Among My Souvenirs

One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote about music was seven years ago this month.

Out of force of habit, Americans still call pop stars “artists,” but how many of our most popular “artists” think of what they are creating as “art”? Does Kelly Clarkson know what an artistic vision is? Shania Twain says she doesn’t even like music all that much. . . . So unlike real artists, who tell us useful truths about ourselves that we wouldn’t otherwise recognize, such people merely collect our money. But instead of feeling cheated by them, lots of us feel fulfilled, which can only happen in a country where “consumer” has long since outstripped “citizen” as the primary civic ideal. . . . In a better world, Shania’s shocking admission and Kelly’s oceanic vapidity would be powerful indictments of their right to command our attention. And in a better world, Peter Wolf would be our American Idol.

If forced to choose only a dozen-or-so albums from my collection to take to the fabled desert island, Wolf’s 2002 album Sleepless would be coming along. It trips through several genres, from Memphis soul to Exile on Main Street-era Stones (with appearances by both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), to Drifters-style baion, to Wolf’s own musical past (with a version of “Homework,” which was on the J. Geils Band’s debut album). Wolf took his time putting together a followup, which was finally released earlier this month: Midnight Souvenirs, which has been described by more than one critic as Sleepless Part II—which was recommendation enough for me. It’s a soul record, a country record, and a rocker at the same time, and it features guest appearances from Shelby Lynne, Neko Case, and Merle Haggard.

Here are Wolf and Lynne on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, doing “Tragedy.”

There’s a two-part documentary about the making of Midnight Souvenirs at YouTube; the first part is here, and from there, it’s easy to find the second part.

What I wrote about Sleepless seven years ago applies to Midnight Souvenirs, too:

Wolf shows us that the first criterion for being comfortable in your own skin is knowing where you come from. Such knowledge can be a beacon to help us navigate a future that will take us who-knows-where. If nothing else, it can give us the heart to keep moving. This is one of the things art is supposed to do, and we have rarely needed it more than we do right now, at a time when we seem to have lost sight of all the landmarks out here in the fog.

Also: Four albums by Tommy James, with and without the Shondells, have just been re-released. As it happens, three of them I don’t have: I Think We’re Alone Now, Travelin’, and My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar. (Gettin’ Together is the other one.) My Head, My Bed, and My Red Guitar, released late in 1971, features the work of top-shelf Nashville session men Pete Drake, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, and Buddy Spicher, and was engineered by Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitarist. Moore doesn’t play, but he didn’t have to.

James has just published a book called Me, the Mob, and Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells, which tells the band’s story, particularly its relationship with Roulette Records impresario Morris Levy. Levy is the man who strong-armed his way to the top of the music business in the 50s and 60s with such dubiously legal gusto that he eventually inspired a character on The Sopranos. More about that as soon as I lay my hands on a copy.

Top 5: Here’s the Lifeline

Monday over at Echoes in the Wind, whiteray wrote about songs and album he turns to “for comfort or just escape.” Interesting topic, I thought as I read, although I had neither the time nor the inclination to blog about it myself.

Tuesday, every time I opened my e-mail, there was another significant news nugget in it. It wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to call it all bad news—“unsettling” is better. It’s news with the potential to lead to change. Some of it could be bad change, some could be good, but all of it is potentially life-altering, depending on how things turn out.

Wednesday I had an appointment out of the house, a meeting I wasn’t looking forward to. On the way, uninterested in whatever they were talking about on the sports station, I hit the CD player, having forgotten what was in it. It turned out to be several songs from 1976—“Get Closer,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Welcome Back” and others—and I suddenly understood what whiteray had been writing about.  Those songs lightened my load immeasurably. They didn’t fix anything—the meeting didn’t go well and the news remains unsettled—but I found all of it easier to take. And on the ride home, I started percolating some other songs and albums that I’ve turned to for similar comfort or escape over the years. Here are five of ’em, in no particular order:

“Time Passages”/Al Stewart (1978). Not the whole album, but the title song, which promises us that there’s a place we can go where everything that’s wrong will be made right again. “The Sad Café” by the Eagles has a similar effect—which is really what this whole damn blog is all about.

City to City/Gerry Rafferty (1978). “Right Down the Line” ran the charts along with “Time Passages,” and it’s only a small exaggeration to say that the two songs got me through my first semester at college when it looked like nothing else would. But the deeper wisdom in this album took me years to hear—about finding one’s place (“Baker Street,” “The Ark”) or finding it again (“Stealin’ Time”), about the irresistible lure of home (“City to City,” “Home and Dry”), about the need to let go and move on (“Whatever’s Written in Your Heart”).

“Memory Motel”/Rolling Stones (1976). Last October I described this song as being about “a road that never seems to end, one that takes us further and further from the days and the people we remember best.” But “Memory Motel” is also about making the best of whatever road we’re on.

Sleepless/Peter Wolf (2002). I have never cared for the description of rock as “music to kill your parents by.” The best of it actually affirms life in all of its ragged, disorganized, making-it-up-as-you-go-along glory. Sleepless does this by embracing a myriad of influences: rock (the magnificent “Growin’ Pain” and “Run Silent Run Deep”), R&B (“Never Like This Before,” “Homework”), country (“Some Things You Don’t Want to Know” and “Nothing But the Wheel,” which features Mick Jagger and sounds like a Stones outtake, but is in fact a country song through and through), and some profoundly gorgeous pop songs (“Hey Jordan,” “Five o’ Clock Angel”—the warm electric piano that opens the latter is a marvelously comforting sound to me).

Stones in the Road/Mary Chapin Carpenter (1994). I’ve written several times about how the radio talks to us—how certain songs speak as if they were written for us alone. This album is full of ’em—“Why Walk When You Can Fly,” “This Is Love,” and “Jubilee” among them.

What all of these songs and albums have in common is a deep understanding of the patience it takes to live every day. Life is a long haul, and expecting the things we want to come to us right now right now RIGHT NOW is a prescription for frustration. But even when I don’t feel like patience is what I really need, it doesn’t matter, because this music still helps me through. I can hear that these people get it, whatever “it” is. They’ve been there, wherever “there” is, and they know what to say to me right now—which is mostly just to hang on. And I let them say it, over and over and over again. Or as MCC puts it in “This Is Love”:

If you ever need to hear a voice in the middle of the night
When it seems so black outside that you can’t remember light
Ever shone on you or the ones you love in this or another lifetime
And the voice you need to hear is the true and the trusted kind
With a soft, familiar rhythm in these swirling, unsure times
When the waves are lapping in and you’re not sure you can swim
Well here’s the lifeline

Top 5: Rock Me Tonite

September 1984 was quite a month. It was the height of my baseball geekery, and the Chicago Cubs were on their way to an unlikely division championship. Also that month—on the 1st—the radio station I was working for changed format, from soft AC to top 40. Unlike other format changes I’ve been involved in, which either got me fired or drastically changed my working life, this was one of the greatest thrills of my radio career. I was going to be the program director of a real rock ‘n’ roll station, and get paid for it. (Pay in the technical sense, if not in the having-money sense.) I blogged about the change several years ago, and I haven’t thought of anything else to add, except five of the songs that we started slammin’ on that weekend a quarter-century ago, and their positions on the Cash Box chart dated August 25, 1984:

5. “State of Shock”/Jacksons (down from 4). Despite being billed to the Jacksons, “State of Shock” is a duet between Michael and Mick Jagger, and a fairly pedestrian duet at that. But in the fall of 1984, there was never a chance it wasn’t going to be an enormous hit. (There’s a remarkable number of really lame videos for “State of Shock” at YouTube, and nothing that looks like an official video, so I picked this one.)

9. “Sunglasses at Night”/Corey Hart (up from 12). It seems to me that this song is joining Mr. Mister as a shorthand term for bad 80s rock. Like Mr. Mister, it doesn’t deserve it. If you are able to listen to “Sunglasses at Night” the way we heard it 25 years ago, you may be able to remember how well it fit in with the rest of the stuff on the radio at the time—and how it reflected the cultural moment when wearing shades after dark was not an uncommon way of making a fashion statement.

14. “Rock Me Tonite”/Billy Squier (up from 16). Although some people think the completely ridiculous video for “Rock Me Tonite” sunk Squier’s career, you don’t have to watch it—just listen. The refrain (“take me in your arms/roll me through the night”) and the monster riff that accompanies it were about as balls-to-the-wall as 80s radio rock ever got.

22. “Lights Out”/Peter Wolf (up from 24). The Lights Out album was an up-to-the-second 80s production, different from the down-n-dirty blues grooves Wolf and the J. Geils Band made famous, and the title track is another of the underrated radio records of the age. I’m convinced that Wolf is one of the most underrated figures in rock—his deep understanding of R&B and the blues informs nearly everything he’s ever recorded. (His 2002 album Sleepless is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard by anybody.) Not bad for an ex-radio DJ.

75. “The More You Live, the More You Love”/A Flock of Seagulls (up from 86). Of the four singles by AFOS to chart in Billboard between 1982 and 1984, this was the last and the least successful, failing to make the Top 40 at all, but it’s the one I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The lead guitar has a haunting urgency that’s clearly conveying something we’d better pay attention to. Also: the further we get from the ’80s, the dumber a lot of videos look (cf. “Rock Me Tonite”), so the fact that this one still holds up is becoming a greater achievement every day.

For more ’80s goodness, check this week’s Chart Attack! at Popdose.