Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hotels and Motels: Super 8

[purchase Southeastern]

If you have spoken to me about music over the past year or so, you probably know that my favorite album of 2013 was Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. In fact, it is probably the best album that I have heard in years. And I’m not alone in singing (actually just talking) its praises. It made a ton of year-end best lists, topping some, and has been nominated for all sorts of awards. Although for some reason, WFUV, which you would expect would be all over this disc, never really committed to it. Southeastern’s incredible songwriting, singing and playing, when coupled with Isbell’s story of talent, addiction, leaving a band, marriage and redemption scored Isbell about as much publicity as you can get playing the type of confessional Americana music that he plays. He has been on Letterman (who loves him) and Conan and has been featured on NPR and on the CBS News. But with the music business being what it is, the album has probably sold less in total than some no-talent pre-fab tween pop tart sells in a day.

For the most part, Southeastern is a pretty mellow affair, but its songs’ messages are anything but laid back. There are lots of songs that can be directly or indirectly tied to his life story, and one, “Elephant,” about a woman dying of cancer, that is literally brilliant. Almost every song has imbedded itself into my head, so that I couldn’t tell you what song is my favorite.

The album had just come out last summer, right before my family and I were going to see him perform at the Clearwater festival. I’ve mentioned that performance before, mostly in the context of how great it was that his former colleague in the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood, sat in on one song, and Isbell returned the favor during Hood’s set. Especially since Hood was one of the people who was instrumental in essentially kicking Isbell out of the band when his drinking became too much of a problem. (Clearly, they have buried the hatchet—just the other day, Isbell, Hood and Trucker Mike Cooley performed an entire show together for a benefit.)

Although I had heard the album, it was still new, and hearing Isbell perform the songs, basically solo, was thrilling. Even my wife, who was never the big DBT fan that my son and I are, was blown away. Then, we found out that Isbell, with the full band, was going to be playing at Lincoln Fucking Center, as part of a series of pretty well-respected artists from across the musical spectrum—including jazz, opera and musical theater. I went with my son, his girlfriend and a musician friend of mine who was unfamiliar with Isbell (my wife had a prior commitment). It was an incredible show, in an incredible venue. The entire broadcast from PBS is here, and it is primarily songs from Southeastern, with some older songs and some Truckers classics.

The set ends with “Super 8,” the one real rocker on the album, a Stones-influenced rave about the craziness and danger of life on the road, particularly in cheap motels. In a recent piece in, yes, The Wall Street Journal, debuting the official video for the song, which is above, Isbell was quoted as saying: “This song is one story built out of moments from many different actual nights. Things that are funny now, but weren’t funny at all when they were happening. The song took a couple hours to write, but years to live through.”

 By the way, after “Super 8,” the band encored with an actual Stones song, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” a part of which you can hear at the end of the video.

And have I mentioned how much I liked Southeastern?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hotels/Motels: King of the Road

King of the Road

It is standard lore that musicians on the road used to tend to excesses. It cannot be a great life: days/months on the road. Grueling hours. Consider this: you start “work” at 10PM.  Yes, back stage, they “accommodated”  groupies. Their contractual  “riders” included requirements that would make the average Joe blanche – more bottles than even a hard-drinking band could put away between 10 and 12 midnight. Moreover, when the show was over and they retired to their accommodations, the show went on. There are legends about their use/abuse of the lodgings/the hotel.

I recall – 30 or so years ago – a night in Zagreb (Yugoslavia). The hotel staff was complaining about a Middle Eastern customer who had elected to grill their dinner – en-suite. Burning a hole in the center of the room rug in the process. And the staff said this was just standard form for a family from Arabia. Certainly plausible in light of what we think we know about rock bands and hotel rooms. 

It's more than likely that today's rock star on tour  gets charged for damage to the room: that appears to not have been the case in the 70s - or maybe the damages were just billed as part of the collateral damage. Not being a hotelier, in today’s atmosphere of airport security normality, I naively assume that even hard core rockers toe the line a bit more.

There are a number of stories about my choice this time around: King of the Road.
Roger Miller sang and played the guitar back in the 50s and 60s (OK .. and beyond).
As such, he hit the road.
Legend has it that on one such trip, he saw a sign advertising “trailers for sale or rent”, and the phrase stuck with him. Apparently, more than once, while on the road, he managed with rooming that we probably wouldn’t put up with in this day and age. At a later date, he worked this phrase into the lyrics of what would eventually become King of the Road.

Specific references to hotels/motels in the song are limited: the early 60s was a different time and place. The lyrics include the lines:  “8 x 12 4-bit rooms” and “Rooms to let, fifty cents/ No phone, no pool, no pets” – much of it still recognizable to travelers 50 years later. The culture of the American roadside motel is essentially the same today.

The Internet has it that Roger Miller went on in later years to purchase and operate more than one hotel/motel himself.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


(Sorry, but someone had to, from the ridiculous to the sublime...........)

Alabama 3     

Max Romeo

Nancy Sinatra

Tangerine Dream

The Cat Empire

and, of course, The Gypsy Kings

I'm clearly not busy enough at work today.........

(Actually, rather than assuming this a knock against the song and it's originators, I find myself still loving it. Along with similar staples, like Freebird and Stairway to Heaven, all overplayed and overknown to buggery, I still get that hit as the opening bars unfold, singing along with all the words and all the chords from beginning to end. I even went, just last month, to see the History of the Eagles show here, as it rolls slowly and expensively around the world, enjoying the earlier part of the show, with Bernie Leadon's participation more than the later stuff. But I had to applaud and stand from my dampening seat as this song, their obvious encore, rang out. In the hardly unsurprising absence of Don Felder, a Steuart Smith was note perfect, on the expected double necked guitar, with Joe Walsh foiling the 2nd guitar admirably. I'm no fan of the Eagles and what they stand for, but, for that moment, hell, yes I was!)


Bit of a change here, rather than invoking the C word and it's inability to be left, or Zappas entire chain of boarding houses, I thought I'd explore those largely uncelebrated doyens of Noo Yawk noo wave, Martha Davis' exemplary Motels. And what's the first thing I learn? Dang me, but they were from L.A.........
As a boy I was always interested in the arcane and the roads less well travelled, and I think I first came across this band on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the "other" music show from british bygone days, the late late night prog and earnest mumblefest, officiated by, at it's peak, the wonderful Whispering Bob, Bob Harris, who remains the champion of american musics in the UK. I don't believe they were ever that well known over this side, but I loved the spiky and jagged angulations of the guitar, keyboard and squawked vocal interface. This was the song and even hearing it now brings me to a glow of  nostalgic glee. Even the awful grunts and groans of her no doubt burly bandmates. (Edit: Actually, somewhat less than burly, see above!!)

Originally formed in Berkely as far back as 1971, they had rather more chart success at home and in Oz than in the UK, the above mentioned song being, I'm surprised to read, their only UK chartbotherer. I'm surprised it even reached 41, which it did, apparently, not through undeserved worth, but because I thought I was the only person who actually bought the single. It seems that vocalist/guitarist Martha Davis has been the only constant, with a massive cohort of transients over the subsequent decades. Indeed, albeit now officially Martha Davis and, the current unit are either currently touring, recording or both.

As a contrast I was hoping to find something from an LP of childrens music she, Ms Davis, put out at one stage. Unfortunately no-one has seen fit to youtube anything, but here is a spotify link that may or may not divert you, in more ways than one.

A final thought, as I try to shoehorn a further Hotel/Motel reference into this piece, I wonder whether the CEO of Days Inns ever contacted the band, in search of a slogan. Days are OK would surely fit the bill, I feel, for their, um, range? Of course, I expect a fee for this idea, should such a person be reading. I feel sure they are.