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  November 2017
Columns
volume 14 number 2
 
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Genie Nakano, author of Colorful Lives: A Coloring Tanka Poetry Book
  a personal history of rock 'n' roll
G. Murray Thomas
What Decade is This?
 
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G. Murray Thomas November 2017
   

 

What Decade is This?

    Around 2000, reunion fever hit the music scene. Suddenly, bands which had been broken up for ten, twenty, even thirty years got back together and toured.
    On the one hand, this speaks to me of the paucity of good new bands. If these tours had been purely nostalgic trips for the old fans, that would have been one thing. But they attracted large audiences far too young to have been fans (or even alive) the first time around. Would they have bothered if they had an abundance of new bands to follow?
    But there was another factor at work as well. Many of these bands had had minor success (at best) their first time around. But in the intervening years their reputations had grown, their albums had been rediscovered, they had acquired new fans. By reuniting they were able to play before larger crowds than they had ever seen in their heyday. Where once they had been fringe, they were now considered rock royalty. So we got reunions by the Pixies, Television, the Stooges...
    This meant that I was able to see bands I didn't manage to see the first time around. In fact, in a short period of time I saw enough bands from my punk years that it felt like I had entered a time warp, and I was back in the 1970s.
    My first “I can't believe I'm seeing...” came in October 2003. Television! Yes, Television, who had been my favorite of all the CBGBs bands, who had released my favorite album of that era (Marquee Moon), who broke up suddenly in 1978, before I had my chance to see them. I can still remember my disappointment when I heard the news. But now, all four original members (okay, not technically the very first members, but the musicians who recorded Marquee Moon) were on a reunion tour. While it wasn't quite seeing them in 1978 (especially ta Bottom Line show which I conceivably could have seen, which was eventually released as the live CD The Blow-Up), it was a very satisfying concert.
    The show was all about guitar! Lots and lots of guitar. I wrote in my journal, “Lloyd and Verlaine have an amazing interplay – meshing with each other, playing off each other, fighting with each other to produce really dramatic music.” They played most of Marquee Moon, plus some cuts off their self-titled 1992 album. Interestingly, the played the Marquee Moon cuts fairly close to the originals, but spread out and jammed on the newer cuts. In the end, it successfully scratched a 25 year itch.
    But that paled before a show I saw a month later. Iggy and the Stooges! The original line-up, or as close as one could get – Iggy, the Asheton brothers, plus Scott McCay on sax, with the addition of Mike Watt (!) on bass. They played everything from the first two albums (okay, I'm not positive about “L.A. Blues,” I think they played it, but would not guarantee it). Played it all with a power even the best Iggy shows I had seen lacked.
    Of course, Iggy was not the same Iggy of his first time around. He was totally under control. Although he did numerous stage dives, there was no sense of danger in any of them, no chance he was going to assault the audience. Still, he remained an amazing performer, at the peak of his power.
    That show was part of an all day extravaganza called All Tomorrow's Parties, curated by Matt Groening, held at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Most of the bands played on an outdoor stage, but there was also a more intimate second stage in the hold of the ship itself. And the Stooges were not the only reunion on the bill, not the only time warp for me.
    A reformed Mission of Burma played. Mission of Burma were a Boston punk band I never got a chance to see. Roger Miller, their leader and guitarist, had suffered from tinnitus for years, but was apparently recovered enough to play (or was ignoring it). They were fun to see, although I hadn't been enough of a fan the first time around to even recognize their songs.
    But then the Contortions played! Not the jazz/funk version I saw in 1980, but the original line-up (or close to it). Significantly for me, Pat Place played slide guitar; she had been one of the elements I most enjoyed the first time around. “Off-kilter atonal funk,” I wrote, “squawking saxophone and assaultive slide guitar. Wow!” Another long time, and long dismissed, dream fulfilled.
    Other, more modern bands included Bangs, Bardo Pond, Mars Volta, and Cat Power. Carla Bozulich, with Nels Cline on guitar, impressed me the most, with her experimental take on country music. Mars Volta, which had been hyped repeatedly to me, were the biggest disappointment. They not only didn't impress me, they drove me away. “Screeching vocals, feedback, overwrought guitar solos, overwrought drums, overwrought everything – all of it at once, with no relief. [I] fled in terror.”
    A year later, Jonathan Richman played local bar Que Sera. Of course, this wasn't a reunion, or even a comeback. He had kept playing and recording over the years, but all low key; his biggest brush with stardom came from his appearance in There's Something About Mary. Nonetheless, it was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me.
    Interestingly, Long Beach poet Fred Voss opened for Richman. Voss's stories of working in a machine shop usually captivate even a non-poet audience, with their humor and working class subject matter, but this night the crowd, sadly, just didn't pay him the attention he deserved.
    Richman played with just a drummer and his acoustic guitar. He played a very random set, seemingly selected more for his own entertainment than ours. Nonetheless, he remained quite charming and entertaining, even if he didn't play any of my favorites (obviously no “Pablo Picasso” this night). In the end it became less an exercise in nostalgia for me, and more a reintroduction to an artist I had lost track of.
    And a year after that (2005, if you're keeping track) I saw the New York Dolls, one more never-thought-I'd-see-them band. Except that it wasn't really the New York Dolls, since a majority of them (Jerry Nolan, Johnny Thunders, and Arthur Kane) had passed on by then. So it was just David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain. Who I had actually seen perform together back in the 70s; Sylvain accompanied Johansen in his solo shows then. The prime difference was that they were now presenting themselves as the New York Dolls, so they dressed the part (glam drag queen), and played primarily Dolls material (“Personality Crisis,” “Pills,” “Looking for a Kiss,” and so on). They also played some choice covers, including the Shangri-Las' “Out in the Street” and Memphis Minnie's “My Girlish Ways.” So it was a fun show, even if it wasn't actually seeing the original band reunited.
    The audience may have been the most interesting thing about that show. They played Sunset Junction, a large street fair on the Silverlake section of Sunset Boulevard. They drew a large and enthusiastic crowd, most significantly younger than myself. I was especially struck by a woman in her 20s who was totally into them, and I couldn't help wondering, “How does she even know about the Dolls?” But of course these reunion shows wouldn't have been happening if younger music fans hadn't discovered these bands, through older friends, or interviews with their current fave bands, or the internet, or whatever.
    Over the next few years I saw several more reunion tours, including the Police, the Who, and Steely Dan, but I will write about them later, as they don't fit into the “punk bands I wished I'd caught the first time around” theme of this article. But I did have one more round of fulfilled fantasy shows in 2010-11.
    First up (Jan. 2010) was a concert I genuinely never expected to see. Not one that I missed my chance back in the day, but a group which never played live, not back then, pretty much not ever. The Residents!
    But here they were, playing in L.A. The show was, no surprise, a weird one. The stage set was a living room, complete with an overstuffed armchair and fireplace. Two musicians – keyboards and guitar – stood an either side of the stage, on the edge of the living room, in black masks and dreadlock wigs. The lead singer/narrator wore a bathrobe and a clown mask. He alternated between singing and telling very random stories. With the guitar playing a lead role, it made for a rockinger show than the records, harder edged, but just as weird.
    Did it live up to my expectations? I can't say, as I didn't really have any. The Residents' records are so strange I had a hard time imagining how they could even be performed. But I was certain that it would be unlike anything I had ever seen before. Which it was. It was quite satisfyingly bizarre and entertaining.
    Actually, this show wasn't completely out of the blue. They had done a tour a few years before, and I even had a ticket for it, for a show at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Not my favorite venue – the drive to Hollywood was always a pain, and parking there was even worse. But it was the Residents! I successfully arrived, and parked, gave my ticket at the door, and went in. Almost immediately something felt wrong. The crowd was too young, the opening band was too punk. I went back to the door. “Is this the Residents show?” “No, they cancelled.” They ended up having to dig through all the ticket stubs to retrieve my other half so I could get a refund back at the Tower Records where I originally purchased it.
    And I got a flat tire on the way home.
    I had one more dream show to go. When Ron Asheton died, James Williamson took his place in the reformed Stooges. Much as I loved the early Stooges, Raw Power remained my favorite Stooges album, Williamson my favorite guitarist. I caught them at the Hollywood Palladium. Out of all the Iggy shows I've seen (seven so far) it was unquestionably the best. Iggy was in top form. Beyond top form – in total control of the stage, of the audience, of himself. I was amazed at how much energy he still had – no aging for that guy. Just a powerful, unrelenting performance all around.
    Of course, I also loved, loved, LOVED James Williamson's guitar. I had waited 40 years to hear him solo on “Search and Destroy,” “Gimme Danger,” “You're Pretty Face in Going to Hell,” and the rest. I was in heaven.
    And if I was surprised to see twenty-somethings grooving to the New York Dolls, imagine how I felt to see a packed concert hall singing along to “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” I remember in high school my friend Dave brought a copy of Killer to class, before anyone else had caught on to Alice Cooper, and I wanted to be that kid, the kid who was hip to cool bands before anyone else. Well, it turns out that when I bought Raw Power, back in 1973, I was that kid. It just took 40 years to confirm it.


copyright 2017 G. Murray Thomas

   


G. Murray Thomas


author's bio

    G. Murray Thomas is the author of Cows on the Freeway (1999), and My Kidney Just Arrived (2011). Although not a musician himself, he has been in two bands: a punk band called MX and the Cruise Missiles in college, and more recently the spoken word combo Murray.
G. Murray Thomas