Thursday, July 1, 2021

Perfect Routines: Inside Shelley Berman and the Wonder of Sound

This album, and this routine in particular, has a lot to do with shaping what I find funny. The cadence, the ideas, the timing. Even the pronunciation adds to it. I heard this for the first time as early as fourth or fifth grade, and it was in regular rotation with Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, and The Muppets, the "Oliver" soundtrack, and the "Star Wars" Moog band album on my little brown portable record player made to look like a suitcase. Sometimes I would just stare at these albums while they rotated, soaking in the words and wondering how a solid object could contain sound, as if it were trapped in there all the time and the needle just let it out. A stack of records was a world of noise and wonder waiting to be released. The fact that I was listening to this before I had my own locker may also have been a contributing factor to why I used to get punched on the bus.   

It would be a long time before I would understand why a line like "My tongue is asleep... and my teeth itch" was funny, or the feelings associated with waking up repeating, "Oh god, god, god." I had no idea what it meant to be drunk, or to attend an adult party. I didn't take anything more than a sip of alcohol until I reached college, where my fellow students considered me something of a challenge. But I digress. Whatever I didn't understand about the themes of this, it didn't matter. I could imagine every frame Berman was describing. This was unrelentingly funny, and still is. The goofy laugh preceding the punch, moving straight on to the next piece of business with barely a beat. The sheer silliness of fizzy Alka Seltzer being torture. Every word and inflection is perfect, and the rest of the album is at or near the same quality. Even "Buttermilk" was daring.

It's a prototypical routine, too. I would hear its echo later on listening to Robin Williams take on alcoholism. "I took a dump in your tuba? Oh, you said sit in with the band." Inside Shelley Berman was released in 1959, 13 years before I was born. But as a kid, it sounded completely modern to me. To my young self, it may as well have been a new release. My conception of time is still a little fuzzy, but back then, everything in existence was new. Shelley Berman, Andy Griffith, Robin Williams, and Steve Martin were all things I just happened upon. I had no hang-ups about something being too old or out of fashion. At this time in my life, I still coveted the nifty "Billy the Kid" three-piece suits I saw at the Sears and Montgomery Ward. So "cool" wasn't even an option for me.

But this album was cool. Still is. And any number of comedians who happened upon it when they were uncool kids, too, will tell you that.      

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Horror Picks: Rammbock Keeps It Short and Sweet

Rammbock: Berlin Undead
Found another good one on Netflix streaming -- Rammbock: Berlin Undead.  The basic plot -- a mild guy named Michael goes to Berlin to return apartment keys to Gabi, with whom he has recently broken up. Instead, he gets stuck in her apartment building with a plumber's assistant during a strange outbreak that tears the city apart.

Zombie enthusiasts, don't get too excited by the title. If it's strictly the undead you're interested in, you won't really find that here. This is more like The Crazies -- still an outbreak, but rage-based. No one is rising from the dead. But there's still that siege mentality, the classic claustrophobia of a great zombie film, and a good plot to support it. There are subtitles, but it clocks in at 61 minutes, so you won't have time to get tired of them. That also means that there are no wasted moments and no aimless filler. Director Marvin Kren still found a way to slow the story down in a few moments so the human characters can process what's happening, while never losing urgency. 

There is a wonderful twist to the infection that Michael has to fight throughout the latter part of the film, something that brings his emotions to the forefront and lets us see that even without the quasi-supernatural crisis developing around him, he'd still be battling to keep himself from falling apart.  

And though technically, Rammbock may not be a zombie film, it follows the zombie film axiom. The best stories are rarely about the creatures outside. They're about the people trapped in overwhelming circumstances and the choices they make. And the choices here are often beautiful and tragic.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Danny and the Memories - Neil Young Looks Back

Do you recognize these guys? Most of you probably don't. I wouldn't have, until started to read Neil Young's new autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. He talks about being obsessed with this video, for a lot of reasons. Chief amongst them, this is most of Crazy Horse - Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot - the band he had played with for the past several decades and on the two albums he released this year.

Up front is Danny Whitten, since this is Danny and the Memories. Unfortunate name. For Young. And for Whitten. Whitten is the guy, or one of the guys, for whom Young wrote "Needle and the Damage Done." He wrote that while Whitten was still alive. Young looked at this video and came to the conclusion that Whitten was more talented than he was when they first came together. He regrets stealing the high part away from Whitten on "Cinnamon Girl." Believes he should have given Whitten a bigger role in those early collaborations, and that he could have gone somewhere big.

Whitten didn't get far. Forty years ago today, Danny Whitten died. Young fired Whitten from the band because he couldn't remember the songs. He told him he didn't have it together enough to play, and sent him back to LA. Young got the call from the coroner the night Whitten flew back to LA, November 18. Whitten had ODed. He was 29 years old.

Google his image and see if you can reconcile what comes up with the guy in the suit in this video singing a song thousands of oldies covers bands have plied in cheesy bars for decades. If you want to add an extra layer of madness to Young's guilt, Google photos of Kurt Cobain and compare the two. And think about how Cobain quoted Young in his suicide note, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," and how much trouble that gave Young (he poured his troubles into Tonight's the Night after Whitten, and Sleeps With Angels after Cobain).

I think I can see some of what has been obsessing Young about this. Yes, there is some truly horrible dancing going on around these guys, especially the woman in the blue pants, whose name I can only hope is lost to history. It's a hokey set-up. But there are a couple of elements that stick out for me. There is the arrangement of the song, and that demonic foghorn blast of "oh yeah" from the band. It doesn't sound like a celebration, it sounds like a warning. Combine that with the black stage and the red twilight in the background, and this could be a poorly choreographed deleted dance scene from Clockwork Orange, if it had originally been conceived as a vehicle for Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

But the most compelling thing is Whitten's face. There are times when it seems like he's having fun or goofing off, but he's the tightest one of the bunch. And there are also times when he looks desperate, mostly at 1:27 and after. He looks like he's dancing on strings. It's easy to look back and read that in, knowing how the story ends. But watch it and tell me if you don't see it, too.

To write the book, Young was thinking a lot about his past. He talks a lot in it about not being inspired to write music and knowing he was going to reunite with Crazy Horse. The first album was Americana, an album of folk standards, with "Get A Job" tossed in. Some of these were arrangements that Young had played before in his past. And then there was the jump to the new(est) album, Psychedelic Pill, the first track of which is "Drifting Back," which finds Young wondering if you'll get his music, having to listen to it in meager, compressed modern formats, if he's getting through to you.

That process may have been jumpstarted by this video. The albums and the book make more sense once you've seen it. Tomorrow, Neil Young and Crazy Horse play in Toronto, his old stomping grounds, after having played Winnipeg yesterday. Today, the band has off. It's a safe bet this video will play on the tour bus before the day is through.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mort Sahl Answers Your Questions on Twitter

Watch live streaming video from mortsahl at

To me, politics in stand-up comedy begins with Mort Sahl. I've had the pleasure of interviewing the man twice (here's one of the resulting articles, my apologies for the pay site), and getting to see him live in Boston at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theatre (now closed) and the JCC theater in Newton. He doesn't get out as often as he used to, but his voice is still vital. He's still sharp, and still sees all the angles. So I was happy to see that he will be popping into my computer every Wednesday at 5PM EST to answer questions via Twitter starting June 6.

As you can tell from this video, Sahl is opinionated, but he's not binary. He doesn't simply choose from the two offered options, right or left, with us or against us. I spoke with him last in 2007 as the presidential election was ramping up. He was discouraged but hopeful that Americans would ask more from their culture, from their politicians, to want better than what we get, intellectually and spiritually. "It’s optimistic but I don’t know if it’s justified," he said then. "The world is worth saving, more people have to work at it. They’ve got to work at it more. They think they’re off the hook if they can make some money." 

You can keep up to date about the Wednesday show at or better yet, follow him on Twitter

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Road Trips and Pawn Shop Guitars

Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac (1997)
Whiskeytown's Stranger's Almanac is an album I leaned on heavily during some less than ideal times. I have a tape of it I wore out playing in the car, along with Alejandro Escovedo's More Miles Than Money, Uncle Tupelo's Still Feel Gone, and Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True. It was traveling music from Buffalo to Boston dozens of times before I moved here. It helped pass the miles, first literally, then metaphorically. 

I finally picked up the Deluxe Edition today. In the liner notes, I found that Ryan Adams showed up to the original recording sessions with no guitars. They had been left outside of the van in Raleigh, North Carolina when it was loaded before the drive to the studio in Nashville. The band couldn't afford anything but pawn shop guitars, so the acoustic on the recording of "Inn Town" and probably several others, the one that sounds so fantastic, that I listened to a thousand times or more, was a $100 Alvarez pawn shop guitar. Also noted, they didn't even change the strings. That makes me happy for some reason.

I have to think of who used to own that Alvarez, what it lived through before that session. I think of some kid who bought it as a student guitar, struggling to learn "Stairway To Heaven," "Free Falling," or even "Wonderwall" (which, coincidentally, Adams would cover beautifully on 2003's Love Is Hell, pt 1 EP). Some kid who had just graduated and needed some cash, and was hoping to come back for it. Or, probably more likely, it had been a birthday present for someone who played it for two weeks and never picked it up again. Whatever function it filled originally, it had a hell of a second act.

I wonder if Adams kept it. I hope not. I hope he let it loose back into the stream from whence he first caught it, and it got picked up soon after that. Maybe by that college kid, who had no idea what happened to it while he was away. Maybe some new songs fell out of it that weren't in it before.  

I recently bought a Fender resonator on Craigslist. I know the history of most of my other instruments, but not that one. I bought it from a guy in Salem who seemed fairly disinterested in it (and the Dean acoustic/electric bass I also bought from him, and a couple of other guitars he had for sale). Who knows what's in there. But it feels right when I play it. It changes songs I've been playing for years. And it's just about time I introduce it to "Inn Town." 

This was the only video I could find with the original studio version of "Inn Town," but it fits. Lyrics below. 

Inn Town
(David Ryan Adams)

Parking lot, movie screen, I can't feel anything.
Cigarette, beat up TV, I can't feel anything.

Now that I, I'm in town.
I feel fine, fine for now

Hang around with the people I used to be.
Hang around on a corner waiting to go, have a seat

Now that I, I'm in town.
I feel fine, fine for now

Fifty cents, or a dollar three, I don't owe you anything.
Spent a life on a heart that would rather not feel anything.
I can try, I can see, Ican want it to be
I can laugh, I can feel, I can't see anything without dreaming

Now that I, I'm in town.

Hang around with the people that we used to be
We hang around on a corner waiting to go have a seat
And I can try, I can see, I can want it to be
I can laugh, I can feel, I can't see anything that seems real
It's just like a dream.
I can feel, I can laugh, I can want it to still be real
It's a dream I've had.
It's the last, now it seems.

Now that I, I'm in town.
I feel fine, fine for now

Monday, March 5, 2012

Help Beaver Nelson Kickstart Macro/Micro Film and Tour

Beaver Nelson's Kickstarter campaign ends in two days.
If you are a fan of great songwriting, please take a look at Beaver Nelson’s new Kickstarter project. Less than two days left to go, and touring plans depend on just a few more donations.

I have been a fan of Beaver Nelson since I first heard a snippet of his “Forget Thinking” from 1997’s The Last Hurrah. The name and cover of that, his debut album, was a bit of an inside joke. Nelson had recorded a few albums that never saw the light of day and had been called a prodigy by Rolling Stone. Considering his past experience in the music industry, no one could blame him for thinking that would be the first and last album.

It’s tough to keep yourself going if you’re an independent musician. It’s been five years since Nelson’s last album, Exciting Opportunity. I had thought perhaps that would be the last I heard from him. I was thrilled to learn a few weeks ago that I was wrong. Nelson has a new album all ready to go called Macro/Mirco, which has a tentative release date of May. It’s his most ambitious work to date, musically and thematically. I’ve heard it, and will have more to say about it either here or in one of the music magazine for which I freelance.

Nelson would like to tour with it, but he needs a backing band to pull it off. That is an insurmountable expense, so Nelson is making a movie he can tour with. The album is the soundtrack, and Nelson will bring that on the road and play along.

Here's some more info about the project: