Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Category: Music Page 1 of 47

Eddie Van Halen, Justin Townes Earle, and the rough edges

Eddie Van Halen.

It’s unwise to judge someone on the basis of a 30-minute phone call. Over the course of my long career, I conservatively estimate that I’ve done about 4,000 phone interviews with musicians. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of those conversations left me feeling like I’d been talking to a real jerk. And that total would include two interviews each with Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons.

One of the better ones was Eddie Van Halen.

This was maybe 15 or 20 years ago. He was relaxed, funny, eager to talk, a regular guy. Like someone you’d hang with. And he gave me one of my all-time favorite stories from an interview.

As Van Halen told it, he and a few other folks, including his then-wife Valerie Bertinelli, had rented an Atlantic Ocean beach cottage owned by the theater and film-score composer Marvin Hamlisch. Over the course of a month or two, they were partying pretty heavily. And as they were getting ready to move on, Van Halen said he was worried about the condition of the grand piano in the living room. They’d been using it as a table for their drinks over the course of many evenings. Now the instrument’s lid was marred by dozens of cocktail-glass rings.

Consumed by guilt, Van Halen hired a woodworker to come out to the house, to sand and re-finish the piano lid. Hamlisch never knew.

That’s what I remembered of Eddie Van Halen when I heard on Monday that he had died of cancer at age 65. Not the amazing electric guitar solos, or the hit songs. I thought about a millionaire musician fretting over having wrecked the finish on Marvin Hamlisch’s piano. In the grand universe of careless acts, maybe not such a big deal. But, for the duration of that half-hour conversation, Van Halen was a man with a conscience, he was a decent guy.

Musicians, they give you the straight talk. Sometimes it’s funny. A little self-deprecating.

And sometimes, it’s a little scary. Musicians are the hurricane bells of society. Ringing plaintively, and with increasing urgency, as the winds escalate.

That wasn’t in the forecast when I was in Austin, Texas, probably around 2008 or so, for the South by Southwest Music Conference. It was a beautiful March afternoon. The best time to be in Austin. I was in an alley behind a funky art gallery called the Yard Dog. Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based label of mostly alt-country hellbellies, was putting on a showcase of its musicians. They each got 30-minute sets. Maybe 45 minutes, if they were already a proven cool commodity, like The Waco Brothers.

People were drifting around the alley, slipping around the small stage, sipping beer from plastic cups, examining each others’ tattoos. A few dogs wandered in and out. I was standing in front of the stage waiting for the next act. I greatly admire Steve Earle, and someone suggested I might want to be there, at that moment, to check out Earle’s kid. Justin Townes Earle.

Standing next to me was a tall guy in a sharp-looking, powder blue, western-cut suit. A lot of these rockabilly types go all out with the vintage clothing, thick-framed Buddy Holly eyeglasses and carefully retro hairstyles. I don’t recall if I said anything to the guy, we were just nursing our beers and waiting. Then the day’s emcee walked onstage and gave the usual “Let’s have a big hand for Justin Townes Earle” intro. And the guy in the powder-blue suit and Buddy Holly glasses stepped up onto the stage.

So now I was a fan of both Earles.

Justin Townes Earle.

The conventional wisdom suggests that Justin was fruit that didn’t fall far from the tree. That could be true, but it depends on what landscape you’re looking at.

In some ways, they seemed such opposites. Steve Earle, in his Leo Tolstoy beard and flannel shirts. Justin Townes Earle, a clothes horse who GQ magazine would go on to name one of the “25 most stylish men in the world.”

But the similarities were a little alarming. Both had gone through periods of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as civil disobedience. Justin was 12 when he started using drugs and, as best as I could determine, he’d survived five overdoses by the time he was 21, and had been in rehab 13 times. He ended up in an Indianapolis jail in 2010 after an obscenity-fueled show ended in a brawl with the club owner and damage to some property.

Rewarding domestic partnerships did not seem to be a specialty of either man. Steve Earle – he’s been married seven or eight times to date – had left Mrs. Earle No. 3 by the time Justin was 2 years old, so the influence was perhaps negligible. Except as song fodder. “Absent father, now he never offers even a dollar,” is how Justin put it in “Single Mother,” one of those tortured compositions that seems to pour so naturally out of the Earle family songbook. “He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he’s forfeited the rights to his own now.”

Still, there was a relationship, although it sounded more professional than personal. Justin played guitar in his father’s band for a while, and they appeared together in an episode of HBO’s “Treme.”

Justin had been releasing some excellent albums by the time he was booked for a show at Rochester’s Water Street Music Hall in 2014. I set up an interview and did the usual research that journalists do these days, checking out his Twitter account. I saw that Earle was fuming over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.

When I got Earle on the phone, I asked him about it.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where the police liked to harass us, they had definite reason to be scared,” he said. Earle figured some of them were returning vets whose thank-you for their patriotism was Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As Earle watched the Ferguson news, the conflict that he witnessed while growing up in Nashville still resonated.

“There was a lot of separation between races there, Black and white,” he told me. “People who support the police, who don’t say anything, they’re from all-white suburbs. They didn’t go to school with Black people. If they did, it was like a token thing. The police are so disrespectful to common people now. I’ve been beaten up by cops, a lot my friends were severely injured by cops. We’re all Americans. This militarized America, this killing of unarmed Americans is absolutely out of this world to me.”

Remember, this conversation took place six years ago. Nothing’s changed. You could substitute a dozen or two names in place of Michael Brown. A dozen or two towns for Ferguson.

It’s a hard world that fuels hard-times troubadours like Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle. Steve’s songs were frequently more political. But like his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, the characters in Justin’s songs were often relationship train wrecks you can’t turn away from.

Now I was talking to Justin about that latest album, “Single Mothers.”

“A lot of the songs on that album were the result of a rough time the past couple of years,” he said. “I had a really nasty breakup with a really nasty person, the kind of person who literally went around to my friends and spread a lot of bullshit.”

Earle was 32 years old by then, his soul was up for grabs, and he talked like he knew it. “I realized I can’t be the guy I was trying to be,” he said. “Which wasn’t to say I was that bad a guy. I was messy as hell, I ate dinner at 2 a.m.

“A lot has changed.”

What?

“I wasn’t doing drugs then. I’ve always smoked reefer, but I was clean. I guess it was my relationship with women. I had lost complete faith in that idea. That I could sustain a positive relationship.”

Earle’s response was classic American. Road trip. Run away.

“I took a trip to the mountains,” he said. Park City, Utah. “Disneyland for adults. I met a woman there that is amazing. I always wanted girlfriends from outside of my world. I always had a lot of faith in women like that, due to my mother.”

Sober since that dust-up and night in jail after the Indianapolis show, and the month of rehab that followed, he married that woman he met in the shadow of the Utah mountains. His first marriage. I counted it out on my fingers; he was still six behind dad. She was tattooed and tall, like Earle, but otherwise an outsider from his world.

Sometimes you just need to get away.

“Any environment will get ugly on you after a while,” he said. “When I went out West, I could breathe mountain air, see different scenery. I felt the same kind of wonderment as the first time I set foot in Manhattan and San Francisco. Driving out there, I actually saw the purple mountains majesty and the golden waves of grain. I’ve never been a pro-American person. But for the first time, I felt the beauty.”

I’ve gotta admit, that was another one of my favorite interviews. A lot different than Eddie Van Halen. Darker, for sure. But I liked the guy, and the words rang true.

But that hurricane bell can stay silent for only so long. Musicians hear it ringing for society, and they write about it. Or it’s a personal warning for a guy who doesn’t hear it. Maybe he chooses to not hear it. Maybe he hears it, and writes about it.

In August of this year, Justin Townes Earle died. He was 38. No official cause of death has been publicly announced, but the police were investigating it as a drug overdose.

Steve Earle says he’s going to record an album of his son’s music.

Sometimes you can sand down the rough edges. Throw on a nice, new finish. But you can’t always help what’s underneath.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

The truth, and where to find it


I keep looking for, thinking about, what good might come out of this world-wide disaster. It will be difficult to find our way through this. Through the fog. Reality obscured by the daily White House coronavirus press briefings.

This one, from last week, is easier to understand if you imagine it as a Monty Python skit. With John Cleese, who excels at portraying buffoonish authority figures displaying a comical lack of self-awareness, as President Trump. And Eric Idle, master of the befuddled expression, as the Reporter.

President Trump: “I think mail-in voting is horrible, it’s corrupt.”

Reporter: “You voted by mail in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?”

Trump: “Sure. I can vote by mail.”

Reporter: “How do you reconcile with that?”

Trump: “Because I’m allowed to.”

A true story.

I’ve stopped watching Trump’s version of FDR’s Fireside Chats. Trump’s more of an arsonist. I leave farce to the professionals.

I’m also leaving advice on how to protect myself from coronavirus to medical professionals. I leave my understanding of climate change to scientists. I leave economic theories to reputable economists, not a guy whose career has been a string of failed businesses, bankruptcies and bailouts from daddy.

The pursuit of facts, not conspiracy theories. Until recently, as the body count grew too high to deny, Trump was suggesting that coronavirus was simply a Democratic Party attempt to bring down his presidency. As if people in Italy and Spain would willingly sacrifice their lives to influence the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election.

Trump has lowered the bar on every aspect of life in the United States.

And the standard of truth has suffered the most. Why do so many millions of Americans buy into this? It’s like that old horror film, Children of the Damned. Are they a futuristic race… or a threat to our planet?

Trump calms his followers: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

What good can possibly come of this pandemic? There’s nothing to be found in the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

If anything can be rescued from this rubble, perhaps it is… time.

I’m working from home. I’m not going out to see shows, or movies, or new exhibits at the museums. I’m not hanging around with friends. I’m looking out the front window, watching my neighbors walk their dogs. What’s on TV? Tiger King, no thanks, I’m not into the spectacle of white-trash drama.

I venture onto social media, and see how you’re amusing yourselves. Posting your high-school portraits. Compiling your “Choose Your Quarantine House” list. That one’s on both Facebook and Twitter. Name five celebrities – writers, TV stars, musicians – who you’d like to be quarantined with. Here’s one of the early houses: Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell, Kylie Jenner, Dr. Phil and Mindy Kaling.

If I was in that house, I’d sleep in the garage. But it gets me to thinking. My Writers Quarantine House?

  • Certainly Haruki Murakami, so I wouldn’t have to read his books a second time just to begin to understand what the hell is going on in those pages.
  • James Joyce, so I can ask him, “Why does Finnegan’s Wake open in mid-sentence, and what do you mean by ‘wielderfight his penisolate war?’”
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, because I want to know where he got the idea to write a novel about a dog who has the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal implanted in his body, and becomes a cat-strangling Bolshevik.
  • And Margaret Atwood, because I want to know what inspired the bioengineered plague and post-apocalyptic corporate evil and blue butts of her novel Oryx and Crake.

For my fifth, how about George Saunders, because I’ve interviewed him, and I want to know where such a nice, normal guy finds such strangeness. Or Colson Whitehead, because I want to know where an elevator to the future will take us. Or Marquis de Sade, just in case things get a little too comfortable.

Time, it’s an intellectual exercise.

I’m reading obituaries in The New York Times. Bruce Baillie. Cause of death… well, he was 88. A photographer. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t familiar with his work. Now, in death, I know him. And I’m fascinated by the guy. A pioneer in avant-garde film. A hippie, counter-culture favorite. His lens was set on Zen. Short films, sometimes with superimposed imagery. One of the most remarkable is a 2½-minute film from 1966, “All My Life.” The camera slowly pans a long fence, overgrown by weeds and wild roses, as Ella Fitzgerald elegantly sings the song of the same name. Many people might find it stupid. I’m amazed at its simplicity, and beauty. If that fence were in my back yard, I’d be staring at it all evening, as the sun set, glass of wine in hand.

The Times tells me that musicians, actors and artists are dying of coronavirus. John Prine, it got him at age 73. That one seemed to hit a lot of my friends hard. People are posting lines from Prine songs on Facebook. “Lake Marie” is my favorite Prine song, and I posted a couple of lines from it.

Because we love music. And because Prine told the truth

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Time enough at last

Burgess Meredith, and the isolation of a good library.

As far as I was concerned, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day got off to a good start this week. The Cleveland Indians beat the Detroit Tigers, 9-0.

Waitaminute… the Tigers beat the Indians, 9-1.

No, the Indians beat the Tigers, 15-4.

Fantasy baseball. If there’s no sports news, we can just make it up.

Is anything more media-irrelevant in these coronavirus days than the sports pages? On Saturday morning, I browsed through The New York Times sports section. The star player of the Oregon Ducks, Sabrina Ionescu, has been denied her opportunity to compete for the NCAA Women’s basketball championship, because the season’s been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sports announcers have gone to Facebook to post factious commentaries on their dogs eating dinner. A few dozen guys, connected through basketball, celebrated a birthday together; four have since tested positive for coronavirus, two others are dead of it. And the NFL draft of college players is still on for next month, so brace yourself for four weeks of sportswriters turning to the always-useless exercise of conducting mock drafts.

Disappointment. Dogs eating dinner. Death. The NFL draft. And mock drafts would be happening anyway, coronavirus or not.

We all have our ways of coping. Who am I to point a finger? For every chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I will read today, I will just as likely sit through 90 minutes of They Saved Hitler’s Brain.

It did not help that just his morning, some web-site links arrived in the email, sent by My Friend Barbara. “For when you don’t want to read the news… or you run out of books, whichever comes first.”

The Voynich Manuscript.

She provided a link to The Internet Archive. Its goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” Digitized collections of websites, music, millions of books. Assembled by volunteers. It’s called Folkscanomy, “a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.”

Once I had logged in, I found all of this… amazing stuff. A link to a site that shows every page of The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15thcentury book written in an as-yet unbroken code, the pages filled with drawings of obscure herbs and cosmological references, and women taking baths.

Music, some of it relevant, as musicians post videos of their coronavirtual concerts. Hip-hop mix tapes. Religious sermons. Medieval Alien Jazz by Eat Rust, an atonal collection of electronic psychedelia with titles such as “Gather The Inner Organs Into A Neat Pile – It’s A Sign That You’re Still Alive.” And way more Grateful Dead concerts than I’ll ever need.

And there is The National Emergency Library, created especially for readers in our current pandemic. Here, I found the 1925 edition of Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, an exploration of some of the Native American burial mounds in the southeastern region of the state; I’ve visited a few of them. Here’s Orwell’s always relevant Nineteen Eighty-Four, not far from Rachel Carson’s prescient Silent Spring, 396 books and magazines about Dr. Who, and a photo magazine called The New Nude.

Anatole France.

Here’s a book I never would have known of, were it not for me being granted time enough at last: From 1925, Anatole France: The Man and His Work. The digital listing allows me to read the forward on the long-dead French writer:

“Had I been Nature,” said Anatole France, “I should have made men and women not to resemble the great apes, as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime of caterpillars, change into butterflies, and for the brief final term of their existence have no thought but to love and be lovely.”

This morning has shed its skin and evolved into that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last,” where the book-loving Burgess Meredith is the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust. He wanders up the steps of a public library, and finds books and books and books. Then stumbles and breaks his eyeglasses. “That’s not fair,” he wails. “That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was – was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

Indeed. Under Feature Films, sub-head Sci-Fi / Horror…

Click …

Oh no. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Zontar the Thing From Venus. Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory. Teenagers From Outer Space. Curse of the Swamp Creature. Roger Corman’s Dementia 13. The 1962 low-budget cult classic Carnival of Souls, which overcomes the zombie acing of its cast with eerie sets and foreboding organ music.

All this, and time enough at last!

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Page 1 of 47

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén