…so to answer the question from my previous blog, it IS indeed possible to dance on a boat. Even when that boat is a rockin’ due to the very flashy thunderstorm happening over the East River that we happened to be floating around in. Not that it mattered. This was not some ordinary booze-cruise.
This was The Slackers.
I’m a Slackers fan. A big one. They are beyond a doubt one of my favorite bands. Ever. Period. I could probably sing you Redlight and Self-Medication from beginning to end without missing a word. They are in my constant iPod rotation, along with the rest of their releases. Vic Ruggiero is one of my most admired artists, both with The Slackers, and in his other collaborations and solo projects. Once this event was on my radar, I was going to get there. No matter what. It’s been a rough few months for me for a myriad of reasons. I have not been out too much…and I needed it…but I was more excited for this show than I can remember being for much of anything in a long time.
North Jersey on a Friday in the summer is hell at rush hour. It’s only worse trying to get yourself from Morris County to the Holland Tunnel. Three hours later, I was finally within some proximity of where these boats were apparently at. Not that I could find them. In a panic (no way I was missing this damn boat!), I parked my car at the first garage I found and hiked to the docks. I had the nicest garage guy ever who was in as great a mood as I was. This is probably why, in my rush, I forgot to ask him what it was going to cost me.
I met up with my friend Roy Radics of the Rudie Crew at the dock. I was not aware of this, but going to a show with Roy is like going with the mayor. He knows everyone. Or everyone knows him. Not surprising, as his and his band’s own delicious breed of NY ska is steadily getting into clubs and ears all over. Plus he is a heck of a nice guy. Which of course made this evening all the better.
I had e-mailed someone off of the Slackers website some time ago to inquire about an interview. I had e-mailed Vic. I had sent notes to twitter and FB accounts. I think I said this before, but I am annoyingly persistent when I want something.
We walked onto the boat and up the stairs to the second level, and Roy stopped to talk to someone. I walked right past Vic Ruggiero and didn’t even notice. In my defense, he was dressed as a sailor. I might have drooled a little. Thanks to a stellar introduction, I was able to pull Mr. Ruggiero’s ear for a moment or two about this blog, this series, and he gladly agreed to an interview. I am holding you to it, sir. Look! It’s in print!
We departed shortly after 8pm, and it was not long after that the Slackers hit the stage. The dance floor immediately filled, and even standing along to the side, I could not help myself but start moving. The Slackers remain one of the best live bands I have ever seen. Let alone in the ska scene itself, where they rank at the absolute top of my list. They are amazing live musicians, ready to ad lib and improvise where needed…even if just for the laugh of it. They don’t show up and play a list of studio perfect, cold and compressed tracks, void of sincerity. They show up and throw out things you don’t expect to hear, and everything you want to. They covered the Misfits. They threw out Watch This and Have The Time (which I could not help but dance around like a crazy person during).
Outside on the river, the storm kicked up at one point. Lightning streaked across the New York sky, and the boat would tip from side to side. In my head all I could see was Shelly Winters in the Poseidon Adventure. These were BIG tips! Radics and I would laugh and grab the tables (thankfully bolted to the floor) and I would look to the packed dance floor to see the crowd of people shift and grab one another for support. The dancing never stopped though. That’s dedication! (or booze…)
The band played two sets, with a fifteen or twenty minute break in between. Though I was disappointed not to hear Make Me Smile, which ranks as one of my top five favorite songs…probably ever…they did a simply fucking fantastic version of David Lee Roth’s Just a Gigolo, and an amazing cover of Sam Cooke’s Cupid, completely laced and threaded with ska flavor. I had made my way to the front prior to this when Radics was called to the stage to do what he does best on the microphone. It was a ton of fun to watch the mashing of talents, all smiles across the stage. It was like that for the whole show, the whole band. Nothing makes a show better than performers who really, honestly LOVE what they do…and it is evident across the stage at a Slackers show. I stayed up front until the end. Dancing my tush off, and singing right back.
I walked back to the now slowly diluting crowd, and was probably smiling ear to ear. I don’t think that dopey grin has left my face yet. I also found myself reminded of how different things are in this scene than others. I have been to a LOT of shows. I listen to all kinds of music, and I love the vibe and the energy of live music. But the ska scene, at least in New York and the East Coast in general is like that of a huge family. You see it in the bands. How much they support one another. They are in the crowds for one another’s shows. They are pulling each other up on stage. Smiles all around. But beyond that, it’s in the crowds. It’s in the fans. Most shows I go to, there is a lot of shoving. When someone wants to get by you in a packed club, they simply push through. It’s just the way it is. Impersonal, and cold.
Last night on this boat, I found myself on the sidelines for much of the show, in a direct line between the front door and back doors of the second level of the boat. This simply meant that there was a constant line of people coming through. There were not shoves though. When someone needed to get by, there was a hand on your back or your shoulder to let you know they were there, and an excuse me or a “sorry!” with a smile as they went through. When the boat would tip and someone would bump into you or grab at your for support, there were just smiles and laughter between us. The ska scene is different. And I love it. And I love The Slackers. They gave an amazing show. I am beyond disappointed that I am presently sitting on my couch in pajamas and not back on that boat for the second night’s festivities.
By the time I made it back to pick up my very expensively parked car (next time I will pay more attention) from a very jovial attendant (I did appreciate that) I was on my way home. Still smiling. Eagerly awaiting my interviews with this incredible band of scene pioneers. Reminded of the many reasons this music moves me, this scene helped define me, and why so much of my heart is on that dance floor.
Steve Jackson is one of the nicest people I have gotten to meet in this journey called life, and that is the truth. Not only did he take my months of pestering him for an interview for this series with a smile, he was also the first ever phone interview that I did on my weekly radio show. He took time out of his Super Bowl Sunday to take questions from some DJ he never met about goofy shit like where the name “Pietasters” came from and was a gracious gentleman the whole time.
Enter my friend Rob Alapick again. (keeps nosing his way into my blogs) Since he had been nice enough to set up my interview with Steve, I was excited to finally get to thank Mr. Jackson in person at Rob’s house deep in the weirds of Pennsylvania when the Pietasters were playing a show with Hub City Stompers and Rudie Crew. I made my way all the way out to his house, which quickly filled with band members, friends, and the like. Steve Jackson shook my hand and was perfectly ready and willing to embark on an interview with yours truly…but it was sound check time…and away everyone went. I took ill that night and missed the show.
This August however, that won’t be happening. The Pietasters will be taking to the high seas (or the East River) on August 10th for the Rocks Off Concert Cruise Aboard the Half Moon. Ska, booze, and boats. What could possibly be better than that? I will be there. You can buy me a cocktail.
You can be there too! Buy tickets here!
Founded in Washington DC in 1990 by Steve Jackson, The Pietasters debuted their first self-titled album on Moon Ska Records in 1993 after opening for British ska legends, Bad Manners. Following that were releases on Hellcat, Fueled By Ramen, and Indication Records. It’s wonderful to say that here we are, 20 years after that first release, and the Pietasters are still going. Still bringing people to the dance floor, still bringing their brand of ska around the country and beyond, and still gracious enough to humor this girl’s love of ska music, the local scene, and giving me an interview. I love The Pietasters. I listen to Girl Take It Easy whenever I am sad. Night Before reminds me of being 18. The whole Oolooloo album is ingrained in my soul. This was, to say the least, quite an honor for me.
Steve Jackson awesomely took some time out to answer some questions for me about the scene, the band, and where it’s all headed:
Where do you think ska music is now as compared to 10, 15 or 20
In my opinion, Ska is alive and well, having survived the late 90s marketing feeding frenzy that introduced the mainstream American to this form of music.
20 years ago ska was a little known sub-genre of reggae music. The first bands I was familiar with were the Two-Tone bands from the UK such as Bad Manners, The Specials, Madness, etc. Here on the east coast we were lucky to have The Toasters, The Bosstones, The Scofflaws, NY Citizens perform live. Otherwise it was just DJs spinning tunes for the 25 people in DC who liked that sort of music. In DC the punk and ska scenes mixed well. DC is a pretty small town when you get down to the local music scene so even if you didn’t like HarDCore or ska you’d still go to bar nights or shows with friends because that was all there was to do.
15 years ago was the high water mark for ska music in the mainstream. Bosstones, No Doubt, Sublime and others were selling a lot of albums to a lot of people who, five years earlier, had no idea about this strange subculture. It was also a time when anyone with a horn or who was in marching band thought they could start a ska band. We mix a variety of styles into our interpretation of ska, but we tried(try) to be sensitive to where the music came from and what we listened to while growing up. While there were some successful marriages of punk and ska, there was a lot of crap music around at the time masquerading as ska.
10 years ago the ska ship had sailed. The record labels had sucked the life out of the ska genre and their marketers had moved on to other styles of music like garage and the umpteenth coming of punk. The best part was that some good bands, the Slackers for example, had survived the successes and excesses of the late 90s. The carnival ska bands had graduated from high school and moved on to other interests.
I’m happy to report that there are some great new bands out there playing their take on ska. The Snails (Philly), The Shifters (DC), The Pressure (Pitt) are but a few of the young bands playing a good version of this style of music today.
What are the biggest changes you have seen since you started?
See above! Ha ha. Also, the changes the music industry has seen are pretty amazing. When we started playing, people would mail cassette mixes to each other. I had to wait for a month for some fanzine in CA to send me a hand labelled cassette with Hepcat on it. That is probably the biggest change. But some things remain the same. We still play with local bands who rock out covers of Little Bitch or Skinhead Girl. Timeless songs!
What has been the highlight of your time with the Pietasters?
Getting to play with so many bands that we grew up with, looked up to would have to be the highlight for me. From The Bosstones, to Joe Strummer, to James Brown, to Ice T, Reverend Horton Heat, Bouncing Souls, Ramones, Chuck Brown, Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins, Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Symarip, The Business, and on and on.
Where do you think ska music is headed now?
I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how the next wave of
musicians interpret this style of music. From the beginning, ska was about sharing ideas and pieces of songs. It has always been
evolving. And even though it’s got that damn guitar upbeat it’s
amazing how different the various waves and bands sound.
What do the pietasters have going on for the summer?
We just got back from playing a bunch of beach shows. That’s always a nice part of summer touring. We’re looking forward to playing a fest in NC with The CroMags (Age of Quarrel is a perfect album!), then we head to British Columbia for the Victoria Ska Fest. We do our annual NYC Boat cruise on Aug 10 (see you there). We’ve got a pretty busy summer. Mixed in with all of these fun shows we’re working on some recording. It’s fantastic how much the cost of recording has come down. So, look forward to some pie-songs in the near future.
See me there, you will, Mr. Jackson. I will be on the boat with my dancing shoes on. Wait…can you dance on a boat?
Of course you can.
Tickets for the NYC Cruise HERE
More information on Victoria Ska Fest HERE
More PIETASTERS goodness HERE
The Toasters have a special place in my heart. Many nights in the summer days of my late teens were spent flying around with the windows down and Dub 56 blaring from the speakers (…before you ask, purists…BOTH versions). They were partially responsible for pulling me into the wonderful world of third-wave ska in the NY scene in the first place. Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down has been one of my unofficial theme songs on an average weekday at work for many years. It’s also played quite often in my house, and is one of the most dancable songs I know with it’s infectious beat. They are East Coast ska scene pioneers and have influenced and help launch a mastery of other bands in their wake.
Robert Hingley, better and most affectionately known as Bucket to most of us, started the band in New York in 1981 while working at a comic book store. That was long before the ska sound had caught on here in the states the way it has today. The band released albums through the end of the nineties, into the new millennium and continues to tour and play shows to this day, though Bucket remains the only original member. Still, that is a 30 year ska career. Pretty freaking incredible for any musician…let alone a genre of music that is not exactly acknowledged by the mainstream.
He was also the mastermind behind the legendary Moon Ska Records up to 2000 when it disbanded after well over a million and a half copies from The Toasters and other amazing artists in the scene. In 2002, he launched Megalith Records which continues to put out recordings from bands such as the Hub City Stompers, Rudie Crew, Los Skarnales, Victor Rice, and Deals Gone Bad…just to name a few. There are a LOT. It’s one thing to be a musician. It’s something else entirely to help launch other bands who aspire to walk the roads you have. To call Bucket a legend in the scene is not credit enough for what he has done and what his music has meant to so many people who call the weird and wonderful world of ska music “home”.
Bucket was nice enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for the series:
1) What attracted you to this music and this scene in the first place?
I bought my first Ska record in 1964 when I returned to the UK from Africa. That was My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small. I still have that 7″. It’s as thick as a dinner plate. In England in the late sixties there was a ton of Ska music on the charts and in the discos. From there it was an easy progression through the trojan Explosion to 2-tone. That’s what really got me hooked.
2) Who have been your most prominent influences?
Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly——
Probably putting out the NY Beat compilation in 1986. That was a time when all the bands worked together towards a common goal. We could use some more of that now…
4) What are you working on now? Shows in the works? Music coming out?
Touring in Europe, Australia, China, Japan. Fall and winter tours in the USA. Next year Mexico, Brazil, Russia/Siberia, lots of gigs. As far as music is concerned we are tracking a new 7 inch in Boston next week.
Not in a very good direction. There isn’t a regular gig since the Knitting Factory closed. The bands need to get together and make something happen in Manhattan as the Brooklyn-centric scene just isn’t cutting it.
6) What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
Going to Australia. It’s the only continent that I haven’t been to. I probably won’t want to come back. I am also working on a beer festival BREWDOWN with Kevin Lyman. That is going to be a lot of fun.
It;s always fascinating to me to hear from an artist what they think about the scene that they helped to create and define as to where it is headed. It’s why it remains a consistent question as I request (pester) folks for interviews and write these pieces on this scene. Ska music has grown and evolved quite a bit in the last 50 years, and each location within the music itself has created it’s own sound…it’s own vibe…it’s own separate definition of ska music. Be it fused with other genres…a punk rock sound, a dancehall sound, rocksteady, straight reggae. It is all like a wonderful recipe that brings us to the clubs, to the dance floors. You can hear NY Ska in the Toasters. Buckets voice is a beacon to the scene. To hear Bucket himself say that the scene needs to come together, dammit…we NEED to come together!
If the younger bands in the tri-state area have anything to do with it, I think Bucket will be damn proud.
I would be happy for another 30 years of Toasters shows. I will still be dragging my tush to the floor. I will still be singing along with I Wasn’t Going To Call You Anyway in my car as I sit in North Jersey traffic, dreaming of better times had at a ska show. The scene needs more like the Toasters. The industry needs more like Bucket.
Count me in as part of the Rudites faithful, Mr. Radics. I am hooked, and I will be there as they dance all over this scene and yours this summer. Roy Radics may not have a ska crystal ball, but I can tell you as a fan that only good will come of this sound and this vibe.The ska scene IS healthy, and it is busting it’s way back up from the underground. The Rudie Crew might very well be manning the jackhammer…
You can catch The Rudie Crew at the Stubborn Records 20th Anniversary show at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, this Saturday May 12th. Trust me, you will not be disappointed. That is a promise!
More info about the show HERE:
…hunting season is now open…and all DJ’s are fair game…
Can I tell you how many times we used to crank The Stubborn All-Star’s “Open Season” in my younger days? I first heard it on a “Give Em’ The Boot” compilation I think I found at Hot Topic, somewhere in the 90’s. The 90’s are a blur. I still find myself quoting it, playing it regularly on my radio show (it often opens my show, because how appropriate is that?), and probably annoying the ever loving HELL out of the people who live above where we presently broadcast from in Stroudsburg, PA with my obnoxious, loud singing and dancing. Of course I do this song no justice. The Stubborn All-Stars were led by none other than King Django. I have been chasing this gentleman for weeks. I can be really annoying when I want something, and he finally gave in.
When it came time for me to launch my summer ska series on my radio show and my blog, I wanted to focus on the NYC scene…which of course branches into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, because who the fuck can still afford to live in the city? Besides…Jersey has taylor ham. New York and it’s scene has a particular vibe to it. The music that came out of it, and continues to come out of it, is a breed all it’s own in it’s flavor and it’s energy, and the ska and reggae scene is no exception. But anyone who knows this area knows it bleeds into Jersey via bridges, tunnels, and speakers, and Jersey is where I call home. Head on South a bit, and you land in New Brunswick. Rutgers, fat-cats, and King Django’s Version City Studios. It’s a magical land of ska, reggae, rocksteady, and the like expertly threaded together by King Django himself, also the home of his own legendary Stubborn Records.
It’s an honor for me to include anyone in this series who did as much for the scene as Django has, and continues to do. He is a pioneer in the NewYork ska scene going back to the 80’s. Whether it is his own projects, as a contributor, or helping to record and produce fellow musicians in the scene, he continues to put his stamp on the music that still brings people to the sweaty dance floor to this day. It’s also an honor to be able to profile someone who’s music was and continues to be in my own ears as much as his has. Be it with Stubborn All-Stars or Skinnerbox. Plus the countless artists who’s work he was a contributor to…Murphy’s Law, The Slackers, The Toasters, and Rancid, just to name a few.
Look at this crazy discography!
Next weekend, Django’s Stubborn Records label celebrates it’s 20th anniversary with a show at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. Performances by Django himself an others set this show up to be something not to be missed. I caught up with the man himself and was able to hold him down long enough to answer some questions for me.
King Django: I have been up to my eyeballs! The Stubborn Records label is celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, with a HUGE party happening on May 12 at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. In honor of the anniversary, we’ve just released two new 45s in cooperation with Ska In The World Records from Tokyo Japan. One is a new mix of “Anywhere I Roam” with my friends the Forthrights, backed with a fun ska cover version of “Career Opportunities” originally by The Clash. The other is some crazy electro-dancehall-roots music (Forward backed with Rescue Mission) I did with my good friend Ari Up, who is no longer with us. I’m glad we were finally able to get that one out. And yesterday, we just got in the first CD celebrating our 20th Anniversary- Victor Rice’s “Dub Discoveries From Version City” which is fresh, new dub versions of a great, eclectic sampling of our whole catalog, going way, way back.
In the studio, I’ve been very busy doing a lot of recording, mixing and mastering for other bands and artists. Most recently I have been working on an EP with The Snails from Pennsylvania, with whom I have recently played a bunch of shows. Did some recording, mixing and mastering for some of my friends in Staten Island called “Not From Concentrate” for their upcoming EP. I mixed several tunes for the Forthrights next release, and am mixing a showcase album for CHX Sound System from Quebec City! In between, I have been working on my next album, which is getting close to finished. That’s going to be really fun, it features a lot of my friends from all over the place.
What kickstarted your entrance to ska/reggae music?
King Django: I was originally introduced to the 2-Tone sound in the end of the 1970s! After that I quickly became enamored of Jamaican music. I was not a musician at that time. I started playing trombone specifically to play ska and reggae music!
King Django: I have no idea whatsoever! I’m a bit old-fashioned. I tend to really listen to older music in general, and when it comes to ska and reggae, I am still most interested in the original Jamaican sounds. I think the trend for a while has been this rock-infused version of “early reggae” but I have been hearing the stirrings of a return to the traditional ska sound… There are only two kinds of music, at the end of the day!
King Django: After the Anniversary party, I am super-excited about finishing up my new album! Then I get to move on to finishing the new Hub City Stompers record and the Dr Ring Ding Version City album!!! Also really excited to start rehearsing new and different material with the King Django band! We’re looking around for different venues to float the Version City party to, so I think it’s going to be a really fun summer, fall and winter this year!
I am a child of the NY Ska scene.
Well, I am a young adult of the scene anyway. My high school boyfriend exposed me to this wonderful world in the mid-90’s and I have been a devotee ever since the first time I got kicked out of a ska show at The Wetlands for underage drinking.
Fast forward to 2012, a few grey hairs, and I can still be found blasting The Slackers any given afternoon on my agonizing North Jersey commute. It’s happy music that reminds me of summer days and sweaty dance floors. Shows without egos. Horns, beer, and guys wearing suits and sunglasses.
This summer, as I book my Slackers and Pietasters Booze Cruise tickets, I will be interviewing, show reviewing, and more or less harassing as much of the modern scene as I can for a summer series on the scene itself…what it was, what it is, and what it is poised to become.
…bring your pork pie hat, your best trousers, and let’s dance…
I have had this song stuck in my head for a week.
Seriously, I wake up singing it.
This Town, by Don Ryan.
I got an e-mail a few weeks back from this gentleman. He sent me this video. I opened it up, gave it a good listen, and it has been stuck in my head ever since. I have posted it on Facebook. I have e-mailed it to friends. It’s been blasted in my car speakers. I have said it before, it takes a lot to knock my socks off, especially musically. I am not easily impressed, and I see through the glitz and polish quite easily. But this…this is the real thing. Don Ryan is different. This is real music. This is real good music.
I downloaded the whole album, Tangle Town, after giving this video a few good spins in my headphones. Usually when it comes down to needing to review music, I find the best possible method for me is to listen to it in my car. I spend a lot of time in my car. I am a commuter. A hardened, foul-mouthed North Jersey highway commuter. We are our own breed. If not for music, I would probably have had a Michael Douglas Falling Down moment a long time ago. That being said, music for me is best absorbed through the ears and into the brain (and soul) in the car. Onto my thumb drive went Mr. Ryan, and into my Kia went the thumb drive.
I have been bouncing this music around in my speakers now for a couple weeks, and the first time I listened to it, I actually went into work late because the song Living Avenue was not done playing, and I could not turn it off. Imagine the folk sounds of a later Jim Croce having a love child with the deep soul of Jeff Buckley, and you are still not even close. It’s gorgeous and deep. Full and thick with something I can’t seem to touch, but I can still feel. I fell in love with this song immediately. It’s a gentle mix of simple guitar and vocals with these low vocal backgrounds. Drums come in, background noise comes in, it all fills out and takes you somewhere else entirely. And singable. Sing along with it.
A Mouse in God’s County is another favorite of mine on this album. It has a flavor like that of This Town, but a little more fevered and with great lyrics and intensity. Somewhere between the songs on this album, you feel transferred somewhere else entirely. It’s like being sucked into some strange dust bowl depression era carnival with this man as your guide…your only link back to the modern world. And he seems to straddle that line with a sly smirk on his face the whole time. It’s a great trip. I can’t seem to get it out of my car speakers, my computer headphones, or my head in general. When I like something, I listen to it to death. I am killing this album as we speak.
Now take the song Maybe You Were Right. A strange journey into an almost hallucinogenic ride at some distorted county fair. But it’s beautiful. Don Ryan has a way of singing over all the strings that keeps it normal even when it seems headed in that trippy Beatles-after-Dylan-showed-them-weed direction. It’s really amazing what he does with the layers of sound on this album. Every time you listen, you will notice something you didn’t hear before. It’s dark, but it’s truthful and beautiful.
Don Ryan mixes it all up. He takes older styles of music, various instruments, and basic folk sounds and threads them all together into this great sound. There is so much variation between the songs as well. Little bits and blurbs. Then the song will start, and just take you away. It’s not straight folk all the way through, though you can hear and taste that in On Our Way Home and Down and Out…which has amazing lyrics. It’s not straight tripped-out carnival music, though you will get that feel all the way through the album in small doses and surprises mid-song. It’s got that noir-pop flavor mixed in.
There is a taste of Buckley. A taste of Waits. But this is all Don Ryan. A strange trip to another time and place. Beautiful and haunted. Driving along with this in my speakers, I find myself watching the world go buy with different eyes. I can’t wait to catch him live and feel the vibe in the room. Well done, Mr. Ryan.
Some of my earliest childhood memories were set to the soundtrack of the crack and pop of vinyl on the record player in my parent’s living room. There were tapes too, but our household was one of records. Played loudly through the speakers that seemed so huge, they might as well have been suspended from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden. Dancing, singing, spinning in circles in the living room to the music that was so infused in my blood from such a young age that it seemed like part of me. Part of my family. Learning early that I could only dance so hard otherwise those wonderful sounds that escaped from those huge speakers would “skip”.
Nowadays, my own home is also filled with music all the time. I find myself still dancing, only now I have a child of my own, a son, who I delight in infusing with the music that means so much to me. Ours comes mostly out of my iPod or computer speakers. I look at my son…and I realize that while he knows what a record is (I still have them), he doesn’t know like I did what it was like to dance and have to be careful not to skip the record. He and I dance all over the place, bump into furniture, fall down in a fit of giggles, and the music doesn’t miss a beat.
I also look at those speakers my dad had, long blown out by blasted industrial and heavy metal by my brother and I in our teens while our parents were at work, and I realize how small they are now. But in those memories, they were monstrous. In my defense, I was kinda small.
There was a lot of folk and electric folk music in our house. My mom had a thing for Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Seekers, Simon and Garfunkel, and others of the late sixties and early seventies folk scene. My dad was into an eclectic mix of Moby Grape (he played “Omaha” over and over), Janis Joplin, Benny Goodman’s live album, with heavy doses of The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, The Doors, and other masters. Then he would dip into the metal stylings of Judas Priest…he had Live Aid on VHS that he recorded off TV and loved their performance with the in sync headbanging of the guitars and bass. He also loved Ozzy and Black Sabbath. It is because of my dad that I love Led Zeppelin. It is because of my mom that I love Billy Joel. There was George Thorogood. There was John Denver. The Fugs. The Cars. Our home was well rounded.
One of the most common family visitors who entered through our turntable and came out through those speakers was the amazing Robert Zimmerman…better known to most as Bob Dylan. My father was and remains one of the biggest Bob Dylan fans I have ever met…though I like to think these days I am not far behind him. Some of my earliest memories are of that voice that didn’t sound like anyone else, that harmonica that screamed through the speakers, piano, guitar, and how it all blended together and made me feel warm. Even now, I listen to the sounds of Dylan and it takes me to that living room. When I didn’t know what it was to worry about anything more than whether or not I would get yelled at for not cleaning my room like I was asked to do, if I had school tomorrow, and brushing the knots from my thin blonde hair after I shook around the room.
Hearing “Like A Rolling Stone” break in with Al Kooper’s organ playing is one of my all time favorite sounds in the entire world. An amazing song from start to finish, there has been much debate as to the inspiration for this 1965 classic and it’s lyrics. Everything from Edie Sedgwick and the Andy Warhol scene of the day to it being simply about Dylan’s self conflicts at the time. No one knows but Bob, and if you have seen any of the few, you know he is hardly specific about anything at all in his interviews. It’s been covered by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Green Day.
It’s surprising to note that prior to the success of this song, a Bob Dylan who had grown exhausted of the public’s perceptions of him had debated quitting the music business. I am sure I am not alone thanking whoever was responsible that he didn’t. To me, it’s the sounds of youth. It’s an amazing creation that was thought strange at the time by those big cigar toting record execs for it’s length, at over six minutes. Frank Zappa was quoted as saying it was the song that made him want to quit the music business saying, “…if this wins and does what it’s supposed to do, I don’t need to do anything else…”
To me, it’s been poetry. A blanket when I was cold. Strength when I felt weak.
As I grew older and began writing myself, my appreciation for Bob Dylan took on a whole new light. I found myself engulfed in the way he strung words together making poems, stories, non-fiction accounts of times before I joined this human population. I saw an interview not long ago where Bob was asked if he could write songs like those from earlier in his career…some of those he is known best for…again if asked. He said no…that he did it when it was time to write them. He can’t remember how he wrote them. They were just there. I think he is right to say that songwriting sometimes just comes, and when it comes, you make it come to life. If it’s gone, you sometimes can’t get it back. It’s not just songs. It’s writing. It’s art. I find it in my own writing…and I am hardly Bob Dylan.
I found anger in his music…in songs like “Masters of War”, off The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I didn’t know about the war of which it is assumed he spoke. I know of what my parents told me of those times. My parents met in college. They graduated high school in 1968 and were married in 1972. They were at a great age for a great time in music, but a terrible time for war. Still, some of those lyrics transcend time. They translate to the life of anyone feeling anger and struggle against someone who attempts to exert control over us, hurting us and those we love. Taking friends so far away. Sometimes they didn’t come back.
In October of 1992, there was a 30th Anniversary concert done for Bob Dylan at Madison Square Garden. I remember my best friend’s parents ordered it on pay-per-view and VHS recorded it for my parents. At the time, having been a HUGE Pearl Jam fan as they were just coming up in the music world, I was excited that Eddie Vedder would be there to perform a Dylan song. His choice was “Masters of War”. I don’t think there could have been anyone more appropriate to best represent the emotion in this song the way Dylan wrote it. I was floored. I still am.
I found love in his music. Songs like “Lay Lady Lay”, off of Nashville Skyline but originally written for the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy. A song that talks about realizing your love, and wanting so much for your love to realize theirs for you. “Why wait any longer for the world to begin? You can have your cake and eat it too. Why wait any longer for the one you love when he’s standing in front of you?”. Are you a romantic? Tell me those words don’t reach right into your soul and stir you like a pot of boiling soup. There is a story there, behind that song, but you don’t need to know what it is to know you can feel that. You have been there. Maybe you are there. Bob was there. And he made that moment sing to us.
Covered by everyone from The Byrds, to Melanie, to Ministry…it’s a song that no matter where you are in time, it will still speak to someone. Some people don’t realize upon first hearing this song that it’s Bob Dylan. This, like many songs on Nashville Skyline, were sung in a lower, smoother tone that Dylan had attributed to having recently quit smoking. There are several legends that revolve around the writing of “Lay Lady Lay”. My favorite is completely unconfirmed but goes as follows:
According to Johnny Cash, Dylan had played the song first in a circle of singer-songwriters that had gathered at Cash’s house outside of Nashville. Cash claims that several other musicians and writers were there sharing their new, unheard songs with one another. Dylan played “Lay Lady Lay”, Shel Silverstein played “A Boy Named Sue” (later made famous by Cash himself), Joni Mitchel played “Both Sides, Now”, Graham Nash played “Marrakesh Express, and Kris Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee”, later made famous by Janis Joplin.
Can you imagine being a fly on the wall in THAT room?!
My love for what Dylan creates…the legends, the sounds, it transcends everything. I danced with my father to “You’re a Big Girl Now” at my wedding. I sing “Forever Young” to my son. I find myself singing verses of “Maggie’s Farm” to my pit bull Maggie when I am cleaning the house, as she follows me around. As I was blasting “Tombstone Blues” on my way to work this morning, I was thinking what it must have been like when his music was new to the radio. My father tells me stories about how much my grandmother hated when he played Dylan on the family record player. Didn’t stop him. He still blasts it on his record player to this very day.
But there are so many legends and stories of his shows at small clubs and coffee houses of the village. His visit to Woody Guthrie at Greystone Psychiatric Hospital, just up the street from where I sit right now writing this. How he had a love affair with Joan Baez that brought them to civil rights rallies, and created beautiful and amazing music they both shared…even being so different. How he escaped the public eye with the wife he married in secret and lived quietly in a house in Woodstock to start his family. How so many people got so much of what he said all wrong. His toying with reporters who asked him silly questions. His introducing The Beatles to marijuana, probably assisting in the amazing albums that followed…Rubber Soul…the White Album.
We just passed the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first album. So much of a life lived by such a creative man…who every time I see him, looks like he just wants to go sit somewhere quiet and have a cup of coffee and read the paper. I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to tell him what he has done and continues to do every day as influence and just simply to soundtrack so much of my own life. But he has. And in my own way, I thank you, Bob.
What is this noirpop?
Pop on over to those interwebs, do a search for Shayfer James, and you have found it. And I promise you, you will never be the same.
An amazing blend of haunting and emotional vocals expertly laced through delicately pounding and softly touching piano work. Combine this with his mischievousness in storytelling, and what you walk away with is amazing and different. It’s something new and something old simultaneously. It’s Shayfer James. Try as I might, I can’t find a category that accurately depicts exactly what this music is, but it moves me. Oh, how it moves me.
Flashback to September of 2010. I accompanied my best friend and super terrestrial rock DJ Lindsay Klein to a battle of the bands she was helping to judge at Parlay Studios in Jersey City. A converted warehouse now serving as a studio, gallery, and event venue, I was enthralled in all the energy of the many people that milled around inside. Lindsay went off to her judging duties, and I stood around in the crowd, sipping beer, and people watching. Listening to the bands as they came and went. Nothing really caught my attention. In all honesty, I was bored out of my mind. Some of these bands were TERRIBLE! I am not without culture or artistic understanding, but some of these folks were just over my head. Loud, strange, colorful and fun to watch for sure…but nothing new. Nothing fresh. Weird for weird’s sake.
Then it changed. Three gentleman took the stage quietly and politely, well dressed from another era when romance was real and gentlemen chased nightmares away right before they took your hand and showed you how much fun they could be. A quick quiet introduction followed, and they started right in with something that has rung in my head ever since. I don’t recall what song they started off with, but by the time they got to Siren Song, I was hooked. For the record, it has remained my favorite song of his ever since. I could not even explain right then what it was I was hearing. The voice was something like Jeff Buckley, but deeper and from somewhere darker. Melodies that haunted you while they moved your body. Music that got inside me. This was something new. This was something beautiful. I was floored. For an admitted music snob like myself, that doesn’t happen often.
Standing in the long line for the ladies room a short time later, I found myself approached by a very friendly fellow in a bowler hat and neutral vest that I recognized was the singer and pianist from this amazing band I had just listened to. Maybe I was obviously fascinated by this music in view of the stage…I never asked. He shook my hand and said hello. Some small talk followed, and then he was off and on his way.
That was my first introduction to Shayfer James.
I have been a devoted follower ever since. On his website, I found the term “Noirpop” describing this new and dark breed of melody. I don’t think I could have come up with anything better myself.
The Owl and the Elephant from 2010 kicks off my fascination with this music, and was expertly followed up with Counterfeit Arcade in 2011. I have both on pretty consistent rotation on my weekly show, and have received a lot of amazing feedback. I think if you have not delved into what Shayfer can bring out of you, you should. You are missing out on a beautiful journey. You are missing out on music that reads your soul.
Get both. No two songs sound alike, but every single one tells a story. My suggestion: Listen to Siren Song (The Owl and the Elephant), and then follow it up with Villainous Thing (Counterfeit Arcade). I can’t get enough of this song. Maybe because I am one, but more likely because the up and down beat of the piano slides slowly and smoothly into a chorus you can’t help but sing along with as loudly as possible. I do. Then listen to everything else. Take a long drive. Find someone you really enjoy kissing. Listen. Devour. Absorb, and be changed.
Shayfer James does a gorgeous version of Leonard Cohen’s Waiting For The Miracle in this clip. It’s not on his albums, but you can find it here. If this doesn’t hook you in to how he gets inside your soul with what he does, I don’t know what will.