviews. By 1979 the cost of publishing outweighed revenue coming in and Shaw was forced to fold  Bomp.  Greg now focused on Bomp Records, inspired by Lenny Kaye's Nuggets album, he began working on a sequel to Nuggets that he called Pebbles.  This collection of  60's garage punk and psychedelic bands would grow to 30 volumes.  After years of health issues, Greg Shaw passed away in 2004.    
Ira Robbins, Editor Emeritus  of Trouser Press never met a big word he didn't use. He helped raise the bar, for all album reviewers and music writers in general.  Ira brought college level writing skills and vocabulary to people who read at a seventh grade level, god bless him.   His ability to dissect albums with the skill of a practiced heart surgeon, makes him near and dear to my own heart. Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press (America's only British rock magazine) suffered from an identity problem, Early on the magazine championed prog rock bands like Gentle Giant and Hawkwind, then they tried to convince everyone that Pub Rock was the next big thing. Finally they jumped on the Punk Rock bandwagon, and beat that horse to death.  Trouser Press would overcome Ira's pretentious anglophile tendencies to become a decent fanzine and nothing more. The real legacy left behind by Trouser Press is the large volume of album reviews that they published.  Each review is concise, well researched and usually dead on the money.  Ira Robbins  is currently Editorial Director of Premiere Radio Networks.   Which now makes him a corporate tool.
 Lester Bangs, got his start reviewing albums for Rolling Stone. However his abrasive style and manners grew tiresome and Editor Jann Wenner fired him over a negative review of a Canned Heat album.   Canned fucking Heat!!!   If I ever had to listen to Canned Heat long enough to give an honest critique of any of their albums, I would just shoot myself instead. Lester then landed a job in Detroit at Creem magazine where his legend would grow. He became an editor, and mentor to the younger writers at Creem.  However a falling out with Publisher Barry Kramer resulted in Bangs being forced out.  To make matters worse, Kramer owned the rights to everything Lester wrote while at Creem.  He left for New York City, bitter but hopeful of better things.  His life quickly went to shit, unable to control his use of drugs and alcohol, his work suffered, he wrote sporadically and kept missing deadlines.  He crossed over from music critic to musician  by performing and recording with Texas punk band, The Delinquents. He would also record an album with a New York City based band, Birdland, neither resulted in earthshaking music or success.  His fall from grace went from a few stumbles to an all out free fall.  In 1982 he died from an overdose of cough syrup in New York City. They found him wearing headphones with The Human League spinning on the turntable. I've often wondered what happened to his record collection?, r.i.p., keep your stylus sharp.    
Lester Bangs