I. Death, and Life

It started to seem like every few days, somebody else had died.

This could make for a strange counterpoint to the celebration of a life that formed the core of the show. There was no new record, and hadn’t been for years – there may never be again, but more on that in a minute – so Elvis Costello’s “Detour,” if it was promoting anything, was promoting his autobiography: the merch table shilled vinyl reissues of Punch The Clock and This Year’s Model, along with the obligatory t-shirt and miscellaneous bric-a-brac, but most patrons plunked down forty or thirty bucks for a copy of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, signed or unsigned; meanwhile, many of the stories that made up the show itself, couched as introductions to songs beloved and obscure, were drawn from the book’s pages, with the jokes and more importantly the discursive narrative style preserved. The set mirrored the book – it was arguably more linear in shape – in that it was structured as a loose amble through Costello’s life: at the top of the night we would hear very early songs, often quieter numbers dating back to before My Aim Is True; as the set unspooled and things got a little rowdier, we would be introduced to Costello’s family members, his parents and grandparents as well as his wife and kids, or we’d learn about past collaborators and co-workers, get glimpses into a life in show business, and maybe even be allowed a peek into the workshop as we were treated to worksinprogress from a forthcoming musical called A Face In The Crowd. This, we had to conclude, was a life well-lived, still in the process of being lived well. And yet a certain cloud of mortality hung over the proceedings.

Read More

Secret Lemonade Drinker

150515_TV_MadMen_BestImages_wheel.jpg.CROP.original-originalSecret Lemonade Drinker (1973 TV advertisement, version #1).
Secret Lemonade Drinker (1973 TV advertisement, unaired version #2).

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” —Don Draper, Mad Men

In 1973 the British advertising firm of Allen, Brady, & Marsh was asked to devise a campaign for R. White’s Lemonade.

The men behind ABM were, to put it in Mad Men terms – more American, perhaps, but certainly ad-biz-apt – much more of the perpetually-amused Roger Sterling school than that of ever-tortured Don Draper: Peter Marsh was a onetime music-hall actor and television documentarian; Rod Allen was a former Signal Corps member with a literary bent – in the service he had a side business ghostwriting his bunkmates’ letters home in exchange for their performing his KP duty. Teamed with the straitlaced data-analysis expert Michael Brady – every ad agency needs its Pete Campbell too, no offense to Brady – the pair became a kind of comedy duo, their pitch sessions featuring Marsh in a white suit and a straw hat, warbling jingles as Allen played ramshackle piano in accompaniment. Allen, in particular, was a kind of musical genius, and I probably do him a disservice by prefacing that assertion with a softener: his great gift, bestowed by the gods, was for thirty-second songs that packed in as many repetitions of the product name as possible, and the ditties he penned are as memorable, in many cases as well-known, as any rock and roll song: Whitbread Big Head Trophy Bitter’s presentation as “the pint that thinks it’s a quart”; British Rail’s haunting paean to “The Age Of The Train”; the almost maddeningly catchy campaign for the Milk Board that declared milk has “gotta lotta bottle.” It’s doubtful Allen, Brady, & Marsh’s team had any sort of Draper-esque existential crisis over the R. White’s account – which is not to belittle the brilliance of what they came up with. The adverts were simplicity itself: this lemonade, they suggested, is so good it’s a guilty pleasure, something you consume in the shadows and sneak away from your wife to slurp down late at night, the way an alcoholic might nip from a stashed-away bottle when nobody’s looking. They inverted expectation, rendering the innocent jokingly illicit. They made you want to drink lemonade, because something already fun and sweet and fizzy had suddenly been shot through with a charge of naughtiness or even danger. Read More

Waiting For The End Of The World


Waiting For The End Of The World.
Waiting For The End Of The World (Pathway demo).
Waiting For The End Of The World (live at the Nashville Rooms, 8/7/77).
Waiting For The End Of The World (Rockpalast, 6/15/78).


In 1971, David Bowie had a dream and he turned it into a song.

As he slept, the world ended.  It was a world inside his head, but it looked just like the one he moved through by day: men read the news on television; people of all vocations congregated in the village square; beautiful girls sat cross-legged on stools in ice cream parlors, their lips puckered around straws as if they were waiting to be discovered and cast as femmes fatales in black-and-white movies.  But this world had been given a death sentence: it would be gone in “Five Years.”  Society was crumbling, three-hundred-sixty-five-times-five days away from complete annihilation.  The nature of armageddon was unspecified, in the song at least – perhaps it was articulated in the dream, but Bowie spared us the pain of hearing the diagnosis: the “news guy” explained nothing through his tears save that “earth was really dying,” and you get the sense that for the masses the end was simply a looming shadow, a gathering darkness, creeping chaos that would fray and unshackle the innate bonds and hatreds of society until children were being attacked by adults, law-and-order types submitting to the uncertain faiths of religion, steadfast soldiers contemplating throwing themselves beneath lumbering vehicles to conclude it all before the true end could arrive.  Bowie himself, he tells us, meandered through this madness in a daze.  His head hurt; he felt an overpowering need to be with other people; he walked through the rain and felt like he was in a film, like none of this was real, and he thought about his mother.  He thought about a girl, about the color of her skin and the sound of her voice, about kissing her and reveling in the simple pleasures of watching her move.  He thought about those five years that lay ahead, and about how five years were all that was left, and presumably about how little time that was, and about how much, and about what he might do with it.  And then, we assume, he woke up. Read More

Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers

14940173_10154042059317957_634016468912020807_oYou know the show is over when you hear the children’s song playing on the PA. Elvis Costello and the Imposters have taken their bows and hustled offstage; the houselights have gone up; you’re encouraged to egress likewise by the sweet voice of Mandy Miller filling the room: it’s her 1956 novelty tune, produced by Beatles maestro George Martin, about a pachyderm ankling its big-top gig to rejoin the herd storming through the jungles of Hindustan. The chorus goes:

Nellie the elephant packed her trunk
And said goodbye to the circus
Off she rode with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump…

In the fall of 2016, in the possible twilight of American democracy, as the world may or may not be dancing on the lip of the abyss, all roads lead here: accidents will happen, to be sure, but Costello knows exactly what he’s doing when he links his customary show-closer, a storming plea for comity in the form of “peace, love, and understanding,” with a warbled valediction offering up the comic image of the symbol of the GOP galumphing into the distance, its clumsy steps conjured onomatopoetically with the last name of Donald Trump.

Read More

Baseball Heroes


Baseball Heroes.

It’s either a very good or a very bad week to be an Indians fan. Tonight’s game will vindicate, even as it crushes, longtime and lifelong hopes; I confess I’m not a World Series watcher, or even someone who’s into sports, so I have no stake in whether the Cubs or the Indians wins the thing. I’ll be happy for people I know from Cleveland if Game Seven goes the Indians’ way, but I also know Chicagoans who are fanatics for the Cubs, and I’m happy to be happy for them too. Please don’t be offended that I can’t pretend it matters too much to me.

Read More

Third Rate Romance


Third Rate Romance (Jesse Winchester, 1974).
Third Rate Romance (Amazing Rhythm Aces, 1975).
Third Rate Romance (Flip City).
Third Rate Romance (live with Flip City, 1975).

Jesse Winchester was just out of college when he received his draft notice. Perhaps it was an act of manly courage; it probably felt like callow cowardice – it might just have been good common sense, not to want to go to Vietnam – but he hightailed it to Canada and lived a decade in exile. Louisiana born and Tennessee raised, Winchester worked the folk clubs in Quebec and Montreal and wrote music that turned the American South he remembered into a magical place, always visible and never reachable. One of his most famous songs – thanks to a cover version by Jimmy Buffett, Winchester himself never attaining mainstream fame – sketches a distant view of a summer day on the Gulf Coast that shimmers like a painting:

Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancing in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
The boy will fill his pail with salty water
And the storms will blow from off toward New Orleans…

The tone of Winchester’s writing, not to mention the exquisiteness of detail in the lyrics, was surely part of what attracted Robbie Robertson, hard at work on his own project of romanticizing America. A stack of Winchester demos reached him somehow, and after recruiting fellow Band-mate Levon Helm to come along to the Great North and play on the record, he produced Winchester’s self-titled first LP in 1970. Perhaps the album’s signature song, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” wraps longing and love and distance and despair up into a gorgeous, shy, penitent farewell:

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favor a girl that I knew
I imagine she’s still in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry, dear
The same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got them a few
So when I’m gone, I’ll be glad to love you…

Winchester later recalled that this was the first song he ever wrote. We should all kick off our careers half so promisingly. Read More

Poison Moon

81BCjuPunUL._SL500_ (1)

Poison Moon.
Poison Moon (live in Brescia, Italy, 2016).

Step into my time machine, friends! That’s right, I’ve invented a time machine. Why do you think it takes me so long between blog posts? It’s because I’m very busy tinkering in my lab. Anyway, strap yourselves in, because we’re going back exactly forty years from today – to August 15, 1976, the first day Elvis Costello’s voice would ever be heard on the radio. Half a world away, another Elvis is embarking on the final year of his life. Here in suburban London, a new Elvis begins the first of his.

Read More

Pay It Back


Pay It Back (Flip City version).
Pay It Back (live with Flip City, 11/30/75).
Pay It Back (My Aim Is True version).

A comment on a recent post took me to task.

The point was made apropos of my essay on “Please Mister, Don’t Stop The Band,” and it’s hard to argue with it. I was using an almost-forgotten piece of juvenilia to consider Declan MacManus as a youth, as a member of a rock band fated to go nowhere, as an artist-in-embryo whose development was about to be altered forever by the adoption, the imposition even, of a persona with another, made-up name – one half drawn from his own family history and half from the revered mononym of a bloated rock n’ roll dinosaur moments from departing the world. I focused on dimly-remembered tales of the time: adolescent pranks; tiffs over women; enthusiasm for football teams and eccentric combinations of sandwich fixings. In Flip City’s snippy internal politics, in their late-night philosophical discussions, in their doomed efforts to turn the germs of brilliance provided by their frontman into a successful musical career, I admit I saw – or, perhaps I should say, tried to see – something familiar from my own teenage years. In this, as commenter Erey noted, I was doing my subject an injustice.

Read More

Just Like A Jukebox


Just Like A Jukebox (live at the Great American Music Hall, 11/8/07).

The song was only ever performed once.

It was during the second set of a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott show at the Other End in Greenwich Village, on July 3, 1975. Bob Dylan happened to be present in the crowd, and Elliott called him up to play on “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “How Long Blues.” This was a nice, though not an unheard-of treat, but then something extraordinary happened: Dylan started strumming something nobody recognized, a brand-new song, whereupon Elliott had the good taste to withdraw from his own show and let Dylan have the stage as he premiered “Abandoned Love.” The number was recorded properly a few weeks later, briefly a candidate for inclusion on Desire, but for reasons known only to Bob – some have speculated that it was because the studio version failed to capture the unrepeatable power of that one live performance – it was shelved for a decade. It popped up, unheralded, on 1985’s Biograph, but over the course of those ten years it spent in oblivion, the song became legendary thanks to a bootlegger who, doing god’s work, had been running tape at the Elliott gig.*

Read More