Tag Archives: obits

Love & Stratocasters

In 1968 a student teacher at the junior high I was attending took a group of us on an after-school outing to see Romeo and Juliet at a local movie theater. Our parents undoubtedly figured what could be bad about going to see a film based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most famous (if not the most famous: Hamlet might give it a run for attention) plays? While they—and we—weren’t familiar with Franco Zeffirelli, I’m sure that if it was noted by said student teacher that the movie was made by a famous director, it made it all seem the more worthwhile.

Realize that then there wasn’t the proliferation of instant information outlets. Perhaps the closest thing would have been AM radio, and in that period of time AM radio was about spinning the 45s, not news and talk (unless the talk was of a religious nature).

And so we saw the movie that included a sex scene between Olivia Hussey’s Juliet and Leonard Whiting’s Romeo. At the time Hussey was 15 and Whiting 16. The two, now in their 70s, have recently filed a lawsuit in Santa Monica Superior Court against Paramount for having exploited their teenaged nudity, charging that their careers were negatively impacted by their roles. (Oddly enough, Hussey went on to perform in another Zeffirelli film, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Virgin Mary, and as this was serialized and shown on TV in 1977, there was no eyes-wide-open associated with her role; this was not Scorsese’s version of the story. One wonders about her claim.)

In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet is 13 and while Romeo’s age is not given, it is estimated by Shakespeare scholars that he is probably 16.

In 1968 a slightly older friend played an album for me that had been released in the fall of that year: Jeff Beck’s Truth.

The point about Romeo and Juliet the movie, Romeo and Juliet the characters and Truth is this: When we are teenagers, some things like love, star-crossed or otherwise, and music can have long-lasting, indelible effects on us.

And Truth was an album that had an impact on me the likes of which few recordings have.

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Paul Siebel, Dead at 84

One day in the mid-90s I found myself sitting at the bar at Kraftbrau, a newly opened brewery located across the street from Bell’s in Kalamazoo. I probably got there early because a friend’s band was playing later, or something. Who knows? Kraftbrau specialized in lagers while most micros at the time were still making ales (which don’t require refrigeration during fermentation).

There weren’t many other patrons there, but the bartender was friendly. I asked him about the music that was playing. It sounded a bit like Nashville Skyline or Mike Nesmith’s First National Band. Lots of great pedal steel and conversational lyrics that you could tell were good stories even without listening too closely.

Turns out it was a guy named Paul Siebel. The bartender told me the album was called Woodsmoke and Oranges and it was something of a lost classic. I was pretty full of myself in my twenties and it was humbling to realize I’d never even heard of this guy even though he was making the exact kind of music that I loved. Siebel was a mysterious figure who had made two albums and then just disappeared.

When I got back home I ran out to Vinyl Solution and asked Herm if they had Woodsmoke and Oranges in stock. It was out of print. But there was a new compilation called Paul Siebel (Philo/Rounder, 1995), so I bought that. It ended up containing the entirety of Woodsmoke and Oranges (in order) plus half the songs from the follow-up, Jack-Knife Gypsy, tacked on to the end. Score!

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Mixing Memory and Desire

It was about 4:30 am this past Friday morning when I was ripped from a dream that I would have rather been continuing to play a role in rather than being annoyed by the dinging that indicated I received a text. (I had recently read The Mind Is Flat in which the author claims that dreams are not in color; I can assure him that that was not the case at all when the incessant chimes began.)

“Meat Loaf is dead”

it said.

I saw it was from Henry Melrose, and I figured that he, a single man, either was suffering from insomnia and was going through the recesses of his refrigerator and thought he would share the findings with me or that he had had some Thursday for dinner and found out that it was disagreeing with him.


I replied. There were other responses that my addled brain filed through, but it would have taken too much work to input them.

He realized that I didn’t know what his message meant—I mean, it was 4:30 in the morning and I was in the midst of a technicolor extravaganza, the likes of which makes Bollywood productions seem drained—and added:

“The singer”

I then discovered that the structural integrity of the iPhone is better than I had imagined, outside of the diagonal crack on the screen that formed as a result of the encounter with an immovable object, a.k.a., my wall.

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Charlie Watts, R.I.P.

And so I call it an end. An end of the Rolling Stones. It withstood the death of Brian Jones. It got past the departure of Mick Taylor. Bill Wyman took his bass and left. Ian Stewart was only sort-of in the band.

But with the death of Charlie Watts, that’s it.


Yes, there are Mick and Keith. The remaining originals. Ronnie Wood has been playing in the band since 1975, which is arguably a career and then some.

But Watts was special.

Funny thing: There are often apologists for Ringo Starr, who maintain that he is a far better drummer than he is typically given credit for being. Presumably much of that capability was honed over hours and hours of working the skins with sticks. (And a solid measure of McCartney’s bitching.)

But you never heard any excuses for Watts. He got the job done, and then some.

The Rolling Stones have typically been fluid in the musicians that it only lets the spotlights glance at. The sound of the band is made up of more than the marque members.

The sound of the backbeat was always Watts.

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Nanci Griffith, Dead at 68

Video: Nanci Griffith – “Love at the Five and Dime” (live)

From Austin City Limits, 1989.

Sophomore year of college, a pal and I had both wanted singles, but signed up as roommates in a double and put our names on the waitlist if a single opened up. During the week or so we shared that room we pillaged each other’s small CD collections and dubbed the stuff we didn’t have onto cassette. That’s how it worked in 1990.

One of Casper’s discs I was drawn to was a live album recorded in a tiny club by a country singer with an adorable voice. One Fair Summer Evening blew my mind wide open. At the time I would have said I hated country music. I was a teenager with a bad attitude about anything I didn’t think was cool. And country was definitely not cool. Casper must have described her to me as a folk singer. That would’ve been way more acceptable to me. I mean, I liked the Indigo Girls, right? And of course I loved Donovan. So folk music was okay. Country though? Not yet.

Every song on One Fair Summer Evening tells a story. And every story is beautiful. Beautifully sad, beautifully uplifting, sometimes just beautiful sounding. The lead song, “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” is a nostalgic look back at a lost love. It employs one of my favorite narrative techniques: the one where our unreliable narrator downplays their feelings. Like “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc where the singer is clearly in love. Or in “God Only Knows” where Brian Wilson says, “I may not always love you” (only as “long as there are stars above you”). In this case, Griffith claims to only still miss her ex, “just once…in a very blue moon.” It killed me back then and it still does.

My favorite song, though, was “Love at the Five and Dime” which starts off with a charming story about the connection between Woolworth elevators and guitar harmonics, and goes on to run the course of a long-term relationship that survives its ups and downs (including infidelity and arthritis) and ultimately has a happy ending. Happy enough anyway.

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Sylvain Sylvain Dead at 69

As original member and guitarist for The New York Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain inspired countless kids in bedrooms around the world to pick up their guitars, dab on a bit of rouge, and start a band. The Dolls’ influence on rock and roll is well documented and will continue as long as there’s a need for loud, campy rock and roll–and that need never goes away.

But Sylvain also inspired my all-time favorite rock show heckle; one that I use to this day, regardless of the artist or situation. Like the Dolls themselves, it is equally specific to the moment it was first uttered and evergreen. 

It was at The Cactus Club in Milwaukee where my new bandmate and pal Mick was reunited with his band Men From Mars to open for Sylvain. I was late because I couldn’t find my way to the club and passed my turn several times before catching a glimpse of the front door and swinging a hard left on a wet road. I made it in to catch the end of Mick’s set and caught up on beers and chit-chat with Mick. Then it got loud.

Sylvain’s band kicked in hard. I can’t remember what song they opened with but I am pretty sure it was a Dolls’ tune. You know, to get the crowd ready to roll. They were pretty tight but swinging and Sylvain sounded good. He worked up a sweat quickly and eventually wandered into the crowd, guitar in hand so we could all get hot, hot, hot together. This was a few months after September 11, 2001 and we were all looking for an opportunity or reason to find some community. As a New Yorker, Sylvain obviously had some very close and personal feelings about what had happened in New York and what was happening in America as a response. He lit into a rant…a preach for loving each other and not giving in to prejudice or paranoia. He was hitting a high when the heckle rang out like a shot:

Play “Trash,” hippy!

It was incredibly offensive and incredibly hilarious, the perfect interruption for an emotional moment as only a Midwesterner can deliver. Sylvain laughed and nodded his head as if to say, “Yeah, yeah. Ok.” and we were back to rocking and sweating.

Sylvain died today after a two and a half year battle with cancer. Of the original line-up, only David Johansen remains. We have the records, we have the songs, but we’ll never get to hear Sylvain play “Trash” again. That’s a real drag.

Atonal Apples, Amplified Heat: Ginger Baker, RIP

There are some people who, it seems, endure long after others would have collapsed in a dissolving heap, people who, even with the deck stacked against them hand after hand, stay at the table, albeit often moved to a table that is somewhere in the darkness, away from the brightness that they once helped generate.

And so we learn of the death of Ginger Baker.

By and large, Baker is known for his superb drumming and awful singing when he was a member of Cream, a band that lived just 2.5 years but which has an afterlife like musical carbon 14.

Of the three members of what is often cited as the first “supergroup,” when there were such things, now having given way to recordings by a given “star” who is performing “with” another “star,” who may or may not be of the same genre, Eric Clapton is really the only one who continued to have a career in the broad public eye. Immediately post-Cream Clapton created Blind Faith, which included Baker, but it really didn’t make much of a stir—brilliant music notwithstanding—as it was mired in controversy because the original cover of its debut album was a color photograph of a topless 11-year-old girl. It was soon replaced with a sepia-toned photo of Clapton, Baker, Stevie Winwood, and Ric Grech, but the proverbial damage was done publicly and given internal acrimony the band lasted a year.

Baker went on to other things like Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which made it to the close out bins at record stores faster than he could hit a tom-tom. (Speaking of which: Baker’s “Toad,” from the “Wheels of Fire” album—incidentally the first double album to go platinum when this was truly the result of people buying physical artifacts—was undoubtedly played on desktops (as in physical classroom furniture) by more teenage boys than any other rhythm before or since.)

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Headlights Dim to Dark

Back in 2007 a book titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, written by Marilyn Johnson was published. That came to mind when I read of the death of Ric Ocasek because given last week’s piece on the passing of Eddie Money, I didn’t want to be tagged as the Official Glorious Noise Death Correspondent. [Sorry Mac, you’re now officially the Death Correspondent; your new business cards are in the mail. -ed.]

Still, Ocasek deserves more than a few lines on Twitter. First know that he was a 75-year-old male. And according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control, Health, United States, 2017, With Special Feature on Mortality (I didn’t make that up), in 2016 life expectancy at birth for a male is 76.1 years. So he wasn’t far from that. And being a male is particularly troublesome vis-à-vis, well, living, as the report says, “In 2016, age-adjusted death rates were higher among males than among females for heart disease, cancer, CLRD, diabetes, stroke, and unintentional injuries,” and if there is any dim light associated with that list of bad things, the sentence continues, “and were lower among males than females for Alzheimer’s disease.” Which one could interpret as saying, “If you’re a male married to a female of approximately your same age, she may not know who you are before she dies.” And if all of the songs about love that we’ve listened to over the years—including those by The Cars—that might be even more heart-rending than death itself.

And before leaving that dark subject, know that, again going back to that Special Feature on Mortality, in 2016 73% of all deaths occurred among those 65 years and older, and lest anyone who is from 45 to 64 feels smug, the number of those dying is 19.7%–and while that number isn’t near 73%, the death rate for those from 25 to 44 is a mere 4.9%, so that 19.7 percent isn’t as good as you might think.

But let’s pull ourselves out of this spiral to oblivion and get back to Ocasek.

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Eddie Money, R.I.P.

OK. This is admittedly taken from when the news, such as it is, was breaking, but it strikes me as almost haiku-like in its brevity and appropriateness.

The entire first piece from the Washington Post on the reported death of Eddie Money:

“The onetime police officer trainee sang his way to pop rock stardom in the late 1970s, then became a self-deprecating staple of MTV while battling drug and alcohol abuse.

“This is a developing story. It will be updated.”

The story will be. Eddie won’t be. He died, reportedly, from esophageal cancer.

Brutal. Godspeed to him.

Here’s the thing. Eddie Money was a man who had plenty of hits. “Take Me Home Tonight.” “Two Tickets to Paradise.” “Shakin’.”

Great? Nope.

Summer music? Absolutely.

Drink a lot of beer and sing along to these songs? That is arguably why they exist.

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The Suffering Subsides: On the Death of David Berman

The summer of 2019 has been filled with inner turmoil and a return to a depressive state that I haven’t felt in some time. I immediately retreated into a pattern of cleansing abstinence, a trick that I learned in my younger days when I was stronger and able to fool myself that the experience of depression somehow shaped a man, preparing him for more battles of the mind in the future.

But I’m older now. And with each passing year the folly of life becomes more apparent, along with the realization that I’m past the halfway mark. This is the downhill, the point where you begin to pick up steam, only to realize that the caliper brakes have become corroded over time. Life will end in an abrupt crash and not from a slow and steady reduction of speed that affords you the time to reflect on and repair those things you should have addressed before cresting the hill. In other words, I may have become too old and weak to keep fighting depression like this.

My summer of discontent began as a manifestation of personal doubt, professional tribulations and a natural self-loathing that comes from recognizing there’s very little on this planet that requires my involvement. Of course, America’s current political climate only added to the mix, providing an endless brickwall of sonic garbage for both ears, left ‘n right. The words “I want to die where the presidency died!” have become more than just a hipster reference about some drug-fueled indie-rock poet’s bad night, it became a clever suicide note that more people could consider leaving.

Around the same time, I began to think about David Berman. I’d like to believe that it was more than just a passing coincidence–after all, he’d been “retired” and out of the public eye for a decade and I’d heard no hint of his planned return. It was more about, “I wonder how he’s doing,” picturing him disheveled with too-big spectacles, lounging in a chair smoking and reading a book. I never met the man, but I projected enough to think that he resembled an old college roommate of mine, also a depressive sort. It’s amazing how we all seem to find each other with our sad fuck pheromones.

That’s part of it, I guess; the idea that if we all just channel the remaining light we have left that somehow we’ll have enough clarity to make it through the dark times. Then you learn that someone has fallen off and you realize the limitations of your mind’s own illumination.

Continue reading The Suffering Subsides: On the Death of David Berman