A Night with Dick Dale

Note: Dick Dale died yesterday. I recall the night we met: my then-19-year-old son Graham and I were taking a trip down Highway 61, following the celebrated highway of the blues from the Canadian border to the French Quarter. The resulting book, Highway 61, came out in 2003 – words by me, photos by Graham. One of the memorable nights on the trip was at a wonderful hole-in-the-wall in St. Louis called the Broadway Oyster Bar, where we witnessed a performance by Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar. This is adapted from the book.

Dick Dale in concert, 2001.
Dick Dale in concert at the Broadway Oyster Bar in St Louis. Photo by Graham McKeen

By dusk, the patio is filling, and Dick Dale’s bus pulls up on the street separating the Broadway’s patio stage from the White Castle next door. He stays on the bus until announced, and when he steps onto the sidewalk, my son is there with his camera. Dale points at him and says, “I don’t want to see that shit on eBay!”

In the early days, Dick Dale was movie-star handsome in that anonymous television-actor sort of way, resembling Robert Horton, Ward Bond’s hunky sidekick on Wagon Train. Now in his sixties, Dale is striking in a different sort of way: a tall man, still with a sculpted face, with a high forehead and gray hair in a pony tail to the middle of his back. He wears a headband in keeping with the tribal themes in his recent albums, and he dresses entirely in black.

As soon as he hits the stage, he grabs his guitar and starts playing. The bottles of whiskey and vodka across the bar from me rattle with the thunder from his Showman amplifier. He has a drummer and a sleepy-eyed bass player as his perfunctory rhythm section, but the show is all his. In a lifetime spent listening to rock’n’roll music, I’ve never heard anything as loud as Dick Dale. Not only are the bottles rattling – my heart reverberates in my chest and my testicles resound with each gut-wrenching low run on the strings. It’s as much a sonic assault as a concert.

The Broadway Oyster Bar

I’m content where I’ve been the last few hours, sitting at the corner of the outdoor bar, at the other end of the patio from the stage. The St. Louis night is still muggy and the city’s glow fades the stars overhead. Graham is over by the stage, stalking Dick Dale with his camera, worming his way through the crowd up front and, for part of the show, standing onstage, trying to get a shot of Dale’s mobile face as he plays. Dale looks his way and playfully jabs his guitar at his direction. Graham’s eyes glow. I’ve seen that look before, when he was little and I took him to Spring Training. The first Major Leaguer he saw up close was Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. Another time, we ran into hall-of-famer Bob Feller underneath the bleachers at an Indians game. He looked like any other retiree snowbird except for the fact that he was wearing a baseball uniform.

But as Graham grew up, baseball players gave way to musicians in his pantheon of greatness. As a guitar player, he worshipped Dick Dale, the man who nearly single-handedly invented reverb.

The Broadway is packed. I’m surprised that people in the nearby apartments and upscale remodeled homes haven’t called the cops to complain about the nuclear war at the oyster bar.

Dick Dale doesn’t mess around between songs – no long introductions, no background on his inspiration, no philosophical indoctrination.

“Hey you,” he nods toward a girl about 12 yards back from the stage. “You come up front, will ya? I like to see pretty girls up front while I play.”

He’d old enough to be her grandfather, but when she comes up to the stage, he kneels, offering her the neck of his Stratocaster. She runs her fingers suggestively down its long neck.

“I’ll stick around and sign autographs and talk after the show,” Dale announces into the microphone. “Anyone who wants their tits signed, line up over here at the side.”

His signature tune, “Misirlou,” is known to the youngest of the audience through its use in Pulp Fiction and Domino’s Pizza commercials. Old people like me remember when he was the baddest-ass in music, during the surf music days of the 1960s. He doesn’t play the standard version of “Misirlou” – he improvises, toying with the melody for 20 minutes. On one of his recent albums, he did the same thing with Duke Ellinton’s “Caravan.”

I stay at my perch at the bar, enjoying the night air and the crowd, not really watching the stage, where my son is playing cat and mouse with the guitar god. But then I notice a change in the texture of the sound – not Dick Dale’s sound but the sound of the audience. When I turn to look, Dale is walking off stage, toward the street. He’s got a wireless guitar. It still rumbles through his amplifier onstage, but he’s on the prowl and my star-struck son is right behind. Dale struts across the street to the White Castle parking lot.

It’s a surreal scene: There’s a car at the White Castle drive-thru window, and right behind it is a pony-tailed banshee wailing away on his guitar. Behind him is my son and a few other fans. When the car gets its order of bellybusters and drives off, Dale walks up to the window. He doesn’t say a word, but begins jamming his guitar neck at the bewildered minimum-wager at the cash register. What the hell is this, her face says.

The White Castle on South Broadway in St Louis

Dale keeps walking. He’s out in the middle of Broadway now, dodging cars. Imagine the drivers’ fright when they see this tall monster, all in black, with his Rapunzel hair, walking down the centerline, all the while booming music from the amps back on stage. He turns and comes back through the front entrance of the bar, where all of the people who couldn’t fit into the patio-stage area are startled not only that they can finally see the guy – but that he’s elbowing them for space at the bar.

He comes back out on the patio and sits on the stool next to me. He hasn’t missed a note. He nods at the bartender that he wants a beer and she pours it down his throat while he continues to play. Graham has been stalking him the whole time, eyes big as pie plates, like Dick Dale is his pony-tailed pied piper.

This is an excerpt from ‘Highway 61.’ Click on the cover to order the book.

True to his word, Dick Dale sticks around afterward, talking to anyone who wants an audience with the King of the Surf Guitar.

I tell him about our trip, about the free fall we’re doing from Canada to New Orleans and how lucky we were to be in St. Louis when he hit town. Talk about serendipity.

“You tell your friends to come out and see Dick Dale sometime,” he says.

A blonde woman with mascara sweat-pasted to her cheeks pulls down her shirt and presents her breast.

“Oh baby,” Dick Dale says. “You don’t know what this means to me.” He signs, “All the best, Dick Dale” in Sharpie across her flesh.

Can You Take Me Back?

John, Ringo, George and Paul on their ‘Mad Day Out’ in July 1968.

For a week now, I’ve been immersed in the 50th anniversary edition of the White Album, the record officially known as The Beatles, released November  22, 1968.

It was the first Beatle album that I bought new. My sister was at the right age when the Beatles hit in 1964. I watched them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ that February and sat front and center for A Hard Day’s Night at the theater that summer.

I liked the music, but music itself hadn’t really hit me. Not rock’n’roll at least. I was still into Henry Mancini and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals — but that’s another story.

Things had changed by 1968 and I was ready when the White Album hit. Back then, young sprogs, our parents didn’t just buy us stuff and we didn’t get handed an allowance. The folks expected us to work for money. And since the White Album was a double-album, I’d need to work extra hard.

That fall, my parents had moved to a new house on a heavily wooded lot outside Bloomington, Indiana. They’d paid to have a few trees removed around the back deck, but the massive stumps were left behind. Stump removal was my job. My father’s going rate was five dollars per.

Owing to blisters and exhaustion, I couldn’t do too many stumps at a time. Gradually, using axes and shovels, I cleared all but a few. In order to buy the White Album, I needed to find a big bastard out in the yard.

I found something suitable and asked my father if I could have $10 for it, since it was such a large and sprawling fucker. The old man agreed. I think he knew I had the hunger to buy something that was otherwise out of reach.

I attacked that thing with the ferocity of Alan Ladd in Shane. He and Van Heflin took on a monster stump and together pulled its stubborn carcass from the ground.

Without help, I spent a day working in the back yard. When I called my father outside at dusk, he marveled at my work, then handed me a $10 bill. I rode my bike to the Woolworth’s — luckily, owing to the early sunset of November — only a half mile away. The album was mine.

I’m not sure I can make a Sophie’s Choice with Beatle albums. I’ve always been partial to Rubber Soul. Revolver still sounds great all these years later. Then there’s Abbey Road. On the day it was released — a year after the White Album — I remember tear-assing down to Discount Records on lunch break to pick it up. I held it , still sealed, in my fingers on my desktop, the envy of my social set, since I had it first.

But the White Album was something unique. It both pleased and mystified me. Every note and every sound became part of my sinews. Over the years I haven’t needed a device to play the record. It’s always there, ready to unspool in my skull.

The 50th anniversary edition — six CDs, one BluRay — is a worthy presentation for such a vital album. The Beatles always so well captured the essence of their times, and they matched the brutality and change of 1968 with an album that was chaotic and magnificent.

I not only rediscovered this great old album. I found things I didn’t know I was looking for.

The box arrived in the mail and almost immediately I hit the road for a drive to New York for the weekend. For my road music, I grabbed only the last four discs — the demos cut in the spring at George Harrison’s house, and three discs of studio outtakes, including songs that never made it on to the album, including ‘Hey Jude,’ ‘Sour Milk Sea,’ ‘Child of Nature,’ ‘Across the Universe’ and others.

The four portraits included with the White Album.

I was alone, so I played the discs one after another at thundering volume. I’d had most of the stuff on bootlegs, but the quality of this set is superior. I’ve always enjoyed these archival sets. Bob Dylan has 14 volumes in his Bootleg Series, and it’s great to hear his early takes — to hear, say, what ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ sounded like about six minutes before genius showed up. There’s a Jimi Hendrix archival set that makes his music sound ordinary, right before his brilliance caught fire.

The Beatles have not done the ‘official bootleg’ thing quite as much, but the White Album is a great place to show the anatomy of the creative process.

Here are some highlights (for me):

  • Hearing John work through ‘Julia,’ the song about his mother. To hear him on the talkback with engineer Chris Thomas … to hear his voice again … chokes me up. The same happens when you hear George order a sandwich before recording ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’ It’s sad those voices are no longer in the world.
  • I never much liked ‘Helter Skelter’ because of its lumbering sound, and began to actively hate it after Charles Manson co-opted it. Oddly, on this set it’s one of my highlights. After blasting through it, Paul says, “Mark it ‘Fab,’” and it is.
  • I always wondered about that ditty (‘Can you take me back where I came from’)  that Paul sings as the sound montage of ‘Revolution 9’ begins. Here you hear him work through it, trying to develop it into a full song. Turns out it was perfect as a fragment.
  • Hearing all four Beatles sing ‘Good Night.’ On the original release, Ringo sings it with an orchestra. I could never decide if — since it followed the madness of ‘Revolution 9’ — the song was intended to end the album on a reassuring or ironic note. On one of the takes, Ringo sings and the other three lean into a microphone to harmonize. It’s not the greatest performance, but to hear those four voices together again is deeply moving.
  • Hearing three Beatles (Ringo, depressed, took a break during the sessions) playing ‘Back in the USSR’ in a lower key. They sped up the tape to give the song its sonic magic.
  • Hearing John finger-pick his way through ‘Dear Prudence’ and Paul do solo run-throughs of ‘I Will’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son.’

All the way down to the city and all the way back, I blasted those four discs.

Listening to the White Album itself was sort of an afterthought for me. My ears are not sophisticated and when people talk about new remixes, I sort of glaze over.

So it was more out of a sense of duty that late the night of my return, I went downstairs to my basement office and music room to put on the remixed White Album, just so I can say I listened to it.


Do you remember the old Maxell tape advertisement, from back in the Seventies — the windblown and mindblown guy in the easy chair? That was me as ‘Back in the USSR’ boomed from my speakers. I listened to the whole thing straight through. It was brilliant.

‘Tis the season, apparently, for expensive box sets.

Bob on the tracks

Just the week before, I’d been spelunking through Bob Dylan’s back pages. As the first victim of bootleggers, he began bootlegging himself back in 1991 when he launched his Bootleg Series. He’s up to Volume 14, More Blood, More Tracks, six discs collecting the 1974 recordings leading to his classic Blood on the Tracks.

As with the White Album outtakes, I’d had bootlegs devoted to the Blood on the Tracks sessions. He recorded much of the album on the day I turned 20 — September 16, 1974 — and ran through monstrous numbers of takes.

After a few furious days of recording in New York, an album was assembled. Columbia Records designed a cover, commissioned liner notes from Pete Hamill, and readied the album for release.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the hit parade.

Dylan had second thoughts. He played the acetate of the album for his brother while visiting Minnesota in December. David Zimmerman told big brother he could do better. Or something. But he hired a studio, found some local musicians, and got Big Brother Bob to re-record half of the album.

Columbia Records had a collective coronary and the album was delayed a month. To save time and money, the record company went with the original album cover, meaning the Minneapolis musicians did not get credited, though they had recorded half the album.

Eventually, the original recordings — some of them, at least — leaked out.

Conventional wisdom — meaning bullshit spewed by clueless fans such as myself — held that Dylan withdrew the original recordings because they so well chronicled the pain and suffering of a man mired in heartbreak and despair.  The album supposedly told the story of his abandoned love as his marriage crumbled. Dylan, his voice strained, was a testament to vulnerability. (Dylan denied this, of course, saying the album was inspired by the short stories of Anton Chekhov.)

Now, however, Dylan has shared all of the takes — they are legion; six discs worth — from the New York sessions. Alas, no outtakes from the Minneapolis sessions exist, but we do get all of the master takes, minus the echo added in post production.

Both the White Album and More Blood, More Tracks show deep-dive insight to the creative process. Both the Fabs and Dylan show us how songs grow and evolve. But these huge collections are more than mere curiosities for music geeks. These are further explorations and discoveries of this music we’ve carried within us for a half century.

Listen again to the acts we’ve known for all these years. You’ll be surprised by all of the things you haven’t heard.

Out of the sandbox

The Boys at Zuma Beach, 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Dennis Wilson.

At the beginning of 1967, Brian Wilson was on top of the pyramid.

In the previous year, he’d made Pet Sounds, one of the most influential albums in recorded history, then produced a stunning, shimmering song called “Good Vibrations.” With Brian Wilson as producer-arranger-composer, the Beach Boys had become America’s pre-eminent rock band.

The word was that Brian Wilson was a genius and that he was to American music what Magellan was to world travel.

Most of this ‘genius’ speculation was based on Brian’s work-in-progress, an album to be called Smile that would serve as his “teen-age symphony to God.” Brian’s idiosyncratic music, paired with the intense and playful lyrics of Van Dyke Parks, were the stuff of rock-critic legend. Reporters chronicling the making of Smile gorged on Brian’s eccentricities, including his filling his dining room with sand, so he could move his piano into the room and wiggle his toes as he composed.

As I say: at the beginning of 1967, he was on the top of the pyramid. By the end of the year, he’d tumbled from those staggering heights.

Brian Wilson

Lots of reasons, but the one that seems to have earned the most favor over the years: The Beatles surpassed him. The British group produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and left the Beach Boys in their stellar wake. Since Sgt. Pepper strove for — and achieved — grandiosity, Brian probably thought Smile — with its celebration of small moments of joy — might not stand up.

Whatever the case, he cancelled the album after Pepper‘s release and withdrew the band from the Monterrey International Pop Festival. Those two events are seen as crippling the Beach Boys as a significant rock’n’roll band.

(Though tragically unhip in America, they remained revered in Great Britain, where they were arguably more popular than the Beatles.)

To recover, other members of the band coaxed Brian back to life on the ground. They built a studio in Brian’s house and cocooned him, which kept him away from the great studios — Western Recorders or Gold Star — and the session players history has dubbed the Wrecking Crew.

‘Smiley Smile,’ released September 1967

‘Wild Honey,’ released December 1967

Instead, Carl Wilson helped his big brother to make “music to cool out by.” The other members pitched in. If their musicianship was not at the level of the session pros in the Wrecking Crew, then so be it. They worked toward a simpler sound. For some reason, Brian had his piano detuned, so it sounded like the kind of thing you’d heard when friends got together in the basement after a few beers.

In place of Smile, the Beach Boys produced Smiley Smile in September 1967 and Wild Honey in December 1967. And ‘produced’ is a key word there. The earlier Beach Boys albums bore the ‘Produced by BRIAN WILSON’ credit. Now the jacket said, ‘Produced by THE BEACH BOYS.’

This music was the antithesis of Sgt. Pepper or The Notorious Byrd Brothers or anything by Jimi Hendrix (who sealed the doom of the band’s hipness with his “may you never hear surf music again” hidden lyric on “Third Stone from the Sun”). As Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said of 1967, all the artists were trying to out-weird each other.

The Beach Boys had done weird, with Smile, and found it not to be suitable.

Click on the image for the remastered “Darlin’ ” from “Sunshine Tomorrow.”

They never tried to be something they were not. And what they were was three brothers and a cousin from the suburbs. So the heavy intellectual stuff and pomposity didn’t fit well. Years ago, a writer put it nicely. Wish I could remember his name or the correct phrasing, but it was something like “We are a confounding country. We can put a man on the moon but we can’t stop people from wearing spandex pants to the mall. The Beach Boys will drive you crazy that way too.”

In short, you’ve got to be willing to take the goofy with the great.

When Smiley Smile came out, it was largely panned, though it’s an excellent album. But since it was the ‘Instead of Smile‘ album, it was held to an impossible standard. As Carl Wilson said, “It was a bunt instead of a grand slam.”

A mock cover of the never-released pseudo-live album, “Lei’d in Hawaii.”

The recorded-in-the-living-room vibe gave Smiley Smile a wholly original sound. After a live album in Hawaii was discovered to have been poorly recorded, the Beach Boys took this new homegrown work ethic into a studio where they tried to fix the live album with some live-in-studio recordings. They abandoned that project and instead went back to the living room and made Wild Honey, the closest thing the group ever recorded to a rhythm and blues album.

This has always marked the beginning of my favorite period in Beach Boys music. When the mass audience and the new ruling class of rock intelligentsia looked elsewhere, the Beach Boys made music for themselves. This wonderful era is now chronicled in the two-disc history 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow (come on boys, pick a title).

What we have in Sunshine Tomorrow isn’t a collection of snippets and scraps. Producer Mark Linnett has taken these old pieces and put together a new piece of work — not just a document of a creative period in the band’s life, but something that stands up today. This is a glorious album.

‘Sunshine Tomorrow’ features 65 tracks over two discs.

Linnett sets the stage by starting with Wild Honey in a new stereo mix. He then works through some session outtakes and live performances. As brilliant as that is — and Wild Honey has some of the best Beach Boys songs ever — it’s the Smiley Smile sessions that provide some of the great delights.

Wisely, Linnett leaves off “Good Vibrations” (Brian didn’t want it on the original album anyway) and he uses the backing tracks of “Heroes and Villains,” instead of the vocal, which would have contained those wonderful but overwhelming lyrics. Linnett eases into the Smiley Smile material with revelatory backing tracks, gradually building to the wonderfully weird and stoned-out “Wind Chimes,” “Cool, Cool Water,” “Vegetables” and “Little Pad.”

From there, Linnett goes into the faux-concert album as the scaled-back homegrown Beach Boys recreate their Hawaii setlist from the poorly-taped concerts on Oahu. (Brian had come out of performing retirement to join the band on stage.) These quiet versions of “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfer Girl” are wonderful reinterpretations.

The five performing Beach Boys in 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Bruce Johnston (Brian’s stage replacement) and Mike Love.

If I never hear “Surfer Girl” again, I’d be okay. But here, it’s done in a laid-back style that renders it a whole new song. Mike Love loses his usual braggadocio and “California Girls” becomes a gentle lament. (Love’s singing throughout is reserved. He pulls back on the usual swaggering bullshit and sings with tenderness.) Alan Jardine changes the perspective of “Help Me, Rhonda,” turning the story around, so it’s more of a “Help You, Rhonda” now. They sound remarkably like the Ramones doing “Beat on the Brat.”

The real surprise is the concert-in-the-studio version of “You’re So Good to Me,” from the 1965 album Summer Days. Brian Wilson’s new arrangement is much richer than the shrill chant from two years (and a lifetime) before. If only the music business still revolved around singles, this would be a good one.

The group also does some then-current songs by other groups: “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “The Letter” and “Game of Love.” The combined Carl-Brian-Mike shared lead vocal on “The Letter” is particularly fun. (By the way, the set ends with a thrilling a cappella “Surfer Girl.”)

This was a great period for the group and to hear them and marks Carl Wilson’s emergence. Though in retrospect we can see he had the best solo voice, he was not eager to sing lead vocals. He carried “Pom Pom Play Girl,” but it was “Girl, Don’t Tell Me” from 1965 that he considered his first lead. Then big brother entrusted him with “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” If that doesn’t demonstrate trust and respect, I’ll eat my Volkswagen.

Baby brother Carl Wilson not only moved into the front-man role for the Beach Boys in 1967, he began his long career of trying to hold the group together.

Carl is all over Wild Honey and his love of rhythm and blues comes out in his unrestrained, fluid vocals. He does a tremendous cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” (listen for the you-son-of-a-bitch hidden lyric) and “Darlin'” is irresistible.

As McGuinn said, everyone was trying to out-weird each other, but the Beach Boys were hanging out in Brian’s living room, singing rhythm and blues around that deliberately detuned piano. The slightly off sound of the music — and the overall dominance of the piano — gives the music of this era a resonance.

Who knew that the Beach Boys would be the harbingers of what would start happening that very month Wild Honey was released.

Tired of the grandiose bullshit (he thought Sgt. Pepper was a piece of crap), Bob Dylan came out of his 18-month seclusion and produced the quiet masterpiece, John Wesley Harding. It was Dylan’s way of grabbing rock’n’roll by the lapels and saying, “Pull yourself together!”

Soon, the Beatles were cutting out all of the studio gimmickry and promising to ‘get back.’ Meanwhile,  the Byrds and the Band were discovering what today we call roots music and Americana.

In a way, the Beach Boys were there first.


Bob Dylan: a job description

These are Bob Dylan’s liner notes for his 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home. I used this as the opening piece in my book Rock and Roll is Here to Stay. This is my favorite piece of Dylan writing that has not been set to music.

i’m standing there watching the parade/ feeling combination of sleepy john estes. jayne mansfield. humphry bogart/mortimer snerd. murph the surf and so forth/ erotic hitchhiker wearing japanese blanket. gets my attention by asking didn’t he see me at this hootenanny down in puerto vallarta, mexico/i say no you must be mistaken. i happen to be one of the Supremes/then he rips off his blanket an’ suddenly becomes a middle-aged druggist. up for district attorney. he starts screaming at me you’re the one. you’re the one that’s been causing all them riots over in vietnam. immediately turns t’ a bunch of people an’ says if elected, he’ll have me electrocuted publicly on the next fourth of july. i look around an’ all these people he’s talking to are carrying blowtorches/ needless t’ say, i split fast go back t’ thenice quiet country. am standing there writing WHAAT? on my favorite wall when who should pass by in a jet plane but my recording engineer “i’m here t’ pick up you and your latest works of art. do you need any help with anything?”


my songs’re written with the kettledrum 0in mind/a touch of any anxious color. unmentionable. obvious. an’ people perhaps like a soft brazilian singer . . . i have given up at making any attempt at perfection/ the fact that the white house is filled with leaders that’ve never been t’ the apollo theather amazes me. why allen ginsberg was not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration boggles my mind/if someone thinks norman mailer is more important than hank williams that’s fine. i have no arguments an’ i never drink milk. i would rather model harmonica holders than discuss aztec anthropology/ english literature. or history of the united nations. i accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me. i know there’re some people terrified of the bomb. but there are other people terrified t’ be seen carrying a modern screen magazine. experience teaches that silence terrifies people the most . . . i am convinced that all souls have some superior t’ deal with/like the school system, an invisible circle of which no one can think without consulting someone/in the face of this, responsibility/security, success mean absolutely nothing. . . i would not want t’ be bach. mozart. tolstoy. joe hill. gertrude stein or james dean/they are all dead. the Great books’ve been written. the Great sayings have all been said/I am about t’ sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. though I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. i do know that we’re all gonna die someday an’ that no death has ever stopped the world. my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/ divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness — seen at times through dark sunglasses an’ other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself/i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some
people say that i am a poet

(end of pause)

an’ so i answer my recording engineer “yes. well i could use some help in getting this wall in the plane”


Rock’s darkest day

I don’t do my Creative Loafing  book blog anymore and had to cut back to 2-3 newspaper book reviews a year for the Boston Globe or the Tampa Bay Times.

But that doesn’t mean I read any less and have lost the desire to share news of a good book.

So this — a brief word of praise for Altamont by Joel Selvin.

It is a thoroughly engrossing account of what the subtitle calls ‘Rock’s Darkest Day.’ If you believe in a Higher Being and the concept of Heaven and Hell, then this is a preview of coming attractions should you think you are headed to the latter.

Three-hundred thousand people, fucked up on various combinations of acid, amphetamines and booze, cram into a small space and many get the shit beat out of them by Hells Angels as some of the best bands of the day (Burrito Bros., Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby etc. and the Rolling Stones) try to perform.

It’s a  wonderful book about a horrifying day.

About two years ago, Selvin wrote another great book – Here Comes the Night – about Bert Berns, one of the under-sung behind-the-scenes guys in rock (he wrote ‘Twist and Shout’ and many others).

Anyway:  earns 37 thumbs up, my highest praise.


The saga of Sid and Susie

Susanna Hoffs and (Sidney) Matthew Sweet

I’m Facebook Friends with a fellow named Kevin Lynn. Never met him, never talked to him. All of our communication has been through this forum. He’s a flesh-and-blood friend (high school classmate, I believe) of my old pal Ruth Baxter. A few years ago, Kevin and I became Facebook Friends. I soon learned that Kevin is a good dad, has shitty taste in baseball teams (hey, fuck the Yankees), but excellent taste in music.

Susana Hoffs in her Bangles days — perhaps the sexiest human being on earth

A couple of days ago, Kevin commented on one of my posts and suggested I track down the Sid’n’Susie recordings. I immediately listened to a couple of tunes online, loved them, then found a four-disc box set online and, without hesitation, ordered it.

(And yes. I still like discs. I like — nay, need — packaging. I need to know who wrote what, who played what, who produced it, who engineered it, who did the song first … and historical background. The box set has a book with interviews, credits … just the way things used to be before digital downloads caused such magnificently produced products to fall into disrepute by becoming mere bytes out of context. Good God! Respect the music! Respect the artists! Buy the music in tangible form!) 

Ah, but I digress.

The “Sid’n’Susie” recordings are by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, two great rock / power-pop voices. Listening to the Under the Covers discs is like sitting on the living room floor, watching them flip through three decades of 45 rpms and reimagining the songs as their own.

Let’s try this one, let’s try this one.

Matthew Sweet plays most of the instruments, but they invite a few people to help them out, including Steve Howe, Dhani Harrison, Lindsay Buckingham and Van Dyke Parks.) Matthew and Susanna sound great together. What beautiful voices.

And what a spectrum of artists they cover: Bob Dylan, Bread, the Grateful Dead, Badfinger, the Ramones, the Clash, the Mamas & the Papas, the Pretenders, the Who, the Beach Boys … wow!

I’m pleased to report they do one of my all-time favorite songs, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” by Marshall Crenshaw. For more fun, listen to “The Kids are Alright” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.” (Click on those links to hear samples.)

A very young Matthew Sweet. Had his testicles even descended?

It should come as no surprise that they have excellent taste in music. I’ve always taken pride in my music library, so I love the reworkings of some of my old favorites. And they even do a few songs that I somehow missed.

Speaking of missing: How did I miss this? How far have I fallen out of the world to have not known of the Sid’n’Susie recordings? Having found them, my life is complete.

 Which brings me back to Facebook: Thanks, Kevin, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. Thanks for letting me know about these wonderful recordings.

I’m passing it on. (Insert big thumbs up here)

Track listing

Under the Covers by Sid ‘n’ Susie

Disc 1 (The Sixties)
1. I See the Rain
2. And Your Bird Can Sing
3. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
4. Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
5. Cinnamon Girl
6. Alone Again
7. The Warmth of the Sun
8. Different Drum
9. The Kids Are Alright
10. Sunday Morning
11. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
12. Care of Cell 44
13. Monday, Monday
15. Run to Me
16. Village Green Preservation Society
17. I Can See for Miles

Disc 2 (The Seventies, Part 1)
1. Sugar Magnolia
2. Go All the Way
3. Second Hand News
4. Bell Bottom Blues
5. All the Young Dudes
6. You’re So Vain
7. Here Comes My Girl
8. I’ve Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People
9. Hello It’s Me
10. Willin’
11. Back of a Car
12. Couldn’t I Just Tell You
13. Gimme Some Truth
14. Maggie May
15. Everything I Own
16. Beware of Darkness

Disc 3 (The Seventies, Part 2)
1. Dreaming
2. Marquee Moon
3. I Wanna Be Sedated
4. Baby Blue
5. You Say You Don’t Love Me
6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
7. You Can Close Your Eyes
8. Melissa
9. Killer Queen
10. A Song for You

Disc 4 (The Eighties)
1. Sitting Still
2. Girls Talk
3. Big Brown Eyes
4. Kid
5. Free Fallin’
6. Save It for Later
7. They Don’t Know
8. The Bulrushes
9. Our Lips Are Sealed
10. How Soon Is Now
11. More Than This
12. Towers of London
13. Killing Moon
14. Trouble
15. Train in Vain
16. You’re My Favorite Waste of Time
17. I Would Die 4 U