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on american bandstand, and dick clark

When I was old enough to remember listening to and caring about music, we lived in the middle of nowhere, a town in Michigan so small that when I visited it for the first time in 25 years, my first question to my mother was, “Where did you shop? Where did you buy clothes?” But there was a local FM station and at night I could twist the gold dial of the radio my mother gave me and could pick up Chicago radio, WLS, and Detroit radio sometimes, in the summer when the sky was clear. I would ride my bike to the discount store that had a tiny music department, sheet music and some albums and cheap acoustic guitars. I would pick up the goldenrod-colored fliers that had the Billboard Hot 100 and mark the songs carefully, the ones I knew vs. the ones I hadn’t heard vs. the ones I wanted to own. I would make a purchase of one or two 45’s and reverently flip through the albums. The only albums I owned were K-tel compilations, it wasn’t until my 8th birthday until I had enough cash of my own to buy an actual LP (School’s Out and We’re An American Band, for the record. There were also some David Cassidy purchases, later).

I was not old enough yet for Rolling Stone, and back then you could not just buy it at the supermarket. I discovered Tiger Beat and 16 and was allowed to buy those. Later, when I got a little older, I discovered The Midnight Special when a babysitter had the volume up too loud on the TV, and hearing rock and roll guitar, wandered out to see what was going on. I always had insomnia, was always up late, even when I was small, and once I discovered that there was rock and roll on television, would bribe the babysitter with promises of wrangling the other children to not cause problems in exchange for her letting me stay up to watch The Midnight Special, yes, I will run at full speed to my room where I will pretend to be sound asleep as soon as we hear my parents’ car hit the gravel at the bottom of the driveway.

But American Bandstand (and Soul Train!) were out in the open, in the middle of the day, flanked at the end of Saturday morning cartoons. No one noticed, no one shooed me outside to play, I never had to ask permission or hope no one else wanted the television, I could just sit there and watch. And I would watch everything that was on there, even if I didn’t like it, there was so much to watch, what the kids were wearing and how they danced. How the girls on Bandstand all had long beautiful straight hair, Marsha Brady long and straight, something I was not allowed to have.

My favorite part of Bandstand was Rate-A-Record, where Dick Clark would ask kids what they thought of a record! It wasn’t long before I would sit there in front of the tv and either nod with someone’s opinion or scowl if I thought they were wrong, and award myself imaginary prizes if my score matched any of the contestants’ numbers. It was where I first started trying to put into words what I thought about music, where I first started to think about music, where I realized that I could think things about music.

I know, Bandstand discriminated and Dick Clark wasn’t a saint and I remember learning about payola and what that meant much, much later. But for an awful lot of people, it was one of the only ways that music came into their home in a visual fashion, one of the few ways they had to see music and see musicians perform. It was a godsend. It was a ray of light. It changed so many things. It undoubtedly changed me.

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“For Clarence”

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It was inevitable, it being New Jersey, and it went on all night – adding “Promised Land” at the end of ISHFWILF, thanking Bruce for the loan of the hall, getting the crowd to “Bruuuuce” them. It was inevitable, and I knew it was coming, but when Bono went to the front of the stage and pulled out the sign – and that person had to have gotten online at the stroke of dawn to get that spot – it didn’t make it any easier, as he proceeded to dedicate “Moment of Surrender” to the E Street Band. And again, again, even with all of that, even though I knew it was going to happen, I’d seen the video, I’d heard the song files from Oakland, Bono invoking the last verse of “Jungleland” in New Jersey, across the parking lot where we stood and watched them all there not that long ago – well, goddammit, you learn from the best, you Irish bastard.

I didn’t expect Bruce to play and I realized on the train home that I had no real need or desire for him to play.

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love to the big man.

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Give my regards to Junior Walker and King Curtis.


My Backstreets obit

more later, when I can manage it.

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for babs.

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and if there’s one thing
could do for you
you’d be a wing
in heaven blue

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Attn: GIST Research, 10 Brookline Place, W. Brookline, MA 02445

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Big Star Tribute, New York, 3-26-11

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There is not much to say, not much that needs to be said. The night was about playing the songs, making them as big and bold and bright as the fantasies everyone had the first time they heard them, songs that made them pick up a guitar or write a song, take a chance.

I was thinking tonight that as many musical touchstones that I have, that this is my musical lineage, from Big Star to the dBs to R.E.M. to the Replacements and beyond, that connection that once upon a time meant everything – back when R.E.M. couldn’t get commercial FM airplay in New York City without calling in favors. When everything else – even my beloved Bruce – was HUGE and BIG and LOUD, we had our bands that we cared about, the bands that forged a foundation and a network, the bands that acknowledged what they loved, Peter Buck going to look for Alex in Memphis and the story about people telling him to go to a hotel, and when he asked why, does he live there, being told it was because he was driving a cab and often hung out there looking for fares.

The show was the third album – Sister Lovers – all the way through. But this was not a tribute show in which artists interpret or put their own stamp on the music – the point of this show was to recreate the record, in its big, messy, complicated gloriousness. You have to care, a lot, about getting it right, to do something like this. It has to matter. You have to find musicians to whom it also matters. And given that this was a benefit, you have to find people who will do this for free.

It was an astonishing night of music, which, given the people involved, I fully expected. It was perfectly executed, which, given Chris Stamey was musical director, I also fully expected. There wasn’t a disappointing note the entire evening. There was one false start – Jody Stephens looked at everyone and said something like, “This is live music,” – but that was it. They were able to duplicate the feeling of listening to those records, of being enveloped by the sound. Everything about the evening – even the tardy start, due to over-the-top security – was thoroughly Chiltonesque in vision.

For me, personally, I had half of the dBs and half of R.E.M. and Mitch Easter and then they played “Alex Chilton” – which, you might think is totally hokey and totally obvious and it was all of those things but it was also MIKE MILLS PLAYING BASS ON “ALEX CHILTON” which is the kind of thing that would have spawned long-distance phone calls from payphones back in the day. And Stamey took the solo, impeccably, and Mike rocked out and Jody Stephens himself played drums.

They went through the album – covers included, Mitch picking up the Kinks, even – and then we got the hit parade, your “September Gurls” and “I Am The Cosmos” and Tift Merritt sang “Thirteen” and the aforementioned Replacements nod. The cast of thousands returns to the stage, led by Michael Stipe, and just when I’m starting to parse what is left for the group to sing:

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane…ain’t got time to take a fast train…”

Holy FUCK! “The Letter”. I have heard a lot of R.E.M. covers in my day but never got to hear Stipe sing this. I am caught off guard. I forget I have a camera that can FILM things until we’re one verse in. Chris Stamey told a story earlier about one of those shows he played at CB’s with Alex and how Alex took the blender that Hilly had there, back when they served food, and he played the blender, and so when Michael Stipe holds up a hairdryer at the microphone and I am thinking it is that until I realize it is making that WHOOOSH sound at the end of the song and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry or both.

And then Jody comes out one more time, to mention Andy Hummel and Chris Bell and Jim Dickinson, this is after a heartfelt speech about Alex and how he is missed and how he is still with him and how he is here. I feel like finally I got to say goodbye to Alex, Alex who left us too soon, Alex who will always be with us.

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RIP, Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert changed my life.

I was watching it long before I probably should have. I would strike these deals with our babysitters on Saturdays, if they let me stay up to watch Don Kirshner, I would make sure the rest of the kids (and there were four of us) would behave and go to bed with no problem. This worked on all of our sitters except Ann from next door, who – because she LIVED NEXT DOOR – felt a need to be more accountable than the other random girls who showed up at our house to watch us while my parents went out.

I’d like to figure out how I even knew about this television show. I was pop music crazy at a young age, I was riding my bike to the record store to get the printouts of each week’s Top 40, I was calculating allowance to figure out what I could afford to buy (at 79 cents per 45), I was already a huge fan of both American Bandstand and Soul Train, I regularly requested songs on the local radio station, I would turn the dial slowly to get WLS in from Chicago and try to find stations on the other side of the state, in Detroit. All of that stuff makes sense, but my need to watch Alice Cooper or Roxy Music on Rock Concert at the age of 7 or 8? Where the hell did that come from? Because that is when I was doing it. We lived in Michigan from 69-74 and I was definitely hooked on Rock Concert the last two years, at least.

There’s a Chrissie Hynde quote that knowing that there were guys like Iggy Pop and Brian Jones out there made it hard for her to take anything or anyone local seriously, and that was how I felt about Rock Concert. I was too young to go to concerts (although I tried SO HARD to get my mom to take me to see the Jackson Five), I was too young to afford proper record albums, but I had this magic thing on Saturday nights and I would do anything to make sure I could watch it. If you watch it now – and there are some on youtube – you will think: lame. But in the early 70s to a girl trapped in a tiny town (my mother reminds me to this day that she got us out of there before it had done too much damage) that show was everything that rock and roll was supposed to represent, which was dark and smoky and dangerous and free.

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Visiting Johnny & Dee Dee

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When I was in LA in July, I made a side trip to pay my respects to both Johnny and Dee Dee, who are buried in the same cemetery in Los Angeles. On the occasion of Johnny’s birthday, I thought I’d mention it here.

When I look at the photograph above, all I can see is the bad composition. In my defense, it wasn’t my fault.

I hadn’t been there for more than a minute or two, and had just taken a handful of shots, when a minivan stopped in front of the grave site. The driver rolled down their window and may have called out to us, but I was too busy ignoring them.
Eventually, someone got out of the minivan and walked over to us.
In very broken, French-accented English: “Excuse me, but – who is?”
In a cemetery, this strikes me as the dumbest thing ever to ask, because the person’s name is on the gravestone. Furthermore, even if you didn’t know who Johnny Ramone was, given the nature of the monument, it should be very clear that he played the rock and roll music.
In the hopes of getting this person to go away and leave me alone, I said, “Johnny Ramone.”
“But – who is?”
“He was in the Ramones.” I point at the plaque on the memorial which clearly says “legendary guitarist for the Ramones”.
“Sorry?”
“The Ramones?” I was about to mimic playing guitar, when I realized how completely freaking stupid it was, given, again, what was in front of us, a bronze statue of a long-haired guy in a leather jacket with an electric guitar in his hands. I realized that I was about to explain to some family of four from France who didn’t speak English and clearly couldn’t read nor possessed any common sense about the Ramones, which of course leads me into a Legs McNeil-style internal tirade about how they never got the attention they deserved, and Johnny has to get it now with this grandiose monument just steps from Douglas Fairbanks’ reflecting pool (not kidding) and some tourists who don’t really care, who are just worried they’re missing out on something important on their grand trip to the US of A are bothering me when I am trying to pay my respects to a musician I already have a conflicted, troubled fan relationship to. I wanted to spit.

As we walked back to our car, they herded their kids out of the minivan and posed them in front of the grave. I was glad at that moment that I was inside something so I could yell epithets at them unhindered.

I just wanted a couple of minutes. I wanted to stand there and think about the Ramones and remember what it was like to see them and hear them and be a fan. I wanted to say thank you one last time. I didn’t want very much. But of course, I was in LA, and I should have known better.

Please note that someone took the trouble to leave their cd for Johnny. (I will also note that there are no pebbles to be found anywhere at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, so I could not even follow the Jewish custom of leaving a stone on the grave.)

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I was happier – if that’s possible in a cemetery – to find Dee Dee a short distance away. He’s a little bit in from the road, so you have to look carefully for him, but it was more comforting to me. While there weren’t any grandiose tribute quotes featured on the stone, there were candles and flowers and a virtual rainbow of guitar picks and half a dozen notes. Dee Dee is well visited, and well loved.

The minivan slowly creeped up the road just as I was getting back into the car. I gave them the finger, and felt much better. Or at least as better as I was going to feel at that moment.

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this one goes out to Miami Janet.

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I called her Miami, because she (like me) had a thing for Steve Van Zandt, back when he was Miami Steve, back when this was a band that wore hats! She wore hats, too. We all had nicknames for each other, stupid, dumb, nicknames – I quite honestly cannot remember any of mine – because we wanted to be a gang, an exclusive club with nicknames and handshakes and secret rituals and inside jokes.

I met Janet in 1978 or 1979, when I saw a little ad in the back of Rolling Stone magazine advertising a fanzine called “Who’s News”. It read something like “Who fanatics? You’re not alone. C’mon and Join Together with the band!” I sent my $3 or whatever it was and then waited. I am sure that you are snickering at how trite and corny it was, but at the time it was a beacon in the wilderness. What arrived in the mail was beyond my wildest dreams: a fanzine. A magazine dedicated solely to one band, MY band.

It’s hard to describe that feeling now, what it was like to find and connect with a group of people who cared about music as much as you did. Now, you tap tap tap on your computer and no matter what band you like or think you’re the biggest fan of, there’s already two fan pages, a Yahoo group and a Flickr feed. Back then, the best I could do was skulk around the hallways of my high school with a record album under my arm and hope that someone, anyone would see it and recognize it and and talk to me about it. That never happened; I wasn’t cool enough, I didn’t smoke pot, I hung out with the wrong group of people (who were listening to Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd or worse).

30 years ago, you had fanzines. And where you had fanzines, you had penpals. “Who’s News” had a classified section and a letters section and they PRINTED PEOPLE’S MAILING ADDRESSES and excerpts of their letters, and that was where the madness all started. I don’t remember if Janet wrote to me or I wrote to her, or if I met her through another friend – that was the thing, once you reached out to one person you were immediately connected to this cross-country – hell, CROSS GLOBE network of Who people (I still want to draw the little arrow coming up from the O, even when I type it) but soon letters were flying across the distance between Cincinnati and Stamford, CT. Then phone calls.

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Then a large group visit, with people from all over the country – because it was a small world, us insane crazy Who fans. I started getting random phone calls: “You don’t know me, but I know so-and-so, and I heard that X, Y and Z are coming to visit you in New York? We live in Virginia/Delaware/Buffalo, could we come too?” It was on Halloween in 1981 and we called it “WHO-loween”. The photo at the top is me, Janet and Mary (who was from Michigan, another Who person), all dressed up to go see Siouxie & the Banshees down at the Ritz. We were so excited when they played the new Stones video on the big screen. We danced and acted as cool as we could, me in my thrift store vintage best, Janet in a loaned faux-leather coat that I insisted she take back home with her, Mary rocking the Keef schoolboy cap.

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We never got to see the Who together, despite wishes and hopes and plans, believe it or not. There were jobs and classes and distances and money to be dealt with. And then, of course, the band broke up, and that was, as they say, the end of that.

But not the end of the friendship. Janet and I stayed friends for years and years and years. We talked music and life and boys and music and boys again. Tapes were sent. Clippings were xeroxed. Packages were assembled. I managed to be in Cincinnati a few times, and I am to this day amazed that her door was always open and she was always ready for whatever crazy scheme I had cooked up this time. And there were always phone calls, which were crazy expensive back then, but it was an expense we – and people like us – shouldered as the cost of doing business. This was as real a friendship as anyone who lived in my area code.

The friendship survived a bad marriage and a cross-globe (and back again) move. She diligently kept up with me all the way up until Seattle, where she would eventually email me – her email address was Miami something something @ aol.com. Even if we hadn’t talked at all, there were always birthday cards; her birthday was in early August, and it would pop up on the calendar and I would find her address (she bought a house years ago, and never moved) or she would find mine (I moved all the time, but she somehow managed to keep up).

And eventually, communication faded out, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t think about her or didn’t tell stories about her. When the anniversary of Live Aid rolled around, I kept telling the story about what it was like to watch that in an internet-less age, how I took the train up to my parents’ house in Connecticut (because I didn’t have cable), and sat in front of the television from the first note until the last with a bottle of diet Coke in one hand and the telephone in the other. That when the satellite went out during the Who’s set, the signals on the phone got crossed because people were freaking the fuck out and I managed to pick up three calls at once, somehow (we had call waiting, which meant I could do two), while everyone else got crazy busy signals and assumed the phone was broken, which meant that everyone tried calling everyone else which didn’t help the situation. (My father finally physically removed the phone from my hands under protest and hung it up for 30 seconds – which felt like a LIFETIME – but it fixed the problem.) Janet was on the other end of that phone multiple times that day, as we laughed and agonized and analyzed and DISCUSSED. Pete’s hair. Roger’s jeans. John being John.

This morning, I got an email from a name I hadn’t heard from in a very long time. It was from Mary, whose snail mail address I had tracked down last winter but hadn’t done anything about yet. The subject line of the email read About Janet. Please call. I knew, like you know, that there was no way this was going to be good news. To be honest, I hoped it was something critical but did not believe that it would be something final. She wasn’t that much older than me.

Janet died of a massive heart attack on Saturday. She was only 48.

If there is a friend who you think about every day and haven’t told them that, please go find them on Facebook or search them out wherever and let them know.

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[And in case you were wondering – YES. We ALL owned that goddamned black and white MAXIMUM RNB shirt that at the time you could buy in any good head shop anywhere in the USA.]

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Within Your Reach

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As much as I always wanted to, I never made it to Minneapolis until this year. Probably because I was smart enough to know that it wasn’t like every band I cared about would be standing on the street corner waiting for me as I got off the bus. The closest I came was when I was moving back to NYC from Seattle six years ago; a logical overnight stop was just outside of Minneapolis, and I took a morning detour long enough to stand in front of the Let It Be house for a few minutes and take a few pictures.

It was odd to drive around and look at the sights and walk into what was once Oar Folkjokeopus (back when record stores mattered, back when it was a point of pride to know the names of the cool record stores in every city), to walk across the street and have a beer at the CC Club, to stand in front of the stars on the wall at First Avenue (even though it was the weekend they decided to REPAINT them!), and quietly, find the bench that was dedicated to Bob Stinson’s memory, and sit there for a while.

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Some friends had recently visited Johnny Cash and June Carter’s grave, and related how they pulled out their iPhone and sang along to a tinny version of “Jackson”. I seized inspiration from that thought and started to play “Here Comes A Regular” until I deemed it maudlin, and instead found a live version of “Little GTO” from CBGB’s and played that instead. I think Bob would have appreciated the latter.

The weekend was capped later that day, sitting in Target Field as the sun went down, as “Unsatisfied” boomed over the loudspeakers. It was serendipity and it was heartwrenching and wonderful all wrapped into one bright shiny moment.

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malcolm mclaren has died

I hated Malcolm McLaren when I was old enough to have an opinion about him for the same reasons I hated Aerosmith and KISS back then: I saw him as having ruined, and then stolen, the best of my beloved New York Dolls. Through the lenses of my blinding teenage love, the Dolls broke up because he killed them, while their pale, feeble imitators were able to make a living at it. And later, every time I’d find myself in the “who started punk first, the US or the UK” argument, his name would be invoked and I’d point out that he stole it lock, stock and barrel from Richard Hell and every kid hanging out at CBGB before there was anything resembling punk fashion.

You could also hate him for turning the word “punk” into the thing that made your parents lock their doors, robbing the Ramones of “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” finally giving them their first hit. But would it have been so monumental and enduring a force if it hadn’t been so divisive? We’ll never know.

I hated him because he never gave his partner, Vivienne Westwood, any credit for being his partner in crime (or at least not publicly enough), and Jessica Hopper reminds us of his svengali-esque exploitation of an underage Annabella Lwin.

But he was an influencer and he added something to the culture. He had a profound influence on my world. Begrudging respect is given, although Malcolm would have loved and fed off my hatred.

I am heartily tired of writing obituaries and I haven’t even started.

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