Friday, February 23, 2007

"And I'll raze your faith until the vein is done and dry..."

I ventured out into the cold last night to let the exquisite Richard Buckner warm my soul at Southgate House. CR wasn’t interested in seeing him and doesn’t really know his music, so I went by myself. It was a weird experience to sit on my own the entire night with only a bottle of beer for company, but it didn’t make the show any less magical. I once was lost but now am found.

This is the third time I’ve seen him perform live, and each time has been a unique, rewarding experience. The first time I saw him he was still signed to MCA and was touring for Since. I cajoled Gazbot into going to Canal Street Tavern with me—even though he knew nothing about Buckner at the time-- and he was not disappointed. Neither was I, especially when he wandered by before the show and I went up and chatted with him. Now I’ll be the first to admit that he looks a bit intimidating and scary. He has a somewhat haunted look about him much of the time, and photographs only serve to enhance that somber, ominous appearance, but as we chatted his face broke out into a wide, glorious grin that completely brightened his entire being. Richard Buckner may not smile too often, but when he does, it will light up the darkest night; melt the coldest heart.

He had a lot to smile about back then. His album was getting decent airplay; his shows were well attended; he was garnering heaps of critical acclaim and was happily married to wife Penny, who accompanied him on drums.

When I saw him a year or two later, Penny had disappeared--the marriage over--and Buckner was achingly alone and spookily menacing on the Canal Street stage. He opened a suitcase full of noise and proceeded to turn all his beautiful ballads into screeching walls of feedback, and remade his up-tempo, jangly songs into funeral dirges. It felt as though he was exorcizing ghosts, and perhaps he was. I admit that my head hurt upon leaving the club, partly because I wasn’t ready for the noise, and partly because I couldn’t fathom the change.

Last night was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him with a full band, as opening act Six Parts Seven sat in with him during the first half of the show. Theirs is a languid, shimmery sound, replete with a rippling organ, plucky banjo, bright trumpet (and on one song, a tuba!!), and a bassist who strums the instrument as one would a guitar, which resonated the club with a deep, rich mellowness. While they were on stage I noticed Buckner—a bit heavier, hairier, and grayer,--setting up his musical wares over in the opposite corner of the club. He’s grown a big, bushy beard since the last time I saw him, a cross between Grizzly Adams and an uneasy Jesus. I went over and thanked him for continuing to put out such lovely, sublime work, and the grin he unfurled my way dazzled to such a degree that I was sure the Rapture was at hand. The clarion call of the trumpet on stage only heightened the surreal, holy incident, and I scuttled away, cowering like a devil from the shadow of grace.

Buckner is a true lonesome troubadour. He doesn’t interact with the audience at all once he is on stage. He seems to go into a trancelike state: nothing else exists outside of a resonating voice and a couple of guitars. His eyes burn with a forlorn intensity; sadness and rage an onion skin from the surface. His songs meld seamlessly, a trick he first employed on 2000’s The Hill, with an effects pedal echoing as he tunes and retunes his way around the fret board. Then his whisky-soaked, ragged voice rings out with such heartbreaking clarity that the audience is transfixed, unable to take their eyes from the stage, afraid to move, afraid to applaud, afraid to breathe, lest it break the spell. It is transcendent.

Let the evangelicals have Jesus. I’ve already willingly accepted Richard Buckner as my one true lord and savior. Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Today I made you a mix tape, and decorated it with lots of stars..."

Title: Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Author: Rob Sheffield
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 978-0-307-35157-9 (0-307-35157-2)

For those of us who came of age prior to the digital revolution, mix tapes were our ultimate musical expression. Sure, technology has advanced to the point that creating a mix today is as easy as shuffling some songs on an iPod. But where is the soul in that? Even mix CDs leave something to be desired, because the creator is simply pulling a group of songs from a database and tweaking the running order before hitting the “burn” button. I guess one could argue the same about mix tapes, but tapes by their very nature are more physical. Making a mix tape takes time—the creator has to actively listen to each song as it is recorded, and oftentimes the very act of listening to a song inspires the follow-up song. The format demands your time and attention. It is easy to get lost for hours whilst creating a mix tape, for it isn’t an instant gratification arrangement, as any of us who sat in our rooms with albums scattered across the floor and our fingers on the pause button, can attest.

And although many of the themes are easily recognizable for seasoned mixers, (the road tape, the you-broke-my-heart-and-made-me-cry tape, the good-songs-from-bad-albums tape) Rob Sheffield’s book is not about making the perfect mix and all the subtle nuances that go with the territory. And while there are those that might argue the point, there are no hard and fast rules for making mixes. There are some who will insist that it is in bad form to put the same artist on a mix twice. Those types might also argue that Whitney Houston has no business sidling up next to L7, and that female singers should never be placed back-to-back, but you know what? The true beauty of mix tapes is that there are millions of songs out there, and infinite combinations in which to mix them. Mixes are highly subjective and intensely personal. So quash that inner music snob. It has no business ruining this beautifully poignant memoir.

The story begins with the discovery of a mix tape dating back to 1993. It has no track listing, but the author recognizes the curly, girlie scribble of the handwriting on its title and knows he’s in for another long night. As the hours roll by, he replays the cassette the girl created, releasing her ghost and letting each song guide his memory. "All these tunes remind me of her now. It's like that old song "88 Lines About 44 Women," only it's 8844 lines about one woman. We've done this before. We get together sometimes, in the dark, share a few songs. It's the closest we'll get to hearing each other's voices tonight."

Who among us hasn’t stumbled upon an old mix and given it another listen, just for old time’s sake? And are there any who haven’t been transported back to a certain place and time with the opening strands of a half-forgotten song? For Sheffield, the songs all circle back to Renée, the fun-loving, hell-raising Appalachian punk rocker who, in the short time they were together, coaxed him from his shy, hermetic existence, and got him “all tangled up” in her “noisy, juicy, sparkly life.”

Each chapter introduces another mix tape, from the Radio Mixes created as a spotty ‘70’s kid immersed in Top 40 radio, to college mixes, to those found after Sheffield became a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Along the way myriad friends, school mates, neighbors, and ex-girlfriends are brought vividly into focus via the power of music-provoked memories, none moreso than the lovingly detailed, bittersweet reminiscences of the effervescent Renée.

It was the music on those mix tapes that brought Sheffield and his muse together, encouraged their romance, and kept them together though they were worlds apart. He was a “shy, skinny, Irish-Catholic kid from Boston,” and she southern born and bred, “warm and loud and impulsive.” He fell hard for her: "I thought, there is nowhere else in the universe I would rather be at this moment. I could count the places I would not rather be. I've always wanted to see New Zealand, but I'd rather be here. The majestic ruins of Machu Picchu? I'd rather be here. A hillside in Cuenca, Spain, sipping coffee and watching leaves fall? Not even close. There is nowhere else I could imagine wanting to be besides right here in this car, with this girl, on this road, listening to this song. If she breaks my heart, no matter what hell she puts me through, I can say it was worth it, just because of right now. Out the window is a blur and all I can really hear is this girl's hair flapping in the wind, and maybe if we drive fast enough the universe will lose track of us and forget to stick us somewhere else."

The mixes find him chasing phantoms, however, for all the greatest love stories are tinged with tragedy, and theirs is no exception. Not only does he chronicle the music that brought them together, but also the music that held him together when the rest of his world fell apart. Renée’s presence looms large on each page and every song, while he struggles to relearn how to listen, because the music they shared together just isn’t the same when half of him is missing.

“Love is a Mix Tape” is a beautifully written, honest and heartbreaking reflection of life, and loss, one song at a time.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Through the darkness we still speed, my white bicycle & me

Title: “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s”
Author: Joe Boyd
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (4 May 2006) (UK only)
ISBN: 1852429100

Reviewed for Randomville

When I heard that Joe Boyd was writing a memoir I was immediately intrigued. The co-founder of London’s short-lived but heavily influential UFO Club, Boyd was right in the thick of the 60’s cultural revolution, giving UK underground bands like Tomorrow, Soft Machine, Procol Harem and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown their big break. The UFO Club is probably best known, however, for their revolutionary light shows and for booking Pink Floyd at all-night concerts called “Night Trippers,” and where Syd Barrett had his on-stage complete mental breakdown.

Boyd started off his career as a concert promoter while still a student at Harvard University, promoting blues artists. Eventually landing himself a position as road manager for a traveling blues show, he first visited England in 1964 and moved there full time the following year to establish an overseas office for Elektra Records. Although Boyd was in the midst of the psychedelic 60’s, his real passion was folk and blues, and he became one of the major movers ’n shakers of the British folk scene. He was there when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival and was, in fact, one of the contributing factors in Dylan’s decision. He founded Witchseason Records and signed a multitude of talent, including Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. His deft production of Drake’s Five Leaves Left album is what originally drew me to seek out more of Boyd’s production work, which includes R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction and Billy Bragg’s Worker’s Playtime, and his mentor status with Drake (chronicled in the Nick Drake biography by Patrick Humphries) made wanting to read his own account very appealing to me.

He’s got all the makings for a fabulous story and the book “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s” should be a real page-turner. But for all his production acumen and wildly interesting life, Joe Boyd is simply not a very good writer. There is no chronology to the book—he skips and jumps all over place and time, which tends to make for a dreadfully disjointed read. Nor are there any real revelations in the book. He leaves juicy vignettes dangling all over the place but rarely comes through with the full, meaty story. I understand that perhaps he is simply being discreet due to the nature of his allegiance to so many artists, but the reader is left with the feeling that there is a whole lot more Boyd could be telling us, in his own incoherent way.

The book’s title takes its name from a song by UFO Club mainstay Tomorrow, in which lead singer Keith West recounts the glories of the free transportation Amsterdam’s white bicycles afforded in the halcyon summer of 1964. Much like the White Bicycle Plan, which collapsed within months of its inception due to rampant theft, Boyd’s book is filled with lofty ideals and goals, but leaves the reader feeling robbed and sorely disappointed.