Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession


The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016



A world turned purple

San Francisco City Hall lit purple for Prince
San Francisco City Hall pays tribute to Prince

The world turned purple when Prince died. Civic buildings and bridges in his Minneapolis home town and around the world were awash in his signature color. On Saturday night, heading out of San Francisco south on highway 280, with Sirius XM’s Prince tribute channel on the radio, we passed a suburban mall’s roadside message board flashing Prince’s glyph, the control tower and international terminal of San Francisco International Airport glowing purple ahead of us in the distance. As a fragmented society, we agree on so little, culturally. But we agree on Prince. And we agree on how to celebrate him. By allying himself so inextricably with a color (and, later, a symbol — turns out, he was a branding genius), Prince left us with a natural way to express our grief and love for him in the public space, writ large and without words.

It may feel like no artist’s passing has ever been so publicly and universally mourned , but that’s not entirely true. When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, the shock of it was vast and all-encompassing; fans spontaneously gathered to sing his songs, and President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying in part “John Lennon helped create the mood and music of the time.” Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 also elicited worldwide anguish. The outpouring of emotion for David Bowie has yet to abate.

But there’s something about our reaction to Prince’s passing that feels bigger, more visible, expressed across the full spectrum of class, color, gender and generation, across nations and in so many different corners of daily life. Part of that is down to the times in which we live, with the internet functioning as the town square or church hall allowing us to connect with others in our grief, and to spread ideas for public tribute. And part of that is because baby boomers are now the elder generation; at the time of Lennon’s death, there were still people alive who regarded the Beatles as noise, nuisance and a menace to society.

But, mostly, the intensity of our public mourning for Prince comes down to the totemic appeal his music held for us, the stunning, life-changing majesty of it. Prince came onto a divided scene in the late ’70s. Pop music was factional and fragmented along racial lines, along the “(white) rock vs. (black) disco” mindset. And he wove together everything — pop, rock, soul, disco, R&B, punk, funk, new wave — into something new, beautifully inclusive and alive. Prince’s music united us and opened our ears and minds. And like Bowie, his gender-blurring, sex-positive freakiness gave power, pride, coolness to the weird and the different;  it rendered powerless epithets like “fag” and “disco sucks.”

Prince’s music was influential and crucial. But it was also deeply spiritual, joyful, in its devotion to the twin pursuits of carnal and spiritual transcendence. Prince raised funk to a religion, in an era when organized religion has become a destructive and divisive force. It gives the secular and the unbelieving among us a means to feel our hearts open, our souls lift up, to raise our voices and sing along with other humans. To connect. It makes sense that “Let’s Go Crazy” has been quoted in so many written Prince eulogies: it’s a sermon about focussing on living in the here and now, connecting to other people, while you’re alive. And it makes even more sense that “Purple Rain” has been invoked by fellow performers and fans alike to sing in praise, because, at its core, “Purple Rain” is a hymn, or at least, it has the structure of one.

The lyrics are a farewell to a relationship, but the gospel swell of the music is what moves you. Ever since the movie Purple Rain, fans at Prince concerts (or at anyone’s concerts where “Purple Rain” is played) waved one hand slowly back and forth in the air on the chorus, in imitation of the film’s climactic club scene. What many fans might not know (as an atheist and a Jew, I didn’t) is that the raised arm is a staple of both African American and white Christian worship. Each segment of the song — Prince’s quiet, almost spoken, delivery of the opening verse, the shimmering buildup to the sing-along chorus, the blazing release of the guitar solo, the soothing balm of Prince’s falsetto “woo-ooo-ooo-ooo” as the song winds down — have long been burned into our souls as secular chapter and verse, as comforting and unchanging as a familiar prayer.

In the days following Prince’s death, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Sufjan Stevens with Gallant, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jessie J, Jimmy Buffett, Pearl Jam, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor and the cast of Broadway’s “The Color Purple” (I’m sure I’m leaving out many more) covered “Purple Rain” before their audiences. I think the emergence of “Purple Rain” as the tribute of choice speaks not only to its anthemic emotional sweep, but to the hunger for spiritual expression among people who don’t consider themselves religious (though I’ve no doubt that many Prince fans do). For so many of us, music has always filled the religion void. We were Prince’s motley flock, and he gathered us in.


A small sample of the many versions of “Purple Rain” performed in tribute to Prince, plus one by the man himself. May he rest in power and purple.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

Jennifer Hudson slays it at the 2016 BET Awards tribute to Prince.

Los Angeles massed high school choir tribute.

Old Crow Medicine Show (with Margo Price), Huntsville, AL

Prince, 2006 Brit Awards (“Purple Rain” is the third song in a stunning four-song set featuring a reunion with Wendy and Lisa).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016







Prince, 1958-2016


Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life …

I’ve been sitting here for hours and I can’t put my thoughts into any coherent order. Prince was not supposed to die at 57. Prince was not supposed to die, ever. It’s been a tough year for eulogizing geniuses, but this one … this one rips my heart out.


This is the first piece I ever wrote about Prince. The year was 1981. I was 23, trying to be a “rock” critic. Prince, who had just put out Dirty Mind, was playing Boston’s Metro club, and I got the assignment from What’s New, a free paper given away at music stores and clubs. The writing is crap, but it encapsulates that moment when Prince first hit, and suddenly, all of the tidy divisions between R&B and rock, between “black music” and the stuff that white suburban Boston kids like me listened to, blurred and soon fell away. It was confusing. It was liberating. It was the one moment in my life when I saw a performer for the first time and knew that I had better go study up on my musical history and, oh, yeah, have some sex too, that would help. And maybe then, maybe in a few years, would I have the words to be able to describe the changes Prince put my head through that night.


After that electrifying 1981 Metro show, I stood with a bunch of other local writers in a circle around Prince and we asked him feeble questions to which he whispered curt responses. The questions were all lame and all of a piece, asking him about comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, trying to get him to say something definitive about his sexuality. This was what my naive little world was like in 1981: Black or white, gay or straight, male or female, rock or R&B, all neatly defined, stereotyped, unchallenged, and never the twain shall meet. And Prince, playing guitar like no one since Hendrix, singing “I wanna be your brother, wanna be your mother and your sister too” blew that world apart. He was all of the above, all at once. He was uncompromising and free.

During this excruciating scene, Prince didn’t make eye contact. He was almost trembling. He was very small, except for his eyes, which were as huge, dark and soft as a deer’s. He fled after five minutes. I’ve often thought about that scrum, and regretted it. But today I’m realizing the courage, the determination, the confidence it took for Prince to get onstage at a rock club, wearing the banana-hammock and the thigh-highs and the trench coat before an audience of smug white people who thought they had seen it all. Fuck, that show was a glorious awakening!


White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’ …

A year later, I saw Prince at the Orpheum Theater in Boston on the Controversy tour. My sister and I were in the first row. It was a more racially-diverse crowd, which in Boston in 1982 meant black and white people, together. This was something that would have been rare, and actually dangerous, only a few years before, given Boston’s terrible display of racist animosity that accompanied the desegregation of the public schools in the 1970s. But Prince’s music had been heavily played on the rock station WBCN since 1981’s Dirty Mind came out. Other FM rock formatted stations around the country wouldn’t touch Prince, but somehow, this city that was so recently torn apart along racial lines, had embraced him. Prince had brought us together.

I remember a few things about that show very clearly. Prince climbing onto a speaker cabinet to aim a guitar solo at the balcony, which was visibly shaking. Teasing us in the front row, coyly unzipping his pants. And this moment, which opens my review for What’s New:

The young black woman fought her way down the center aisle and she’d almost reached the stage when a burly bouncer grabbed her and tried to hold her back. “Prince!,” the woman shouted, holding an outstretched arm stageward where the object of her desire was sinuously bumping and grinding to “Do Me Baby.” Prince looked down at the woman — he touched her hand for maybe a fraction  of a second. “Oh my God!,” screamed the woman, just before she passed out in the arms of the bewildered bouncer.

I was not yet sufficiently enlightened to stop using race as an adjective. And, come to think of it, I’m pretty sure now that the woman was a plant, a part of the old James Brown-at-the-Apollo vibe Prince was putting out that night. This was a wild show, the prototype of tours to come, full of phallocentric sexual play, with a big, tight band of musicians of mixed gender and race, following their bandleader’s whims and direction. In the center of it all, Prince executed spins and splits and struck Christlike poses. I still didn’t understand this strange melding of sex and religion, though the music told me it had something to do with ecstasy.


I only want to see you bathing in the purple rain …

By 1984, Prince was such a huge star that he managed to get the backing of a major movie studio, just like Elvis. And he was so pervasive, on MTV, on the radio, that even little kids were  singing his songs. And that’s how Prince became one of the targets of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center, who successfully campaigned to put warning stickers on the Purple Rain soundtrack album (and others), all because Darling Nikki masturbated with a magazine. Sure, MTV was in every home and moms were digging some of that catchy new wave stuff. But Prince was a line in the sand. All of a sudden, pop music had a bad rep; it became dangerous again, disruptive — just as its forebears had intended. One night that summer, my husband and I took his younger siblings and cousins to a suburban Boston showing of Purple Rain, family entertainment at its finest, spreading Prince’s corrupting influence to the next generation and making lifelong fans of them all.


A few lines from my Boston Phoenix review of the Purple Rain album in 1984:

The color purple holds a place of honor in Prince’s elaborate self-proclaimed myth. Purple is regal; it’s also a mixture of two other colors, as is Prince himself. Purple is the color of a bruise, and of passion.

“Purple Rain” is an unbridled black-light-and-hash-pipe album, complete with psychedelic backwards vocals and a flower-power cover …

He makes us want to party like its 1969.

If I had had a crystal ball, I would have saved that last line. A year later, he put out the even trippier Around the World in a Day. “Raspberry Beret” was the melodic, hippy-dippy, skinny-dippy pop song we all loved. But “Pop Life,” all rhythm, with sparse instrumentation and slicing metronomic drumbeat, was the song that was pointing the way to Prince’s funky grooves of the future.


In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name …

1987. The single from Prince’s first solo album, Sign o’ the Times, begins with a reference to the 1985 death from AIDS of actor Rock Hudson — closeted friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The music was a somber, sparse, foreboding funk. Prince went there, in Reagan’s America, at a time when few wanted to hear it.


“Prince seems the self-conscious culmination of every dream that rock and roll has ever had about itself,” wrote my friend Mark Moses in a New Yorker column about Sign o’ the Times in August 1988. Less than a year later, he would be dead of a big disease with a little name.


Writing about Sign o’ the Times for the San Francisco Examiner, I called it “a chaotic crossroads,” the beginning of Prince’s investigation of the black pop underground, of house music, hip-hop and minimalist rap, put through the grinder of Prince’s singular sound and vision, and calling back to everything he borrowed from James Brown. After that sprawling double-album (a masterpiece in a career filled with them), came the smoother Lovesexy, with its coy, controversy-courting photo of a nude Prince perched on a bed of larger-than-life orchids; it was like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, with Prince playing the part of the flower’s sex organ. And with Lovesexy came its evil twin, the legendary Black Album, which was pulled back from official release and slipped into the hands of critics and fans in the dead of night (metaphorically). From my Lovesexy/Black Album piece in the Examiner:

“The Black Album” plays like a 45-minute extension of “Housequake,” the funkiest track from “Sign.” It’s one long slamming, blistering, rude hip-hop groove, Prince’s throwdown to the New York rappers … who rule the black underground. … There’s no mention of Jesus, peace, love or apocalypse here. And though Prince surrounds himself with exuberant party voices, this is no love-in, but rather, a house-rocking orgy thrown by a bunch of sexual vampires.

“Lovesexy” isn’t a bad album, but compared with “The Black Album,” it’s a safe one. The difference between the two records recalls the way Prince has often spun out some perfect Top 40 jewel for the A-side of his singles and then put some unsuitable-for-radio sizzler like “Erotic City” on the B-side. It makes you wonder: Is “The Black Album” just Prince’s most extravagant B-side? And if he had his way, would he have released different albums to black and white audiences? 

Then I went to see Prince’s Oakland Coliseum concert on the 1988 Lovesexy tour, and that question became moot. This was the greatest Prince show I’ve ever seen, one of the greatest by anyone. I’ve never been to an African American gospel church, but I imagine this show comes close to that experience. We were all of us dancing, screaming, testifying. And somewhere between “Little Red Corvette” and “The Cross,” I was overcome by a kind of spiritual euphoria I had never felt at a show, before or since. Prince’s preoccupation with sex and salvation came from the same place, I realized, the need to transcend the here and now, to be just a soul, communing with other souls, outside of divisions of color, gender, ethnicity. Prince gave us the music that could set us free; all we had to do was be open enough to listen.


For the rest of my life, I will regret not seeing him on the “Piano and Microphone” shows in Oakland earlier this year.


“Sometimes It Snows in April,” music and lyrics by Prince

Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war,
Just after I’d wiped away his last tear
I guess he’s better off than he was before,
A whole lot better off than the fools he left here
I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend
Those kind of cars don’t pass you every day
I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again,
But sometimes sometimes life ain’t always the way

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

Springtime was always my favorite time of year,
A time for lovers holding hands in the rain
Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy’s tears
Always cry for love, never cry for pain
He used to say so strong unafraid to die
Unafraid of the death that left me hypnotized
No, staring at his picture I realized
No one could cry the way my Tracy cried

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad
Sometimes, sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last

I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy’s there
I know that he has found another friend
Maybe he’s found the answer to all the April snow
Maybe one day I’ll see my Tracy again

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

All good things, they say, never last
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016




In the rotation: Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”

Margo Price ©Angelina Castillo/Shore Fire Media
Margo Price ©Angelina Castillo/Shore Fire Media

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Margo Price’s debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter evokes a time when AM radio was ruled by pop, country, R&B and soul — sometimes all mixed together in one boundary-defying hit song. The album sounds like it could have sprung from the  kaleidoscopic late ’60s-early ’70s music scene that gave us Tammy Wynette and Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Bobbie Gentry, Jackie DeShannon and Loretta Lynn.

The track “Four Years of Chances” opens on an R&B bass line that puts you in mind of Aretha’s “Chain of Fools,” adds in a swampy blues-rock guitar that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bobbie Gentry’s “Mississippi Delta” and tops it off with a Fender Rhodes electronic keyboard riff (think Billy Preston). Several tracks are adorned with a string section that recalls Billy Sherrill’s lush Nashville productions for Wynette and George Jones. The most pop-pedigreed song, “How the Mighty Have Fallen,” is pure girl-group bliss, with a “Be My Baby” heartbeat drum and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” string filagrees.

And if the music doesn’t twig you to the old-school vibe, the typography on the CD cover and disc label might: It’s similar to the swirly font used on posters for the classic 1974 Pam Grier blaxploitation flick, Foxy Brown (and later for Quentin Tarantino’s homage Jackie Brown).









None of this is to suggest that Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is an exercise in empty hipster retroism. Far from it. Price, her band The Price Tags and producers Alex Munoz and Matt Ross-Spang infuse their melting-pot sound with the excitement of rediscovery. (And really, isn’t the Fender Rhodes one of the coolest sounds in popular music, unjustly relegated to the Goodwill bin of history?) Recorded at Memphis’s Sun Studios, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter fuses the sounds of a specific musical moment of the past with a modern sensibility;  the honky-tonking “About to Find Out,” for example, sounds like a lost Loretta Lynn followup to “Fist City,” except that it references selfies and the tech-fuelled class divide.

Price has been a working musician for years, but Midwest Farmer’s Daughter represents a last-ditch effort to make the kind of outsider country music she and her husband-collaborator Jeremy Ivey wanted to make without deferring to the hit-making-machinery of Music Row. (The album was released on Jack White’s Third Man label.)

Much of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is autobiographical, beginning with the staggering leadoff track, “Hands of Time,” a catalogue of losses that finally arrives at an uneasy peace of mind. Price’s father really did lose their Illinois family farm when she was a child; Price really did suffer the death of one of her infant twin sons; she did grapple with depression and drinking. Her slightly nasal voice is softly brushed with just a hint of vulnerability, soaring to a clarity by turns sweet as a bell and sharp as glass. “I’m gonna buy back the farm/And bring my mama home some wine/And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time,” she repeats throughout the song; the farm is redemption, those words are a mantra.

“Hands of Time” is a modern folk song in the way that Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and “The Promised Land” are modern folk songs; they bear the stamp of a songwriter who carries their musical and lyrical antecedents so deep in the bone, they become their own.

Price has been promoting the album with several high profile TV appearances. On Saturday Night Live, she displayed a smart bohemian fashion sense, wearing a thigh-slit royal blue gown with long fringe on the sleeves that was absolutely on-point without being too much. And the album is filled with songwriting as elegantly edited as that dress. Price wrote the matter-of-fact “Weekender” about a stay in the county jail after a DUI.  Achingly yet economically detailed, “Weekender” describes the humiliation of the experience (“They took me down to Cell Block B and stripped off all my clothes/ Put me in a monkey suit and threw me in the throes”) without jerking us around for sympathy or wearing the incident as a badge of honor.

Price sings “Weekender” much the same way Merle Haggard sang “Mama Tried” — with the deep shame of having screwed up and the acceptance that it was nobody’s fault but their own. That “Weekender” swings along with a chorus made for sing-alongs only makes the self-lacerating pain of the lyrics more devastating.

Similarly, on “Since You Put Me Down,” a litany of bourbon and Tequila benders, Price’s half-sweet, half-sharp-edged vocals suggest neither self-pity nor bad-girl swagger; what comes across is a scrubbed-clean directness about using the bottle to banish depression. “Since You Put Me Down” begins with Price strumming and singing solo: “Since you put me down/ I’ve been drinkin’ just to drown/ I’ve been lyin’ through the cracks of my teeth/ I’ve been waltzin’ with my sin/He’s an ugly evil twin/He’s a double-crossin’, back-stabbin’ thief.” When the band kicks in after “waltzin’ with my sin,” “Since You Put Me Down” becomes a sultry-rolling tale of self-destruction with lyrics that feel freshly lived and raw. Yet, like the rest of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been hearing Price’s voice your whole life.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Live review: Elvis Costello solo (San Francisco, March 30, 2016)

Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016 ©Fred Walder
Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016  ©Fred Walder

With the loss of so many giant entertainment figures over the past few months, many of them at a relatively young age, you can’t blame baby boomers for feeling the chill of mortality these days. That mood was matched by Elvis Costello’s solo “Detour” show at San Francisco’s Masonic auditorium on March 30.  In the stories he shared about his late father Ross MacManus, in the songs offered up to absent collaborators and friends Allen Toussaint and Dan Hicks, and in the slower, contemplative readings he gave “Complicated Shadows” and  “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” there were many ghosts onstage Wednesday night with Elvis.

Conceptually and musically, the show felt like a continuation of Elvis’s lyrical, stock-taking memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and the reading/interview/slideshow/concert he gave at the Nourse Theater here last October to promote the book. The middle of the Masonic stage was dominated by a huge box fashioned into a retro TV set. Pre-show, Costello’s music videos played on the TV screen, a canny way to give fans some of the songs that weren’t on the setlist. During the show, the screen played slides from Elvis’s family scrapbook and a sweet video of his father (looking so much like young awkward Elvis) and his band attempting a Latin flavor on the folk song “If I Had A Hammer.”

As Costello explained early in the show (and writes about so beautifully in the book), Ross MacManus, was a big-band singer who enjoyed a bit of renown in post-war England, playing dance halls, recording cover versions of popular songs of the day to be played on BBC Radio and appearing on television. While other kids would wait for their fathers to come home from the office or factory, explained Elvis at the Masonic, he would “take a screwdriver to the back of the TV looking for Dad”.

Unfaithful Music is as much Ross MacManus’s story as it is that of his son. Costello writes of an only child’s love for a father who wasn’t always there, and the connection they shared though music. In telling these intertwined stories, Elvis, who achieved a level of fame his father never did, pulls his dad up along with him. But Elvis also clearly identifies more and more with the journeyman musician now that he’s in middle age, and now that the radio/record company/MTV machine that brought him to fame over the course of his first handful of albums has long been dismantled. Costello now does exactly as he pleases, and he does it in a variety of genres, with the emphasis on the performing rather than the recording. More than Dylan, but less than Springsteen, Costello gives the people what they want in concert — he always plays “Alison” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — but in exchange for those songs, he also gives us the music we need, even if we didn’t realize we needed it.

And that’s what happened at the Masonic, as Elvis offered up a long set heavy on welcome deep tracks (“Church Underground,” “Motel Matches,” “Blame It on Cain,” “Pads, Paws and Claws”) and covers (like Los Lobos’ “A Matter of Time”). Some durable crowd favorites were presented in their alternate forms; “Everyday I Write the Book” was wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe’s “When I Write the Book,” while “Radio, Radio”  was represented by its early draft, “Radio Soul,” which extols the true salvation of pop music rather than sneering at the medium:

“I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial on the front of my radio
When the man said there’s nothing in the news today except trouble and we all know
One thing we got too much of it is trouble, guess you know that’s true
What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.”

“What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.” After the recent string of soul-shaking losses of icons, those lines ring truer than ever. How many of us soothed the shock of David Bowie’s passing by listening to his music obsessively, trying to keep him with us?  But while we were merely fans of Bowie, Costello played on bills with him (and Lou Reed), as a slide on the TV showed us. We might have acutely felt the loss of Allen Toussaint and the Bay Area’s cowboy-swing-bluesman, Dan Hicks, but those people were Elvis’s friends. And the show felt at times  — a gorgeous “Ascension Day” for his The River in Reverse collaborator Toussaint, a quiet, heart-breaking version of Hicks’ “Not My Time to Go” at the piano — as if it had been crafted to allow performer and audience to mourn together. The setlist, and Elvis’s between song stories, kept returning to certain themes: life as a working musician, the shortness of time, what we leave behind.

Not that any of this was gloomy or draggy. Costello was, as always, a witty and genial host, and watching his mischievous “Take that!” expressions after he nailed an unexpected song choice or whipped off blistering, looped guitar work on “Watching the Detectives” was a treat. By the last two of the eleven songs he sang during encores, the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses” and “Peace, Love and Understanding” (both augmented by opening act, the sister-duo Larkin Poe),  the audience was screaming, literally screaming, like this was a Beatles concert.

The highlights for me were his cover of the 1930’s standard “Walking My Baby Back Home” (which he dedicated to his wife and kids), his own plaintive “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” (with a coda of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung a cappella and unmiked) and, at the piano, a downbeat version of the usually peppy 1927 chestnut “Side by Side.”

“Side by Side” was the key to everything that made this show tick. “Oh, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow/ Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow/But we’ll travel the road sharing our load/ Side by side.” Here was the perfect expression of how the bond between friends, between family members, between musician and audience, makes life worth living.

But also, “Side by Side,” “Walking My Baby Back Home” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” are part of a bygone tradition and style of music-hall popular song, one that Costello draws upon in his empathetic portrait of showbiz has-beens and never-weres “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” This music belonged to the world his grandfather Pat, also a musician, and his father inhabited. It seems as if Costello has taken on the responsibility of keeping a light shining on this dusty corner of pop tradition. He keeps singing the songs of the dead, keeping them alive.

(A June 2015 stop on the Detour was released as the DVD “Elvis Costello Detour Live at Philharmonic Hall.” Here’s a clip.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

No flipping: Garry Shandling, 1949-2016

garry shandling


Garry Shandling was a pioneer of TV’s second Golden Age. In 1986, his surreal sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show debuted on Showtime, back in the days when the broadcast networks ruled and pay-cable was thought of as career exile. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran until 1990, found stand-up comedian Shandling playing a sitcom version of himself; he frequently broke the fourth wall to directly address viewers, much like another TV pioneer, George Burns, did on The Burns and Allen Show in the ’50s. With episodes broadcast on fledgling Fox a week after they ran on Showtime, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show created just enough buzz to convince viewers that something weird and wonderful was happening on cable, and maybe it was worth paying for.

Between It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the masterpiece that followed, HBO’s mock-talk show The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling was responsible for some of the most inventive and influential TV of the 1980’s and ’90’s. These two shows were instrumental in changing pay-cable’s image from a purveyor of uncut feature films to a source of original programming that colored outside the lines of broadcast TV.

Even if you’ve never seen either show, you’ve seen their influence. Following a couple of years in the wake of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Seinfeld had a similar neurotic-comedian-playing-himself premise and subversive/quirky comic tone (writers Tom Gammill and Max Pross got their start on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show). Larry David’s later Curb Your Enthusiasm, with its star and celebrity guests playing versions of themselves, hearkens back to both of Shandling’s shows. And Ricky Gervais’s The Office worked both the broken fourth wall angle of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the uncomfortably awkward emotional tone of Larry Sanders. Among the now-familiar writers and actors who came to prominence working on Shandling’s series are Judd Apatow, Jeffrey Tambor, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Jeremy Piven. Shandling’s two shows jump-started what we now know as the modern TV comedy sensibility — self-reflexive, not afraid to make viewers squirm, with the punchlines unpredictable if there at all.

In a column written for Salon at the end of 1999, I listed The Larry Sanders Show as one of the decade’s most groundbreaking TV shows; it further blurred the boundaries between TV and reality and commented on the pervasiveness of TV in our culture and emotional lives. Shandling’s Larry Sanders was an insecure, egotistical, paranoid late-night talk show host, aloof as Johnny Carson (for whom Shandling often subbed in real life as host of  The Tonight Show), self-loathing as David Letterman and viciously competitive as Jay Leno. Forget psychodrama, I wrote, this was psychocomedy: “Life was a talk show for the emotionally frozen Larry, who couldn’t relate to other humans without a camera running; his producer and father figure Artie (Rip Torn, in one of the most brilliant performances of the decade) called him ‘half-man, half-desk’.”

The Larry Sanders Show was a pitch-dark comedy about Hollywood at its ugliest, where ratings equalled love and everything in Larry’s world came down to maintaining his perch at the top of the celebrity food chain. In the jerk behavior of guests playing themselves on the talk-show-within-a-talk show (Roseanne Barr, Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, Jon Stewart and David Duchovny are a few of  those who appeared) and in the brutal carelessness with which passive-aggressive Larry treated his sad-sack on-air sidekick Hank Kingsley (an unforgettable Tambor), Larry Sanders anticipated the train wreck appeal of reality TV. And Shandling’s layered performance as a complicated monster who you can’t help cutting slack might have helped ease viewers into the mindset needed to appreciate Tony Soprano when HBO unveiled The Sopranos a year after Larry Sanders‘ final episode.

Even Larry’s talk-show catch phrase — “No flipping,” said directly to the camera while miming a TV remote as the feed cuts to a commercial — commented on the enormous changes TV was undergoing in the ’90s. Before cable and remotes, there weren’t enough channels to even make it worth flipping.

As I wrote in a Salon column about the end of Larry Sanders, “Some of the show’s funniest and sharpest moments — and some of its saddest and most intimate — came when Larry watched himself on the tube. Nothing else turned him on this way; he was enthralled with, in love with, his TV self. Five hours a week he was Larry Sanders; the rest  of the time, he was bored with himself for being human. The paradox of Larry Sanders is this: A show about people too damn famous to have feelings was the one comedy on TV that could make you cry.”

In real life, Shandling was more introspective (he practiced Buddhism for much of his life) than his TV alter ego. After Larry Sanders ended, Shandling kept a low profile, appearing in the occasional movie (Iron Man 2, Dr. Dolittle). He was a recent guest on close friend Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; ironically, the episode is titled “It’s Great that Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.” His death from a suspected heart attack Thursday at age 66 stunned his fellow comedians, friends and fans. If you care at all about TV’s history, do whatever you can to see full episodes of Shandling’s two series, and give a pioneer his due.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016






Songs for swinging monkeys

©SaWi, Pixabay
©SaWi, Pixabay

Gung hay fat choy! It’s the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac, and to celebrate the Lunar New Year (February 8), I’ve put together a playlist of the greatest songs about apes, gorillas, monkeys and Monkees. There are so many primate-referencing songs, I had trouble winnowing the list down to ten. Monkeys! Who doesn’t love ’em?

10. “(Theme from) The Monkees,” The Monkees. Stupid and catchy in all the right ways and a formative part of my childhood. If you were a nine-year-old in 1966, hopped up on rock and roll, sugar and Davy Jones, this song would be on your monkey list too.

9. “Apeman,” The Kinks. Ray Davies at his droll best, stripping off the trappings of human sophistication and superiority to make the point that we’re the real beasts on this planet. “I don’t feel safe in this world no more/I don’t want to die in a nuclear war/I want to sail away to a distant shore/ And make like an apeman.”

8. “Monkey Man,” The Specials. It was a toss-up between the original by Toots and the Maytals and the Specials’ version, but I chose the latter because LOOK AT THIS AMAZING VIDEO!

7. “Too Much Monkey Business,” Chuck Berry. A motor-mouthed list of life’s botheration that inspired songs from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to Springsteen’s “Open All Night.” And when the guitar solo kicks in, it sounds like sweet freedom.

6. “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” Big Maybelle. The B-side of Big Maybelle’s 1955 recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” is a bawdy blues in which Maybelle washes her hands of a jerk who thinks he can just come and go. The verses are delivered in a sleepy drawl (“He left me at three in the morning/ I got me a man at four”), the choruses in a mighty roar. There are several songs with this title. Accept no substitute.

5. “The Monkey Time,” Major Lance. Most animals go through life never even inspiring  one hit single based on a dance craze. In 1963, there were two primate-referencing dance songs on the charts, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” and Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time.” “The Monkey Time,” written by Curtis Mayfield (!),  is a chugging, swinging joy to dance to. It’s one of my guaranteed mood elevators and you do not get between me and this song, understand? (I’m also partial to the version by Laura Nyro and Labelle from their Gonna Take a Miracle album, done as a medley with “Dancing in the Street.”)

4. “Mickey’s Monkey,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ tune gave us the irresistible “lum de lum de la iiii” refrain and one of Smokey’s most infectious performances.

But when Martin Scorsese put “Mickey’s Monkey” on the astute, legendary Mean Streets soundtrack, the song gained a whole new level of cool. The name of the following clip is “Bobby D Dancing,” which is pretty much all you need to know.

3. “The Monkey,” Dave Bartholomew. Also known as “The Monkey Speaks His Mind.” New Orleans producer/bandleader/composer Bartholomew takes the perspective of a monkey surveying humankind with a critical eye in this satire that still cuts deep. Bartholomew talks the lyrics over a jumpy repeating guitar riff, his simian narrator distancing himself ever further from his murdering, debauched, money-hungry cousins. The punchline is a killer: “Yes, man descended, the worthless bum/But, brothers, from us he did not come.”  The Kinks’ “Apeman” owes a debt to “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” and Elvis Costello wrote a stinging sequel called “Monkey to Man” for his 2004 album The Delivery Man.

2. “Porcelain Monkey,” Warren Zevon. Fun fact: Zevon has four songs with simian titles, the others being “Leave My Monkey Alone,” “Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse” and “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado.” But “Porcelain Monkey,” from Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), is one of the finest songs Zevon ever wrote. The titular figurine refers to the statue that sat on the coffee table in Elvis Presley’s TV room in Graceland. Zevon uses it here as a symbol of the excesses of fame and the tragedy of greatness squandered: “Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lame/That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet/Then he threw it all away/For a porcelain monkey.” The lyrics may read sarcastically, but Zevon sings them with a tender, sympathetic catch in his throat. He saves his bullets for the entourage that watched it all happen; “Left behind by the latest trends/Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends” is surely one of the top five couplets Zevon ever wrote.

When I first heard “Porcelain Monkey,” without the lyrics in front of me and not knowing the story of Elvis’s porcelain monkey, I thought the song was about Jeff Koons’ unexpectedly moving and magnificent porcelain statue “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.” Once seen in person, it cannot be unseen.

©Hakon H, Flickr/Wikipedia
©Hakon H, Flickr/Wikipedia


1.”Brass Monkey,” The Beastie Boys. That funky Monkey. The swaggering, delinquent ode to a cheap cocktail in a can has become one of the Beasties’ most enduring tracks. In the future, when the apes inherit the human-free rubble that was once Earth, they’ll find a Licensed to Ill CD, a working Discman and a few 40s in the undecayed detritus of a landfill. And hip-hop will be reborn.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016