Wednesday, May 31, 2006

THE REBELS WHO SHARE A TOUR-BUS TOILET COME TO CNN: We were called sluts, they reveal

(Dateline Pasadena, Wednesday, 6:00, the couch) Natalie Maines and the rebels who share a tour-bus toilet pull into Larry King "live" on CNN. It's not "live" in Pasadena, anymore, but who cares? The rebels have a script and they're going to deliver it to every corner of the country whether I or you like it or not.

Uncle Larry begins pitching his famous trademarked and patented softballs. "Not Ready to Make Nice," the first single off the Dixie Chicks new album is playing. It's the same shtick: About half of America, maybe less, was mean to the rebels. So mean was America that Uncle Larry announces the new Dixie Chicks album at number one in Billboard magazine.

The two not-Natalies profess wide-eyed surprise that after "the incident" they found they still lived in a country where people were going to hate on them for what their friend Natalie said about The Leader. The surprise, the utter surprise of the hatred. People called us sluts, said one of the rebels. The tour was sold out. It's the message and they're on it like stink on you know what. "Here's their first hit," says Uncle Larry. "Wide o-pen spaces...." Commercial.

The "interview" continues. "It's all about not tolerating abuse," says Natalie to Uncle Larry, after another five minutes of the script. Of course it is. Go Natalie, you were born middle finger first. Cue song, and commercial.

Now the Chicks are taking calls. Some woman wants to know about the Chicks' tiff with really big country music star and TV celebrity, Reba McIntyre. One of the not-Natalies says it is/was personally hurtful, or something like that.

Then someone calls in from Hattiesburg, that's in Mississippi, one of the places that supports the President, to say she is still a Chicks fan. Going to commercial again, music playing, sehr gut showcase for the Chicks album, almost better than a listening station at Tower Records because you have to actually drive or walk to that store.

"You had the courage to speak the truth," says one caller from Colorado to Natalie Maines. Doesn't it give you a warm fuzzy feeling about half or a third or something of the country is behind you, the caller asks. Editor's note: My transcription is a bit . . . fuzzy. There are nice feelings all around even though these gals are not ready to make nice.

But then -- slight glitch in the performance. Like Queeg on the stand at the climax of the Caine mutiny, the steel bearings come out of the pocket. One of the not-Natalies still can't get over being called a slut.

Now a caller goes on a little rant and insists Donald Rumsfeld is a coward. ("Ha-ha," mutters Larry nervously. Larry might be nervous because he's thinking that maybe viewers know or think he's on a delay in case someone says something naughty but that the CNN control room let this convenient and dramatic non-sequitur through, anyway. Then he re-asserts control and in a deep voice, asks, "Do you have a question?") Anyway, what do Natalie and not-Natalies think of Rumsfeld? Sidestep. "We have a story and we're sticking to it," says one of them. How true. Everybody laughs.

Now Natalie says the Chicks will play in Iraq for the soldiers if someone asks them to. This was in response to a call-in question, I think, but my mind wandered.

Then someone from from Canada calls in to thank the Chicks on behalf of . . . Canada! Yay Canada! Chicks music, commercial.

". . . [T]he la--a-a-a-a-nd of the free and the h-o-o-m-e of - the - brayyyyve!" sing the Chicks. It's a great moment from the past. Not only does it show the tour-bus toilet rebels can deliver a patriotic song with vigor and enthusiasm in a big stadium full of people cheering them on but that they're Americans, too. That was the Chicks at the Super Bowl three years ago or something, informs Uncle Larry. Some small talk. The tour is coming. Great product placement.

Who is the Dixie Chicks' press agent?! Dick Destiny must have him or her!!!!

Of interest: I was once hated on nationally by Democrats, sort of the reverse of the Chicks, who were hated on by Republicans. I blew my product placement.

All errors in transcription are mine. All errors in understanding are yours. First tear up, then pull down. Or vice versa.

Thanks to I Love Music for involuntarily allowing me its use as a pre-lim scratch pad.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

P.T. BARNUM METAL: Sunday mag hokums for browsing over brunch

Newspaper editors love things that surpass their received wisdoms. Nowhere is it often more obvious than in music journalism.

In the past few months, New York Times employees have been seized with glee by the meme of heavy-metal-for-smart-people. It's an old cliche that I've seen deployed seasonally for a couple decades. It invites you to entertain the myth that anyone who plays loud guitar hard rock or metal is a dope and that the people who listen to it are of the same ilk.

Why just the other day, Dick Destiny blog touched upon it in comment over Dave Marsh's review of "Grand Funk Live." Boiled down to the essence: Grand Funk were stupid and so were their fans in the south who smoked marijuana in excess. These fans thought more highly of the boys from Flint than the serious virtuoso musicians in Cream. Ergo, they were morons.

So when it's deployed, the meme always digs up some acts which can be held up as totems and shaken in the face of readers as exceptions to the mass of crawling dunces, groups or people to fit a serious subject treatment and delivery that pitches to the college-educated upper middle class gourmand. The New York Times mag trotted it out on Sunday inside the magazine in an article entitled "Heady Metal." It was a subject the Sunday Arts section of the newspaper had covered the same way back in September of last year, even to the point of profiling mostly the same people.

Over and over again, the point is made to the reader: We have found some new metal bands that aren't for stupid people.

"Metal in general has long been unjustly maligned as solely the province of knuckle-dragging meatheads," asserted someone for the Times on a Sunday in September. Instead of idiots in black-T's ala "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," the audience was said to look like "brainy nerds." The men fans of the new metal for smart people had "artistically cropped hair" and the women wore "librarian glasses." And this was ground-breaking because never before has there been a small group of special metal bands as intellectual as there are now.

Mentioned in the article prominently were Sunn0))) -- drop the 0))) part when you try to say it -- and Boris, two bands on the LA-based doom metal label, Southern Lord. Sunn0))) are a droning noise band with members who play in robes while smoke envelopes the stage. They use very high volume and are unafraid to take people for suckers while conducting performances thick with pompous shtick. Such tactics have a long-proven, often entertaining, and very grand tradition in heavy metal.

Revealed in the Times: The Sunn0))) secret smart heady metal handsign
What makes Sunn0))) stand out, if stand out is the right phrase to use, is that they're still a micro-cult band and their records are boring within micro-genres where it's really easy to be that way. Plus, they get special treatment from news media types who normally wouldn't give the million-selling heavy metal band living next door to them the time of day.

But none of that matters in layman's print where you don't have to listen to the music and what matters is that an elaborate billowing fancy be told.

The reader is invited to drop their natural sense of disbelief, suspend their common sense and swallow with the barge-ful of hokums they're about to be fed.

For the New York Times, Sunn0))) members were intellectuals and aesthetes listening to an Indian "santoor" player and Ethiopian blues. They stroked their beards and the lines of music have blurred because of the grand Internet (never mind that you can find old vinyl records in your collection full of blurring styles).

Sunn0))) amplifiers are recreated as hydrophilic [specifically hydrophilic -- because that means, in case you didn't get past college chemistry like Dick Destiny, water-loving, according to Sunn0)))] pillars of salt for art museums , and the band plays in a room away from audiences sometimes so that the fans can only hear them through the wall. Will the mighty wind from Sunn0))) cause them to wet themselves, some fans wonder? Or is the sound more like sonic Quaaludes, as one of the maximum leader's of Sunn0))) maintains, making "the brain and body like jelly. A wonderful feeling."

All this art is strangely beautiful. Of course it is.

None of the Timess heavy-metal-for-smart-people stories are complete without a reference to Satan. Now, for this to work within the cliche, it can't just be any proletarian metal band's hook-em-with-the-devil's-horns handsign, nosireebob. Instead, look out for the philosopher named Atsuo from Boris, Sunn0)))'s Japanese compadres, to deliver the gnomic: "It's simple to talk about Satan as a symbol. But it's important to consider the deeper meaning of the symbol." And, stealing from an old book by M. Scott Peck: "To me, the Devil is not a symbol, but a moment that touches on morals. The moment when a person changes - that is the Devil." [In the September piece on metal for smart people, the Times had used the exact same quotes. However, to bring variety, the flip-flopped the order of the statements for the two articles.]

Because it is metal for intellectuals, or at least ersatz ones, girls wearing "librarian glasses" and boys with "artistically cropped hair," the noise of Sunn0))) is not in arenas but "played in small urban venues for sophisticated crowds." The first part of that being indisputable.

The entirety of the New York Times Sunday mag piece has been reposted here.

Monday, May 29, 2006

THE BAD TEXAS BEES: Beat your women & liberals, cut taxes, eat pills

The guy on the right is not Peter Dinklage

In 1976, POINT BLANK weren't at all like Natalie and her tour-bus toilet-sharing rebels, blogged of on Sunday. They were ugly men from Texas, signed to Arista, and guided by ZZ Top's manager and producer, Bill Ham. ZZ Top would slow down in 1976, issue Tejas, and take three years off until Deguello in 1979, a gap which gave Ham three years to try and reinvent his money-makers as a more criminal-minded and reactionary bunch, Point Blank.

Point Blank's debut had five bulls-eye shotgun blasts (in eight cuts) of impolitic sentiments delivered via twin-guitar riffage, a blooz shout-screamer and shuffle rhythms mined from Rio Grande Mud-tone ZZ. If our president had a house band from the days he was a power drunk, dancing on tables and delivering cheap shots on the playing fields, Point Blank was it. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, an area Kevin Phillips says repeatedly in American Theocracy is demographically, ideologically and politically like Texas, South Carolina or Tennessee (he's right), the Point Blanks were so iron-fisted, Old Testament and misanthropic, I felt I knew them from fights in gym class and post-football game dance orgies.

On "That's the Law," singer John O'Daniel brings on a Taliban-like rant for putting the woman in her place. The message: You don't lie to me, because lieing is against my law! Now don't you turtledove me, you put no one above ME! Because what I say goes, and that's according to my law! "Aiiieeeee-hai-hey!!" he screams. The descending riff and drums complete the sonic picture of someone having drunken fists put to them in the bedroom.

Shoot the women and goddamn liberals
"Free Man" is an honest motorcycle gangster/white trash lament about timeless issues that sometimes motivate voters. We're paying too darn many taxes, O'Daniel shouts. Furthermore, the law wants to arrest him for "eating too many pills," getting in the way of the small home business commerce of the meth operation.

On "Bad Bees," the woman again gets the chop. To a strutting boogie, the girl is non-specifically warned to stop doing whatever she's doing, to drive her "sucker" home, or the "bad bees from the hive" -- the gang from the corner bar or the motorcycle club -- will be summoned to rectify matters.

And if you were a meddler from outside, a fashion statement or a presumed cool cat, Point Blank would disabuse you of it. The "Lone Star Fool" comes to town, think's he know where it's at, wears a seer-sucker hat, playing psych--ee--delic music for the teenage crowd. He's a fool, Point Blank're country boys and you know what happens then! "Aiiee-hai-hey!" shouts O'Daniel. The album closes with him reflecting that he has to move on, to go someplace else because of unspecified and perhaps unfortunate actions.

It remains a totally gripping and uncommercial Seventies hard rock record.

Second Season, out the next year as follow-up saw the band maintain it's talent for flat-headed boogie but easing up on the spittle-spraying mean drunk intensity of the lyrics. The titles are provocative -- "Tatooed Lady," "Nasty Notions," "Stars and Scars" -- but they only hint at the explosive anger and bile of the first LP. They added a cover of Bob Seger's "Beautiful Loser," but Arista had had enough of them.

Point Blank were subsequently picked up by MCA, where the band issued a string of progressively more MOR records. All the mean edges were gradually sanded down to nothing except for moments on Hard Way in 1980, when the band reverts to form for the title cut and turns in a crashing live rendition of Deep Purple's "Highway Star." The fighting drunks were back behind the wheel for fifteen minutes. O'Daniel would then leave and be replaced by a second-stringer from the James Gang

'Vere are de gurlz?
Hard as it may be to believe in 2006, Point Blank retains a core of fanatical true-believers in its ouvre. The best example is Hank Davison's Hard Way, the only Point Blank tribute band ever, I think, and one that builds on the inspiration of the first album. Euro-bikers, Hank Davison and his compadres resemble the apotheosis of every Texas roadhouse band, ever. On Hard Way, they cover two Point Blank tunes -- the obvious title song and "Free Man," from Point Blank #1. The rest of the album is a mix of heavy R&B, and AC/DC-style shout-alongs. Their business looks pretty successful.

Point Blank's first two records have just been reissued by Wounded Bird. Visit Hank Davison Band here.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

DAMONE: Rockers, who -- Like Nixon -- went to China and were impeached

Damone, a four-piece hard-rocking pop band from Boston, have made all the mistakes that destroy hard rock careers. In 2003 and signed to RCA, they let the label run a tab on them. By running a tab, I mean it appeared that more money was spent than the usual excess in featherbedding the jobs of people whose task it was to develop the act in practical ways.

For instance, astonishingly, the band publicized a club tour of China. If you were from Boston and were on your first record with a major label, you'd want them to mount up an international logistical caravan and take you to three dives in Red China first, right? Certainly!! Why doesn't everyone think of that!

Second, they were saddled with one of the Lord-Alges as a "mixer." For those who don't already know my tastes, here the royal surname (belonging to brothers Tom, Chris or whomever) is a synonym for "eject." Every debut record I've had in the last half decade or so with the name "Lord-Alge" somewhere in the credits as pinch-hitter(s) on mixes has been deadly, one to toss after a couple listens. The Lord-Alges are supposed to be magic men. Tell it to the bands (Damone, Tsar, Other Star People, et al) whose debut's have them in the liner notes and who find that the only thing that's good for after the recording is spoiled is a cheap line in the promotional biography. The money gets spent, money that would have been better used paying for extra meals, equipment, lodging, a truckload of TastyKakes, booze, a small pig farm as a hedge or investment, anything (!).

Damone's In the Attic from 2003 was almost instantly impeached. (Used copies are selling for $0.95 on Amazon.) It was supposed to be memorably poppy and rock hard and failed at both. A Lord-Alge did make it sonically lightweight. And as teen pop, it wasn't as good as Skye Sweetnam or Hope Partlow, two artists who, in the intervening years, haven't done well, either.

So after In The Attic flopped, the pros managing Damone insure that three years elapsed before another record emerged from a different label, Island. And then the new label issues a preliminary EP with the same title as the finished LP. Great!

Nevertheless, Out Here All Night has arrived and the band back from hiatus. In the acrimony that must have followed the failure of In the Attic, a guitarist/main songwriter was fired or left and now the band sounds more muscled, determined to show someone they're guitar-rockers with a solid frontgirl, Noelle.

The new compensation is furnished by some double-bass drum work and layers of fast, chugging guitar riffs. "Now Is the Time" starts the album off with a grand arena-rock gesture. It doesn't stink, paving the way for the power metal title track. Damone have adopted batwings, shades and ugly brick walls to convey the visual image they're now semi-dirty, on the street and tough.

Fair enough, it works. You can listen to their songs alongside any commercial groups from the dedicated metal label, Napalm. (Naio Ssaion comes to mind, another act you haven't heard of -- a girl-led Euro hard rock group marketed as Goth-lite.)

Out Here All Night's best tunes come next, however. "What We Came Here For" is strutting rock and roll, "Stabbed In the Heart," a corny tear-jerker for someone, like me, who likes corny tear-jerkers, and "On Your Speakers" -- the finest of all, putting the group's "worn-out sneakers" on for going outside to have some fun hook-laden riffola. "Tonight" is the last tune that sticks, a song straight from the Joan Jett playbook.

Damone is still over-produced for the rock 'n' roll it's making but the CD still bats a little over .500 for the duration.

And my original review of "In the Attic:"

(Village Voice, 2003, abridged) Also fresh from the nine-buck bin [Out Here All Night is a nine USD squeeze-play, too] is Damone's From the Attic. RCA's stab at a heavy cover—oh, look at the Marshall stack—starts it off on the wrong foot. One expects brutal explosion, but what one gets is Noelle, a 17-year-old whose weaknesses include not being able to sing and a lack of gracious reticence in public. "One time in my eighth grade science class, I fell asleep and my own fart woke me up," she reveals in promo nose-gold.

The vocals are fixed with multi-layering, but it's hard to squeegee much more from Noelle's wet-carwash-girl-at-the-carwash shtick. The troublesome Lord-Alge is at work, too, adding liters of studio helium to an effort already light on muscle. "At the Mall"—brrrr—is one brief hit: almost like the Sweet, because the guys stop slacking off.

Read the original.
THE REBELS WHO SHARE A TOUR-BUS TOILET: Natalie Maines born to flip the bird in the USA

Had enough Dixie Chicks rebellion? I have and I love revolt. Most people think rebellions are largely unscripted. But the Dixie Chicks' main lady, Natalie Maines -- for someone who would so like to appear as shoot from the hip and ready to give the President she's ashamed of a fat lip --has been served up as one of the most scripted pop stars in the last two weeks.

If you didn't get enough of the Chicks' slightly trembling but pursed-lip toughness on 60 Minutes three weeks ago, if you were on either coast, the art sections of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran identical features/interviews on the band. And if those newspapers were too local for you, TIME magazine delivered them on the cover in every supermarket in the nation.

"Natalie Maines is one of those people born middle finger first," claimed Josh Tyrangiel for TIME. Reporters never exaggerate for effect so you know he had his head up Natalie's mom's ass three decades or so ago and was just waiting for the right moment to tell us about it.

"I've thought about this all way too much," Maines told Jon Pareles of the NY Times. But not so much she couldn't keep thinking and telling about the same things to the parade of entertainment reporters being processed through the Dixie Chicks' publicity operation.

Run with all the brio, uniqueness and creative inspiration of a Pentagon mass-briefing, here are some inspirational quotes:

"An album recorded with the assumption that 'not one radio station is going to play a single song.' (NY Times)"; "This [album] was the exact opposite . . . We just assume no one is going to like it . . . It was the first record we've done where I would have been OK if nobody liked it. (LA Times) "

Okey-dokey, Natalie! You were delivered head first, flipping the bird. "It was awesome to feel those feelings again that I felt in high school, that you're right and the things you do matter. (TIME)"

"Maines is, by nature, an extrovert and a slyly funny woman," wrote the LA Times. Although no sense of humor was found flirting inside the big music coverage of Maines and the Chicks, there has been plenty of fine-sounding recommendations: "This is what talented musicians are supposed to do: aspire to get better, braver (TIME)." Or these daring lines of lacerating description from the NY Times: "The Dixie Chicks were never a typical-sounding country act" and "Their music is built around a country rarity" and "While the Dixie Chicks' music was never confrontational, each album grew bolder . . . "

"I've lost my optimism and hope in humanity . . . I'm not being funny. I try to find it," said Maines, this time quoting from the LA Times. But no worries, "The Dixie Chicks sound determined not to whine . . . and they focus on personal reactions, not protests," assured The New York Times. The Dixie Chicks women are so real they "shared" a tour-bus bathroom, are "loud" and one of them even has a one-eyed dog, informed TIME.

Dick Destiny imagines if anyone with a shred of self-deprecation read this type swill either coming from or attributed to them, they'd be embarrassed to the point of being sick of themselves for a couple of months, at least. I wanted to like Natalie a lot but she's making it too hard. And it's not the politics. I think the President's a disgrace, too. Natalie, it's the transformation of your thing into a shtick and the recruitment of the stenographers of entertainment journalism to deliver it.

It's going to be the crime of the century if people don't hear this album said one flunky of the Chicks record for TIME. The Dixie Chicks' recording was "therapy" and it had "strengthened" them "artistically" and "personally." The girls even thought of Bruce Springsteen. Cue violins or the banjo.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

HEAVY IS THE NEW LITE: VH1 Metal special entertaining but much goes missing

HEAVY: The History of Metal has aired three episodes this week. All have been snappily edited, entertaining one-hour enjoyments. Moving briskly along, they attempt to furnish a colorful, easily digestible look at the genre of music which is the dominating force in guitar rock.

But while the series has been eminently watchable, it's not more than a prescription of sugar pills to fans of the music. Replete with color commentary from hagiographers masquerading as music journalists and semi-famous metal musicians who ebulliently describe everything in exclamations that dub whatever is coming next on the screen great and exciting, it serves to reinforce the idle observer's impression that the genre has been drinking too much of its own Kool-Aid for a good long time. It's not the ultimate sin since every branch on the tree of pop music has been reduced to this type of inflated cant by the marketing imperatives of the entertainment media. But it greatly dilutes an interesting story, making what could have been a more complex examination merely ordinary.

Accompanying the praise are sweepingly grandiose claims and statements to reduce the viewer to either tetany or laughter. We learned in the first segment, according to Chuck Klosterman, that all metal bands spring either from Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. Then the show segues into a bit on the Alice Cooper band, an act which has spawned and still spawns imitators, and which itself had nothing to do with either.

We learned that the first metal album was Kiss Alive in 1975.

Rockin' the 'fros in Atlanta, 1970
No doubt this comes as a great surprise to Mark Farner of Grand Funk, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and a few others.

Funk's success sent Dave Marsh of CREEM magazine into an apoplectic rage in its December 1970 issue. In a now notorious rant about "Live Album," Marsh wrote "Are [Grand Funk] as slow and doped out of their wits as their audience?"

In another paragraph, Marsh growls that Funk were first popular in the South, "down in the very heartland of honk." His objection seems to be that Funk were little more than copyists of Cream, and the southerners didn't like Cream but were fans of Grand Funk because they were of like minds -- stupid and blowing their brains out on marijuana.

But others had proclaimed Funk metal monsters, most notably Metal Mike Saunders, who would continue to do so in print through the early '70's. In a long review ("A Brief Survey of the State of Metal Music Today") in a 1973 issue of Phonograph Record Magazine, Saunders stated a "risible chasm" had opened up between what was considered Good Music -- the stuff pumped by the rock critic mainstream -- "and what the kids were actually listening to." It was obvious, he wrote, with regards to Grand Funk and Black Sabbath.

Live Album, which reached number five in the States with no obvious airplay, showed Funk at its metallic best and worst, said Saunders. For Phonograph Record, it was fifty percent good, fifty percent "awful." In Fusion in '72, "The entire first side [of the four-sided double LP] is crass, energetic and rocking, until the very end of 'In Need'. " This album, a good five years before Kiss Alive.

US LP was with gold background Deep Purple's Made In Japan went platinum in 1973. Coming out at a time when the group was at the height of its popularity in the US, it contained all the band's signature tunes, often drawn out in genuine metal excess for the fans to cheer, or be bored shitless by. Ritchie Blackmore's guitar prowess, Ian Gillan's gymnastic screeching, sometimes dueling each other -- it was another double LP which had it all, like it or not.

Also skipped in VH1 glee over Kiss, were the Rodney Dangerfield's of early heavy metal, Uriah Heep.

For Phonograph Record, Saunders wrote Heep had produced two "essential" albums -- Look at Yourself and Demons & Wizards -- out of five studio shots by 1973. One can also add their debut -- simply called Uriah Heep or known as the "worm" album in the States, and recipient of the infamous review in Rolling Stone that if the band made it, the reviewer (Melissa Mills) would have to kill herself.

Visually faceless, try to make this LP more bland-looking, huh?
Although Heep were "faceless punkoids" more similar to Black Sabbath's image live, onstage "they still move around and put on a fine show." While Demons & Wizards was the first Heep LP to enter the charts, on the back of the single "Easy Livin'," their albums would continue to chart Top 40 up to and including Wonderworld in 1974, according to the "Virgin Encyclopedia Of Heavy Rock" (Larkin, 1999).

The highpoint of Uriah Heep Live is a midset of rendition of "Gypsy" from Uriah Heep. Live, the band gives the song's sledgehammering riff far more power and groove than granted the studio version. One almost believes wailing singer David Byron was man enough to take on the angry Gypsy father of his girlfriend for "taking him to a little shack and laying a whip across [his] back."

While VH1's Heavy did not touch on these, by Thursday night it had moved on to the Eighties and hair metal. However, by turning to Twisted Sister's Dee Snider, the show got what it had lacked in all of its other color commentators: a man with genuine opinions. Snider was frequently, well, snide, particularly when speaking about hair band's making knee-jerk power ballads and going "unplugged." Back to back quick edits of big-for-a-minute-but-who-are-they-now acts like Extreme and Mr. Big bawling over acoustic guitars for soggy videos custom made for, one presumes, young girls thought to have their panties in a bunch, were a riot. Snider grinned, sneered and laughed.

Monday, May 22, 2006

HE WAS THE METAL MAN BEFORE YOU, II: Nothing but crap by '78

Tonight VH1 will begin airing HEAVY: The Story of Metal. One can hope it will include how the term was coined in the music press by a young rock critic, Metal Mike Saunders. They keystone pieces/citations were in a review of a Humble Pie record for Rolling Stone in 1970 and perhaps more importantly, a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come LP for CREEM magazine in early 1971.

"Heavy metal" in print and in its proper context before anyone else, Saunders had the opportunity to be taped for VH1 by HEAVY's producer, Michael Warren, but declined. The Grim Reapers, the Wingers, ecchhh, keep 'em, was his message. The genre went bad a few years into the Seventies and never recovered. Screw the Eighties, Nineties and new century.

Saunders had been a big fan of Grand Funk, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep and Blue Oyster Cult, but by the latter part of the decade, "after Bon Scott died and Kiss and Aerosmith had gone bad for sure, not that the latter two were considered metal bands anyway, I liked only the tiniest bit of the genre . . ."

He was blunt in discussion, furnishing his thoughts on Van Halen from the practice space of the southern California punk rock group he founded, the Angry Samoans.

"[W]hen our band formed in summer 1978, the 5th guy (whose folk's garage we practiced in for free) had a next door neighbor whose sister worked at Warners/Reprise, so he was always getting test presssings from her. One day he brings over the white label test pressing LP -- no pictures or graphics, just the track list -- of the 1st VAN HALEN.

"He was smirking like he knew he was gonna get a reaction from us. About 20 seconds into track 2, the lead single/hit, "You Really Got Me" . . . our [middle fingers] were in the air. FUCK. THIS. SHIT. It represented everything that was going wrong with arena rock. "

"It was the new enemy, supplanting everyone's locally-based musical enemies, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac," explained Saunders.

Harsh opinions, not shared by everyone, but the Angry Samoans came from of the boiler of the southern California/LA punk rock scene. They played short, nasty and brutish eruptions of hard rock. "Rats in the street gnaw[ed] at your bones" on "Inside My Brain" and when the girls took their clothes off, Saunders laughed -- "baby, suck my dick!" -- in "You Stupid Asshole." But the Samoans didn't supply mich much in the way of classic metal/hard rock guitar solos. And most of their tunes were done and gone in thirty seconds to two minutes.

Judas Priest, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Iron Maiden -- they were "so our musical enemy."

As for the term "heavy metal," there was no "Big Bang" moment in the early Seventies when everyone started to use it. Employment was uncommon. Interest in it, if any, was desultory except for one or two publications. It gradually crept into the lexicon, maintained Saunders, replacing other terms -- like "heavy rock" and "downer rock" -- that didn't have the same magic.

Saunders and another long-time contributor to CREEM magazine, Richard Riegel, combed through the periodical's issues from 1971-1972. They were surprised to find, Saunders said, the term had been edited out of "almost every possible use in reviews or articles of genre bands." And within the pages, Lester Bangs -- often mentioned prominently in "histories" of how the word was coined -- could not "be found to have used the phrase in print even once by the end of '72." Bangs' was one of Saunders' editors.
Saunders in Hollywood, '72: Tyranny & Afronation
Of this, Saunders' says on his MySpace blog: "CREEM editors Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs instead pushed/used the phrase 'Third Generation' (ie, third generation rock) heavily in CREEM all through 1972, not once using the term 'heavy metal' . . . not even in [Lester] Bangs' huge 2-part feature article on Black Sabbath in summer 1972! But the term was picked up and used by other reviewers in other magazines during spring 1972, [especially] re Deep Purple's MACHINE HEAD album, and slowly spread out to layman -- non critic/record collector -- usage [conversational] during the next few years."

However, in Phonograph Record Magazine "in particular," another publication Saunders contributed to, it was "all over the place" as 1972 progressed.

Saunders continued to employ it frequently (although not so by any standard of common use in the urban slum metal 'zines of 2006). In an April '73 review in Phonograph Record, Saunders wrote: "YOU MIGHT remember my brief mention of Blue Oyster Cult's new album in the heavy metal piece. That was after only one listen, however, and I really shoulda known better. You have to remember the context, though. Blue Oyster Cult's great first LP, an absolute mind-boggling unreleased live album, and then . . . Tyranny and Mutation just doesn't measure up . . . " If the band's second LP was something of letdown, Saunders emphasized the fan had to get the act's promo-only live record -- "probably the closest thing to a definitive hard rock or metal statement ever set to vinyl."

Coincidentally, the elusive BOC promotional live record eventually took on the name For the Heavy Metal Kids and the Yardbirds.

Here is my not-so-old Village Voice review of a CD reissue (probably a bootleg) of it.


(2001) At the end of the movie The Stoned Age, Eric Bloom and Don Roeser are standing outside a Southern California convenience store at midnight, lamely trying to peddle Blue Oyster Cult concert T's to two teenage fans (the boys even drive a battered VW with the mark of Saturn spray painted on the hood) who are the central characters of the flick. They fail. Offstage, the kids don't recognize their rock and roll heroes and accuse them of selling pirated merchandise. As heavy metal Rodney Dangerfields, Eric and Don were funny.

But it was only an act!

You see, for the last 10 years or so, every time I go into a record store I check the Blue Oyster Cult bin. It's a task that has required a generous helping of sunny-minded, blind optimism. For more than 10 years there has been no respect--nothing but belligerently mediocre and redundant reissues of greatest-hits packages, a two-CD collection (far too graciously termed a ''box set'') distinguished only by one of the most intelligence-insulting band histories committed to glossy paper, yet another ''classic hits'' package pointlessly rerecorded with ringers used to replace the Bouchard brothers, an unenthusiastic ''new'' recording uncannily named Heaven Forbid (on an indie), and one really worn-out scam: the ''24-karat gold'' master series that fanatics, the band's target audience, discovered could be surpassed with an evening's time, a vinyl original in average condition, hacker homebrew music-file editing software, and $1.00-a-copy CD-R blanks bought at the office supply store.

Even the original art was screwed on its way to the digital age, many BOC tray cards being defaced by the addition of a hideous white strip of no obvious value other than to accidentally create the impression that one is purchasing, well, a counterfeit knocked off by someone who didn't give a damn.

It is a shameful profile for one of the country's original breakthrough hard rock/heavy metal bands. So shameful, it suggests that those responsible for the BOC catalog are not only unimaginative and technically slack but also goldbrickers of some stature--people seemingly more benighted than even Stoned Age caricatures notorious only for consumption of illness-provoking drafts of budget sweet liquors and urinating in ice-cube trays when nobody's looking.

Very few hard rock bands from the same generation have been on the rotten end of similarly shabby archival treatment. For instance, such utter nobodies in terms of sales as Paris, Legs Diamond, and Earth Quake--and there are many more to mention--have fared better in the last year alone. Call this phenomenon Smith's Hysteretic Integration of Total Excellence (SHITE), where the probability that legacy catalog will be rendered into crap can be predicted by a curve that rises exponentially to absolute certainty as the hard rock act's net profit approaches or exceeds one million dollars U.S. It works: Earth Quake, for example, having accumulated approximately 20 dollars or less in net profit over the course of their career, would have been expected, employing SHITE, to get the red-carpet treatment. And the equation neatly explains why Judas Priest also suffer from wretchedly remastered CDs and white-stripe disease.

But the real reason for this tear is the re-arrival of For the Heavy Metal Kids and the Yardbirds, a live EP/CD of BOC performing at a pizza parlor in Rochester in '72 that, I am informed, floats in and out of limited bootleg circulation every few years. The provenance is that it's a CD of a famous Columbia promo issued to radio shortly after the appearance of the first Blue Oyster Cult album.

For the Heavy Metal Kids has fairly obviously been mastered from original plastic. Listen close and you detect the light surface noise and rumble of turntable machinery, perfect in this case because it is precisely what BOC sounded like back in someone's smelling-of-caked-joy-rag bedroom circa 1972. The tone is hot, airless as if heard in a stereo-equipped pine box, the band pressing stiflingly close upon the audience through a paralyzing smog of brutish, antique amplification.

Eric Bloom laughs maniacally and asks, ''Wazzup, man?'' as japing bullyboys chant, ''You'd kill, you'd maim.'' This is eclipsed by the best performance of ''Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll'' on record. The number stalks the room in a transfixing exhibition of vulgar power, the signature riff pitting the guitar against the kick bass and floor tom in a bare-knuckles gang fight with the singer as referee. The packaging is a gatefold decorated with the half-menacing faux--Hunter S. Thompson gibber of ''Transmaniacon MC.'' The disc even takes a stab at furthering the mythos of Gawlik.

In other words, the beating heart of For the Heavy Metal Kids brings everything BOC's history merits to the table--its early mysterious harshness, the strong whiff of an impression that those who partook of it were members in a dream-world club of intellectual men of action and heavy-handed motorcycle thugs--everything the expected age-of-information product does not or will not provide.

And it's on a weird label named Munster.

Friday, May 19, 2006

HE WAS THE METAL MAN BEFORE YOU: Left in the dust of Mike Saunders

When electricity came to Arkansas, ca. '70

My friend, Metal Mike Saunders of the punk rock band, the Angry Samoans, coined the usage of the term "heavy metal" in the rock critic's lexicon. It's a fact that riles current fans and chroniclers of heavy metal. They all would rather have that some writer from a British tabloid devoted to covering urban slum metal did it. Or that it popped into common usage sometime around the advent of Judas Priest, after being invoked in non-metal context by John Kay or a well-thought of author.

Anyone, anyone, please, but Saunders.

In 1970, he wrote for Rolling Stone: "Here [Humbe Pie] were a noisy, unmelodic, heavy metal-leaden shit-rock band, with the loud and noisy parts beyond doubt," in a review of As Safe As Yesterday Is.

A paragraph or two later, Saunders caps it with: "This album, more of the same 27th-rate heavy metal crap, is worse than the first two put together, though I know that sounds incredible."

In May 1971, for Creem magazine, Saunders used it again, in a review of Sir Lord Baltimore's Kingdom Come, an album he recommended via a swift backhand. All "true blue" fans of the heavy were to take heart, Sir Lord Baltimore's LP was a "crusher," the work of a band that "[seemed] to have down pat most all the best heavy metal tricks in the book." It was the kind of review that drives contemporary fans of heavy metal up the wall, the insulting of a band while simultaneously pushing its record.

At the time, Saunders was one of the few rock critics who wrote regularly on hard rock. And if you thought he didn't like old school "heavy metal" you were mistaken. As an 18-year old student at the University of Texas, typing out reviews for food and movie money, he free-lanced for Rolling Stone, also supplying copy to the school's newspaper.

While Saunders didn't use the term to recommend Dust's first LP to Longhorns in the boldly inflammatory headline -- "DUST SURPASS STONES: Hard Rock Album One of Year's Best" -- he did use it in a review of Blue Oyster Cult's debut.

". . . I've been listening to 'Blue Oyster Cult' for three weeks now, and I still don't understand that album at all, probably because I prefer the heavy metal guitar sound of Sabbath and Funk and Dust and the Zep and their progeny."

Of the time, Saunders wrote, "I have no idea why the phrase 'heavy metal' occured to NO ONE ELSE. I mean it's right there in the goddamn Steppenwolf song. Oh, wait -- 99% of the magazine and daily paper writers/reviewers had NO use for Black Sabbath or Grand Funk [and] were much less . . . inclined to honor the style with a genre name."

More standard was Rolling Stone's feature coverage of a band like Black Sabbath, well described by the subheading in a long October 1971 profile on the band: "Twelve Homesick Hours With the Dark Princes of Downer Rock." It was not heavy metal yet, but downer rock, a term that wouldn't stick. "It's different" and "It's freaky" wrote the magazine in bemused tone. " . . . we don't understand their popularity, no one can figure it out," an unnamed Warner Brothers executive was quoted as saying.

In any case, VH1 came looking for Saunders last year for a documentary on heavy metal which will start running on Monday as part of the channel's "Metal Month" feature series. Producer Michael Warren wanted Saunders on camera and was going to come out to the Bay Area where Saunders lived, to tape him. After weeks of discussion on an interior mailing list (full disclosure: I was a contributor to the ongoing chat and general fly-on-the-wall, along with others), Saunders let fly he wasn't going to cooperate. He didn't want to be on TV. He offered some old photos and a tape as a substitute, actually kind of suitable under the circumstances.

Saunders decision had its own merciless logic. VH1, in the past, has done quite a few documentaries and specials on heavy metal. Some are very enjoyable. But one thing they don't really deliver is anyone telling it like it is from the flip side of the coin, anyone who steps outside the entrenched wisdom on the genre.

Instead, the color commentary is furnished by journalists from trade publications which exist or existed only to flatter, or other famous and semi-famous rockstars backscratching each other.

For instance, when was the last time you actually saw someone on one of these shows say, "Man, those guys were the worst, not worth the dust the rude wind might blow in their faces"?

It's standard operating procedure for heavy metal. Occasionally, a moment of self-examination occurs within the genre. It is then quickly forgotten or given the bum's rush. Heavy metal bands and fans have trouble with criticism, perhaps because they were generally treated quite shabbily by the mainstream during the years in which the music was emergent.

For example, in "The Virgin Encyclopedia of Heavy Rock," a heavy metal index authored by Colin Larkin, we read "excitement" is "all but obscured by a clutch of bands whose longevity is synonymous with a style of music unwilling or unable to reinvent itself." In other words, heavy metal was and is "content to celebrate its own orthodoxy." But then, the book reverts to chronicling the ridiculous with a straight face. On Obituary, a stubbornly dreadful death metal band: "[Their album] revealed a more considered approach, with the occasional audible lyric . . ."

In any case, Saunders explained in e-mail: "In 1971-1972, I was as big a fan of the genre as any 18-19 year old on planet earth. (Plus the access to national media, or I should say the only person in the country besides [Lester Bangs] at that time interested in saying anything positive about the whole flock of bands that weren't named Led Zeppelin)."

"[M]ost genres go bad pretty quickly . . ."

Part of this reluctance may have been partly my fault for voicing a couple asides on the farcical practices of peddling heavy metal to niche and mass audiences. Basically, it boils down to the judgment of art through the evaluation of strict, frequently nonsensically hair-splitting styles, with the ones being judged best to be those most pursuasive in convincing others to slavishly copy them.

"... as George Smith points out repeatedly," Saunders continued, "the media's canonization of big-bucks 80's metal (or as VH1 put it, When Metal Ruled The Earth) rewrote the critical rulebook into a duplicate of the movie biz. If it was big, then it must be good. Or at least, the bigness superseded the good/bad gradebook. I mean, my gosh, even rockabilly doofs can concede, 'yep the Stray Cats suck(ed) the big one compared to Gene Vincent, except for maybe the better parts of Setzer's guitar work.'"

"But comparing Judas Priest's merits to, forget Deep Purple, let's say Uriah Heep -- not allowed.

The playing field was one one were the rules were made by dunces, said Saunders. And he was opting out.

Warren tried hard to make it work, though, and was never less than gracious. "The fact that Metal Mike Saunders coined the term in print will be in the show no matter what," he wrote in e-mail. "Those are the facts and it's my job to make sure that the story is told."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

JOB OPENINGS AT THE CIA: Bed-wetters and office clowns not sought

Today's piece came about as part of a reaction to the reputation held by features/entertainment writers at the daily newspaper. Bluntly, they were looked down on. Music writers were regarded as loafers -- lazy, stupid and incapable of doing real news reporting. Although no one used the words "lightweight" or "lazy" or "tyro" face-to-face, the attitude was abundantly clear in the patronizing way the reporters and free-lancers were dealt with by editors from the upper rungs of the publication.

And today it is still a common attitude. Rock critics don't have a good rep as newsmen nationwide. Some of that disregard is earned. But much of it is also pure snobbery.

In any case, the next story took over a year to develop and carry out. I continued to write for the features section but didn't tell anyone about it until the work was finished.

It remains a great read, one I'm still very proud of, and relevant to our current national security problems over a decade after publication. "Name five CIA experts on anything. I can't do it," said a former CIA analyst to the New York Times last Sunday ("Langley, We Have a Problem," Tim Weiner).

I write on substantive national security issues for the think-tank GlobalSecurity.Org and get quoted on them. While I'm not secret and classified, I do what CIA-men are supposed to do well but don't. The Times claim looks accurate from where I sit.

(1992, Allentown) So you want to be a spy? And you're sure the place to go is the CIA!

The CIA is interested in hearing from you. It interviews thousands of Americans for jobs as spies, intelligence analysts and technical specialists every year. But because of its classified mission, hiring methods are unusual and Kafka-esque, taking at least a year to complete and bound in smothering bureaucratic process, comic ineptitude and secrecy.

Although the number of people employed by the CIA is classified, it regularly recruits on college campuses and through the job listings in major metropolitan newspapers. A recent series of advertisements aimed at minorities in magazines like Ebony drew spectacular media attention, but the typical CIA ad is bland and unassuming, easily blending in with countless other corporate calls for highly-trained, college- educated Americans.

A year ago, one such ad ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Candidates were encouraged to send resumes for consideration to a post office box drop in Pittsburgh, one of the agency's regional personnel clearinghouses. Candidates would be required to undergo a rigorous physical examination and polygraph test, the ad warned ominously.

I forwarded my resume to the CIA mail drop, listing my qualifications as a scientist and journalist with the reasoning that these talents would be useful in analysis.

Apparently, the CIA's personnel staff agreed. They got back to me in about a month and in so doing, began a unique series of communications.

Candidates, you see, are not contacted directly by the CIA. Instead they are delivered mail that requests them to contact an agency worker by telephone within a certain time frame. The contacts are often anonymous. For example, prospects whose last names began with "S" were asked to phone "Bobbi - Program Officer" at the CIA's Stafford Building in Tyson's Corner Center, VA.

The initial interview with the CIA usually involves a type of cattle call. About a year ago, 30 of us met in a room at The Valley Forge Convention Center. There we underwent preliminary screening from a CIA team led by Pittsburgh-based representative. The team included workers from the agency's directorates of intelligence, operations and science and technology, including one agency employee who looked over my resume, saw that I worked at a newspaper and added that he had come to the agency as a newsman, too.

It was the job of this spy and his colleagues to weed out potential crazies and issue to the remainder the agency's personnel Holy Grail, the 30-page Personal History Statement (PHS).

The PHS is an inventory that scrutinizes all aspects of the job candidate's professional and private life. It becomes the basic curriculum vitae used during hiring and the template for the CIA's security team during its investigation of potential agents.

"Don't leave anything blank," warned one of the spies balefully at the convention center. "I didn't think anyone would really sit down and go over the whole thing when I started, but believe me, they do."

The PHS requires the spy-in-waiting to designate references in a number of categories, including family members, professional acquaintances and personal (not family) acquaintances who have lived in close proximity to the candidate for a year or two.

"This is so the agency can call up your neighbors and ask them if there's loud music and blue smoke coming out of your front door on the weekends," one of the CIA handlers cracked.

Porter Goss probably wasn't a sexual deviant
The candidate is asked to document any record of criminal activity including theft, traffic violations, sexual deviance and perversion, unlawful drug use or undue publicity surrounding a divorce or civil suit. There is a battery of medical inquiries probing the candidate's injuries and hospital visits, mental stability, prescription and non-prescription drug use, gastro- intestinal health and nocturnal micturition frequency. (The last seemed aimed at uncovering whether the candidate had an enlarged prostate or was a chronic bedwetter.)

The candidate is warned that the veracity of his statement is liable to be tested by polygraph.

Accompanying submission of this dossier to the CIA are any collegiate transcripts and a long writing sample dealing with any topic of interest to intelligence workers. For example, writing about home grown pilot plants designed for the production of biological warfare agents in Third World countries is appropriate if you're applying for a job as an analyst.

All candidates were warned not to inform anyone except close family members of their CIA screening. The CIA encouraged the use of a cover like "the government" or "Department of Defense" when notifying those who needed to be designated as references.

A few months after submission of the personal statement and transcripts, the candidate is likely to get a phone call from CIA security who identifies himself only as a member of "the Agency."

His job is to verify and embellish some of the information included in the PHS, specifically those sections dealing with criminal activity and homosexuality.

In my case, the agent was particularly interested in a reference to recreational marijuana use in college.

"How many cigarettes would you say you smoked?" he asked. He was also interested in whether or not I had sex with men.

Satisfied, the agent continued by inquiring about drinking.

"The Agency's position in these matters is one of abstention enforced by testing," he said. [Sure, bro'. ] That concluded the interrogation.

"You have a nice day," said the spy before hanging up.

Most of this preliminary screening is in response to much publicized problems the CIA has had in the past with the penetration by the criminal or mentally ill. James Jesus Angleton, the feared head of the CIA's counterintelligence wing and one of the most powerful men in the agency during the height of The Cold War, left his office in disgrace, having acquired a reputation, documented by journalists Thomas Mangold and Seymour Hersh, as a paranoid alcoholic and pathological liar.

If the prospective employee's personal statement and transcripts survive the initial evaluation, he or she is given a series of aptitude and psychological tests.

Those in eastern Pennsylvania were again contacted and issued a ticket/summons for the tests, which were administered one summer Saturday morning in the physics building at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The testing at Penn, an all-day affair, included a series of vocabulary, simple math, reading comprehension and abstract thought multiple-choice quizzes, similar to a college aptitude test.

Also included was the California Psychological Inventory, devised by Dr. Harrison Gough, psychologist. Our copy, which had a copyright date of 1956, asked for true/false responses to a number of statements, including:

"I have wound up in trouble because of my involvement in unseemly sexual activities."

"In high school I was often sent to the principal's office for 'cutting up.'"

"I sweat in even the coolest weather."

"I believe it is every citizen's duty, as part of the community, to keep his sidewalk and lawn neat and clean."

"I must admit, I think people are fools who don't think the American way is the best there is."

"I often think people are watching me."

"I like tall women."

"I must admit, I don't mind being the 'cut-up' at the office party."

One can only wonder what the two women who took the psychological inventory that Saturday answered to the question about liking tall women.

It seemed curious that the agency was using a test from 1956 -- when presumably very few women applied for jobs in intelligence and when being a "cut-up" in high school was one of the worst things you could be accused of - to screen young professionals in 1991.

Two other tests included a work environment survey and a current world events test, both tailored for the CIA.

For example, the work environment survey asked whether the candidates would accept a job in a foreign culture or where conditions of extreme physical hazard (presumably a war zone), unpalatable food, no sanitation or debilitating disease prevail. It also focused on whether candidates would be willing to work anonymously and without recognition for long periods of time for people they find personally repugnant.

The hardest test was the current world events quiz. It presumed a comprehensive knowledge of world politics and personalities that might only be gained from religious study of The Washington Post or a background in international relations. Actually, I thought I did rather well on it.

After the testing, a couple more months passed.

Candidates were then informed by mail whether they had been bound over for interview at CIA headquarters in McLean, VA.

During this 9-month long period, no one from the agency had spoken to me for more than five minutes.

Finally, another letter arrived. It included an appointment date with "Agency Officials" interested in discussing possible employment.

The interview was set for the week after Thanksgiving in the Directorate of Intelligence's Office of East Asian Analysis. "Ellie" was my contact. A room was reserved for the night before at The Days Inn in Vienna, VA.

It was a 15-minute drive to the CIA the next morning. The unmarked compound is not far from Langley High School. You can tell you are there by the barricades of concrete and obstacle-wire surrounding the wooded campus.

The entrance block-house guard was supposed to check my photo driver's license, but he handed it back and waved me through without taking a look.

The Directorate of Intelligence is a modern looking edifice of cement and green glass. At the entrance were a score of smokers bearing the same furtive, hounded look seen at other corporations where smoking within the building has been banned.

Just inside was a marble hallway containing a likeness of William Casey.

Getting to the Office of East Asian Analysis entails a check-in at reception, where I presented my papers. After a few minutes, "Ellie," a middle-aged woman showed up to escort me.

I was issued a green piece of paper and a pass card used to get through an electronic Pinkerton security turnstile. A security man gave my briefcase the once-over. Overhead was a sign stating that passage beyond the portal conferred agreement to a search of your person, your belongings and your car at any time.

The agency has been sensitive to accusations that it's possible to walk out of the building with highly classified materials ever since 1978, when William Kampiles walked off CIA grounds with technical manuals for the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office's KH-11 spy satellite. Kampiles, a junior clerk, was sentenced to 40 years in jail for selling the manual to the Soviets. During the same period, 16 other KH-11 manuals disappeared and were never traced.

While I was coming in, many were coming out. No bags were checked. Later, when I left, no one asked about my briefcase.

Upstairs in the Office of East Asian Analysis, National Geographic-like photos of China adorned the walls. Documents marked "SECRET" littered the desks.

Maddie, a personnel administrator, was holding court.

In her office, I asked her if the recession had affected hiring. It had, she said. "I don't like the word 'down-sizing'," she said with a glassy smile. "We call it 'right-sizing.'"

Maddie said she couldn't say whether the agency's "right- sizing" involves cuts in 60 percent of prospective hires, as had been recently reported in national newspapers. But then she changed her mind and commented, "That's a little high."

This has created problems for the agency, she said. Since attrition isn't removing veterans at the expected rate, it's been difficult to bring in new people she added. Complicating matters is the polygraph and security check. "Eighty to 90 percent of the people to which the agency makes an offer fail it."

As for where I fit into things, interest was from the China Division: Industry & Technology branch of the office.

"The section head's not here today," said Maddie. "But Stan will speak with you."

Stan turned out to be an airy, blond-haired analyst with a master's degree in international relations from American University. (Today, Stan works at a company that specializes in business intelligence. When its partners aren't out on the golf links they will -- essentially -- spy on your corporate competitors and provide research assessments or teach your firm how to do corporate counterintelligence.)

"What did you say your name was?" he asked as we walked down the hall to his boss's empty office.

Stan didn't have my resume, my PHS or any information on my scientific background, the reason I was being interviewed, so he didn't ask any questions, preferring instead to talk about himself.

How many scientists are currently working in the office, I finally asked.

"None," said Stan. "That's why we're trying to look at some."

The agency, Stan said, made up for this lack by sending analysts to seminars on topics the various departments may have to deal with, such as ballistic missile technology. Stan said he was glad he had finally learned what an accelerometer was and how integral design is to ballistic missile development.

I asked Stan about the polygraph screening and nature of the psychological testing.
He laughed nervously but said, "Everybody has to go through it and it's not any fun. But security believes very strongly in it and the agency works hard to get candidates through the lie-detector. We allow them to take it three times."

At the end of the interview, Maddie asked me to take some "stuff" over to the Stafford Building for her when I went there to collect travel expenses. A moment later she thought better of it, but supplied me with directions anyway.

Outside the Stafford Building later in the day were more harried smokers. Inside I asked for gas money ($20) and mileage. A CIA worker insisted that this be compared against the price of the lowest airline ticket from Philadelphia. I argued that this was ridiculous, to no avail.

As predicted, a telephone call to a CIA airline-ticket specialist came up with a figure far in excess of the gas money. The agent then gave me a little more than $200 of the taxpayer's money, a generous per diem, and mileage allowance. The hotel room had been paid in advance.

A call to Maddie's office a few days later elicited the information that there were no job openings and no hiring plans.

When I asked why, in that case, the testing and interviewing, no one had an answer except to say "the agency has to plan for every contingency."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

SOUPY SALES got kids to look up to him

In 1991, one of my local newspaper's assigning editors had an obsession with stand-up comics. He loved getting them into the newspaper at every opportunity. Since Allentown is one of the Paphlagonia's of our great nation, this often meant going to the usual dives to watch people under dire circumstances. One terrible experience occurred when a local promoter booked a comedy night into a gay bar known as Jeff's City Line Pub without making it clear to the talent the nature of the place. What ensued could not be accurately reported in the newspaper when the first comedian onstage reeled off twenty minutes of four-letter-word anti-homosexual humor. At first the audience was in shock. Then it started retaliating with jeers. The comic, who was thick, didn't realize for most of his act that his audience was predominantly gay. He assumed they were just heckling him for sport. Subsequently, the place exploded and the night was ruined. Every comic that came after him -- there were another three -- did terribly, since their nerves had been shredded by the opener, too.

Another journeyman's night out was furnished by Howie Mandel, the semi-celebrity host of the horrible TV show, "Deal or No Deal." In Bethlehem, at the local university's athletic arena, Mandel was a dreadful. He had no routine and his shtick simply involved spitting out whatever came into his head. Since his wife had apparently recently been in the hospital with a pregnancy, he regaled the audience about a nurse asking her if she wanted an enema. It was not quite a laff riot. Much of the rest of the show had him witlessly asking people in the front row what their names were and then insulting them.

There were two things at the newspaper that could be dependably counted upon to result in threadbare entertainment and antagonizing interviews. Stand-up comics were one. Local blues bands were another. There were way too many of both.

But one comic from the old school was perfect. Soupy Sales. He was generous of spirit, funny and endured with grace stupid claims and questions about the myths which adorned his reputation.

(September 1991, abridged) Soupy Sales, the unforgettable character of comedy, the man who was drummed off the air by the FCC when an anonymous harridan complained to the agency after a New Year's Eve broadcast in which Sales asked the children to sneak into their parents' bedrooms, collect all the green paper with people's faces on it and send it to him.

Put your roller skates on the stairs, kids
"That was broadcast at 7 in the evening. How many parents do you know that are already asleep then? It was just the case of a humorless station-owner getting worried," said Sales.

"Hey, if I'd gotten any money from that, I wouldn't be talking to you. I'd own the paper!"

And what about the time, Soupy, that my editor said he saw you do the routine where you wrote the letter "F" on the chalkboard [for White Fang who saw only "K" and you said "When I see 'F' you see...]

"You tell him he never saw that," Soupy interrupts. "You know, I never said that when I went to the ballgame I kiss my wife on the strikes and she kisses me on the [balls]."

"We weren't allowed to do that. You can't be that dumb and be in this business."

What about Gilbert Gottfried's "Pee Wee and masturbation rap" at the Emmy's?

"That was in bad taste. There is a difference between being in the club where people are smoking and drinking and a primetime television audience. But, you know the way the Emmy's are, everybody forgets in two weeks."

"But with PeeWee, everybody thinks you can get away with anything in the 90's. The fact is, people do not like their children following perverts. It was stupid.

"I grew up in the south and it is not so liberal there. People say, 'Didn't the cops have anything better to do?' Well, that's the way it is.

"By the way, you know why you don't see Pee Wee around much anymore?"

Duh, I dunno. Why?

"He's got his hands full."

"How can parents get their kids to look up to them?" Sales finally asked.

Gee, Soupy, I don't know.

"Stand in front of the television set."

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

RHINO BUCKET no pale imitation

One of my favorite things about hard rock records is how the performance of an unflash band can creep up on you. And that's the case with Rhino Bucket's & Then It Got Ugly on Acetate. Over fifteen years ago, Rhino Bucket were a major label acquisition sold off the back of AC/DC imitation. Their records came into the Morning Call newspaper. They played one of the more notorious dives in the area, DJ Bananas, in the slum of Whitehall just north of the interstate, as opposed to the usual place for rock and roll of this type, the slum on the southside of Bethlehem. I gave them the Nightclubbing treatment for their trouble. The word "cheapjack" was flung out (if I can find the notice in my pile, I'll republish it) and now I regret using it.

The show wasn't a good one but the review was gratuitously callous. And as the record contract ticked toward expiry for Rhino Bucket, they picked up Simon Wright who drummed for Fly On the Wall. Last year, you could see him in all his momentary AC/DC glory on the extended video "opera" for the LP that came with the AC/DC DVD video collection, Family Jewels. If the music was good enough for Wright, I had to have been missing something.

& Then It Got Ugly is a good AC/DC LP. The delivery is Bon Scott without the sense of humor or fixation on shaggy dog sex stories and while you might be inclined to think that's a liability, in this application it's not. The lyrics are dour, cynical and personal, but slapped on top of the craftsmanship of the tooling in the rock and roll engine driving them, their acid is gripping. Toward the middle of the record, Rhino Bucket's singer tells someone they should be slapped for asking what book he reads. You won't hear that on any AC/DC platter.

The guitars are heavy and twangy, the rhythm section fireballing but precise in its rock and roll timekeeping. "Blood, Sweat & Beers" is entitled with an obvious Rhino Bucket philosophy but pain is their more constant companion. The album closer, "I Was Told" -- among others -- makes it abundantly clear.


And now for the daily RERUN: Motorhead's same old song and dance

(August 1991, abridged) It was Halloween two years back when Motorhead claimed the stage in front of Slayer at the Stabler Arena. A local fan of the band, colloquially known as The Face, was beside herself with excitement -- bolting to the lip of the stage to bury her head in one of the loudspeaker bins. It was behavior typical of Motorhead fans.

Nothing has changed since then. Although Stabler honchos banished Motorhead, Slayer and their ilk for attracting fans who tend to beat on the venue as much as they beat on each other, the band still makes no concessions to style.

The English quartet -- Lemmy, Wurzel, Phil Campbell and Philthy Animal Taylor -- still make records that don't get played on U.S. radio, records of brain-scuffing volume treasured by the young and/or critics who think they know what rock and roll is all about.

1916, Motorhead's latest, is neither better nor worse than those before. Full-throttle freight-train rockers about cultivating body lice, seeing the Ramones, drinking BonJovi's booze and kick-stomping your oppressors are laced through with guitar leads that make the cultivated blink in pain.

It's pretty good, as far as this type of stuff goes, but not the true Motorhead experience. To savor that, you have to see them perform.

Motorhead onstage rewards the brave with trampling, untrammeled metal like the insidiously catchy anthem "Ace of Spades, interrupted occasionally with the crappy/abrasive machine drone of "Orgasmatron," the band's one stab at art.

1916 was relatively hot in Deutschland, commented Wurzel during a brief chat. "... Germany was special; there were more people out to see us than ever before." He added that the album had sold 120,000 copies there, a figure close to what the band attains in America for a "good" release.

Although the band hasn't quite proven it's for mainstream America, talking with Wurzel gives the impression that Motorhead is a group not of stars, but of geezers one could share a few too many drinks with. And that's the way they want it.

Headlining is Judas Priest, the quintessential favorite of Lehigh Valley would-be metal stars. Unfortunately, the beginning of the decade has the Priest doing poorly. After a draining lawsuit concerning the influence its songs have on disturbed minors, Judas Priest released the indifferently received Painkiller album.

Painkiller, rated as "[heavy metal] music to blow your jaw off to" [months earlier in the newspaper] suggests the band is approaching retirement.

Also on the bill is Alice Cooper. The elderly-looking Cooper, who used to get in trouble in the 70's for onstage antics like carving up dye-filled baby dolls with a saber, has scored a hit with "Hey Stupid." Perhaps he knows something fans don't.

Monday, May 15, 2006

DIVECLUBBING: GWAR, Murphy's Law, Bonham and others who tested the limits of the pure milk of human kindness

In the late Eighties and early Nineties most of the hard rock shows in the Lehigh Valley took place in slums. You had two choices: old tenement-type buildings turned into nightclubs on the southside of Bethlehem or a newer abandoned supermarket in the middle of an asphalt wasteland near the airport.

Here is one Nighclubbing from Wally's, a crumbling wood pillbox owned by a Lehigh University prof. It had holes in its roof and exposed wiring. After writing about the flooding of its interior during a Blissters gig, the mayor of Bethlehem sent in building inspectors and it was condemned. "Thanks, George!" said the prof on the telephone.

Gwar could be counted on to draw 100-200 grimly dedicated fans to these places. Their shows were reliably boring, the sound horrible. When you had to cover them you learned to stay out of the way of the stage ichor so your clothes weren't stained.

(September 1989) Gwar wrestles with garish material at Wally's

Mexican horror wrestling took the stage in the guise of gladiator-rockers GWAR at Wally's in Bethlehem last Saturday. Before a crowd of 110 converts, bodies flew through the air, monster aliens lurked, papier-mache heads rolled, gooey fluids spurted wildly and a scantily clad dancing girl wearing a spiked bra danced lasciviously -- just about what you'd see on the odd Saturday afternoon watching a Mexican horror film on the Spanish cable station.

The members of GWAR have elevated this dubious pleasure to a plane of even greater silliness. It's a grand spectacle but pales in about 20 minutes. The realization dawns about then that the musicians are only tyros barely capable of providing the necessary atmosphere for their wacky skits.

Robosphere, a local white-bread hardcore band, supplied nearly fifty minutes of generic Izod-shirted anger in the opening slot.

Poverty-stricken hardcore bands from New Jersey and NYC also tended to draw decent crowds at the Airport Music Hall, a venue suited for these shows because it was virtually impossible to trash. The Murphy's Laws and Agnostic Fronts of the genre were the picks of a considerable litter.

(April 1, 1990) "Sit home and rot! ROT! Sit home and rot! ROT!" bellowed Jimmy Gestapo of Manhattan hardcore band Murphy's Law last weekend at the Music Hall.

If you were over 18, you'd have done well to heed Gestapo's advice, because the show was one strictly for the young.

About 600 boys in Army boots, flannel shirts and baseball hats (with upturned brims) crowded the stage and butted heads as several local and out-of-town punk rock bands went through their paces.

Murphy's Law caused near Beatle-esque hysteria when it took the stage around 11. But although the kids were ecstatic, the monotonous ramalama, punctuated by occasional flatulent bursts of reggae, was distinctly mediocre. Only the personality of the gooned-out Gestapo kept the band afloat as he guzzled beer from a funnel and landed flat on his back during a kidney-smashing hand flip.

Mucky Pup, a metro-New Jersey quartet, was entertaining for only as long as it took to size up its ursine lead singer as just another beer-swilling clod in a Blair Academy Wrestling sweatshirt willing to shake his stomach flubber at the audience.

And from the same week -- sheez (!) -- as the Gwar show, Bonham sticks it to Music Hall audience:

"I bought a headache" Paul Westerberg of the Replacements sang a number of years ago, referring to a show he'd attended at an arena. Listening to Bonham at the Airport Music Hall was a similar experience.

The crowd of nearly 800 young girls and their predominantly booze-soaked boyfriends lobbied continuously for drum solos from the quartet led by Jason Bonham, the son of the late [blah-blah, you know the drill]. Bonham only delivered boggy songs reminiscent of those late-70's high priests of AOR, Survivor.

The Front preceded Bonham and was the night's one shining moment. Despite equipment failure, leader Michael Franano rallied his troops and led them through a brief set of Cult-inspired bombast. However, the little girls at the front of the stage remained unmoved, even when The Front broke into the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant."

At the bottom of the bill was the East Brunswick, NJ, lite-metal band TNA. (Ha-ha -- what a sense of humor.) The foursome's set was hookless and annoyingly contrived. "I see some pretty girls from East Brunswick who've come all the way to the Music Hall to see us!" cried TNA's vocalist near the end of their set. "Whadda you think of them, Allentown?"

"They're idiots!" someone shot back from the balcony.

The audience laughed.

DANGER DANGER lewded out

(March 1990) An infantile lyric from the Danger Danger song "Naughty Naughty" captured the essence of the Long Island pop metal act's performance last weekend at the Music Hall.

"In your tight dress you look real cute/But I bet you'd look better in your birthday suit!"

In between the quintet's paeans to the pleasures of being "bad, naughty boys," singer Ted Poley and bassist Bruno Ravel leered at and pandered to the teenage women in the audience of over 500.

"All you girls look s-o-o--o nice," cheeped Poley. Apparently to show his sincerity, Poley made a lewd suggestion that cannot be repeated in the newspaper. Some of the audience tittered in appreciation. But many who had been enjoying Danger Danger's frothy Nightranger-meets-Journey pop rock seemed taken aback by the band members' relentless barrage of locker-room humor.

As Danger Danger ground on, the band's saccharine seediness became enervating, the "bad, naughty boy" shtick tedious. The band slaughtered cover versions of The Move's by way of Cheap Trick's "California Man" and Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo." It was as horrible as being chained in a chair and forced to watch MTV for three days straight. Many in Allentown would -- if the turnout at this show was any indication -- relish such treatment.

Opener Heaven's Edge saved the night from a total washout. The Philadelphia quartet put just enough over-the-top muscle into their brand of pop metal to render the performance inspired. As the stage shook to the Bo Diddley thump of Heaven's Edge's "Is That All You Want," it seemed certain that when the band's debut is released by Columbia in April, it will hit the upper reaches of the charts.

In the real world, the Heaven's Edge LP was almost instantly deleted, which demonstrated my powers of divination in 1990.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

WOLFMOTHER: Their natural Seventies gifts are poor

While I think they'll be chaff this time next year, it's timely to cope with Wolfmother. The Australian trio's US label is running a significant tab on the band, one it is presumed the powers-that-be hope will rapidly pay off. At this juncture, the expenses are in non-recoupables, like press linked to major city appearances and promotional placement, which has been significant.

A Lex-Nex search of the last six months returned over 400 citations for "Wolfmother" in the western news, over half of which have appeared in the States. Peaks of interest radiate out from a feature in the Los Angeles Times coupled with its LA showcases, a quick hype tour of the US prior to album release, an appearance at Coachella and other high profile dates like SXSW.

While the quantity of it is worth noting, a more interesting facet of it can generally be applied to how hard rock music is vended and promoted in the United States at a time when media channels have multiplied towards infinity.

A multiplicity of information sources does not result in multiples of opinions and adequate description. In fact, the opposite occurs. With Wolfmother, it's seen in many narrow reviews and notices which say the same thing: The band sounds like Led Zeppelin, secondarily Black Sabbath, and Seventies hard rock. Practically speaking, they could be replaced with a central server which employs a software machine to concentrate the collection into one 120-word amalgam.

The flavor of this is conveyed by some quotes: "Its songs could be covers of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath B-sides (Denver Post)," "... you'll recognize Stockdale's sex crazed yowl (born of early Robert Plant), his doomy declarations derived from a young Ozzy Osbourne ( New York Daily News)," "Blending '70s psychedelia, Led Zeppelin-like riffs and mythic imagery, and even throwing a toss to Black Sabbath ... (Billboard feed to Reuters)," " ... the Zep-meets-Sabbath-meets-the-White-Stripes fun of the self-titled debut from Australia's Wolfmother ... (OC Register), " "The rhythm-section thunder and Andrew Stockdale's guitar-hero playing and Ozzy-cum-Plant wail touched on Cream, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath (Los Angeles Times)."
A couple of blurbs are totally ridiculous. Someone might think even the band would be embarrassed by the nature of them.

One, from The Austin-American Statesman, claims "These Australians play blistering, Afro-rockin' hard rock in the AC/DC tradition" and another, from Associated Press, compares them to the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. The two couldn't be farther apart. First, Wolfmother don't sound like AC/DC and, second, guitarist Andrew Stockdale is very far from being a virtuoso. That excludes all comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Angus Young.

As for being like Seventies hard rock and Led Zeppelin, in a fuzzy vaseline-coated image from a backward-looking lens sense, Wolfmother do sound retro.

But all the early Seventies hard rock acts, obscure and famous, and I have 'em, were more bluesy and built upon R&B combo forms that made them funky. Spreading out from the Brit white boy blooz boom, most flashed heavy doses of guitar and drums boogie, the kind of rhythm which is virtually absent from Wolfmother's debut. Deep Purple boogied and played a lot of blues jams. Jimmy Page employed many basic boogie figures and composed off the blues so much he was awarded the reputation of a clever thief. Stockdale's guitar line are not even close to being in the same ballpark as Pagey's. In fact, he does not adorn Wolfmother's songs with the kinds of hard rock fills and solos which were present on almost every single record made by such genre bands in the Seventies.

Wolfmother sounds retro in the way "stoner" bands sound retro. Stoner bands are retro in that they play thick and fuzzy single note riffs which they insist are inspired by Black Sabbath but which only rarely bring the funk that Bill Ward and Geezer Butler were able to furnish in a song like "Fairies Wear Boots."

Where Wolfmother surpasses the average stoner band is its possession of a singer. Andrew Stockdale can hold a tune. No one in stonerland sings, they shout and growl like angry he-men getting ready to lift heavy weights.

In common with stoner bands, there is little groove on Wolfmother's debut. Led Zeppelin packed funk and groove. "Love Train" and "Joker & The Thief" are the only two tunes that work in the way early Seventies hard rock made for the radio was supposed to work. The former is catchy and funky and deserves airplay, the latter has a comfortable groove to it. While the rest of the album is not leaden, none of the numbers have much stickiness. A B3 organist adds color and swirl to the dynamic of tracks but it's not quite enough to make them memorable.

This is not Wolfmother's LP
Which leaves Wolfmother's cover art by Frank Frazetta. Yes, it's cool, like Nazareth's "Expect No Mercy." "Expect No Mercy" was one of the Nazareth albums fans did well to avoid. Nazareth, like Wolfmother, didn't show a great aptitude for writing catchy songs. They knew that and often effectively used the talent of others to help cross the great crevasse of song-writing. "Love Hurts" is the most obvious example, but "Teenage Nervous Breakdown" (Lowell George), "Beggar's Day" (Nils Lofgren), "Alcatraz" (Leon Russell) and "This Flight Tonight" (Joni Mitchell) are other good ones.

This ain't the Wolfmother LP, either
Molly Hatchet was very big in Frank Frazetta and Frazetta-style album art, too. They were a southern boogie act and sold quite a few records on the back of brute-force touring in arenas and the delivery of a relentless three-guitar stage attack. They were never very well-liked by music journalists.

Nope, still not Wolfmother's LP
Dust, a late Sixties/early Seventies hard rock act, also employed Frazetta. Dust was big in St. Louis.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

SO YOU HAVE BAD TASTE: Leanne Kingwell and Huck Johns are here to cheer you up

I've noticed classic rockers suffer from inferiority complexes, sometimes manifesting in cringing self-marketing. From CD Baby to MySpace homepages to major label debuts, they deliver the complaint that no one does good ol' rock and roll anymore. They anticipate reproof for suggesting others, like them, would still find it enjoyable to listen to.

Not so, not so, because from where I stand it looks different. Musos of all ages do still make good classic rock records. And if these are not written about in favor of the latest ham-and-egger indie-altie acts ferried through arts features sections and music magazines on the Amazonian river of promo, it's not the classic rock 'n' rollers' fault or proof of no audience.

Reality is more complicated than the print media. You can be shunted to the side or completely off the plate over matters as petty as taste. And if you like classic rock, or (some) country (demand a relatively good singer and a delivery that isn't archly self-aware, for instance) and any genres which derive from that root, you will often be assumed to have bad taste, accompanied by the double fault of lack of modernity. Since I've written about music for a couple decades, I've experienced it from the inside.

So if you're a rocker reading this, yeah, I'm telling you you're right when you get the feeling you've been snubbed.

It's not a new phenomenon, though, if it's any consolation. It has a bit to do with social class, too. For example, at newspapers the editors and reporters frequently identify with those who share the cut of their jib, the upper middle class and those aspiring to it. So those knocking it out in the roadhouses are out of luck. Ditto for those drawing good crowds at the county fair or ag festival.

The music writers didn't like covering them at the newspaper in the late Eighties and they like it much less now. There's no going back.

In any case, the lack of magazines like Mojo or Classic Rock in this country (why in the UK?!) can leave the classic rocker feeling neglected and blue. It does me. In this country, that niche is half-heartedly occupied by the guitar magazines which have a more restricted delivery in how the genre is covered. These must cling to questions and answers about the guitar, technical and compositional issues, and inane and deadening variations of the same. While I read them regularly, they leave the general interest reader out.

But back to the classic rockers. Two have relatively new records which probably won't receive much attention this year but which are entirely worthy of your time and ear damage.

First, consider Huck Johns' imaginatively entitled "Huck." Hick, damn Freudian slip, HUCK -- is a soCal/Michigan hybrid and while he professes to be proudly from Detroit, you'll hear some Buckcherry on the record which stems from current accomplices and his current address in LA County. Posed in a strap T ala colleague Kid Rock, brandishing an acoustic guitar and jumping high in front of a corrugated zinc urban-wasteland brand shed on the cover, there's no way to guess that the first single off the platter, "Oh Yeah," carries the rhythm party-stomp of quality AC/DC. Since AC/DC hasn't even done quality AC/DC in the last few years, it's welcome.

Huck also turns out to be a good electric balladeer. "One Good Man" and "Damn Fine Woman," the latter written with Hendrixy weeping guitar, are for those quietly hopeful blue collar couples facing trouble keeping up payments on the pickup trucks. They're corny but most of the music I like a lot is corny. "Kill Everything's" manically desperate vocal is in Robin Zander-style and Bob Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" -- juiced by a brawling shout -- is ripe for enjoyment on the previously mentioned county fair and ag festival circuit, where Huck, if he gets there (and he should), can act naturally.

Look for Huck displaying his favorite Fleetwood Mac album for the CD art.

Drop your pants, slug
Also made for the hinterlands is Aussie dame Leanne Kingwell who looks like the fresh daughter of the pugs in Rose Tattoo. "Show Ya What" has many choices for singles. Leanne goes to hell where she wrote a book in "Look At My Life" and pistol whips her cheating ex in "Holding Your Gun." She loses a beau to swinging Tommy James and the Shondells chords in "So Long" and bawls emotion as a relationship crashes in "Blind," the latter with bonus tear-jerking organ by Chris Copping of Procol Harum who did it all for a bottle of red wine.

But Kingwell's not done with the undoing of things.

Boogiebilly ranting spills out of "You Stink" boys are mocked at the expense of electric dildos in "My Hero." More bashing about the head is administered for "Drop Your Pants" which ends in fuzz and a grunting sneer. The guitar is filthy and the voice stays sweet as Kingwell's tongue spurts acid imprecations in time to the beat.

Globally, the album is wrought in classic rock 'n' roll combo moves, its guitar tones exceptional within the genre, complimenting and emphasizing whatever Kingwell chooses to deliver. Although it sounds effortless, it's a difficult arrangement to pull off and, in this case, makes "Show Ya What" my favorite hard pop rock LP this year so far.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Red-blooded shotgun action on the firing line
This blog has covered what the Hegins Pigeon Shoot was like from the entertainment side of the event. But it was also possible to interview someone who had been a local pigeon-shooter for years. I've said that gambling was a part of pigeon-shooting. There were other rationalizations, too, most of them pretty lame. Although the community outwardly relished confrontations with outsiders over the shoot, the public attention was beginning to erode their boilerplate.

The following originally appeared in September 1990, after the report from the shoot, and was composed from an interview conducted prior to it.

(September 1990) Dave X is in his mid-30's. He participates regularly in pigeon-shooting matches and has done so since the graduated from high school.

Dave's friends join him in matches. Another acquaintance, a teacher in the school where Dave works, shoots. Dave's summer boss in the construction company he moonlights for, shoots, too.

"Every town in the county, just about, has pigeon-shooting matches," he said in recent interview.

"That's why the fuss is so frightening."

Dave is referring to the storm of outrage surrounding the annual Labor Day Fred Coleman Memorial Pigeon Shoot in Hegins, an event which looked very ugly in the aftermath of spectacles like the brandishing of decapitated pigeons, dieing birds falling from the trees onto the backs of spectators, fisticuffs, arrests and general fear and loathing among patrons and protesters last Monday.

And he's asked to remain anonymous because pigeon-shooting is "like family, a close-knit group. They'd hang me around here if anyone found out who told you this."

"I liked it, I'm 100 percent for it," he continued. "But I don't have any answers why."

"I enjoy the matches for the camraderie, the good fellowship. When all is said and done at the shoots, everyone has a beer."

What does Dave think is one of the facets of the shoot that riles animal cruelty activists most?

"The shoots are ... Well, you have bird-catchers -- kids who retrieve the birds that are winged and they tear the heads off them. It's ... " his voice trailed off.

If public pressure continues, Dave said that pigeon-shooting would probably be outlawed. "But if that happens, I think there still will be shoots in the county. Know what I mean?"

"My friends and I are going to the Coleman shoot and try to have a good time. But it's become too sensitive. There's a guy [Steve Hindi] who wants to get in fistfights. [He did.] The understanding in the pigeon-shooting community is 'don't get belligerent.'" [They were.]

"But there will be people drinking and when you have that, anything can happen."

Dave started shooting pigeons in competition shortly after high school when he and a friend matched kills for a case of beer. "It was just a dumb -- kind of thing."

Six years ago he became very serious about "the sport."

He said one of his partners in pigeon-shooting purchased a shotgun which they modified so it was a better weapon for the shoots. "We altered it so the pattern spread out better," he said.

He also recieved a "trap" -- the small box from which the target pigeons are released -- from another pigeon-shooting friend. Sometimes he would see competitors using a long branch to agitate the birds in the boxes, "polishing" them so they would, theoretically -- be conditioned to burst into flight more rapidly once the trap was opened.

Dave began winning matches more frequently. At about the same time, animal rights activists were starting to media campaign to put pressure on the state to impose sanctions on the shooters.

Informal "lecturers" began giving talks at local rod and gun clubs, supplying their rationale for the shoots.

"I heard one guy give a talk on how the shoots were necessary because if the pigeons weren't used in this way, the flyers [those who fly and raise pigeons for racing and/or shooting matches] and breeders wouldn't be able to control the population and there would be an excess of pigeon s--- on roofs. That was neither here nor there."

The development of shooting skills, "an eye," Dave called it, as another justification is, for him, "secondary."

Competitors in pigeon shoots get very involved, said Dave. "There are the shooting clubs and the flyers. The flyers set up the matches between the clubs.

"I've seen some flyers who have a special pigeon. They'll put it in the trap and pass you and say, 'Well, you are going to miss him.'

"And then the bird is hit. I've seen some flyers cry when that happens, the bird meant that much to them."

Then why do it? Why kill a special bird?

"I don't know," said Dave.

[Actually, everyone did know. It was about gambling, financial gain and loss.]

HEGINS PIGEON SHOOT: Crimson Country Takes Its Best Shot

[The next RERUN comes from a Nightclubbing that covered the notorious Labor Day bird shoot in the Hegins Valley. By the early 90's, the affair had stirred up the national anti-cruelty to animals folks enough that every Labor Day held the potential for a riot. The locals actually loved it. They hated out-of-towners, particularly those they considered to be hippies, liberals and gun control fanatics. They liked nothing more than opportunities to bloody those they considered sissies. And the local lawmen, of which there were plenty, always tossed in a helping hand. The violence drew bigger crowds. The beatings would take place early, the protestors shipped off to the county jail, and by afternoon the shoot would be in full swing.

Pigeons were brought out in wood boxes and put on the firing range. The boxes were opened, the startled pigeons flopped out and blasted to eternity at point blank range by the shooters. Those not immediately finished were picked up and their necks snapped or heads torn off by "bird boys" who would throw them into trash bins. Remarkably there was music. Unremarkably, there was alcohol. It was an even of uncommon brutality and it went on for hours. Some of it was about gambling, gambling for idiots. It pit the birds against the 'marksmen', the birds theoretically having been trained to flop out of the boxes fast. This was said to have been done by poking them with a stick in sessions prior to the shoot. The practice was called "polishing the bird" -- ha, ha. Get it?

Due to relentless bad publicity in the 90's, eventually the state stepped in and banned the Hegins Pigeon Shoot.]

(September 1990) It wasn't quite the party the locals hoped it would be at the Fred Coleman Labor Day Pigeon Shoot in Hegins, an event which is supposed to be, according to patrons, festive.

But the gild was off the lily after protestors led by Steve Hindi scuffled with locals and a legion of state troopers shortly after noon. By 1:30, a good ol' boy quartet called Crimson Country had set up stage in the center of the picnic grove.

As birds bounced and fluttered weakly from the trap boxes and the ack-ack of continuous shotgun volleys spread their feathers over the playing fields of Hegins, Crimson Country launched into "Wipeout" by the Surfaris.

Over the next couple of hours the four-man band played creditable covers of tunes by Randy Travis and Hank Williams, Sr. and Jr. Around 3, as the pigeon body count multiplied, Crimson Country played the Elvis Presley standard, "Don't Be Cruel." Few seemed to notice the Grand Guignol irony of the selection.

While all this was going on, people selling T-shirts commemorating the shoot were doing a brisk business. Some shirts bore the saying, "Shoot pigeons ... not drugs!"; "Let feathers fly and freedom ring!"; and "Save a pigeon ... shoot a protester." However, the hottest title was a stark ebon number emblazoned with a bastardization of the 82nd Airborne's motto, "Kill them all, let God sort 'em out later/I survived the 1990 Hegins Labor Day Pigeon Shoot."

Those went fast. Most prospective purchasers had only one choice of size -- triple-X. "I got one!" yelled a happy camper, his shirt hanging almost to his knees.

As some fans hunkered in the bleachers overlooking the range and others circulated by the food and beer stands in the grove, a grim atmosphere hung over the park. Children played obliviously on monkey bars.

Bird blood dripped occasionally from overhead and, occasionally, a wounded pigeon that had escaped the firing range minutes earlier fell on the civilians.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


During the Eighties there was no more ferocious rock and roll in the Lehigh Valley than that performed by the Blissters. Every 'burg the size of Allentown has a dive band that's similar. Capable of packing them into firepits four nights a week, aggressive onstage to the point that second and third tier major label acts following them at theatre gigs were upstaged. Unglamorous, always with the wrong hair and clothes, never able to capitalize on lucky breaks or call in favors that might let them escape the region.

I've searched over the web for years and there is no record of The Blissters, not even in the websites of the Lehigh Valley. What follows is a retrospective I did on them for the Morning Call newspaper.

Mr. Rock & Mr. Roll

Life is a feed bag overflowing with oats -- one that you never take off! -- Mr. Ed

(August 1991) If there was ever a rock and roll band the epitomized the zany philosophy of Mr. Ed, it was Allentown's Blissters.

At their final gig at the A-town Italian Club, The Blissters -- primal guitarist Dougie Smash Roth and vocalist Scotty Fehnel (aka Johnny Freedom) closed the books on a ten year history that was nothing if not the overflowing feed bag of the rock and roll high life.

The show was not particularly special in the heirarchy of infamous Blissters gigs. Althought it was a happy occasion attended by several hundred of the bands followers, the Blissters never rose to the volcanic fury that marked their best appearances at Chubby's Bar & Grill on Airport Road during the mid-80's.

By the end of the night, too many drunken louts were oompahing up to the stage for a turn at the mike. The result was what seemed like an hour-long version of "Louie Louie."

Roth and Fehnel formed the Blissters as a garage act with drummer Duane Martis in the late-70's. The trio later added bass player Tony Mancino and organist Louie Kovesces.

It would be this line-up that established their reputation as the Valley's most fearsome rock band -- one forged by Roth's guitar demoltitions and Fehnel's avuncular charm.

Capable of packing the defunct Castle Gardens and drawing mobs of truly astonishing size at the occasional Summer Sunday afternoon on the Parkway, the Blissters routinely greased other Valley mainstays.

Of those days, Fehnel says, "The best show for me was at Penn State. It was crazy. The girls were drinking my sweat. They were wiping their hands on my face and licking them!"

During the period, the Blissters recorded their one lone record, "Meltdown." It was -- by any standard -- a perfect lesson on how not to make one.

Roth was not present for the recordings, having left for a job as a sideman in another local act. Album art was nonexistent. "Meltdown" was mastered at the wrong speed, carrying a mere three songs on two sides of a 33-rpm LP.

Perhaps in spite of the Blissters, one number -- a sort of rock 'n' roll tarantella called "Arabian Mistress," stood out.

Roth rejoined for "Meltdown's" release but the damage had been done. Martis and Kovesces eventually left, but the most crippling loss came when Mancino, tiring of friction between himself and Roth, decamped too.

A savvy musician possessed of a sturdy rock 'n' roll groove and enough urbanity to offset the Blissters' unwashed brutality, Mancino was never properly replaced. Which is not to say the Blissters still weren't on top of the competition.

The end of the decade saw the band pared back to a trio again. A new drummer -- a diminutive spike by the name of Gary Pavlik seemed just right. While the old Chubby's crowd had aged out of going out to rupture the liver on Saturday night, the Blissters built up a new following, one crazy enough to regularly follow them into the one or two rock and roll clubs that existed in a dire slum in the south side of Bethlehem.

That model of the Blissters was best defined by a concert that resulted in the closure of Wally's, an old dance hall, one treacherous, ice-locked New Year's Eve.

As the Blissters came onstage, freezing rain poured through gaping holes in the ceiling. Smoking kerosene heaters labored fruitlessly in the noisome, poorly-lit ballroom making it seem like some nightmare out of a Bosch painting.

"I just bought this dump for a quarter," cracked Fehnel.

Despite the cold, the band played an hour-and-a-half-set which climaxed when fans started beating each other with folding chairs during the band's ZZ Top medley. Shortly thereafter, Wally's was condemned. The Blissters had again brought the house down.

The last two years saw Roth and Fehnel renting the occasional limousine for wild rides to resort gigs and opening for Steppenwolf at the Airport Music Hall. The amps adorned with a case load of empty Budweiser tall boys -- a gesture which seemed to please the tough-as-masonry nails audience.

However, two months ago Pavlik left the Blissters. According to Roth, perhaps the pressures associated with "being a Blisster" had lost their novelty.

Throughout the last decade, the duo of Roth and Fehnel proved it was the very definition of big-time rock and roll that never made it to the big time. They never made it to the stadiums or recorded for a major or even minor record company. But they did it their way whatever the cost. And they walked it like they talked it.


In the early Nineties I made up the office of TOMB for rating death and grind metal records. Years later I would recycle it in the Village Voice in this quaint article on making your own doom metal mix CD, E Pluribus Doomen.

But actually, it again dates to the Morning Call newspaper where editors had no idea what I was writing about although they were most happy to allow it.

The Ten Commandments

Good morning boys and girls. As you know, death eventually comes to us all. However, due to the constant advances of science, the very process of death and the state of deadness itself are now being investigated so that we all might understand life a little better. At the forefront of this sudden flurry of inquiry are none other than the youthful scions of death metal music. One of the leading houses of research in the new science of "extirpology" (the study of extirpation and related subjects) is RC Records. They have just seen fit to fund three young bands and have forwarded their current publications for review here at the Teleological Office of Morbidity and Burial (T.O.M.B.)

The most promising of these bands is Sepultura from Brazil. They address the coming Eschaton in "Dead Embryonic Cells." It will be heralded, Sepultura claims, by a rain of dung from the heavens. Good research!

Also worth comment is Malevolent Creation. MC choose to expound upon the time-worn topic of premature burial which puts them in good company with Poe. However, a critical error has been made. MC has overlooked the embalming process which -- more or less -- insures that those thought dead will be rendered such before burial should a goof occur at the coroner's office. The depth of this work is unfortunately shallow.

Last is Atrocity. Conceptually, this is very advanced -- expanding on the eternal death wish and the consequences of pacts with Satan in the guise of drug use. Like anything so esoteric, it may be difficult for the layman to grasp. Atrocity is definitely the intellectual in the bunch. As you can see, RC Records really knows its death metal. Now you must excuse me, there is ectroplasm forming in my Satanic Particle Collider.


Pure Hank

"Renegade" shows that Charlie Daniels hasn't aged a bit after 20 years of redneck rock. In fact, he sounds so well-preserved, he's freeze-dried. While the title track and "Honky Tonk Life" are slow Skynyrd/Outlaws guitar aggro, the rest of the disc is crystallized cornpone and humble-bumbling lumpen prole bonhomie. And there is a loused-up version of "Layla" with cow-flop fiddle taking the place of Clapton's lashing guitar. It's just enough to make you want to bust the dang thing over Daniels' graying head.

In comparison, Hank Williams Jr's new disc is as cool as a long spurt of fuming chaw onto shiny boots. First, Hank gets the real country out of the way fast because he knows it stinks. Heck, he evens tells the listener to skip on by jumping forward to cut six (good advice) -- "Memphis Belle" -- and rocking out hard for the rest of the disc. Hank then sings "I need to dance with someone in the raw/I need to find me a Hollywood Honey" on "Hollywood Honey." The guitars hump out a nice tune in the background. Then he revives Waylon's "Just to Satisfy You" and gets you to thinking he's going to give his squeeze a good pop on the lip if she doesn't straighten out and fly right. Reminds me of what real Southern Rock was all about -- beating your girlfriend while drunk out of your mind in the living room -- that does. Hank even includes a nice pick of said "Hollywood Honey" and she is wearing a fine nudie suit of cowboy-style lingerie. You don't see much of that around here. Hank Williams, Jr. -- now here's a guy who really knows how to take care of his fans.

From December 1990, ZEBRA and AGNOSTIC FRONT were the headliners in Allentown, advertised on the Nightclubbing page.


Yessirreebob, it sure is nifty to see an act like Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen -- a band with such unfortunate physical attributes that a gander is enough to startle a buzzard off the proverbial manure wagon.

There was the Commander -- looking just like a walking, talking ham-hock. There was guitarist Peter Walsh, whose unique bald-head and backshag combo scared my date while neatly dispensing with the need for a toupee.

But the crowd at the Hearth didn't pay good money to see pretty boys. It just mattered that the entertainment be entertainin'.

And the Los Planet Airmen were that, blowin' more than two hours of woogie-filled boogie up the noses of the audience.

Billy C. Farlow, the only member of the Airmen who doesn't look like a truck's dragged him a mile on a concrete road, supplied the Elvis impersonation on "Flip, Flop & Fly" and the occasional quack-tweet from a mouth harp.

Walsh sang the world's saddest song, "Seeds & Stems (Again)." The drummer, whose name I forget [actually, it was Lance Dickerson] brandished his sticks crazily at the rest of the Airmen. I do believe he was the same guy who pounded the tubs for Mitch Woods earlier in the year, bless his heart.

The Commander did Meade Lux Lewis imitating Bo Diddley, if such a thing could be said to happen on "It Should Been Me With That Real Fine Chick." Eating ice cream and cake.

These guys peddled T-shirts, too. Give them complimentary passes to next Labor Day's memorial pigeon shoot!

Opening for the Airmen was an unknown solo guitarist who badly wanted to be David Bromberg. Before he played a single note, a new-fangled tuning device slipped out of his hand and smashed in two on the floor. Panic filled his eyes. His knee jigged nervously. He smiled thinly and began to play but it was all over as far as the crowd was concerned.
RERUNS (continued)

Another in a frequent series, the following entry stems from a column I invented for the Morning Call newspaper called Nightclubbing. The newspaper's features section had been notorious for its hagiography and puffy coverage of local pop music events. No one was too rotten to be redeemed, no dive too code-violating to make seem like a place to go for an evening of family entertainment. Nightclubbing changed that. It ran on Saturdays and covered anything the reporters had been to in the preceding week, usually with really awful photos that always showed the artists in the worst light. The latter was an accident, being a product of the amateur free-lance photographer, a fact that really irritated the paper's pro photo editor.

But it accidentally worked for the column.

However, Nightclubbing really vexed the assistant managing editor for features of the newspaper because every Monday morning, two days after it ran, people who felt they had been wronged, or the fans of the wronged, would call the newspaper and complain to him. That made him crabby. He liked journalism that didn't generate telephone calls.

Here is one Nightclubbing entry from July of 1990:


Witnessing thrash metal acts Prong and Flotsam & Jetsam at the Music Hall last weekend was about as much fun as watching a herd of pigs squabble over garbage scraps.

Halfway into Prong's hour-long set, guitarist Tommy Victor growled, "C'mon Allentown, show us what you're made of!" The local welcoming committee did just that, pelting him in the face with a Coke. Another soon followed. Victor backed away from the lip of the stage. "C'mon," he whined, "take out your frustrations on each other, not on us." Again the crowd of 350 or so took his wise advice. A group of skinheads were soon exchanging dukes with a troop of metalheads. The fracas careened across the Music Hall main floor and petered out under the balcony.

It was more exciting out in the lobby, where a woman in the ticket booth was giving directions to some out-of-towners. The tourists, coolers of beer in hand, had worried looks. They thought the Music Hall was Erv's Bring Your Own Booze and that they'd been flim-flammed by the management who had substituted a heavy metal undercard in place of the usual strippers. Not to worry, they made it to Erv's.

When Flotsam & Jetsam hit the stage, the quintet did an imitation of the jackhammer crew working on the Hess's parking deck in downtown A-town. A portion of the audience fled, perhaps having run out of Coke while shelling Prong.

And from reviews, August of '91:

The Four Horsemen
Nobody Said It Was Easy

You know that toothless, grinning biker who stands in the back of every roadhouse you've ever been in, slowly rocking from side to side, his mind turned to toast from gobbling one too many hits of meth-doped acid? The one that yells out "Fray-bird!" while the band plays on, the one that gets tears in his eyes when he hears that Mountain song about the "painted wagons" and then empties his chow all over his long-suffering girlfriend's shins? Well, Def American's found him and his name's Frank C. Starr! And they went and made him what he always should have been: the leader of a rock and roll band. Frank's hep, he thinks up cool titles for songs like "Rockin' Is My Business (And Business is Good)" and "I'm a Wanted Man" and "I Need A Thrill In the Morning to Get Me Up" and yells them about 90 times or until the band is done playing, whichever comes first. The real musicians do a laudable AC/DC impression and an even better one of Status Quo. True, it's somewhat tuneless, but it makes for a disc almost as "kozmik" as Quo's "Dog of Two Head," which to my mind is worth any five of Dylan or Petty's but to yours -- well, maybe you ought to go see them first.
Liquid Jesus were another not very good but here today gone tomorrow hard rock band. And generally speaking, I have a strong tolerance, even a pathology, for the most dire of barrel-scrapers. Perhaps I was under a cloud in June of '91 when their major label debut showed up at the Morning Call.

LIQUID JESUS: Pour in the Sky

When I was in college I won a radio contest. And what a cheapo deal it was: The prize was by the Mexican hard rock act called Carmen. Carmen played heavy metal set to a calypso beat in songs like "Fandingos in Space." It was truly useless so I hung the plastic over my dorm room lamp hoping that the heat would be just enough to warp the vinyl into a bowl and make a nice ashtray. But Carmen was a failure at that, too, because none of my friends smoked. The reason I mention all this is because "Pour in the Sky" is lousy, too, but for slightly different reasons. First, Liquid Jesus' idea of fitting an early-70's style guitarist, Todd Rigione, onto a band that plays loose-limbed spacey sludge ala Hard Stuff or Bang isn't new. And those bands were, by and large, obscure flops. Anyway, Riggione is an oldster who roadied for Mac Davis, so he could have had those records. But then there's the problem of Liquid Jesus making the listener muscle through 10-minutes of flatus called "Intro" and "Finding My Way" before "Where Have You Been" comes along. The latter is pretty swank. The vocalist starts foaming at the mouth and Rigione supplies about a half-minute of incinerating wah-wah near the end. Then there's more art that reminds me of SST bands in the mid-80's. In the end, it's no better than "Fandingos in Space" only I haven't figured out how to make CDs into ashtrays yet.

Also, Cycle Sluts from Hell on Epic:

Tough Sluts

The Sluts played Allentown about two years ago. Just prior they'd been yakking on Morton Downey about stupid things like rock censorship, and the PR machine went into high gear, portraying them like most American men secretly want their women to look like: leather and chrome-bolted strumpets. So the bar was packed with an army of flannel-shirted, slavering tough guys just waiting for an eyeful and maybe a little more. And then the Sluts came out and delivered what the disc delivers -- a broadside of thrash metal with four mean-looking wimmen jeering like magpies at majorly bummed locals who had, perhaps, expected a dirty version of The Go-Gos. Most of the bikers grumbled and recoiled, but one, the Schnecksville Creeper, approached the spotlight in a stagey attempt to grab a handful of one of them. Suddenly, a Slut signalled peremptorily and three roadies seized the Creeper -- tossing him onto the macadam of the parking lot. This disc's the same as that, a sonic rabbit punch to the nape of the neck punctuated with glints of dumb cunning like "Speed Queen" with the lyrics: Bay-bee, if you want to use my washing machine first you gotta buy the detergent!!! I doubt if it will sell.


Many years ago I used to write for the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pennsy. I was their number one guy, period. For a few years, as a staffer and as a free-lancer, I wrote more than anyone else on the features news staff. That wasn't such a hard thing to do because the staffers really lived the meaning of the word languid.

The November 2, 1991 record reviews page included ads for the Exploited and Heaven's Edge, a good hair metal band from Philly about to get knee-capped by the demise of their genre. Queenryche was touring with Warrior Soul in the opening slot and this is what I had to say about the latter's Sex, Drugs & the New Republic on DGC.

"If it's mystery to you why such a pre-eminently unsuccessful and obscure heavy metal band as Warrior Soul merits a second disc, let alone print space, then consider the poor hapless shmuck kids who'll have to suffer through the band's performance while Queensryche drags 'em around on tour. Further, maybe you should know that the only person this bad example of fake post-intellectual crap is still afloat is because Metallica's management and big-deal record exec Tom Zutaut think that, maybe, SOME DAY, it'll pitch to Middle American youth the way it does to gender-bending, drug cult 'stop tyranny now' theoreticians of lower Manhattan. Nothing personal, but I got news for them. Not in any lifetime."

Here's another review from October of the same year, this time on another DGC gobbler, White Trash. It was their debut, I think.

"I couldn't stand this overlong disc of ants-in-its-pants disco metal burnished with nutso horns not used for like hard-rock purposes since the glory days of Chase and Lighthouse. What glory days you ask? My point, exactly."

Not bad money for a paragraph.