Tommy James: The Rocker who Tried to Influence a Presidential Election

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BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / AUG 20, 2008 

The presidential campaign shifts into super-high gear Monday, when the Democratic National Convention begins in Denver.

And if presumptive nominee Barack Obama emerges from Denver as the party’s standard-bearer, he will be able to count on active support from many Rock and Pop stars. Already, according to Wikipedia, such names as 50 Cent, Arcade Fire, Sheryl Crow, The Decemberists, Wyclef Jean, John Mellencamp, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West — even Bob Dylan — have endorsed Obama.

While Obama is bringing it to a new level, support for Democratic presidential candidates by Rock stars (as well as other performers of youth-oriented or -originated music) is hardly new. But one man who could make a strong case for pioneering it, were he alive today, would be Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

In 1968, while serving as Vice President and running for President, Humphrey campaigned with Tommy James & the Shondells, whose Garage-Rock-tinged dance tunes like “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” had brought them Top 40 fame at the time. The band played at numerous Humphrey campaign stops. (Humphrey also received an endorsement from James Brown that year.)

The year 1968 was when Boomer-generation young people made their voices heard in politics — usually in protest, sometimes violently. Though a Democrat and mainstream liberal, then-57-year-old Humphrey was the target for a lot of that protest.

Humphrey had trouble breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War and was nominated amid the police riot against youthful demonstrators during the infamous Chicago Democratic convention. As a result, he couldn’t quite unite his party and just barely lost to Richard Nixon.

As The Charlotte Observer reported when the Shondells opened for Humphrey in October, “For the first time, presidential candidates are catering to the growing bloc of young people just under 21, or over the 18-year-old voting age in some states.” (This was before the 1971 federal law giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.)

Today, James — a Dayton native — is a youthful-looking 61 and on the oldies circuit. A few months ago, he played a sweaty, vigorous set at Grand Victoria Casino in Rising Sun, Ind., working loudly with a younger band — to an older crowd — through his late-1960s hits, which also included “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mirage” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.”

Backstage before the show, dressed in a “Censorship Off/Free Speech On” T-shirt, James eagerly recalled his work for Humphrey in 1968. With him was an original Shondell, bassist Mike Vale, who had come to visit.

“We had been asked to play (in May) for the Democratic Party at a generic rally,” he says. “We weren’t endorsing any candidate. We played in the afternoon and there war protesters calling us sellouts.” (James says he believes the Lovin’ Spoonful also played.)

After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the June California Democratic primary, James says he went into a funk for several weeks. That was broken when Humphrey’s secretary called his record label to see if he might be able to appear with the Vice President after the convention, assuming Humphrey won the nomination. James agreed, thinking anyone would be better than Nixon.

The Shondells first opened for Humphrey at a rally in Wheeling, W. Va., and met the candidate and his wife, Muriel. “We became his opening act,” James says.

For Humphrey, James figured, his band was a way to attract young people and increase crowds. But, he now surmises, there was more to it than that.

“He wanted very much to be taken seriously by young people,” James says. “He wanted to know how he was viewed, and I was 21 years old.”

As a result, James says, a friendship developed that included late-night, post-rally talks on a variety of topics. At one point, he says, Humphrey asked his take on calling for a national referendum on ending the war. Another time, James says, he was asked to become Humphrey’s advisor on youth affairs if he won the election.

“He wanted everything from Rock festivals to an open dialogue with young people,” James says. “It really bothered him he was thought of in such a terrible way, as a warmonger.”

After the election, the Shondells made a splash with a new sound, the neo-psychedelic Pop Rock of “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Humphrey wrote the liner notes to the resulting album, Crimson & Clover.

Hubert Horatio “Skip” Humphrey III, 66, the vice president’s son and a former Minnesota elected official himself, was eager to talk about James’ relationship with his father.

“I know that Tommy James and his group were helpful in the 1968 campaign,” he says in a phone interview from his Minnesota home. “My wife and I had an opportunity to be with them a couple of times. I don’t recall the specifics, but I can assure you that Tommy James and his group were supportive of Dad and helpful.”

Also eager to speak about the relationship was the late vice president himself — courtesy of a tape of a post-election radio interview sent by James in a package of newspaper clips and other corroborative materials.

“We used to sit up late at night and discuss politics after they’d entertain for us,” Humphrey says on the tape. “Gee, they’re fine young men. At midnight, we’d sit around and have a visit and talk about what had happened during the day. These are bright young men that want to know a lot about their country.”

Incidentally, James now favors Obama.

“What we need is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “I really believe what we need most is somebody to make us feel good about ourselves.”

 

 

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WUSSY: THE NAME JUST LOOKS RIGHT

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BY STEVEN ROSEN

Blurt Online / June 9, 2009

 

Growing up in rural Clarksville in southwest Ohio, Chuck Cleaver learned early to hide his artistic interests from friends — even though at age six he had a gift for making up songs.

“I think in the community I came from, any kind of artistic
aspirations that a male had were considered wussy or gay, and you just don’t
want to be that in a small town,” he says. “So I never let on.”

Cleaver, who turns 50 in June and now lives in more arts-friendly Cincinnati,
isn’t sure if that memory is the impetus for the name of his band Wussy. It’s
the successor to the critically beloved but commercially iffy alt-rock band he
led, Ass Ponys.  In Wussy, he shares singing and songwriting with Lisa Walker, his significant other.

“Wussy just looks right,” he says of the name, during a
weekend breakfast at Blue Jay Restaurant in the city’s scruffy but hip
Northside section.

Active in the local music scene for three decades, he knows
just about every person in the divey, friendly place. The restaurant also
happens to be next door to Shake It Records, the city’s premiere record store
and also part of the enterprise that releases Wussy’s music.

On its new self-titled album on Shake It – the band’s third
since 2006 (plus an EP) – Wussy is looking right to a lot of people. Besides
Cleaver and 36-year-old singer-songwriter Walker, Wussy consists of Mark
Messerly on bass and late-arrival Joe Klug on drums (recently replacing Dawn
Burman). Its sound is often foreboding and intensely urgent, yet eminently
tuneful with an approach that recalls R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground.

Cleaver and Walker’ voices work well in harmony and solo; he’s capable of an imploring falsetto, she of compelling insight. Cleaver gets credit for the lyrics to five songs; Walker six. On a twelfth song, he wrote “most” of the lyrics; she “the end.”

The literate, mysteriously imagist quality of the songwriting about relationships (“Little Paper Birds” and “Gone Missing”) or life’s meaning (“Happiness Bleeds,” “Scream & Scream Again”) is striking. For instance, on the song “Happiness Bleeds,” Cleaver rhymes “porn” and “born” not in a jokey or smutty way, as so many bands might do, but rather almost existentially as he envisions a compellingly strange scene from rural youth:

“Trampling through the brambles til our pants were all
torn/
searching for a paper bag of mildewy porn/ reflecting on the neverending question/why had we been born?”

Wussy will be touring the East Coast and Midwest
this summer in support of the album. And in September, Cleaver and Walker will
do acoustic shows in Great Britain.  It will be his first time overseas. The Ass Ponys once were about to go, even had dates booked, but the original guitarist suddenly quit.

“We had gotten back from a 2½-month tour and his infant daughter didn’t know who he was,” Cleaver recalls. “So he said, ‘Screw this.’ By the time we got a new guitarist, the tour was over. That was between Electric Rock Music and the album after that.”

Electric Rock Music was Ass Ponys’ shining moment in the culture at large. Although that 1994 album was the band’s third, it was the first on A&M Records. The band had been signed when the majors chased offbeat and impassioned indie-rock acts in the wake of Nirvana’s breakthrough. It even spawned a modern-rock hit, “Little Bastard,” and earned the band a spot on tour with Pavement. But by the time of a 1996 follow-up on A&M, the
moment had passed. It came and went quickly.

“I think the label felt it had the next big thing, and for a while there was some frenzy,” Cleaver says. “But we were a bunch of midwestern guys, not especially good-looking and in our thirties, so they did not have the next Nirvana. We always got the impression they wanted us to be a little less heavy and to dress a little better. But we were like old grumpy men who didn’t want to do what they’d say.

“The guy who signed us to A&M really liked us,” he continues. “He signed a lot of ‘odd’ bands – Kitchens of Distinction and a band who were all really little and marveling at how big we were. They were really tiny people and looked like they all could be on charm bracelet.” Cleaver remembers that band had a one-word name, but can’t recall what it was.

Cleaver, it should be noted, is still a strapping guy – 6-2, heavyset, with a thick graying goatee, darker tousled hair and prominently framed glasses that give him a seriously bookish presence, like Trotsky. The tattoos, however, hint at a life on a hipper, alt-culture edge. He fits in both camps – he has a degree in fine arts from University of Cincinnati,
where he also started playing in experimental-music bands.

Ass Ponys continued on after the A&M moment passed. Two albums on Checkered Past, 2000’s Some Stupid With a Flare Gun and 2001’s Lohio, won praise for their committed rock and their witty and offbeat pop cultural references.

But something was happening to Cleaver around that time. “After we made Lohio, which was my favorite record, I thought I don’t know what’s beyond it,” he confides. “We were coming up with new material, but having trouble getting into it. I felt I needed a break. I’m not sure the Ass Ponys ever broke up, just faded out.” In fact, Ass Ponys is planning a
compilation, The Checkered Past Years, for release this summer on Shake It. It will include both albums, plus some live tracks and songs from various compilations.

After an Ass Ponys gig at a club in Newport, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Cleaver was sitting on the building’s front porch when a younger women he had never met – Walker – came up to him.

“She picked up my guitar and started playing a song she had written and it was actually really good,” he says. “I tend to be a little picky – writing is the only thing I can do really well. So I was really impressed by that. And when she sang, Bam! That’s about all it took.”

Cleaver had earlier agreed to play a solo acoustic gig – a rarity for him – at a local festival. After that, “We thought maybe we can do this,” he says.

It was a tough time for them. Both were in the process of having their marriages fail. Cleaver was so financially strapped he had all his electrical musical equipment and gave up his fulltime business as a collectibles dealer. (He now works as a stonemason.) Then romance ensued. “We sort of went with it,” he says. “When you meet somebody, you don’t really have control over it. Our intention was never to be a couple.”

It has not been the easiest of relationships, Cleaver says, and some of that might be reflected in the songwriting. But, however much his image of the “old grumpy man” may persist in certain quarters, he feels renewed.

And, as he turns 50, he’s optimistic his best songwriting lies ahead.

“I hope so,” he says. “I always kind of hoped it was.”

 

(Photo, above, of Chuck Cleaver of Wussy by Jesse Fox)

Mocking Monikers

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What’s in a band name? Often just a twisted version of another name

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / MARCH 25, 2009

Keeping up with today’s popular music performers is like walking past a funhouse mirror. For every favorite culture or literary hero you or anyone else is liable to have had, real or fictional, there’s probably a contemporary Rock act appropriating the name. Sometimes it’s done as a straight-up tribute; sometimes it’s presented in a humorous or punny way.

Just check the Cincinnati concert listings. On Thursday night, Gringo Star plays Northside Tavern (that’s them in the photo). No, it’s not the drummer of The Beatles in a mischievous mood. Rather, it’s a young Atlanta band celebrating the release of its debut album All Yall, whose scrappy, tuneful sound and concise songwriting recall The Kinks and Rolling Stones.

On Friday, Steve E. Nix and the Cute Lepers — not by a long shot the bewitching female singer of Fleetwood Mac and some critically ill pals — is at Southgate House. Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head arrives at the Mad Hatter April 14.

And that’s not counting acts who have either been here recently or could come if they chose — Joe Buck Yourself, the Lloyd Dobler Effect, Merle Jagger, Franz Ferdinand, Abe Vigoda, Jackie-O Motherfucker and too many more to list.

There are so many such acts there could be a festival devoted to them. In fact, the close but prickly relationship between two such bands — The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre — was the subject of an award-winning documentary a few years back, DiG!

What’s causing all this? In a word, cleverness. Maybe too much.

“The short answer is that, more often than not, the Spinal Tap axiom applies: ‘There’s a fine line between clever and stupid,’ ” says Aaron M. Kerley, an instructor in Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies at University of Cincinnati’s College of Applied Science. “When it’s done right, you end up with Warhol’s silkscreen of Mao — recognizable as a celebrity icon (and) playing off the celebrity icon but slightly debasing the notion of celebrity as well, recasting the icon in a contemporary context.

“Of course, when it’s too obvious or it reveals little about the artist and the art or makes no real comment, it is merely clever for its own sake. It exploits the reference rather than contributing new meaning to it. It’s merely jokey: ‘Ha ha.’ ”

The specific reasons for these names vary as greatly as the names themselves. Nicholas Firgiuele of Gringo Star explains, that it was never the band’s intention to name-check Ringo. The “Gringo” reference was a nod to their outsiderish love of Mexican culture — the cuisine as well as the mariachi music — and the “Star” just sounded good.

And there was a wise reason to not spell its name “Starr,” like the Beatles drummer, Firgiuele says: “There’s also an Austin band called Ringo Deathstarr.”

The real Ringo — who was born Richard Starkey — has stopped Gringo Star from copyrighting its name but is otherwise alright with its existence.

The River Phoenix, a new Danish Post Punk/Power Pop band, makes a pun out of the deceased actor River Phoenix’s first name by putting a “the” in front of it.

“Over the years, struggling as a band, our friendship got stronger and stronger,” says its lead singer, Kristian Kristensen. “It was rather like the movie Stand By Me, starring the late River Phoenix as a young boy, in the sense of that friendship, and suddenly it seemed to tie in with the quest we were on. Stand By Me sounded too sweet as a band name though — like a Danielle Steele novel!”

Actually, there’s a long history of referential names in popular music. In the early 1960s, Chubby Checker became a teen sensation with a name that reverse-echoed Rock pioneer Fats Domino. And The Beatles’ name was a somewhat obscure insect shout-out to one of their favorites, The Crickets, Buddy Holly’s band.

One Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, possibly a nod to the poet Dylan Thomas. British Psych Rock pioneers Pink Floyd are named after two obscure American bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. The 1970s-era Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd misspelled the name of a conservative high school teacher to rib him.

The Punk and New Wave era was filled with acts rebelling against cultural complacency and hero worship: Elvis Costello riffed on Elvis Presley, and The Dead Kennedys, led by one Jello Biafra, were in-your-face about it.

The plethora of acts with such names today is partly a result of Rock — especially literate, artsy Alternative Rock — becoming a legitimate career path for college grads. They want to show you what they’ve learned.

Patrick Stickles, singer/guitarist/keyboard player for Titus Andronicus — a thrashingly melodic New Jersey band in the tradition of The Clash — was a literature major at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He says he had a great class in Shakespeare “one magical semester.”

Thus his band is named after one of Shakespeare’s earliest — and goriest — plays. (The band plays the Southgate House on April 23.)

“The truth is it isn’t one of the better Shakespeare plays, but I do think it has the best name,” he says of Titus Andronicus. “So I thought, he’s been dead for a while and probably won’t mind if we borrow it.”

The forgotten ’70s band Jade gets a new life

James Aumann was doing his usual tax-collecting work as Warren County Treasurer late last year when he received an email about a secret from his long-ago past.

It was from Darren Blase, co-owner of Northside’s Shake It Records store. He wanted to know if the county treasurer was the same James Aumann who once led an obscure and short-lived local rock group called Jade.

The band had issued one album in 1971, Faces of Jade, on a small Cincinnati label called General American Records. It appears to have been barely released.

“I called him and said, ‘Darren, this is Jim Aumann. I give up – you found me,’” Aumann recalled recently.

Blase wasn’t threatening to embarrass Aumann, a Republican who, in 2012, was elected unopposed to his third term. Instead, he was interested in reissuing the vinyl album on his Shake It record label because he liked it so much.

“I was really pretty astounded,” said Aumann, 65. “Obviously back when we did this record, we were hoping for big things. I was hoping to make a living from this. When it didn’t happen, it was seriously disappointing.”

Aumann had quit Miami University to pursue Jade at the time. When that failed, he went into banking – getting a degree in finance from American Institute of Banking and rising to become vice president of Warren County’s old Community National Bank. Fifteen years ago, he was hired to be the county’s chief deputy treasurer and he then moved up.

On Friday, Shake It will debut its vinyl reissue of Faces of Jade, with original album-cover art. It will be for sale at the store to launch Black Friday, the kick-off for the Christmas shopping season. There is a new 500-copy pressing (on green vinyl, with download code included). It will also be available via Shake It’s website, http://www.shakeitrecords.com, starting on Dec. 2.

Blase believes that Faces of Jade holds up well as an example of the way a regional American band was inspired by the sophisticated, boundary-breaking rock and pop of the Beatles. Its 10 songs are artistically ambitious. Aumann and the band used the studio to create songs with ambitiously ornate instrumental and vocal arrangements, innovative recording techniques, and substantial melodies. In short, it wasn’t just garage rock. Parts of songs like “Prelude Willow’s End” and “My Mary (More Than Ever)” fit well into the psychedelic-rock genre of the time; other passages are more folk-pop.

“It’s such an odd record for Cincinnati,” said the 46-year-old Blase. “Nothing here was ever on my radar that’s this overtly Beatles-influenced a kind of sound.

“On top of that, I found my copy of that Jade record at Mole’s (a used record on Short Vine), probably in 1985,” he said. “I would buy everything that had a Cincinnati address on it. I had no expectations of what it was – it looked kind of hippieish. It still had its 99-cents price sticker.”

Actually, the international audience for collectible rock had also discovered Jade. A bootleg CD of the album had appeared in Europe last decade, and music-oriented blogs like Robots for Ronnie and Tyme-Machine have praised the group.

In Jade, Aumann played keyboards and was a songwriter and singer who worked on arrangements. Other members were guitarist/songwriter/singer Randy Morse, bassist/singer Nick Root, drummer Timothy Nixon and business/songwriting partner and co-producer David Smith. The band was active from roughly 1970-1973.

Aumann believes he had a gift early for music composition. “I could write vocal parts in my head,” he said. “My dad and I used to do a lot of singing and harmonizing when I was growing up, and so did my brother and I.”

While at Mason High School, he and Smith played together in a band called the Villains. That ended with college, but Aumann continued writing at Miami University. Smith visited him from Ohio State in 1969, heard the song “Willows” and suggested recording it and several more. The two first cut the songs with studio musicians at Lockland’s Artists’ Recording Studio. But access there ended when the studio’s president died of a heart attack.

They realized they couldn’t afford to continue recording with expensive studio musicians, so they sought other band members. They decided to call themselves Jade. They found the other members from area bands and started recording at Mount Healthy’s Jewel Recording Studio. And they made contact with a record company.

Aumann thinks highly of the band members he and Smith chose. Morse turned out to be a substantial writer, himself, contributing “Well,” ”We (Got to Make It Thru)” and two other songs to the album.

Now 63, Morse went on to a career in the tech industry but has also played guitar regularly in Nashville, his home for the past 20 years.

“Though we’re not ‘rich and famous,’ we created music that has been appreciated beyond our wildest imagination, over 40 years later,” he said, via email. “A real artist is not in it for the money, though it validates our work.” (After sending this email, Morse had to go to a hospital with a minor stroke, Aumann said, adding that he is doing well.)

Nixon, 63, lives in Mason and is an ATM technician for Diebold Inc. Smith, 65, is semi-retired and lives in West Chester. Root, 61, of Fort Thomas, said in an email he has continued playing music off and on in this area. He joined Aumann and Morse for a reunion this year.

Aumann had never received money from Faces of Jade until Blase recently sent $145 for songwriting/publishing rights.

That’s a milestone, but Aumann says he is not yet ready to quit his prestigious day job to resume a music career. (He’s actually recorded some music at home.)

“As Darren said, if this does really well, we can probably all go out for a nice dinner,” he said.

 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

Should Richard Hell Be in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame?

BY STEVEN ROSEN / CINCINNATI CITYBEAT /6-19-13

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(Note:  In November 2017, there will be a deluxe 40th anniversary reissue of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ ‘Blank Generation.’)

SO FAR, this has been a hell of a year for Punk.

By that, I mean it’s been a great year for recognizing the formative influence that Richard Hell, now 63, has had on Punk — and, by extension, all Rock & Roll and pop culture that has followed in its aggressive, assertive, rebellious wake.

Hell just published a literary, frank, edgy autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, that has earned comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It tells how the roots of his restless disaffection with society, his hell-raising personal conduct and his interest in the arts (and Rock music) all began while growing up as Richard Meyers in Lexington, Ky. His dad, who died when Hell was just 7, was an experimental psychologist at the University of Kentucky.

Hell can also claim a very important role in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new blockbuster fashion exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture. His impact on the creation of 1970s-era New York Punk is represented in the very first gallery, which is devoted to the Bowery punk club CBGB where he performed. Also, a late-1970s photo of him in a signature ripped-around-the-collar T-shirt is one of the show’s more widely seen images. He and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) wrote prefaces to the show’s catalogue; fitting, as the two have been singled out as the New York and London originators of Punk.

A restless sort, upon arriving in New York and deciding upon music, Hell left bands Television and the Heartbreakers before either had developed much of a following. But his own Richard Hell & the Voidoids did release a famously influential album on Sire in 1977, his pinched voice delivering up such classics as title song “Blank Generation” and “Love Comes in Spurts.”

It took him five years to come up with a follow-up, Destiny Street. By then, his momentum was gone; it wasn’t until 1992 that he joined up with Dim Stars — a Punk/Post-Punk studio super-group — for an album. He was trying to rid himself of a drug problem by avoiding the music scene, he explains in his book. But he has kept busy as a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

For Hell, this current national recognition has been a long time coming. As it happens, it coincides with a similar musical awakening by residents of Kentucky who take pride in their Bluegrass State containing “the roots of popular music,” as the subtitle of a 2012 book by Jason Howard, A Few Honest Words, puts it.

But should Hell be among those musicians that Kentuckians revere? After all, the music usually associated with Kentucky is Country, Bluegrass and Appalachian Folk.

Punk? Not so much.

At the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a Renfro Valley complex built by the state and operated by a nonprofit, he’s gotten some recent public nominations for inclusion.

“The guitarist from Lexington? Yeah,” says Robert Lawson, the Hall of Fame’s executive director, when asked if Hell has ever been mentioned as a possible inductee.

To qualify for inclusion, a potential inductee must have spent part of his or her life in Kentucky and have been active in music for at least 10 years. While public input is welcome, the official selections are made by a designated committee, which has inducted classes six times since 2002. Current members include the Everly Brothers, The Judds, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Monroe and Grandpa Jones.

Hell has a very influential supporter in Ron Pen, professor of music at University of Kentucky and director of the school’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music. (Niles, a Kentucky Folk singer/songwriter/folklorist who was one of Bob Dylan’s influences, is in the Hall of Fame.)

“I was on the Advisory Board of the Kentucky Music Museum and some years ago I suggested Richard Hell and (Covington-born virtuoso Rock guitarist) Adrian Belew, even though they did not fit the ‘mold’ of the traditional and Country musicians generally associated with the Commonwealth,” he wrote in an email.

“Meyers certainly is an easy sell for the Kentucky Music Museum, but I have not assembled the biographical material, etc., to submit his name. If there is an autobiography out now, that should be all the ammo you need. He was a core cultural icon in the (Punk) movement, though it was his work in New York City and on recordings, not in a scene in Lexington, that was central to Punk.”

Hell’s publisher, Ecco, declined an interview request and Hell did not respond to an email. But in A Very Clean Tramp, he explained how life in Lexington inspired his Punk attitude.

You can see the seeds of the album Blank Generation arising from this description of suburbia: “My flat, vacant, smudged 10- or 11-year-old face. There’s a panorama or montage of local vistas, the empty suburban hills shifting slowly behind it, all silent and soft and cold, with visible grain, as I glide around the quiet newly built streets on my bicycle, alone, with no else in sight.”

He moved with his mother to Virginia in 1965 and left on his own for New York around Christmas 1966, while still a teen. His background and attitude might make him a somewhat radical choice for an institution that this year chose as inductees Exile, Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman, Kentucky Headhunters, Skeeter Davis, ‘50s vocal group The Hilltoppers, Old Joe Clark, and Emory and Linda Martin. (Emory was a one-armed banjo virtuoso.)

This year’s induction class has its Rock influences. Kentucky Headhunters make Country Rock. Exile — before becoming Country mainstays — had a sexy hit with a Rock ballad in 1978 called “Kiss You All Over.” And the late Country singer Davis, born in Dry Ridge, Ky., had a huge 1963 pop hit called “The End of the World” and two decades later recorded an album with the Louisville-originated rock band NRBQ, whose bassist Joey Spampinato she subsequently married.

Previous induction classes have had a few rockers — besides the Everly Brothers, Louisville-born Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary is in the Hall, as is Pikeville native son Dwight Yoakam, who brought a Cowpunk sensibility to Country.

The engrossing museum, itself, has far more variety in its many exhibits. NRBQ is represented, for instance, as is Harlan-born Rusty York, a Cincinnatian who had the Rockabilly hit “Sugaree” in 1959. For more information, visit kentuckymusicmuseum.com.

In Northern Kentucky, Covington’s Behringer-Crawford Museum has partnered with Northern Kentucky Music Legends Committee to start a separate induction process just for their own hall of fame. The first 13 were selected in tandem with a related exhibit that opened June 2 and continues through Sept. 1. It’s a “strange brew” of initial inductees, ranging from 1960s/1970s local television-show/singer Bob Braun to Belew, with an actual band called Strange Brew among the others. For more information, visit bcmuseum.org.)

Hell, short of a statewide (or national) public campaign, probably isn’t going to get into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame anytime soon. But just in case, executive director Lawson says he plans to learn more about his music.

After all, Hell is a Kentuckian.

“I take a lot of pride in trying to learn something new each day and figuring out more artists, because we’ve got to honor and support them as much as we can,” Lawson says.

(This appeared in Cincinnati CityBeat; 6-19-13. Photo supplied by Harper Collins; credited to Inezvan Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin.)

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@citybeat.com

 

Remembering the Ramones in the documentary ‘End of the Century’

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By Steven Rosen
(From The Denver Post, 2004)

The Ramones documentary is called “End of the Century” – a tribute to a troubled record of the same name that the groundbreaking punk band made with the ultra-difficult producer Phil Spector.

But it could be called “End of the Ramones.” The film arrives in Denver like a celluloid epitaph.

Three members of the original quartet that started in 1974 and split up in 1997 are now dead – guitarist Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer last month. The lanky, rail-thin lead singer Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001; colorful bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose a year later, shortly after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only drummer Tommy Ramone survives of the original quartet.

“He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world,” said “End of the Century’s” co-director Jim Fields, in a recent E-mail following news of Johnny’s death. “But I didn’t care because he was straightforward and authentic, and you always knew what he said is what he meant. In the film and music biz, that is invaluable. I just feel honored to have been able to work with the Ramones and with Johnny.”

The Ramones, on stage and on albums, projected such an image of brotherly solidarity – often-funny three-chord songs kept short and played buzz-saw fast by guys who always looked alike in their “Wild One” gear – that it still comes as a surprise for many to learn they weren’t actually brothers. Joey’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman, Johnny was John Cummings, Dee Dee Douglas Colvin, and Tommy is Tom Erdelyi. (According to websites, the name is a tribute to the pseudonym Paul McCartney used – “Paul Ramone” – when appearing on albums by his brother Mike’s band, Scaffold.)

And the Ramones never seemed to get old. They were – are – rock in the way that Mount Rushmore is. They projected an image of family and a code of loyal solidarity. At first dismissed by many as cartoonish, the Ramones grew to be considered heroic in their unbending “true believer” stance.

As Rob Zombie observes in “End of the Century,” the compelling film by Fields and Michael Gramaglia, “No matter what weird trends came and went, you’d go see the Ramones and it’d be like, ‘What year is it, anyway?’”

And yet, the Ramones most decidedly were not family – or at least not one big happy one. This is the shock and wrenching poignancy of “End of the Century” – it reveals that the true story of the Ramones was a tragedy long before the early deaths.

Key to the band’s tension, and painstakingly documented in “Century,” was the estrangement of the band’s two leaders, the romantic Joey and the blunt Johnny, who together owned Ramones Productions. Johnny had married Joey’s beloved girlfriend, Linda, and Joey never forgave him.

“When he (Johnny) saw the film, he called up and said, “I come across as pretty bad,’’ Gramaglia said, in an earlier telephone interview from his New York editing studio. “He showed it to a lot of his friends and they said, “But that’s the way you are.’ And he said, “I guess that’s the way I am. Leave it the way it is.’’’

Gramaglia, who had long worked for Ramones Productions, and high-school friend Fields earlier had made a more celebratory, music-oriented documentary about the band, 1997’s fan-oriented “We’re Outta Here.” Like the Ramones, they are New Yorkers. Being privy to the closely guarded story about the rift between Joey and Johnny, they pushed for a more personal, revelatory film.

“I called up Joey and said I don’t even want to start if he’s not interested,” Gramaglia said. “They both were partners in the company and they made 50-50 decisions on everything. He said, ‘I’ll do it if John talks about Linda.’

“This is something they’ve never talked about – they’ve never talked to each other about it,” he continued. “They never aired it and cleared it up. Joey said, ‘I don’t want it to be a whitewash, I want the real story. Ask John if he’ll do that.’ I called up John and said, ‘Joey has presented this challenge – will you talk about Linda?’ John was silent for a while and then he said, ‘Yeah.’ That opened it up.”

But because of Joey’s illness, he delayed talking to the filmmakers – until it was too late. “He was sick and that prevented it,” Gramaglia said. “We had a lot of interviews scheduled that he’d cancel because he had a bad day. Then things dragged on, so we decided to interview everyone else and go back to him.”

Fields, sharing the phone with Gramaglia, continued: “There was also a problem (interviewing Joey) because the first person interviewed was Dee Dee and then we went to L.A. to interview Johnny, so he felt a little paranoid that we might be in league with (Joey) and we had a hard time getting his trust. After about a year, we put together a short idea of what the film would be like, and he really liked it. That was a short time before he died, and that’s when he got excited about it.

“He sent an E-mail that he was ready to schedule the interview and was feeling good,” Fields said. “We had seen him perform at a Christmas (2000) party and he was in great voice and looked good and he was feeling really good. And then he slipped and broke his hip going out, and that was it.”

Yet at the same time as “Century” reveals this tragic rift and more, the film consistently celebrates the power of the music. It offers extensive footage from the band’s earliest days at New York punk club CBGB’s to a later tour of Brazil where they were received like superstars. It also shows Dee Dee to be a hilarious down-and-out junkie raconteur; an over-the-top, self-destructive figure who knows his weaknesses yet always conveys a sensitive and romantic side.

During the making in 1980 of the album “End of the Century,” producer Spector pulled a gun on the band during recording sessions. Given Spector’s current legal problems, this episode is extremely timely now and is recalled at length in the film.

Last year, Spector initially was charged with murder after a 40-year-old actress was found shot to death at his L.A. mansion. He has pleaded not guilty and been free on bail during an extensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding the event.

Johnny’s comments in the film about Spector – himself a legend from the 1960s for his “Wall of Sound” productions for the Ronettes, the Crystals and Righteous Brothers – are typically unsentimental and caustically direct: “A little man with lifts on his shoes, a wig on his head, and four guns.”

That was Johnny Ramone. Like the band, itself, no-nonsense.

(This story is adapted and updated from an article that originally appeared in Harp magazine. Tommy Ramone died in 2014.)

The Age of Enlightenment for David Sylvian


photograph by Ronald Milne
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Date: November 11, 2009
by Steven Rosen for Blurt Magazine


One can draw parallels between David Sylvian’s career and that of Scott Walker.

Sylvian, who at age 51 is 15 years younger than Walker, also experienced early success as a handsome British pop idol – his New Romantic/New Wave band Japan enjoyed a series of Top Ten hits in the early 1980s, one of which, “Ghosts,” was remarkable for its ambient soundscape. Like Walker, Sylvian has a gorgeously smooth, sensuous voice – in his case, a tenor (that seems to have deepened into baritone) with a yearningly intimate vibrato.

And after Japan, from the 1980s onward, Sylvian, like Walker, has moved steadily toward the avant-garde side of pop music with his lyrical and instrumental concerns, alone and with international collaborators.

And both men have adopted new homelands – while Walker left his native U.S. for Britain back in the 1960s, Sylvian in the 1990s left Britain for the U.S. to pursue sadhana, enlightenment through the aid of a spiritual guru, first in Northern California and then New Hampshire. Divorced, he now spends time between New York City and New Hampshire, where his children live.

“For people who leave their native country, you begin to feel you can’t put roots down anywhere else and yet you can’t go home because the place you left no longer exists as it once was,” Sylvian says, in a telephone interview about the release of his new album Manafon. “In a sense, the world becomes your home because one place doesn’t feel like home any more than any other. Yet there’s a freedom in that opening. Something is lost but something is gained.”

Both men, in short, have become deep-thinking aesthetes. Yet if there’s been a major difference, Walker’s music increasingly has tried to match the despair and darkness of his subject matter. Albums like Tilt and The Drift are tough conceptual art. Sylvian, on the other hand, especially in his highly lauded 1999 album Dead Bees on a Cake, had been trying to find breakthrough beauty that contains a spiritual dimension – not conventional prettiness or religiosity, by any means. He’s become one of pop music’s great seekers.

Manafon — named for a Welsh village and released on his own Samadhisound label – continues his search for peak musical beauty, in many ways. But the darkness that is life is starting now to surround him.

Working with improvisational musicians over the course of several years at sessions in Vienna, Tokyo and London, he has created nine songs featuring hushed and muted soundscapes: breathy, restrained sax; careful guitar strumming; isolated cello shrieks; short, high-octave piano explorations; quietly commanding acoustic bass; occasional live electronic interventions or turntable scratches, and other sounds. Musicians include Evan Parker (sax), John Tilbury (piano), Werner Dafeldecker (acoustic bass) and Franz Hautzinger (trumpet). Sylvian relies on his voice, both soothing and foreboding, to provide the melody; the songs are all ballads, slowly and ruminatively sung with lots of space between words.

But those words. For a man who seemed on the verge of achieving bliss on Dead Bees’“Krishna Blue,” these lyrics often feel ominous. From “Snow White in Appalachia”:

“There is no Maker, just an exhaustible indifference/

And there’s comfort in that so you feel unafraid.”

“Random Acts of Senseless Violence,” which may be about the all-too-temporal scourge of terrorism: “The safety in numbers is just a contrivance/For the future will contain random acts of senseless violence.” A song called “The Rabbit Skinner,” which ends with Sylvian concluding “Here lies a man without quality,” has extra bite because the album comes with a portrait of a weathered Sylvian holding a dead rabbit.

Sylvian used a process known as “automatic writing” in coming up with the lyrics. He had done that earlier with 2003’s Blemish, an at-times difficult album at least partly about his divorce. On Manafon, he was responding to the music that had (mostly) been previously recorded, sometimes a year ago or longer. It wasn’t completely spontaneous; he listened to the music studiously to find words that he believed organically fit the instrumentation. And he occasionally used notebooks to help when he became blocked. But he also let his own words surprise him, not editing or rewriting them for poetic cleverness.

“I wanted to get to a certain subject matter that seemed unreachable, out of my grasp,” Sylvian explains, in a voice both erudite and confessional. “I wanted to push myself to those areas and see what would surface. In automatic writing, there’s not really a point where one reviews what one has written prior to recording it. [There’s] a sense of possible revelation that can be quite exciting, because what’s revealed publicly is also revealed to myself.”

So what’s being revealed? One comes up against a crisis in faith, a mourning for life as lived and its limits. It’s especially striking in that previously quoted line from “Snow White in Appalachia” – a beautifully haunting song that seems like a wiser, more sorrowful cousin to The Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” – about the absence of a “Maker.”

“I’m not afraid of complete annihilation,” Sylvian says. “I don’t have a problem with this life being all there is, that things come to a full stop at the end of a lifetime. In fact, I find it quite comforting to think along those lines. I find it a beautiful thought that life can go on, but there’s no knowledge of what that life will consist of. Does the suffering of this life also go on into the next, as well as the joys?

“Now my brother, who’s an atheist, finds that quite troubling, so we’re kind of at odds with each other. He would love to believe that life goes on. He loves life so much he wishes it were eternal.”

In a way, perhaps, Sylvian is where Peggy Lee was at when she sang Leiber & Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” back in 1969, but maybe not as resigned to it as she. “This whole album, in one sense, deals with disillusionment,” he says. “I think this is just where I find myself at this particular moment. It’s very much a document of a moment in time.

“There are a lot of questions that show up in the course of writing the work, but there is no resolution because I had no answers at the time. Usually I write from the standpoint of having lived thru an experience and then I feel comfortable to write about it. I haven’t been doing that so much. I feel more comfortable with the process of questioning and not knowing.”

As Sylvian describes it, his long, devotional search for sadhana lately has been meeting with obstacles. That’s not an unheard-of thing; sometimes an obstacle is meant to test someone and show a greater truth. But, he says, he can’t get around this one.

“I came up against one of these obstacles and I found myself incapable of getting around the thing,” he says. “So I started to look at what was being shown to me, but I couldn’t grasp the nature of the lesson. That’s where I find myself. At the same time, my means of trying to comprehend it are part of my development.”

Asked what specifically that obstacle is, Sylvian demurs. “That’s a kind of personal issue I don’t feel comfortable talking about directly,” he says, with a tone of apology.

On the flip side, Sylvian notes, there’s a positive side to Manafon.  “It’s dealing with the poetic imagination, the creative mind, which is enormously powerful and in some way is connected with the core of our being. If a life is given shape by one’s poetic acts, I think there’s great beauty to that and great significance to that.”

So Sylvian’s struggle continues – as does his art.

 

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com