Sunday, February 19, 2017

Small Town: Swann Street


Here’s a band that never really was: Three was an offshoot of two DC bands, Minor Threat (drummer Jeff Nelson) and members of Grey Matter, with early involvement from Dischord Records creator and DC musical founding father, Ian MacKaye. Mackaye and Nelson had just recorded a legendary (in my town) two song project called Egg Hunt, and were looking to form something new. Sadly, Three never got off the ground, save for one album, a brilliant rock n roll album, far afield from the discordant, angry nue-punk we expect from Dischord, called Dark Days Coming.

On that album, which I heard first on vinyl, which places it in its own special category of my musical memories, is a song called Swann Street. Swann Street is anthemic in the very best ways, slow burning through a solo acoustic guitar opening before winding up full-on with tidal wave drums, Townshed-esque power chords, and a chorus meant to sung stadium-sized loud.

Despite the refrain to “keep your ear to the ground”, which is radio-worthy and demands a sing-along, there’s an odd, somewhat out of place line, …”these berries smell like shit/I don’t know why,” which places this song firmly in DC territory. The song is named after the street in Dupont Circle, Swann Street, where singer Steve Niles lived. The berries are a reference to the Gingko trees that line the streets of DC, especially in my old neighborhood of Dupont. Famous for dropping a particularly stinky berry, everyone in DC knows the springtime nightmare of stepping on a gingko berry and then carrying that sticky, jellied mess into their home, grinding it in the carpet—getting it out shoe tread is worse than dealing with dog poo. The smell of ginkgo permeates the city in spring and never fails to make one wonder: who the hell planted these trees? They had to know…

According to, where I had to turn to get a lot of this info, Three imploded before Dark Days Coming was released, but Grey Matter went on to release a number of seminal Dischord albums, and in 2008, at the Black Cat’s 15 Anniversary show, they performed a superb rendition. Hearing the audience singing along reminded me of both what a great song this is, but also how insular, in the best way, the DC music scene was (is).  This is a secret classic, and when I meet someone who knows this song, knows how great it is, there is an instant bond, in the way the great songs can bind us together.

I’m not doing the song justice: I picked it because even now, at 45, the song turns me up inside like it did when I first heard it, back in 1990. Sometimes, when I try to put into words what songs mean, I feel like I’m somehow taking away from the neural-spark that a great song ignites inside that ineffable joy, a sharpening of the soul, a infinite initial reaction that, despite the years, will always repeat.  

Swann Street is a boundless, wound-up blast; a rock anthem worthy of bands far bigger in size than Three and it never fails to remind me of home. And, DC, despite being a seat of power and almost always the center of the world’s attention, is really just a small town. But, then, home should always feel that way. Here's a few versions of your new favorite song:

Friday, February 17, 2017


purchase Truck Stop Love

For a young college student, the transition from late spring final exams to full-time employment in summer is liberating. It’s also strange. You transition from hours upon hours of intense intellectual work to hours upon hours of menial, brainless labor: laying cement, cleaning toilets and in my case waiting tables.

Truck Stop Love, which has about 300 hits for most of its songs on YouTube, made poignant, alt country rock music that reflected beautifully on its time and place: the early 90s Midwest. Live, the Manhattan, KS band was unbridled and loud as hell. They were my soundtrack in the summer of 94’ and a band that deserved major attention.

The song “Townie” (75 hits as I write) is an anthem for the ones in ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts who roll around like tumbleweeds in the empty summer sun from one coffee shop or bar to the next--budget of a couple bucks. The opening of “Townie” floats--like much of the song--one guitar jangles and the other is fuzzed up. The scene is set:

“Bob’s at home lookin at her locket…You’re 22--hands in your pocket--looking for a friend to get you high. Should I get a haircut? Do I look like a Jimmy Page? You’re 22, got no money in your pocket. Looking for a girl to take you home.”

It’s one of a few Truck Stop Love songs, including the sweet and crunchy “Other Stars” that reflects on hair and haircuts. And hair was very important at this time.  Long hair was coming back and was the preferred style of grunge bands. You don’t forget Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain’s hair whipped over their shoulders or Kim Thayil playing his evil licks behind a gate of dark curls. As a college kid, you wished you had just come into school with long hair. Growing it out took time and made you come across as a wannabe. Once it got to the shoulders and you settled in with it for a couple months, you were cool. I cut mine just a couple weeks into a potential pony tail stage. It was skunky looking, and I never thought it was me.

“Small town boy, got a tattoo on your side….Small town boy, got a chain hanging from your pocket”. You’re 22, playin’ pinball in your pocket. Waiting on a lost cause to get you by.”

I stayed in my university town an extra year after graduation and was on the verge of becoming a “Townie”. The town began to shrink, however. Hitting bars started giving me a creepy embarrassment and the occasional flash fear of being a lifetime waiter. The thought of becoming that philosophy major who stuck around for twenty years to continue working in his favorite bar and hit on college girls sparked me to get the hell out of there. I ended up teaching in a tiny town in Japan.

"Hey Joe, you got some smoke? Well I got some fire. I’ll pay you back anytime. ('yeah right')."

I saw Truck Stop Love Twice. The first time was when I booked them for 250 bucks to play at our university as part of a punk show. The young kids who typically came to shows usually wanted fast and loud, so I was nervous that TSL might underwhelm when playing next to Compound Red and Alligator Gun, two great live bands from Milwaukee. Making matters more difficult was that one of the two singers, the one who sang on “Townie” and “Stagnation” (“I’ve been down to your bar/It looks the same or did you remodel?”), had a sore throat and wouldn’t sing. But when the audience of 40 started chanting “Townie! Townie!” the other band mates badgered him into it. The band had to be surprised a university audience knew and liked a song enough to call it out. Actually, as Music Director, I had kept their debut e.p. on our college station’s CMJ charts for about 6 months.

TSL stayed at my house that night. I remember the singer getting sick of the Possum Dixon cd I was playing and going up and changing it himself to Pavement. A German teacher, who was an old punk, sat down and gave the band a lecture on how to bring more attitude to their music, which was endured by the band as long as the Leinenkugels kept coming.

When I woke up the next morning and made my way downstairs, they had already left, a pizza box was against the wall and it said, “Thanks, Jake. We’ll see you again. Truck Stop Love.”

A year later after I had graduated I saw TSL in my university town again. They were without the above guitarist/vocalist and most of them had cut their hair. The sound wasn’t nearly as thick and gutsy as I had remembered. They basically seemed like a decent bar band at that point. Their album “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”, which was put out on Scotti Brothers, which had also released their brilliant e.p., did very little on college radio. They looked ready to fold. But for a year, their music described my life like poetry.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Small Town: Devil Town

[purchase the soundtrack]

Lots of TV shows have been set in small towns, but my favorite, by far, was Friday Night Lights. In fact, I’d argue that season 1 of the show was as good as any first season of any show I’ve seen. While there were some creative ups and downs over the show’s five season run (really, Landry killed a guy?), it still ranks as one of my all-time favorites. If you haven’t seen it, it is available on Netflix, and elsewhere, and you really should.

I’m not from Texas, and I’ve never lived in a place where football held such importance as the fictional town of Dillon, where the show is set, but what made the show so great was the way that it created a world that was nevertheless recognizable to more than small town dwelling Texans. Not only recognizable, but relatable.

The show also used music well. I’ve written before about the role that Explosions in the Sky had, although not as prominent a role as it did in the film on which the TV show is loosely based, but it also used popular music in a way that enhanced and commented on the narrative. Many articles have been written about the show’s music, so it isn’t just me.

One of the most memorable musical moments comes at the end of the first season, a season that started with a tragedy and built toward the Dillon Panthers’ rocky road to “State,” the championship game in (now demolished) Texas Stadium. SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers win, with an improbable second half comeback. Look—it is a TV show, and in its first season, with no guarantee of renewal, so forgive the creators (notably, Jason Katims, who went on to create Parenthood, and used a number of FNL actors as guests) if they wanted season 1 to have a happy ending.

After the triumph on the field, and the requisite hugging and mugging, the scene shifts to the team’s victory parade down the main drag in Dillon, with what seems to be the whole town out to cheer. But rather than set the parade to something easy and triumphant, they used the song “Devil Town,” which is anything but.

Originally written and recorded by Daniel Johnson, a talented songwriter who has battled mental illness, but whose voice, admittedly, is an acquired taste,“Devil Town” has been covered by others, probably most famously by Bright Eyes. In fact, when the Friday Night Lights episode was shot, the editor used that version, but when they sought permission to use it in the final broadcast, Bright Eyes declined. Bad move, Conor. Instead, the publishing company suggested a number of other artists, and the creative team decided to commission Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Tony Lucca to cover the song which was used in the scene.  It was also used earlier in the season, and again toward the end of the series. And in a very creepy promo for the show.

The song focuses on the dark side of a small town, and its references to the town’s residents as vampires resonated as a commentary on the odd hero worship that the residents of Dillon, and by extension, other similar places, had for a bunch of athletically gifted teenagers. Prior to writing this, I watched the episode in question again, to see how the song worked in context—and it really was perfect. The entire season didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of Dillon, while also providing a fair number of uplifting ones.

The show essentially starts with the team’s golden boy quarterback, destined for glory, getting paralyzed on the field, and ending up in a wheelchair. That opens the door for the feel good story of the shy, artistic and sensitive backup quarterback to learn leadership skills, have a relationship with the coach’s beautiful daughter and win the state championship. There are characters who are dealing with missing parents, or bad parents, or no parents, as well as strong families. There is love, lust and betrayal, both by adults and teens. People struggle to survive, and others succeed. The show illustrates both racial divisions and racial harmony. There are dreams achieved, and dreams dashed. There is the pure joy of watching a team come together and triumph, and there are craven boosters who use the team for their own benefit. And during the parade sequence, all of this was summarized in the faces and expressions of the characters, as the song played.

Fittingly, the episode, and the season, ended on an ambivalent cliffhanger. We see the victorious coach, who announced his intent to leave the team for a Division I college job, but had expressed second thoughts to his wife, listen to his paralyzed former star turned assistant coach lecture the team on what they need to do in the off season to repeat as champs, in language that could have come from his own inspirational speeches. He enters the locker room and receives a slow-clapping ovation from his team.

Will he go, or will he stay? Season 2 is also on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Small Town: In A Town This Size

purchase John Prine [In a Town This Size]

There are a number of things that I like about John Prine.

There's the cynical lyrics about things that should be so damn serious but that he manages to cut to shreds; there's the simplicity of the song structure (yeah, most popular music is I-IV-V) but he makes a lot of that; and then there's his guitar chops - nothing outrageous, but mighty solid. This song is so typical of John Prine's guitar - just about crystal clear - nothing crazy but perfectly there.

For Valentines' day:

You cant steal a kiss
In a place like this
How the rumors do fly
In a town this size

Sunday, February 12, 2017

SMALL TOWNS: BOY (Bronski Beat) & GIRL (Tracey Thorn)

Sorry, a title like that and you're thinking a Small Town Romance, aren't you? Ain't going to happen, given the demographic, which is a shame, as it removes the opportunity to link to a favourite song. (The hell it does, Richard Thompson's sentiments perfectly and expertly underlining any love in any small town.) But these 2 songs, coming from differing perspectives, ultimately each define the risks of a near horizon, encapsulating and encompassing the threat of seeming/feeling different.

Bronski Beat exploded from nowhere in the early 80s, 2 Glaswegians and a Southend-er, all explicitly gay, united by their shared espousal of the then gay music scene, such as it was, often all camp stereotypes and suggestiveness. Irrespective of their home towns being very large and large respectively, the song nonetheless tapped into the sense of isolation in being the only gay in the village. With the video showing the very evident risks of being 'out' in the sticks. (Or anywhere, especially then?) Jimmy Somerville's voice an almost pure falsetto, unmistakeable, soars above the keyboards, the song remaining both iconic and anthemic to this day. (And here's a delightful clip to confirm that truth!)

"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face."

Sadly it proved too much for the band, an album and 2 singles later finding Somerville leaving after barely a year, to start the equally pioneering and actively gay rights  band, the Communards, alongside the now Reverend Richard Cole, Church of England pastor and radio personality here in the U.K. Bronski Beat lurched on, one hit with replacement singer, Jon Jon Foster, ahead of various less successful ventures.

Tracey Thorn is better known, arguably, for her partnership, with Ben Watt, now her husband, as Everything But The Girl. Or possibly for her honeyed deadpan vocals with Massive Attack. But, ahead of EBTG, after an earlier incarnation as a Marine Girl(s), she put out a beautifully spare, sparse and simple record, A Distant Shore, just barely amplified electric guitar and vocal. From this comes the featured song. Again the loneliness of perceiving oneself different from your peers, themselves fewer in a small town. But the metaphor holds to the extent that, actually, do we not all have small town hearts in our teenage development? If you feel lonely or different even London is a small town.
But rather than a song about the leaving of the small town, Thorn's song betrays a wistfulness for the simplicity thereof, on having left. Green grass etc.

"This is all too much for such a small town girl
Though I see more than you think
This world, very little did I like
And when I did it was not mine."

I came from a small town. I learnt my trade in the big city and have worked all my career in another. I now look whimsically back at those early formative years. I couldn't wait to leave. I would love to go back. I probably won't.

Boy or girl? Which will you choose?

(R.I.P. Larry Steinbachek of Bronski Beat, d. December 2016.)

Small Town: Our Town

Iris DeMent: Our Town


For me, the biggest problem with our current theme is that there are simply too many songs to choose from. Of course, country music offers endless possibilities, but even outside of that there is a tremendous amount of material to work with. Artists who never lived in small towns themselves offer fantasies, both light and dark, of what they must be like. Others, like Iris DeMent here, clearly know from their own experience.

DeMent sees growing through adulthood in a small town as a burden. Every familiar place holds a memory of something long gone. You can not look out your window without being haunted by memories. DeMent’s narrator finally must leave in order to shed all of these accumulated moments that can never come again. The town itself, in this case, is a shadow of its former self. People and businesses leave, and are not replaced.

I have lived in small towns for most of my life, and I know what DeMent means. But I can also say that not all small towns are like this. I hope to present other aspects of small town life before this theme is done. The town I live in now is the one my children have grown up in. It has changed, and I have memories of places and people that are gone. But this town has also renewed itself. New businesses and types of businesses have come in, and with them have come new friends. I haven’t found a song yet that expresses this life cycle, (suggestions?), but I do have a few things queued up that I hope to get to.

Meanwhile, there is this video. The notes on YouTube say it was made for the series finale of Northern Exposure. I never watched the show, so the images probably have some resonances that I have completely missed. But the sepia-toned images and the poignant close-ups seem perfect for this song.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Small Towns: Small Town News

[preorder a biography of Letterman because the only purchasable videos of his show are on VHS]

We did a theme a couple of years ago called “Where I Live,” and I wrote about my favorite small town, Tarrytown. I’m not going to that well again, so you should read that piece if you are interested.

Instead, I’m going to write about the second thing that popped into my head when I heard the theme, “Small Town News,” a segment that was regularly featured on Late Night With David Letterman, and occasionally on Late Show With David Letterman. Let me start by saying how much I miss David Letterman. I didn't start watching Late Night right away, when it started airing on NBC at 12:30 on February 1, 1982, but a couple of years later, I began to record it on my VCR and watch it in the mornings as I got ready for my day. I pretty much stuck with Dave, and followed him to CBS when he moved to the more coveted 11:30 slot (even if he lost the battle to succeed his idol Johnny Carson to the duller, more mainstream Jay Leno). And when Dave signed off in 2015, I tried to watch his successor, Stephen Colbert, but it wasn’t the same and I have gotten out of the habit.

Late Night was considerably stranger than the Late Show. It was as if NBC really didn’t care what happened after midnight, and it seemingly allowed Dave, and his writers, to do what appeared to be anything they wanted to do. Rotating the screen. Dubbing reruns. Involving the backstage staff. Having strange, fake guests. Having strange, real guests. Weird stunts. Letting Andy Kaufman go wild.  Which is not to say that what he was doing was unprecedented—Steve Allen’s Tonight Show was definitely an influence, and Ernie Kovacs did some similar stuff, but what made the Late Show so unusual was the way that it seemed to mock the entire genre of late night talk shows without being a parody.

The “Small Town News” segments were a perfect example of the show’s style. Like other segments on the show, like Stupid Pet Tricks, they took something ordinary and pretended that it was appropriate for network television.. As you can see in the video above, from 1988, Dave goes into the segment after what appears to be an improvised bit with a goofy bubble machine and having Paul Shaffer and the band play a cheesy 70's-style “Love Theme.” Throughout the segment, Letterman makes it seem like he has no idea what is going on, he donates $10 per laugh to the United States Olympic Luge Team, for no apparent reason, other than wanting to “just beat those damn Russians at luge once,” he engages in asides about the temperature in the theater, and regularly uses self-deprecating humor.

When Letterman moved an hour earlier, and to CBS, the show changed. Being in an earlier time slot, and competing against the Tonight Show, meant that the network cared more about the show, and many of the odder rough edges were sanded down. Of course, Letterman was also older, and seemed less interested in tweaking authority as much as he had in his younger days. Which was not to say that the Late Show lacked edge, or was slick, dull and mainstream, but it certainly lacked some of the absurdity and anarchy that the earlier show was famous for.

Compare this version of “Small Town News” from the Late Show from 2007—nearly 20 years after the video above.

Putting aside the better production values, including a still silly but more produced theme, nicer cards, etc., you can see that Letterman no longer was pretending that he didn’t know what was going on. No more asking the booth what comes next, or pretending to be confused. In other words, he had gone from being some renegade comedian who somehow found himself with a show that was not completely in his control to a confident TV star. One who still didn’t always seem comfortable with his fame, but was no longer surprised by his good fortune.

The CBS show was still great, and I enjoyed it enormously (because I was older, too), but I guess it is sort of how so often you love a band’s early, sloppier work more than their later, more polished stuff, even as you can appreciate that they have grown and the later material is objectively “better.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Small Towns: My Little Town

purchase [My Little Town]

There is a lot of comfort in a small town: you know everyone/everyone knows you. I speak with limited authority, 'cause I lived in more than one - but for short times. Hamden, CT back in the '60s was a (relatively) small town. Yeah, I only lived there a year or so but the cops knew me pretty soon: I was the kid who set the empty lot on fire and went about deflating all the tires in the golf course parking lot. Small town stuff.

Back at my main place of residence, a couple of 1000 miles away from Hamden and a year or so later, the community was still pretty small. Again, people knew me (and my methods). These were the 60's - no need for Neighborhood Watch or Homeland Security methods. Everything was Small Town. Heck, the world in general was Small Town.

As for music, among the first 33 1/3 albums I acquired was Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley Sage .... In retrospect I think my parents were pretty OK with this: not rock (but folk protest /Lite). Lots of harmony - kind of like the (parentally -approved) Kingston Trio. Little did my parents realize that the next few albums were to lead down dark alley-ways. ..maybe kinda like soft addictions lead you to hard addictions. First came the early Stones' Between the Buttons, followed by Sargent Peppers, followed shortly thereafter by Are You Experienced. You see? ... an evil path of no return. Classic case of the effects of soft leading to hard.

However, I digress. It's small towns and Paul Simon.

There was (and still is) something re-assuring/comforting about Paul Simon. Like small towns. Yes, he was on the (limited) edge of protest (sort of like Pete Segar). Yes, he skirted 60's rock, but he stayed "family friendly" - home town/small town.... never a real threat. (Ah... for those days...)
<My Little Town> comes after Simon and Garfunkel had parted ways (early 70's). Perhaps in some ways the songs chronicles some of the duo's realities: apparently, Paul Simon wasn’t too keen on relating this to anything personal (..."happy to get out of ..." small town, with Art Garfunkel more inclined to account for and share his past and any autobiographical aspect of the song.
Psychologies aside, the song lyrics lead us (today/without background baggage encumbrances) to see that:
And after it rains
There's a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It's not that the colors aren't there
It's just imagination they lack
Everything's the same

Good comfort for thems that seek routine. Then again, the lyrics include no real praise for small towns in the end. "Nothin' but the dead and dying in my home town". Funny. I always heard it as "Nothing but the dead of night in my home town" until I looked up the lyrics.
Big cities for me ...