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I’ve recently added some new tunes to the iPod, thanks for Father’s Day gifts. Three CDs that pretty much run the gamut. Something old, something new, but nothing borrowed or blue. Taken together I gradually realized, these three CDs wind like a thread through three phases of my life from across the country—L.A., MA, D.C., and PA.

The new one is The Pursuit by Jamie Cullum. I first heard of this guy when I was in Scotland, of all places, driving around while researching a magazine article about James Boswell. I had the car radio on, naturally, and was listening to a BBC Sunday-morning jazz program. Some guy was playing a standard, one of those “Great American Songbook” things that Rod Stewart has since used to rejuvenate his career, but I thought this sounded pretty darned good.

Now, I am not a praying man myself, but I may have asked for a little heavenly intervention at that point. “Please, God,” I thought, “let this not be Harry Connick, Jr.”

I’ve never been a fan of Junior, if truth be told. Normally I could pretty much ignore him but there was a time when it seemed I couldn’t mention my appreciation for Frank Sinatra without someone piping up, “I like Harry Connick, Jr. He’s a lot like Sinatra.”

That’s like saying, “I like my whisky straight,” and having someone else add, “I know what you’re saying. I enjoy Coors Light.” It’s not the same thing. Not at all.

Anyway, as I listened to this guy on the radio I was thinking, “If this is Harry Connick, Jr., then I will have a lot of words to eat.” Fortunately for my digestive system, it was not the Big Easy’s favorite son. Instead it was some British kid named Jamie Cullum. He did standards like “I Get a Kick out of You,” but also covers of “The Wind Cries Mary” and Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” It all sound pretty darned good.

Once back in Central Pennsylvania I searched out the Cullum oeuvre but the only album out here was his self-titled first CD. I sampled a few tracks at Barnes and Noble and came away a little disappointed. It wasn’t as dynamic as what I’d heard him do live on the radio. A few weeks later, though, Twentysomething came out and I felt vindicated. It had all the songs I’d heard him do on the BBC, and a whole bunch more. It was a wonderful album. In fact, it remains and one of the few CDs that the whole family (two adults and two teenagers) can listen to together. We had one family camping trip the spring Twentysomething came out and it rained buckets, but we all sat under a tin-roofed camping pavilion and listened to Cullum’s version of “Singing in the Rain,” and it was all okay.

I hesitated about getting The Pursuit because I had heard it lacked standards and that most of the songs were Cullum originals. I shouldn’t have worried. The album starts off with a stomping version of “Just One of Those Things,” but the original songs are all good, too. Cullum even does a cover of Rhianna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” and it’s not bad—one of those subversive-because-they’re-done-straight versions of popular songs that manage to turn the originals inside-out, like when I saw David Byrne and he ended his show with a Whitney Houston song. One singer’s trash is another singer’s treasure.

The second CD I got was Propeller Time by Robyn Hitchcock. I’ve been a Hitchcock fan for a long time, ever since I was in Boston and WZBC, the Boston College radio station, played “Insanely Jealous” by his old band the Soft Boys. I listened to that and then sat in my room for the next three days until the DJ finally identified the tunes he had played (they can have very long sets on those indie stations). I found an Italian pressing of Underwater Moonlight, the album with “Insanely Jealous,” at Newbury Comics and knew I was in the presence of greatness. (If you don’t have it yourself, you should stop reading this right now and buy it. You won’t even have to leave your computer. Just buy it online. I’ll wait.)

I also borrowed a couple of albums (Black Snake Diamond Role and Fegmania!) from Ted Drozdowski, then a writer for the little rock magazine I edited but now the leader of the gut-bucket blues band Scissormen. I listened to the tapes I made of them on the drive down to Washington, where I was moving to start a new job. I guess those tapes now lie a’moldering in the basement, in the big cardboard box where most of my cassettes now reside, no doubt sharing memories of the good old analog days.

Since then I have seen Hitchcock in concert a whole bunch of times. The first time was at the old 9:30 club in downtown D.C. It must have been the fall of 1985, probably in support of his live album Gotta Let This Hen Out. I remember laughing until I nearly cried at some of his between-song monologues. Another time when I went to see Hitchcock at the 9:30 I walked into the club and the first person I noticed was Peter Buck of R.E.M., standing against the bar. He joined Hitchcock and the Egyptians for their encore. I also saw Hitchcock once in Alexandria at the Birchmere in support of his solo acoustic album Eye. (I still have my Eye tee-shirt, as a matter of fact.) He was actually living in DC at the time. Rolling Stone did a short piece about him where the writer met Hitchcock at the National Air & Space Museum. I was working for the museum’s magazine at the time, so I sent him a letter via WHFS, the then-indie radio station where he often appeared live, offering to give him a behind-the-scenes tour at the museum’s restoration facility. He never replied. That was your loss, Hitchcock.

I also saw him at a great show at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. I went to Tower Records the day the tickets went on sale, but not in any camp-out-all-night-to-get-great-seats way. I mean, this was Robyn Hitchcock, not the Rolling Stones. There’s a reason people say he has a “cult following.” I just happened to be in the neighborhood and I stopped at the store to get tickets. The clerk printed them out and looked at them a little oddly. “That’s strange,” he said. “These look like front-row center.” And indeed they were. Tell me that’s not some kind of a miracle. This was on the Queen Elvis tour and it turned out to be another great show, with Poi Dog Pondering and the Connells opening. (I ended up missing Poi Dog, but made up for it a year or two later when they played the 9:30 in a show that surely would make my top-10 list if I ever compile one.) WHFS later broadcast Hitchcock’s performance and I taped it off the radio. I still have the cassette, someplace, on which you can hear me shouting and going “Wooooooo!” at intervals. My ticket stub—front row center—is tucked inside the cover.

The third CD I got falls into both the something old and something new category, because it’s Live! Beg, Borrow & Steal, new release of a Plimsouls concert recorded on Halloween night in 1981. I was living in Los Angeles when it was recorded but I can’t remember what I was doing. It probably involved beer. I saw the Plimsouls only once during my residence in L.A., when they opened for Elvis Costello (Imperial Bedroom) at the Greek Theater. That must have been the summer of 1982. Thanks to KROQ the Plimsouls’ “A Million Miles Away” provided a good chunk of that summer’s soundtrack, along with “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC, “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell and “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League. (My platters of choice that summer were King Crimson’s Beat and Adrian Belew’s Lone Rhino, which may have come out on the same day.) You could mistake the Plimsouls for a typical early-80s thin-tie band, but they were much more than that, mainly because of the sheer passion in Peter Case’s vocals. Even when he was just singing about young lust in “Now,” you got the sense he was damned serious about it. No Knack-style snarking here. Plus the songs were all tuneful treasures. It was as good as power pop got—so good that it transcended the genre. It was just great music and damn any categorization.

All Over the Place, the album that included “A Million Miles Away,” didn’t come out until I had relocated to Boston, but it brought a little bit of Los Angeles to the East Coast when I found my copy in the bins at Nuggets on Commonwealth Avenue. I told my housemates that one of my goals in life was to see the band perform in a basement club someplace, sometime.

Flash forward a quarter century or so and imagine my stunned surprise when I learned that the reunited Plimsouls were going to play a gig at a place that was literally about a mile from my front door here in the Gateway to Central Pennsylvania. For $8. On a Saturday night. In a basement club. Set the Wayback Machine to 1981, Sherman!

Well, my wife and I left the kids alone without a babysitter for the first time that night and we ventured out. The opening act was a local band called The Parallax Project, who did a great job, and the Plimsouls finally hit the stage around 11:00. What a show! The set list was one great song after another, delivered with characteristic passion and verve. Afterward Case himself hung around for a little bit and we chatted with him. He seemed a little aloof, maybe, a little detached, but also pleasant and willing to talk, even to an idiot who told him how much he liked the song “Estella Hotel.” (It’s “Entella Hotel” and I was the idiot.) But it was fun talking to him, telling him I had last seen the band back in 1981. My wife told him about when we were up in Pennsylvania house hunting prior to our move from D.C., and how WHFS played “Steel Strings,” and that my joyful reaction convinced her we could make the transition from The Most Important City in the World to a place where it seemed everyone knew how to do the Chicken Dance.

The next spring I randomly checked out the Peter Case website and found, to my amazement, that he was going to play a house concert in nearby Mechanicsburg in a week. The host was the leader of the Parallax Project. A friend and I went, bringing some meat for hamburgers and a six-pack of beer. The show was at a modern row house in a development alongside a cornfield. We showed up and tucked $15 each into a coffee can in the foyer. It was another great show—just Peter Case, with his guitar and harmonica, singing songs and telling stories in the living room, while we stood around or sat in resin chairs, drinking beer and listening. After the show we all drank beer, ate dogs and burgers cooked on the grill and hung out. Case talked to a bunch of us for a long time—which probably seemed a whole lot longer for him than it did for us. It was another memorable night.

It wasn’t too long afterwards that Case had emergency heart surgery, which kept him out of circulation for a while. But he’s back on his feet now and has a brand-new album out. It’s on my list.



July 2010
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