Monday, November 17, 2008

Happy Birthday, National Lampoon Radio Hour

According to Dennis Perrin’s excellent Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, today is the 35 year anniversary of the first broadcast of The National Lampoon Radio Hour. For comedy nerds and fans of satire, this is an important date. Radio Hour featured not only razor-sharp writing and performing from O’Donoghue, it also helped to introduce talents like John Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Chevy Chase, as well lesser-known but no less talented writer and performers like Sean Kelly and Anne Beatts, to a national audience.

Here’s a story on the Radio Hour from NPR, which includes some audio samples.

And pick up Perrin’s book if you’re a fan of O’Donoghue, The National Lampoon, or the original Saturday Night Live. Powell’s Books has one left!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blue Mountain reunion coming to Boston

The first time I saw Blue Mountain, they were opening up for Matthew Sweet at the Water Street Music Hall in Rochester, NY on the 100% Fun tour. I hadn't know there was going to be an opening act -- none was listed on the ticket or on the marquee -- so I showed up a little late. I only got to see them perform three or four songs, one of which was "Soul Sister" from the Dog Days album. I wound up playing that song on my radio show at University at Buffalo's WRUB, and then learning it and playing it at my own shows. In fact, I'll be playing the song Saturday, more than ten years later, at the Gulu Gulu Cafe.

But first, I'll be able to see Blue Mountain again, and catch a full set, at T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge. The band is back together and touring with two new albums -- Midnight in Mississippi and Omnibus, a collection of rerecorded favorites.

I recently talked to band co-founder, singer, and guitarist Cary Hudson for Skope Magazine (you can read that article here), and may post the interview on the Curmudgeon at some point. (Also upcoming, more interview from Richard Lloyd and a piece on Alejandro Escovedo).

Blue Mountain tour dates:

Nov 14 CD RELEASE PARTY T.T. The Bears Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nov 15 CD RELEASE PARTY at the Lakeside Lounge New York, New York
Nov 15 Hank’s Saloon Brooklyn, New York
Nov 17 Shayni Rae’s Truckstop at National Underground New York, New York
Dec 3 Sticky Fingerz Little Rock, Arkansas
Dec 4 CD RELEASE PARTY at Knuckleheads Kansas City, Missouri
Dec 5 CD RELEASE PARTY AT Quixote’s Denver, Colorado
Dec 6 The Crystola Roadhouse Woodland Park, Colorado
Dec 13 DBA New Orleans, Louisiana

Friday, November 7, 2008

OC Interview: Richard Lloyd

One of the best things about having a blog is being able to indulge yourself in a bit of back history and catch up with things you should have learned years ago. So when Richard Lloyd’s label publicist at Parasol Records contacted me to let me know he was doing interviews to promote a Boston date, I jumped in with both feet. Which, incidentally, is the only way you can really approach Lloyd’s history and music.

Lloyd, of course, co-founded the legendary punk band Television, a staple of the early CBGB’s rock scene. That’s where most people begin with Lloyd, but I start with his vibrant guitar work on Matthew Sweet’s albums. Because of this story, I found his solo work, as well, in the reissued Field of Fire and his latest, Radiant Monkey, with which he is now touring. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and fortunately, Lloyd covers a lot of ground naturally in conversation.

In our phone conversation, Lloyd shoots first, asking me about the neighborhood where the Boston gig is – Church, which is near Fenway Park. Apparently, he used to live in a nearby boarding house, where he said he used to “sit at the window drinking red wine, daydreaming.” We talked for an hour and a half, so this interview will be posted in two or three parts over the next week, as I have time to transcribe it piece by piece. This installment focuses mostly on Television. Still to come, thoughts on the philosophy of the Radiant Monkey, politics, the Television reunion, and Lloyd’s solo work.

This interview is mostly learning for me, because honestly I know you mostly from Matthew Sweet and I’m trying to learn more. I hope that’s not insulting to say.

Not at all. Well, I founded the band Television, along with, you know… Tom didn’t find me, Tom Verlaine, I found Tom. So anyway we formed Television, we needed a place to play, we turned CBGB’s from what its initials stand for – Country, Blues, and Bluegrass… Country, Bru.. Bluegrass – my mouth isn’t working right today. Country, Bluegrass, and Blues. CBGB’s. And we made it into a rock club.

You were playing split bills with the Ramones at that time?

We never actually played with the Ramones on the same bill. But there’s a poster, it’s quite famous, there’s one at Christie’s supposed to go for a thousand bucks, with us and the Ramones opening. But something happened and Johnny had to go down to Florida for his parents’ something or other, either somebody got sick or there was a holiday or something, so they canceled and we had the Talking Heads play instead. So we never actually played on the same bill with them. I saw them the first time they ever played in Manhattan which was at a place called the Performance Studio. There was about twenty people there. Somebody came to me at CB’s where I was just sitting around drinking and doing what I do, or doing what I did, and said, oh, there’s a great new band you ought to come see at the Performance Space so I want up and saw them and I mean, man, I thought, there’s another great band, you know? I knew they were going to be, like, a hot potato.

It’s got to be a pretty great thing that the Ramones cancel and, oh, we’ll just get the Talking Heads.

Those were the days, yeah. Then people made records and… It’s like a nest, you know? You have chicklings in the nest and then the record company comes along and takes all the nestlings out, they get turned into chickens, they drop eggs, which are called records, and they fly away. Then they can’t play CB’s, it’s too small, you know?

Did you realize when you were making and writing Marquee Moon how different it sounded and how much of an influence it would have?

Of course we did. One of my proudest moments was when we auditioned for Atlantic Records and Ahmet Ertegun, who was the head, turned to Jerry Wexler, who really wanted to sign us and who was second in charge and he said, in his Turkish voice he said, “Jerry, I can’t sign this band! This is not Earth music.” And I was going to the bathroom so I overheard it. I thought it was just perfect. It was more important that he said that than sign us, as far as I was concerned that was like the highest compliment. I mean, after all, wasn’t Jimi Hendrix from outer space? If he claimed we weren’t Earth music, that was the highest compliment you could give somebody.

There’s also that tradition of having to leave you own country to come back, Jimi Hendrix going to England and the Beatles going to Germany.

We did well in England. Much better than America. America is so big. I mean, it really is. Unless you have a gigantic machine underneath you, or you tour endlessly for no money, you’re not going to make it in America. And things on radio, they’re not on there because they’re good. You know the great rule of radio programming?

The first ten seconds of a track, is that what you’re referring to? [Note: The rule that a track has to “grab” a listener in the first ten seconds to be considered for play.]

Oh, no. That’s not the real rule. The real rule is a closely guarded secret and I’m about to let you in on it. You play only things that you are certain will not cause your listeners to turn the dial. That’s the real rule. It’s not you play good music, it’s you don’t play anything that has the slightest chance of having somebody reach over and turn the dial. That’s the real rule. Because if they turn the dial to another station you’ve lost them and your advertisers know about it.

Do you feel that’s gotten any better with the Internet and all the ways you can distribute your music yourself?

No! Internet now you’re talking. Hold on one second please. [Walks away from the phone momentarily].

Hi. Thank you. What was the question?

I was saying do you think gotten any better with the Internet and all the ways you can release and distribute things on your own without having to go through some of the same sort of corporate machinery.

It’s good and bad. It’s good because you can do deals where if you sell ten thousand copies you make a fortune. And on a major if you sell ten thousand copies people are jumping out the fucking windows and suicide. You know. So that part’s good. But the bad part is, three-fourths of the nation’s youth are in a band. And they all think they’re good. And they’ve all got this MySpace, MyFace, My Ass, you know? And they’re out there, and it’s like a giant ponzi game.

Going back to Television, when you guys first got together, was there an argument over who was the lead guitar player [between Lloyd and Tom Verlaine]?

No. Basically, Terry Ork was going to form a band. He wanted to sponsor a band, because he worked for Andy Warhol, making silk screen prints and shit in the Factory, and he sort of felt like he wanted to find a band like the Velvet Underground only younger and start a new, like, Utopian scene. And he was going to put a band together around me. But he learned from Richard Hell, because Richard Hell worked at the place he worked at during the daytime, Cinemabilia, that there was this guy named Tom who always came and met Richard and they went to lunch and he was an electric guitarist, too, who didn’t have a band.

So Terry said, hey, he’s playing at this nightclub on audition night, do you want to go see him. I said, ah, I don’t know. He says, he does what you do. And I said, how dare you tell me what I do? What do I do? How do you know what I do? [Laughs] Terry says, well he plays the electric guitar without a band on your own and so does he. And I said, why would I want to see another fucking guy do what I do? I’m busy practicing. And the night came and honest to god, I wasn’t going to go, and I broke a string, didn’t have another, so I said, ah, what the hell, let’s go.

And it was this Off-Broadway nightclub where Liza Minnelli and Peter Allen and Peter Lemongello used to go. Bette Midler. That kind of thing. Gay Off-Broadway singers. And Tom came in and he played three songs, just him, and electric guitar, and an amplifier. And during the second song which I think, it happened to be “Marquee Moon,” I mean not “Marquee Moon,” we hadn’t written that yet, but “Venus DeMilo,” I leaned over to Terry and I said, “Terry, forget about putting a band together with me. Because I’m missing something. And this guy’s got something. But he’s missing something. And what he’s missing I’ve got and what I’m missing, he’s got.” You see, I was not in a position, due to my substance abuse and my own, let’s say immaturity, I was not capable of being a business leader. I was not capable of managing a band, that is, not managing, but leading a band, properly. And Tom could. So Tom was always the leader. And originally the leader was Tom and Richard.

We talked Richard into playing bass. He said, “No, no, not again. Playing with Tom is like going to the dentist, I’d kill myself first.” But I talked him into it. I said, “Richard, you got to be the bass player. Man, you got a look. You look like a cross between, god, I don’t know what, Elvis and like Robert Mitchum.” And he said, “Well, all right.” And I said, “You don’t have to play well. Let’s just rehearse. And you’ll get better.” And then Tom said, “Well, I know a drummer.” So Billy [Ficca] came down from Boston and we started rehearsing. And it was outrageous. It was so much fun. It was like we had run off and joined the circus. We used to fall on the floor, knock the mics over and then sing while lying on the floor, writhing like little worms. Gales of laughter. It was unbelievable. The public never saw that, because as soon as we did a public performance, people stiffen up a little. They couldn’t help it. We sounded more like the Sex Pistols than the Sex Pistols in the beginning.

And we had these great songs because Tom wrote great lyrics that had triple entendres to them. Like “Hard On Love.” I mean, come on. “You’re so hard on love” is the real words, but, you know, but let’s face it, that’s a double if not a triple entendre. Friction. The word. It was like heaven. The music was great, and the two guitarists, we used to fight it out. We would take turns playing the solos in songs and whoever played better in that key would get the solo. And it slipped back and forth and back and forth. And the goal was to have an equal amount but Tom being the leader, he ended up with, it was like 60/40, the lion’s share. But I was never a rhythm guitar player to Tom’s lead guitar player. Because what happened was, while he’s singing, he can’t play lead! So I played all the melody parts and lead parts while he’s singing and then during the solo I’d switch to rhythm or not. So it was this big jigsaw puzzle. You couldn’t tell who was who. And it was very much like the very early Stones, where you can’t tell whether it’s Brian or Keith. Brian, of course, fell apart. But the jigsaw puzzle of the very early Stones I’m talking, you can’t tell who’s playing what. And Television was like that, plus we were like the Beatles – four guys with three front men. I was in the middle, Tom was on the one side, Richard was on the other side. Those two sang about forty percent of the songs each and I sang twenty percent in a set. So it was based on kind of the Beatles.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Richard Lloyd Tour Dates

I had the opportunity to interview legendary Television guitarist and solo artist Richard Lloyd for the Curmudgeon yesterday. While I am transcribing the interview, here are his tour dates, including a stop in my home base of Boston Saturday. Check back for an extended Q&A.

Nov. 6 / Don Hills / NYC
Fri. Nov. 7 / Café Nine / New Haven CT
Sat. Nov. 8 / CHURCH / Boston
Sun. Nov. 10 / Now That's Class / Cleveland OH
Tues. Nov. 11 / The Summit / Columbus OH
Wed. Nov. 12 / Radio Radio / Indianapolis IN
Thurs. Nov. 13 / Canal Street Tavern / Dayton OH
Fri. Nov. 14 / Club Octane / Morgantown WV
Sat. Nov. 15 / Brillobox / Pittsburgh PA

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Only Dopes Need Leaders

At the end of the Clinton administration, Lewis Black said something on one of his specials that stuck with me. He said, “If the last eight years proves anything, it’s that we function pretty well without a leader.”

Several years later, political satirist Barry Crimmins would put a finer point on that sentiment. I interviewed him toward the beginning of the primary season, when the sheer breadth of lunacy was hard to imagine. “This thing is always called a search for leaders – ‘America wants a new leader,’” he said. “I don’t want any leader, I don’t need a leader. Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”

That’s a novel idea, that a leader is in some way beholden to the people he leads. After eight years of signing statements and “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” it’s an extremely useful idea. When a public servant is doing their job, they are engaged with a populace that is actively talking back.

The pretense of election day is that we are choosing a leader. There has been a lot of talk of three a.m. phone calls and foreign policy experience, who has been tested in a crisis, who will be tested in a crisis (thanks, Joe). It makes us feel comfortable, absolves from paying attention. If we elect someone we can trust, we can all go back to sleep.

Leadership is a big industry in America. It’s a value we don’t question. We read books on business leadership, in the Boy Scouts they teach us to be leaders. The people we admire are captains of industry or fashion leaders. It’s a romantic ideal, that among us there are people who can take us bravely into places we have not been before.

But inevitably, our leaders disappoint us. And the only feeling better than picking a leader is condemning an unworthy former leader caught at the height of their inadequacy. The more someone claims they want to lead us, the more they have to compromise to get to their goal.

You can compare John McCain ’08 to John McCain 2000 and find all the little pockets of compromise, the things that he found would have made a difference in that previous run if he had been more willing to budge. What could have been, if he were more willing to cave to the religious right in 2000, instead of calling them “agents of intolerance?” He likes to talk about how “the surge is working” in Iraq, but in 2004, he was wholeheartedly stumping for the Bush crew, the architects of the shortsighted policies he now claims he railed bravely against. Ask him if he’s had a chuckle with the former Bush advisors who rescued his candidacy from the dead over the “McCain has a black baby” strategy from the 2000 Bush campaign they worked on.

Obama has had these problems, as well, albeit to a lesser degree. He has included offshore drilling in his plans, something both he and McCain had said wouldn’t help. He buckled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to appear more moderate. His list is a bit shorter, but still worthy of note.

None of these actions seem terribly leader-like. And maybe that’s because leadership is an arbitrary ideal. It’s a big shiny symbol we can all gather around and warm ourselves from the more terrifying prospects – some manufactured, some real, mixed until we can’t tell the difference – of the world around us.

I spoke with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter on the subject, and told him Crimmins statement, “Dopes need leaders. I need a public servant.”

“I don’t disagree,” said Ritter. “Again, when we say ‘we need leaders,’ basically we’re saying, ‘we need messiahs, we need Stalins, Lenins, Maos.’ We don’t need that. We need people who are committed to a system of beliefs and values. That’s why I’m a Constitutionalist, I believe in the Constitution. And we need people to believe in that. Now, within that, you need leaders. But we don’t need people to come in and say, ‘Follow me, I am the solution.’ We need people to say, ‘Hey, let me remind you, we’ve got this thing called the Constitution and we need to start adhering to this. We need to make sure that that which it espouses is being followed through. We need people to commit and invest.’”

Ritter has some experience in an environment where leadership is an important issue. He has served in the U.S. Army and as an intelligence officer in the Marines, in which capacity he was an advisor in the first Gulf War. For the past decade, Ritter has been an outspoken activist concerning U.S. and U.N. policy in Iraq, even producing a sort of instructional manual in last year’s Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement.” The book advocates informed citizen involvement and an adherence to the Constitution, which makes for a non-standard definition for leadership.

“A leader, I can come in and become a leader and get lemmings to march off a cliff. Is that leadership? The other thing about leadership is, the screamer, the yeller, get in the face, the intimidator – that’s not leadership, that’s an intimidator. A leader is somebody who gets a group of like-minded people together and works with that team, as part of the team. A leader is a member of a team. I mention in the book, you can’t be a good leader unless you’re a good follower, first. You have to understand the importance of give and take. A leader isn’t making decisions, a leader is simply facilitating the will of the collective. And that’s what we need – we need a collective that agrees upon what it stands for, and then we need facilitators. If you want to call them leaders then so be it.”

Fear, of course, negates the equation of which Ritter speaks. And fear can take just about any form these days. Fear of the gas pump. Fear of terrorism. Fear of radical ideas. Fear of losing your house, your stocks, your job, or whatever meager savings people have been able to put away. Leadership implies direction, which requires rational thought on the part of both the leader and the followers.

That’s where dissent comes in. Any healthy system provides for dissent, and no true leader is threatened by it. If you believe in anything only because you’re afraid of the alternative, you are no longer participating in a democratic process. And there is no leadership.

Author Steve Almond has been a sharp critic of the Bush administration and of what he calls the “cult of personality” of right wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sean Hannity. He believes the faux patriotic rhetoric plays to an insecure population for whom confidence is more important than content.

“They need Big Poppa,” he says. “They need a big person who’s going to at least play the part of ‘invulnerable leader.’ That’s not moral leadership, it’s emotional leadership. But it’s a kind of twisted, bad parenting emotional leadership. And it says, ‘The world is simple, you just punch the other guy before he punches you.’ Kind of this brawling mentality.”

The election season is especially maddening for Almond, particularly watching the media coverage. “It’s too bad that the political system caters to the big macho, posturing, who’s going to have the best sound bite, who’s going to really knock who out in the debates, and you’re like, shut the fuck up you crazy, psychotic media idiots,” he says. “It’s not about that. It’s really about trying to solve the common problems of the state and its citizens, especially its disenfranchised citizens. It’s very sad to see that degraded day after day.”

What might also help is if people knew that there aren’t just two candidates running for president. Bob Barr is on the ticket for the Libertarians, Ralph Nader is running as an independent, Chuck Baldwin with the Constitution Party, Cynthia McKinney with the Green Party, Brian Moore from the Socialist Party, and numerous others. The fact that you didn’t see any of them in the nationally televised debates means that some significant voices and ideas were left out of the spotlight, partly because the main two choices didn’t want to share.

Of those two – Obama and McCain – one will get the job they want today. Both of them want to be your leader. Hopefully, neither of them will be, at least the way the term has been defined lately. Hopefully, one of them will be a public servant, and you know what direction you want to go.

“I don’t need a leader to tell me I need health care,” says Barry Crimmins. “I’ve got a pain in my side that tells me that.”