Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Carpenter's Pencil

As a boy, I had a brief yet intense period of time knowing my Dad. Over the years, at first unexpected and then with regularity thereafter, a small set of objects and places has triggered pleasant feelings about this guy. Model airplanes and ships, which he loved building and painting. Wissahocken Park, where he loved taking me hiking. A stack of notepads and pencils from his old place of employment that still hang about a drawer in my grandmother's house.

Shortly after becoming a home owner and, therefore, a regular customer of hardware stores, I was confronted with another treasured object from a lost part of my youth: the carpenter's pencil, that flat, thick, rectangular pencil that is often sitting at the checkout counter, separating the real men from the boys among DIY impulse buyers. You know, they make sharpeners for these pencils now, but every time I see them next to these special pencils I only think about buying, I scoff at the idea of the sharpener and wonder how any real woodworker could cheat him- or herself the satisfaction of sharpening a carpenter's pencil with a penknife or nearby chisel!

Selling lumber was my father's job, and woodworking was his passion. As a young boy, it seemed like he possessed one archetypal carpenter's pencil - and maybe he did. That pencil could be found in his tool box, on his workbench in the garage, in his glove compartment, and sometimes in his tackle box. He could whip out technical drawings for his customers and his home building projects, and he could doodle with the best of them. Thick, bold pencil lines with firm angles. All the pencil-based tricks of gradation. Sometimes I'd sit next to him and doodle along, pressing down with all my might on a thick No. 2 pencil from his office. He was a bit possessive about his carpenter's pencil, and who could blame him? This was the tool of a craftsman, a craft I would show no aptitude for then or now. I'd make a habit, when he wasn't around, of going out to the garage, getting my little fingers around the natural finish of that unnatural writing utencil, and pressing that thick, soft point into his graph-paper note pads. I rarely pulled off a great doodle with that pencil, but it was fun trying. When I was done, my left hand and the paper would be smeared with the almost-greasy graphite. I'd put the pencil back in its rightful place. Heaven!

One of the downsides of maturing to the point where I was first trusted with using a pen is that I would spend less time using a pencil. One of the downsides of the development of the personal computer is that over the last 15 years, I have spent increasingly less time writing by hand. Surely the computer offers its own forms of doodling, but none has developed with the promise of mastering the carpenter's pencil.

Friday, July 14, 2006

David Thomas and the Wooden Birds, Blame the Messenger

Blame the Messenger, by David Thomas and the Wooden Birds, is the album that preceded the 1988 reunion of Pere Ubu. In fact, it would be a preview of the reunited Ubu to come, featuring all but one of the band members who would play on and tour in support of the strong comeback album, The Tenement Year: Thomas, synth/noisemaker Allen Raventstine, bassist Tony Maimone, guitarist Jim Jones, and elfin drummer Chris Cutler. Only Ubu longtime beatkeeper Scott Krauss was missing.

What I love about this album, following the sometimes sketchy early-80s releases by the band proper (eg, The Art of Walking) and the nutty, impressionistic batch of solo Thomas albums that led up to this one (Monster Walks the Winter Lake is a particular winner among this category), is its feeling of purpose and propulsion and the way it balances the competing, reckless impulses of early Pere Ubu the way no Ubu release had done since the release of their underrated (among Pere Ubu fans, that is, because anyone else doesn't care) New Picnic Time.

Blame the Messenger starts off with the jaunty, concertina-based "My Town", a song that wouldn't have sounded out of place as the opening cut on any of Thomas' previous solo releases. The second song, "A Fact About Trains", introduces more Pere Ubu rock action (a special type of rock action, to be sure) than what hearty fans had been accustomed to hearing from the big man in many moons. Years after being almost taken out of the equation on the band's interesting Song of the Bailing Man album, Allen Ravenstine's analog synth is once more given room to roam, a welcome trend that would continue and then end, at least within a framework of relative song structure, with The Tenement Year. Things really get interesting for me, though, with "King Knut", which picks up where Dub Housing's "Ubu Dance Party" left off. (Hey, if you own no other Ubu-related release and you've got the stomach for what I'm posting here, run out and grab a copy of Dub Housing, one of my essential rock albums.) The rest of side 1, "When Love Is Uneven" and "The Storm Breaks", madly flows together just so, the way only old-fashioned vinyl album sequencing could allow.

OK, I've said too much about an album I don't intellectually grasp. I can't give you any helpful backstory regarding Thomas' biography at the time or literary references. I wish you were with me in 1988 to see the reunited Ubu that night at Philadelphia's old, marble sailor's church turned club Revival. I dragged an Ubu skeptic along, and he was sold. The return of Krauss, laying down his Neanderthal beats under the sort of proggy Cutler fills you'll hear on this album, was magic. This David Thomas and the Wooden Birds album was the shape of things, briefly, to come.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, and Be Bop Deluxe, Part 2

In Part 1's attempt at describing the 6 weeks of visits that an old friend and I used to make as teens to Mike Cosgrove's basement performances of Live at Leeds, I hope to have helped dust off some of your own memories of teenage devotion, aspirations, and attempts at creating an identity. These qualities have come to mind over the last few years, as I've found myself unable to turn away from the awkward charms of British, 1970s glam/prog/futuristic band Be Bop Deluxe. These qualities are among the core values of Overlooked Gems...

Dig. During my own teen years of devotion and identity formation, Be Bop Deluxe was on the periphery of the Trouser Press-touted bands I'd been gobbling up. From what I could tell, there was a lot about them to turn me off: sci-fi song titles, platform shoes, leader Bill Nelson's then-current move into synth-textured futuristic new wave with his new band, Red Noise... The most promising thing I was aware of was the album cover for Be Bop Deluxe's 1976 release Sunburst Finish, but that would have to get in line behind my quest to find an original copy of Roxy Music's Country Life.

A half dozen years later I worked with a great, older music head who would turn me onto a lot of music that I was then ready to check out. Dennis' mind-blowing mix tapes rank up the with the most influential mix tapes of my early 20s, with Andy's and Greg's. One day he presented me with an entire 60-minute mix tape of his favorite songs by Be Bop Deluxe. I immediately formed an image of Bill Nelson's early '80s haircut 100 and pleated slacks. Dennis never was one to bat in the .320s, but this tape made me think he was headed for an extended 0-fer.

The tape started with a half dozen songs from the band's debut album, Axe Victim. I'll refer to the writings of Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope, who on his awesome Album of the Month column describes hearing Axe Victim thusly: "Sure, his lyrics lag far behind his musical dexterity, but unless William Nelson had reduced his vocals merely to moaning, screeching and belching, there weren't no words the equal of this boy's laughably over-reaching muse on AXE VICTIM. Indeed, the first time I heard this offering I did just that - just laughed and laughed - outraged at Nelson's shamelessness and inspired by his will to power."

Perfect, Julian! This is how I felt when I first played that old 60-minute cassette my friend made me. I grew to like this stuff but suffered pangs of guilt. I'd just been coming into my own persona, and here comes this music made up of musical bits I'd been proudly rejecting. I would wait for times when my bandmates/housemates weren't home to fire up a bong hit and play this mix of Ziggy-era Bowie; the melodic, wizardly side of Yes, of all things; and Peter Frampton. Once, I think, I tried to turn a bandmate onto this tape, and I was met with good-natured disdain. I tucked the tape away sometime after and forgot about it. Then, about 15 years later, I came across this tape in a box of abandoned cassettes. I popped it in my tape deck, and I felt the same way I'd felt when I first heard it, the way Cope describes it in his piece on the band.

In this same piece, Cope also gets to the ties that bind Nelson to what I think about these days when I reflect on the spark Cosgrove now represents in my memory and imagination, when he writes: "AXE VICTIM's striving ernie-ernie-ernie dying seagull guitar overkill and more-than-occasional overly twee self-obsessed lyrical preciousness are its inner strengths because, although it WAS informed by ZIGGY STARDUST, it was just too excited to give a damn about hiding the fact."

This Nelson guy, I thought, must have been playing along to Ziggy Stardust for the 2 years leading up to the release of Axe Victim. Although the makeup and platform shoes suggest a bit of an attempt at capitalization, the musical debts sound sincere. As Nelson wraps himself in a mantle of Ziggyisms, something of himself can't help but peak out. It's exciting; it's the stuff we can only hope our growing pains are made of. Today I think, Was this the process Cosgrove was putting himself through as he bowed and faced his copy of Live at Leeds? Had I kept up my ritual visits to Cosgrove's basement, would I have witnessed his transformation?

Bill Nelson would slowly transform into something approaching himself with subsequent Be Bop Deluxe albums. He scrapped the band's original lineup for the follow-up album, Futurama, yet the music and Nelson's role in it remained in a delightfully awkward transitional state. Check out this video of the Futurama-era band deftly working its way through the power pop formalities of "Maid in Heaven". Check out Nelson's expressions during his private moments of instrumental passages. Better yet, for awkward, overreaching moments, there's the band's Sunburst Finish-era performance of the clunky prog-boogie number "Fair Exchange". The album Sunburst Finish would mark the band's development into its own strange, slick beast, but live, with the guy 2 years and 3 releases into his professional pop star career, Nelson still looks as giddy and nervous and proud as a kid playing a Tuesday night gig in his first garage band.

If you've tried to do anything, you too may relate to this feeling. Is this where Cosgrove was headed? Did he ever get there, or is he one of those guys I'd meet many times over - later in high school, during my early 20s, during my early 30s - who, for all intents and purposes, never get out of their parents' basement, at the foot of their hi-fi systems and tattered favorite album?

On Be Bop Deluxe's 1977 fine live album, Live in the Air Age, Nelson revisits an autobiographical track from the band's debut album, "Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape". Live, with his Mark II band, the song is no longer a slightly rushed, 6/8 acoustic-based set-up for some cool hot licks but a pretentious, deliberate, electric piano-based set-up for some searing and emotionally moving hot licks. On the surface, this is a recipe for what I would consider a song worth shooting myself in the foot to avoid hearing, but it works, and it sounds like Bill Nelson has arrived at some strange place where he had been expected.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, and Be Bop Deluxe, Part 1

Chops, desire, love, devotion, aspirations, and ultimately identity… Awkward yet endearing… Slightly embarrassing yet moving… Your kid out on the ball field or performing in a school play… Part 1 of a 2-part joint entry on the Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime hopes to touch on these themes.

We’ll start in 1979, the year some of us began preparing for a transfer from a fantasy life in sports to a fantasy life in rock ‘n roll. My neighborhood friend, personal Babe Ruth League catcher (what a calming influence this guy had on me behind the plate!), and original guitar foil, Mike Appice, introduced me to a neighborhood friend of his, Mike Cosgrove, who’d long been registered in the fantasy rock ‘n roll program, leaving sports behind before it was necessary to wear a cup.

Appice and I were in the intense process of forming our first band with my oldest friend from school, Andy. I’d been bused away from my neighborhood my entire school life, and I’d long been a snobbish outsider on what should have been my own turf. Baseball was my only link to neighborhood kids, and the band would become my only link between a neighborhood friend and school friends. I recruited Appice (whose hormones had also readied him for catching the midnight showing of The Kids Are Alright as often as possible) from the neighborhood to join a band with my school friend. I started teaching him guitar and began inundating him with the punk and new wave records that only I among my middle-class, Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood of Who’s Next-, Dark Side-, and ZoSo-loving dudes seemed to know about. Appice was a good student, and he quickly surpassed my horrible technical skills, threatening to take over the Mick Jones parts from his subordinate Joe Strummer rhythm role on basement attempts at covering “Clash City Rockers” and “Police and Thieves”. His tastes weren’t as refined as I liked to think mine were, which sometimes led him to gravitate toward attempting to play The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” more than, say, a cool album track from This Year’s Model. For a guy from my neighborhood, though, he was a gem, a rare bundle of energy and good humor.

So this guy Cosgrove lived around the corner from Appice. If memory serves, they’d known each other for a while, and the more Appice developed a fondness for actually practicing his guitar chops, the more he started hanging out in Cosgrove’s basement, where Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, would put on his show.

Cosgrove couldn’t play Appice cool, underground punk records like I could, but he could show Appice licks, honest-to-goodness rock licks, the kind that got played on the radio. His specialty was the bag of licks used by Pete Townshend, and even a budding punk rocker had to respect that. Appice introduced me to Cosgrove, and I’d accompany him on weekly visits to Cosgrove’s basement. Cosgrove had the hard-to-find Who songbook with reproductions of handwritten chord charts, tabs, and notes from Pete himself on the tricks behind his most-stunning riffs! The day we learned Pete’s exact voicings for the intro of “Substitute” is one I’ll never forget.

Cosgrove was one of these tall, thin, slightly nerdy blonde guys, with long bangs and the sort of large, plastic-framed, slightly tinted glasses that today only British politicians wear. He didn’t do a lot of talking, not with his mouth anyway (if you know what I’m saying, Joe Perry fans). I was never much for actually learning how to play guitar, but this insider knowledge was worth sitting through what would follow. Here’s where I’d get a little scared. He’d inevitably close up the Who songbook, strap on his Gibson SG copy, turn on his Univox amp, and switch on his Pioneer stereo system. Then, he remove his well-worn copy of The Who’s Live at Leeds album from its sleeve and gently place the record on his turntable. In our meat-and-potatoes, proto-Classic Rock part of Philadelphia, not only owning Live at Leeds but knowing it inside and out was a tad bit radical. It wasn’t like owning punk rock records, but it was along the lines of owning and actually listening to Ummagumma. Cosgrove not only knew every bit of stage banter between tracks, he could play every stinking lick Townshend played on the album, including whatever noodlings Townshend played during the stage banter bits. It was amazing, and scary. As Appice and I sat at his feet, he’d lay the needle down and begin to play along with Townshend throughout side 1.

Things would always start well as Cosgrove played the dazzling, visceral, and unintentionally hilarious riffs from “Young Man Blues”. Now my idea of The Who was (and still is) centered around the Meaty, Beaty, Big, and Bouncy stuff, when they were a supercharged, concise, testosterone-fueled bundle of pimples and engorged members. As much as I also loved the epic anthems of Who’s Next, this Live at Leeds stuff (and their appearance in Woodstock) marked the turning point for me in the band’s ability to consistently deliver. Daltry started shouting beyond his voice’s natural capacity. Townshend’s guitar tone and playing started to get exposed (I never found him to be that interesting for more than a few seconds of single-note soloing; I missed his reliance on inverted chord riffs). The band’s Look was no longer as cool. The fringed suede jacket thing worked for real hippie bands, but not for The Who. Mods don’t wear fringe. (The problem, I’ve since come to realize, is that sometime between Tommy and Woodstock, the band members started to get laid with too much ease. Was it Mickey who said to Rocky, “Women weaken legs!”) So I’d giggle delightedly through “Young Man Blues” and then enjoy the rumbling of the live version of “Substitute”. I never cared for this version as much as the single, but it’s hard to go wrong with this song.

Like I said, while the goofy stage banter played between songs, Cosgrove would play along with any incidental guitar noises that were coming from Pete that night. “Summertime Blues” was, for me, the album’s raison d’être, and “Shakin’ All Over” was pretty cool as well, but it was sometime during this Johnny Kidd & the Pirates cover (as I would learn during my advanced Who studies) that things got hairy. By this point in the performance, the bloated nature of the band as captured during this performance would start to get to me. By this point in the performance, Cosgrove’s complete absorption and lack of humor about the whole affair would get uncomfortable. As much as Appice was eating up the program’s educational content, even he would start to squirm. Cosgrove seemed to have no idea how weird it was to go through this in front of two fellow teens on a weekly basis. And how much practice time had gone into this performance before we walked down the steps to his basement? (And where were his parents during all this?)

Next in the program was, for me, the deal breaker, the 14:27 version of “’My Generation’.” I quote the song title's quotes because this version, if you don’t know it, contains a medley of Townshend’s assorted riffs from Tommy. It was all meant to climax in the instrumental “Sparks”. For Appice, this was heaven. For me, it was torture. “Sparks” is undoubtedly cool in the way that a guy riding a unicycle is cool, but I don’t want to hear it more than once a year, and I sure don’t want to see some future look-alike of a British Prime Minister play along to it. The entire experience of the Cosgrove performance, at this point, crossed the line from trying to pick up some cool guitar licks from the foot of a master student to observing a monk in prayer.

I would eventually decline invitations to Cosgrove’s basement. Appice and I would eventually butt heads and part ways over his desire to incorporate more instrumental passages into our music. I would eventually transfer what sports credits I could over to rock ‘n roll fantasy university and lose both a great catcher and friend.

How this ties into ‘70s, British glam/prog-rock band Be Bop Deluxe is a story for Part 2!