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I’m ringing out the old year by doing a massive overhaul of my iPod’s contents. For Christmas my best friend gave me a 500 GB external hard drive that contained all the music in his collection, plus thousands of songs from two other friends. I have no idea how many songs there are in all, but it certainly numbers in the thousands. It’s like finding an entire record store—a quirky one—tucked away under the tree.

I’ve spent the last few days trolling through the files trying to figure out what I need to add first. The hard drive includes tons of stuff that I have on vinyl and cassette but not in digital format, so I added things from the Swimming Pool Qs, the Housemartins, XTC’s Skylarking and a slew of songs from the great cowpunk band Rank & File. One library contains dozens and dozens of TV theme songs, so I put on “The Rockford Files” (I had purchased the single when it came out) and a version of the glorious and glamorous theme from The Avengers. There’s stuff I’ve always wanted but never owned, including The Modern Lovers. There aren’t many songs that can get me pumped the way “Roadrunner” does. I’ve found tons of individual songs that I’ve always liked but never owned, including “Do You Want to Hold Me” by Bow Wow Wow and “Digging Your Scene” by the Blow Monkeys. The only digital version of Frank Zappa’s “Montana” that I had was the single version, which ditches the guitar solo (!).I finally have the song in all its string-bending glory.

And I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Of course, adding new songs to the iPod means ditching some old stuff. I feel bad whenever I purge something from the iPod. It’s like laying off a loyal employee. How can I diss Stevie Wonder by dumping Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life? Well, I made up for it a little bit by adding Talking Book. A friend had loaned me his copy of Nick Lowe’s two-disc Quiet Please and I had loaded all 40+ songs on the iPod, but now it’s time for someone else to use those megabytes. In this case some are now eaten up by some songs that Lowe produced for his then-wife Carlene Carter, and some more to the Brian Eno/John Cale collaboration, Wrong Way Up, an album I previously had only on a cassette buried in a box in my furnace room. Oingo Boingo’s Nothing to Fear stepped aside to make room for Danny Elfman’s So Lo. Just to make sure I don’t get hopelessly mired in nostalgia, I also threw on some Arctic Monkeys. I’ve heard very little of their music, but I get the sense you have to know them if you want to claim any shred of hipness. Or maybe that was three years ago. At my age I’ll take whatever hipness I can stumble across.

I added Pictures on a String by a band called the Comateens. They were a trio—two guys (brothers) and a girl—and I interviewed them for the little rock magazine I edited in Boston. That must have been around 1984 and I really enjoyed their quirky dance rock. The next night the band was playing at Bates College in Maine and they told me they didn’t know anyone up there, so I could add as many people to the guest list as I could find. I put the call out to family and friends in Maine and I drove up with Fred, a guy I knew from high school who was living near Boston at the time. We all had a great time, and my contributions to the guest list made up a disappointingly large percentage of the audience. Well, the losers at Bates didn’t know what they missed. I fell asleep on the drive back, with my knees jammed up against Fred’s glove compartment. That’s where he kept his tape deck but rather than wake me up, he listened to the same tape all the way home. That struck me as a truly selfless act. (It also reminds me of a Steven Wright joke, in which he told how he once drove across the country with only a single tape to listen to. “I can’t remember what it was,” he said.)

I also added a great Isley Brothers collection. I have a “best of” collection on vinyl, but nothing iPod-capable. Now I do. I’ve always loved “That Lady” and its soaring guitar solos. To me it’s the quintessence of the 1970s. I particularly recall one early morning when I was in the car with my father and my brother on the way to go duck hunting. It was cold outside, it was brutally early, but the car was warm and I was half asleep in the back seat as we headed through the darkness down to the coast, tires humming hypnotically on the blacktop. On the radio, fading in and out of the static like something from a fever dream, I heard “That Lady.” I think of that every time I hear that song.

That was a long time ago—back when we lived in an analog world. Times sure have changed.

Happy Digital New Year!

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I first heard Kirsty MacColl on the late, great WHFS back in Washington. This was back when it was still a family-owned station and they played lots of great stuff you weren’t likely to hear elsewhere.

The two MacColl songs they played then were the singles “He’s on the Beach” and “A New England.” I loved them both. They had chiming guitars and strong pop hooks, with soaring vocals and snappy arrangements. Eventually I tracked down copies of the two singles at a used record store in Silver Spring, but I wanted more. I found a collection of her early stuff at Tower Records, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It didn’t have the same poptastic arrangements as the two singles. And then Kite came out.

Kite (1989) remains one of my desert island discs. It’s as close to perfect as an album gets. Each song is a gem. Most of them are Kirsty’s own tunes, which create a portrait of a slightly acerbic exterior that hides a vulnerable, wounded heart within. On a few of the songs the vulnerability doesn’t even both to hide–it’s right there in the open. Kirsty could spit in your eye with the best of them on songs like “Innocence,” “No Victims,” and “15 Minutes,” but on a song like “Mother’s Ruin” she could break your heart. The production, by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite, is pop nirvana. Guitarist Johnny Marr (ex-Smiths) provides plenty of the chiming guitar I like, and Lillywhite multi-tracks the vocals until they became a Kirsty choir. That’s especially true on “Days,” her cover of the Kinks song. It starts somewhat quietly but builds in spectacular fashion as the song swells into a chorus of heavenly Kirstys. Fans of stripped-down production should look elsewhere but for me Kite is a rich and wonderful treat for the ears.

MacColl followed up Kite with more excellent albums–Electric Landlady (1991), Titanic Days (1993) , and the Latin-tinged Tropical Brainstorm (2000)–but in my opinion none of them were as good as Kite, although Electric Landlady came close. Kirsty also sang backup vocals for a variety of artists, including Talking Heads, the Smiths, the Wonder Stuff, and the Rolling Stones. She sang on one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” I still get chills when she comes in on that song, dueting with Shane McGowan and exchanging barb for barb. “I could have been someone,” McGowan proclaims. “So could anyone,” she retorts, her voice shining and cutting like a bright razor blade.

The reason I’m writing this today is because it’s the ninth anniversary of Kirsty MacColl’s death. She died on December 18, 2009, while on vacation with her children in Mexico. They had been scuba diving in an area off-limits to motorboats when a boat nonetheless came through. Kirsty managed to push one of her children out of the way before the boat struck and killed her. 

I was at work on the day I heard the news. I remember feeling a shock as though I had been hit in the gut. It was so sudden, so tragic, so unnecessary.

The boat belonged to a wealthy Mexican businesman. He said an employee of his had been driving. The employee served some jail time; the fat cat did not. After the accident Kirsty’s mother launched a campaign to reopen an enquiry, but I just learned today that she ended the fight two weeks ago once the Mexican government declared the case officially closed. You can find more about the case and her fight at www.justiceforkirsty.org.

I had one chance to see Kirsty MacColl play live. She appeared at a club in the Washington area–I think it was the Birchmere–and my wife and I had tickets. But on the day of the show my very young daughter came down with a strep throat, so we stayed home. A friend of a co-worker came all the way to our house in the suburbs to buy our tickets, taking the Metro and then trudging the rest of the way through a grim winter’s day. He later called me to say thanks and tell me it had been a great show. I regret missing it but I’m sure that Kirsty, who died trying to save her children, would have understood.

While walking today I played the four of her songs I had loaded on the iPod. I listened to “Walking Down Madison” from Electric Landlady, and then three songs I had recently purchased from iTunes, “A New England,” He’s on the Beach,” and “Please Go to Sleep.” The last song, the B side from “He’s on the Beach,” is really just extended version of the long, mostly instrumental passage that ends the extended version of the A-side. The addition of a sad and haunting violin passage behind Kirsty’s multi-tracked non-verbal vocals makes it a melancholy piece of music. It was the perfect thing to listen to on this sad anniversary.

(December 11, 2009)

It’s cold as ice . . .

No, that doesn’t mean I’ve been listening to Foreigner. It just means that winter has arrived. On a couple of days this week I shifted my walk to the afternoon—on Wednesday because the snow had turned to rain and Thursday because I just couldn’t get motivated to get out in the morning. Afternoon walks are just fine, though, especially in the winter when the western sky is tinted the color of wheat and flocks of ducks fly down the creek, with the setting sun turning their underwings orange as they bank.

For me this is comic book weather. It reminds me of the times back in the seventies when I would walk through wintertime Augusta, Maine, on my twice-weekly rounds to buy comic books. I was a pretty serious comic-book collector throughout high school and I must have amassed thousands of them. At first I kept them in little stacks on a little metal shelf in my bedroom. Eventually they began taking up more and more room in my closet. At some point I put them in big steamer trunks. I sold one trunkful to finance my move to Washington, D.C., in 1985. Just a few weeks ago I sold my copy of Fantastic Four #1 on eBay for $510. I had purchased it when I was in high school for $25, but the price was low because someone (not me, I hasten to add) had clipped the muscle-man ad from the inside front cover.

Back then the two newsstands in Augusta received their new books and magazines on Wednesdays and Fridays. During the temperate months I rode my bike to the newsstands to see what had come in, but in the winter—on days like yesterday and today—I made the circuit on foot and felt the bite of the cold winter air in my lungs as I clomped around town in my winter boots. First I’d head downtown to Depot News, a rundown place on the edge of downtown that doubled as the city’s Greyhound station. It smelled of cigars and even in the 1970s it felt like something from a black-and-white film. Sometimes I’d reach Depot News before they had put their new arrivals out, so I’d continue my hike up the hill in the direction of the State Capitol building to State Street News. It didn’t have the same downtown vibe as Depot News but by the time I got there they usually had their comics out.  I’d make my purchases and complete the circuit by walking across the Memorial Bridge, up the long hill past the high school, and back home.

I read Marvel comics almost exclusively. Superhero comics were okay, but I preferred horror and science fiction titles. My two favorites were Man-Thing and Tomb of Dracula. Man-Thing, in fact, was the comic that sparked my collecting mania. One summer day I read one of his adventures in the comic Adventure into Fear and I thought it was pretty cool. I decided I would keep this comic book and my collection began to grow around it.

The Man-thing was a swamp creature, a mindless, shambling monstrosity of muck and mire that had once been scientist Ted Sallis. He had big red eyes, three root-like growths that formed his face, and powerful ape-like arms. The comic often called him “macabre,” a great word. Man-thing lived in the Everglades, which happened to be a nexus of realities where parallel dimensions met and bizarre things often happened. Unlike his D.C comics counterpart Swamp Thing, the macabre Man-thing could neither think nor speak, but he could respond to emotions, especially fear. It was best not to fear the Man-Thing, because whatever knows fear burns at the Man-thing’s touch.

It was a strange comic, switching back and forth from somewhat ham-fisted morality tales to surreal otherworldly adventures (one of which introduced the cult character Howard the Duck). I was either oblivious to or just ignored the somewhat ribald nature of the name (made even more obvious in the jumbo spin-off comic, Giant-Sized Man-Thing).

Tomb of Dracula was even better. Written for most of its run by a guy whose name was really Marv Wolfman, it spun a complex saga of gothic horror, with Dracula himself a complicated central character. He was evil, no doubt about that, but he also had a beleaguered nobility about him. Best of all, he was illustrated by the Gene Colan, one of the great comic-book artists. Colan had a very fluid way of drawing—as though gravity ebbed and pulsed in ways that stretched his characters and panels in all directions. It was a bold and dynamic style that worked to great effect in other Marvel comics, especially Dr. Strange and Daredevil. I though Colan was at his best in Dracula, in part because of the fine inking by a guy named Tom Palmer. Colan drew the pencil sketches and Palmer would add the depth with his inks, and you could always tell Palmer’s work. He made other illustrators look good, too, but he and Colan made a perfect match.

I was in horror comic book heaven when Dracula teamed up with the title character from another comic I liked, Werewolf by Night. The match prompted me to take pen in hand and write to Marvel. Imagine my delight weeks later when I received a postcard telling me that my letter would appear in Tomb of Dracula #22 (and so it did). I guess that must have been my first published writing. I still have the postcard and I keep it tucked inside the comic book.

After I sold the Fantastic Four on eBay I took out my bins of comics and went through those colorful pieces of my past. Strangely enough, though, I found I lacked the patience to actually read any of them cover to cover. I never felt guilty reading them when they were new, but now I feel I should be tending to more important things. I guess that’s one of the burdens of growing up.

Yesterday I kept the iPod on shuffle as I walked through the cold, wintry neighborhood. Nothing really grabbed me until I heard “One Fine Day” from the David Byrne/Brian Eno CD Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It fell just short of inspirational, but it did lift my spirits considerably. As I made my way up the final hill a school bus stopped at the top and disgorged a couple of kids, who ran down the hill toward their waiting mom. One of them stopped to pick up a big chunk of frozen snow crust and went running down the sidewalk with his prize clutched in his bare hands—I assume he wanted it because it was a really big chunk of frozen snow crust, something that was cool in more ways than one. You value things differently when you’re a kid.

The other day I was trudging around the neighborhood and I just couldn’t find a song that interested me. I felt like a pitcher shaking off sign after sign. A song would pop up and I’d give the iPod a shake and try the next one. This happened time after time. And these are songs I’ve hand-picked, so I like them all. But on this day nothing worked for me.

Then the iPod came up with “You’ll Never Know” by the Primitons, and I knew I had found the right music to bring me back home.

Set the Wayback Machine for 1985, Sherman. That’s the year Boston’s Throbbing Lobster Records released the Primitons’ self-titled seven-song EP. The Primitons were a band from Birmingham, Alabama, with some strange names and a great sound. Mots Roden played guitar and sang, and Leif Bondarenko drummed and played, yes, accordion. I’ve read that Roden is Swedish, although his name sounds like something from a science-fiction novel. I’ve also read that the band evolved out of a Birmingham act called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits. Stephanie Truelove Wright wrote the lyrics. A guy named Brad Dorset was in the band too, although I don’t know if he played guitar or bass. [Note: See Brad Dorset’s comment on this post. He did play bass, and a mighty fine bass it was, too.] Mitch Easter produced. He had co-produced R.E.M.’s early albums (with Don Dixon), so it’s no surprise that the Primitons share some musical elements with Athens’ favorite sons, like a penchant for quasi-jangly pop music with interlocking vocals.

Most likely the Primitons would never have entered my musical horizons had I not written an article about Throbbing Lobster for a then-new music magazine called Spin. Its publisher and editor was Bob Guccione, Jr., the son of the man behind Penthouse magazine. At the time I was editing a tiny, obscure rock/entertainment magazine in Brighton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. The magazine must have received promotional materials about Spin for somehow I got in touch with them and they assigned me to do a story about Throbbing Lobster. The label was the baby of Chuck Warner, an enthusiastic and energetic young guy (actually three years older than I was at the time) who got his start selling mail-order records. Throbbing Lobster had some decent bands, and Warner had released some really good compilations called Let’s Breed and Nobody Gets on the Guest List.

I recently stumbled across my file for that article and stared in shock and horror at what I found. I wrote the thing on a typewriter, for one thing, and I made Frankenstein-like drafts by cutting up my old attempts into pieces and taping them back together in different order until I got things where I wanted. It’s the opposite of the way William S. Burroughs achieved chaos with his cut-and-paste technique. I struggled to find coherence. I don’t know how I ever managed to finish the thing, but eventually I sent it off to Spin and waited anxiously to see it in print.

By the time it did, I was living in Washington, D.C., and working near Capital Hill. On my lunch hour I would make my way through the jungle-humid DC heat, past the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court, to a newsstand on Pennsylvania Avenue to see if the magazine had arrived. If it hadn’t, I trudged back to work, disappointed and sweaty. Finally the magazine arrived. Keith Richards was on the cover, and my article was near the back. It bore some resemblance to what I had written, although the editors had decided, on their own, that the Blackjacks song “(That’s Why I Always) Dress in Black” must have been Johnny Cash cover. It wasn’t, and I recall my mortification when I realized that everyone back in Boston would think the mistake was mine. I called Chuck Warner and left a message on his voicemail that it was not my fault.

Anyway. I survived, and I was still on the Throbbing Lobster mailing list later that summer when the mailman brought a cardboard box with two records—an EP by Boston band O Positive and Primitons.

[Note: After further reflection, I believe the second record in the box was Claws, the third Throbbing Lobster compilation. O Positive’s Only Breathing came out later. It is a wonderful record, though. I guess I’ll have to retrieve it from the record closet and give it a spin one of these days.]

I honestly can’t recall my first reactions to the Primitons record. I probably liked it fine. I know I liked the O Positive record and I’m sure I liked getting free records in the mail. I guess Primitons grew on me as I came to appreciate its perfect guitar-oriented pop, and its two achingly beautiful ballads (“City People,” with some strong R.E. M influences and terrific harmonies, and “She Sleeps”). It also had a small dose of dose of black humor in “You’ll Never Know.” (Sample lyric: “You’ll never know what to do/If Jesus or the atom bomb break through” Or is it “Jesus saw the atom bomb break through”?)

 “You’ll Never Know” is excellent, but it just sets things up for my favorite song of them all, “Stars.” It opens with a great, grinding guitar lick, and then the drums come in, and finally a propulsive bass line kicks grabs the song by the scruff of the neck and give it a boot. (You could almost say the bass makes the song, but it’s all great. Trust me.) The lyrics, I guess, are about how the transformative powers of love can lift you from the mire and disappointment that you’ve made of your life after the calendar pages spin by and you find you’re still stuck in a dead-end existence in your old home town.

 Nothing left to burn but the bridges that we’ve spanned.
24 years go by, no changes planned.
Nothing changes overnight, but I think I can
When I’m with you.

 It’s one of the few that songs that I can start all over again as soon as it’s finished.

Primitons never became available on CD—at least not until I handed my vinyl copy to my friend Bill, who had our friend Mike convert it to digital files. I loaded it on the iPod recently with a giddy sense of anticipation, and I swear that on the next morning walk “Stars” sounded so great and inspirational and inspired it brought tears to my eyes.

The Primitons released another album, Happy All the Time, in 1987. I remember the great delight I felt when I found it at a record store on Connecticut Avenue in Washington one day. (I later found the Reivers’ Pop Beloved at that same store. I don’t think I bought anything else there, but I owe the place a huge debt of gratitude.) Happy All the Time doesn’t quite reach the heights attained by the first EP, but it’s another superb album, especially “You Are Learning,” which almost achieves the same passionate pop transcendence of the earlier work.

So, is “Stars” the greatest song ever recorded? Right now it is.

[Note: I see that Chuck Warner still has vinyl copies of the Primitons ep available through his website.]