Love Is a Losing Game – Amy: The Girl Behind the Name

15 Jul Amy Winehouse singing

Amy Winehouse documentaryWhen a gifted genius like Amy Winehouse dies young and horribly, you just want to find someone to blame for the terrible waste of talent and potential. Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy: The Girl Behind the Name, names numerous suspects:

  • Was it her dad, who left the family when Amy was nine and later talked her out of rehab right before stardom made recovery nigh impossible?
  • Maybe it was her mom, who refused to discipline her daughter as a child and did nothing about teenaged Amy’s bulimia, thinking she’d grow out of it.
  • How about her manager, who was also her promoter – hellbent on making her perform even when she was unwell and unwilling?
  • Most definitely Blake Fielder-Civil, her shitbag of a husband, had a hand in it, as he feasted on her insecurities and bank account to support his own drug habit – and expanded her repertory by introducing her to heroin and crack.
  • But so did we, the fans who made her a star and then, when her addictions were getting the best of her, turned her life into a tasteless series of Amy Wino jokes and frightful photos.
  • And let’s face it, Amy’s worst enemy was often Amy herself, as she couldn’t distance herself from alcohol and drugs long enough to save her voice, her career and ultimately, her life.

I knew this film was going to be painful. How could it not be when we all know how she was going to end up? The film is even more of a wrecking ball because Kapadia was given access to a trove of video footage from family and friends to ground the film in Amy’s beginnings as a sassy teenager with a one-in-a-million voice. Amy is rarely out of the picture, as audio interviews with her friends, family and associates fill in the blanks between her performances and interviews. Her songs are used as the libretto of the film, floating over the action to point up how songwriting was her way of processing her life.

And when it gets ugly, Kapadia doesn’t shy away, and your heart breaks a little more with each explosive flash of the paparazzi’s cameras.

Amy’s reaction to winning the Grammy as best new artist, as announced by her idol Tony Bennett, was a perfect example of the clash between who she had become and who she wanted to be:

If only Bennett had been able to work with her earlier in her career, perhaps she’d be alive today, wowing people in jazz clubs across the globe as the next Dinah Washington, instead of being another member of the 27 Club. We’ll never know.

On July 23, 2011, our family was on a road trip back from Boston. I was reading Steven Tyler’s memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? (great title, disappointing book) and came up on his name check of Amy Winehouse as a fellow traveler stumbling off the road to recovery. Within a few minutes of me turning that page, NPR announced she had been found dead in her apartment. It wasn’t a surprise. It was, and still is, a colossal shame, because her limited catalog only shows a small part of what she was capable of as an artist – and her beauty was like no other.

See this film – and if you want even more material, check out her album Live at the BBC to hear more music and enjoy the DVD that comes with the record to see Amy Winehouse at the top of her game.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. I’ll be signing books at the Arts, Books & Brews Pub Crawl on July 29 in beautiful downtown Howell, Michigan. See you there!

Concertpalooza 2015: Mariachi El Bronx, Gogol Bordello & Flogging Molly at Meadowbrook

15 Jun

MEL GB FMWhoever came up with this bill was a genius.

The three groups have a lot of similarities:

  • a sizable line up of musicians
  • a violin/fiddle player
  • a good chance of having an accordion player
  • a female musician who plays more than just a tambourine
  • ethnic roots
  • punk approach
  • a good beat you can drink to
  • rabid followings
  • music that just won’t allow you to stand still

Months ago, I got tickets for my whole family to see this show, with Gogol Bordello as the main draw. Since my son and partner have not ranged the rock-and-roll show circuit as much as my daughter and I, I prepped them by taking them through as many contingencies as I could think of. “Bring a jacket. Use bug spray. Get some earplugs. Charge your phones. Be ready to wait in traffic longer than you spent watching the show. Watch out for knuckleheads who want to crowd surf.” It was like I sending them to Rock Band Day Camp. I did everything but write their names in their t-shirts.

At present, my partner is recovering from a total hip replacement. While we had pavilion seating at the Meadowbrook Music Theater, it’s a good half mile from the parking lot to the amphitheater, and it was supposed to rain (because it always rains at outdoor rock music events). Thankfully she was able to score a handicap parking permit. We were whisked to a small lot next to the bathrooms (!), the beer distributor (!!) and the seats (!!!). With all the time saved in getting onto the property, we even had enough time to hobble up the hill to the merchandise shed before the first note was played.

(While I hope you never have to obtain a handicap sticker, if you do, I highly recommend buying concert tickets shortly thereafter.)

Mariachi El Bronx

Mariachi El Bronx

I saw Mariachi El Bronx four years ago as an opening act for the Foo Fighters at the Palace in Auburn Hills and was blown away by how they embrace the traditional style completely. It was a surprise because these Angelinos (many of them non-Latinos) also perform as The Bronx, a hardcore punk act. Yet they play brilliantly and respect the form – the galloping waltz time, the tempos that can go from languid to rapid-fire, the glorious trumpets.

Their brief set wasn’t all it could be, sadly. Before they got on stage, a bizarre pulse filled the venue like a strobe light made of sound waves. It was a cool effect for about 30 seconds, but it went on and on until it was way too annoying and disorienting. Then, once the sound stunt stopped and the band began, the bass and percussion levels were set way too high so they overwhelmed the rest of the musicians. It was too bad that my family had a poor first impression; I still bought their t-shirt.

Eugne Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Eugene Hutz and Gogol Bordello

Then on to the band we were waiting for: the gypsy punk troubadours, Gogol Bordello. After seeing them last year in an indoor venue, I hoped an open-air environment wouldn’t diffuse their magic. Not to fear: Eugene Hutz and the rest of the international gang were in fine form. My daughter and I had a bet that Eugene wouldn’t be wearing a shirt: while I lost the bet when he entered, I won it about 15 minutes later when he’d worked up enough of a lather to toss it into the wings. They’re the kind of band that will get you singing along, even if you don’t know the words – since they could be singing in any number of languages, it doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth as long as it’s in tempo.

Given how many green t-shirts – and men in kilts – there were in the audience, it was clear the bulk of the crowd was there for Flogging Molly. I had never heard any of their music. I assumed they were direct competitors with the Boston-based Dropkick Murphys, but their brand of Celtic punk is less screamy and and more folky, with fiddle/flute/banjo instrumentation and songs that could be heard closing down a pub at 2 a.m. This was a bit of a hometown gig for the LA-based band, as the fiddle/flute player Bridget Regan is from Michigan. (Her Irish husband, lead singer and guitarist Dave King, made a point of extolling the beauty of his mother-in-law from the stage.)

Floggin Molly - 1

Bridget Regan and Dave King

King is a charming showman: bearded, goofy, bounding around the stage barely time for a breath and a swig before starting the next number. My daughter described him as looking like a great dad. The guys in the audience who had been amping up their anticipation with the help of a few tall beers sang along to every song at the top of their lungs. We, the uninitiated, had our fill after an hour and left before the encore, slipping out of the handicap parking lot without having to hit the brakes once.

I talk about tribalism a lot when it comes to rock music. You go to a show to be with those like you, fellow fans who love a bunch of musicians enough to pay the ridiculous Ticketmaster fees and put up with the knuckleheads just so you can breathe the same air, sing the same lyrics and throb to the same beat. Putting these three tribes together was not only brilliant cross-promotion. It opened our ears and widened our circle to include even more like minds and hearts.

See you on the flip side at the next Concertpalooza gigs: the Violent Femmes on June 20, and the Heartless Bastards on June 21

The “Summertime Sadness” of Lana Del Rey

9 Jun Lana Del Rey - screen

Concertpalooza 2015 got off to a terrific start on May 31, thanks to the generosity of our friends who had tickets to Lana Del Rey they couldn’t use. Off to the rain-sodden DTE Energy Music Theater we went, my younger daughter and I, thrilled to see one of our favorites from the fourth row.

Lana Del Rey - 2

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Lana Del Rey used to perform under her given name, Lizzie Grant, but changed it to be more in line with the noirish Hollywood image she cultivates. Her look is very feminine: chiffon, liquid eyeliner, long hair and nails. Her multi-octave voice juices her ethereal, whiskey sour sound. In most of her work, she chronicles a doomed combination of attraction and danger when it comes to men. “Off to the Races” is a love song sung from a jail cell to a seedy older guy with a gambling habit and a “cocaine heart.” She excerpts The Crystals’ “He hit me and it felt like a kiss” in her lyrics for “Ultraviolence.” She even gives over to her boyfriend’s passion for Springsteen and video games.

It’s as if Carole King scored David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The staging for her Endless Summer tour amplifies this, with the singer framed by two listing skyscrapers towering over a sign spelling her name in high-watt bulbs. The video footage on screens around the stage – of flowers, a car wreck, even Del Rey herself – shifted between black and white and the burnt rust and ocher of the cover of a pulp novel. Smoke furling around them, she and her four-piece band were mesmerizing.

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

I appreciate her daring disregard for what a modern woman is supposed to express. Her persona survives more than lives, loving whatever her boyfriend loves without question, molding herself to whatever shape her lover demands. She also appreciates her fans a great deal, to the point of stopping the show twice to go into the general admission area to pose for selfies and sign autographs. This struck my daughter as sweet, although it made me wonder why she couldn’t have just sung a couple extra numbers and stuck around after the show instead.

However, Del Rey’s obsession with death and “Summertime Sadness” raises concern and criticism in the press. (This is someone whose two big albums are Born to Die and Ultraviolence, after all.) When she capped her admiration for Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain to a British interviewer last summer by saying, “I wish I was dead already,” Frances Bean Cobain challenged her, saying “the death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticize.” It doesn’t help that Del Rey comes off as a bit flippant, making me shake my head as she considers feminism as merely being able to do what you want to do as a woman and otherwise “not an interesting concept.”

Clearly I don’t know her personally, so I don’t know whether she’s dealing with personal demons or shrugging off philosophical discussions to focus on her music. I also have to ask myself if quotes like this get hyped in the press because she’s a female singer who doesn’t do shiny, wildly costumed and choreographed pop.

Setting aside what may or may not be her personal foibles, Lana Del Rey is uniquely engaging because she isn’t out to be a role model, or empowering, or even fun, which isn’t what many would expect of a young female singer.  That’s what makes her appeal equally to jaded concert-goers like me and upbeat, well-adjusted young fans in flower crowns like my daughter:

See you on the flip side …

The opposite of Gen X: Neil Diamond and All Time Low

31 May

Neil Diamond poster

I am a Gen Xer by the skin of my teeth, having been born nine months after the Baby Boom shut its doors on December 31, 1964. I’d like to think I embody my generation’s reputation for being “savvy, skeptical and self-reliant,” particularly in terms of musical taste. After wasting our teenage years binging on MTV, we Xers demanded  the seething purity of Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, the Pixies and Sonic Youth. We wouldn’t settle for pop or posers, we of the clove cigarettes and flannel shirts. We would live and breathe the Real for the rest of our existence and pity those who didn’t follow in our Doc Martens’ footsteps.

Therefore, I feel I have to explain why I went to that Neil Diamond concert at the Palace a few months ago …

I don’t have anything against the Jewish Elvis. Diamond was inescapable on 1970s radio but I didn’t give him much mind. I honestly didn’t think he had much of a following. Then my concert buddy Lois called the night of the show with a last-minute request that I join her, her sister and a friend to use their spare ticket – and I learned otherwise.

As I entered the Palace, it was clear there are thousands upon thousands of people who love Neil Diamond – I mean, love Neil Diamond. This was made very public by the messages appearing on the big screens sent from fans in the crowd to #TweetCaroline (nice). Clearly, these folks had been fans for a long, long while:

First concert in 20 years!

So glad to bring my mom

Granny in the house!

Thanks to Lois’ sister being a particularly devoted fan, I was seated directly under the scoreboard at center court: the best seats I’ve ever had at a show at the Palace. (Where, oh where were these when we saw the Black Keys?)

I have to give Diamond his due. His work means a great deal to his fans worldwide, and even at 72 he’s not slacking off. He started promptly at 8:00 with no warm-up act and sauntered through more than two hours of hits, accompanied by a no-nonsense band and two seasoned background singers. I nodded along, tamping down my ageist impulse to snicker at devotees like the gent taking photos with his flip phone. I admire Diamond’s craft and commitment, but his work just doesn’t ring my bell or rattle my cage. As another great pop song writer wrote several generations before, he’s “writing songs of love, but not for me.”

###

All Time Low tour posterI, the sneering Gen Xer, was equally out of place drowning in a sea of Millenials at the All Time Low concert at the Compuware Sports Arena a few weeks later.

Here’s another act that has no emotional resonance for me; they sound like a Blink-182 cover band doing their best Green Day imitation. My younger daughter, however, has been a rabid fan since kindergarten, thanks to her older sister’s iPod. And she was not alone: the 5,000 seat venue was sold out.

Clearly I was not the only Xer in the place. We parental chaperones and chauffeurs were everywhere, wearing t-shirts indicating the many places we wished we could be instead of in a hockey rink full of screaming teenagers. I wore the shirt I recently got at the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville. The guy in front of me had a B.B. King & Friends tour shirt from 2001; the fella behind me was in a Tigers jersey. One woman even got her CATS shirt out of mothballs. Many of them were also wearing an accessory I should have had the sense to bring: earplugs.

During the three (three!) opening acts and the main attraction, I was under assault. The bass and percussion rattled the stands on the opposite side of the arena. We were sitting in the center section, so whenever the lights spun around they’d go straight through my eyeballs and out the back of my skull. At a certain point, I was doubled over in my seat, my fingers jammed in  my ears and my eyes shut tight. But I was in the minority. Just as at the Neil Diamond show, the majority of the audience knew every word of every song and squealed every time a new one began. They were having fun doggone it, despite me curling up in a ball and running through a mental list of synonyms for “excruciating.”

I know that generational superiority only goes so far when it comes to music. Everyone has his or her own internal soundtrack that draws from decades of material, and what warms one heart leaves another one cold. Rather than rage against music I don’t enjoy, I would be better to allow someone else to take my seat. Otherwise, I will become my dad – a proud member of the Silent Generation – who pretty much summed up all music written after World War II as nothing but “too damn loud.”

See you on the flip side …

The Last DJ: SiriusXM

12 May

As they say about anything addictive, the first taste is free.

When we bought a new car a few months ago, it came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. Since it wouldn’t be my primary ride, I didn’t think this would matter much to me, but once I realized 1) we were going on a cross-country vacation and this could save me from 20+ hours of radio hell, 2) I could also access the stations via the web and a phone app and 3) there is a station dedicated to playing repeats of Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure 24/7, I knew it would spell my doom.

Camera:   DCS420A          Serial #: 420-2040 Width:    1524 Height:   1012 Date:  11/24/97 Time:   11:39:45 DCS4XX Image FW Ver:   081596           TIFF Image Look:   Product ---------------------- Counter:    [88] ISO:        100  Aperture:   F2.8 Shutter:    60   Lens (mm):  28   Exposure:   M    Program:    Po   Exp Comp:    0.0 Meter area: Mtrx Flash sync: Norm Drive mode: S    Focus mode: S    Focus area: Wide Distance:   3.4m


Paying for satellite radio seems practically un-American

I am not a fan of the concept of satellite radio. I believe that, like schools and security, radio ought to be a free service existing for the public good, providing listeners a quality listening experience with as much variety and as few commercials as possible. Following this logic, I should cut my Comcast cord, slap the round antenna back onto my television and be grateful for the times I can get PBS without too much snow on the screen … and turn off the TV during pledge drives.

Many problems exist with this model now, particularly for rock enthusiasts. There are only so many channels on the dial, and that sorry few have to balance popular taste (which is often an oxymoron), the sheer quantity of rock songs produced since “Rocket 88″ started the fad, and the overwhelming competition from more flexible streaming options that serve every possible taste.

Streaming sites have their advantages, particularly the fact that anything that’s ever been recorded is right there, a few keystrokes away. If you detest commercials or crappy loading speeds, you can pay for their services, meaning that instead of being completely ripped off, signed artists might make minimum wage once their songs get played approximately 1.1 million times. (Check out the amazingly depressing infographic to see how the streaming sites stack up in terms of how well they pay their artists … if at all.)

But what if you have lousy taste and want to expand your horizons? What if you don’t have a patient older brother (or cool mom) to take you through the milk crates or playlists? Who’s going to tell you what’s worth your time? The answer is DJs: music geeks with robust personalities, vast musical memories and voices with a bit of grit. That’s what’s missing from the streaming sites, and that’s what got me hooked on SiriusXM good and quick.

Little Steven's Underground GarageThe E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt is a pillar of SiriusXM as the leader of his namesake Underground Garage channel. In addition to his own show, he’s got a passel of DJs “spinning” a great mix of gritty rock classics, recent pop punk and little-known gems including a weekly Coolest Song in the World. My favorite is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators NYC – check him out here and on tour:

I’m sure the other 964 channels have their charms, and one has Tom Petty 24/7, which I may have mentioned already (ahem). I’ll have to find out before my six-month fix subscription runs out …

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need a beach read? Love and Other B-Sides is the perfect paperback for summer: breezy, romantic, and holds up in the heat!

More Notes from Nashville: The Grand Ole Opry

30 Apr

One to-do that was a must-do during my inaugural trip to Nashville: the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not being hipster snarky ironic about this: for real and for true, I looked forward to it.

Grand Ole OpryThe Grand Ole Opry has broadcast a radio show on WSM 650 AM for the last 90 years. Now situated in a performance space next to a humongous shopping mall – which was fully rebuilt following the 2010 flood devastation – the Opry features country musicians of all types over four 30-minute sets. Programming is as devoted to tradition as Top 40, featuring old-guard Members as well as more recent Guest Artists doing two or three songs each, interspersed with comedians and commercial spots for Cracker Barrel. The back-up musicians are no slouches, either.

As much as I genuinely love lap pedal steel guitar (and I teared up when the square dancers hit the stage), this is far from being a museum piece. It’s a continuing celebration of all that Nashville represents.

I came to see Rhiannon Giddens. She is a phenomenal fiddler and banjo player with a thrilling, classically trained voice that can wrap around Piedmont folk songs and Bob Dylan lyrics with equal ease. A founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she’s embarking on a solo career supported by T Bone Burnett, who fell for her fearlessness when she performed “Waterboy” as part of a star-studded concert prior to the release of Inside Llewyn Davis. Here she is, singing that song for David Letterman:

Midway through the evening, she strode onto the Opry stage, tall and barefoot in a twilight blue dress. She only did two numbers – the Patsy Cline song, “She’s Got You,” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel tune, “Up Above My Head” – but that was all it took to turn my family into fans. It was a pity she didn’t play an instrument, too; maybe next time.

Chris Janson

As far as my younger daughter was concerned, though, the highlight of the evening was Chris Janson, a scrawny singer/songwriter in a motorcycle jacket whose teeth and hair made up half his body weight. Janson exemplifies what rock music typically lacks: a charming sense of humor. To wit, here’s a non-Opry version of the song that won my daughter’s heart:

Take it from me: you go to the Opry, you’ll enjoy yourself, even if you’re more a fan of Johnny Cash than Johnny Paycheck … and speaking of the Man in Black, Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum is worth a visit, even if you just want a cup of Bongo Java coffee. More on that later.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Just a few days remain to sign up for the 2015 Detroit Working Writers Conference, taking place May 16 in Troy, which includes a workshop about “Finding Your Writing Niche” led by yours truly. Hope to see you in a darkened conference room soon!

Notes from Nashville

20 Apr Hee Haw Honeys

At last, I have made the pilgrimage to Nashville, and I’m still basking in the barbecue-basted afterglow.

Nashville string bandThis city is teeming with talent, since this is where musicians and songwriters from all over the world come to make their fortunes. In the meantime, they have to make a living, keep their chops up and be ready for the next gig that could be the big break. So no matter where you go, music squirts out of every doorway and windowsill and pours out of bars and burger joints, and it’s almost always crazy great.

Want bonafide old-timey music with a side of sleeve tattoos? You got it outside of the Boot Country store on Broadway (see above). Want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on “Little Wing” even though he’s moved on to the Great Beyond? Order some sweet potato fries at Paradise Park Trailer Resort and give a listen to the house band at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Need to unwind after a long day of driving? Go to your hotel lobby and hear a gal do a credible acoustic version of “Angel from Montgomery” as you take in the exhibition of works by painter/musician Ray Stephenson that includes a portrait of John Prine.

Rock came up from country music of all stripes – gospel, Texas swing, hill music, blues – and that bloodline is being celebrated now at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in their current exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” The logo and other poster art was commissioned from Jon Langford, a musician with the punk band the Mekons:

Nashville Cats artwork

Even without this terrific exhibit – showcasing the time in the 1960s and early 1970s when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash came to Nashville to record, followed by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and many others – I would have gotten a kick out of the place. I grew up in the early 1970s watching The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Plus, my brother lived the Urban Cowboy life in the early 1980s when he worked in Houston, and I spent a lot of time with that film’s soundtrack. The fiddles and banjos, the wigs and rhinestones, the Qiana and the cowboy boots: it’s part of my childhood. (Sadly, the volume on the Hee Haw video clips at the Hall of Fame was so low, my daughter could not fully appreciate the comic stylings of the Hee Haw Honeys.)Hee Haw Honeys

Still, I sped up once I got to the displayes featuring stars of the 1990s and beyond. I have no time for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or the other Top 40 country guys. Also, no matter how many articles I read about how Taylor Swift is a critical favorite as well as great person on and off stage, I just can’t bring myself to give her music a listen. Just considering it makes my neck stiffen.

Clearly I am one of those insufferable snobs Chuck Klosterman called out in “Toby over Moby,” a 2003 essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

[T]hey’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know that hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner.

Klosterman goes on to call alternative country “the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular.” (I have at least half of the albums featured in the Hall of Fame’s alt-country display … ahem.)

But the sincerity of pop country gets dulled by bro country‘s formulaic songwriting and singers Auto-tuned into sameness. There is so much better stuff available. Classic material from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson hasn’t lost its luster, and 21st century musicians – the Punch Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few – are reclaiming and reinterpreting the old-time catchiness of roots music without being precious about it. Plus, musicians on the rock-and-roll side of the spectrum like Jack White and Dan Auerbach make Nashville their home, soaking up the traditions and giving a platform to lesser known yet absurdly talented locals.

And on top of all this is the Grand Ole Opry, still exemplifying the best in country and roots music after 90 years on the air. More on that to follow.

See you on the flip side …

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