For the Records: 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…

“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.

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” sneak peak

The familiar turns fantastical as “sleep voyager” Swain roams through fractured cities and societies, while meeting people bent on creating an enlightened breakaway state.

That’s my one-sentence blurb. What do you think?

From the chapter “Cthonic Days”

“In a Dream of Strange Cities” is an in-progress illustrated novel composed of several actual dream-state narratives, overlaid with a fictional framework. These loosely connected stories probe personal life transitions and societal shifts that arise from an autonomous subconscious. The text and illustrations will draw from themes of contemporary folklore, urban exploration and psychogeography.

I have just completed the draft text and have a nice handful of concept illustrations by Indonesian artist Ipan. A sample chapter will be posted soon. For more info, follow this blog or leave a message below.

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

The Relevance of Past Futures: “Voices From the Radium Age”

by Rick Ouellette

This is a great collection of early 20th century science fiction, and it has plenty to say to us early 21st century readers. It is part of the revelatory “Radium Age” series from MIT Press that includes several novels; all are graced with eye-catching retro-style covers courtesy of the Canadian graphic artist Seth. This era is labeled as such by the editors for the discovery of radium by Madam Curie in 1898, which symbolically launched us into the volatile new century. It can be considered the second great phase of futuristic fiction, the writers here (many are household names) building on the 19th century foundation put in place by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.

The highlight for me was re-reading the astounding novelette “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster from 1909. He wrote it in between “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” but this is something else altogether. Maybe it takes 100 years of foregrounding to so accurately see into our dysfunctional world of all-pervasive interconnecting technology. Here, the world’s population now lives one-to-a-room and entirely underground, due to environmental catastrophe (naturally). All human needs and instantaneous communications are provided uniformly by the all-pervasive Machine. Many people pass their days on the proto-Internet, subjecting each other to banal informational forums under the guise of being “Lecturers” (today better known as “influencers”). This includes the main character Vashti, a middle-aged woman whose son is one of the few rebelling against the dull homogeneity.  Vashti does not have time for her son’s desire for corporeal adventuring, after all she is a popular lecturer and “knew several thousand people.” Mr. Forster delivers a sick burn from the past by adding, “In certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” A sort of eerie singularity has been “achieved,” and mankind has forgotten that it invented the Machine so is now subservient to it— hence totally helpless in the event of the major malfunction promised by the title.

A poster from one of the many theatrical productions of Forster’s masterwork in recent years.

 There a few other standouts among the seven longish stories that make up “Voices From the Radium Age”: “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1913), is an early bi-plane super adventure, not unlike Poe’s tall tales of hot-air balloon exploits, where a daring (if unlucky) aeronaut finds an unwelcoming “air jungle” in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s a fascinating new look at the Sherlock Holmes author and another volume from this series features two dinosaur-populated novellas featuring his Professor Challenger character, “The Lost World” and “The Poison Belt.”

Another riveting entry is “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920). It is taken from a book by the African-American author and NAACP co-founder called “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil” which combined personal essays with fantasy fiction. His protagonist Jim is a low-ranking employee from Harlem who works at a bank on the corner of Wall St. and Broadway. He is asked to retrieve some records from a vault far beneath the ground, since going down there “was too dangerous for more valuable men.” Just then, a comet spewing a deadly gas passes over Manhattan and when Jim emerges on ground level everyone he can see is dead. He makes a grim journey thru the city until finding what he thinks is the only other survivor: a wealthy white woman from the Upper East Side. Will this be the unlikely couple to restart the human race? Considered a blueprint example of the Afro-Futurist genre, Du Bois’ astringent viewpoint also has the moral backbone (and twist ending) of a great lost “Twilight Zone” episode. (Also in this series is the 1903 novel “Of One Blood” by Boston-based writer Pauline Hopkins, a visionary tale of a uncolonized, high-tech African nation visited by a mixed-race Harvard student).

W.E.B Du Bois (left) and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

In a further gambit to move “Voices From the Radium Age” beyond sf’s usual white male perspective, editor Joshua Glen opens this collection with the table-turning fable “Sultana’s Dream” by Bengali author-educator-activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905). Her title character is transported to Ladyland, a sustainable Eden where green technology is more advanced than we see today, and where it’s the menfolk (survivors of a calamitous war) who are now kept inside to do the (solar-powered) cooking. This feminist wish-fulfillment, although penned with a light touch, struck deep for Begum Rokeya (as she was posthumously known) who swam against a heavy tide for women’s rights in India, and who established the first girl’s school in Calcutta. (Another Radium-Age book that also explores this theme is “A World of Women” by J.D. Beresford, first published in 1913).

Far less enlightened, but still well worth a look, is “The Red One” by Jack London (1918). One of London’s South Seas tales, a researcher and (mis)adventurer lands on Guadalcanal after hitching a ride on a “blackbirder” (just one class below a straight-up slave ship). He is soon enraptured by a periodic, all-encompassing, haunting, heavenly sound. He takes an ill-considered trip to the inhospitable interior of the island, all the while denigrating the native population (esp. his female guide) with racist language that is appalling even for its era. There’s not enough discernible separation between the author and his character to let Jack off the hook here. Too bad, because the intrigue of the premise, sort of a tropical equivalent of the Monolith-on-Moon scenes in “2001,” is promising. Kudos to the editor and publisher for exposing London’s transgressions but not “cancelling” a story that merits inclusion but not admiration.

The complete (for now) Radium Age collection from MIT Press

Two other stories round out this collection. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” from 1907 (with it’s all-too-modern strains of a runaway virus and isolation), and 1931’s “The Jameson Satellite” by “Amazing Stories” icon Neil R. Jones (the first of his many Professor Jameson tales, with the unfrozen title teacher living in a far, far-off future) also have their moments of forewarning. Perhaps my big takeaway from this book, a must-have sf fans ready to cast a wide net, is that one need not be a Nostradamus for far-reaching prognostications like the ones found between the covers here. Evidence of the past AND future is all around us (Poe, in his side gig as a science reporter, wrote about global warming in the 1840s). Human knowledge is a great long continuum where people’s imagination and principles can often out-run the times, just as historians find novel nuances in past events. And that maybe we need that perspective from the past to better come to terms with our own present predicaments.

Books That Rock: “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” by Ryan H. Walsh

The chaotic and convoluted process that would yield one of pop music’s most revolutionary and acclaimed albums is the story that anchors this captivating 2018 work by Ryan H. Walsh. Van Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he first came to prominence with the group Them. By 1968, in the aftermath of his surprise solo hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Morrison was living in a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts not far from Harvard Square. That year saw a whole host of decade-defining events and personalities criss-crossing each other in the greater Boston area. Walsh uses the making of Van’s cerebral classic as a philosophical thread that stitches them together.

There have been many good-to-great music books in recent years that focus on one particular year of the Sixties or Seventies. These books generally use one of two marketing strategies: superlatives (“1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music”) or the promise of esoteric information (“Fire and Rain: The Lost Story of 1970”). “Astral Weeks” goes the second route and one can assume the “secret history” is what Walsh determines it is. But that’s all good for people pre-disposed to the subjects at hand. This is an obsessively researched book with a Holy Grail-type quest at its center: Walsh’s search for a rumored tape recording of a Boston nightclub gig where much of “Astral Weeks” was played a month before the iconic album was cut in New York City.

Van Morrison performing on Boston Common, April 1968

Walsh casts a pretty wide net here, so Van fans should be forewarned. Also central to his story is the twisted tale of the cultish commune led by the mysterious Mel Lyman, a guy who went from a humble harmonica player in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band to a messianic figurehead of a community who owned a block of houses on Boston’s Fort Hill, topped by a water tower made to look like a fairy-tale tower. There are detailed anecdotes of student antiwar protests (esp. at Boston University) and about Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (nee, Richard Alpert), whose exploits in the promotion of psychedelics at Harvard was national news. But many of the offshoot topics here concern music. For pop history completists, there is a deep-dive retelling of MGM Record’s ill-fated “Bosstown Sound” hype, many pages devoted to the Velvet Underground for whom Boston clubs were a home-away-from-home (fifteen trips up from NYC in ’68), and the momentous concert James Brown gave at the old Boston Garden on the same night as Martin Luther King’s assassination: an event that the new mayor, Kevin White, arranged to have televised live to keep potential rioting at bay (it worked).

By 1971, Mel Lyman was notorious enough to warrant a cover story in Rolling Stone.

One thing that does join together many of these disparate elements is an overarching spiritual quest that informed much of the late Sixties. But in a related takeaway, we see that this process is not all sweetness and light. Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” is practically rock’s Exhibit A when it comes to enlightenment-seeking. Not surprisingly, this crusade didn’t exactly translate into everyday life: a choice Van anecdote is him drinking in the admiration of L.A. hitmakers The Association after a gig on Cape Cod, then calling them a bunch of “faggots” as soon as they were out of earshot. Morrison does have a long history of epic crankiness, though he did make a friend in Peter Wolf, singer for the local band Hallucinations (and later, of course, with J. Geils) and he invited Morrison to come up on stage to sing with him at the city’s premier rock club, the Boston Tea Party.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.” The title (and lead-off) track to Morrison’s soul-searching testament.

The venue was housed in a building that was built in 1870 to commemorate the Rev. Theodore Parker, the noted Transcendentalist, social reformer and abolitionist who believed that Spiritualism was going to become the “religion of America.” Maybe not, but the Tea Party did become a “cathedral of the hippie era.” Those angel vibes certainly must have been conducive to the spirit of the age. Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed, more known for his streetwise lyrics, was an avid follower of New Age pioneer author Alice Bailey. In fact, Reed, who has a reputation as being ornery as Van, comes across very well here. The story of how he and the Velvets mentored singer-songwriter/local hero Jonathan Richman (then a suburban teenager) is one of Walsh’s more likable side stories. Richman would later form the proto-punk Modern Lovers, who would go on to make the Boston-rock anthem “Roadrunner” and, interestingly, “Astral Plane.”

The Velvets at the Boston Tea Party in Dec. of 1968 and a very raw version of “White Light/White Heat.” It’s a song said to be influenced by Reed’s devotion to the book “A Treatise on White Magic” by theosophist Alice Bailey. Accompanied by film images by Andy Warhol & Co.

And then on the lowest end of the spectrum is Mel Lyman, the kind of two-bit scumbag that often found themselves elevated in the well-meaning but not always wised-up Sixties. As a musician, his biggest claim to fame was playing a soothing 30-minute harmonica solo to the passed-over folkies who had just booed Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Lyman tapped into that reactionary energy to become the megalomaniac leader of his ultra-conservative commune. It was a scene marked by bullying, misogyny and an upfront volatility that ol’ Mel had no problem with (more than a few visitors were threatened at gunpoint). The best thing you could say about Lyman’s “family” is that they didn’t lapse into wholesale butchery like the Mansons. After Mel did everyone a favor by croaking in 1978, the commune developed their building/design business and to this day a now-multigenerational group still live behind the walls of their Fort Hill compound.

Walsh, to his credit, gives a fair definitive accounting of the Lyman gang and how they were intertwined with the area’s counterculture. He ends “Astral Days” with an impassioned overview of that album’s lasting influence on everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Martin Scorsese. Considering his great admiration for Morrison’s piece de resistance (and to the great early-to-mid 70s titles that followed) it’s probably a blessing that the book came out before Van’s recent descent into extreme anti-vax and conspiracy phase of the last few years. What a long, strange trip (as they say) and classic-rock music fans and students of Sixties culture should enjoy this novel and absorbing look at the weird, wonderful year that was 1968.

The Original New Green Deal: “Soylent” Comes of Age

It’s Earth Day 2022, the same year that was the future setting of the iconic (and oft-parodied) 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green.” So it’s the perfect time to look back at the cinematic world presented therein. The whole planet is besieged by overpopulation, economic meltdown and by an ecological Armageddon. The particular setting is an overwhelmed New York City of 40 million inhabitants (half of them unemployed) most of whom have little to eat except the sickly-green wafers of the title.

Of course, it’s not much of a spoiler anymore to mention what SG is made from (it’s PEOPLE!!!). The big reveal here is just as well-known as the twist ending of the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” (it’s a COOKBOOK!!!). It’s still a good watch, a vintage 70s potboiler starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Chuck Connors, along with several notable actors in smaller roles. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, using Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!” as its source material. The film’s opening montage–a visual timeline that moves from a 19th century idyll to our present day problems of pollution, runaway mass consumption, poverty and strife–sets the table pretty convincingly.

Bad news for the hipsters: That’s not avocado toast we’re looking at.

But don’t go in expecting a lot of prophetic material. “Soylent Green” is at heart a future-set police procedural with Heston as Detective Thorn who, while investigating the murder of a wealthy man, finds out he has much more than a simple homicide on his hands. Food as we still know it today is the preserve of the very wealthy, along with other luxuries like running water, soap, and linens. This is income equality on steroids.

Thorn seeks to even the score a bit when he goes to investigate at the luxury apartment of the murdered man—the Soylent Corp. executive played by Joseph Cotten before he was unceremoniously dispatched. While still questioning the man’s assigned concubine or “furniture” named Shirl (played by the doe-eyed beauty Taylor-Young) he grabs a silk pillowcase from the bedroom and, with no pretext, fills it with food, liquor and a bar of that soap. Thorn returns to the small bare-bones apartment he shares with Sol (Edward G. Robinson), the old-timer intellectual (or “book”) with whom he works on cases.

The scene where the two man luxuriate over real food and good bourbon is a humorous highlight of this often bleak film. Robinson is very good here as the wise old man who discovers the Soylent Secret from company books Thorn found in the dead man’s flat. It was EGR’s 101st and last screen role and he died twelve days after shooting wrapped, making his famous scene at the euthanasia center all the more poignant. Heston obviously loves working with him and Robinson’s influence gives Heston’s usual granite presence some needed soft edges.

But there’s still a world-gone-berserk out there to deal with, which brings us to “Soylent Green’s” notorious food-riot centerpiece. When the SG supply runs out one day the crowd gets very unhappy very quickly, and the riot control front-end loaders are brought in post-haste. This spectacle, hyped-up due to the illustrated exaggeration in the movie’s poster, has many non-believers. Gene Siskel, in his one-and-a-half star review, warned viewers they “may never stop laughing.” (to be fair, his future TV partner Roger Ebert gave the movie 3 stars). The fact that most people caught in the shovel just don’t jump back to the ground shows that believability was sacrificed for cost considerations and thematic point-scoring.

Because let’s face it, this is not a big-budget production. Instead of a truly horrifying people scooper, they just used whatever public-works truck was available. And although there are a few good forbidding futurescapes, most of the exterior shots used the same old Manhattan/brownstone “streets” that Hollywood had been utilizing on their backlots since the Forties. So while “Soylent Green” wants to be taken seriously it often lacks both the monetary and cerebral heft to do so.

But you get some good B-movie action–the chases and shootouts and the bedroom scene with Heston and Taylor-Young–and a cast worth watching. There’s Chuck “Rifleman” Connors as the shady bodyguard, Whit “Time Tunnel” Bissell as the corrupt governor, veteran character actress Celia Lovsky as Sol’s librarian colleague and, as Thorn’s superior back at the precinct, we have Brock Peters who, a decade before, played the doomed Tom Robinson in the famous film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

So, a lot to look at here if you’re considering a re-look or if you’re a young one approaching “Soylent Green” for the first time—just don’t expect a lot of Nostradamus action. Sure, the scarifying opening montage still holds weight but our world of woes is still destined to suffer the death of a thousand little cuts instead of this film’s Gotterdammerung. I guess we can be grateful that the masses aren’t being used for mass-produced food: at least not yet. However, I did recently notice that there is now an actual “meal replacement” product named Soylent (check it out on Wikipedia). So who knows, maybe 2022 is later than we think.

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please leave a message in the comments. The book is only $12 including mailing within the U.S.

Also, if interested join my “Rock Docs” Facebook group.

Click on the link below to see the first “Rock Docs” book sampler.

The Calliope Crashed to the Ground: Whatever Happened to the Asbury Park Casino?

Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette

Opened in 1929 and designed by the same architects who conceived of Grand Central station in New York (Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore), the Asbury Park Casino was a monumental Beaux Arts complex that spread out over both sides of the boardwalk in what was then one of New Jersey’s premier oceanside resorts. Behind its ornamental limestone and concrete façade was a concert hall, a cinema, and indoor ice-skating rink, arcades, restaurants, and even year-round accommodations.

In the antique postcard world, the complex looked the very ideal of City Beautiful movement.

The Casino (so defined here as a place of entertainment, not gambling) anchored the southern end of the Asbury beachfront. The northern end featured another immense structure that straddled the boardwalk: the equally grand Convention Center and Paramount Theater. In between were all sorts of amusements, rides, and eateries. Asbury Park along with other similarly structured cities on the Jersey Shore, had their heyday in the simpler times of 50 to 100+ years ago, when the living was more modest and long-distance vacation destinations far less accessible.

Boarded but unbowed. The Casino in the mid-Nineties. Photo by author.

While places like Atlantic City and Wildwood still hold forth to a greater or lesser degree, Asbury Park took a massive body blow that has been especially hard to come back from. And it wasn’t just shifting societal trends or superhighways and jumbo jets that caused this decline. Mass riots in the city that broke out on July 4th, 1970 and raged for days. When it was over, the main business avenue of the city’s African-American neighborhood burned down, most of it was never rebuilt.

Looking out at the AP boardwalk from what remains of the Casino’s portal, 2017. Photo by author.

The windswept boardwalk started looking like a ghost town, but at the same time a tightly-knit (and racially integrated) community of rock ‘n’ roll and soul musicians started making a big noise in local nightclubs like the Stone Pony and Upstage. Chief among them, of course, was a young, determined and ambitious Bruce Springsteen, who hailed from nearby Freehold. A postcard of the city would adorn the cover of his debut album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” Though there are no direct references to the town (there would be plenty on his next album’s standout ballad “Sandy”), there is a more subtle and symbolic allusion. In the first verse of the first song, the classic word-drunk rave-up “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce is “trippin’ the merry-go-round” between adolescence and young adulthood with a colorful cast of characters. But the background scenery is not as fresh with promise—by the end of the verse “the calliope crashed to the ground.”

The Carousel House still retains much of its exterior charm, including grotesques giving you the side-eye!

And so it would be for the Casino. The building lost favor and deteriorated, attractions closed and the painted ponies were auctioned off. On my first visit to AP in 1995, the circular Carousel House now was a games arcade, the rest of the complex was shuttered. In the back corner of the arcade, you could see what remained of the skating hall (see top photo) giving some idea of the great interior scale of the place. At that time, the beachside part of the Casino was still standing. But disinvestment and the ravages of time and tide and storms would eventually lead to demolition.

The Casino’s boardwalk passageway, then and now, Bottom photo by author.

My second visit to Asbury Park, in 2017, saw half of it gone, the walk-thru was thrashed, enlivened only by the bright and sensuous mermaid murals. The Carousel House is still the only part of it that’s open, nowadays used as an indoor skateboard park.

A renovation of what is left looks unlikely, although it is on the city’s wish list. But Asbury Park is a funny place: it seems to be in a tug-of-war between decay and rejuvenation. The town has a strong arts and LGBQT community, condos are going up, and the music scene is still a factor.

The Paramount Theater today, Convention Center in backgroud (Wikipedia photo)

At this late date it is hard to see how AP could ever sustain two large-scale complexes, especially given the lofty architectural standards of a bygone era. The Convention Center and Paramount are in good shape, a new restaurant has taken over the great old space-age Howard Johnson’s and further up the boardwalk is the wonderful Silverball Retro Arcade and the fortune-telling booth of Bruce’s late friend Madam Marie: still run by her family. So there is still plenty of life left in Asbury Park. But for the Casino, it may be a case of the bigger they come they harder they fall or, in the best case, the smaller they’ll be if ever re-habbed.