Tag Archives: alternative country

This Wheel’s On Fire

Ironic that on a holiday celebrating American independence, I would be mesmerized by a book about a band that was four parts Canadian and one part deep Arkansas. (Sounds like the proportions of the cocktail I had in hand). But despite the lopsided genealogy, The Band might remain the quintessential American music group of the last fifty years. Inspiring the Americana and alternative country movements as deeply as anyone, they were and are a beacon of inspiration to everyone from Wilco to Mumford and Sons.

A few weeks back I bumped into an old friend, and Jamie and I were discussing books we were reading. When he mentioned This Wheel’s On Fire, I was certain that I had read it before, but his enthusiasm (and my love of the subject matter) caused me to dig out a copy. Sure enough, I had started the book at one point, but life or travel or whatever must have gotten in the way. Either that or my memory is much worse than I think it is.

Back in college, Lou, Dige and Cass used to commandeer the corner table in the campus pub and hold court. Clevelanders, they were inseparable but gregarious members of the theatre collective I was also a part of, and it was not unusual for all of us to huddle away in the corner and try to drain the keg while telling jokes and stories and singing songs. Way too much testosterone for Glee, but a similar fearless spirit to break into song, and for the Cleveland crew The Band was king, whether they were singing along with the jukebox or in spite of it. Sure, there were other songs (“You Know My Name” was a particular drunken favorite, Beatle fans) but there was a special passion when “Up on Cripple Creek” was howled, not sung, with coyote-like yodels accentuating the chorus.

The early catalogue got the workout – “King Harvest”, “The Weight”, “Shape I’m In”, and of course “Look Out Cleveland”. Their energy brought the band to life for me at a time when I was more focused on The Stones and The Kinks, and to this day I can’t listen to the band without thinking of the three of them. We lost Dige last year, Cass was lost to us in other ways many years ago, and although Lou and I wound up settling ten miles apart all these years later, it’s maybe one call a year. Life is not a carnival, believe it or not.

This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm’s wonderful book about how The Band got together and was pulled apart, is simply one of the best books one could ever read about the life of a musician. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal, of grinding out a path and doggedly following it to the rewards and the disasters, and how one man’s passion to make music despite any obstacles helped forge one of the greatest bands of the rock era. Helm writes with an honest ease, fair but uncompromising, and I came away from the story with a deep respect for the man (and the urge to pull out every Band record I own, as well as a guitar).

Written in 1993, with an afterword from 2000, it’s really a timeless story. Starting out backing the electric Ronnie Hawkins, encounters with Bob Dylan, how a hanger-on named Robbie Robertson eventually wormed into the group and eventually positioned himself as leader, and later, executioner. While Robertson does come off like a heel at the end – “it’s just business” – Helm does spend most of the book acknowledging his prodigious talent and leadership. Rick Danko was the solid supporter, Richard Manuel the fragile casualty, Garth Hudson the rock upon which this church was built. Together they forged a new element, a whole greater than the sum.

I need not prattle on about the quality of the music; The Band is timeless. So is this great book. If you haven’t read it, do so immediately.

Thanks, Jamie…what next?

Band of Brothers

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Daunting Dates

November 5th is one of those dates that makes one wonder whether the stars truly do align; a cluster of famous people’s births, deaths or accomplishments sharing the same 24 hour cycle albeit years apart. Not ready to believe my always-too-generically-positive horoscope just yet, but whether coincidence or fate, there’s no denying the facts.

Actually, it’s one of those days where I could have lowered the bar and listed another two dozen people famous for one thing or another. But when you combine the man who popularized slapstick comedy, a rebel drawn and quartered for trying to overthrow a government, one of the most ferocious rock’n’roll talents of the 70s and 80s and…hell…the man who invented time travel, why lower your standards?

So here are Ten Daunting Dates from history, all of which occurred on November 5th. Have a great weekend!

(01) 1605 The Gunpowder Plot…a conspiracy of men try to blow up the House of Lords and put an end to big government; now we do this with Tea Parties. Of course today they commemorate the event and celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks. Brits love their irony.

(02) 1931 Ike Turner is born…We lost Ike three years ago, but his musical legacy lives on. A violent and misogynistic man, he nevertheless discovered a ton of musical talent – hello, Tina – and is one of the forefathers of rock’n’roll.

(03) 1941 Art Garfunkel is born…Yes, Paul Simon wrote all those brilliant songs, played the guitar and even sang well. But Artie had the voice of an angel and his harmonies made those songs come alive. The coda to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” still gives me goosebumps.

(04) 1942 George M. Cohan dies…known best as the patriotic composer of wartime anthems, Cohan dominated Vaudeville and Broadway and was one of the pioneers of musical comedy theatre. James Cagney won his only Best Actor statue for portraying him in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

(05) 1943 Sam Shepard is born…Brilliant playwright and actor, among many other talents.You know some of his plays like True West and Buried Child and his many acting roles (most famously Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff) but did you know his early science fiction play inspired Rocky Horror?

Cosmic American

(06) 1946 Gram Parsons is born…Hard to believe Parsons crammed it all in before he died at twenty-six, but you can trace Americana and Alternative Country music right back to his doorstep…not to mention the twang that the Rolling Stones ingested into their sound in the early 70s. A genius.

(07) 1946 Herman Brood is born…The junkie/porn star/rocker leapt to his death nine years ago leaving behind a legacy of music and art that sadly never found an audience in the states. But I will put Cha Cha up against any live album you have, anywhere,  anytime.

(08) 1947 Peter Noone is born…Noone – Herman of Herman’s Hermits to you – is still going strong. Touring the world sounding like a man half his age, he continues playing that string of classic 60s pop singles to audiences of all ages. Someone sign him and get him some Mike Viola songs to sing!

(09) 1955 Doc Brown invents time travel…oh hell, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Whatever he’s got to tell you, you’ll find out through the natural course of time…

(10) 1960 Mack Sennett dies…Fifty years ago, the man who gave us the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin, W.C.Fields, Gloria Swanson, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin and Mabel Normand left this mortal coil. But his work is immortal, and if those names don’t all ring a bell you have some serious homework to do.

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Frontier Records Celebrates 30 Years

One of my favorite bands – ever – is the cowpunk group E.I.E.I.O., and their first two killer albums bore the signature flag logo of Frontier Records. Little did I know at the time that the label originated primarily as a punk provider, as some of my favorite indie bands like The Pontiac Brothers, The Long Ryders and Thin White Rope would soon share that imprimatur. Now the little label that could turns 30 – an incredible achievement in a waning industry.

From the press release:

Frontier Records, the independent Los Angeles-based record label founded in 1980 by Lisa Fancher, and Part Time Punks, a weekly club that focuses on obscure and classic music from 1978 to present, will be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the seminal Los Angeles label with a massive blow-out show in Echo Park on Sunday, November 7 at the Echoplex.  

Confirmed acts include O.C. hardcore legends The Adolescents, a rare one-off performance from the reunited Middle Class, a solo set from guitarist Rikk Agnew, original L.A. ’77 punk band Flyboys and the drunken rock stylings of The Pontiac Brothers.  The Master of Ceremonies for the evening will be Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris. Additional Frontier bands are soon to be confirmed and will be announced in the coming weeks.

Frontier Records was founded in Los Angeles, CA, in 1980 by Lisa Fancher and was one of the first independent labels to document the nascent L.A. and O.C. hard-core punk rock scenes before branching out into other scenes and sounds such as the so-called “Paisley Underground” and (always) guitar-based bands along with genres such as goth, alternative country, pop and more.

Bands releasing records on Frontier include: Circle Jerks, Adolescents, The Weirdos, TSOL, China White, Redd Kross, Thin White Rope, Heatmiser, Young Fresh Fellows, Christian Death, Dharma Bums, American Music Club, The Long Ryders, The Three O’Clock, The Pontiac Brothers, Naked Prey, Flop and many more. The label’s 100th release will be a reissue of the 1979 compilation Yes L.A.

Who says chicks don’t rock? Good on yer, Lisa!

Frontier Records homepage

Frontier Records Wiki page

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