Author: Rick Ouellette

I'm a freelance writer and published my second book in November 2016. It's called "Rock Docs: A Fifty Year Cinematic Journey." My first, "Documentary 101: A Viewer's Guide to Non-Fiction Film," was released in 2013. My other activities, like photography, bicycling and a little urban exploring also tie into the content of this blog, which is dedicated to the celebrating the rich history of rock music, film and popular culture.

For the Records #3: Bloodrock’s Forgotten Prog-Rock Album is Not D.O.A.

In the annals of rock history, many bands are liable to be remembered only for their biggest hit. And so it is with Bloodrock, the Fort Worth-based outfit that graced the American Top 40 but one time. That single, of course, was the infamous “D.O.A.,” an exceptionally graphic dirge that depicted the immediate aftermath of a plane crash—told from the point of view of one of its soon-to-expire victims!

Against a morbid musical backdrop of funeral organ and blaring sirens, Bloodrock vocalist Jim Rutledge spares us no detail, whether it’s his missing limbs or the blood-soaked sheets applied by a paramedic who is overheard saying, “There’s no chance for me.” The song ends with Rutledge’s over-the-top cry of “God in heaven, teach me how to die!” before the final chorus yields to the sound of multi-tracked sirens sounding off on route to the morgue.

Brilliant stuff, to be sure. Just enough of us twisted teenagers bought the 45 (the full LP version ran past 8 minutes) to enable “D.O.A.” to claw its way to #36 in early 1971. I still have my copy. The b-side (“Children’s Heritage”) was more typical of the band’s output, a righteous if plodding boogie typical of the era. While the band’s signature song may not have been intended as a novelty (their guitarist Lee Pickens had witnessed a small aircraft crash), Bloodrock were to be identified with “D.O.A.” as closely as the Baha Men will be stuck forevermore with “Who Let the Dogs Out.”

For their first three albums, Bloodrock were under the clientage of both John Nitzinger, the sketchy kingpin of Texas blooze-rock who penned many of their songs, and manager/producer Terry Knight, who was also the combative Machiavelli behind Grand Funk Railroad. But by 1972, Rutledge and Pickens had left the band and Bloodrock had a new frontman in the person of fresh-faced Warren Ham. Ham was the lead singer and quite handy with the flute, saxophone and harmonica.

In late ’72, two years after recording “DOA,” came their fourth album, Passage. Gone was Terry Knight and his brainchild that their every LP sleeve design had to have dripping blood somewhere. Instead, the cover was a cryptical woodcut-like illustration of a clipper ship passing an underground cave, a nice touch. Similarly, the new Bloodrock sound was imaginative, and suggestive of the era’s preeminent progressive-rock sound.

The biggest and best surprise being the second track, “Scotsman,” an outright ringer and tribute to Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson. With its scootering flute riff, weighty Hammond organ accompaniment (by key band holdover, Stevie Hill) and jaunty jig-rock arrangement, it could have been slotted into a Tull album like War Child or Songs from the Wood, if not for the singing accent.

While this edition of the band would never be mistaken for Yes or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, other artful touches spice up this record. The buoyant opener “Help is on the Way” has a deft instrumental coda and “Life Blood” has some nimble dynamics and fresh splashes of synth that can stand up there with the best proggers of the day and contains some still-relevant lyrics (“I have seen a picture of hate, formed in a thousand ways/People say it’s all too late, talk of numbered days”).

The 8-minute semi-epic “Days and Nights” is a nice slab of organ-led heavyosity that should appeal to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Uriah Heep album. There’s even a topical number, a nifty blues shuffle called “Thank you, Daniel Ellsberg,” giving props to the man behind the “Pentagon Papers” expose. Despite this new lease of life, Passage did not catch on and Bloodrock would only be around for one more studio album.

Since this “For the Records” series focuses on the obtaining of records as well as the listening to them, here are the somewhat odd circumstances of how I got my copy of Passage. After a night on the town, I pulled up in front of a used record store in North Cambridge, Mass. The owner of the Blue Bag Records store sometimes puts a pile of free discarded albums outside the door after hours. There was no pile this time, but the place was open despite the late hour (I think the guy was doing his accounts). Since I was likely going to be the only customer at that time, I had to be supportive and buy something. Nothing interested me until I saw this baby for eight bucks. I love the covert art (reminiscent of nautical mysteries like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or Poe’s novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”) and I had heard a few of its tunes online. So it came that I bought my second Bloodrock record, some 52 years after purchasing the “D.O.A.” single.

Although Bloodrock were not long for the world by the time that this album was released but Warren Ham went on to a long and successful career (still ongoing) as session and touring saxophonist for everyone from Kansas and Toto to Olivia Newton-John to Donna Summer. He has also been in several iterations of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band (see above). In fact, I saw him on one of these tours and of course never made the connection then. Too bad. If I ever had the chance to meet him I would love to see his reaction when I told him: “Hey, I loved that “Scotsman” song you did way back when.”

—Rick Ouellette

Happy Free Comic Book Day! Get one Here

May 6th is Free Comic Book Day and I have a bunch of introductory 20-page mini-comics of my graphic novel-in-progress “In a Dream of Strange Cities” to give away. Here are some sample pages, if you are interested, please leave a message below and/or Like my Facebook page In a Dream of Strange Cities. Thanks! Rick Ouellette (writer) and Ipan (artist).

Front cover above, Back cover below.

Rock Docs Spotlight: “Herb Alpert Is…” (2020) Directed by John Scheinfeld

“Herb Alpert is… “ a pretty good documentary tracing the life and career of an introverted East Los Angeles kid who grew up to be the trumpet-playing leader of a band that for a while in the 1960s were arguably the biggest in the world, even outselling the Beatles for a spell. This is a story well worth telling, especially since the genial and low-key Alpert is still here to tell a lot of it himself. He is seen here in his early 80s, painting, sculpting, and running his charitable foundations—and still performing with his wife Lani Hall. Herb’s story is an encouraging tale of a creative life well-lived, in sharp relief to our age of trivialized Tik-Tok “stardom.”

Director John Scheinfeld takes the viewer on a compact trip thru Alpert’s early years as he takes up the trumpet in high school, spends a couple of years in the USC marching band and begins his professional career as a vocalist on a few L.A.-area novelty hits. Unsure of his future direction, he takes a break in Tijuana, and spends a day in the city’s traditional bullring stadium. He comes up with the idea for “The Lonely Bull,” a beautifully moody piece of music he records with his new band dubbed the Tijuana Brass. The single hit #6 on Billboard and its indelible melody still feels like a timestamp of the early Sixties.

This video for “The Lonely Bull,” nearly as evocative as the tune itself, was shot for a TV special in 1967. The original hit single was from five years earlier.

It’s probably for the good that the Herb Alpert and Co. got famous when they did. The group’s Mexican-American branding would be seen today in some corners as “cultural appropriation” much like some people now bemoan how surfing has robbed native Hawaiians of an important part of their heritage (really). Nobody in the band was Chicano (Herb’s parents were Eastern European immigrants), with members coming from as far afield as Staten Island and Newark, NJ. Back then, of course, the band’s bolero jackets and hits like “South of the Border” and “Tijuana Taxi” were just great fun. Their light and lively records were as an essential an ingredient to the success of a pre-Boomer party as was the club soda in a Tom Collins cocktail.

Alpert went back to singing for his #1 1968 solo hit “This Guy’s in Love With You.” The film also posits that the period following was a low point in his life personally We are shown a great archival interview on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, where he hesitantly questions his own happiness. This was around the time of the divorce from his first wife, while the fortunes of the Tijuana Brass were taking a dip during the ascendancy of rock music (Alpert even stopped playing for a few years and had to “relearn” the trumpet). Better times were to come with his subsequent marriage to Brasil ’66 vocalist Lani Hall and the founding of A&M Records with music mogul Jerry Moss. A&M would be a major player for the next two times, the two men personally shepherding the careers of such household names as Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, the Carpenters, the Police, Janet Jackson and the Go-Gos.

The album cover that launched a million schoolboy fantasies (at least). This title track was later used as the theme music for “The Dating Game” TV show in America.

Interspersed among all the old gratifying film clips and photos of his heyday, are equally welcomed shots of the self-effacing and ever-active Alpert today—whether he’s painting or sculpting in his studio, attending an event at one of his many arts and music academies or performing with his wife. So while “Herb Alpert Is…” may run a little long at two hours (I would have cut out the extraneous testimonials from the likes of Sting and Billy Bob Thornton) there is a lot of inspiring stuff here to wow his many fans and maybe convince some of the younger folk that the successful life of a creative is based on running a marathon and not a 100-meter dash.

For the Records #2: Newer Bands, Older Listeners

Born in 1958, I well remember the days of my early record-buying youth, looking up to my rock and roll heroes. The guys in the Beatles, Stones, Credence and the Who were all first wave baby-boomers, coming into this life during or just after World War II. The band members of the punk/New Wave groups I followed enthusiastically and so identified with were my contemporaries. Even though great music is timeless, the age factor is an important variable when it comes to musical appreciation.

So what happens to aging rock ‘n’ rollers when, like me, you are approaching Social security age? For many years, what I would call “Instagram Pop” has dominated mainstream charts, my main exposure to it being the endless parade of forgettable, dance-heavy one-hit wonders that tend to show up as the musical act each week on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can always dial into a classic-rock station or listen to the old favorites in your collection. But how does one satisfy a lifelong urge for new musical discoveries? Well, in this age of the Internet and streaming, access to newer acts that carry high the torch of Rock music is easier than ever. Here are several of my more recent finds. Keep in mind that the word “newer” is relative for an old geezer like me. The criteria I used is that the band in question had to have dropped their first album in 1990 or later.

Apricity—Syd Arthur (2016)

In the Seventies, the “Canterbury Scene” was a vital musical hotspot—this ancient English cathedral city was home to bands like the Soft Machine, Caravan, Gong and Matching Mole. In 2003, a talented young band named Syd Arthur (pronounced like the Herman Hesse novel but also a tribute to rock iconoclasts Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee) emerged from the same town. The pedigree was not unnoticed: Soft Machine co-founder Hugh Hopper offered the group advice (and one of his bass guitars) and Paul Weller was an early fan.

Syd Arthur fit loosely inside the wider neo-prog rock genre. On their albums their songs are propulsive and airy, with thoughtful lyrics and unfussy but expert musicianship. They are led by singer-guitarist Liam Magill and his bass-playing brother Joel, on keyboards and violin is Raven Bush (nephew of Kate). This is (was?) a great band, the only thing I would say is that their records leaned heavily on tightly arranged 4-minute songs that had a certain sameness of approach. That is why I prefer their fourth (and to date, last) album, Apricity. The formula is loosened up with various intros and outros and it’s a strong batch of songs. I especially like the closing title track (“Apricity” means the warmth of the sun that can still be felt on a cold day).

I saw Syd Arthur open for Yes in 2014 and was surprised and impressed how they delved into ambient psychedelic instrumental passages along with their more conventional songs. Although they have been inactive since 2017, here’s hoping for a reunion and maybe a willingness to explore this intriguing experimental side of their sound.

Let It All In—Arbouretum (2022)

The Baltimore-based group Arbouretum have been releasing excellent music since 2002 but have only attained a regional/cult following. Led by the enigmatic singer-writer-guitarist Dave Heumann, they have gotten some wider recognition, mainly for 2011’s The Gathering, which made the best-of-year lists of the UK’s two standard-bearing rock magazines, MOJO and Uncut. That album concludes with the brooding ten-minute-plus “Song of the Nile” which sprouts a glorious fuzz-drenched solo by Heumann, a not uncommon point of attack for him.

Arbouretum were more-or-less on my radar for years, via YouTube clips or the odd compilation track, but I finally ponied up and bought their latest (and tenth) album off their website. Let It All In is a strange beauty of an album. The heightened naturalism of Heumann’s cryptic song scenarios gives the whole album a hauntological vibe—he even name drops Telesphorus, the child-god of healing. Heumann’s voice seems to inhabit his own folklore, a few songs here sound like Gordon Lightfoot with Tom Verlaine on guitar. In their more hard-driving moments (the locomotive 12-minute title cut) their momentum is unstoppable, as is the saw-tooth lead guitar and the terse self-actualization that informs much of Heumann’s compelling lyrics: “Polestar don’t know where you are, only where you are drawn/Headwinds turn tail, hard to fail if you know where to begin.”

Alvvays (2014)

Alvvays (pronounced “always”) have put Canadian indie rock squarely on the map since releasing their self-titled debut in 2014. They hail from Atlantic Canada (formerly known as The Maritimes) but have re-located to Toronto. They are fronted by Molly Rankin, progeny of the Rankin Family, Nova Scotia’s first family of Cape Breton-style Celtic music.

That first album opened with a great one-two punch. The attention-grabbing opener “Adult Diversion” is followed by the ironic twee-pop plea “Archie, Marry Me” that, with its earworm chorus, became a cult hit. The aloof charms of the photogenic Rankin inform every song, her vocals are invariably both yearning and wised-up. Alvvays’ other two long-players, Antisocialites (from 2017) and Blue Rev (2022), are also excellent. Highlights include “Dreams Tonite” from the former and “Tom Verlaine” from the latter. The first is accompanied by a gratifying video that digitally inserts band members into the crowd at the Expo ’67 in Montreal (I was there as a 9 year-old but those guys hadn’t been born yet).

The second is not necessarily about the legendary Television frontman who passed away three months after the album’s release. Instead, Molly assures a Delphian boyfriend, “you’ll always be my Tom Verlaine.” Hipsters of the past and present will know exactly what she means.

England is a Garden—Cornershop (2020)

A big sunny musical highlight of the grim Covid year of 2020 was England is a Garden by the British indie-rockers Cornershop. The band, fronted by Tjinger Singh and Ben Ayres, was formed in Leicester in the mid-90s. In 1998 they had a #1 UK single with “Brimful of Asha,” a bouncy and delightful tribute to an Indian singer featuring the immortal tag line, “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow.”

However, Cornershop may be too quirky overall for sustained commercial success. It’s not the fault of the music: England is a Garden is a non-stop infectious mix of strumming guitars, flutes, tambouras and percussion, playing infectious rhythms under appealing melodies. But at times it is a bit hard to suss out what these lads are on about. (The CD comes with a fold-out poster that could have been better utilized as a lyric sheet). So while I may never understand “St. Marie Under Canon” or the tale of the “Uncareful Lady Owner,” they are still fun listens.

But when all their pistons are firing, this is some of the most enjoyable music I’ve heard in years. In time-tested form they celebrate their subculture and bemoan authority’s failure to appreciate it in “Everywhere the Wog Army Roam” (“policeman follow them”). In the chipper “Highly Amplified” they acknowledge that “hell is deep and the world is sinking” but refuse to give in to despair if there’s another rave to be had.

England is a Garden also features a pretty instrumental interlude (the title track), a radiant sing-along cover of a tune from a Seventies Hare Krishna pop album and two tracks that fall into the band’s long line of T. Rex/Sweet homages, one of which (“No Rock: Save in Roll”) pays clever tribute to the big role their native West Midlands area played in the development of hard rock.

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care—Explosions in the Sky (2011)

Explosions in the Sky are an all-instrumental “post-rock” band from Austin. They have released seven studio albums since 2000 and a few soundtracks as well, including one for the film version of “Friday Night Lights” about high-school football culture in their native Texas. Even their non-soundtrack work sounds like the compelling incidental music for the cinema of the mind. The music ebbs and flows and cascades, and often builds up to magnificent guitar crescendos.

The music of EITS can certainly be cathartic and their live shows come highly recommended though they’ve not been around my way that I know of. Like their other albums, 2011’s Take Care is great “listening listening” for those who have the time. Yet I can’t but help feel there’s a little something missing: yup, it’s the lack of vocals. The reflective folk-rock opening of a song like “Human Qualities” just cries out for an opening verse. While the group refer to their music as “mini-symphonies” there’s not enough variety in the arrangements to really make that stick. Still, at their evocative best (like in “Postcard from 1952” posted above), there’s something quite enchanting about EITS that made me glad I did get around to checking them out.

English Electric, Part Two—Big Big Train (2013)

Big Big Train are one of the more high profile bands of recent decades that inhabit the multi-variate world of neo-prog rock.. They formed in 1990 in the city of Bournemouth on England’s southern coast, and have released 14 studio albums and a clutch of EPs and live sets. Their overall sound falls somewhere between the late Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (Selling England by the Pound) and the early post-Gabriel Genesis (Trick of the Tail, The Wind and the Wuthering). Admittedly, that’s a narrow window so you can probably hear their sound in advance.

BBT have long resembled a collective more than a fixed group; on their records as many as seven or eight musicians are used per song, according to the sonics needed. These are some lush audio landscapes. The album I bought was English Electric Part Two (though Part One is also good) and the combination of the songwriting of founding member (and bassist/keyboardist) Greg Lawton with vocalist David Longdon was a creative peak (at the time, ex-XTC man Dave Gregory was on lead guitar. Longdon died in 2021, aged 56).

This music is unabashedly pastoral and nostalgic, with longish well-arranged  songs that extol the virtues of farmers and shipyard workers and railroad engineers etc. These multi-sectional pieces with their florid piano, flutes and guitar crescendos will be too precious for some. Titles like “Curator of Butterflies”  and “Swan Hunter” may even be a deal-breaker for some. But people like me who were weaned on the classic prog-rock sounds of Yes, Moody Blues and, yep, Genesis, will likely be intrigued. 

This is a partial list, and I didn’t included bands that I followed more closely (like the Decemberists or British Sea Power) or those that I want to find out more about, like last year’s indie darlings from the Isle of Wight, Wet Leg. Everyone remembers “Chaise Lounge,” their buttered-muffin breakout hit, but I like this best of the follow-up singles, with the girls cavorting on the headlands of their home island. Til next that next time…

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” teaser

A little sneak-a-peek from my graphic novel work-in-progress, “In a Dream of Strange Cities.” It’s an odd filmgoing experience from the chapter “The Last Days of Odeon Circle.” Text by me (Rick Ouellette), drawing by Ipan.

Odeon Circle was a faded entertainment district that backed up to a still-desirable neighborhood but fronted a less-than-desirable one. I was nearly late for the film, so I hurried into the cinema and took a place in the steep overhang balcony, just like in the old days.

“Objective: Venus” played in fits and starts. The stolid monochrome actors planned their space trip, unaware that their new navigator planned to horde the mined gold and leave the others stranded on the Evening Star. The movie stopped and a bit of a World War II newsreel played backwards, effectively reversing the Allied victory in Berlin. Just as quickly, the film started up again. The un-helmeted crew were already standing on Venus and the lovely heroine was revealing the bad guy. The screen flared; the crew were either melted by the sun or there was some burning celluloid in the projection booth.

I gave up the ghost and headed down to the lobby. Outside in the Circle, there seemed to be trouble afoot.

Watch this space for a sample chapter, coming soon! Or better yet, like the “In a Dream of Strange Cities” Facebook page.

Of Marquee Moons and dreaming spires: Tom Verlaine’s arcane legacy

Boy, was January a tough month in the increasingly busy field of pop-music obituary writing. It saw the passing of some folks with huge names (Jeff Beck, Lisa Marie Presley, David Crosby) and others less famous, but hitting just as hard for particular fan bases (Screaming Trees’ bassist Van Conner, original Yardbirds guitarist Top Topham). Social media has sort of made us all into amateur memorializers, and by the end of January I was getting a bad case of Obituary Fatigue Syndrome and mostly just clicking the sad-face icon when a friend would post about any of the names mentioned above.

But on the 28th, another reported death, that of Tom Verlaine, prompted me to pick up the ol’ pen, for an alternative tribute. Verlaine, first with his band Television then as a solo artist, inspired me greatly in my development as a writer, in a curious field that in recent decades has got its own name: hauntology—the persistence of spirit that lives on in man-made environments.

Of course, Tom’s main influence will be musical, the enigmatic beauty of his songwriting and his otherworldly guitar skills. But in many a better written obit about Verlaine, a common theme persists: how he evoked a whole era and how his songs were almost literal surveyor marks in the changing New York City landscape of the late 70s. It was a time that Gotham was in the throes of financial crisis and social disruption but also giving creative birth to the epochal punk and hip-hop subcultures: both of which would soon have global reach.

Television, First Avenue NYC 1977

From L to R: Fred Smith, Verlaine, Richard Lloyd and Billy Ficca. They and countless other musicians and artists flooded into a (then) low-rent Lower East Side in the demographic upheaval of the white-flight 70’s Big Apple. The rediscovery and reutilization of neglected places is a key tenet of hauntology and urban exploring.

Verlaine became known to me ever since my end-of-1977 listening centered on Talking Heads ’77, Marquee Moon by Television (I bought MM on the strength of one great magazine review) and the Ramones Rocket to Russia, which a roommate had. Everything changed after that.

The inspiration for me was Verlaine’s lyrics. Marquee Moon’s mind-blowing 10-minute title epic is the key track, but my favorite Television song was “Venus.” It is a master class in urban psychedelia, the best song possible about tripping balls at night in Lower Manhattan with a couple of friends (and one of them is Richard Hell). “Broadway looked medieval/it seemed to flap like little pages,” Tom sings. This is the Broadway that extends down from the gothic majesty of the vertiginous Woolworth Building to its colonial terminus at Bowling Green. A lot of this stretch is basically unchanged in the last century. It was the site of many a famous ticker-tape parade and features two of New York City’s oldest churches.

A couple of years back I spent a day-night-day in the Lower Broadway area, a block from the gargantuan old Custom House building, with its monumental sculptures representing the continents. I had my own sort of “Venus” moment when I stumbled on it for the first time on a misty night around 1980. I got some great photos of just the sort of thing that has inspired a passage in my graphic novel-in-progress “In a Dream of Strange Cities.” It was the page I was leading up to when I heard of Verlaine’s passing. My protagonist “sleep voyager” emerges in a Midtown NYC stripped of many of its buildings. He walks in the blazing sun until he reaches unchanged Lower Broadway, mythical home of O. Henry’s Transients in Arcadia, where’s it cool and shadowy and timeless. He’s on his way to a secret meeting with (wait for it, please) a utopian princess. (Free introductory comic of “In a Dream of Strange Cities” coming soon!)

Having a close look at lower Broadway in the spring of 2021. Photos by the author

Anyway, here’s a great quote from a more-or-less professional obit man/rock scribe about the quality of Mr. Verlaine’s hauntological aesthetic (from Matt Mitchell at Paste magazine).

He was walking art awash with the uncertainty of a midnight sky; a poet gleaning geographical imagery into his pastorals as if he was his city’s only architect.

Surely, Mr. Verlaine’s spirit and influence will live on indefinitely in every instance of someone falling under the spell of great cities and great possibilities. RIP Tom.

–Rick Ouellette

Books that rock: Toby Thompson’s “Positively Main Street”

“If you’re really a Dylan buff, I mean tuned right into the stereo microgrooves of his soul, you’ll get a kick out of this.”

So begins the eager-beaver “Introgush” of Toby Thompson’s “Positively Main Street.” It was one of the first books I ever read about a music star and still one of my favorites. First published in 1971 and reissued in 2008 with the helpful subtitle “Bob Dylan’s Minnesota,” it depicts two trips to the North Star State taken by the recent college graduate in the late Sixties, while rock’s poet laureate was still in seclusion, two years after his mystery-shrouded motorcycle accident. Over the succeeding decades, books about Dylan have become a robust cottage industry and the exact number of Dylanologists now roaming the earth would be hard to quantify. Many of them have turned out portentous volumes indeed, befitting the decade’s “Voice of a Generation.”

But Thompson’s modest-seeming book turned out be a trailblazer, and it remains one of the most appealing on the subject, a genial and immersive street-level journal of time spent in Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing. He interviews friends, family, teachers and townsfolk. He visits all the relevant sights (both in Hibbing and in Minneapolis where Bob briefly attended college) and develops a friendship with Echo Helstrom, Bob’s high-school sweetheart who was the probable inspiration for his classic “Girl from the North Country.”

Echo Helstrom in 1969, photo by Toby Thompson. The pictures he took in Hibbing, of local landmarks as well as many of the adorable Helstrom, were previously used in “Positively Main Street’s” original incarnation as a series in the Village Voice. Several are reprinted in the look-back interview with Thompson in the new edition of the book. Helstrom later moved to California and passed away in 2018.

In today’s hyper-accessible and saturated media landscape, it’s a little startling to read how humbly the book came into the being. Knowing his subject’s real name and hearing an anecdote that his father and uncle owned a hardware store up there; he uses directory assistance to call the family business (actually Zimmerman Furniture & Electric Company) and is casually invited up to Hibbing by an uncle: Bob’s dad had recently passed away.

Thompson doesn’t need much convincing to pack up his semi-reliable VW Bug and take the long drive from D.C. to northern Minnesota during a deep Northwoods autumn. Toby is motivated as much by the imperative to become a member of the New Journalism as he is by fanboy fever. Sure, he’s the kind of guy who studied the lyrics of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding LP when it came out in late’67 (after a 20-month recording absence), comparing notes over the phone with friends. Almost a year later, with no other word from their hero, he decides on his mission—probably just as much to find himself as to get to the origin story of the man born as Robert Zimmerman.

There is a vivid Beat-style detailing of the drive thru the East’s REAL physical landscape, the infrastructure and turnpikes, before reaching out into the great Midwest Americana. Thompson tools down the legendary Highway 61 and hears “Just Like a Woman” on the radio as he’s approaching his destination. The clean-cut and unimposing (but insistent) young writer is soon out hitting the bricks of Hibbing, a small but somewhat well-appointed city with music shops, teen hangouts, lively taverns and a couple of cinemas (also owned by the Zimmerman clan).

You know it was the early days of the Dylan Studies discipline when Thompson is shocked to learn that Bob, who made his legend with socially-conscious folk songs, had fronted a rowdy rock band in high school. A glance at his school yearbook reveals a desire to “follow Little Richard.” But aside from the odd person (like his astute English teacher), there just isn’t a whole lot appreciation for “Bobby Die-lan” (as the locals often call him). The woman down at the music store, who sold him his first harmonica, says her old customer’s albums are not big sellers in these parts (“people don’t like his voice”).

These days, there is more appreciation of good ol’ Bobby Die-lan in his hometown. Each May, Hibbing holds a “Dylan Days” festival. This promotion for a Dylan cover-band concert is on the side of the house where Bob grew up. When the Zimmerman family sold this house, there was a codicil that called for his upstairs bedroom (included some personal possessions) to remain as is. Thompson visited that bedroom while writing his book and Dylan himself reportedly visits it from time to time.

Echo Helstrom was of course, someone who did get Bob. They went together their whole junior year of high school, bonding as two of maybe a handful of kids grooving to the sounds of the blues and the new rock ‘n roll emanating at night from faraway stations in places like Shreveport and Little Rock. Echo, who Dylan compared both to Brigitte Bardot and Becky Thatcher, is a fair-haired and mini-skirted blithe spirit with the “finest smile this side of White Bear Lake.” Although she had previously been interviewed (by author Robert Shelton for a book that would not come out until 1986), she was delighted with the attention and regaled Toby with tales of teenage Bob that few if any fans would have known. The two form a quick conspiratorial bond, heading up to Hibbing in the VW to kick up a little dust. They visit the old haunts, close down a bar or two and even a crash a local radio station so Echo can return the favor and sing a little tune she wrote (“Boy from the North Country,” natch), accompanied by Toby on guitar.

Nowadays, where self-serious writers like Greil Marcus pen whole books about a single Dylan song (Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads), Positively Main Street comes across as a breath of fresh air from a more ingenuous age. Towards the end of the book, Thompson interviews Bob’s mom at a local diner. She does protest a bit about a couple of unappreciated private details that showed up in the Village Voice article (and as to why he’s running around with “that Echo”) but the mostly cordial conversation reveals what readers have likely sussed out by this point: that Robert Zimmerman had a pretty solid and regular Midwestern upbringing.

And that’s OK, even better that way. I say this because there was a lot of deification of Dylan back then, as well a certain amount of mythmaking, some of it perpetuated by the liner notes of his first album that would have you believe he ran away to join the circus as a boy, never knew his parents, yada-yada. But real art and talent come from hard work and drive and knowing from whence you came, not from some magic talisman passed down to a lucky few. Bob Dylan did (and does) have a extraordinary knack for absorbing the great American experience in all its many forms, not the least of which was the stark but sensible place (“where the winds blow heavy on the borderline”) that informed his spirit, a place that Toby Thompson let Dylan fans feel for the first time.

“Kingdom Come” at the Mall: J.G. Ballard’s Prophetic Last Novel

A sort of food-court dystopia takes hold in and around a super-mall on the outer edges of metropolitan London in J.G. Ballard’s incisive last novel, published in 2006, three years before his death. The English author was a foremost chronicler of speculative societal fracturing in works such as Concrete Island, High Rise and Crash. The kind of high concept dissolution of those books are also featured here in the story of Richard Pearson, a recently let-go advertising man who goes to investigate how his estranged father came to be one of victims of mass shooting in the main atrium of the Metro-Centre, a sprawling modern shopping center buffeted by hotels, offices and several sports stadiums that are regularly packed with enthusiastic and sometimes volatile fans.

Pearson gives up his trendy flat in Central London to immerse himself in the strange, semi-fictionalized world of the “motorway towns” in the vicinity of Heathrow Airport. Despite this area being only 15-20 miles from Trafalgar Square, it is a place apart in Ballard’s vision. A terse, maze-like psychogeography takes hold. The Metro-Centre presents itself as an optimistic unifying force, in contrast to the “alienating” effect of modernism found in “heritage London.” Underneath its enormous central dome, Pearson is met by the mall’s PR man: “he was smiling, friendly and crushingly earnest, with the pale skin and overly clear eyes of a cult recruiter.” He assures Pearson that the denizens of Brooklands (the town is fictitious but named after the former racing circuit nearby and seen below) have “pulled together” after the tragedy and that retail business there suffered only a minor setback.

Pearson moves into the condo of a dead father he barely knew and soon becomes all too aware of a regressive “pocket revolution” in his midst. Organized groups of sporting clubs, most wearing shirts emblazoned with England’s St. James’ insignia, have rallies that quickly turn into racial attacks on Asian and Eastern European immigrants. Of course, these dark energies are quick to be harnessed. Shades of Brexit and Trumpism rise to the surface, though the book predates them by a decade. Ballard could be masterful at trenchant observation as when describing the shadowy figures behind this grim initiative. They are trafficking in “a violence of the mind, where aggression and cruelty were part of a radical code that denied good and evil in favor of an embraced pathology.”  Nowadays, that sounds all too familiar.

A popular and ubiquitous TV host of the complex’ in-house cable channel, with the blithe name of David Cruise, is put up as the nominal, would-be head of state. As a man who is “authentic in his insincerity” he seems just the ticket. Pearson even takes a new stab at his old occupation, becoming his ad man, even reusing a pitch (“Mad is Bad, Bad is Good”) that kinda got him fired in his old job. But he takes the role to infiltrate the movement and find out who’s behind the killings—a case that has become clouded in deception—while also becoming curious as to what the true end game of his chosen profession might be. After all, he spent a career cultivating a suburban mindset where people identify themselves through their purchases. But this domain of “Consumerism Uber Alles” is soon embroiled in a proxy war as the militias who profess to protect the shoppers are besieged by government forces who have had enough of this Banana Republic banana republic.

Kingdom Come is not a perfect book. It feels padded at time with catchphrases and dialogue that seem more like panel discussions, while character motivations often seem confused. But as a speculative look into a world where mob violence is described as “local pride” and an undervalued population ready to shade into madness, Ballard’s book is vivid and alarming. In a way we are all ensnared in this world. It’s esp. true here in America, where 70% of the economy is tied up in consumer spending and where there were two mass shootings in shopping areas the day I started this post. 

It may be easy to think of Kingdom Come as an overwrought fever dream, and it does slip into that at times. But Ballard was uncanny in a lot of his prognostications (High Rise mirrored the current folly of the practically unlivable supertalls on New York’s “Billionaire’s Row”) and I’ll never look at a shopping mall in quite the same way ever again.

The Late, Late British Invasion: Record Collecting in Retrospect

For many of us music-loving boomers who grew up in a culture of habitual record buying, the purchase of physical music media is a habit not easily left behind. In an age commercially dominated by Instagram pop, this means digging deeper to discover newer bands to support and looking back to fill gaps in a collection with albums that escaped notice the first time around.

In the first of this two-part series, I will be doing the latter. In the annals of rock history, the 60s and 70s are the gifts that keep on giving. The below selections focus on British acts that did not make a huge impact in the States—groups like T. Rex and the Small Faces had only one U.S. hit single. Though I do like to go rummaging around in used record stores for a rare find, for the purposes of this post, most of the below selections I bought as two-CD deluxe reissues.

Odessey & Oracle—the Zombies (1968)

Of all the recognized classic albums of the Sixties, few have had such a delayed recognition as the Zombies swan song long-player, now widely regarded as a masterwork of baroque rock. In fact, the group, who had a handful of pop hits in the mid-60s, had fallen out of favor and split up shortly before the release of Odessey (a misspelling by the cover artist). Without much in the way of tour dates, the group had convened at Abbey Road studios to concoct a unified sounding song cycle that had a regal, autumnal atmosphere that would become beloved to legions of fans—later on down the line. Even its most famous track, “Time of the Season,” wasn’t a hit until 18 months after it was recorded.

I finally got myself a CD of it a few years back and it is remarkably fresh-sounding and relatable in a timeless way: tracks like “Hung Up on a Dream,” “Beechwood Park,” and “This Will Be our Year” have an almost literary universality (the latter song closed an episode of “Mad Men”). The bonus tracks on my edition features only one song not on the original album. As is often the case with these re-issues most of them are re-mixes or alternate takes. But they still managed to fit it onto one CD, so kudos.

Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake—The Small Faces (1968)

This is another semi-concept album classic that was a retro-fitted favorite for savvy U.S. rock fans who grew up knowing the name Small Faces for their solitary stateside hit “Itchykoo Park.” Frontman Steve Marriott became the singer in Humble Pie and the other Small Faces (Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenney Jones) joined forces with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and dropped the word “small.” Like Odessey, Ogden’s Nut shows the growing sophistication of pop music in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. The first side is flawless eclectic British rock that includes Marriott’s soulful “Afterglow,” Ronnie Lane’s folkloric “Song of a Baker” and the music hall romp “Lazy Sunday.” The second side features a suite centering around a character called “Happiness Stan,” the songs linked by a whimsical narrator played by comic actor Stanley Urwin. The 2-CD set that I was obliged to purchase is a beautifully packaged keepsake with a great booklet, however the second disc are just alternate takes of the songs; interesting but only just.

McDonald and Giles (1970)

King Crimson were well known for their numerous lineup changes back in the day, and two of the first to go, charter members Michael Giles on drums and sax/flute man Ian McDonald, teamed up for this quite engaging album. McDonald and Giles sound a bit like early Crimson minus most of the jarring parts, which makes for a pleasing throwback prog experience. Giles expert style of skittering drum fills sets the pace along with the prominent bass work of brother Peter (ex of the pre-KC group Giles, Giles and Fripp) while McDonald, aside from his woodwinds, fills in on keyboards and occasional lead guitar. Highlights include the ballad “Flight of the Ibis” (a close cousin of Crimson’s “Cadence and Cascade”) and the buoyant rocker “Tomorrow’s People” which features one of a handful of adventurous mid-song jazz jams which keeps the album on its toes. But this duo was destined to be a one-off effort and by mid-decade McDonald was sailing in far less adventurous waters as a charter member of Foreigner.

Phantasmagoria—Curved Air (1972)

Curved Air were one of the few bands in the original progressive-rock era to have a female lead singer. Sonja Kristina had a great voice and an un-showy charisma and the guys behind her were virtuosic but team-oriented in approach. Phantasmagoria was their third album and generally considered their best. It opens with two lush but emphatic showcases for Kristina: “Marie Antoinette” and “Melinda (More or Less”). The group generally stick with this compact approach (the whirlwind title track is another highlight) but they also have an experimental side. There is the appropriately titled instrumental “Ultra-Vivaldi” led by the warp-speed violin of Daryl Way and a rabbit-hole number that was the reportedly the first ever to use a voice vocoder. Gratifyingly, the second disc is a DVD featuring several live TV performances from Belgium and Austria (Curved Air were big on the Continent). The group is spot-on and Sonja Kristina shows the Instagram pop divas of today how to be sexy without being sexualized.

The Slider—T. Rex (1972)

The Slider was the highwater mark in the career of glam-rock icon (and punk/new wave influencer) Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex. It was the vivid follow-up to their other acknowledged classic album (Electric Warrior) and featured their last two #1 U.K. hit singles, “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru.” Bolan and his mates had perfected their formula of glittering pop hooks, compact lead guitar, and fanciful lyrics full of decadent characters (this LP features the twins “Baby Boomerang” and “Baby Strange”). The backlash was underway in the fickle British music press, that he was merely an image conscious go-getter full of empty words, in love with the idea of his own stardom. But as is usually the case, time will show the wiser. As Bolan biographer Mark Paytress notes in this edition’s booklet, Bolan’s rock poetry holds up very well nowadays: “Marc’s fast, snatched images are remarkably in tune with the zap-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of contemporary culture.”

Yet there is real emotion and yearning in the slower songs like “Mystic Lady,” “Ballrooms of Mars” and the affecting “Spaceball Ricochet” where Bolan posits “Deep in my heart there’s a house that can hold just about all of you.” All the more poignant knowing now that he would die in a car crash in 1977, two weeks short of his 30th birthday. The second disc presents as an alternative album (“Rabbit Fighter”) that is an intermittently interesting batch of acoustic demos and early band takes in the same running order as the proper album. There are also four non-LP B side songs.

Parachute—Pretty Things (1970)

The Pretty Things are another one of those exemplary British Invasion-era bands that never got to storm the beaches in America. Even in Old Blighty they were a bit of a cult band, having had only two Top 20 singles in their homeland. But like many of their contemporaries, the group make remarkable creative strides between their circa 1964 debuts and the end of the decade. Starting out as a gritty, R&B-influenced act the Pretties had by 1968 come out with one of the first rock operas (S.F.Sorrow) and two years later, followed up with this remarkable song cycle that only in long retrospect stands out as one of the great albums of 1970.

Side one plays out a lot like side two of 1969’s Abbey Road: a seamlessly connected series of short songs that speak to the complexities of contemporary urban life. An implied escape to the country in Parachute’s second side (esp. on the trenchant “Sickle Clowns”) doesn’t necessarily bring existential relief. It’s a rigorous and rock-steady album, the first without founding guitarist Dick Taylor, though new member Vic Unitt shreds admirably. Singer Phil May and bassist Wally Waller did most of the writing here and on the 40th anniversary release I have, the pair reunited to do several unplugged versions of Parachute numbers. On the other half of that bonus disc is a half-dozen singles and B-sides, a couple of which (“Summertime” and “Blue Serge Blues”) rival anything on the album.

Greenslade (1973)

In the online, “suggested for you” age we live in, it’s easier than ever to discover defunct bands of your fave genre that flew under your radar in younger days. For prog fans, a thumbnail image of a Roger Dean album cover is sometimes all it takes. The renowned artist did covers and logos for Yes, Uriah Heep, Budgie and many others. His illustration for Greenslade’s first album is a typically handsome fantasy vision: a four-armed wizard in a sun-streaked cavern. David Greenslade had been keyboardist for the adventurous fusion jam band Colosseum but took a more fanciful approach when fronting his own outfit.

If you’re a fan of Seventies keyboard wizardry, but maybe have had a lot of Messrs. Wakeman and Emerson, this group will be a fun find as Greenslade uses a two keyboard-bass-drums lineup. Dave Lawson sings from the piano and adds some synth while the head Dave leads the way on Hammond organ and also utilizes the mighty Mellotron. The group alternate vibrant, tonally rich instrumentals (such as “English Western”) with droll vocal numbers like “Feathered Friends” and “Drowning Man.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, Greenslade never succumb to bombast, unless you count a couple of portentous blasts of Mellotron. The double gatefold edition that I bought was beautifully packaged with a nice booklet to get you up to speed on what you missed first time around. The second CD contain slightly different versions played at a BBC studio session and at a live show.

Garden Shed—England (1977)

Alas, poor England. No, I don’t mean the Brexit debacle or that it had to survive Liz Truss being Prime Minister for six weeks. I’m talking about the prog-rock group England, whose excellent debut album Garden Shed was released in 1977, just as punk rock was taking the country by storm. Led by keyboardist-singer Robert Webb, England prove themselves skilled purveyors of an ornate art-rock that is not far off from what Yes were doing around the same time (Going for the One, etc.). They excel at quiet ballads (“Yellow” and “All Alone”) and fable-like rockers (“Midnight Madness”) and can get epic as well: “Three-Piece Suite” has 12 verses!

And kudos to the band for doing up the 30th anniversary rerelease in the best way possible. The second disc shows a reconfigured band staking their claim with cheeky new originals (“Fags, Booze and Lottery”) an imaginative cover (Dylan’s “Masters of War” set to Gershwin’s “Summertime”) and a couple of b-sides and live tracks. Garden Shed is a lovingly packaged with Webb adding illustrations of each song to the lyric sheet, an idea that was shelved in ’77. Although they didn’t last long in their original incarnation, England are a band well worth (re)discovering. Also, check out their 1975 EP “Imperial Hotel” on YouTube, it’s actually one 24-minute piece and is prog heaven.

Well, that’s it for now. In the hopefully near future, I will be back with Part 2. That will focus on later-life discovery of newer bands. But it’s all relative—by newer I mean groups that have formed after 1990, more than 30 years ago!

make mine a double #26: Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” (1980)

It was a Friday night in 1981 and two roommates were working out their differences after a round of take-your-turn record spinning.

“The Clash are boring,” declared the first. “All they sing about are policemen and helmets.”

“No, Bruce Springsteen is boring,” replied roommate #2. “All he sings about is cars and darkness.”

Defending one’s own favorite musical artist by dissing the other’s idol may be reductive but it’s also instructive. If you don’t like a certain band, the easiest way to make your case is to over-emphasize the most emblematic thing about them. And there is added incentive to go this route when one is confronted with those traits at critical mass: the album sides on the turntable that long- ago night were from the Clash’s new 3-disc behemoth Sandinista! and Bruce’s double-bagger from the year before, The River.

Springsteen’s star had been steadily rising since his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. some seven years previous. His reputation as an eloquent but unfancy voice of the regular guys and gals of middle America. The River was his break-out success, his first #1 album (beating the iconic Born to Run which hit #3) and it sported his first Top Ten single in the hook-heavy “Hungry Heart.” It also inspired a harsh critical reaction in some circles, which reminds me of my roommates’ exchange.

This extended version of “The River’s” hit single reproduces the sleeve of the 45, showing Bruce on the fabled Asbury boardwalk

Let’s face it: “All he sings about is cars and darkness…” and throw in lonely highways and ex-lovers and hard-knock working class predicaments.

Now it was professional rock scribes throwing the brickbats. Over in the UK (where The River reached #2) Julie Burchill from New Musical Express sniffed “This is great music for people who’ve wasted their youth to sit around drinking beer and wasting the rest of their lives to.” Stateside, I never forgot the lead article in the Creem magazine review section (headline: “Born to Stall”) by the esteemed Billy Altman.

He wrote then that Springsteen “is still spinning his wheels in the same narrow-minded world view… unable or uninterested” to see beyond the “horrible quagmire” of his subjects’ lives. Faced with a 20-song double LP to contend with, Altman probably decided he didn’t like the record as soon as he looked at the cover and saw the somber expression of our flannel-shirted bard of the Jersey Shore.

But if one listens closely, a much more nuanced experience is unfolding. On the opening “The Ties That Bind,” backed by jangly guitars and the insistent rhythmic push of his trusty E Street Band, the Boss confronts the issue of dead-end lives as usual, but with a compassion that his legions of fans know on an instinctual level: “We’re running now, but we will stand in time/To face the ties that bind.”

And for nearly every gloom-and-doom song there is an upbeat one to match it, big-night-out anthems like “I’m a Rocker” and “Out in the Streets” or skirt-chasers like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush on You.”

At heart, Springsteen is an old soul. He was a tenacious and ambitious escapee from the small-town bondage he so often portrayed, reportedly never taking a proper job to incentivize making it as a musician. But he did not scorn what he got away from and remained a consistent empath, even in the face of exasperation or ridicule. A certain amount of that was directed at the melodramatic hardships depicted in The River’s title song. The hipster critics may have cringed at lines like “Lately there ain’t been much work/On account of the economy” without caring to understand that’s exactly how the song’s luckless narrator would say it.

For my money, the better ballad (and keynote to the entire album) is the heart-rending “Independence Day” which directly references the famously contentious relationship that Springsteen had with his father, who toiled for many years in his hometown Nescafe plant. In his recent memoir and one-man Broadway show, he said he understood early on that (as the song says) “all boys must run away.” Then he admits, “What I didn’t understand was his depression.” But Bruce (who has also struggled with the malady) would come to understand and remain that way. It is a bond he has forged with America’s heartland, a mythic place that is too often lightly considered. Long may he keep his engines running.