Ten Songs You Need to Hear: Crimbo Version

I’m on the record here as being deeply averse to most of the standard and stock “Christmas-season” music that’s blared and broadcast across our public spaces here in the United States of Commercia, from just before Hallowe’en-time until about the point when everyone has had the chance to return the gifts they didn’t want for store credit, to be applied to something that they’d actually selfishly prefer, in lieu of something that they were selflessly given. Oh Holy Night, indeed, the stars are brightly influencing, and it is the night of the dear Amazon’s sales!

Snark aside, I always make a Christmas playlist for our home consumption to avoid the usual musical dreck pushed our way at this time of the year. As a very early riser, I thought I’d share ten of this year’s very favorite Christmas songs before anybody else arises hereabouts. (Consider it a double whammy bonus entry of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series).  I must note that “Christmas Songs” is somewhat loosely defined here, in that these tracks mean and speak something to me at this time of year, even if it’s not obvious as to why that’s the case. Music matters, with deep associations to be felt and experienced, outside of any defined normative rosters of that which we must hear and consume today, because Mammon says.

I’m sincerely thankful to each and every one of you who has read my piffle and tripe here over the past year, and I’m grateful for the little community we’ve built, especially in times where real world community is hard to come by. Here’s wishing you and yours a joyous seasonal celebration today and in the weeks to come, and if any of these ten songs brighten your day(s) just a little bit over that time, then I’ll consider my work here done for the day.

“Joy,” by Apollo 100

“Christmas Now Is Drawing Near,” by COIL

“Santa Claus Is Sometimes Brown,” by El Vez

“Jólakötturinn (The Christmas Cat),” by Myrká

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” by James Brown

“Song of the Snowy Ranges,” by Robbie Basho

“Santa’s Got A Bag of Soul,” by The Soul Saints Orchestra

“A Christmas Song,” by Jethro Tull

“A Joyful Process,” by Funkadelic

“A Dream of Winter,” by Sun Kil Moon and Jesu

Loose Salute: Michael Nesmith (December 30, 1942 – December 10, 2021)

Three months ago, Marcia and I attended our first live concert of the COVID era, traveling down to Phoenix to see Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith, of the Monkees, live onstage, fronting an outstanding band directed by Mike’s son, Christian. I wrote about that show at length and shared some photos here. Earlier this week, in my 30th Annual Best Albums Report, I cited the Dolenz Sings Nesmith album as my third best record of 2021, noting in that review that: “While I think Mike’s touring days are likely coming to an end, with him having wrestled with serious health issues in recent years, Micky’s voice remained a thing of wonder, so I will eagerly see him live again when I can, and eagerly look forward to his next record. There’s a bunch more great Nesmith songs out there, so I’m totally game for Dolenz Sings Nesmith 2.”

Sadly, my sense of Mike’s declining health was proven correct today when I learned that he had passed away peacefully, of natural causes, surrounded by his family, at the age of 78. His last concert with Micky was in mid-November, so he did one of the things that he loved to do pretty much right up until to the end, and even though he was frail when we last saw him, it felt good to see him earning such unmitigated love from his audience, and such respect and support from Dolenz. It also makes me most happy that we had the chance to see Nez a few years back in Chicago, playing a robust and joyous set of songs primarily culled from his influential First National Band days in the early ’70s. He’s never achieved the critical respect of the likes of Gram Parsons, nor the commercial success of The Eagles and their imitators, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that Michael Nesmith was one of the true, great and pure pioneers of the country-rock idiom, and that many, many modern artists working in Americana and related genres owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

His obituaries are likely going to focus on his time with The Monkees, and if that was all there was to his career, then he’d have left a fine mark on popular culture and music. But there’s a blessing and a curse embedded in that part of his history. The group was obviously assembled “artificially” for a Beatles-inspired wacky television show, and many of The Monkees’ hits were crafted using the best studio musicians of the day, as was the norm in American popular music at the time, e.g. nobody gives Brian Wilson any guff for Pet Sounds, even though many of the same studio pros who supported The Monkees in the studio play on that over-rated album. But somehow it was The Monkees who experienced a vicious backlash as representatives of standard industry practice, with Micky and Mike and Peter and Davy slagged with a harsh “Pre-Fab Four” tag, hinging on comparisons to the The Beatles, who almost always wrote and played their own songs.

Of course, pretty much anybody making music the late 1960s would have been found to pale in comparison with what John, Paul, George and Ringo did and pioneered in their heyday, so that was a truly unjust and hurtful line of attack. Especially since The Beatles actually loved The Monkees, personally and creatively. To his credit, Mike Nesmith drove the ensuing charge among The Monkees’ four members to assert their creative rights and capabilities as songwriters and players, and he placed more original songs onto their albums over the years than did any of his band-mates. Great songs, too, most of them. As was one of his earlier, Pre-Monkees songwriting masterpieces, “Different Drum,” which became a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, launching her career as a pop icon and titanic song interpreter.

Mike Nesmith was also a pioneer in the evolution of music videos (his PopClips show was the recognized direct precursor to MTV), was a film producer of note (most notably for Repo Man), served on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, wrote and told fine stories on stage and in print, and produced and promoted other artists of note and interest. On a personal touch as a native Southerner with a mostly unshakeable accent, I always appreciated that he didn’t downplay or deny his Texas-bred roots and cadences. It pleases me to hear smart Southerners speak like smart Southerners, even if too many Northerners presume we’re stupid racists when we do so.

In the end, and despite all of the acrimony surrounding his time with The Monkees and the various machinations within and outside of the group’s core creative team, Nez remained proud enough of that body of work to want to play and sing the best bits of it live right up until his final days, even if it physically taxed him to do so. And that was right and just, as he should have been proud of that work, any critical chatter to the contrary notwithstanding. We play his Monkees songs and his First National Band songs (and Micky’s spectacular interpretations of the same) around our house all the time, happily and with open-eared and open-minded joy. He was talented and funny and smart and wonderful, and I’m sad and sorry that he’s flown away from us.

As a wee tribute, I offer one of my occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” lists below, focusing on Mike’s First National Band era, which many of you are less likely to have heard before than The Monkees’ classic nuggets. (In one case, I do offer a Monkees’ song given First National Band treatment, for the record). I highly recommend you explore his solo catalog further, and I hope you’ll also dust off any old Monkees albums you might have (or download some new bits and bytes versions) to be reminded of just how very good they were. Bless you, Nez. I really appreciated you.

“Nevada Fighter,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

“Calico Girlfriend,” from Magnetic South (1970)

“Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

“Listen to the Band,” from Loose Salute (1970)

“Grand Ennui,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

Only A Rumour: Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher)(20 December 1957 – 5 October 2021)

I was deeply saddened this afternoon to learn of the sudden death at the age of 64 of Pat Fish, better known as The Jazz Butcher (“Butch” for short), which was also the name of a band he played in, when they weren’t called The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or the Sikkorskis from Hell or JBC, and before his later bands Sumosonic and Black Eg and Wilson. The moniker thing was always a tricky bit when discussing the man and his music, especially since even Pat Fish was a pseudonym for the man born Patrick Huntrods in London in 1957. Whatever he was called, and whatever he called whatever he was doing, he was just an absolutely brilliant songwriter, and a charming singer-guitarist with a vast and rewarding studio and live career to his credit.

Pat Fish attended Oxford University in the late 1970s, and began playing with a collection of local musicians thereabouts, while reading Lit. Hum. at Merton College. A couple of his early collaborators (Rolo McGinty and Alice Thompson) went on to fame and acclaim as members of The Woodentops, while a couple of others (singer-guitarist Max Eider and drummer Owen P. Jones) stayed on with Butch to anchor his most impressive creative period in the 1980s, aided and abetted first by David J (former Bauhaus, later Love and Rockets) and then by Felix Ray on bass. (Note that I am pretty sure Jones is the only one of those core Jazz Butcher Conspiracy musicians whose stage name just might be his real name; I do know all the others’ true monikers, but why complicate things further with that, yeah?)

The Jazz Butcher’s 1983 debut album, In Bath of Bacon, found the group’s formative line-up in flux, but Fish’s unique blend of smart-to-silly lyrics, interesting instrumentation, and ear-worming sing-along melodies was already in full and fine effect, as were Eider’s exquisite jazz guitar stylings. By the time the second Jazz Butcher album, A Scandal in Bohemia, was released in 1984, the “Me n’ Max n’ Dave n’ Jones” line-up, as Butch name-checked them in the lyrics to the tremendous single “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return),” had cohered and utter madness and magic then spilled out, frequently and ferociously. This is about the time when I jumped aboard the Butcher bandwagon, having heard their song “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present” on Washington’s (then)-great free-form radio station WHFS, which most thoroughly addled and altered my consciousness, making me realize in less than five minutes that I had a new favorite group, right then, right there, right now, and that I had to rush out post-haste and go into deep credit card debt to acquire their entire catalog at extortionate import-level prices. But it was worth it, and then some. Because do you know what happens if you leave a fish too long in an elevator? You don’t? Well, listen to the song for a clue.

From A Scandal in Bohemia‘s stellar musical platform, the Conspiracy leaped off the high dive and raged on prolifically through a tremendous series of singles, EPs, and albums, culminating with the Distressed Gentlefolk LP in 1986 (Felix had replaced David J on bass by this point) and the related mini-album Conspiracy, credited to The Jazz Butcher vs Max Eider. (In addition to his always scintillating guitar work, Eider generally also wrote and scored a couple of spotlight numbers of his own on each of the Conspiracy’s albums, and they’re often among the group’s finest works). Things seemed to be going swimmingly for the group from the devoted fan’s perspective, and of course that means that the classic Jazz Butcher Conspiracy then immediately blew itself up while on tour supporting Distressed Gentlefolk, with Max Eider departing to pursue a solo career.

Max’s debut album, The Best Kisser In the World, came out in 1987, and it was a joy to hear and behold. He and Jones also played on some David J records of the period. Pat Fish, for his own next move, left his long-time label home (Glass Records) to sign with Alan McGee’s hugely-influential Creation Records. The first fruits of that new partnership emerged in 1988 when The Butcher released Fishcotheque, featuring Herr Huntrods backed with a new crew of collaborators. I liked it a lot, but I did miss the “Butcher vs Max” dynamic, as on this and (most) subsequent records released under the Jazz Butcher rubric, there was definitely more of a “front man” and “supporting band” vibe to the proceedings than had been the case when Max served as a key foil and co-frontman for the group.

Fish remained active under the Jazz Butcher persona with a variety of collaborators through the latter part of the 1990s,  at which point he apparently tired of the constraints evoked by that musical brand’s baked-in associations, opting to form and record with the more electronic Sumosonic as a next step forward. But that was to be a short step, as Creation Records dropped the group after their first album. Phooey! And so, at that point, why, and well, and golly, it sure made perfect sense (no, no it didn’t, not really) for an unexpected Butch and Max and Jones reunion that resulted in the delightful Rotten Soul album in 2000, credited once again to The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. The ever-volatile Max and Pat pair worked together on and off and on and off again over the years following, while Eider’s solo career built strength upon strength with a series of just soul-crushingly brilliant and beautiful records, one of which, Max Eider III: Back In The Bedroom, I named as my Album of the Year for 2007.

Fish’s post-Conspiracy and post-Sumosonic trajectory then anchored itself around a new band called Wilson, which gigged like champs over the years, and then, time passed, and of course, it once again made perfect sense (no, not really, no it didn’t) for Max and Pat (and Jones on one song) to join forces again for yet another delightfully unexpected album, Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers. That record, released in 2018, was funded through crowd-sourcing, to which I eagerly contributed. As a donor of a certain level, I was offered a meaningful memento from the band, and I asked Max to send a hand-written set of the lyrics to the group’s epic song “D.R.I.N.K.,” personally inscribed to my daughter, Katelin. (Ironically, neither Katelin nor I drink anymore, and the cautionary tale contained in that song is probably as good a reminder as any of why that’s a sound idea. I mean, God forbid we start playing “Sweet Jane” sober, especially with that god-awful “heavenly whine and bullshit” coda that Lou insisted be grafted back onto the song decades after its better original release. Doug Yule was right, in this case, dammit!) (But I digress). Anyway, I just told Katelin about Pat’s passing and she sent me a photo of Max’s kind gift, which I share below; you can click on the image to hear the song itself.

Anyway. I’m very sad that Pat the Butcher of Oxford and Wilson has flown away from us all on short notice. I knew he’d had some health issues in recent years, but I also knew that he was back gigging as long as the damnable virus let him do so, that he was active with online performances after the pandemic shutdown (he had one scheduled for last Sunday night, which he had to cancel because he was not feeling well), and he’d recently announced that recording of a new Conspiracy album was underway, with Max back in the fold once again. Max’s announcement on the Butcher’s official Facebook page noted that Pat “died suddenly but peacefully on Tuesday evening,” so it wasn’t an expected demise, and 64 years is just way too young to be saying farewell for folks of his capabilities and capacities. In thinking about how to title this post, I elected to use “Only A Rumour,” the title of a gorgeously dark song from 1985’s Sex And Travel, which contains these lyrics: “And how I wish I knew for sure how many years I had before this state I’m in will put me under the ground.” I guess we all wish we knew that, but all I know right now is that Pat didn’t get enough of those years on his tally.

All of that said, even as I’m very sad to lose an artist who moved me so deeply over the years, I’m also so very happy to have the catalog he left behind, which always makes me smile, so good is it all, and so smart, and sometimes stupid-smart, and other sometimes stupid-stupid, but in the good sense, always fun, always meaningful, always a pleasure, always a joy. The catalog is rich for exploration, but I’ll end this post by appending a special Jazz Butcher edition of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” Series, featuring a quintet of my favorite Pat Fish numbers. (I’ve already linked to “Caroline Wheeler” and “Southern Mark Smith” and Max’s “D.R.I.N.K.” above, so I’m kinda sorta gonna ignore them and cheat and include five other songs below; consider those bonus cuts above, all of which you also need to hear). RIP Butch. You were one of the great ones.

“Grey Flannelette,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)

“Holiday,” from Sex And Travel (1985)

“Real Men,” from A Scandal in Bohemia (1984)

“Partytime,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)

“Angels,” from Distressed Gentlefolk (1986)

Fly Away: Lee “Scratch” Perry (March 20, 1936 – August 29, 2021)

Brilliant Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry left this world today for mystical pastures elsewhere and beyond, leaving an incredibly rich and influential body of creative work behind him. His Discogs entry cites 2,846 recorded appearances over the course of his long career, and I suspect that actually under-estimates the total number of discs that he produced, wrote, sang or performed on, given the dodgy record-keeping and dubious release (and re-release) practices of his earlier professional years.

Perry’s career began in the late-1950s, when the mystical maestro-in-making cut his teeth in the studio and on the business side of the music industry with influential Jamaican producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Joe Gibbs. The difficult-to-irascible sides of his personality resulted in Scratch falling out with both of those mentors, and he eventually established his own label, Upsetter Records, in 1968. (Two of his earliest single successes, “Run for Cover” and “People Funny Boy,” were lightly-veiled attacks on Dodd and Gibbs respectively). Perry’s work was a cornerstone in establishing the standard traits and tricks of what we now call “reggae” music, adapting and refining elements of the ska and rock-steady beats that had come before; The Wailers (still featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer at the time) were among the early beneficiaries of his production and marketing mastery.

Perry established his own studio, The Black Ark, in 1973, continuing to shepherd some of the greatest and most-lasting moments of reggae’s maturation period through the mid-to-late-1970s. His Black Ark era is where he most fully developed and honed his masterful “dub” techniques, which typically adapted existing songs into new versions by stripping the vocals out, beefing up the drum n’ bass “riddims,” and slathering the remaining tracks with echo, reverb, chorus, samples, and other production tricks, creating spacious soundscapes that, in their turn, went on to heavily influence the evolution of the electronica, hip-hop, and modern R&B genres. While Perry wasn’t a prominently vocal proponent of the Rastafarian religion and culture, he certainly embraced its use of marijuana as a creative and spiritual sacrament, and he was known to blow cannabis smoke into his studio microphones as part of his special studio session seasoning. No surprise that listening to a classic Lee “Scratch” Perry dub version is probably the most accurate way to capture in audio the experience of being really, really high, becoming one with the music in the process, actual weed optional, though helpful.

Perry was struggling a bit creatively and personally around the dawn of the 1980s, but his stock was significantly revalued when his music and his production approaches were embraced by the nascent punk rock and post-punk scenes; the Clash most notably advanced his cause with their cover of Junior Murvin’s Perry-penned hit, “Police and Thieves,” while The Beastie Boys pimped his cause with their “Dr. Lee, PhD,” which also featured Scratch on vocals. Perry’s vintage dub and reggae cuts have been heavily sampled as hip-hop has emerged as a global lingua franca, and he remained prolific with original releases and productions right up until his passing.  The latest cut of his that I acquired was the outstanding “Here Come The Warm Dreads,” which featured equally game-changing producers Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood in an epic dub-meets-electronica melt-down that’s as trippy as it is dance-worthy.

Given his insanely large catalog, it’s hard to capture and present a snapshot of Lee Perry’s career; just poking around online this morning for lists of his most notable works, I’ve found multiple sites with fine setlists that are mostly mutually exclusive one to the other, given the richness of his recorded work. I’ll offer my own little capture today as a memorial to the great music man with a new installment of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series below; these are the five songs in Perry’s immense catalog that have won the most spins about my own living spaces over the years, and if you like these, then, well, there’s a whole world of wonders out there for you to dig as follow-up. Let me know if you’ve got a personal Perry favorite in the comments; I might have heard it, but then again, I might not have, and if that’s the case, then I sure might need to.

“Fly Away,” from Musical Bones (1975), credited to Lee Perry and the Upsetters

“Mr. Brown,” from “Mr. Brown/Dracula” single (1970), credited to The Wailers

“Police and Thieves,” from Police and Thieves (1977), credited to Junior Murvin

“Chase The Devil,” from War Ina Babylon (1976), credited to Max Romeo and the Upsetters

“Party Time,” from Party Time (1977), credited to The Heptones

Five Songs You Need To Hear (Another Engine)

Marcia and I are hitting the road for a few weeks tomorrow, heading up to Northern California, Oregon and Washington (State). Posts may be a bit spotty while we’re away, as is usually the case, though I will inevitably take too many photos, and equally inevitably share them here when I get back, for better or for worse. As a holding pattern until my next update, I return to my periodic “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series, with a selection of great tunes below that are all road-trip worthy classics of (my) canon. This is the 22nd installment of this series here, so if these songs hit your sweet spot, you can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article). Happy listening, as always! And see you (virtually speaking) on the back side of the trip!

This Is The End And It’s Still Living: Anita Lane (1960 – 2021)

Various media sources are reporting the death of Australian singer-songwriter Anita Lane, though the precise date and manner of her flying away, like her birth date, and like much of her professional career and personal life, remain publicly obscure. She was a long-time contributor to a German-English-Australian creative axis involving such artists as The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten, Rowland S. Howard, Crime and the City Solution, Die Haut, Mick Harvey, These Immortal Souls, Kid Congo Powers, and Barry Adamson. A native of Melbourne, Lane emigrated to the United Kingdom with The Birthday Party in 1980, then lived in Germany, Morocco, Sicily, New York and Australia at various times over the ensuing years. In the early 2000s, she largely retired from music-making, returning for good to her native Australia. She spent several years caring for her family in a small coastal town near the Queensland-New South Wales border, then returned to Melbourne, where she died, her peripatetic global experiences ultimately delivering her back to her birthplace for that sad, final bow.

Lane was not at all prolific as a recording artist, releasing but one EP (Dirty Sings in 1988) and two albums (1993’s Dirty Pearl and 2001’s Sex O’Clock) under her own name, all of them outstanding and woefully under-appreciated. Her (slightly) larger mark on recording history was as a lyrical and vocal guest collaborator for most of the aforementioned artists, with a song here, a song there, unpredictable in their occurrence, but always a treat when they landed. She penned lyrics for The Birthday Party’s classic tracks “Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black,” and “A Dead Song.” (The header of this post comes from the latter of those three). She was a founding member of Cave’s Bad Seeds, co-writing “From Her to Eternity” and “Stranger Than Kindness,” both regarded among his finest works, by critics, audiences, and Cave himself. She also provided several thrilling vocal parts on ex-Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey’s English arrangements of Serge Gainsbourg‘s catalog highlights, and her duet with Blixa Bargeld on Neubauten’s “Blume” is among that group’s greatest achievements.

At bottom line, Anita Lane was judicious, perhaps even guarded, in choosing her projects, but she always made a difference with her contributions. As a long-time listener, I was always pleased when I purchased a record and discovered that she was a part of it, one way or another. While the creative cohort within which Lane primarily moved and worked has certainly been capable of copious macho bullshit over the years, there were and are several personally and creatively strong women active in that orbit (e.g. Lane, Lydia Lunch, Genevieve McGuckin, Gudrun Gut, Bronwyn Adams, Danielle de Picciotto, etc.) who were not just playing a passive “muse” role, but were active, and outstanding, working artists in their own rights.

Their catalogs are all impressive, and worthy of exploration, each with their own unique views and visions as creators and collaborators. Lane, as it happens, was also involved in a long-time personal relationship with Nick Cave through his The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds days. Reviews or commentary about her often relegate her to that unfortunate “muse” role, or (worse) slot her into some “girlfriend given a job by better-known boyfriend” trope. This has always been wrong, as proven by the evidence of others who actively chose to collaborate with her, and by the objectively brilliant differences that her contributions always made. And also, from the horse’s mouth, by Cave’s own reflections on Anita’s passing, posted here. Key quote: “She was the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far.”

I was pleased to learn that The Quietus had recently published a considered evaluation of Lane’s career, entitled Unearthing A Pearl: Praising the Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane. Their premise, which I agree with, was that she was most creatively active at a time when the critical and cultural worlds weren’t quite ready for her, forcing her to pave a way for many artists who followed, without ever reaping the plaudits she deserved for her work. I honestly don’t think I can improve upon anything that article says by further expressing its sentiments in my own words, so I simply encourage you to read it as a most fine piece of music journalism. I sort of hope that Anita Lane might have had a chance to see it before she passed, too. 

I would posit that one of the finest visual examples of Lane’s determined willingness and ability to forge, shape, and control her own image comes in the video for a remake of Nancy Sinatra’s signature hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” recorded with ex-Bad Seed Barry Adamson. In the video, Lane is confident, sultry, sassy, sensual . . . while carrying and cuddling a baby throughout the shoot. Adamson, ostensibly the auteur for this particular version of that song, is relegated to smart dance steps and tambourine shaking in its visual representation. The short but potent little film turns expected music video tropes on their heads in so many ways, and it’s utterly wonderful in all of its subtle bucking against the established norms of the form.

If you’re not familiar with that song or any/many other works from Lane’s career, I offer a special memorial installment of my “Five Songs You Need To Hear” series below, documenting highlights of Anita’s vocal work, each song by a different artist, each one greater for her contributions. Anita Lane was a classic, in her own deeply-personal ways, and I am grateful for the small, but densely-powerful, body of work she left behind her.

“These Boots Are Made For Walking,” from Delusion (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Barry Adamson (1991)

“The Fullness of His Coming,” from Dirty Pearl by Anita Lane (w/s/g The Birthday Party) (1993)

“Blume,” from Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten (1993)

“Overseas Telegram,” from Intoxicated Man by Mick Harvey (1995)

“Firething,” from Members of the Ocean Club by Gudrun Gut (1996)