Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman RIP

Say what you will about it, the man's invention has been inextricably bound with pop culture for more than 40 years. I'm of the opinion that rock 'n' roll would have ultimately lost all potency and power without it. Feel free to disagree. For me, Dr. Hoffman, thank you for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Brown, Love, Skip Spence, Syd Barrett, Black Flag, The Meat Puppets, Brian Wilson, etc., etc., etc. They may not have all made it through intact, but what they made while they were was some truly genius shit.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Texas Showdown and the De-Austinification of Austin

Austin American Statesman writer John Kelso writes in his April 20th, 2008 article ( that he's sick of old Austinites "crabbing about Austin losing its long-standing traditions". He lists defining Austin institutions that have been forced out by rising rents/development - "Liberty Lunch, Steamboat, Chances, Club Cairo, the Black Cat Lounge, the Electric Lounge, and next month, the Texas Showdown Saloon". He goes on to say, "...I'm afraid most new Austinites don't really care if the old Austin is taking a hike. And why should they? If you didn't see Stevie Ray Vaughan play at Hut's, how would you know what you missed?"

Here's why.

Austin has maintained itself as hub of cultural oddity for as long as any long time resident can remember. My history here being filtered through alternative culture/punk rock I can say with confidence that no other city in the US could have produced bands like The Big Boys, The Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, or The Hickoids. Name another band in the 1960's that sounded anything like The 13th Floor Elevators. Or The Sir Douglas Quintet (technically from San Antonio, but I feel pretty secure in including them here).

I remember a time when one could walk down Guadalupe St. perusing amusing, absurd, offensive, and pretentiously artistic band flyers while passing unique, independently owned businesses serving one's needs for clothing, coffee, books, food, records, art, or general wierdness. It was a reputation for such that made Austin a destination to begin with, and the fact that newcomers "didn't see Stevie Ray Vaughn play at Hut's" has no bearing on the fact that the soul of this city is being sucked out of it.

Here's a list of defunct businesses that were located on or near Guadalupe either overlooked or forgotten in the sparse media coverage of the closing of The Texas Showdown.

Mad Dogs & Beans - Just off Guad on 24th St., this tumbledown shack of a burger joint served some of the best and cheapest artery clogging chow in the city. They also served beer to wash it down. Sometimes they had free punk rock shows in the parking lot with free beer.

The Varsity Theatre - I've read a couple of laments of the closing of Tower Records, a CD/Video superstore that was an attempt at corporate expansion originating from the first Tower Records in Los Angeles. I was glad to see it go, for no small reason that it occupied the space where The Varsity had stood. Cheap art house cinema in a cool old theatre right on the drag. What could be better? Certainly not Tower fucking Records.

Les Amis - A small, dark cafe' behind The Varsity on 24th serving vegetarian fare, good wine, a decent selection of beer, and a completely unique ambience. One of my favorite places to study.

Inner Sanctum Records - A basement record store crammed to the ceiling with vinyl of all kinds, and a proprieter who knew where you could find any specific one.

The Cadeau - Crazy ass clothing and accessories for queens, freaks, or anybody else that didn't consider tan bermuda shorts, a frat t-shirt and a ball cap fashion.

Quackenbush's - Fuck you, Seattle - this was a real coffee shop. Studying on their clautrophobic patio drinking double cappucino's, adding to the haze in the air chain smoking Silk Cuts, and watching two UT professors continue a glacial chess game that's been going on for months is not an experience one can replicate at a Starbucks. The book store next door, also now gone, the name of which I sadly can't remember, was awesome too.

Sound Exchange - THE punk rock record store in Austin. New and used. In a pre-internet era it was the only place to find copies of magazines like Maximum Rock 'n' Roll so you had some idea of what the bands you liked were up to and what new bands were worth checking out. Daniel Johnston didn't paint that mural on the outside wall for whatever lame-ass shit hole is there now.

Technophilia - As much as we resisted the Compact Disc revolution, when it became inevitable this was the coolest place to find 'em, at least before hold out Sound Exchange gave in and started carrying them.

I'm certain there are more I'm missing. The Texas Showdown, a mainstay for 26 years and occupying the site that legendary punk club Raul's once occupied, is next on the chopping block. It's literally the last business on "The Drag" with any character at all, and I don't just say that because I've been drinking there for my entire adult life. As of May 25th it's history, that part of Austin history that newcomers apparently shouldn't care about, and it's literally the last place on Guadalupe worth a tinker's damn. Some might make a case for The Hole in the Wall, but the business operating in that location, in spite of carrying on the name, is a soulless franchised shell of what The Hole in the Wall really was.

Why should they care? This is ostensibly what they fucking came here for. The most insidious thing is that the developers and landlords are cleaning up replacing these beloved places with chain or chain subsidiary operations designed to look all Austiny and unique. Go check out the Triangle development and see for yourself.

Hope springs eternal with the Red River and North Loop districts hanging on, and thank God for that. It's just too bad there are "districts" at all - most of Austin used to look like this. I suppose I should give props to S. Congress as well, though there's something way too fabricated in its aspect for me to trust it entirely - "Hey! Look folks! Here's the wierd Austin you moved here for! All on these few blocks!". As for the venerable Emo's, I remember when it was an attempt at a chain like expansion originating in Houston, and its "No Cover! Ever!" policy put all the cool downtown punk clubs right out of business. Funny how quickly the "no cover" policy evaporated after that.

But back to Guadalupe St. and the closing of my favorite bar. Right now it's hard for me to give a damn that this bullshit is happening all over town because The Showdown's fall is hitting me where it hurts. I don't drink anymore for health reasons but I'm not perfect, and when I fall off the wagon that's where I do it. Or at least I will until May 25th.

The Broken Spoke. The Continental Club. The Horseshoe Lounge. La-La's Little Nugget. The Carousel Lounge. The Poodle Dog Lounge. Those are the last of the last, and I wouldn't lay bets that any of them except The Continental will be around in five years, so get ready to pony up a $20.00 cover and pay $5.00 a beer to get a taste of what Austin was like before it was replaced with a facsimile of itself.

I'd like to think those newcomers who aren't supposed to care will somehow be able to tell the difference, but no-one's ever accused me of being an optimist.

Drink up, Austin. You don't have to go home but you can't stay here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Danny Federici RIP

The only Springsteen stuff I like is the stuff he did without the E Street Band, and even that's pretty hit or miss. Still, this guy was with The Boss from day 1 and was one hell of a player. Give "Born to Run" a listen and that latter fact speaks louder than words.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Hickoids - 4/11/2008 - 3rd Annual Ram Jam - Sam's Burger Joint - San Antonio, TX

Every year since the tragic murders of Ram Ayala and Gypsy Doug Morgan (and the serious wounding of Denise Koger) at Ram’s legendary club Taco Land, promoter “Jukejoint” Jerry Clayworth and Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith have joined forces to continue to celebrate Ram’s birthday for the last three years. Jeff and Jerry do a remarkable job of billing bands that played the storied venue or, as is the case with my band, consist of several members who were in previous bands that played there. They recruit from little known bands, again like my own, to San Antonio legends such as The Sons of Hercules, a reunited Big Drag, and The Hickoids themselves.

If memory serves, and it does less so with every passing day, I first saw The Hickoids perform in 1987 at a Houston dive called The Axiom – one of two venues booking punk bands at that time. Having been raised on Elvis and outlaw country, rebelling into punk rock, and developing a powerful appreciation for the anarchic mayhem of The Butthole Surfers it was a fortuitous night from me. Finding out there was a band that incorporated all four blew my mind, and made such an indelible mark on me that The Hickoids remain one of my favorite bands to this day. I’ve been witness to breakups, acrimonious firings, amicable partings, and tragic losses amongst the members over the last 20+ years, and seen live Hickoids experiences ranging from the transcendent to the incomprehensible and had a blast every single God damn time. I even managed to make a Hole in the Wall gig mere days after being released from the hospital after a major surgery.

The current line-up of The Hickoids includes original members, the heart and soul of the band, Jeff Smith and Davy Jones, bass player Paul Harpel (who played bass for original Hickoids bassist Richard Hays’ final band The Country Giants before his untimely death), Scott Lutz of Snowbyrd on rhythm and pedal steel guitar, and an amazing drummer whose name I didn’t catch. There are as many opinions as there have been line-ups out there as to which one was the best (including my own), but that doesn’t change the fact that the current one is certainly up there in my book.

The band kicked things off with their by turns reverent/irreverent rendition of Doug Sahm’s “Texas Ranger Man” (similar in spirit to their pals The Loco Gringos interpretation) followed by their unarguable anthem “Brand New Way”. They seemed a little slow out of the gate for the first few minutes, but by the time they hit “Hee Haw” followed by “Green Acres” they were in perfect form. The addition of Scott Lutz’s distorted, deranged pedal steel playing adds considerably to their live sound and Paul Harpel’s bass meshes with the new drummer impeccably for a rock solid engine.

Then, you have frontman Jeff Smith’s stripper on acid stage routine, involving him stubbing out cigarettes in his crotch and wiggling his ass at the audience before slapping himself upright, punctuated by him strutting back and forth across the stage like a drunken tiger in some demented zoo. Davy Jones, in his 1970’s red and black plaid leisure suit, a cowboy hat that looks like it’s going to fall apart any second, and Chuck Taylors rips lead after paint peeling lead out his screeching guitar and traditional Marshall combo amp – a piece of equipment that has had more experiences than most human beings.

Smith quipped at one point “Y’all are here to listen to some good old country music. Let us know if you hear any.” You had the inspired “Turn me on, dead man!” followed immediately by the Hickoid takes on “Burning Love” and “Corn Foo Fighting” [sic], all this amongst most of their strongest songs, and even a new one – something to do with “whose gonna wear those hot pants” – a song that “only took 19 years to write”.

Some veteran fans of this band have been heard to argue that, since the band’s reformation a couple of years ago, their shows lack the spontaneity and combustibility (sometimes literally in the old days) of the shows of days gone by. While there may be some small merit in this opinion, in mine what The Hickoids might have lost a tiny bit of in that department they’ve more than made up for in dependability. You know they’ll show up, the show is going to be almost, if not quite, as anarchic as in the old days, and they’re going to rock the shit out of whatever venue happens to be hosting them.

That was certainly the case on the opening night of Ram Jam III.

Watch the listings for the next time The Hickoids are playing your town (sadly, this is unlikely to happen outside of Texas) and, especially if you’ve never had the pleasure, get your ass down to the show. It’s arguable if they invented the term “cowpunk”, but they sure as shit defined it.

Ram, I hope you’re making Jesus kiss that baby.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" (Anti Records 2008)

Throughout his career Nick Cave has deftly dodged any fan or media attempts to pigeon hole his music. Any time it appears that he’s settled into a consistent sound he changes gears and keeps us guessing at his true motivations and from where he’s drawing specific inspiration. From the aural assault of his earliest work with The Bad Seeds to the much mellower, more melodic piano ballads that came later and many other approaches in between, he’s always pulled it off to some degree and left a long list of sometimes relatively mediocre, sometimes stunningly brilliant records in his formidable wake. With Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have done it again.

Utterly unlike anything they’ve produced before, much of Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! sounds like it could have been included on one of the Nuggets collections of 60’s garage rock, including healthy doses of underground and even mainstream offerings from the same musical era. Trading piano and strings for distorted guitar and grinding Hammond organ there is a whole lot more straight up rock ‘n’ roll here than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have ever seemed interested in exploring.

The title track, which kicks off the record, gives immediate notice that things aren’t going to be the same. The song grooves, chunking dancily along behind a semi-spoken word vocal that’s lyrical story is strongly reminiscent of the Velvet Underground era Lou Reed. “Today’s Lesson” hits you next, and this is really where the 60’s garage band vibe kicks in – you can almost picture the band filmed in Technicolor, wearing psychedelic clothing, Cave himself bobbing his head and slapping a tambourine. “Albert Goes West” is a slab of raw power, with the music dropping down to emphasize the vocal on the chorus, only to kick back in with background vocal “ooohs” and “aaahs” and finally a “sha-la-la-la” outro. Very 1960’s.

The garage/underground element isn’t the whole story. Both “Night of the Lotus Eaters” and “Midnight Man” have a Doors thing going on, with the former taking on their more experimental side and the latter the more mainstream. The main difference being, of course, that Jim Morrison was an arrogant, narcissistic hack while Nick Cave is an actual writer. Not to mention the fact that The Bad Seeds are a much better band.

Speaking of writers, much is being made of “We Call Upon the Author”, musically something that could only come from the mind of a contemporary Nick Cave, as a humorous exercise in self-reflexivity. While I agree that there is certainly an element of this, especially in the verses so obviously about himself, it seems to me to be more of an indictment of fans and critics demanding of artists more that they’re willing or should be expected to give, be it in explaining their work or providing details of their personal life. It’s no secret that this has been a source of irritation for Cave throughout his career.

There are also moments that evoke the same feel as The Lyre of Orpheus, particularly with the return of strings and piano on “Jesus of the Moon”. Clumped toward the end of the album, these songs seem placed to reassure Nick Cave purists, at least those of his more recent work, that they haven’t been forgotten.

Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! closes with “More News From Nowhere”, an easy going jaunt that brings Warren Zevon immediately to mind and eases the listener out of a decidedly unpredictable experience.

While thrusting its influences into your face more than any previous Cave record, it’s that unpredictability that, in spite of this, makes Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! a quintessential Nick Cave album. While there may be less sonic darkness and disturbing imagery than we may have come to expect it’s still there, and there is a quality to Cave’s songwriting, style, and lyricism that no amount of tinkering with the type of delivery is going to obscure. Not only is it a quintessentially Nick Cave record, it’s very change in direction and unpredictability make it a great one.

As an afterthought, this record certainly seems to place the Grinderman release into a kind of context – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! to me gives it the feel of an out-take collection. Nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 4 Bad Seeds

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Charlton Heston RIP

Charlton Heston went to claim his eternal reward yesterday, Saturday, April 5th 2008, at the age of 84.

My favorite movies by him tend to fall into the Omega Man, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes cheese category, but he also did some brilliant turns in Touch of Evil (one of my all time favorite films), Dark City, and, of course, Ben-Hur. It seemed like he never turned down a role, starring in some capacity in roughly 100 films. That's loving what you do, folks. He may not have always been at his best, but he was always at it.

There is, of course, the uncomfortable issue of the reprehensible politics (depending on your point of view, I suppose) he espoused the last 30 years of his life. What a lot of people don't know is that, in his younger years he was a civil rights activist, gun control advocate, and was passionately opposed to The Vietnam War. Something happened in the years between 1972 and 1980 that turned him completely around, but we're likely to be left only with speculation.

It doesn't matter. The man could act the shit out of a part when he wanted to and let his powerful screen presence do all the work when he didn't. More than anything he should be remembered for that.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The B-52s - "Funplex" (Astralwerks 2008)

I’m a huge supporter of the avant-garde. All the way back to LautrĂ©amont I’m 100% behind what it’s trying to accomplish and find the honest practioners of it, in whatever medium, to be genius. Detractors constantly ask me, “How can you tell the difference between avant-garde and some crap somebody threw together?” Well, for me it’s an emotive thing – if whatever I’m looking at or listening to affects me on an emotional level it’s authentic. Opinions are like noses, though, right?

When I first heard “Rock Lobster” in 1985 or 1986 I fucking hated it. There was still enough small town Texan in me that something that weird couldn’t possibly have any value. Even after falling in love with the relentless weirdness of The Butthole Surfers “Rock Lobster” just sounded irritating to me. And you know what? It still does.

When I moved to Austin and became more cosmopolitan in an Austin kind of way I developed a greater and greater appreciation for avant-garde art forms, as one pretty much had to do if you wanted to hang out with anyone cool in those days, until I reached my current level of “sophistication”, ahem. I still didn’t like “Rock Lobster” and was indifferent to their further offerings like Wild Planet, Whammy!, and Bouncing off the Satellites (all recorded and released before I even knew they existed). I knew they were the real deal, though – I was driven to distraction by my older friends repeatedly and passionately insisting that a) I was too young to understand it, b) I had no idea what kind of impact a song that sounded like “Rock Lobster” had on the underground music scene when it was released, c) appreciating The B-52’s required a level of cultural sophistication I didn’t have and that if I didn’t admit “Rock Lobster” was brilliant I was never likely to reach, or d) I just had poor, one-dimensional musical taste. All of this may have had some merit. All I know is I quit getting shit when Cosmic Thing dropped in 1989.

Even though everyone I knew hated that record, it was a rare, good and lucky night if you didn’t have to listen to “Love Shack” at any parties you dropped in on. Usually you had to hear it at least twice at every single one of them. I really thought my opinion on The B-52’s was locked in for eternity at that point.

When I decided to review REM’s new one, which I didn’t expect to like, I figured I’d go ahead and do another venerable Athens, GA band’s new release that I didn’t expect to like and picked up Funplex.

“Pump”, the opening track, hit me like a punch in the mouth. A driving bass/drum combo with a little electronic noise over the top that kicks in with one badass garage guitar riff on the 8th measure. The lyrics are typically lascivious as hell, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson harmonize like angels when Pierson isn’t taking solo lead vocal, and Fred Schneider’s sprechgesang, one of my most consistent annoyances with this band, is actually well utilized and works. The trend continues for the next couple of songs – the B-52’s sound like a garage go-go band and it totally rocks. Immediately following the mellower, melancholy “Juliet of the Spirits”, album single “Funplex” hits like a bomb. A heavy, driving riff dropping straight off into a powerful Kate Pierson vocal makes for one killer, dynamic piece of work. Schneider shouts in the background, “Too much to do! It’s time for a pill!” – God knows I can relate to that. I was in love.

Unfortunately, that’s where the magic ends. The second half of the record is an unfocused, almost formulaic expedition into electronica. The B-52’s are certainly no strangers to this realm, which makes it all the more disappointing. The pop structures, the gorgeous harmonies, the lascivious lyrics are all there, but it is uninspired at best and downright boring at worst. The spark that so brilliantly lit the first half of Funplex is just gone.

There is a moment of redemption with “Keep This Party Going”, the closing track. That driving bass and badass guitar are back, overlaid with a super sultry Pierson vocal. The chorus is a terrific fist pumping chant and, all in all, it’s a pretty rocking way to finish off a record. It doesn’t save the doldrums of the rest of the second half, but at least that’s not all you’re left with.

Has my overall opinion of the B-52’s changed? Not entirely. I always suspected that there was a great band somewhere in there, and Funplex certainly proved it to me beyond a shadow of a doubt. Unfortunately they also gave equal time to all the reasons I haven’t liked them in the past – if that weren’t bad enough they didn’t even do it in an enthusiastic way.

I think B-52’s fans out there will be well pleased with this outing. They’re certainly not going to be as critical as I’ve been and likely a lot more forgiving. One thing I’ve never disagreed with is that The B-52’s are a good time, party band. They don’t stand to lose any of that cred with this record.

2 out of 4 beehives

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

REM - "Accelerate" (Warner Bros. 2008)

As you're probably aware, there's an immense amount of hype surrounding the release of this record. So why should an uppity little shit like me bother reviewing it? Well, see if you can make it to the bottom and maybe you'll understand.

In 1986 the only exposure I had had to REM was the video for "Can't Get There From Here" that had been rotating on MTV. I based an assumption that they were a lame new wave band from that song and video and had put them out of my mind with the heaps of other crap being released at the time. In early 1987 it so happened I was in a car with a friend of my girlfriend's brother waiting on somebody one night (don't ask). He popped in a cassette and one of the most searing, honest to God rock 'n' roll songs I had ever heard erupted from the speakers. "Who the fuck is this?" I asked my passing acquaintance. After looking at me like I was a clueless hick dressed up like a punk rocker (let's not explore that too deeply) he answered, "REM". The song was "Begin the Begin" and the album was Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS Records 1986). My opinion of the band changed immediately. I went out and bought everything by them. I had found music that wasn't punk rock but still was the very essence of rock 'n' roll. I only wished (and still do) that I had clued in earlier.

Document (IRS Records 1987) was released later that year and I was again knocked on my ass. This was American post punk. Fuck that - this was American rock 'n' roll combining the most admirable qualities of the music of The 60's and early 70's and updating it through the filter of punk and post punk. And it was from the USA, dammit. It left Springsteen and Johnny Cougar (or whatever the fuck he was calling himself back then) so far back in the dust you could neither see nor give a shit about them. Straight up American rock 'n' roll that didn't suck. In the 1980's. Saints forefend.

Then came the disappointment of Green (WEA 1988). To me, it was downhill from there. The spirit was gone. Michael Stipe's lyrics, always introspective, became self consciously introspective and maudlin. Peter Buck's by turns fiery and beautifully melodic guitar work seemed more and more an afterthought. The music kept getting mellower and more radio friendly. There was the well intentioned attempt to return to rock 'n' roll with 1994's lackluster Monster, but you could tell their hearts weren't in it. More mellow, boring records were to follow. The songs were formulaic and all sounded the same. I gave up. In my mind one of my favorite bands had faded away without even realizing it.

As I was wandering through a certain soulless corporate chain electronic gadgets store in search of a gift today I noticed the last copy of REM's latest, Accelerate, on the best seller rack. What the fuck?, I thought, I'll give it a shot for old time's sake.

I slid the CD into the player in my van not expecting much. What came blasting out of the speakers was one of the most searing, honest to God rock 'n' roll songs I've heard in a long time. Album launcher "Living Well is the Best Revenge" is not only the strongest album opener from REM since "Begin the Begin", it's one of the strongest album openers I can bring to recent memory. Any fears of formulaic repetition are dispelled with the following track, "Man-Sized Wreath" - vintage REM with a hooky verse broken up by some minor key audial weirdness turning around into an anthemic chorus. Track three - immediate guitar hook, great vocal melody, brilliant sing-along chorus.

This is the record that should have followed Document. It's got all the pop hooks, musical experimentalism, esoteric lyrics with a strongly political undertone, and dynamics to spare that characterized the classic years of REM. "Mr. Richards" is reminiscent of "Finest Worksong", building on its intrinsic droning construction, "Until the Day is Done" is mellow and overtly political, "Horse to Water" builds on the choppy verse - smooth, melodic chorus dynamic found in many REM songs and takes the prize for strongest track, "Houston" is odd in that fashion that is uniquely REM.

This might all smack of a nostalgia record - returning to a tried and true formula to shake things up and make some old fans happy. That isn't the case. This album displays a return to the spirit of classic REM, and while they certainly pull some familiar tricks out of the bag, this record sounds as fresh and contemporary as anything out there.

I know all this is much more specific that I tend to get with a record review, but hearing Accelerate was, for me, like finding out a friend you thought was dead is actually alive and well. He's just been missing for 20 years. I had consigned REM to a relic of my youth, and here they come, spinning my head around by proving they still have it in them to be one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands in the world.

Record labels typically generate hype to disguise the fact that they're releasing a weak product upon which they blew the bank. But occasionally, very occasionally, the hype is there because there's a fucking masterpiece worthy of it. I think you've got a pretty good idea of what I think. Go buy it and decide for yourself.

4 out of 4 fables