Archive for the ‘Music’ category

Remembering Michael Dahlquist

July 14th, 2015

Ten years ago today, we lost Michael Dahlquist. He was, in my opinion, the greatest rock drummer on the planet. He was also just a goddamn nice guy.

Michael was the drummer for Silkworm. If you know me then you know how I feel: Silkworm was the single greatest American rock band of all time. I consider only the Beatles to be greater.

Upon his passing, I remember an article in which Tim was asked if Silkworm would continue. The answer was: “He’s irreplaceable.” It is a testament to what kind of guys they are that rather than continuing the band, Tim and Andy formed a different band together and retired all of the Silkworm songs. Michael didn’t write most of those songs. They didn’t have to do that.

I saw Silkworm 9 times. This is even though, as of the time I first saw them in 1997, they were no longer a persistently touring band. They’d all moved to Chicago by 2005, but I hadn’t. Every single time I saw them it took at least two hours to get there.

Michael seemed like a very tall man. I don’t think he was actually all that tall, but he was thin, lanky. He’d usually take his shirt off while playing since he’d get so sweaty. And he played with gardening gloves on. There was no blatantly intended comedy in any of this, and yet here was a power trio, co-fronted by two straight-laced, serious rock guitarists, and the guy behind the kit was wearing just shorts and sneakers and a beard and gardening gloves, and he was tearing the shit out of it all.

Look. I’m not an expert on drumming. Don’t take my word for it. Read the tribute written 10 years ago by Steve Albini. Here, I’ll provide the link. But don’t click it yet. Let me finish up first.

Silkworm never sold a ton of records. They were not rock stars. And it’s been 10 years now, so it’s that much less likely that people are familiar with their discography.

If you give a good goddamn about rock and roll, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted, not only with the extensive back catalog, but also what Tim and Andy are still doing today.

Start with these:

“Bourbon Beard” from Italian Platinum, one of the few songs Michael sings on:

“Nerves” from Firewater, the opening track from the band’s first album as a trio:

“Dremate” from In The West, back when they were a four piece:

The Night I Saw B.B. King

May 15th, 2015

I can’t say anything more profound than what scores of better-equipped people have already said about the passing of B.B. King. Flags should be at half-staff and this should be the lead story everywhere. But the eulogizing is best left to others.

Instead, I will tell the story of the night I saw B.B. King. In retrospect, having seen hundreds of concerts over the course of my life, it might just be that seeing B.B. was the absolute weirdest one of them all.

It was a Friday night in Beloit, Wisconsin in June 1993.

I had spent the week at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, attending something called the World Affairs Seminar. It was nominally a bunch of people like me, high school students entering their senior year, gathering to learn about, you know, world affairs. Among other things the week consisted of:

  • A Mexican trade representative extolling the virtues of a then-current proposal called NAFTA.
  • A walk to the only known record store in the city – Wal-Mart – at which time I bought a copy of Dream Police. On cassette.
  • Hanging out in a laundry room with a cute girl who lived in Mount Morris!
  • Watching the Bulls-Suns NBA Finals in a large dorm lounge with many people but most prominently a self-identified Mavericks fan from New Hampshire who was the only person in the room rooting for the Suns.
  • The burning of a Canadian flag.

In other words, it was a completely normal week.

That Friday afternoon, my dad picked me up from the campus and we drove down to Beloit. We were going to Riverfest, or whatever exactly the fest on the river is/was called. We were going to see B.B. King. And also Blue Öyster Cult. Because that’s what would logically happen in Beloit in 1993.

And so okay, we got to Beloit, and I really don’t remember anything of what happened between Whitewater and when B.B. took the stage. I sort of doubt anything too notable happened. If I forgot any kind of highly important life message imparted to me during that drive, Dad, I apologize.

B.B. took the stage. We didn’t know going in, but it turned out that he was touring with his boogie band, not his strict blues band. There were a lot of Hawaiian shirts being worn on stage.

I specifically remember that the bassist was a very uncool looking white guy playing a square bass. And every time anybody else would do a little solo, B.B. would put his hand to his ear and peer over at the soloist. His hands were immense. When he would put his hands to his ears it looked unreal. In retrospect, the word that comes to mind is Ferengi.

Now, I was 16 at the time. I didn’t totally understand the distinction between him hauling out his boogie band as opposed to his blues band, even though I tended to listen to the blues show on WXRX (the X!) every weekend, and even though I’d seen other blues luminaries previously. I mean, I did understand the distinction. Just not totally. It was all kind of weird to me.

And then somewhere along the way it started raining. And then raining kind of heavily. It wasn’t cold out per se, but after a while, wow, it was cold. And it being a Friday in late June, nobody had any jackets.

Now at one point, B.B. went to take his pick and throw it out into the audience. Okay, fair enough. It landed somewhere in what was becoming a soft mud lawn and a couple of people lunged for it.

But then somebody on stage and went up to B.B. and handed him many picks. In my mind it was a total crapload of picks. He flung them all. And some people went crazy. In particular I remember a couple of women near me freaking out and diving for picks and bumping into people and since we were all wet and cold it made me even more cold and it was ridiculous.

I’ve been to other shows in the rain – though I don’t remember that much rain. I’ve stood in the mud – though I don’t remember anybody diving through the mud. I’ve seen other outright legends – though I don’t remember them wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Eventually the set ended. And, absurd as this seems in retrospect, we were like, well, is Blue Öyster Cult going to play now?

We walked to the other stage and nothing much was happening. Chants erupted:


“Blue Öyster Cult! Blue Öyster Cult!”

And my favorite:

“Fuck the rain! Fuck the rain!”

It was all to no avail. The stage was too wet. Blue Öyster Cult would not appear.

It was okay, though. I managed to see them a few months later at the MetroCentre with Nazareth, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash. Andrew and I went. We saw our Spanish teacher there. The next day, Señor commented about how odd it was that Nazareth tried to get the crowd to sing along with “My White Bicycle”. He was right.

Anyway, since Blue Öyster Cult did not come out on stage that night, my dad and I got in the car and went back home to Winnebago.

I think that I was intentionally in Beloit once since that night. I’ve had to drive around it and maybe stopped there for gas. But I do remember winding up at of all things a ska show in Beloit some time during my senior year. MU330! Buck-O-Nine! Gangster Fun! But I have not been back since. I mean… it’s Beloit.

And I never got a chance to see B.B. again in a less absurd setting. I can sort of make a throw-off comment that I regret that, but really, wasn’t it fabulous to see an icon in the rain in the armpit of Wisconsin? Why would I want an experience like that to be diluted in my memory?

As for other things, I talked on the phone a couple of times with the cute girl from Mount Morris, but for some reason we never actually hooked up, probably because I was 16 and had no idea what the hell I was doing. The Bulls beat the Suns in 6 games. I specifically remember listening to “Gonna Raise Hell” right before getting out of the bus in Oglesby before the regional math tournament. Also, NAFTA passed.

All of this is a long way of saying: Rest in peace, B.B. King. Thank you for the rain and the picks and the boogie. But mostly, thank you for the blues.

Being Phil

November 16th, 2011

We finally saw the Phil Ochs documentary tonight. I recommend it, but I recommend it from the perspective of having read all of the biographies, and I encourage people to read the biographies too.

Phil, in my mind, was the quintessential actor of the Sixties. For what it’s worth, historians think of “the Sixties” as either 1961 or 1963 through about 1975 – you pick either JFK’s inauguration or JFK’s assassination as the starting point, and the end in Vietnam as the end. Phil, who wound up in New York in 1961, and who died in 1976, pretty much fits the era exactly. He rose and fall as the era rose and fell. In this respect, I’ve always found him to be a more fascinating figure than, say, Bob Dylan, who was always more of an iconoclast, someone who was (and still is) fascinating for ahistorical reasons.

Phil died in April 1976. I was named after him (or at least, the genesis of my name came from him) seven months later. He was 35 when he died. I’m 35 now.

One thing the documentary brought up, which I think is very important but easy to lose sight of, is something Sean Penn addressed in talking about Phil’s outlook on the war: the idea that no matter how horrific Vietnam was, it was more ridiculous than it was horrific. The terror, the tragedy, the destruction – and all of it had no real point. That distinction, that understanding, it’s an important one for me as well. The gubernatorial races in 2006 and 2010 are best understood as these utterly ridiculous fragments, things that don’t really make a lot of sense and which need to be adapted to.

I think if I got caught up in the horror of existence without being able to step back and regard the sheer absurdity of it all, it would just drag me down. And I think what happened to Phil and to the Sixties more broadly is that people couldn’t help but get caught up in and dragged down by the horror. It’s the absurdity which is easier to fight than the horror. The horror makes you despondent. The absurdity makes you feel capable. It’s a hard thing to explain. But I think complacency comes when you accept the absurd, and despondency comes when you get caught up in the horror, and I don’t want to be complacent or despondent.

I wish I knew others who had read the biographies and seen the documentary. These are things I’d like to talk about, but I feel like I’ll inevitably do all of the talking.

here come the painbirds

March 17th, 2010

Somehow a week, almost two, went by before I heard about Mark Linkous. Here is the incredibly short version: Mark Linkous fronted/was Sparklehorse. He was, at his best, on a level almost with practically nobody else. And he apparently went outside, sat down, and shot himself in the chest with a rifle on March 6.

Three months ago, Vic Chesnutt did just about the same thing. Vic was also one of the great ones. I really wanted to say a lot about it, write a lot about it, and I guess I just never did. I never really could figure out what to say. I guess I’m mentioning Vic now as a way of apologizing for not having said what I should have said before, even though I still don’t know what that was.

I feel a little better equipped to talk about Mark Linkous, for a few reasons, including that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen him, and because I feel like I can much more directly explain where and when and why he mattered most to me.

The first Sparklehorse album was Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. It came out some time in 1995 but damned if I know when. There was a minor hit from it in “Someday I Will Treat You Good”, which managed to get airplay a couple of times on 120 Minutes, which we watched fairly religiously, at least in so much that freshman in college do anything religiously. I don’t really remember what the reason was, but at some point in 1995, or at least I think it was 1995, maybe at the beginning of the summer, I was with my dad, and we were going into Evanston, or at least into somewhere near Evanston, and we stopped at a record store, and they were selling Vivadixie with a free t-shirt to go with! So that’s when and where I got that album.

I listened to it fairly frequently over time. “Someday I Will Treat You Good” and “Rainmaker” were frequent plays over time on my radio show (GOAT-SPIEL for those of you who don’t know). Honestly, the album didn’t sound like anyone or anything else. In fact, it made almost no sense at all that this recording existed like this. Inexplicably, it was released on a major label (Capitol), even though half of the songs sounded like they were recorded in caverns, and the entire album was basically conceived by and recorded by Linkous; I’m not even sure there were any other musicians on the album. I’ve seen some strange words used to describe the sound, like “psych-folk”, but really, it’s a pop-rock album, sort of schizophrenic, sort of reminiscent of some of Tobin Sprout’s songs for Guided By Voices, but the recording itself has this completely different quality to it. A lot of the album really sounds like context to the parts of the album which we’re supposed to listen to most closely, if that makes sense.

It took a long time for the second album to come out, because Linkous managed to almost kill himself along the way. Technically the report is that he was officially dead for two minutes, stemming from some mixture of chemicals/drinks/prescriptions/whatnot. This all happened while I was in college, during a time when all kinds of tastes and interests come and go, where the pantheon of greatness expands beyond any point which makes any sense. Over that time I managed to find crazy 7″s – not that I owned a turntable to play them on – and in general I would say that I was very pumped about Good Morning Spider finally coming out. That Linkous almost died along the way just added to the mystique.

I’ve long held two critiques of Good Morning Spider, the two things which I think keep the album from being considered one of the pinnacle, greatest albums ever recorded. First, it’s simply too long, and it loses steam toward the end. Second, I still really do not so much care for “Sick of Goodbyes”, which screams of David Lowery being involved. If if there were just something else there, then the first half would be just about perfect.

Having said that: Good Morning Spider is a masterwork. It’s an incredible album in a lot of ways. There’s an actual band backing Linkous on much of it (though not all of it), and it provides a lushness to what otherwise seems almost too stark to handle.

The album starts off with a noisy, pissy mess in “Pig”, which features one of the greatest pair of lines in rock history:

I want to be a stupid-ass shallow motherfucker now
I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I don’t know how

Then the song ends, and the next song, “Painbirds”, is completely the other direction. In some ways it feels even more defiant, like it doesn’t want to be treated as the fragile, delicate thing that it is. The combination basically demands that the listener pay attention to what’s going on, because the tone, the sound, and the melody can be almost completely misleading. Remember, this is the album recorded in the wake of the man almost dying.

Now, here’s the story as I understand it. Capitol wanted to release a single, so they picked the obvious choice – the catchiest song, the biggest rock song on the album. And Linkous was adamantly opposed to this being the single – so much so that he literally destroyed the song by overdubbing it with radio static and turning it into this amazingly fucked up song-within-something-else in the middle of the record. On top of that, he took the original recording and mangled or destroyed it outright, so it couldn’t be reissued separately. Capitol wound up going with “Sick of Goodbyes” as the single. Although there was some very strange attempt to salvage “Happy Man” which did get reproduced on some weird promotional EP – and which in and of itself is really quite an amazing recording – the final result would up being the centerpiece of the record, and what I still feel is one of the ten indispensable songs ever recorded.

“Chaos of the Galaxy / Happy Man” manages to be transcendent because the power of the song itself is refunneled into a different medium altogether. I realize this doesn’t make any sense, but it’s hard to explain why what he did actually works. It’s a variation on the idea of trying to tune something in on the radio, and getting static along the way, in that buried in the static seems to be something more cosmic. It’s not like the radio band is being scanned, it’s like the galaxy itself is being scanned, and in the middle of it is this man desperate to be happy, with that desperation somehow coming off as some sort of representational statement of the galaxy.

Linkous put together a tour, and I managed to see Sparklehorse, with Varnaline opening, in Cleveland, at the Grog Shop. This was one of the ten best concerts I’ve ever seen. It was the best Varnaline set I think I ever saw, and Sparklehorse was really incredible. Linkous had to work leg braces from his accident – he’d nearly died, and in the aftermath came out somewhat crippled – and he still fronted what proved to be this tight band really just pouring themselves out. He used two microphones – one normal, one distorted – something I’ve never seen before, and have never actually seen since.

It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 2001. There are moments I really like – “Piano Fire” is a duet with PJ Harvey, and you can never go wrong with that. I have to confess that it never really grabbed me, though. It wasn’t really a great time for me to be listening to music and making sense out of any of it, maybe. It just sort of got consigned to the shelf, rarely to come off. When the followup, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, finally came out in 2006, I bought it almost dutifully. I’m not even sure I can tell you anything much about it, except that Danger Mouse was somehow involved.

The first two Sparklehorse albums remain important albums in my collection, though, and whatever distance there might have been between my ear and whatever Mark Linkous has done the last few years, it is really a jolt to find out that another important voice in my life saw fit to off himself. Vic and Mark, of course, had a lot in common – they were both Southerners with weird musical sensibilities, Vic being crippled and Mark having been somewhat crippled for quite a while, Vic having appeared on two Sparklehorse records. They actually seem to share a lot with a third musical icon, David Berman. Thankfully, Dave didn’t use a gun, so he’s still alive.

At times like this I really feel like I got off track at some point. Even when I was at my most depressed, the primal presence of music – and new music for that matter – was this vital, incredibly important aspect of living. It just doesn’t seem right to me that I would have lost that. It makes deaths like Mark’s and Vic’s feel almost like warnings to me. I don’t mean that in the overly stark sense it might seem. But I still mean it. I wish I knew what I meant when I say that I mean it.