Thursday, May 18, 2006

The night I bugged Alex Chilton

Let me just first preface this entry with a hearty I'm Sorry to Alex Chilton, one of the coolest musicians still roaming this planet. I realize I was being intrusive and invasive to a dude who just wanted to do his job in peace. My incessant demands for an autograph were, in hindsight, really dumb and potentially stalker-ish. I know that now, and you had every right that night to tell me to fuck off. But you didn't, and I did ultimately get the autograph, so thanks, Mr. Chilton.

With that unpleasantry out of the way, it's still somewhat interesting of a story. The great, mighty Alex Chilton was playing at the Double Door, in support of his then-latest CD A Man Called Destruction. Don't ask me which year it was; that was during my lost years, so you'll have to make do with "mid-to-late '90s". I'd already seen Alex Chilton at least once or twice (the first Chicago Big Star gig, then possibly a solo gig at either Schubas or... my mind's soft on the details). So when he came to the Double Door, I had my AMCD cd with me, hoping for a signature. The first time I saw him was at the top of the stairs to the basement of the club. A vaguely familiar guy had a smoke hanging out the corner of his mouth. With temerity, I approached him.

Me: Alex Chilton?
AC: (with a little swagger, a hint of defiance) Yeah?
Me: (offering pen and tray card of the CD) Could you sign my CD?
AC: (dismissively, definite defiance this time) Maybe later.

He strolled away, and I was left there wondering what just happened. However, most people wouldn't have tried again; not this nimrod. I started to try to find alternate ways to procure said autograph. I'd staked out my place near the front of the stage to stand, and spotted a guy who looked and sounded like Quentin Tarantino. For all I know, it could have been QT himself, but for the purposes of this story, that's incidental. I went up to the guy and asked him if he'd ever been compared to the famous film director; he laughed, and told me he got that a lot, yes. Instead of asking him if he was or not (like a normal person would), I told him that if anyone says that tonight, just play along.

I then saw Alex Chilton, and holding out pen and CD, said to him casually:

Me: Did you know you have a celebrity in your audience tonight?
AC: (casually ignoring the offered pen and CD) Yeah, who?
Me: Quentin Tarantino

Alex then walked away snickering, and again I was left wondering what happened.

Needless to say, Alex Chilton put on a great show that night, even doing Big Star's "In The Street". And ultimately at the end of the night, following in some pretty girls who went to the dressing room to meet the star of the night (and no, it didn't seem like a groupie situation; they just appeared to be fans, no more no less). I got the autograph. I asked Alex if a recent quote attributed to him was true, something to the effect that these days, if he could find a way to only need to play music and smoke cigarettes, he'd be a happy man. He perked up, and said, "Who wouldn't want to do that?" This cracked up the other fans in the room.

Even Quentin ended up coming down to get an autograph.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Lowen & Navarro: before it's too late...

You're gonna have to forgive me if I get maudlin on this one... but a radio broadcast that I heard two weeks ago has really been gnawing at me. Not so much in a bad sense, but just enough that I really need for at least some of you out there in cyberland to pick up on it. Trust me, it's worth it.

On Thursday, May 4th of this month, Steve Dahl had Lowen & Navarro on his show. Not only are they truly great musicians who write some really great acoustic music (some would call them singer/songwriters with all the connotations that badge carries, others have called them neo-folk. I don't believe either tag is unfair or inappropriate to describe their music), Eric Lowen has ALS, which the rest of us know as Lou Gehrig's disease. Both men play beautiful guitar, and brought their pianist Phil Parlapiano along with them. The three of them made some really great music, right there in the WCKG studios. And of course, Steve quizzed them about how it's been, being touring musicians having to deal with the gradual physical degeneration of one of the principals. Steve was as glib as he could without being disrespectful; he's had them on his shows for more than ten years, and they've built up a friendship. But aside from the music, the thing that stays with me is the fact that here's a guy who makes his living in music, a true troubadour for today, who's been struck with this shitty hand of cards. Not only will he eventually die of this disease, it'll rob him of his ability to do what he knows (and probably loves) best: his music.

Steve Dahl: You couldn't be cooler about this. Because you know me; I'd be whining all the time.
Eric Lowen: Well, I do my share of that too, Steve.
Steve Dahl: Do ya?
Eric Lowen: Yeah, absolutely... absolutely.
Steve Dahl: But I'd be whining all the time.

The two of them are winding down touring activities, planning to keep them local for them (southern CA) for as long as Eric's condition lets him. (Shame on me for missing out on the Park West gig here in Chicago; all accounts paint it as a great experience that I missed out on. I pray that they do make it back to Chicago at least one more time.). And I can only imagine that Eric doesn't necessarily need or want people to pity him. But they themselves are trying all that they can to raise awareness of this disease. As Eric related during the show, he's no longer able to walk; his mobility is limited to where his motorized scooter and the kindness of others can take him. And Eric's story isn't necessarily any more or less tragic than anyone who's gotten this incurable, always-fatal disease; his is just the one that for right now is hitting home with me.

I can't help feel a twinge of guilt that here these two have been duking it out for an at-times impassive public, trying to spread their own brand of beauty out in the world, and here I am, just another mope who has an ear for a beautiful melody only now discovering them now that one of the dudes is dying. How shitty does that make me sound? I know, some of you might say better late than never, but God, how many others are out there toiling in obscurity, not being appreciated during their lifetimes (if at all)? How many other musicians are out there with ALS who don't have even the limited exposure that Lowen & Navarro have? I have every intention of a) buying their latest studio record All The Time In The World, and their first one, Walking On A Wire (both based on two of the songs I heard on Steve Dahl's broadcast), b) picking up their DVD Carry On Together when it comes out, c) attending one of their concerts if God is willing (and pay the additional money to meet them before the concert), and d) spreading the good word about Lowen & Navarro. I never got the chance to see Harry Chapin or Warren Zevon in concert; I'm blessed that I did get the chance to see Material Issue. I do feel honored that I got to meet Wesley Willis three times before he died, and to have real conversations with the guy (I'll tell you more about that some other time... those make for good stories. Keep on me about it.).

But ultimately, as morbid as it sounds (please pardon any perceived pun), we're faced with a similar situation here. Eric Lowen does not have forever on this planet; his time is winding down. He's handling the situation with as much grace as his situation allows, which is a hell of a lot more grace than a lot of us muster up in our life. He's showing a hell of a lot of courage and strength for continuing to bless us with he and his musical partner's unbelievably beautiful songs. It's up to us to find some way of letting the guys know how much their music means to us. I've thrown the Dahl broadcast (available on iTunes via podcast) onto a CD; I goosed up the lower fidelity tracks with a little equalization, put in intelligent track marker divisions, and burned the sucker. I have every intention of buying their CDs. I might have the ability to give them a bit more publicity via a friend with a webzine which I've written for; although they fall outside the site's usual musical scope, he might make an exception.

I ultimately want to find a way to tell Lowen and Navarro, in my own way, thank you. So far, I've had the fortuante chance to tell Alex Chilton, Jason Narducy, and Scott Miller thank you, and I'd love the chance to tell it to Lowen and Navarro, too. Even if I never get the chance to say it in person, I'll find some other, more implicit way.

Do yourselves a favor; download iTunes, find the free Steve Dahl broadcasts from 5/4/2006, and download hours #3 and #4. You'll see what all my fuss is about. Turn yourselves on to Lowen & Navarro. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Don't call me Axl...and why Ahmet Ertegun is a hero

Well, one of you out there in cyber-land told me, and I quote, "you better keep this shit up or change your blog name to 'chinese democracy'." Fair enough; I'll gladly take the implicit compliment, that he wouldn't have said that if he wasn't enjoying what he read so far. I'll regale you with a smidgeon of autobio, along with a really cool tale from Rock's back pages.

Someday, when a big wad of cash comes my way, I would love to start my own record label. The world is full of far too many albums that either never made it to CD, or which are just plain out of print. Cryin' shame that you can't buy either of Urge Overkill's two Geffen CDs, or Game Theory's Lolita Nation. And those are just three examples of amazing music which belongs in circulation. But until the label happens, I have been devouring all the history I can on other record labels, and reading Billboard and FMQB daily. I try to ask everyone I know who is in the record "industry" as it exists for them what the scales of economy are, and what to expect. All of them tell me to expect to outlay a whole lotta cash, and to maybe see some of it come back your way. But of course, for me (as with most people), the primary motivation isn't to score shitloads of cash; it's to get the music out there. Lord knows that there are 1,001 ways more efficient than starting a record label to earn obscene amounts of money in a hurry (real estate, exploiting illegal immigrants and downtrodden citizens, arms dealing, etc.). I can only imagine that most record labels of any lasting consequence were started because the founders actually at one time gave a damn about the music they released.

Atlantic is a case in point. Up until Warner Music Group's recent post-AOL issues, Atlantic was always a label that I have mad respect for. Sure, they made at least one very egregious transgression of integrity in their past*, but by and large, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Neshui Ertegun contributed a whole lot of amazing music to our mundo artistico.

In Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie's excellent biography of Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records called Music Man, they relate this wonderful tale of how Atlantic came to sign the Rolling Stones back in 1969, as they were leaving British Decca (London Records in America). When Mick first told Ahmet that the Stones wanted to sign to Atlantic, it was in the Whisky-a-Go-Go club in L.A. and Ahmet was roaring drunk, passing out as Mick was telling him the news. This had the unexpected effect of pleasing Mick; he was so used to people kissing his ass, that to have a label head react to this huge news by passing out, Mick must've thought, "Here's a guy I can make records for!!"

But of course, the story wasn't as simple as that; Atlantic still had a bit of wooing to do to win the Stones. The Glimmer Twins were still entertaining offers from Columbia Records, and other labels. Wade and Picardie relate the story like this:

Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records (another independent label that had just become part of the Warner empire), saw Ertegun in London during this period. They met at 9am at a hotel to discuss whether Warner's music division should record the upcoming Isle of Wight pop festival -- but Ertegun's thoughts were on other, more pressing matters. "I got to the door and there was Ahmet reading an Arabic newspaper, but I could see his mind was preocupied," says Holzman. "He had been out all night with Mick Jagger and he was paying very little attention to what I was saying. Suddenly he picked up the phone and said, 'Got to make a call.' He called Mick and said, 'Wasn't that a wonderful time we had last night?' -- and Mick on the other end apparently agreed. Ahmet had been courting and wooing the Stones for about a year by then, and he said to Mick, 'It's probably time for you and me and Prince Rupert (Lowenstein, the Stones' then business manager) to sit down and make a deal.' And Mick said, 'Well, Ahmet, I'll be happy to sit down and talk about a deal with you -- just as soon as I've spoken to Clive Davis at CBS.'

"All the color drained out of Ahmet's face. He looked old at that moment: He was tired, and he had been up all night, and God knows what he had done to his system over the year, being pals with Mick. He got off the phone, and I could see it was futile to continue our discussion.

"He waited about a minute, said nothing, then picked up the phone and said to Mick, 'I've been thinking, and I understand what you're saying about wanting to talk to Clive Davis. But look, I can only sign one major act this year, one act of Rolling Stones caliber. So I want you to know unless I get an answer in a hurry, it is going to be Paul Revere and the Raiders.' And then he hung up. Twenty seconds later the phone rings. Ahmet doesn't pick up. The phone rang consistently for forty-five minutes while we finished the rest of our meeting... That was the biggest demonstration of cool I had ever seen -- before or since."
The facts bear out that Atlantic did indeed sign the Stones, and together the two entities enjoyed more than 10 years of connubial bliss, until the Stones did ultimately sign with CBS in 1983, after which they'd proven that the last of their true masterpieces had come out under the Atlantic logo (well, the Rolling Stones logo mf'd and dist'd by Atlantic, if you want to be technical). Either way, Ahmet Ertegun is one of my heroes, despite his flaws. The world would be in that much rougher shape if Atlantic Records had never existed.

*The big sin I'm referring to was the sly contractual lingo which sailed over the heads of the naive principals of Stax Records at the time of the 1965 distribution pact which ultimately would rob Stax of its own recordings. Shameful of Atlantic, and in hindsight Jerry Wexler admitted in his autobiography just how wrong that move was.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Funny thing happened...

I've arrived at a pseudonym for my beautiful wife, until something better comes along: BW. Get it? In case you don't, I gave you a clue. All of us are doing fine.

The funny thing that happened isn't really ha-ha funny; it's moreso unique, different, and (unfortunately) expected and perhaps even overdue. And due to its incredibly sensitive nature, I've gotta speak really broadly. Let's just say that last Saturday, a person close-but-very-distanced from our family was put in a very safe place for a little while due to consequences of this person's previous actions. It's not pretty, but like I mentioned, it's not totally unexpected. This person was estranged from most of us already, and this was kind of the nail in the coffin. And the policy around the campfire is that if this person honestly got help and made (and showed) serious efforts to change the bad parts of the life, this person would be let back into our lives. That hadn't happened, and he (alright, that's as specific as I'm gonna go!!) burned his last bridge.

You know how they say some people need to hit rock bottom before they get the kick in the ass they need to change their bad habits? For me at least, it was true. When I was drinking too much, BW (back when she was BG) gave me a severe tongue-lashing about it, telling me how dare I even think of driving home in my condition, and even worse, having my brother be in the car. That was possibly the maddest I've ever seen her at me, and she hath fury like no other at times. Needless to say, it was a low point for me, and I decided to take away a lesson from it. I haven't drunk a drop of alcohol since. Don't really need it; my life is complicated enough without it. That day seven years ago was the lowest point I needed; maybe others need something a little more dramatic before they find it in them to change.

On another note...
A buddy of mine gave me a copy of Joe Jackson live in 1979 at the Park West. It's a great soundboard-quality concert, so I cleaned it up, redid the track markers (his version sometimes included two songs in one track), and designed a custom cover for it. On the left is the inspiration; on the right is my cribbed version. Yes, I take this stuff very seriously sometimes. But by and large, I'm usually satisfied with the end result.

Record of the Day: The Blues Brothers, "Jailhouse Rock"
Jake and Elwood turn in a fine performance of this Elvis classic, live at Joliet Correctional. I mean, how can you screw up with Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, Willie "Too Big" Hall, Tom "Bones" Malone, Mr. Fabulous, Murphy Dunne, and Blue Lou Marini as your backup band? Like any good backing band, they were gellin' like a felon (ahem)...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Irregular" is an understatement...

I got this blog way back when, but left it alone until my wife started blogging, as well as seeing a friend's blog. Kinda makes me want to pick this up again, in a monkey-see-monkey-do way... (BTW, I apologize for the obnoxiously huge photo).

The question becomes... do I bore you with all sorts of autobiographical details? It all comes back to you, my captive audience. I'll be more than happy to shoot my yap about who I am, where I've been, why I'm me, etc. But if that's beyond self-indulgent, I can modulate it back a bit, sil vous plait...

A few ground rules: due to a mild personal paranoia on my part, I'm gonna try to keep this as anonymous as possible. Meaning, I'm alternately gonna refer to myself as DJMurphy, Jack Murphy, or hey you. My son is gonna be Little Dude Murph, or LittleDude. I haven't arrived at a pseudonym for my beloved wife yet.

Oh yeah, I'm a sap...

Highlight of today: I actually spent some of my time today while at work sitting on Navy Pier, enjoying the sun and the Lake. And my company knew about it. And they were cool with it. Stunning... I wish I could send some of that paid leisure time to my wife; her company's killing her. I wouldn't be able to put up with that kinda stress; I'd be vomiting every day before work. I've worked for jobs like that; I don't deal well with that kinda stress.

Music recommendation of the day*: The Loud Family, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things
This album is a straight out classic. Scott Miller was in Game Theory, and helmed this group. This disc was the debut from the Louds, and picks up where the GT masterpiece Lolita Nation left off. Excellent power pop interleaves with adventurous sounds and intelligent whimsy. This album ties on a daily basis for best-album-of-the-universe with Big Star's #1 Record/Radio City (OK, two albums, but they're on one CD, therefore one album these days as far as I'm concerned).

*I need to find a snappier title for this... any thoughts?