If I’m at a party of intellectuals, artists and music lovers, there are certain rules I must follow in order to have my opinions on music taken seriously. I must have cursory knowledge of obscure indie pop bands, a forcefully acknowledged passion for diverse and worldly musical offerings and, most importantly, I can never, under no circumstances, admit to loving post-Beatles Paul McCartney. Everyone loves John, of course, but Paul? Wings? Are you serious?
Yes, Paul. Believe me. I’ve had these conversations. Many times. Despite your decades worth of hits minus the Fab Four, too many people need to assert the fact that they think your solo music blows. And that anyone who admits to loving your solo work cannot ever be taken seriously as a lover of arts and culture of any kind.
I’m sure you’re aware of this. And I’m also sure you really don’t give a fuck. I mean, you’re Paul McCartney for God’s sake. Why would you care what some pretentious, scrubby faced, hipster with skinny jeans thinks of your music? Or anyone, for that matter.
You were never going to be able to match what the Beatles did. But then again, neither were other Fab three. That’s what made you so special as a band. When The Beatles broke up in 1970, someone asked you how you were going to follow them and I thought your response was spot on: you just follow it. Seriously, what else could you have done?
But you’re a genius. And you know what? As a solo artist, you’re still a genius. You remained a vibrant and relevant creative artist for decades and continue to produce great music even today. You created Wings, which ultimately was just as commercially successful as the Beatles, which is amazing to consider. You collaborated with Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson. You wrote the best James Bond theme song ever.
You ventured into the new wave scene with the underrated “Back to the Egg” album. And even though the album suffered from a White Album type schizophrenia- with elements of punk to new wave to soft rock to chamber pop to vaudeville mixed with some random “Abbey Road” style medleys and various song fragments for good measure- it’s still shows off your endless creative curiosity.
You recorded 24 albums since the Beatles broke up, as a solo artist or with Wings, plus five classical music albums, and collaborated on another seven albums. Where do you get your energy from and does it come in a pill form or something I can drink? Whatever it is, I need some. Just email me.
I do, however, feel a little like the odd man out as I find myself constantly having to defend you against the McCartney haters of the world, but it’s the least I can do after everything your music has given me.
As a painfully shy, introverted kid growing up, I often felt displaced and alien to just about everyone else in the world. Yet your music was always there to comfort me.
When my friends were off swimming at the town pool without me because I couldn’t swim, I’d be home by myself, sitting in front of the A/C listening to “Wings at the Speed of Sound.” When I needed to escape my crowded and noisy household, I would pop in the “Venus and Mars” cassette into my Sony Walkman, hop on my bike and disappear. “McCartney” and “Ram” provided a warm soundtrack to my family vacations on Cape Cod and “Band on the Run” was always blasting from my radio in the depressing and, sometimes violent, central New Jersey flea market I worked at as a teenager.
So we have history together, you and I. Listening to your music now instantly transports me back to a time when I needed your songs the most. And the next time I’m stuck in a room crowded with stuffy, music snobs, I will wear my McCartney love like a badge of honor and I will tell them, how can you hate someone who has brought so much joy to so many people? I’m living proof of that.
I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about introspection – yours and mine, if that’s alright. Your album Blonde came out last year, in the hazy summer of 2016. There was a flurry of media coverage and hype that it would have been hard to miss, especially for someone with a twitter account as desperate to try and vaguely follow trends as I was. A lot has happened for me in the year since, and it looks like the same goes for you.
Amongst the press, countless youtube channel op-eds and recommendations from anyone, a conversation started during August or September. I gave it a listen. It was likely at around 6:45 on a saturday morning. I heard the album, listened a little, said ‘meh’ and moved on. My interest outside the folk and rock I’d grown up on was only just being born, and perhaps the percussion-less, airy atmosphere, and my unbearable high-minded derision of anything popular was just too much of a gap to jump when Blonde was first released. Now it would comfortably be placed in my top 2 albums of all time, and with a gun to my head, I think it would probably take top spot.
It’s clear the music didn’t change. Any album, but especially one as wholly tied-together as this, is a singular experience which does not change, regardless of who’s listening. But listeners do change, and the autumn and winter of 2016 were big months in my recent life. I prepared to leave school, and realised that soon my life would no longer be a graded performance. I left a relationship messily, and started going to parties more. These leave a young man with some questions. Undoubtedly ones many others have found the answers to before me, but ones that left me plenty to struggle over nonetheless. Frank, I’m sad to say it but your music is not the party kind. There’s little in the way of hi-hats, producer tags and basslines, and as poignant as they are, your lyrics will never bring a smile to my face as simply as ‘my new bitch yellow, she blow the dick like a cello’. But without those nights out, I would never have come to have the connection to your music I do now.
Being a teenager is an angsty mess, and being a teenager with important exams, going through a breakup and taking up drinking simultaneously? That’s about as disgustingly angsty as an angsty youth gets, and I’d like to take a moment to apologise, only partly jokingly, to the people who’ve gotten to know me in the past 9 months. There were several parties in a row left early. Several nights out cancelled, and more than a couple of nights polishing off a bottle of wine on my own and drunkenly stumbling home, regardless of the walk being 20 minutes or 3 hours. There was one lamppost hugged. On two occasions.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t think Blonde was an album built for the hype it received. After an insular few years hiding from a spotlight that begged you to return, what you gave was an hour of the most beautifully insular and introspective music a teen asking himself questions while drunk at 2 in the morning could ask for. I can’t tell you when exactly I picked the album back up, or why. I can’t tell you what drew me to it when walking through streetlights in suburban England. Your lyrics certainly weren’t what drew me in first. I’m a middle-class white boy from North London, and your stories of the fame and people changing as you grew offered me nothing to immediately hold on to – both fame and growing up were (are) distant possibilities. But sonically, I can find no better equivalent of a hug than the cushioned synths of ‘Nikes’, or the indescribably beautiful – I want to say whooshing sound? – marking the change halfway through ‘Nights’. In time I’d listen sober, listen while having emotional phone calls, listen while crying in my room – all your favourite cliches. I’d reach a point where the words you said became irrelevant, and the music served only as a background for my own episodes of self-questioning and reasoning. Then I’d circle back round and listen to the words you said with all the attentiveness I could, gleaning every possible scrap of information and constructing your world between my headphones, escaping from my own.
I never want to meet you, Frank. I’m not the greatest conversationalist, and we’re two people who could not have had less to talk about if we tried. You worked your way independently through an industry ready to block you at every turn, for any number of reasons. I have grown up with everything I need and am yet to know even what I want to do with my life, let alone apply myself to that path in any way. But in our secular worlds there’s a parallel, of late nights and a tendency to overthink and fantasise, and for expressing that emotion and atmosphere through music I cannot thank you enough.
I am sorry that I’ve never written to you before. I’m sorry that I never took pen to paper to scribble a fan letter, and I regret that I didn’t write about you at all during the decades I spent writing about pop music. I wrote about Gary Glitter. I wrote about Toni Basil. I wrote about Stars On 45, for cryin’ out loud. How silly does that seem now?
The thing is, I always considered myself just a casual David Bowie fan. I mean no offense when I say that you were never one of my very favorite artists. Because, casual or not, I was still a fan. I heard “Changes” on the radio, and had to own the 45. I delved a bit deeper when I got to college, starting (perhaps incongruously) with a used copy of PINUPS, and falling hard shortly thereafter for “Suffragette City” and your magnificent ZIGGY STARDUST album. I knew a couple of other disaffected teenagers who were big Bowie fans; one was a high school pal who adored the sense of alienation conveyed in the lyrics of “All The Madmen” on THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD, and the other was a college acquaintance into hard rock, metal, and David Bowie. The high school pal killed himself in 1979; the college acquaintance was a kleptomaniac with a heart of gold, and I betrayed his trust in a manner I still regret, almost 40 years later. Let me collect dust. Memories….
But if I was just a casual Bowie fan, why am I so sad that you’re gone? The news was a true shock, delivered to me in an email from my friend Gretta, under the subject heading “Bowie Departs.” I have even found my eyes stinging, watering–just a little–in memory of this artist, of whom I was just a casual fan.
And I think I’m starting to understand the reasons why.
More than any other artist, performer, or public figure I can think of, you made it okay to be different. You made it okay to be weird, or strange, or left-of-center. You made it okay to be gay, or straight, or neither, or both. You made it okay for anyone to be whomever his or her inner muse wanted to be. Sometimes it was a struggle, and sometimes our efforts would fail, but you made it okay for us to try our own way. Maybe you even made it okay to be a lonely, chubby teenager from the suburbs of Syracuse. Casual fan? I loved your music more than I even knew. I still have my copies of your ‘70s LPs; they have survived every drastic purge of my record collection, over a span of many, many years. Although I stopped buying your albums after 1979’s LODGER–casual fan, that’s me!–I had a chance to see you in concert in 1983, and you were terrific. I’ve been listening to your stuff again all week, including a few things I never really played much before. You influenced so many other artists I love, and you made wonderful, timeless music that will live on and on and on.
I took you for granted. I miss you now.
Many of us believe in forever. In your new digs, I’m sure you’ve already had a chance to re-connect with Mick Ronson, with old friends like John Lennon and Klaus Nomi, maybe Freddie Mercury, Lou Reed, or Andy Warhol, perhaps Bing Crosby…because, why not? I bet you’ve chatted with Salvador Dali and Arthur Rimbaud, and with Einstein, too. I hope you’ll have a chance to meet Buddy Holly, and James Jamerson, and Elvis, maybe play with all of them. You can play with Miles Davis, and Count Basie, and Hank Williams, and Bob Marley, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Caruso, and Leonard Bernstein–that would be really, really cool, and each would consider you a peer. Lemmy’s probably got it all set. Heaven must indeed have one hell of a music scene. We wish we could hear it down here.
But now, there’s a Starman waiting in the sky. Our minds have already been blown. And we mere mortals can only gaze upward, and note that the stars look very different today. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.
There is one thing you were wrong about. Unlike the spat-upon children you mention in “Changes,” I was not quite aware of what I was going through. I know better now. And I wanted to write you, just to say thanks. Thank you, David. Thank you for everything.
This letter originally appeared on this groovy/far out/outta sight blog (https://carlcafarelli.blogspot.com) after Mr. Bowie’s passing. But, Carl’s a cool guy and he writes cool letters so we’ve reblogged it (with his permission) for your reading pleasure.
There is no song in the entire musical universe that better encapsulates the decadent torpor of a season spent with no responsibilities. Wet bathing suits pulling at groins, Bomb Pops smeared across faces, the hush of city roads, unused, while drivers fill downtown skyscrapers.
The summertime world is languid. It is the snick-snick-snick of sprinklers. It is Perry Ferrell crooning “Tag. You are the one.”
I was an awkward child. Bookish. Isolated. My discovery of Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking is the event which separates my childhood and (early) adolescence.
In the late ‘80s—even in North Florida—air conditioning wasn’t a guarantee. Especially not in the garage apartments grubby kids like myself occupied while parents worked. We weren’t old enough to work. We were too old for Vacation Bible School. We were left to our own devices.
I couldn’t have been more than 13. An older boy—homely, stinking of cigarette smoke—handed me a Mickey’s and dropped the needle on a record that was completely unlike the Phil Collins and Kenny Loggins that had been occupying me that year.
The malt liquor made my stomach draw in. Sour. The other kids flopped on ripped corduroy sofas, seemingly confident in their place in the universe. That morning I had—somewhat nostalgically—acted out a pretend game in my playhouse. These boys would never pretend. I couldn’t picture them acting silly, or frivolous. They were sweaty, and intense. Chain smoking and issuing guttural exclamations at random.
As Dave Navaro’s opening riffs on “Up the Beach” filled the room, the kids tipped their heads back. They affected a sense of experience. They were transported by these musicians, teleported to the other side of the continent. We were in a California flophouse sharing air with the protopunks of the west coast scene.
Later I would participate in the shoplifting of the small green bottles we used to feign inebriation until someone came across a reliable ditch weed dealer. But today I was drunk on the exhilaration of three reluctant sips.
I didn’t have a word for it, but Jane’s Addiction was sex made tangible. Ferrell’s screams, echoing against Navaro’s guitar moved my teen loins. I was uncomfortable. Sweaty. When “Had a Dad” played, I pulled in. I had lost my father the previous summer. He left only a note, then a series of postcards from across the American West.
“Dear Daughter. I saw the Grand Canyon today. I think I may drive into it.”
The odor of the boys in that garage apartment was what I deserved for not being daughter enough to keep my father close.
I heard “Ted, Just Admit It” and I wanted to live inside the bass line. I didn’t have a context for the political imagery. I lived in suburbia; we didn’t talk about the nightly news. Ferrell shouted “Sex is violent” and I tried to act like I’d heard that hundreds of times. Who’s a virgin? Certainly not me. Violent sex, yep. All day, every day. Nevermind that I still wasn’t sure what a blow job was.
“Standing in the Shower, Thinking” is such a relief after “Ted.” It’s nearly a throwaway. It’s perky. It’s guileless. It’s direct. But as a setup for “Summertime Rolls,” it’s ideal. After a Faith no More-esque crescendo, the quiet bass at the beginning of “Summertime” feels like water picking its way through an ephemeral stream, leftover after a thunderstorm.
Ferrell and his girlfriend wore no shoes. Her nose was painted with pepper sunlight. Whatever that meant, I wanted to embody it. I wanted to be as serious as serious could be with anyone, truly anyone.
(As an adult it’s easy to recognize Ferrell’s dependence on heroin as a theme throughout his music. As a 13-year-old girl I just knew I wanted someone to feel that way about me. I later looked to “Three Days” as the epitome of sexual and romantic love.)
“Summertime Rolls” builds slowly, built on the foundation of a ponderous baseline. But when the melody hits, it’s staggering. If the teen boys in that room felt it, I couldn’t tell. They were making plans to build a plywood skate ramp. I was lost in the heady psychedelia of the orange buttercat chasing after a crazy bee.
Since that day I’ve chased the feeling of being timeless, lost in a July afternoon. The closest I came was dropping acid during the day and lying in a field with a lover discussing the shapes of the clouds. But that was 20 years ago.
Listening to “Summertime Rolls” through headphones is like a courtroom sketch of the lackadaisical feeling of being trapped between childhood and responsibility—I can see the shapes, even make out a few details.
But now I have a lawn to mow, children to drive to the pool. Summertime is no longer a lazy river, carrying me prone from one experience to the next. Summertime smells of spray-on sunscreen, not clove cigarettes. It tastes like small-batch gin; malt liquor left behind as a child’s game.
Summertime might still roll, but not for me. Thank you all the same.
First off, I need to tell you that it gets better. No, really. A letter to one’s teen self often starts off with that tried and true sentiment, because it fits. It’s real. Writing decades later, I know things improved, but you haven’t discovered that yet. It won’t be better all of the time; there will be both good days and bad days, awful times and celebratory times, and all the shades of experience in between. But you make it through. I’m you, writing to you from more than forty years in the future, so yeah, you survive it all. Not unscathed, possibly not quite intact, but you make it.
Ah. I’m getting ahead of myself. The perils of hindsight.
It’s January 17th, 1977. A Monday. You’re a senior at North Syracuse Central High School, but there’s no school today. The weather outside is frightful, and everything is cancelled all over Central New York. As you look through your window at the quiet suburban street, you see that the frigid elements have transformed Richardson Drive into a chiseled sculpture of ice, its frozen beauty both breathtaking and dangerous. On the radio, WOUR-FM is giving away a free James Montgomery Band LP to the first caller who can identify the U.S. city that was home to the first traffic light; some memory of visits to your sister in Ohio compels you to call and say CLEVELAND!, the correct answer. The album is yours–Happy Birthday, Carl! This is how your 17th year begins.
It’s a scary time all around you. That same day, killer Gary Gilmore is executed in Utah, the first time that the death penalty is carried out in the U.S. in nearly ten years. Jimmy Carter, a former peanut farmer and Governor from Georgia, will be sworn in as President in a few days. And you’re going to college soon, sooner than seems possible, far sooner than you’re ready, yet not soon enough to meet your need for something–anything–positive to happen to you.
You’re lonely. You feel alone, in spite of the presence of a family that loves you, and a smattering of friends with whom you share some good times. Is it teen drama? Is it clinical depression? Is it both, or neither? The vantage point of four decades gone has not clarified the answer in my head. Nor could anything I say now at 57 have any real meaning for you at 17. The twisted, uneven path before you remains only yours to tread. Tread carefully.
You have music, and it helps you. Your favorite group is The Beatles, and that will never really change. Your current affection for Boston and Fleetwood Mac will abate somewhat over time, but you’ll remain a steadfast fan of The Monkees, and your burgeoning interest in The Kinks will grow stronger. You’ll still like KISS, though they won’t remain at the very top of your pops for long.
But, within the next year or so, you’re going to hear two groups who will join The Beatles as your all-time favorites. You know The Ramones, that group you’ve been reading about in Phonograph Record Magazine? Yeah, that’s right–the scary guys with the leather jackets, and the songs about sniffin’ glue and murder and similar fun in the sun. They frighten you now, but once you finally hear them? You’re gonna start calling them The American Beatles, the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me, young man! Just wait. You’ll see. And then just over a year from now, you and your friend Jay Hammond are going to see a local band called The Flashcubes, and you’re going to feel like you’ve just seen God.
You’re going to mature, but you’re not going to mature all that much. I wish you would, or could. The music you’re listening to right now, all that Beatles and British Invasion stuff, plus Sweet and The Raspberries and about a billion others, are going to dovetail with the punk rock you’ve been reading about, and it’s all going to come together as Your Music in this crucible of 1977. Pretty soon, you’re going to hear a band called The Rubinoos, and you’ll think Heaven formed them just for you. You’ll hear The Sex Pistols, and think that your notion of what is and isn’t rock ‘n’ roll is due for redefinition. You’re going to forsake The Bay City Rollers, briefly, but you’ll come back to them almost immediately.
In later years, you’re going to develop an appreciation for some pop sounds that might not be relevant to you just yet. I know you don’t really care about The Who; you will. I know you don’t like The Beach Boys, at least not the way you like The Dave Clark Five or Paul Revere & the Raiders, but someday, you’ll regard The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as the greatest album of all time. Yeah, even more than that Christmas gift you got last month, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Believe it or not! You’re going to like David Bowie more than you do now. You’re going to like Bob Dylan less. If I recall the timeline, you’re almost ready to start hating The Eagles. You’re going to discover Stax; you’re going to discover reggae; you’re going to discover rockabilly. And you’re going to discover a name for your favorite music, the music you’ve loved the most for the longest time, but never thought about what to call it; it’s called power pop. Power pop is going to be almost like a religion for you.
Before this year is done, you’re going to write your first article about rock ‘n’ roll music. You are going to write many, many, many more after that, over a span of decades. You’re going to get pretty good at it, but you’ll come to bristle whenever someone calls you a rock critic. (The only exception you’ll ever make will be when you’re thumbing through a book one evening, and discover that you’ve been quoted, as in “according to rock critic Carl Cafarelli.” Yeah, you’ll make an exception for that one.)
A little over a year from now, you’re going to give up on comic books; you’ll come back to them after college. You will not marry Lissa DeAngelo, nor will you hook up with Suzi Quatro. Sorry, man. But you will have girlfriends. In fact, a girl will seduce you, rather eagerly, in the not-too-distant future, and I don’t intend to spoil that surprise. Later on, you’ll meet a young woman with whom you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, and she’ll feel the same way about you.
You’re going to keep on making mistakes. You’ll say things you regret, you’ll do things you regret, and I wish I could prevent all of that. But I can’t, and I shouldn’t. Because fixing even one of those bad, bad things could divert you from the path that leads to your greatest joy: your daughter. Your daughter is something else, man, and just being her father will earn you more pride and fulfillment than anything else you will ever do in this life. You won’t even mind that she becomes a better writer than you, because all of her accomplishments make you happier than you can even imagine now.
And you will share a love of music with your daughter. You won’t like the same kinds of music–let’s not get crazy–but music will fill every fiber of her being, just as it fills yours now.
Keep listening to your music. Keep reading about new sounds. Keep faith in the sounds you already know and cherish. Keep writing. You’re gonna get published. You’re never going to make much money at it, but you are going to find people interested in what you say, and in the way you say it. I know you lack confidence in yourself, but I know you believe in your writing. Others are going to believe in it, too.
Very soon now, you’re going to write a short story that reads like a suicide note. It’s just a story; I know. I know. There are people you know right now–at least three of them–who will choose to end their own lives, and will follow through with that fatal decision. You can’t save them. You will look back and wish you could. You will look back very often and wish you could have done…something. But it is within your power to save yourself. You can do it. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already proven that you can do it. It will not be easy, but you will succeed.
You’ve been listening to Sgt. Pepper. You’ve been singing along, It’s getting better all the time. It will get better. You will have triumphs, perhaps modest ones, but you’ll feel that elation nonetheless. You will also battle depression. I can’t promise you the paradise you crave, because it ain’t coming. But you’re going to have a good life, marred by disappointments, devastated by tragedies, yet still a life worth savoring, a life that will touch the lives of others in, I hope, mostly positive ways.
Oh. And you’re gonna get to see The Animals and The Searchers and The Kinks and The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, Ray Charles, The Everly Brothers, Tina Turner, The Beach Boys. You’re gonna get to meet Gene Simmons, and he’s going to be an absolute dickhead to you. You’re gonna see The Monkees. As I write this, it looks like you’re gonna see Paul McCartney. You’re going to ask Ringo Starr a question at a press conference, and he’s going to answer you. You’re going to see The Ramones nine times! You’re going to see a bunch of acts you haven’t even heard yet, like Prince and The Lords Of The New Church and The Bangles. There’s a lot of music ahead of you.
And this year is crucial. Everything starts for you in 1977. Keep your head held high. You won’t get the reference just yet, but keep your head held high. Your life will be saved by rock ‘n’ roll.
Much Older (Little Wiser) You (Carl)
PS: That hope to die before you get old? Stupid notion. Discard it now.
*The writer recognizes that this post is not in the form of a letter. But, to quote the great Lesley Gore, “It’s my (blog) and I’ll (write what) I want to.”
I grew up being exposed to live music. This was not because one of my caregivers was a career musician nor because I had parents who were ex-hippies (if you know my parents you are already chuckling over that one). I believe it was due to growing up in a rural section of eastern Pennsylvania where on any given Friday or Saturday night you can attend one of many “carnivals” and “fairs” which are organized and put on by a wide variety of local fire companies.
Isn’t it interesting how the place you live can and will shape your definition of certain words? This is an assumption, but I believe that when most people hear the word carnival or fair they probably picture a midway with a wide array of games, rides, cotton candy, sno-cones, popcorn, and so on. Back home, when someone invites you to attend a local carnival you should know that it would be a rare event for there to be even one ride, and that there might be one cotton candy/sno-cone stand (if you’re lucky), and the real purpose of attending, the true focus of this event, will be to see and hear live music. Yes, there might be a ring toss where you can win either glassware or knives, there will probably be a bingo tent, and without a doubt there will be homemade chicken corn soup because when you live in a place that appears to be 50% corn fields you’ve got to figure out a way to do something with all that corn. But, the real reason people drive 10, 15, 30, sometimes 40 miles from their homes on Friday and Saturday nights is to hear the hottest up and coming country music act or a local long beloved cover band from the comfort of their most favorite lawn chair.
In the city, when you want to see a band or musician perform, you typically have to go to bars or clubs that don’t open until later in the evening and have performers who often don’t make it onto the stage until even later in the evening. You have to show ID at the door, get a wristband/have your hand stamped, stand around, probably order drinks while you wait, endure a cloud of cigarette smoke (less likely these days, but still possible), and if the band has a decent following, secure your preferred spot in the venue by standing in the same location for hours while alternating bathroom breaks with your friends.
At the carnival you will drive down back roads until you see some boy scouts or volunteer firefighters directing traffic towards the fire hall parking. The parking lot is a large sweet smelling grass field. Perhaps it is overgrown. Perhaps it is muddy, in which case there will be hay added to the grass which produces an even earthier and more delicious smell. The “parking lot” will likely be surrounded by corn fields because Lancaster County has some of the most fertile soil anywhere and the people who live here have been farming since they first set foot off the boat fresh from Germany or Switzerland, or some other area in that region of Europe where pacifists and Anabaptists were being persecuted back in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The set-up is simple, no frills. Everyone brings their own seats. Lawn chairs and blankets are abundant. The woven webbed lawn chair with the aluminum frame has not gone out of style at these gatherings. Here they are worn and well loved, but still in operation, colorful woven splashes of avocado green, yellow, orange, and blue set up and ready to go. There is a stage, and in front of the stage there is space left open for people to dance and/or to stand so that they can be closer to the band.
The food is brought to you by your local fire company along with a few other vendors who have their own separate stands selling things like funnel cake, lemonade, or the newest addition to carnival life, the deep fried __________ (fill in the blank with candy bar, Twinkie, Pop-tart, etc.). The soup is highly recommended. No one here finds it strange to eat piping hot soup in the summer. The corn is fresh and abundant, and the soup is distinctly PA Dutch style; including pieces of hard-boiled egg, more corn than noodles or chicken, as well as saffron, and parsley.
The opportunity to see live music performed in an outside venue for a small fee is something that has been a staple of weekend entertainment in the area for a very very long time. My Aunt’s father Bobby supported her and his wife working as a professional musician at carnivals such as this throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. He played the stand-up bass in various groups. He was in a musician’s union. He was the real deal.
Growing up, my parents took me to carnivals regularly. My mother will often tell the story about how she recognized that I could keep rhythm when as a toddler I was sitting in my stroller at one of these events and bouncing my foot along to the music. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis at a carnival, but I was too young to remember it. Maybe he was the one to cause my foot to bounce? Or maybe it was Marty Stuart, John Conlee, Ronnie McDowell, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Cash (yes, Johnny Cash has a brother, and he toured/played the carnival circuit) or The Mudflaps?
What started me reminiscing about rural eastern Pennsylvania summer entertainment was a clip I came across after doing a YouTube search for Flamin’ Dick and the Hot Rods. Yes, that is their name and I don’t believe there is any irony or innuendo intended. Folks back home as a whole tend to be either very religious and/or moderately to severely sheltered. That being said, it is probably only the most wayward of teenagers who would even have the thought to snicker over the band’s name. All of that aside, I was looking them up because I have seen them….live! At a carnival! It was a few summer’s ago, likely at the Reinholds Carnival, and the event delivered in all the ways I needed/never expected it to. There was soup, there were lawn chairs, there was Bingo, my parents ran into present and former accquaintances, we bumped into one of my former elementary school teachers, and all evening people stumbled back and forth between their seats and the food stands like food zombies carrying first a sloppy joe, then next a funnel cake, and then finally an ice cream. You can’t drink, smoke, or have sex back home, but no one will blink an eye if you consume sugar at an epic rate towards the diabetic finish line. Most importantly though, Flamin’ Dick and the Hot Rods were simply great. They played “Cara Mia” by Jay and the Americans and they pulled it off. Not an easy thing to do, even for Jay. Their performance exuded the air of professional musicians who are simultaneously having fun and getting paid with no ambition beyond those two possibilities. They were there to sing and play and help the audience to feel free and happy for a few hours. The grass smelled sweet, the music sounded magical as it bounced off the corn fields, and the people were entertained.
And so, after a lengthy, heavily nostalgic and biased ramble, I present to you, Flamin’ Dick and the Hot Rods circa 2016 at the Wernersville Fair via YouTube. I want to be very clear that my objective in sharing this clip is not coming out of a place of irony, or mockery, or too cool for schoolness. I encourage you to watch this clip and observe the joy that the band is bringing to those people who come and go in front of the camera over the course of the non-stop two hour set (Bruce Springsteen eat your heart out!).
It’s okay. There’s no pretention here. You are allowed to revel in the amazing power of live music being played for the sake of pure enjoyment.
Note to our readers: This letter was written by a nice person from Brazil. Please keep in mind that it was translated from Portuguese to English.
I was probably around 9 or 10 years old when I received the file “Chiquita Chaser”over ICQ. It was a catchy song and I’d be singing “papah papah parararah” all around. “Nice one,” I thought. “Do you have more songs of this band?” I asked my ICQ friend. Then, he sent me “Bullion.” It was enough, I was already addicted. Millencolin would come for a concert in the same year, 1998, but I was too young and really far from where it would be. Then, I downloaded and listened to everything related to the band. It was a happy time of my life and I remember I waited anxiously for the next album when finally, Pennybridge Pioneers was released. The album exceeded all my expectations, but the last song, “The Ballad,” was annoying to me so I’d skip it every time. The album cover was beautiful and the painting of your face looked really similar to the guy I was in love during school days (we were best friends and he still uses this album cover as his profile picture in every social network, even though he prefers heavy metal), which was funny. I would listen to Millencolin more than my own thoughts! The songs were with me everyday, encouraging me to live, never give up on my dreams and face the world. I started being “Millengirl”when almost nobody here knew what that meant. Seriously, it became my nickname.
Six years after Pennybridge’s release, you finally came to Rio de Janeiro and I was really excited to go. I was 17 years old and finally, I was grown enough to be there dancing with you guys. But in my mom’s head, I was still too young and, even seeing all my effort to save money and buy the tickets with my low salary working as a trainee in a hospital and going to the shopping mall with me to check the prices of the tickets one day before the show, she didn’t let me go. I think I only cried like that when my father or my best friend died. I got so angry that I spent almost a month quiet, talking only basic things with her. Then, Mom made me a promise: no matter where Millencolin would be, if the band came again to Brazil, I would be there.
The next year would be terrible: my dad died. It was the second big problem I ever faced in life (the first was when my parents got divorced) and I never thanked you for helping me face this. Afterward, mentally, I felt embraced by you and your lyrics every time I had a problem or a great moment (when I graduated, for example, I had to choose a song for the time they would call my name in the ceremony and I choose “Birdie“).
You came back in 2008, but the show was in São Paulo. I didn’t even ask my mom, just said “They’re coming to São Paulo and there’s this girl called Renata on Orkut with a van and she’ll take me and a lot of people I don’t know.” To my surprise, she replied “Don’t worry, I bought my car insurance with somebody I only know by phone and it works very well. Good luck, dear!”
So I went to São Paulo, happy as can be. I begged Renata and she let me go backstage with her and another friend. I finally met you in person and got so nervous, said so many things, made a huge mess that you even took a picture of me. (I tried to ask you on Facebook, but you didn’t reply. Maybe you don’t even remember this picture because I know your memory is really bad!) Of course, the producers kicked me out and I completely forgot that my friends gave me the t-shirts they were wearing hoping I could get them signed. I was very happy but they were naked and got mad at me and had to buy new t-shirts. I enjoyed every moment of the show and in the end, I reached Kimmo, the manager. He promised me he’d find the t-shirts and he actually did. He sent the t-shirts back, they travelled with the band to Porto Alegre (unfortunately, you didn’t sign them, but the guys were really happy that their t-shirts travelled with the band!).
What I couldn’t guess is that the day after, I would feel really sad. The show was something I anticipated for a long time and it was amazing, but it was over. I wanted and needed more. Two years later, 2010, you came to Rio de Janeiro again.
Being another face in the crowd wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to go home and feel so empty again, missing the energy and power of your presence on the stage. So I reached you at your hotel. I called you and said I was a journalist, if I could have a time with you for an interview or if you could sign my CDs. You said “Talk to Kimmo,” but he wouldn’t talk to me as I’m sure he thought I was another annoying groupie. Then, I took all of my CDs to the hotel and addressed them to you (and got them back the day after, in the reception, signed by everybody!). After that, I ran to the show.
At the show, I was so emotional, singing and dancing that, somehow, you invited me to sing the only Millencolin song I didn’t like: “The Ballad.” We had a quick talk on the stage and you said “You called me earlier.” You recognized my voice and I got so much more nervous than I was already, my voice on the microphone sounded horrible and I started jumping as a kangaroo. A roadie tried to kick me out (always like that!) and I ran back to the stage, kissed Erik’s cheek and got a pic. You found everything so funny! In the end, I took pictures with all the band again, a lot of people added me on Facebook, I received a lot of pictures and I was mentioned on a lot of music sites!
When I got home, I was singing a song, not a Millencolin one, but a random song. I tried to find it online and to my surprise, I wrote the song for you. My first song.
And this is not the end of our interaction, Nikola.
Millencolin came again in 2015. What else could I live with the band, after all these things? I made a t-shirt with the picture of us singing “The Ballad” (my favorite song now) and I wanted to be sure I’d get it signed. I asked everyone I knew, I ran to the local rock radio, I tried lots of things but nobody could give me a backstage pass. I was really close to the club where the show would be drinking a coffee with a friend and very upset when I had the idea of messaging you. I really bothered you, because you read all of my messages but didn’t reply, until you asked me “What do you want?” I said “My name on your guest list” and you said “Done.” I had no doubt my name was there for real because you scream “What’s done is done” in my ears uncountable times per month.
I went quickly to the concert and I waited until you arrived. You looked at me so serious and waved, I was pretending I was okay, even though I was just trying not to be kicked out again (I could really be, you know). Last time we met, I had long curly brown hair and this time, my hair was short, straight and blonde. I wasn’t expecting you to recognize me anyway. The show started and, when you started playing “The Balled,” I cried and screamed “THAT’S MY SONG!” You got a little confused and I screamed again “THAT’S MY SONG!” showing my t-shirt with our picture this time. You got really touched and said “Is that you? And that’s me, I suppose. You look so different, I didn’t recognize! So I’ll play this one for you.” And of course, I cried eve more. In the end and at the backstage, all the guys signed my t-shirt but this time, it was different. I was feeling so calm and peaceful, you were together with me all the time, paying attention to everything I said (don’t remember what), with eyes of someone who was really caring.
Right now for me, you are much more than a singer, bassist or music writer. You are a HERO, someone who has inspired my entire life only by existing and not giving up on your dreams, who doesn’t treat people badly, has a huge heart and politeness after all these years and fame. All of you guys actually, but it’s just that I have this connection with you somehow. I sent you the song I wrote and you said you liked it, but I could never explain all of this to you.
I really hope you read this letter, hero. Back in Örebro, sitting in your favorite chair, when you listen to “The Ballad” on the radio I hope you feel as special as I do.
Regularly browse toddler clothing in stores & online (in my defense, my daughter is a toddler)
Work from home
At the same time, I find myself disproportionately drawn to your music. My interest in rap waxes and wanes – Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Blackalicious, Clipse – and with the exception of Beasties the romances have been fleeting.
What is it about you? The beats get me, no denying that. In 2012, I happily bobbed my head and recited lyrics about “the women, weed and weather” of Los Angeles and swimming pools full of liquor. A lack of personal identification with the topics never phased me.
Then something changed. TPAB was released and its lyrics were so heavily thematic that I felt kind of guilty listening to it. The struggles you wrote about seemed so much more visceral and urgent than my own, and a voice deep down in my gut said “This is not for you.”
I stopped listening. You released Untitled Unmastered, I had a baby and the entire focal point of my life changed. My brain changed. And yet I find myself, two years later, intensely listening to DAMN. on a daily basis. Songs about “real nigger conditions” and hypothetical sexy fights do not apply to me, my family or friends.
Or do they? Themes of anger, frustration, inequality and injustice are (somewhat) universal. Women are by nature subjected to various forms of inequality — some subtle, others less so. Comments can be brushed off, glances ignored, but the double standards are hard or impossible to shake. [Insert vast amounts of supporting evidence from the current US political catastrophe here.]
Despite personal reflection on the topic, overt feminist stances and literature never interest me. Endless torment from female peers throughout my formative years left a bad taste in my mouth. (A little chub and lot of introversion go a long way toward making one an outcast.) Decades later, I still find myself unwilling to rally with many who share my gender yet worry that my daughter will endure similar struggles and wonder what I can do about it.
At minimum I will make sure my quietly simmering fire never burns out, and your music stokes it like kindling. 10–15 years from now, when my baby has trouble with the mean girls at school, I will assure her that they’re jealous of the ambition and flow inside her DNA.
I’m unabashedly appropriating your lyrics to fit my lifestyle am certain that, despite my previous uncertainty, your music is. for. me.
First things first, a big thank you to the Palace Inn for hosting the 1990’s equivalent of record store day.
My friends and I looked forward to spending our parent’s hard earned cash inside your walls on an annual basis. The record conventions you housed were our musical holiday, and conveniently presented us with one of the only opportunities to eat at a Taco Bell during the year. For this one day out of the year we excitedly left our cozy suburb north of Pittsburgh to make the 45-minute trek to Monroeville (a different, lesser known-to us-suburb) that had one of the few Taco Bells in the greater Pittsburgh area and was also home to you.
All praise and glory to The Palace Inn aside, let’s get bootleg. Real bootleg.
The Palace Inn was a hotel that appeared stuck in time (1960s/70s). It was as if it had been teleported from the “off off” strip in Las Vegas and landed in Pittsburgh missing a casino and most of the glitz and glamour. Despite having no casino, there was a lot of gambling that occurred during the record conventions we attended inside it’s unmemorable ballroom. At these events, music fans could purchase a wide array of items including, KISS picture discs, overpriced rock n’ roll memorabilia, and most importantly bootlegs. Straight. Up. Bootlegs.
These bootlegs came in an array of shapes and sizes. Some were on silver CDs and looked like semi-official releases as evidenced by being on “labels” such as Kiss the Stone (KTS) and Blind Pig. Before committing to a purchase you had no idea what the sound quality was going to be, or if they were even going to be “real” concert recordings. Sometimes you would drop $30 only to own a CD of studio recordings with fake crowd noise mixed in. I quickly learned that one way to reduce the odds of a big burn was to purchase bootlegs dubbed onto cassettes. This roll of the dice typically only cost $5 to $8 and came complete with hand-written labels. As a grungy and odd 14-15 year old, I had become fascinated and fixated with MTV and “alternative” radio’s newest misfit, Beck.
I felt a strong connection to him as he appeared to embrace his low self-esteem and poor self-image all the while managing to run it through a drum machine, a casio keyboard, a broken guitar, and finally, into a tape machine to create powerful and otherworldly sounds. I bought everything I could find in the record stores of my local mall that had his name on it (Mellow Gold, Loser EP, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, One Foot in the Grave).
As a result, whenever I went to the convention I scoured each and every table with the sole mission of finding any and all Beck bootlegs. I bought the cassette Beck: 1st Ave Minneapolis 6.29.94.
My late adolescent eyes opened wide as I saw song titles that I did not recognize (“Colour Coordinated,” “Asskizz Powergrudge,” “Takes one to know one,” etc.). You see, I have always had reoccurring dreams about seeing, hearing, or experiencing things that did not exist in real life, but wished that they did (e.g., different flavors of Kool-Aid, a proper sequel to Rocky IV). This seemed like one of those dreams, but it wasn’t. This was reality. I could take this cassette with me out of this dream!!!! I also purchased the I’m a Schmoozer Baby bootleg and the Melkweg, Amsterdam show on cassette all from the Mellow Gold tour (1994).
As I collected more shows I began to realize that an album of unreleased music was forming (e.g., “Casio (Good Stuff),” “Brother,” “Convalescent,” etc.). Could this be the follow-up to Mellow Gold? Beck fueled my excitement for the follow-up as he introduces “It’s All in Your Mind” from the Amsterdam Show. “It’s gonna be on the next record” he drawls before launching into the song. Readers need to remember that this was pre-(mass)internet, so information about upcoming releases was often limited to Kurt Loder reports on MTV and a few magazines. I took Beck at his word and my hope continued to grow…
Unfortunately, most of these songs have not been released or recorded/released with the same energy or feel as the Mellow Gold era tour or Beck’s previous records (e.g., “Convalescent” released as “Glut” and the version of “Minus” on Odelay (both bullshit in my opinion)).
And so, to celebrate the spirit of Record Store Day pre the actual formation of Record Store Day, I encourage you to walk around any corner in America and grab some Taco Bell. Here is my record store day gift to you passed down through the hands and ears of cassette dubbing peddlers and pseudo-record labels from Europe. Here is part of what the follow up to Mellow Gold might have sounded like before Beck leaped off the bold and prolific cliff of lo-fi noise rock and folked-up hip-hop and left us in a puff of polished and contrived dust.
I’m prompted to write you in preparation for record store day, hence the timing of my letter. While I’m not overly keen on records as vinyl production is a highly toxic endeavour, I imagine the ideal behind the day is celebrating independent sellers, music listeners and moreover the celebration of passing on the legacy of fucking good music. This may hearken back to before my time – in the heyday of rock and roll – when every man, woman, group or guitarist was out there cutting records, seeking fame in a response letter from some radio personality somewhere. Back when a 45 could tell a tale of heartache, produce a foot-stompin’ joy, or just start faraway hips a-shakin’. In those earlier days it was local, it was word-of-mouth and it was airplay that sold records, that made legends and that kept coffers full. So my letter today is a telling you about my side of the rekindling of our romance, about that local word-of-mouth and airplay led to falling in love with you, my dearest rock and roll, all over again.
It starts, as many a romantic tale, in lean years. I was lost, confused, unable to be inspired by the options in front of me. When I settled into Melbourne town I came to the conclusion that people of my generation must have grown up, made money, were an easily definable advertising demographic, and were calling the pop-culture shots. They who wistfully view the 90’s as music’s heyday were supported in that faux love affair by every mid 90s alt-rock/grunge/nu metal act and their roadie getting lots of mainstream airplay and opportunities to tour extensively. A cultural dearth. In those times I consoled myself with electro, drum and bass and the white stripes like a hermit surviving on squirrel, trout and moss. And then something really weird happened. I started listening to the radio. Yes, the RADIO. And soon I discovered that here in Melbourne, radio unexpectedly but thoroughly KICKS ASS.
Now this isn’t mainstream commercial radio. Unapologetically, top 40 radio still sucks. Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea and FUN! do not sound better the more they are pounded into your brain ad nauseam with witty disc jockeys spouting about their parenting and travel foibles in between. And the classic in “classic rock” wears off when you hear “Smoke on the Water” for the fifth time in one day. My only previous half-decent experience with radio was listening to the local PBS/NPR station based on Lancaster, PA. That station has daytime programming of classical music (which I appreciate is beautiful and takes amazing skill to sounds the way it does, I just don’t like it) and the evenings had Syndicated NPR, where you could hear decent mainstream ‘indie’ music. The kind of music the rest of the world outside of Lancaster County listens to, city music.
But I digress.
Here in Melbourne we have the perfect confluence of factors for such a wondrous manifestation of musical luck. We have an amazing live music scene which, when you live here, sounds really cliché because everyone says it. But the fact of the matter is you have a choice of at least 10 bands plus other places with DJs on a WEEKNIGHT. Music of all sorts and lots of venue to hear it in.
We are also lucky enough to have a national radio station to do news, coherent conversation radio (the anti-thesis of Fox-style talkback) and classical, as well as several radio stations in people’s native language. This isn’t in itself great, but it means is that there’s room for just independent music-playing radio stations out there.
And so, this maelstrom of resonant circumstance has meant we in Melbourne are lucky enough to have not just one but two swinging, soulful, eclectic and totally independent radio stations. And they were that the catalyst that cleared the scales from my eyes and drove the humdrum out of our rekindled love affair.
They have a variety of programming, usually in one to two hour blocks that have a weekly schedule. One has lots of talking current events programs about film, the arts, music culture, politics, indigenous issues, LGBTIQ issues, your whole gamut of your left-wing leaning, learned if not somewhat middle-class bourgeois programming. The other just plays music, but all over the shop programming. Acid country. An hour of old school hip hop. Two hours of eclectic beats. A program of a cappella, gospel and early fifties guy and girl group smoothness. Tune in at any one time and you just don’t get it, but taking it on the whole you appreciate all that it can offer.
The highlight of the programming day came in Soultime. Two hours of northern soul on a Wednesday afternoon. I was again smitten. I looked into your eyes, and felt that teenage crush that kept my hips swinging and my feet tapping. Here was music that slapped me in the face with freshness that was had lasted fifty+ years. Fast, upbeat, you could dance to it and hot damn if it didn’t plaster a giant smile all up over my gob. Yes, the gods smiled and saw that it was good.
So I started listening regularly, devoutly. And on either side of the show I started listening to the radio in general. When I got home at night, cooking dinner, in the morning on my commute. I stopped listening to mp3s, cds and the like in the car and listened to what was on. Great part about two stations is that when one isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always an alternative.
And the more I listened the deeper and more meaningful our relationship grew. New music, new styles. I learned new and deeper levels of our love. Like experimenting with different lovers and lovemaking techniques, I found my legs wrapped around disco, rocksteady, psych-rock fuzz and all kinds of completely random shit. Did I mention fuzz – slow, drony psychedelic-sweet fuzz? Oh yeah, baby, you know how to make me shoulders shiver and mah leg a-quiver.
One day I heard my friend’s band on the radio. WOW thought I. I had seen them live, which was one thing, but to hear them on the RADIO? Surely only big names get played there. And so, the more I listened, the more I started getting in touch with my local music scene. Each program has a space for a gig guide. Bands could contact the show that related most to them/their fans, and ask them to read off their gigs. I can go and dance to this awesome music? Fuck Yeah! The fact you can hear a band on the radio, go see them at a local venue for a couple of bucks, buy their music (records and CDs) and it’s all in your own city, how great is that?
Local radio turned me onto music, turned me onto local bands, gets me out to see local bands, keeps me awash with new music. And able to actually find something I LIKE, something I LOVE, not just the best of a bad lot, or more sadly the exact same something I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Pearl Jam and I saw Ben Harper and The Cure last year who are all awesome, but they are but just one part of my Rock & Roll Universe.
Without local independent radio I wouldn’t have experienced the driving, frenetic, kick-ass Rock and Roll(!) of King Gizzard and Lizard Wizard live and in person. I would have never heard the screaming GRLL angst in ‘Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’, laughed at the wry, sardonic drone of modern day life as waxed by Teeth & Tongue. I wouldn’t have felt the inviting warmth as Seedy Jeezus and Wolf & Cub wrapped me in their bear-coat of heavy fuzz as it effused through the PA. I wouldn’t have made such good international pen pals with Sharon Jones, Fela Kuti, or William Onyeabor, Sergent Garcia and Moondog.
So on this record store day, Rock and Roll, I would like to thank you not for your records, but for you being you, reaching out and touching people making new friends, relighting old flames, and adding so much to my life. Thank you for PBS and RRR.
I love music. I love dancing. Music and Dancing truly make me happy. You make me happy. You make me smile to myself thinking of how gorgeous you are, smiling with the knowledge that you’ve made a special place for me, invited me in your world, and I am so thankful for you continuing to keep our love fresh, strong, and beautiful.
[Now all you voyeurs out there reading this get out the house, find some music that makes you move, and boogaloo till ya puke! x -j]