“Game, Blouses!” My little piece ☮ Prince

I’m probably unable to process Prince’s passing with the requisite amount of grief, coming as it does hard on the heels of Merle Haggard’s death. Two of the brightest stars in my musical sky, gone. Poof. Within a couple weeks of each other. I am still stunned.

Well, hell. This week! This month! This year!

It’s been quite a cull of beloved musicians. Can’t recall a year like this. Maybe Fall of 1970, Jimi and Janis, which I only dimly remember. I delivered papers then, the now defunct afternoon daily Minneapolis Star. “Bad news on the doorstep” — I lived that! Weekly body counts in the bottom right hand counter.

I have a sense just about everybody will see Lonnie Mack‘s name on the list of Entertainers Who Died In 2016, and say, “Wait! When did THAT happen?” The day everybody was talking about Prince.

I must get this out of the way first: even though I am a massive fan and have had plenty of opportunities to see Prince, I never went to a show. Hockey rink shows are never ideal, and I probably still would not go out of my way to see anyone in a really big venue like that. But seeing Prince in the First Avenue Main Room! Where Purple Rain was shot! I passed on more than a few chances to see him in that fantastic venue.

To my shame I think I have to put it down to my Midwestern, penny-wise, dollar foolish attitude to spending money. Are you kidding me? They want fifteen bucks for those tickets. Figure in three or four Special Exports and I’ll be laying out thirty bucks for the night.

Yes, I am a garbage fan who never bothered to see Prince perform, but (I maintain) there remains some (pathetic) evanescent connection.

Prince and I were born 10 months and a couple miles apart in South Minneapolis. He went to Bryant, the public junior high school on East 38th Street. I went to Incarnation, a Catholic grade school a mile west on 38th St., on the other side of 35W, the freeway that pretty much separated black and white Minneapolis. I remember Bryant came to Incarnation once for a scrimmage, either in late ’72 or early ’73. The racial situation in Minneapolis was edgy at best, owing mainly to the ignorance of white people. Black Panthers! Rumors of black gangs riding around in cars with machine guns. (This predated Sign ☮ the Times (and crack) by more than a decade but looky! another connection — “high on crack totin’ a machine gun”). Of course our basketball team was nearly all white kids, terrified of black people in general, and more than a little intimidated by our opponents.

Prince with his Bryant teammates.

In addition to their massive afros, and generally being much taller and/or muscular, I remember all the Bryant players wore boxers under their uniform shorts so they stuck out. A bit of sartorial flair that I had never seen before, or since. I wonder who might have started that trend?

I was the Big Man on this team, 6′ 2″ and 140 lbs. dripping wet.

I told everyone for years, “I played basketball against Prince.” Now I am not sure I was on the court or if I (Blue team) was watching the Gold Team play Bryant. At any rate, I was there, but not necessarily playing. I did reach out to a couple of old Incarnation classmates on Facebook. My my best grade school pal, now a lawyer, wrote back, in very lawyerly terms, “This is consistent with my recollection”–meaning (I like to think) that we, the Blue team, were in fact the team that scrimmaged Bryant.  But, for what it’s worth, his memory was that we played at their gym, not ours. I also must add that he had no memory of the machine gun rumor, so that might have been my own individual racial panic dream.

Bryant mopped the floor with us of course. The core of their team went on to form a fabled Minneapolis Central team that was undefeated but lost in the region finals to North. I was at THAT game, for sure, at the old Met Center. Johnny Hunter, Pastor and Founder of First Community Recovery Church, had the game of his life.

I always thought Prince didn’t play in high school, but today I entered a few obvious search terms and learned that Prince indeed played at Central, at least up until his sophomore year. Al Nuness, a legendary player in his own right for the Golden Gophers, was Prince’s coach for the sophomore squad. Nuness told the StarTribune Prince was “a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn’t grow.”

Basketball’s loss was everyone else’s gain. That seems obvious now.

Over the years I’ve come across more than a few doubters of my modest connection to Prince, and even more who could not believe that the diminutive Prince had ever played competitive basketball, so when the fantastic Chapelle Show Charlie Murphy bit came out, I felt vindicated.

Prince really enjoyed that sketch, apparently.


UPDATE: I wasn’t going to go there, to mention the other famous music person of my youth (and in fact of my twenties, when we lived across the street from each other), but I just read what Paul Westerberg wrote about Prince and it makes what just about everything everyone else wrote kind of pointless. Heartfelt, observant, poignant and funny as hell. What you would expect.

The first time I met him was at a urinal at a nightclub in St. Paul. There he was, and I said, “Hey, what’s up?” And he answered, “Life.” One word: “life.” And I can’t say that we went on to be pals. But we did record a lot at Paisley Park, and he became comfortable enough to grace us with his presence, not bejeweled and not dressed up. He’d be wearing maybe his jammies and sweat pants or maybe a pear of jeans and sneakers. He could sort of just hang out. He may have been a little more normal than he would’ve liked people to know. That’s the treasure that we got, to be able to sit in the big atrium where you’re taking a break and Prince shuffles by in his slippers and makes some popcorn in the microwave. My sister’s a disc jockey, and he would pass by and say, “Tell your sister hi for me.” People like to paint him as a reclusive this or that; I think he was genuinely truly, truly shy. But one thing says a lot about him: I was there making a solo record a few years later, and I got a message that said that my friend had just died. I was truly rattled, and the next time I went back into the studio, he had filled it up with balloons. Now I’m gonna cry.

Paul Westerberg in the 1973 yearbook. All the way on the left.

Good things on the Internet: swingin’ sixties and seventies edition

Here, presented without comment, a selection of images from what in my humble opinion is one of the Best Blogs Ever.

Just. Go. Here.

Liz Eggleston’s impeccably and indefatigably curated collection of sixties and seventies images–the glorious, the tacky and the gloriously tacky–mainly from her own scans of British and French magazines, is an unspeakably great treasure. Her focus is on the British Boutique movement, but she confesses to being inspired by “the weirder, even seedier, aspects of popular culture.” This is the kind of amateur (in the French sense) labor of love that the pre-listicle era Internet promised, but really didn’t deliver….












2012: The Year in YOLO

I gave in this year to pop music and am not at all ashamed to admit my “best songs of 2012 (The Big List)” features a number of songs that are unapologetically pop and (to my ears at least) awfully good.

Maybe it’s having young kids who listen to the radio All The Time, maybe it’s because there’s an unusual quantity of good pop songs out there, maybe this is just another manifestation of my own contrariness. But I find myself wondering again and again: What’s Not to Like?

So, yes! yes! to Taylor and Carly Rae and P!nk and Xtina and Psy and Pitbull and Adam Levine and Kelly and Ke$ha and on the country side, that Little Big Town is pretty freaking catchy. I never thought I would like a song so good that name-checks Coors, but there you go. Perhaps I have been living in the South for too long.

For those whose tastes are so refined, they simply can’t abide listening to things enjoyed by the rabble (you know who you are) I have made a slightly condensed playlist that cuts out the pop mega-hits. It’s still a good list.

But I felt I had to go ahead and choose my favorite songs of the year. Hell is other people’s playlists, a wise person once said, so here, for better or worse, a dozen or so good tunes from YOLO Year of Our Lord 2012.

Ke$sha haters can suck it. This is an instant classic. It makes me wish that she would have made Warrior more along the lines of her original (stated) intent: more sleazy 70s rock, more guitars, less pop, fewer synths. As the man in A Hard Day’s Night said, perhaps this is “an early clue to the new direction.” I can only hope. “Sweet-ass mullet,” ftw.

The Youtube vid for “Everything is Embarrassing” has just surpassed a million hits, so this treads perilously close to Too Mainstream, but  the timelessness* of this song  can’t be denied.
*or perhaps perfect evocation of 90s production values

Apparently I am a sucker for songs with “Everything” in the title. Hard to separate the song from the beautiful video.  Old School in the best sense.

A duet teaming a young rappper born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and Kurtis Blow, the Bronx.  I love this. Why isn’t this getting ten million hits on Youtube??

Pure pop confection that sounds even more ethereal in Japanese for some reason.

Feisty, sexy, funny–three things you really don’t expect from mainstream country these days.

Seems like this song has been around for more than a year. Never get tired of it, though.

The reissue of “Pearl” came out in 2012, in case you wonder why this song makes the list. Janis’ crazy cackle shows she knew she blew the take right at the beginning. But on and on it goes, and the world is better for it. The ad libs are absolutely priceless. Amy Adams to star as Janis in a movie coming soon? Don’t quite know how I feel about that.

My son’s gang posts videos of their trampoline tricks online. His friend used a Brother Ali song in one. Instead of getting a cease-and-desist from a company lawyer, he got a “cool, bro” from Brother Ali himself. That prejudices me in the man’s favor but this entire album is great. Angry, political, intensely human.

In awe of this entire thing. Sixteen definitely ain’t enough. “How’s he God if he lets Lucifer let loose on us?”

As though someone discovered a cassette featuring Gram Parsons gigging with the Dead, circa American Beauty.

The most YOLO song of a YOLO year.

Paul and Linda take to the country, or revisiting “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far”

This is a terrific review of the Ram reissue. Often I can’t stand the show-offy braininess of Pitchfork’s writers, but here Jayson Greene just hits too many bulls eyes for me to quibble about it.

Ram, simply put, is the first Paul McCartney release completely devoid of John’s musical influence. Of course, John wiggled his way into some of the album’s lyrics– in those fresh, post-breakup years, the two couldn’t quite keep each other out of their music. But musically, Ram proposes an alternate universe where young Paul skipped church the morning of July 6, 1957, and the two never crossed paths. It’s breezy, abstracted, completely hallucinogen-free, and utterly lacking grandiose ambitions. Its an album whistled to itself. It’s purely Paul.

Greene pokes around the issue of how hated the record was on release, expressed from on high by Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau: “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far.” (Now that there is an insufferably pretentious rock critic).

Greene sees some sort of family dynamic in Landau’s (and generally speaking sixties hipster elite) opinion:

Landau was right, however, that [it] did spell the end of something, which might be a clue to the vitriol: If “60s rock” was defined, in large part, by the existence of the Beatles, then Ram made it clear in a new, and newly painful, way that there would be no Beatles ever again. To use a messy-divorce metaphor: When your parents are still screaming red-faced at each other, it’s a nightmare, but you can still be assured they care. When one of them picks up and continues on living, it smarts in an entirely different way.

I want to run with that messy divorce thing for a moment longer. When talking about the Beatles it seems necessary to state one’s Team John or Team Paul bias. I have always leaned Team Paul.

I was once commissioned to write a book for young teens about the McCartney family. (Still in print! and screaming up the Amazon Best Sellers list: now cresting at #2,727,671!!!).

Specifically it was “Famous Families,” Paul and Stella, but you can’t write about that family without getting sucked into the pastoral idyll to which Paul retreated immediately after the Beatles crashed and burned. It enraged many, apparently, but looking at it today, I just wonder: “Who could possibly have a problem with this?”

Anyway, I’m definitely Team Paul, but yeah, as a product of the broken home that is the Beatles marriage, do want to shout, “I love dad too, and I just wish you two would stop fighting.” And start to cry, retreat to my room, and slam the door. Or I would, if they hadn’t actually divorced four decades ago.

Also, interesting stuff about the City and the Country:

“I want a horse, I want a sheep/ Want to get me a good night’s sleep,” Paul jauntily sings on “Heart of the Country”, a city boy’s vision of the country if ever there was one, and another clue to the record’s mindstate. For Paul, the country isn’t just a place where crops grow; it’s “a place where holy people grow.” Now that American cities everywhere are having their Great Pastoral Moment, full of artisans churning goat’s-milk yogurt and canning their own jams, Ram feels like particularly ripe fruit.

A lot to answer for, from one perspective, but you know, always ahead of his time, that Macca.

I can’t help thinking about the Ram period without also thinking about Ronnie Lane’s parallel retreat from rock stardom. It didn’t come out near as well for Ronnie, who of course was not quite in Paul’s league musically, and didn’t end up one of Britain’s wealthiest men (he was absolutely an idiot with money–kept his rock star dough in a plastic bag in his house), and had the bad fortune to come down with a crippling degenerative fatal disease.

But the rootsy, rustic, slightly clueless back-to-the-country vibe is the same, and a beautiful thing, too. I don’t know what is going on with the famous Beatles Spotify holdout, as I am able to post a Ram  reissue playlist. Maybe that’s temporary. Sadly, there remains a massive hole in Spotify’s catalog where Ronnie Lane’s music should go.

Whale: Favorite Band of All Time of the Day

Looking at that post below. Intense! Sorry! Sometimes you just want to recommend a Stephen Colbert video and you start typing and suddenly it’s like the world is going to shit.

Anyway, this week I have been stuck on Village Voice editor Maura Johnston’s terrific “remember the 90s (late)” playlist on Spotify. And I came upon these crazy Swedes. I don’t know a lot about them. Swedes. (Said that.) The 90s. By the look of it they did loads of drugs. There’s maybe a little Sleigh Bells thing there. The thrashy noise with the sweet girly voice floating over top. The singer Cia Berg was a television presenter of some sort. She had braces in one video, and not in another. They collaborated with Tricky on some things.

I think I might have seen the Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe video once, on MTV, and thought WOW! But then I forgot about them.

But … WOW! Or Holy shit! Or as Butthead says “this kinda like uh rocks”


And this!

If you’re as taken with them as I was/am, you’ll want to investigate their slim but kickin’ catalog.

After Spotify

When I moved to New York from Minneapolis in 1988, I wasn’t looking to set the city on fire, at least not right away. As it turned out, I never did, but that is another story.

My goals were modest: to have a lease, a little  money in the bank, take a few trips each year, and to be able to buy any CD I wanted. It didn’t take long to become a huge success by those modest standards.

It was the early 90s. I realize in retrospect I was  working in a marketing department at the tail end of the Golden Age of Working in Marketing Departments. I was in books, at HarperCollins, and it was a common and lovely practice  to call your counterparts at any publisher or record company  to trade books for books or books for CDs. There were days when the mail drop on my floor would be teeming with jiffy bags and boxes of books and musical wonderment. A lot of it was junk, but you often got  more or less what you asked for, and there were a few serendipitous things I would never have thought I’d like. Nancy Wilson and George Shearing The Swingin’s Mutual, for one. Malcolm McLaren’s Fans, for another. Cibo Mato, Viva la Woman!

Between trading and buying whatever music I  wanted, my New York years produced a collection of CDs so large that it became a major project to pack it up when it was time to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest. I settled on large 240-cd folios, about six of them, kept some of the nicer big-format boxed sets, and put an ad on Craigslist for 1500 jewel boxes.

Fast forward eight years, and we are living in Kentucky in the age of  Spotify and instant musical gratification. Those folios sit on our porch and I very rarely have occasion to open them. Lo, the larges folios begat smaller ones, the “travel” kind that hold 48 CDs.  I created about six of these smaller collections for the car, but the adding and subtracting of CDs to the car folios quickly became tiresome, and the plastic dividers that hold the cds in place tore and fell apart. And then I discovered how easy it was to  load an IPod with a thousand songs and use it in conjunction with the car stereo. The CDs and their folios got sadder and more neglected, and crawled further under the passenger seat, with the golf  tees, candy wrappers, and empty bottles of Life Water.

And yet. Something in me recoils at limitless choices. From my teens through my mid-twenties, I remember expending much mental energy trying to listen to music I had read about, in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, or the local alternative weeklies in the Twin Cities. With the much-lamented passing of the indie KQRS, radio wasn’t much of an option and if you didn’t have friends who actually possessed the vinyl, you were out of luck. I was desperate enough to go halves on an album with friends, and let the friend keep the physical product, just so I could make a cassette.

I remember once interviewing to become part of a shared house with four guys from the western suburbs–Edina? Minnetonka? Wayzata?, in my mental map of the Twin Cities a mysterious Forbidden Zone populated by the rich, arrogant and decadent. These bros all  had asymmetrical haircuts, used copious amounts of hair gel, went to First Avenue a lot (for the dancy part, not the bands), and were “really into ABC.”

I  didn’t get the place in that house, needless to say, and never had a personal connection to anyone else who shared the communal enthusiasm for ABC. My curiosity had long expired, but just now I got up to speed via Spotify/Youtube. No regrets…..


For some reason, having the luxury of Spotify has taken some of the mystery, and joy, out of being a music aficionado. Being able to hear virtually any song I want on demand, has driven me backwards, made me appreciate serendipity and repetition.  I realize now I really like leaving a single disc in the car CD player for days at at a time. Last week, I played these three until the grooves wore out:

  • The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest (“What is a war if it doesn’t have a general? What’s channel nine if it doesn’t have Arsenio? … What are the youth if they ain’t rebellin’? What’s Ralph Cramden if he ain’t yellin’–at Ed Norton, what is coke snortin’?”);
  • The Stiff Records Box Set, Disc Three (Madness, Desmond Dekker, Tracey Ullman, Graham Parker, Tenpole Tudor, some truly daft things from one-hit wonders….);
  • George Strait’s Strait Out of the Box, Disc Two, his peak years, lots of hard country songs, plus the super-slick pop ones, eg. “The Chair”, one of the best stalker songs ever. A duet with Hank Thompson on “Six-Pack To Go”!

As for serendipity, I had taken for granted that local radio here in central Kentucky would not have much to offer. I didn’t try hard to search for good stations. My prejudice was that there would be lots of mainstream Nashville junk, the occasional classic country station, Christian rock, and cheesy mainstream pop with really obnoxious DJs.

My snobby ignorance persisted for over eight years, and then yesterday, I happened upon a station of bizarre eclecticism that played a succession of songs that were right in my wheelhouse, some of which I had not heard for decades. “I Wanna Be Sedated”! Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World” and “5:15” from Quadrophenia.

The video below is kind of amazing. I had forgotten I had seen the movie. I had not, however, forgotten a single word of the lyrics, which I hadn’t listened to since college. My teenage infatuation with late-period Who still being something of an embarrassment to me.

The lyrics to “5:15” are complete doggerel nonsense–“The ushers are sniffing/Eau de cologne-ing!”–but like  “madman drummers bummers” etc. from the early early skinny-hippy Springsteen, are somehow impossible to forget.

I realize that to this point I’ve failed miserably to tie this all together. Who can complain about the near-infinity of choices offered by a post-Spotify musical universe? And yet I appear to be doing just that. Something something Surprise Mystery Serendipity Tyranny of Choice. Just saying something has been lost with the absolute freedom of Spotify.

Perhaps a tendentious quote from an obscure Yeats play, Fergus and the Druid, will suffice. For now, it’s all I got:

And all these things were wonderful and great; But now I have grown nothing, knowing all

“The hardest-working man in show business”

Have been immersed lately in Preston Lauterbach’s The Chitlin’ Circuit, And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Yesterday afternoon, I grabbed it off the “new nonfiction” shelf and flipped through while the kids played on the Boyle County Library computers; kept reading last night; and woke up at 5 a.m. to stoke the wood stove and finish the book. It’s terrific. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Google around for summaries and reviews. Robert Christgau has a good one here. I just wanted to share this excerpt, which was shocking and amazing to me, about the early days of Little Richard’s and James Brown’s careers, in and around Macon, Georgia.  The two were close. Despite being upstaged dramatically one night by James and the Famous Flames (after which Richard conceded, “You’re the onliest man I’ve seen who has everything”), Richard’s career would be the first to take off, and led to Brown actually performing AS Little Richard!

 Little Richard’s abrupt  departure for the West  Coast after the “Tutti Frutti” session left [Legendary Chitlin’ Circuit promoter Clint] Brantley with a problem, namely, unfulfilled bookings. So for a few weeks during the Fall of 1955 around Georgia, you could see James Brown as Little Richard, and Bobby Byrd as James Brown with the Flames.  Brantley plugged James right into Richard’s gigs, touring with Richard’s Upsetters, traveling in a station wagon adorned with Richard’s name and song titles. James took it in stride, teasing about Richard’s magical ability to perform in two places at the same time. Emcee Luke Gonder worked the joke into his nightly introduction of the band on stage. After rattling through the lineup, he reached the star of the show.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the hardest-working man in show business today–Little Richard.”

The Chitlin’ Circuit, And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll by Preston Lauterbach

Well, at least JB got a pretty good nickname out of his tribute band gig.

Later, apparently, as per Wikipedia, James again took Richard’s tour slots when the architect of rock n roll turned to preaching in 1957. Their careers were so intertwined, it’s sort of surprising that there are few images of them together. The screen capture of their appearance on Wheel of Fortune was the best Google Images could come up with…..  which fact alone makes me want to smile and weep  at the same time.

A year-end music list with incredibly chiseled features

Trying to catch up on the myriad “Best Of” lists for 2010. I’ve found at least one silver lining from this sustained, soul-crushing recession: There are a lot of smart, tasteful people who stay at home listening to music a lot, and writing about it on their blogs.

My favorite source for the past three or four months has been Music For Ants . They do lovely mp3 mixes, some seasonal, others thematic (one dedicated to the iconic Boom! Boom boom, cha! drumbeat). They are terrific curators, amateurs in the good, French sense of the word. And they are apparently heavily into a Zoolander cult of some sort. Which is also good.

Below, a video from Phantogram, a duo based in Saratoga Springs, New York, one of the many revelations from Music For Ants’ 50 Songs for 2010 list.

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