Category Archives: Music

Albania 4: to Ohrid

img_1710.jpgIn the afterword to Lolita, Nabokov enumerates some very minor details of the novel, a few of them just a sentence or even a mere word, that most readers will have probably not even noticed. He calls these “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted.”

Likewise, the subliminal coordinates of my Albanian ambit aren’t major figures like Lee or arresting moments like my encounter with the epileptic on the hilltop above Kruja. Those episodes are the flesh, muscle and blood of my experiences here. The bones and joints, what it all hangs on and what holds it together, is the actual travel.

Continue reading Albania 4: to Ohrid

The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

“Fandom is a great beacon of our cultural idiocy,” a pro ballplayer once told me. “Wanting your team to win and not understanding why they can’t is so dumb.” This has always stuck with me, not because I quite agree with it — why would there be sports at all if no one rooted for anyone? — but because the way I feel after my team loses is generally not so much disappointed or upset as something close to dumb, and dumb in a particular way; that is, for having any kind of emotional reaction to athletes winning or losing games.

The psychology of this reaction is complex and has surely inspired many studies, journal articles, cultural studies, and so on. I don’t feel the need to analyze it much more than we already do. And I need to qualify this by saying that I covered both Duke and UNC basketball as a journalist, which means that I have: A) a certain amount of objectivity (although you would be amazed by how many sports journalists are actually just diehard fans of some team or other); B) an unusual diffusion of what rooting interests I do possess. Not many people can get behind both of these rival programs.

For a longish time, I adopted the ballplayer’s no-rooting, fandom-is-idiocy ideology, because I have Buddhist tendencies and will look for ways to practice them. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate that fandom, expressed in certain ways, bespeaks a certain kind of generosity and ardor that I don’t really want to relinquish, and probably can’t even if I were to try. I grew up around here. I remember Rich Yonakor and Gene Banks and Ranzino Smith and Alaa Abdelnaby and where I was when [insert any number of great Duke and/or UNC moments here]. Our fandom dwells in our childhoods. To abandon it is to be less than our full selves.  Continue reading The Tobacconist, Vol. 6

Chrissie Hynde: Rock & Roll & Reading, Friday 9/15

Hynde Book Cover

What: Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography reading with live rock & roll.

When: Friday, September 15, 7:00 p.m. Free!

Where: Global Breath Studio, 119 W. Main St., 3rd Floor, Durham, NC.

Who: Adam Sobsey and “The Pretend Pretenders,” a band assembled just for the occasion.

Why: The recent publication of my biography of Chrissie Hynde, the legendary leader of the Pretenders.

A bit of background: In 2014, I was asked to contribute a biography to the American Music Series, edited by the venerable Raleigh-based music journalist David Menconi and published by University of Texas Press. I chose Chrissie Hynde, whose Hall of Fame band the Pretenders — best known for their tough- and melodically-minded pop-rock songs from the late seventies and early eighties, like “Brass in Pocket” and “Back on the Chain Gang” — are still very much alive and well, with a superb album out in 2016 and a recent US tour with Stevie Nicks. Hynde is an extraordinary and unique figure in pop music: she has an iconic voice and signature style; she’s “a self-possessed idol with no real forebears; a complete original who has trail-blazed for countless musicians [yet] has no true musical descendants,” as I put it in my book.

My musical biography focuses on Hynde as, above all, a great and greatly underrated songwriter. I hear her life through her music: from her well-publicized, Hindu-based vegetarianism to her complex feminism to her staunch commitment to motherhood. A review at Pop Matters called the book “gloriously comprehensive… I doubt there will be a need for another Hynde biography for some time as a result of the quality of this one.”

On Friday, I’ll read from the book, including excerpts about individual Pretenders songs, and the “Pretend Pretenders,” a quartet of excellent musicians from Greensboro, will play the songs. It will be great fun, perhaps illuminating, and there will be beer. Afterwards, I’ll have copies of the book available for purchase at a discount and signing.

For additional background, check out this Pretenders Spotify playlist I made for the book’s publisher or my preview of the Pretenders’ show in Durham last November. The webpage for the book itself is here.

The Pretend Pretenders and I hope to see you Friday!

ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller


Scott Miller recording Two Steps from the Middle Ages, 1988. Photo by Robert Toren.

On the Loud-Fans listserv in the 1990s, it was common to refer to Scott Miller as “Our Scott.” This usage was mainly to clear up any confusion with another Scott Miller, whose alt-country band called the V-Roys were popular at the same that Our Scott Miller’s band, the Loud Family, was active. The name Loud Family could cause confusion, too, because it was borrowed from the subject of a somewhat infamous reality TV show from the 1970s called An American Family. Our Scott Miller was multiply obscured, sometimes by his own choices. Even the praise he got from America’s foremost rock critic, Robert Christgau, in 1990, called him “a prototypical eighties artist: serious, playful, skillful, obscure, secondhand … rendering the ostensibly public essentially private.” (Another critic called his music “obscurantist pop.”)

That same year, Our Scott joked that “Erica’s Word,” the catchy 1986 single by his previous band, Game Theory, had only managed to earn them “national obscurity, as opposed to regional obscurity.” And he never relinquished the notion. On a Loud Family album released in 2000, pointedly named Attractive Nuisance, Miller sang of his own “willful obscurity” (summoning the rock-critical cliché “unjustly obscure”) and then quit making records. Thirteen years later he killed himself. He had just turned fifty-three.

Over the last couple of years, the revival label Omnivore Recordings has been re-releasing Game Theory’s entire catalog, all of it out of print since shortly after the band broke up at the end of the 1980s. Two months ago, Omnivore delivered the final Game Theory album, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988), bringing the project to completion. That was followed, earlier this month, by another nominal Game Theory release: Supercalifragile, a crowdfunded album of songs derived from recorded fragments, notes, and ideas Our Scott was kicking around (including that title) just before he died, intending to make what would have been the first new Game Theory album in a quarter century. He had gone so far as to contact members of his old band. The project was revived by his widow, who enlisted pop maestro Ken Stringfellow to oversee a posthumous LP, something more than a tribute but less than a true Game Theory album, a sort of speculative assembly of a ghost’s ephemera, and with an initially ghostly presence, too: Supercalifragile has not yet been publicly released, only privately distributed to fundraising campaign backers. (The rough mix of one of its songs is on YouTube.) A few of the dozen or so musicians who helped write and played on the album are famous enough to draw limited outside attention to it, but mostly as a curio. With the Omnivore series complete, future opportunities to write about Our Scott will be few. Following the life, the afterlife, too, is coming to an end.

Continue reading ObScott: on the life and music of the late Scott Miller

My one-second stand with Mick Jagger

I was tending bar the other night, my usual Monday shift, around nine o’clock, when our manager started acting flustered and put upon even though the restaurant wasn’t busy. A little while later, I went into the kitchen with an armload of dishes and glasses. The door into the kitchen from the bar is directly opposite another door, on the exterior wall, that leads out into the side parking lot, where no one actually parks: it’s small and narrow, mainly a way to get to the larger rear lot, and it has no designated spaces; the dumpsters are the main things there. The distance between these two doors is about thirty feet along a fairly narrow passage hemmed in by the expediting line on side, and on the other by the gamut of the coffee station, bread station, fridges, dehydrator, etc. Staff use the door to the parking lot to carry trays to the private dining rooms, which are in an adjacent building.

Coming toward me through that door were two of the Rolling Stones, led by Mick Jagger. The other one was Ron Wood.

I could go into some detail, which I learned later from our manager, about how this unusual entrance, and the dinner reservation for half the world’s most famous rock band, was arranged, but you can probably conjure that in your head: security detail calls the restaurant, then comes to case the joint; rejects the private dining room (why? I don’t know, but perhaps people that famous would like not to live in isolation all the time, to have someone other than their personal chefs occasionally cook for them); asks about alternative entrances to the building; etc. The SUV the two Stones arrived in sat right outside the kitchen door, idling, for the duration of their dinner.

The door leading into the dining room from the kitchen is about equidistant from the doors into the kitchen from the bar and the parking lot, and neither Mick nor I had the clear advantage on it from our respective approaches. We had an approximately one-second interaction, perhaps shorter than that, wordless, which communicated, entirely from him to me, via the eyes and body language (and what a body it is, and what language it can convey), all of the following. Please excuse the lengthy syntax, I’ve been on a Proust kick lately.

1) I’m sorry I’m in your way, what with that big stack of dishes you’re carrying;

2) it’s awkward to enter a restaurant through the kitchen, not least because I’m unused to proximity to the sorts of people who work in them, which at the moment includes you–although, alas, entering restaurants through their kitchen doors is a necessity with which I’ve become quite familiar, although perhaps not quite inured to, not least because of the heat and wet and blood and noise and general frenzy of kitchens but also, more theoretically but no more abstractly, because alienation from the means of production (I really mean of the consumer from the worker and the worker’s produce more than the more Marxist idea of the worker from his or her own produce and self, although in this moment, my mere momentary presence near these workers to some degree alienates those workers from themselves, if they happen to look up from their cooking and recognize me, which none of them happens to be doing, and in any case two-thirds of them are Mexicans, unfamiliar with my band, and wouldn’t recognize me even if they looked up from their cooking and see me) is something all of us, not just I, as a millionaire many times over and generally insulated from the production environment, strongly prefer and seek out in all relations with what we consume;

3) oh, and by “I”: no, your eyes are not deceiving you, it’s really me, Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones;

4) and as such, although “Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones,” is in fact merely a character I play–a worker alienated from himself, in a sense, although perhaps not entirely, and perhaps not in the Marxian sense, for much of that alienation from himself is caused by the very fame of the character, a fame conferred on him by people like you, the worker, carrying plates toward me from the other side of the kitchen–it is also a fact that I must play this character in all public environments, or even a very good dinner (indeed even before the very good dinner begins, while I’m coming across the kitchen);

5) and as my fame as this character makes my well-being and my safety of cardinal importance to hundreds of millions of people and, in fact, to history, regrettable though it is, if we were to collide and you were to knock me over, or break a glass in the collision and cut me, and I had to go to the hospital, the repercussions would be unthinkably grave, both culturally and economically;

6) there is thus no question that even (yea, especially!) if you were rushing toward the dish pit engulfed in flames while simultaneously under attack from a wild boar, I would still have priority for the door that opens into the civilized space of the dining room: I’m sorry this is so, this unjust and really rather arbitrary imbalance of status between the character you play when you dress for the night (bartender) and the one I play (Mick Jagger, lead singer of the most famous rock band in the world since the Beatles broke up, before you were born)–but these are the breaks, aren’t they, in life, or at least in this one, and so you’re going to have to cede the way and allow to me to exit into the dining room before you cross the kitchen with your precarious and slightly alarming armload of dishes and stemware.

I am pretty immune to celebrity. Right out of college, I had a job working on a TV show that starred Gene Wilder and a host of other screen stars, and I didn’t see what the big deal was, not least because of their wizened faces up close and desiccated bodies and vain petty celebrity requirements (e.g. I remember what a pain it was to get a treadmill into Carol Kane’s little dressing room). Then I worked in the office of the company of the most famous choreographer of the second half of the twentieth century, and saw and talked with him often and poured him more wine. After that I worked for arguably the hippest theater company in the world, one of whose members was also a famous movie actor, and even more famous people would come to see him act; so coming face to face with Madonna, Al Pacino, John McEnroe, etc. was just something that was part of my job. And when you live in New York City generally, you become accustomed to things like peeing next to Lou Reed at Film Forum.

But this was Mick Jagger, possibly the most famous, most iconic entertainer of his time–and, importantly, his time is a long time. The Rolling Stones played their first gig a year before John Kennedy was shot (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ When after all, it was you and me”). The sheer span of Jagger’s fame, which has never perceptibly waned–largely because the Rolling Stones have always been together–is overwhelming, a force of nature.

So is his presence. You hear this word sometimes, presence, when people are talking about celebrities. Most famous people don’t actually have presence, though. It’s constructed for them by cameras and rarefied settings and such. Kevin Costner sat at my friend’s pool party for two hours once, unnoticed. When I worked for that theater company, I was setting up for a post-show benefit reception and, confused about the schedule, Marisa Tomei showed up an hour early. Rather than leave and come back, she waited in the empty space, alone except for me, and mostly just tried sheepishly to stay out of my way–not necessary, because I barely noticed her.

Mick Jagger has presence. He is, as you probably know, quite small, as many celebrities are (Al Pacino was tiny, Madonna was tiny, Patricia Arquette was tiny). But from him emanates the [???] that separates the few from the many–and those few are not all celebrities. There are “regular” people who walk into a room–a bar, a bank–and get looked at, made way for, space expands around them and energy accrues to it; this happens quite apart from their lack of public stature. Mick Jagger’s presence isn’t a product of his fame, nor a cause of it. It simply but forcefully exists in him, from him, inalienable, ineffable, and nonreacting.

I stopped right there in my tracks and let him pass.

The rest of the evening passed without incident. Mick and Ron didn’t drink much–one beer each, I was told, or something like that. Mick had the quail, which is served with mole sauce and black bean succotash. I was a little surprised he ordered something so heavily seasoned and sauced. He asked for the air conditioning to be turned off, because cold canned dry air is bad for singers’ voices. One of the female companions, presumably a girlfriend, sent back her salmon (there was nothing wrong with it, she just ordered the wrong dish for her). Their three-man security detail sat two tables away and kept close watch on the dining room around them in case any of the fine dining masses should misbehave. The only time I went into the dining room while the party was in there, I heard Ron asking his companion, solicitously, with what sounded like overweening concern, “D’ye feel alright? Do ya feel alright?”

I already had tickets to the Rolling Stones’ show in Raleigh, which was last night. I got these via the “Lucky Dip” promotion, whereby a limited window opens on a limited number of really cheap tickets soon after sales begin. They were $29 each, which is to say, after you pay the Ticketmaster/Satan/Grant’s Tomb National Maintenance surcharges, $41. The idea behind these Lucky Dip tickets is not only to give a few enterprising (and poor) people a swell deal, but also to keep scalpers from reselling them. The way it works, or was said to work, is that you are not given actual tickets. You show up at the door with your ID; without it you can’t claim the tickets. Once you claim them, you may not leave the venue (and scalp them), and you are escorted to your seats by an usher. In reality, it was a good deal less military and efficient than that, but the anti-scalping measure was successful, so this is overall a promotion I can endorse–not least because I never would have paid the prices other people were paying for tickets: $85, $139, $1,000+. As the proprietor of the used book and record shop I frequent, put it when I told him I had tickets, “Good. Everyone should see the Grand Canyon.” And those were approximately the stakes for me: something I thought I should see in my lifetime, but not something I cared to pay more for than I pay for my monthly water bill.

I was nonchalant largely because I fall hard on the Beatles side of the Great Divide, although, like most white males, in my twenties I had a season-long stretch when I couldn’t stop listening to Exile on Main Street. (I haven’t read Keith Richards’s book, though, although my father has. I bought it for him. I think that must say something about what I think of the Stones.) I think I might not even have recognized a single one of the Stones’ non-hits until today, when, having learned via the late, great Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? that XTC’s Andy Partridge, in a survey of musicians, named “Citadel” as his favorite Stones song, I played it three times, and I’m now listening to the widely dismissed album Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, the band’s only self-produced album–because the producer got fed up with the drugs and groupies and general dissolution and quit–and thinking I might need to buy it. (It’s really weird and neat, and has the chutzpah to include several seconds of the sound of snoring). Still, I thought it was worth $29 or $41 to see the Grand Canyon, and as it happened, the show date was my wife’s birthday. Sold.

We never went to went to our seats, which were terrible. We watched, standing, from the lip of the concourse across the football stadium, not unimaginably a quarter mile from the stage. And even at that distance, it was hard to stop watching Mick Jagger, even though you could watch the megavision screens on either side of the stage. This is what presence is: it is visible at close range, in a kitchen; and it is visible in a football stadium, from a quarter mile away. It’s not merely that Jagger was out there giving us the full measure and range of his body language: jumping, shaking, shimmying, running; he’s in incredible shape, and turns 72 this month. Nor was it that he was under what was probably the brightest spotlight on the stage (I bet by some sort of hard-won contractual requirement). It was that he was even larger than the larger-than-life stage environment around him, more vivid than the dreamworld built around him. He was entirely comfortable commanding, ringleading, a football stadium and everyone in it, comfortable being the human presence at the heart of a cosmic phenomenon. My mind kept running the confounding math that tried to equate that figure, at once antlike and godlike, with the one I had seen quietly eating a late dinner two nights earlier. There are very, very few people on earth who have not just the ego but also the mental and physical strength to do what Mick Jagger has been doing for fifty years and not to lose an ounce of power or presence. He made Ron Wood look tiny, weightless. He often made Keith Richards seem like a mere mascot.

That is not to say that the other Stones were insignificant. Because Mick and Keith are the icons of the band, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Keith and Ron are one of the great one-two lead-guitar punches in rock history. On the few occasions when the two of them would go a-dueling, with their guitars both loud and lacerating in the mix, I could have listened to that for a long time: the raw, ionic, over-saturated, almost brawling and drunken sound of it. David Menconi, in his newspaper review of the show, pointed out that the mix was overall not very good. He was right, I guess, but I didn’t care at all about that. The guitars were loud and occasionally painful, too loud; Mick was loud, everything and everyone fought for volume space in the mix, and that seemed just about right to me. This band is still impolite. And in any case, what they do has nothing to do with clarity. Complaining about that is like complaining that fireworks are too loud, or too bright.  Loud and bright are the point. And turning everything up is still, after all these years, as legitimate part of what it means to rock as a I-IV-V chord progression. It’s only rock and roll until you push past ordinary thresholds; then it can transform into something ferocious, powerful and intoxicating.

Menconi also news-and-observed that the ragged jamming–there were expansive solos, call-and-response and such in all of them, I think–extended the songs to an average length of seven minutes. I had barely noticed that. Yes, a couple of songs got fatiguing, but I was really glad they weren’t delivered as carbon copies of their studio versions. You felt the band was actually out there performing, being in the moment–even a slick, expensive, carefully managed moment (I disagreed with Menconi that the show was “sloppy”; it just wasn’t planned to the square inch, and room for Keith to run slightly amok is built into it)–and generously giving the crowd its own unrepeatable experience. Maybe that wasn’t really true; maybe the occasional “sloppiness” was itself part of the script. But I doubt it, or in any case I’m not cynical enough to believe it. The Stones have been doing this so long that they can actually get up in front of 40,000 people and improvise, adjust on the fly if necessary, to a degree. They can even screw up and recover, with barely a blink. In that way, they’re more like athletes than musicians. They are great showmen, too; the production details were chintzy and few–a mostly unadorned stage, a few lame animation sequences, and the occasional firework–and the band did not need them at all. Bright costumes sufficed, and Mick even spent long portions of the show in all black. They gave huge energy to this thing they could easily have just phoned in. They were sincere–sincere about their work, even if perhaps totally jaded about everything else, even if totally detached and uninterested and hating each other. They are completely above all of that, including their own contempt, for everything or anything, which may very well be massive by now.

Jagger tried a couple of times to make between-song local-color patter about where he was. “Are there any Wolfpacks here?” he asked the Raleigh crowded, botching the word, thus the syntax and everything attached to it. Later he said he was glad to be back in the “RTP Triangle,” another howler. He confirmed, lamely, that we like sports around here. It was interesting to me, later, that he went out of his way to ask specifically if there was anyone from Durham in the house. Met with a mere smattering of cheers (he was too far away to hear me!), he said, somewhat disappointed, “Not so many,” and quickly moved on, perhaps abandoning some further routine he had planned. Durham, where Jagger and Wood (and perhaps the rest of the Stones) were apparently staying at the Washington Duke Hotel, was apparently too hip for the Stones, or just too small to make a dent in the audience. (But if we think we’re too hip, we might want to ask ourselves why it was possible for Pat Benatar to be playing the Carolina Theatre on the very same night; not to mention wonder at the very existence of DPAC, and its popularity. It’s not just people from other counties going there.) He made reference to the Stones’ first show in Raleigh, fifty years ago, and claimed to have gone back and read reviews of another long-ago show here. It’s immaterial to me that he may have been fed all of this by a PR handler (although my wife found evidence that Jagger is a staunch researcher, and I bet he at least appreciates that his band has been coming here since, basically, Jim Crow). It’s also immaterial to me that he messed up the local details, which he would have been better served to omit entirely. We were there to see the Stones, not for the Stones to see us. As the very tour title–“The ZIP Code Tour”–implies, we were just a place to mail it in. What was satisfying about the show is that they didn’t do that.

I had some things to say about how generous the Stones were with their backing band; some of the members are longtime stalwarts, like bassist Darryl Jones, whom I first saw in Sting tour documentary Bring on the Night in the mid-eighties. Almost everyone got solos and so forth, but the main thing is in this detail, which says something about the security of the band’s collective (and individual) ego: the moment of the show that really brought the house down was when Lisa Fischer, who is herself pretty famous, and has been part of the Stones’ touring band since 1989–about half of the band’s existence–finished off her tour de force duet with Mick on “Gimme Shelter” all the way down at the end of the catwalk, and the crowd went nuts.

The question, of course, is why the Stones keep at it after all these years. Yes, they probably have major expenses and need to keep making millions of dollars, or think they do. Yes, they have competitive egos and don’t want anyone catching up with them as the most important rock band on earth, much in the same way (to make a local, Jagger-prompted sports comparison) Mike Krzyzewski could easily retire as the most famous and greatest college basketball coach of all time, but won’t. He can still do it, after all, as well as he ever has: he’s the reigning champion, as the Stones once again proved they were last night.

You could also make the case, a reasonably sound one, I think, that the Rolling Stones’ job is to be the Rolling Stones, which includes going on tour sometimes. But they could just as easily retire if they wanted to. I think the answer may have its roots in something that sounds much simpler, almost humdrum–but actually, when you ponder it, runs deeper than any of the foregoing explanations, and it’s on the Stones’ own website. A quote from Keith:

“There’s one thing that we haven’t yet achieved, and that’s to really find out how long you can do this… So we’ve got to find out, you know?”

The Stones operate in a world few other bands, few other people, ever get to, and they’ve endured in that world longer than most minds can possibly imagine. Public performance and its attendant craziness so overwhelmed the Beatles that they stopped touring in 1966, before they made their greatest albums. The notorious excesses and ravages of the rock life have done in countless other bands, cut short careers and lives–as has, of course, more simply, a loss of popularity, that most mysterious and devilish of favors to which, we sometimes think, the Stones sold their souls. But the Stones showed that they still had soul last night, not to mention popularity, and their perpetual active presence isn’t a matter of sheer survival, which at this point the Stones have proven they’ve mastered–and have the almost limitless resources to prolong, as a functioning corporation, until Charlie, Keith and Mick die. (Don’t forget that Ron Wood didn’t join the band until 1975; they can carry on without him.)

No, I think it’s a more ontological question. I think the question Keith is asking, despite using the word “do”–to really find out how long you can do this–is less one of duty and act than it is of sheer being. The enormous odds, not to mention demands, against being a Rolling Stone, and the Rolling Stones, are absurd. The band’s almost accidental greatness, an unbearable unlikeliness of being, puts these men in an almost impossible state of existence, in orbit around reality even when they go into restaurants through their kitchens. They are bigger than, and thus unattached to, every single place they go and all the humans they encounter, whether face to face with a bartender or playing for 40,000 people and, in effect, the entire world. They have an unearthly existence on earth, although they are earthlings. Every morning, when they wake up and perform themselves again, they extend some kind of record that they themselves hold, whose quality and meaning only they will ever be able to understand. No one else will ever see, or feel, or know, or be, anything like it.