The tide is high

I need a better phone. ©Joyce Millman
Blurry, sorry! ©Joyce Millman

It seemed only fitting to spend the night after my “officially eligible for the senior discount” birthday seeing a double bill of Blondie and Elvis Costello at a summer shed venue in the outermost suburbs of the East Bay. After a 2 1/2 hour crawl to the Concord Pavilion through perpetual Bay Area traffic, the consort and I had just enough time to wolf down our picnic dinner in the parking lot, while watching our peers being golf-carted up the mountain from a more distant lot. How can these senior folk be our age cohort? I mean, just look at us! We could pass for … uh … never mind.

It takes more energy to get out to a show these days, but for Elvis, the consort and I will go anywhere (this trek proves it). Costello’s cancer scare a couple of years ago only hardened our determination — he plays anywhere near SF, we’re there. My first Elvis show was in 1979 — I’m so old, I reviewed it for my college newspaper. I’ve seen him so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. By contrast, I last saw Blondie right before the Parallel Lines album hit big, in a small Boston club called the Paradise. She was the diamond-cut visage of New Wave, with a voice like a candy cloud. Musically, Blondie laid the blueprint for the blend of arty pop-punk and Eurodisco that would be followed by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Lady Gaga.

I mention all of this because attending an Elvis-Blondie concert one day after turning 62 was so on-brand, if you know me, as to be comical. The only thing more perfect could have been a Springsteen show, but, sadly, Bruce would not oblige.

I have no illusions. I’m not a kid anymore. I listen to new artists, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go stand in a field at some summer festival to see them play live. So pretty much the only concerts I go to these days are ones where I have a seat to fall into when I can’t dance any more. Usually, that means “legacy acts.” Hence the trek to this outdoor venue on top of a sun-bleached mountain in the land of gated subdivisions. Long story short … I’m glad I did. This was no ’80’s nostalgia package. This was a doubleheader of titans.

Elvis Costello was last in the Bay Area just this past December for a long and varied show at the Masonic that revolved around the swell orchestral pop of his latest album Look Now. The co-headlining summer tour with Blondie had each act playing for under two hours. It’s asking a lot of Costello to edit his set down for curfew — with a catalog as deep as his, how do you choose?

The setlist favored the greatest hits  (“Radio Radio,” “Alison,” “Pump It Up”) but also worked in a couple of slow-burning wild cards not played before on this tour, “Party Girl,” from Armed Forces, and “Come the Meantimes,” from his collaboration with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. The latter hit a blues-funk groove that you wished could have gone on all night. Costello was in strong voice (especially at the piano for a soaring ballad “A Face in the Crowd,” as yet unrecorded,  from his upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the movie of the same name) and even stronger guitar form  — his crackling solo injected the oft-performed “Watching the Detectives” with new life.

The Attractions — pianist Steve Naive, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher –were, as always, impeccable and limber. Backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee add a crucial element to live performances of Costello’s songs of love and revenge — the woman’s presence. Like Steely Dan’s backing vocalists, they serve as Greek chorus, counterpoint and a breath of youth. The interplay between Costello and his vocalists was at its most fun on the Supremes-inspired “Unwanted Number,” in a long riff where Costello shouted out titles with numbers in them (from “One is the loneliest number” to “Ninety-nine and a half won’t do”).

Costello was cheerful and chatty, even up against a curfew. He performed an impersonation of Elvis Presley covering Blondie songs (well-mannered Presley would never have sung the “pain in the ass” line from “Heart of Glass,” Costello assures us), and tossed off some dark topical humor in a remark about an earlier tour stop in Gettysburg, and wanting to see the site of the last Civil War before the next one breaks out. The by-now standard, cathartic finale “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with a stunning new video backdrop display of Costello’s artwork flashing “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) came much too soon and we were filing out to the wonderfully wicked selection of the 1956 British kids’ tune “Nellie the Elephant,” with its chorus of “Trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump.” I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the necessarily shortened set; as Elvis’s shows go, it was a mere snack. But it tasted so good.

Blondie was the opener on this tour, and the audience at Concord seemed to tilt more toward their fans than Elvis’s. Debbie Harry (whose memoir Face It will be published in October) is 74, and her voice is lower than it used to be and showing signs of end-of-tour overuse (she sipped tea throughout, and talk-sung some of the lyrics). But goddess bless her, she is an inspiration to all of us women of a certain vintage who are trying to figure out what “act your age” means. She shows us that it means whatever the hell you want it to mean.

Harry doesn’t give an inch. She took the stage clad in the following: a silver-threaded short-sleeve turtleneck sweater; a black, sparkly high-low-hemmed wrap skirt tied over black leggings; a chunky black belt (possibly containing a fanny pack, it was hard to see from where I was sitting); a black helmet-type hat like those worn by equestrians or possibly London cops; oversized sunglasses; and a billowy silver Mylar-looking anorak. Before the encores, she disappeared from the stage and re-emerged wearing a black and silver ruffled cocoon that was probably designed by Rei Kawakubo for all I know. Her platinum blond signature coif was perfect. She pranced and danced and clowned, all with a big smile on her face. The love traveled both ways.

A white-haired Chris Stein sat to her left throughout the show, wearing dark shades. Clem Burke, who, along with the Attractions’ Pete Thomas is one of the greatest drummers to ever drum, was set up behind Plexiglass baffling. Burke is the only other original member of Blondie in the band besides Harry and Stein, and he looked exactly how you would expect Clem Burke to look. Has he been preserved in amber? (The three original members are joined by bassist Leigh Foxx, lead guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Boher.)

Blondie’s set was one glorious hit after another (“Call Me,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture”), with a deep cut or two (“Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines and “Atomic” from Eat to the Beat were a pleasant surprise).  And the band played two absolute genius covers, the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus hit of the summer “Old Town Road” and the James Bond theme song “From Russia with Love.” Covering “Old Town Road,” a marriage of rap and country, was a reminder that Blondie’s “Rapture” served a similar purpose of taking the sound of one genre and culture into untested territory. “Rapture” was the first (and, for years, only) hip-hop song to be played on MTV. As for “From Russia with Love,” Harry purred it, deadpan, in front of that notorious prank Presidential seal (a Photoshop with the two-headed Russian eagle holding golf clubs), to whoops of solidarity from the crowd.

The highlight for me was Blondie’s reggae cover “The Tide Is High,” which Harry prefaced with a remark about the tide being high for some of us. At the time I took that to be a reference to the climate crisis (Harry is a longtime environmental activist). But this morning, I remembered her shout to the audience at the song’s end, “I’m holding on. I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that. Are you?” Tide and time. Sea levels and the number of candles on the cake, both rising. Fight on, Debbie, you eccentric, irreplaceable diamond.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

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

The year in guns and music

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)


Music normally provides a refuge from and a response to the sorrows of the world. But in this bitter and broken year, even music became a war zone. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue to support live music, continue to go to shows, continue to choose art, joy and freedom over fear.  U2’s stunning Paris concert, which HBO aired live on Dec. 7, was a powerful antidote to the vile “keep Muslims out of the U.S.” posturing of Herr Trump that coincidentally dominated the news cycle that day. But, more important, it was a healing gesture — as far as gestures can go — to the city of Paris and to musicians and music lovers shaken by the horror that took place at the Bataclan.

I’m sure I’m not the only fan who once believed to my core that a rock concert is hallowed ground. How can anything bad possibly happen when you’re dancing to the music you love? But it did, and we have to acknowledge that dark cloud. We in the U.S. also have to contend with domestic terrorism wrought by the NRA’s insane GOP-enabled perversion of the Second Amendment. But you know what? Life goes on. Music goes on. Thirty-five years ago this month, John Lennon became a gun violence statistic, murdered by someone who should never have been able to obtain a gun. We thought the dream of peace and love died with a Beatle, but it didn’t. It lives on, even stronger, in the increasingly angry and emboldened response of sane Americans to the mass shootings that have taken place almost daily, and to the racist, xenophobic, gun-humping, misogynistic filth spewing from the mouths of the fringe crackpots the Republicans are trying to pass off as presidential material.

On the night of Dec. 7, after a scrolling remembrance of Paris casualties and shouts of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,”  Bono brought an emotional Eagles of Death Metal onstage to sing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The audience jumped, cried and howled along on Smith’s progressive battle cry — “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools” — like a great wounded animal stirred. And you never want to underestimate a wounded animal.

Much of the music on my best-of list reflects my state of mind this year, probably more than it does the musical moment. The news was frequently so depressing, I found myself gravitating towards music as an uplifting escape. My Top Seven albums of 2015:

  1. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Album). No, I haven’t seen it (I’m hoping for a West Coast tour). But the album, oh the album. Hamilton stands on its own as a hip-hop/pop opera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton — Founding Father, guy on the $10 bill, famous duel victim — a work of straight-up genius in so many ways. Listening to the album reminds me of how, as a kid, I locked myself in my room with Hair and didn’t come out for a year.  Hamilton brings popular music to Broadway in a more original way than jukebox musicals like Motown: The Musical, harnessing the power of rap as storytelling form (and connecting the dots backward to Shakespeare in the process). The show’s electricity comes from how star and creator Miranda frames Hamilton as an outsider with a vision of democracy and equality (“just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry”). Its heartbreak comes from the audience’s knowledge that the show’s big ideas — the abolition of slavery, the right of women to determine their own destinies, the creation of a strong central government (“Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’ “) — are still regarded as open to debate by a large swath of the population. At the very least, the boundary-crossing popularity of Hamilton might make American history sexy again for a country that often seems sorely in need of a history lesson.
  2. FFS. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks morphed into a defiantly off-kilter entity, serving up an album “so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious” (as I wrote in June). There was one song on the record that diverged from the upbeat mood, Alex Kapranos’s atmospheric ballad about a man with a gun, “Little Guy from the Suburbs” (“I’m just a little guy from the suburbs/ Who learned to kill better than the others”). As the year went on and the mass shootings by terrorists both domestic and foreign piled up, the song took on a grave kind of prescience. But FFS didn’t let that weigh them down. Their jubilant, inclusive concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland was my show of the year.
  3. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up. Achingly lovely and lonely pop from a performer for whom weed, wisecracks and meals alone in front of the TV no longer seem to be enough. The haunting “Deeper than Love,” in which she details her discomfort with intimacy and her fear of aging and death, is as wrenching a piece of confessional songwriting as you will ever hear.
  4. Grimes, Art Angels. Colleen Green works in tight-focus; on Art Angels, Grimes (Claire Boucher) blows her music up to IMAX. This is a big record, in sound, intention and the talents of its creator, and it mostly succeeds. Producer/arranger/songwriter/beat-creator/musician/performer Grimes moves confidently from sugar-voiced yet tough-edged dance pop (“California”) to savage electronica full of other-worldly mystery (“Kill V. Maim”). On Art Angels, Grimes emerges as the spiritual daughter of Madonna in her prime and Yoko Ono at her wildest.
  5. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?  Glorious electronic dance music about the challenge of growing older without letting the world turn you bitter. My review is here. 
  6. Shamir, Ratchet. This young, agender Las Vegan delivered the debut album of the year, featuring sublime dance hits “On the Regular” and “Call It Off.” On their sassy delivery of those two primary-colored tracks, Shamir calls to mind a cross between Sylvester and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. On a downcast song like “Vegas,” the bright lights fall away, revealing a willingness to acknowledge ugly truths: “You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/ But if you’re living in the city, oh you already in hell.” Shamir’s combination of playfulness and darkness raises the ante for future work.
  7. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Not actually an album (though there is a companion playlist), but reading Costello’s memoir was exactly like listening to his lyrics. His writing here is dense, assured, filled with dazzling turns of phrase and tricky — unfaithful — when it comes to narrative structure. This is a book of memories that unspools like both a memory and a melody, moving back and forth in time, often steeped in self-loathing, but always returning to Costello’s main refrain and reference point — his beloved, often-absent father, the big-band musician from whom Elvis inherited his sense of showmanship, among other things. This is a deep, rewarding tale, beautifully sung.

And this was my song of the year. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but the power of it is, still, a comfort.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015



In the grooves, part three


In parts one and two, inspired by the exhibit “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California History, I began revisiting the role that albums played in my life from my childhood in the ’60s until I stopped listening to the bulk of my music on vinyl in the early ’90’s. In the conclusion: Earthquakes, personal and geological.

College: 1975-79

I’d heard tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s first two records played on Boston’s FM station, WBCN, and I liked them. But, for some reason, I didn’t buy a Springsteen album until Born to Run, and even then, not until a year or so after it was released in 1975. But then something clicked and down I went into the rabbit hole of Springsteen fandom; I belatedly bought his earlier albums, and became enchanted by the cinematic story-songs and beatniks-on-the-beach vibe of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I wore out “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade” as I made up for lost time. So when “Prove It All Night” was released in the spring of 1978 as a teaser single for his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode.

I remember my junior and senior year of college as a blur of Bruce. I saw my first E Street Band show in May 1978, then spent the rest of the summer counting the days until he came back to Boston in September. Darkness was the first record that I instantly, viscerally, understood — the narrator’s despair at living a small life, his desperation to be his true self somewhere else, spoke to me in my circumstances as a girl from a blue-collar family, filled with ambition but not much faith in myself. I parsed every word of Darkness reviews by Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone) and Kit Rachlis (the Boston Phoenix), pieces that approached the album the way we approached classic novels in my English Lit. classes, and I knew that I wanted to write about music this way. You know how people say, “Omigod, this album changed my life”? OMIGOD, THIS ALBUM CHANGED MY LIFE.

So Much Music: 1979-81

In senior year of college, I started writing record reviews for the free music papers that showed up in record stores around town. I met a kindred soul named Holly Cara Price, a Bruce fan, poet, photographer and aspiring rock writer. She persuaded me to start writing music reviews for an unlikely publication, a feminist weekly called Sojourner. Somehow, Holly convinced the editors that their definition of “women’s music” should expand beyond Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey in the Rock (no offense to those pioneering artists), to include all strong female rock and punk voices. So we wrote about Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt,  Joan Jett, even — I swear — Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album, all for a Cambridge radical/feminist/lesbian audience. They drew the line, however, at our attempts to educate our readers about Bruce. But I did learn about some amazing traditional women’s music artists, including the charismatic Ferron, who was pretty much the Springsteen of lesbian folk music. So, all in all, I think it was a mutual broadening of horizons.

When we weren’t fighting the patriarchy one Blondie review at a time, Holly and I were obsessing over Bruce together. It’s because of Holly, and Bruce, that I made my first trip to New York City for the 1979 No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I first laid eyes on Bleecker Bob’s, the legendary Greenwich Village record store, where I bought this Springsteen bootleg. Geek details: It’s pressed on red vinyl, has no credits and lists then-unreleased songs we’d later come to know as “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced” under the titles “Angel from the Inner Lake” and “Mama Knows Rithmatic, Knows How to Take a Fall”.


After I graduated college, I kept my job in the campus library (the journalism offers weren’t exactly pouring in), but I continued writing for the free music papers. I was paid in promo albums, which is how I accumulated a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” Do you remember Moon Martin? How about Horslips?  Yep, if there was a record that nobody else wanted to review, give it to the new kid. I didn’t care. I was getting a byline and trading in the crap promo records for albums that I really wanted.

And there was so much music to want in 1979 and 1980. This was as formative a period as 1970-1971. One part of me was all about Bruce. The other part was in an Anglophilic swoon over British new wave. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Get Happy!!!, with their dazzling wordplay, sealed the deal on a deep admiration that has lasted through Costello’s many changes of persona and genre. The Clash’s London Calling launched a passion equal to that of my Bruce fandom; I remember buying their Sandinista! on my way to a December 1980 Springsteen show at the Boston Garden, stashing it underneath my seat and feeling like my musical worlds were colliding.

Ah, Sandinista!. This is what albums could do that CD’s and MP3’s can’t. The Clash packed an entire world, a movement, a community inside that album sleeve. Not only did the package contain three records for the price of two (including one side of dub reggae and electronica that sounds startlingly contemporary now), there was a tri-fold, punk ‘zine insert with lyrics, credits, notes and hand-drawn cartoons crammed onto every inch of its six pages. Sandinista! was a manifesto and a world-music party that you could hold in your hands.



And then there was Chrissie Hynde . . . When I first heard the Pretenders’ debut album,  it was Tapestry all over again;  I felt like Hynde was speaking to women who loved rock and roll in our own language. Although she fronted a male band, she wrote from an aggressively female perspective, about sex, love, pregnancy, birth control, rape. The melodies were swervy and the rhythms jagged and hard, but Chrissie’s achingly beautiful voice, her singular phrasing and cooing vibrato, put her femaleness front and center. She didn’t wear dresses, though, and she didn’t flirt; she played a rhythm guitar as sharp as her cheekbones and bristled at being included in the condescending “women in rock” stories that filled the media in ’79 and ’80. Chrissie was everything I wanted and needed her to be. And the album cover shot of her in a bright red leather jacket, her kohl-rimmed eyes staring defiantly out from under Carnaby Street bangs, was, to me, the epitome of cool.


Rock Critic: 1981-1987

In 1981, I landed my dream gig — I was on the roster of regular music writers at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix. And one of the first lessons I learned there about writing rock criticism was this: Do your research. Don’t worry about looking stupid in front of a colleague for asking a question about a band or record. It’s better than looking stupid in front of your readers.

I hate to be all “Back in my day …” about it, but, do you know how hard it was to do your homework on an unfamiliar artist or genre before the Internet, before Wikipedia, You Tube, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify?  Your fellow critics were your Wikipedia and record stores were your iTunes. If the LP gods were kind, you could find the pertinent albums of any artist’s back catalog in one of the many used record stores in Boston and Cambridge. The juicier my assignments got, the bigger my record collection grew.

I loved research (still do). Artists and records that had been just names in Rolling Stone became indispensable favorites the deeper I dug. If there was a buzz around the office, I wanted in. That’s how I got turned on to Richard and Linda Thompson. I bought a last minute ticket to their show in 1982 at the tiny Paradise in Boston, knowing almost nothing about them except that they had a new album called Shoot Out the Lights and my editor was high on it. (It turned out to be their last tour — their marriage was pretty much dead at that point.) I came out of that show ravenous to hear more of their dark, droll British folk, which led me to their back catalogue, which led me to Thompson’s previous group, Fairport Convention, which led me to Sandy Denny, which led me to British folk nerd heaven. A depressing ballad elates me. A hurdy-gurdy throws me into a frenzy. I once counted up my souvenir ticket stubs and, to my surprise,  it turns out that I’ve seen Richard Thompson in concert more than any other band, more than Bruce, more than Elvis Costello. And it all started with this record.

A pile o' British folk.
A pile o’ British folk.

At the Phoenix, I became friends with a twinkly-eyed elf named Mark Moses, who was a computer programmer by day and one of the finest rock critics of his generation by night. (He eventually wrote the pop music column for the New Yorker.) Mark and I both loved bad puns, wicked gossip, lost 45’s from our childhoods and the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We never thought of ourselves as collectors. We combed through used album stores because we were completists, hungry to hear more. We couldn’t leave a copy of a record we loved to sit unappreciated in some suburban discount department store bargain bin, even if we already owned it. It’s because of Mark that I started to appreciate Gram Parsons, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, the Mekons. He also introduced me to the enriching, sustaining beauty of Aretha’s gospel records and Al Green. He came up with the single funniest rock and roll pun I’ve ever heard: “Little Richard Thompson, the manic-depressive R&B-folk singer”. He died of AIDS, 25 years ago this month. I wish I had a photo of him, but who went around taking pictures of their friends before cell phones? I have the music he gave me, though. And it makes me laugh every time I look at that copy of Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me and see the price sticker  — he liberated it from a going-out-of-business sale at a New Bedford Zayre’s.




1987-now: California Soul

In 1987, I was offered a job as the daily TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. My husband and I figured that we’d move out to the Bay Area for a few years, make some real money, then move back to Boston and have a kid, settle down. We pruned the record collection, sold some, gave away some, but still loaded more than 1,000 records onto the moving van for the trek west. I was uncertain, having never lived anywhere but Greater Boston. The records (and my washing machine — don’t ask) were like a security blanket. I really believed that we could just pick up our lives in one place, set them down intact in another and carry on, just as if we were still living in Boston, but, you know, further west.

For the first couple of years, we lived in a kind of limbo, rooting for the Celtics from afar, hanging out with people we knew from Boston, making frequent trips back. But as much as I resisted, California got under my skin. I loved looking into the horizon and seeing mountains, not gray flatness. I loved the dreamy quality of the sunlight on the green Pacific. I loved the unfamiliar flowers and the trees that never went depressing and bare. I was weirded out at first by the friendliness of the people, who actually said hello on the street, but that, too, grew on me. As did National League baseball, the lack of weather extremes, real Mexican food and (gasp) the Grateful Dead. Gradually, the East Coast ties loosened.

One October day, I got home from the office in the late afternoon, looking forward to watching the Giants and A’s World Series game. I puttered around with Kate Bush’s The Sensual World on the stereo. And then the earth began to shake. I ran under the doorway between the living room and kitchen and hung on, while the rented, wood-framed ranch house shook around me like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. I closed my eyes and listened to dishes rattling in the kitchen, the top-heavy album shelving thudding against the walls of the living room, and the needle bouncing on the record. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a pile of albums, hundreds of them, all over the living room floor. I keep the ruined Kate Bush record as a souvenir of the day I really became a Californian.

Because I wrote occasional music reviews for the Examiner, I was on record company mailing lists for a long time, but by the early ’90s, they had nearly all switched over to sending CD’s. Which was fine with me, because, by then, I’d had my son and portability of music was crucial if I was going to ever have time to listen at all. We bought a house (never moved back East after all), pruned the record collection again, stored the rest in boxes in the closets. I framed some of the artier album covers — Layla is now hanging in my bathroom. (What? I never claimed to be a decorator.)  A few times a year, I would get an urge to hear something that I only owned on vinyl, but I had long since stopped buying albums.

I never considered selling my remaining records, though — too many memories. And I’m glad that I didn’t. My son has claimed a good chunk of them for his own. His generation is buying vinyl again, making their own memories to the warm sound of (to quote Elvis Costello) “every scratch, every click, every heartbeat.” The circle is unbroken, the turntable spins.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014


Love, Sweet Love

I had big plans to write a super-duper new Valentine’s Day post (Bruce Springsteen, chocolate). Alas, my damn back is acting up and my seated time is limited. But I heart you, dear readers (making little Taylor Swift love sign), so I wanted to share this oldie but goodie with you.

I wrote this Valentine’s Day appreciation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s peerless love songs for Salon in 1997. I’m reprinting a slightly edited and updated version here, with some video inserts. Mmmm-wah!

To appreciate just how much Burt Bacharach and [the late] Hal David contributed to the canon of pop love songs, imagine a Valentine’s Day playlist without their input. This is what you would not hear: “Wishin’ & Hopin’,” “Reach Out for Me,” “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” “Make It Easy On Yourself,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” “The Look of Love,” “This Guy’s in Love with You,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Walk on By,” “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” To name a few.

The greatest love-song writers of the pop era, Bacharach and David were a symbiotic, if unlikely, pair. David’s simple yet emotionally rich lyrics were influenced by old masters like Oscar Hammerstein and Johnny Mercer, while Bacharach, who studied modern composition theory under Darius Milhaud, specialized in intricately shifting time signatures and eclectic arrangements that were often more out-there than what the Beatles and George Martin were cooking up.

Bacharach’s orchestrations on the numerous hits the pair produced for Dionne Warwick during the ’60s mixed nods to his idols — Debussy and Ravel, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker — with then-novel Brazilian pop tinges. Bacharach was big on marimbas and vibraphones. But he also favored timpani, glockenspiels, muted trumpets, alto flutes and English horns, and his vocal arrangements shot back and forth between sober restraint and operatic venting. Sometimes, Bacharach blended Warwick’s creamy voice, at once sophisticated and accessible, in with the woodwinds and brass (on the instrumental break of “I Say a Little Prayer,” she mimics an alto flute); other times, Warwick asserted herself with gospel-trained ferocity above the orchestral whirl. A couple of years earlier, Phil Spector had set his girl group operettas in a downtown world of tenement stoops; Bacharach brought his Everygirl Warwick uptown and put her in a high-rise elevator to the stars.

Bacharach and David’s songs have been admired by producers and songwriters of widely differing sensibilities (Brian Wilson and the late Frank Zappa were just two of their fans) and covered by artists of widely differing styles — a partial list includes Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Luther Vandross, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Tom Jones, the White Stripes, Bill Frisell, Albert Lee’s Love, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Isaac Hayes and the Walker Brothers.

As unique as Bacharach’s rhythms and melodies may have been, they were also remarkably elastic, lending themselves to all sorts of treatments. And David’s plainspoken lyrics gave artists room for interpretation, room to make them their own. Aretha puts a shimmering gospel kick into the last “Forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart” of “I Say a Little Prayer” (for my money, the superior version over Warwick’s original). The Box Tops’ Alex Chilton, the proto-Cobain, sounds like a lost boy/man pouring his heart out on a surprisingly muscled-up “Trains and Boats and Planes”.  There’s a world of experience between Dusty’s sultry “Close to You” and Karen Carpenter’s innocent one. A Bacharach and David song is a challenge for a singer and a treasure hunt for a fan. Here are two disparate versions of  “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.”

Now in his 80s, Bacharach always overshadowed his staid partner in their heyday. Ruggedly handsome despite his prematurely gray hair, Bacharach milked his sensitive-dude-at-the-piano image for all it was worth; with then-wife Angie “Police Woman” Dickinson on his arm, he was a Swinging ’60s icon, a Malibu Eros.

Despite Bacharach and David’s estrangement throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and despite Bacharach’s Muzak-y collaborations (“Arthur’s Theme,” “That’s What Friends Are For”) with others during that time, the duo never really went out of style, and that’s because their songs were part of the fabric of growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, the pop single/AM radio era. For many baby boomers, they were a first thrilling brush with a mysterious world of sophisticated adult romance. Ironically, though, when you listen to those old records now, you realize that Bacharach and David’s protagonists were almost always in an oddly adolescent state of vulnerability, poised on the cusp of anxiety and perfect happiness, at the mercy of the piquant uncertainties of love.

Anyone who had a heart would tell you that Bacharach and David’s love songs are more often about people out of love. In song after song, lovers fail to connect, while Bacharach’s orchestrations mirror the swirl of life that continues to go on around them, magnifying their loneliness. It was the ’60s, and people were seeking freedom and doing their own thing, and so Bacharach and David wrote love songs for one-night stands (there are plenty of them in their Broadway musical Promises, Promises). They wrote love songs for lovers separated by all that freedom (“Message to Martha/Michael,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”) and separated by something else, too — when I was a kid, I thought “I Say a Little Prayer” was about a woman whose boyfriend was in Vietnam and to this day I can’t hear the song any other way.

David’s lyrics are the words of ordinary people startled into eloquence by the intensity of their feelings. Love hurts, but it’s a blessing — you can hear it in David’s recurring spiritual imagery, from “Love requires faith/I’ve got a lot of faith” in “Are You There (with Another Girl)” to “You’ll never get to heaven if you break my heart” to “I say a little prayer for you.” Elvis Costello continues David’s spiritual theme in his lyrics for his collaboration with Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength,” which they wrote for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart and appears on their 1998 duo album Painted from Memory.  From the song’s first downcast blurts of muted trumpet, “God Give Me Strength”  is so very Bacharach-and-David, it erases all the time between the era of the AM dial and the era of the iPod.

As another Valentine’s Day comes around, take a few moments to savor the pleasure these songwriters gave us. So plush and melodic they made your heart sing, Bacharach and David’s songs personified the glory of love, the whole messy story of love, one perfect little circle of vinyl at a time. Can you put your arms around a melody? Almost, almost.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

Round and round

Can we just crown Elvis Costello the Greatest Entertainer of His Generation and be done with it?

Punk Elvis, terrorizing Saturday Night Live. Brill Building/Motown Elvis, effortlessly reeling off pop and R&B songs through the Armed Forces/Taking Liberties/Get Happy!!!/Trust years. Country-blues Elvis, riding the mystery train from Nashville to Graceland to Memphis (Almost Blue, King of America, Kojak Variety, The Delivery Man). New Orleans Elvis (Spike, The River in Reverse). Classical Elvis (The Juliet Letters, Il Sogno). Beatles Elvis (Imperial  Bedroom). Rock and roll Elvis (Blood and Chocolate, Brutal Youth, When I Was Cruel). Musicologist/effervescent TV Host Elvis (Sundance Channel’s “Spectacle”). Tin Pan Alley Elvis (National Ransom). And through it all, Wordsmith Elvis, snarly, pithy, sly, clever, gorgeous, peerless.

With his Spinning Songbook tour, Costello has found a singular way to contain, and showcase, his multitude of musical selves. Take one huge carnival Wheel of Fortune, slot it with songs spanning 30+ years of Costellodom, adopt the persona of a cheesy music hall emcee, let audience members spin the wheel and while the song is played, invite them to linger on bar stools at the onstage cocktail lounge or take a turn dancing in the go-go cage.

I was lucky enough to witness the Spinning Songbook show in its first incarnation, in 1986. He revisited the concept last year and, after a few months’ hiatus, he’s back on the road with his traveling carnival. The Spinning Songbook hit San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on April 15, and, of the four Songbook shows I’ve caught since 1986, it was by far the best, in pacing and energy level  — and one of the best of any Elvis show, from any period, I’ve ever seen.

Nearly three hours, folks. So many songs I lost count. It started with Costello and his indefatigable Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher) blasting through an opening volley of “Lipstick Vogue” and “Watching the Detectives,” while a spangles-and-fishnet-clad go-go dancer shimmied in the cage. Costello then donned a top hat and stalked through the audience looking for lucky victims. He emerged with two young women in tow, whom he led to the wheel, claiming that he chose them because they were wearing purple, “the Papal color … and I’m feeling very holy.”  And we were off to the races.

The first spin yielded the rocker “Turpentine” from Momofuku, and a cryptic “Big Boo Little Hoo” card, which turned out to be a medley of crying songs:  The rarity “Big Tears” (yay!) and the ballads “Town Cryer” and “Little Triggers.”  On “Big Tears,” Guitar God Elvis ripped off the first of many lacerating solos, while Crooner Elvis was in fine nuanced, dusky voice on the two ballads, as well as on the other slow-burners that would come up through the night (“The Poisoned Rose,” the Randy Newman-penned “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” George Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses”).  Subsequent spins (with Costello aided by his statuesque assistant “Katya Valentina Valentine”) turned up songs both well-loved (“Everyday I Write the Book,” “High Fidelity”) and under-appreciated (“Episode of Blonde”, “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”). There were also wild cards and jackpots, which were basically an excuse for Elvis to delve into multiple tracks along the same theme (like the “Time” slot), or to play whatever the hell he wanted, from “Mystery Dance” to “Uncomplicated” to a jubilant cover of the Beatles’ “Please Please Me.”

The audience participation format is a risk. But for the most part, the San Francisco contingent was more excited than inebriated. Well, except for the blonde chick who crashed the stage uninvited and proceeded to make an air-guitar-windmilling, Irish step-dancing ass of herself at length.

But, back to Costello. The man did not want to stop playing. By my dizzy estimate, the encores alone went on for 45 minutes. By the final two songs, his customary when-in-SF Grateful Dead cover (“Ramble On Rose”) and, of  course, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,”  Costello and the Imposters were drenched in sweat and we were ecstatically go-go dancing in the aisles. That’s entertainment.

© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape. 2012