Tuesday, April 26, 2011

R.I.P., Poly Styrene

Dig the photo: This ain't Madonna or your typical pop diva. The young lady's a bit chunky, she's half-Somali/half-Brit, wearing braces, a military helmet liner and what is basically an adorned garbage bag. The pop music business would never push someone like this in a million years! (Although, in a time prior to this, the young lady above had attempted just such a stab at the big time, with a bubblegum reggae single called "Silly Billy" issued under her real name, Mari Elliot.) Instead, inspired by a Sex Pistols gig attended when she was 19, Mari gave herself the above-depicted remake, emerging as Poly Styrene. Her coming out party with her band X-Ray Spex warned the world in the first few seconds: "Some people say lil' girls should be seen and not heard. I say...OH, BONDAGE! UP YOURS! ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!"

The racket was unique, even for the then-radical punk scene: A typical sub-Pistols thrash, yet leavened by the mock cocktail lounge sax of 14-year-old Lora Logic. It was as if Roxy Music had been hijacked by a pair of teenage girls and forced to see the new way of thinking. And then, you had to deal with the lyric matter.

"I was trying to do a diary of 1977," Poly explained to Jon Savage for his landmark UK punk history, England's Dreaming. "I wanted to write about everyday experiences....My thing was more like consumerism, plastic artificial living....There was so much junk about then. The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying: 'Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: Do you like her?"

A lot of us did. X-Ray Spex' sole LP in the day, Germ Free Adolescents, was startling in its ferocity and humor. As I posted on Facebook last night: "Dig this talent, this ferocity, this vision of taking everything plastic and artificial about this planet and throwing it back in the planet's face! With venom and humor. And creating an anti-glamor to wrap one's self in. There wasn't a duff track in all of Germ Free Adolescents." This one, "Identity," happened to be my favorite:

Later, Poly would undergo a religious conversion to Hare Krishna. This, after dropping out of the scene following what she saw as a UFO visitation. She was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, later to be readjusted properly as bipolar disorder. She would make a few solo releases, even reunite with X-Ray Spex from time-to-time, and quietly raise a daughter who is now a musician herself. 

Poly Styrene had just issued a new solo disc, Generation Indigo, in April. What I've heard sounds excellent. Sadly, just as the album was issued, Poly had also revealed she was now battling breast cancer and would have to postpone her tour plans for the album. The cancer was apparently far wider spread than she was letting on: Poly Styrene died yesterday at home, surrounded by her mother and her daughter. She was 53.

Word had gotten out swiftly by the internet, people posting tributes all over Facebook. Oddly, no legit news source would confirm it for hours, until the early hours this morning. I remained skeptical until my colleague John Robb in the UK posted this remembrance at his excellent Louder Than War site. Then the usual reliable sources - NME, The Guardian, BBC - finally covered her passing. Nevertheless, this is a heavy loss: A chief member of that group of truly revolutionary female punks - think of Patti Smith, Penelope Houston, The Slits - who made gender an utter non-issue in the early days of punk, is gone. Sadly, the playing field would later not be so level - yet another way hardcore ruined punk. But Poly Styrene remained an example well beyond what was supposedly her "moment." She was inspiring to many of us, beyond gender. We could use that vision, that taking a snapshot of society's trashiness and using it as weapon. If that's not true defiance, I don't know what is.

Rest in peace, Poly. Your likes won't be seen again.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Lepus Day

Greetings, my Irregulars. (Yes, I realize that the radio show is in dry dock for now. But it occurs to me that the faithful with any of my creative endeavors could be termed Irregulars. And that's a good thing.) For some, today is Easter. For me, it's another Sunday. Being neither religious nor young enough to groove on colored hardboiled eggs and cuddly pagan fertility gods, the day just doesn't have much of an impact. It's been that way for a number of years, in my world. And right now, my world is filled black coffee, bacon frying for my breakfast burrito, and the mono mix of Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" 'Tis issuing forth from a belated audit of the April 16 edition of Henry Rollins' excellent "Harmony In My Head" radio show, this being his salute to lifelong pal Ian Mackaye.

So as you can see, at this very moment, life is very good.

Not much to report this week. Just a lot of hours at work, and dealing with the usual existential angst over my life and the three anxiety attacks I had this week. Which I'm sure stem from my continual analyzation of said life. Not that I'm much for public hand-wringing any longer. I just think a lot more than I probably should. I'm supposed to attend an event benefiting the family of a recently deceased member of Denver punk 'n' roll kings The Fluid this afternoon. Considering I've yet to shower and dress, and there's groceries to be bought and clothes to be laundered so's I can get through the working week, I'm wondering if I'll be making it to the gig after all.

I suppose there are other things I could write about. There are cultural artifacts passing my radar screen in need of commentary, such as Carl Barat's and Jah Wobble's respective memoirs, or several fine new CDs out there from the likes of the New York Dolls and Gang Of Four, among others. But the coffee is about to run out. And you know the rules for my blog: Write and post it in the time it takes to finish two cups of coffee. So how about a promise to write about these things through the week, as I leave you with this carnival-rific video for what I guess is the first single from the Dolls' new one, "Fool For You Baby?" Be good to each other out there.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weird Scenes From The Bus

Boarding the Number 40 bus, heading downtown to meet with pals in town from Los Angeles for a fallen friend of theirs' funeral. First words I hear climbing aboard and heading for my seat? A raspy, nasal Bronx accent, honking into his cell phone, "I'll see you in Hell, shitheel!...Yeah, I'll see you in Hell!"

"Yeah, I remember my first acid trip...." Oh, shit! Did I say that out loud? Must have, judging by the laughter around me....

Now realizing I have a captive audience for my impromptu stand-up act, I wave off Mr. See-You-In-Hell a few stops down: "Give my regards to Satan!"

About a minute later, I hear a mother inform her teenage daughter: "No, I never once got high when I was pregnant with you!"

Wow, didn't realize I was riding the RTD with Courtney Love and Francis Bean....

A minute passes, and a really chubby guy whose face hadn't seen a razor (and possibly, a wash cloth) in a couple of days climbs aboard...in a full pink fairie's outfit: Wings, tutu, magic wand, the whole nine.

Blink. Blink.

I...I...I've got nothin'!

(Soundtrack for this slice o' life: The Hangmen.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bring The Light

Greetings from Charlie's computer! Again, the title of this week's post has no significance, other than as the title of the song I'm listening to as I type this, a rockin' lil' single from the debut album from Liam Gallagher's new post-Oasis band, Beady Eye. I definitely dig it, although the rest of the record can get a little too Beatles-damaged. (Gee, THAT guy? Rippin' off Lennon/McCartney? Really?!)

One month in, and my appreciation for Denver grows daily. Many of the aesthetic reasons can be found documented by the blog of a new friend, Tom Lundin. He, too, has a deep appreciation for mid-century modern design and neon, and he photographs all the well-preserved examples of it you can find all over Denver, posting them in his Denver Eye blog. But all in all, the spirit and soul inherent in this town just embraced me the minute I got off the bus a month ago, and has made me feel more welcome and relaxed than anyplace I've ever been to or lived in. I still love L.A., but I will soothe that love with frequent visits, rather than attempting to negotiate the rat race aspects of it.

One thing that may be a casualty of recent events, however, is "RADIO NAPALM." I wrote the Woody Radio staff this morning to inform them that I cannot foresee a return to production on the show this year. There's simply too much on my plate and too many production elements to rebuild. For now, The Garage will remain shuttered, and Scooter and Ed The Engineer will have to draw unemployment. (Besides, Woody informed me he has no money in the budget to rebuild The Garage here in Denver. Guess things are rough in Canada, too....)

Meantime, I work, try to save money, and immerse myself in Charlie's vast library of books and DVDs, thereby saving myself more money and making up for the cultural isolation I had my last few months in L.A. (Currently reading: James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. Currently viewing: The Sons Of Anarchy, Season 3.) And I mourn the loss of the America that I grew up in, replaced by the mean-spirited America that's hard to avoid. Which I don't have the energy to expound upon. I just try to keep living the best I know how, and not let the shit stain my soul.

On that thoroughly wholesome note, I bid adieu: A bohemian American, searching for a little soul. I hope you find your share, too. Be good to each other out there!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Savage Circle

NOTE: When I tried to post a link on my Facebook page to it, I was informed that my post contained "blocked content" that had been flagged as "spammy or abusive." Say WHAT?!!

Guten morgen, meine readers. Pay not that much credence to the title. It simply stems from the fact of my listening to The Ruts' superlative John Peel Sessions as I write this, recordings that bristle with far more elemental power than much of their released catalog. This and strong black coffee and steel cut oats are really setting me up nicely for the day.

Anyway, it has now been something close to three weeks since I packed my scant belongings and winged it to Denver. And I must say, I have officially fallen in love with this town. It's nice to find Austin again, as I remember it. So no, I won't be moving back to L.A. I am staying here.

So, the plan now:

1) Work up a significant nest egg, paying off some debts and buying much needed musical equipment along the way.

2) Get a new apartment.

3) Start a new lineup of The Hormones.

4) Finish the novel before the year is out.

I'm sure Number Three is surprising to some of you. I suspect many have been wanting that out of me for a long time. Others may wonder about the wisdom of it. The way I look at it, that was my band. I wrote the songs, I led and fronted the band, it was my baby. I discovered when I was an L.A. resident my old band was better known than I realized, far better known than Napalm Stars. And after witnessing longtime Hormones brother band The Stitches induce fits amongst a roomful of drunken 20-somethings over a month ago, I realized that I know all-too-well how to do that, as well. And I went home and wrote six really good songs in a row, my first compositions in two years.

But first, I need gear. And three other locals who also understand that delicate mix of Johnny Thunders, Cheap Trick, The Clash and the Rolling Stones that I've been mining all these years. The gear is crucial, though: At the moment, all I have is a late '70s Japanese Les Paul Custom copy I got off eBay for $200, and a tiny Fender one watt practice amp that's only good either for a really muffled blues timbre or the nastiest '60s fuzz guitar you've heard. (Seriously, I could recreate Vincebus Eruptum with this thing, and at low volume.) Neither of those sounds are characteristic of the sound I go for, and I could only play Charlie's living room with that setup, anyway. With no band.

Anyway, thanks for reading this. I'll try to write about books I've read lately or something soon. I appreciate your indulgence.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I'm in more of a Buck Owens mood today, but today is the birthday of Buck's fellow Bakersfield honky tonk maverick (and my favorite country singer, period), Merle Haggard. I was raised on the man's vintage recordings, which bordered on a hard, twangy variant of folk rock, for all their poetic wonder. Haggard has written lines I would have killed to have written: "The only things I can count on are my fingers" immediately comes to mind.

I was fortunate enough, as an Austin Chronicle staffer in 1996, to have interviewed Merle during a tour stop, in the middle of a string of profiles I did for the paper on classic country artists. So well did I capture the horrendous disrespect the man was experiencing at that point in his career, my piece was reprinted in a number of other alt-weeklies across the nation! I reprint the version which ran in Philadelphia City Paper; like many of the numerous pieces I wrote for the Chronicle, this is nowhere to be found in its online archives.  

Happy birthday, Merle.

Legendhood and 50 Cents Will Get You a Cup of Coffee

Merle Haggard ruled country music despite his contrariness. He now wonders if that same contrariness may be costing him.
By Tim Stegall

"You don't look like a Merle Haggard fan."

I suppose I don't, considering I'm standing before this dressed-for-success reporter from Austin's daily newspaper while wearing hair that could've been styled by Sid's of London and a dilapidated antique vest held together with safety pins, punk rock badges and a prayer. Still, my reply is the only sane and rational one such an observation merits:

"Lady, what the hell does a Merle Haggard fan look like?"

As has seemingly been the norm for maybe the last ten years, Merle Ronald Haggard of Oildale, California, youngest son of James Francis and Flossie Harp Haggard, is getting less than he deserves. At 58-going-on-59, the youngest man to be voted into the Country Hall of Fame, Haggard has produced one of the most consistently, artistically rich bodies of work to emerge from country music (if not American music, in general). He has earned the praises of the form's pioneers, his own contemporaries and its reigning current stars. The man's even revered and admired by rock 'n' rollers ranging from the late Gram Parsons and almost-late Keith Richards to Wayne Kramer and members of D-Generation.

So, what does such a lifetime batting average get Merle Haggard, at least of late? How about two — count 'em —two tribute albums that have received more attention and airplay than contemporary Haggard recordings that may well be every bit the equal of his vintage Capitol tracks. And can someone please explain why Haggard was forced a few years back into the insulting position of having to OPEN FOR CLINT BLACK! Now, who should be opening for whom?

Ergo, it's hardly surprising that when the Austin office of Sun Records throws a press reception for Haggard, he has to face reporters as supercilious and disinterested as Ms. Dress-For-Success. Later, she'll show how much of a Haggard fan she is by asking her colleagues if he was an "outlaw."

No, Merle Haggard was never an "outlaw." Merle is certainly friends with Willie Nelson, but Hag's never been one to hang with cliques or join clubs — he was even outside that batch of outsiders. Hag's always boogied to his own internal beat. He refused to record in Nashville, forging his own hardcore honky tonk vision at the height of the strings-and-choir-laden "Nashville Sound." Even when he got pegged as The Voice of the Silent Majority via the ironic "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard turned around and penned "Irma Jackson," an unflinching account of an interracial love affair Capitol managed to bury.

For over 20 years, Merle Haggard ruled country music despite his contrariness. He now wonders if that same contrariness may be costing him.

"I've been one that didn't really play the game," reflects Haggard, before adding wearily, "I'll play the game, now. I'll do everything I'm supposed to do, and see if that's what it is."

Haggard's discomfort with that decision is as obvious as the furrows and creases which have overpowered his once-handsome features. Of course, it's hard to get comfortable at any anonymously catered function in an anonymous hotel reception room, with its Swedish meatball buffet and grin-for-pay bartender. Or maybe it's the sore throat he contracted in Australia that's making him visibly squirm? Whatever the case, as Haggard switches from black coffee to a tumbler of George Dickle, he's hardly grinning and bearing the situation.

Still, for a man that's resigned himself to Playing the Game, Merle Haggard's doing an awfully good job of playing it by his rules: "It's almost like someone's censoring music, nowadays," he grouses. "I don't think the public is really getting a fair listen to what's really happening. I don't think they get a listen of the stuff that's great anymore. A lot of things that they hear are there for reasons other than music."

In Haggard's opinion, music video's intrusion into country music has made the music part damn near incidental. "They're writing songs about videos. The song has become secondary. And I think a song should be good enough to where you don't have to draw no pictures. I think that's why we're losing such a great amount of quality. Music's so thin. It's so refined — so perfect. And it's unenjoyable to me. I just can't even listen to it."

Lately, many of Haggard's contemporaries are turning towards the rock 'n' roll market to find respect. Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, anyone?

"Hey, I'm fixin' to do the same thing!" snaps Haggard. "I'd rather listen to rock 'n' roll stations myself. But there's a lack of diversity on radio these days. There should be a full scope, a full picture. But there's not a full scope. There's just these 'models' you're talking about, these video people... I don't know what to do about that, but the American public's the ones that are getting screwed."

Well, there still has to be a good-sized audience for Merle Haggard and his music. It's no mean feat, selling out two consecutive houses at Austin's Palmer Auditorium without the benefit of any advertising, strictly on the strength of phone sales. Haggard shrugs it off, chalking it up to salesmanship of the Austin Fire Fighters Association, who the shows benefitted.

"But they do the same thing for other people," he adds, "and have had nobody there. People buy the tickets and they just don't show up. But they're showing up at our shows. We're really proud of that. It proves that there's still an audience out there, and I think program directors around America are foolish not to see that. But they've got to sell automobiles, and they've got to cater to the people they sell their time to, and if they don't do that, they're gonna lose themselves as radio people. Radio's gonna be turned off for good."

Refusing to let go of his anti-radio tirade, Haggard foresees a pendulum swing in the near future.

"I predict there's a lotta stations that are gonna make some serious programming changes in America. There's a station in San Francisco that's been programming traditional country music. They've been playing me and Willie, I think they've played Cash, even a Lefty Frizell tune or something like that. [Listeners] called that station, and the [programming director]'s name is Frank Terry. Frank said, 'Merle, the kids are calling in, saying "Who is that?"' And he said, 'I'm tellin' 'em, Ask your daddy!'" he laughs.

Or just go down to the local record shop. Up until a year ago, Haggard's back catalog was in a shameful state of disrepair. But in the past year alone, Razor & Tie has issued a superlative two-CD collection of his Capitol singles, while Koch International has given five of his vintage '60s LPs (including his legendary tributes to Jimmy Rogers and Bob Wills) the reissue treatment. Sun Records has also issued two budget line CDs of fine remakes of Haggard classics, the reason for the meet-n-greet Haggard's enduring. Meantime, there are two Haggard box sets now out. Haggard personally prefers the more comprehensive (and pricey!) box set offered by German reissue house Bear Family, The Untamed Hawk. ("In German, I guess my name means 'The Hawk' or something like that.") The Capitol box set, Down Every Road: 1962-1994, represents the meat of every Haggard era with a tilt toward his creative peak in the '60s.

Not that Haggard's living in the past, or totally eschewing more contemporary music or musicians. Dwight Yoakam, his hat, and his spray-on jeans make an appearance on a track on Hag's latest Curb LP, 1996. The track, "Beer Can Hill," is a tribute to the Bakersfield honky tonk scene which spawned Haggard and inspired Yoakam, and also features Merle's friend and fellow Bakersfield legend Buck Owens. Haggard has also taken up Iris DeMent as a bit of a cause celebre, cutting her "No Time To Cry" after hearing a version of his "Big City" on the Tulare Dust tribute album. Of the latter, Haggard has remarked that DeMent "took the conviction and sincerity to a depth that I, the writer, had not been able to reach."

Listening to 1996, it's easy to see the source of Haggard's resentment of latter-day programming. The LP stacks up nicely against his vintage output, and some of his most mature and full-blooded music of his career is getting dissed in favor of the latest line-dancing novelty. Haggard has certainly never sung better, has gotten more resonant and rounded with age, and has improved his long-standing ability to find the emotional core of a lyric and bring it to the fore. Still, even Haggard's shaking his head at Curb's packaging in Spartan graphics virtually identical to his 1994 LP.

"They're gonna put a cover on this new album," he says. "They're not going to get away with that. The ones you're talking about are going to be collector's items 'cuz they are gonna put a cover on it. I just don't understand it. It's almost like sabotage. Why they would want this album to look like the last one is beyond me. I don't understand it, but I've always been confused."

Maybe, Merle, but nowhere near as confused as the audience you greeted at your evening performance at Palmer Auditorium. Nor are you as lacking in manners: Austin was treated to maybe one of the last of the old-style country & western revues, complete with brief showcase opening sets by the Strangers and Haggard's ex-wife/longtime partner Bonnie Owens. Ignorant of the treat they were receiving, the boors and drunks, at least in my immediate vicinity, were loudly expressing their impatience. "Who's this bitch? Get her off! Where the fuck is Merle?!!"

This must've been exactly what triggered Haggard's bittersweet tune, "Footlights": "Putting on that Instamatic grin" and "kicking out the footlights again" when the heart and soul just might not be able to back the gestures up. Indeed, the croak illness had reduced his voice to a shadow of its expressive singing style, yet Haggard gave all he could. In this case, it meant the Strangers' backing may've had to be a little more restrained than usual, and Haggard could only offer a close approximation of his rich, sub-Lefty Frizell croon.

None of this seemed to penetrate the thick and loud skulls seated around me. "Aw, Hay-ull! He's drunk and drugged and fucked 'til he's all fucked-up! This is bullshit!"

Yes, "friend," you're right. The stench of bullshit was thick in the Palmer Auditorium air that night. But that stench wasn't coming from Merle Haggard's side of the stage. Many apologies, Merle. As usual, you deserve a lot better.