1967-2010: “The King of Fuh”
It wasn’t just success that eluded Brute Force; notoriety did too. If he had managed to get the necessary publicity after Apple Records championed his mild piano rock song “The King of Fuh”, he might have been as successful as his peers predicted. Instead, radio stations and distributors refused to handle his song about a furry King, with its bizarre, controversial chorus: “All Hail the Fuh King.”
Unfortunately, as the years passed without success and Stephen Friedland descended through fresh hells of addiction, a marriage breakdown, and an ill-advised job in plastics it became clear that he had become a salutary warning about the dangers of cultivating an overly obscure sense of humor. His inspiration had been Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge, who was famous for his absurd, self deprecating stage act. Friedland claimed that his humor was like Borge’s – “heavy funny”: humor with deeper significance. But Borge was not an antsy comic, and despite his avowed influence, Friedland did not reveal exactly what the significance of his own songs was either.
Friedland had been an accomplished musician. Ironically, anticipating his own lost misunderstood years, he wrote The Chiffons’ song “Nobody Knows What’s Going on in My Mind but Me” (his own version is worth hearing too). He also played with The Tokens, who had scored the hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” In 2010, he and his fans felt vindicated when his album, I, Brute Force, Confections of Love was re-released. As in a gentle comedy with a happy ending, he came out of cranky retirement and began playing at festivals like SXSW with a hip daughter whose friends had reminded her of her Dad’s pop cultural significance. While the deeper significance of Friendland’s humor is still buried (on songs like “Tapeworm of Love” for instance), his notorious hit-that-never-was proves that although it is somewhat uncomfortable to dwell on our baby-boomer Dads’ knowledge of such things before our time, stuff like death, taxes, and the “Fuh King” are our birthright and show no signs of going away.
1983: The Plimsouls - “A Million Miles Away”
One of the most depressing songs in the world to me is “A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls. Not because it’s a bad tune or an overtly sad song. It’s actually a great singalong track that’s well executed and stands the test of time, one of those songs that stays with you after a single listen, that you swear you’ve heard before but can’t really place. It’s a quintessential power pop songs that should have topped the charts like Cheap Trick, The Replacements, or Marvelous 3. But it didn’t. And that’s what makes it so depressing.
As I’m writing this, I feel terribly lonely and sad for no good reason, at least not a good reason if you’re an adult. The John Belushi movie Neighbors is on TV but I’m not paying attention to it at all. I’m switching tabs to browse my Tumblr and checking Twitter for signs of life; I’ve been listening to punk records for the majority of the evening and I feel like I’m on the verge of tears but not quite there yet, not quite tired or enthusiastic enough to actually let go of the lump in my throat. Now I listen to my treasured copy of the Plimsouls Everywhere at Once – which still has the price tag stuck on the cover, displaying $2.99 US mint – and I keep replaying “A Million Miles Away”, a song that, if you have no idea of it’s actual historical impact, sounds like the biggest hit of 1983. It was featured on the famed movie Valley Girl, proving a common occurrence in teen cinema: the little known but melodic band rocking onscreen instead of a big act. And it makes me feel empty, nostalgic, and pathetic that the world never did justice to this song – the radio played it but not as much as they should have and it didn’t chart very high. Nowadays, hardly anybody sings the praises of the song or the band. Why is it that some bands have all the luck? Is it timing?
Although the cause of my angst and embarrassing adolescent night has little to do with the perceived success of an 80s pop rock band, it saddens me that talent for writing wonderfully constructed pop songs doesn’t come with any guarantees. Of course, a great song has nothing to do with popularity; radio hits, the ones that aren’t trendy or novelty, aren’t made for the masses, they’re songs that speak to an individual and fill their particular lives with something – fun, excitement, sadness, yearning, all and more of the above. These songs can speak to a universal feeling, accepted by millions of individuals, not a faceless mob of hands-swaying drones. If you write about something more particular, the song might speak to a selection of the crowd instead of the whole, and “A Million Miles Away” is that kind of song, one that could have reached millions but was only heard by a few. Still, it rings true to those who have received it, their very own hit song that topped the charts in their particular world for a time. There it remains a classic, like a true friend you hardly see anymore but feel comfortable enough when you do see him/her to just lay in silence, interrupted only by a knowing glance and the cascading sound of laughter from memories of good times that have passed.
1975: Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live!
In the city of Lisbon, situated on a narrow street in the prominent nightlife quarter of Bairro Alto, there’s a small cavernous bar called Bar Pescador (“The Fisherman”). Most nights the proprietor, a jolly Cape Verdean man named Horacio, excitedly paces in and out of the establishment, proclaiming “Bom dia!” to passersby and dispensing beers to patrons. The space is draped with posters and tapestries depicting Bob Marley. To Horacio, Marley is more than a beloved musician. The ethos of the reggae legend permeates all aspects of the bar, from the strong herbal scent to the entertainment – a nightly offering of live music. And not coincidentally, the musicians who play at Bar Pescador often cover Marley, translating his greatest hits into Portuguese but preserving the original melodies and vocal flourishes.
During a visit to Lisbon, I had the good fortune to stumble upon Bar Pescador and returned multiple nights to hear Marley tributes. My favorite performer was a Brazilian man with long dreadlocks and a broad smile. Dressed in loose, flowing clothing, he looked like a kindred spirit of Marley and interpreted songs such as “No Woman No Cry” with similar ease and charisma, substituting the verses with a Portuguese translation but keeping the English chorus.
Serendipitously, at Lisbon’s flea market, Feira da Ladra, I stumbled upon a copy of Marley’s first live record, Live! The album itself is a fantastic representation of Bob Marley and the Wailers energy. The band and the crowd’s reciprocal energy is contagious. But for me, having a recording of Marley’s live music is a vehicle for remembrance. Listening to the songs transports me to Bar Pescador, affirming the remarkable connection between music and memory.
2010: Phantom Payn Days - Phantom Payn Daze
Obscure musical finds can be confusing, flashing their provenance, refusing to submit to easy categorization. Phantom Payn Daze is no exception. There’s certainly a hint of mystery about it, with sounds reminiscent of a latter day krautrock album that was actually recorded throughout the 90s. Its release was delayed by a decade, and it seems to have gestated very slowly over the years, like a long running Jenga tower constructed over many days (daze?) in a student flat. Just like this teetering monument to idleness, you can hear in it the sound of hands returning to work then abandoning the project over and over again throughout slow, painful, wasted eras. De Stijl records finally released Phantom Payn Daze last year, and happily it answers to their definition of the ideal indie antique: a fine example of ‘basement arcana’ as they call it.
Although ex-39 Clocks member Juergen Gleue was a typical obscurantist art rocker in his day, there is more to Phantom Payn Daze than its rarity, there is what happens in the silence of its obscurity, the tangible outcome of steering a course away from the mainstream. De Stijl released a promo video for “Paradox Box”, which appropriately sums up the value of lost musical artifacts in terms of their mysteriously acquired patina. The process of making Phantom Payn Daze seems almost built into the fabric of the album itself: the lyrics suggest days of weak sunshine and jam sessions that coalesce into complex songs built on simple riffs, over time becoming lo-fi enigmas – “Afternoon Non Happenings.” On “Paradox Box”, Juergen Gleue starts out by saying that “there’s nothing extraordinary about this ancient box” but the ancient box turns out to have mysterious powers. Strange tales often begin with the discovery of seemingly ordinary objects, but even so, Gleue’s delivery is so dry and diffidently cool that by taking the ancient magical box for granted you feel like warning him, as with the idiot in the horror film, not to take this box for granted. It’s an ancient box for fxsake, of course it’s extraordinary!
But just because something is ancient is it necessarily a special find? Archaeologists spend most of their time painfully unearthing junk that just happens to be 2000 years old. Likewise, the discovery of “lost” albums is often celebrated for its own sake. However, what Juergen Gleue deems special about his “Paradox Box” is not that it is ancient, but that it “weaves a pattern once it gets unlocked.” And this, as it happens, is what makes Phantom Payn Daze an interesting find. Simple themes are interwoven throughout the album – mostly played on keyboards without percussion. These mantras lyrically emphasize romantic stoner apathy (“sitting in a waiting room ‘til the world ends”) and musically show how simple themes can breed complexity if you overlay them. The structure in “Paradox Box” is regular and even monotonous, but the layers of baritone blues guitar, watery bongos and atmospheric keyboard effects are so effective at weaving an aftermath in memory that the jam spins itself into infinity. We get a sense that by meandering through the creative process over a series of unremarkable days, you might stumble upon a hypnotic theme and get stuck in the elaboration of it.
To hammer home the comparison once and for all, “Paradox Box” is like a little microcosm of the Phantom Payn Daze album itself. I can go even further and point out some fun associations between Phantom Payn Days’ precursor 39 Clocks and the Deist idea of watches abandoned by watchmakers: machines that appear to have been lying around for a long time, that show evidence of intricate design, but are otherwise nothing but abandoned, mechanical objects. The 39 Clocks were rumored to have behaved unpredictably at shows, mocking the shifty self conscious attitudes of their contemporaries on songs like the Payn Days’ “Art is Dead”, so it is hard to know how seriously Juergen Gleue took this whole art-rock thing anyway.
Whatever was intended, this album is like the missing link between the Velvet Underground, Suicide, and our own lo-fi keyboard aficionados of today. It’s almost as if we’re witnessing a slower, alternative modification of musical history, where the original painstaking way of making ‘lossless’ experimental rock music without guitars has evolved into a new approach to percussion and harmony by default – bypassing cheesiness and funkiness and danceability and all these venalities of mood. Because many musicians have now ‘updated’ their sound by hauling up a keyboard from the basement, Phantom Payn Days’ choice of instrumentation isn’t remarkable anymore, but what stands out is the intricate way in which the resonance of harmonies propel repetitive riffs into convoluted, clockwork resolutions. This is not just a way of creating a reverb’d, electric guitar effect without the benefit of strings, though it may have started out that way. “Resonance 21” in particular illustrates that these experiments with harmony are fresh: it sounds like psych film music, with mariachis clicking atmospherically like insects on a summer night behind a wall of keyboard chords submerged in shifting harmony.
Phantom Payn Days may be absent (or absent-minded) creators – like the German art-rock version of Dawkins’ blind watchmaker (the watchmaker who wears his sunglasses after dark), but Phantom Payn Daze seems to bear the mark of all those long days creating, detouring, jamming, and recording. In other words it isn’t just an antique curiosity; it is marked by the actual processes that went into it. Since the band finished making the album, Juergen Gleue has abandoned music altogether for comic books. But regardless of what its creators are turning their hands to these days, the album still ticks away according to its own bizarre internal logic. It depends on your point of view whether that functioning holds any interest for you. Curiosity does play a part, but you may find yourself uninterested in the absent creators, or obsessed with the mystery of how this artifact came to be. Either way, it’s a well constructed thing you’re going to find, and you better watch out in case you find yourself humming some distinctly radio unfriendly tunes for days (daze).
1976, 2011: Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris - “Evangeline”
On Monday night at Central Park’s SummerStage, Emmylou Harris joined the Levon Helm Band for a rendition of “Evangeline,” a song written by the Band’s Robbie Robertson and immortalized in the concert film The Last Waltz. Harris later used “Evangeline” as the title track for an album composed mostly of leftover material from past recording sessions, however the version she recorded with the Band in 1977 for their triple album and movie is the ostensible original.
The Last Waltz scene captures a performance of the song featuring Helm on mandolin, Harris on guitar, and Rick Danko on violin, all splitting lead vocals and joining in harmony for the chorus. Harris is a vision of grace and beauty, dressed in a powder blue gown with long locks extending down her back. The Band posses the stately manner of seasoned musicians, uncaring or unsentimental to their last concerts’ significance.
As the scene ends, the camera angle switches to a bird’s eye view from the back of the stage. It is reasonable to posit that Martin Scorsese, the director of the film, intended this final cut to be clever trick. Given Harris and The Band’s energy, you’d never suspect that the recorded performance was merely a sound check.
Nearly thirty-five years later, Harris and Helm once again shared the stage. This time the band was the Levon Helm Band. This time Harris, aged but no less a beauty, wore a black dress with white hair shaped near her shoulders. Helm, a throat cancer survivor, sat hunched on a chair playing mandolin, inaudibly mouthing the words he once sang. But with the same intensity they shared so many years before, Harris and Helm played to an audience who remembered them as they were and appreciated them as they are now. There is no greater fate for a song.
1998: Reatards - Teenage Hate + 2 Cassette Releases
Like the delta city in Egypt after which it’s named, Memphis, Tennessee is well-known for the fertility of its soil. Since the 1940s, however, that soil is better known for nourishing musicians than crops. As the birthplace of the blues and later the home of Sun Records and Elvis Presley, Memphis is a place where the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll runs deep. Its unique history plays a tremendous role in shaping the artists who cut their teeth there, to the point where even punks – the sort of riff-raff who generally pride themselves on wanting to take a baseball bat to tradition’s upturned nose – seem powerless to escape the city’s magnetic legacy. The recently departed Jay Reatard was no exception: the son of a rootless tribe, he nonetheless drank deep of the wellsprings of his hometown.
For many indie rock devotees, Reatard (born Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr.), seemed to emerge ex nihilo onto the musical landscape of the late aughts, announcing his bratty presence with a spate of singles on Matador and In the Red. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. At 25, Lindsey had put in enough time to launch half a dozen solo careers. A glance at the discography on his Wikipedia page reveals an artist with the kind of restless creativity and work ethic that would put even the most prolific musician to shame, including stints with gothic synth punks Lost Sounds, a side project with Goner Records founder and former Oblivian Eric Friedl called Bad Times, and a smattering of idiosyncratic projects like Destruction Unit and Terror Visions, just to name a handful.
In an effort to keep Lindsey’s work alive, Goner is embarking on a series of reissues, beginning, appropriately enough, at the beginning: with the artist’s earliest recorded work with Reatards. Teenage Hate collects the band’s 1998 debut LP, as well as a pair of rare cassette releases, The Reatards and Fuck Elvis Here’s The Reatards. Fans of Blood Visions or Watch Me Fall will get to see a slightly different (though still recognizable) side the Jay Reatard that they’ve come to know and love amid the just-shy-of-40 tracks shoehorned into this reissue, but even more importantly, it provides a crucial link in the chain running between the artist’s final works and his humble origins.
Inextricably linked with the birth of The Reatards are fellow Memphis punks, The Oblivians. Credited as being the chief inspiration behind Lindsey’s sojourn into rock ‘n’ roll, the band was a sizeable force in their local indie scene. The group synthesized the varying evolutionary strands of popular music that metastasized out of their hometown and ran them through a punk rock Cuisinart, building an aesthetic out of shit-fi garage rock that dipped into doo-wop, gospel, and the blues, all delivered with a cretinous snarl. The instrument-swapping trio gained notoriety for their unusual twin guitar, no bass line-up, which rendered their ramshackle tunes all the more cacophonous.
It’s hard to imagine Reatards coming about without The Oblivians. Lindsey was reportedly so enamored with the band that he sent Eric Friedl a home-recorded demo tape, which quickly led to a record deal with Goner Records. The Reatards’ eponymous cassette release was recorded, in part, by Jack Oblivian, and one of the band’s earliest incarnations consisted solely of Jay on guitar and vocals and Greg Cartwright (performing under the pseudonym “Manwich”) on drums. The Oblivians’ stranglehold on Lindsey’s imagination is readily apparent in his early recordings. The Reatards’ gritty garage punk could be the radiation-exposed half-brother to Popular Favorites, sprouting Chuck Berry guitar riffs and 50s rock solos like mutated limbs.
But even if Lindsey was taking cues from his elders, the stamp he put on the music was purely his own. Even at 18, he was a gifted songwriter whose best tunes could barely disguise their solid-as-a-rock (Ford tough?) melodies beneath the trash heaps of guitar fuzz and tape hiss. Early album stand-out “Stacye” manages to smuggle a rubbery rockabilly guitar lick into the verse of a blazing punk panegyric to Lindsey’s at-the-time girlfriend. The metronomic snare beat of “Old News Baby” provides the ideal backdrop to Lindsey’s unhinged tirade against his unfaithful ex. The compilation’s best moment comes with “Out of My Head into My Bed,” drawing added force from the delicious contrast between the crisp three-chord melody (one of the finest of the man’s career) and Lindsey’s rabid animal howls.
The perspective that Lindsey brought to the songs was totally his own as well. The same caustic, anti-social bile he spewed on his solo records can be found congealing at the base of the mic stand on nearly every track. For each love song (or lust song) with even a hint of promise, there are five or ten bitter break-up anthems and ditties that depict sexual commerce in the most misanthropic light imaginable. “If you’re looking for a man to treat you right/ Hold you close all through the night/ It ain’t me,” he rages on “It Ain’t Me,” and proclaims with unsettling candor on “Out of My Head…,” ”You’ll believe in what I feed you/ Feed you lies almost every day/ But you’re just too dumb to see/ That one-two, one-two/ Baby I got you.” Not particularly deep or life-affirming, but what do you expect from an album titled Teenage Hate?
This new reissue is valuable document, giving an ideal vantage point from which to examine the formative years of the last decade’s most prolific punk songwriter and to understand his relation to the musical milieu – both contemporary and historical – that shaped him. For all its furious frothing at the mouth, Teenage Hate is a snapshot of a young artist deeply immersed in his craft, for whom the mottled tradition of his home city provided a launching point for vibrant career cut short long before its time.