Novelist

Once More With Feeling

Goodbye, R.E.M.

I’ve had hours to consider what I’ll say here, and it’s still not clear in my head. I don’t know how to begin to describe the emotions of hearing that my favorite band ever, one I’ve been with — and one that’s been with me — for the majority of my life, has sent itself off into retirement.

I never saw it coming, and while I will concede that a good chunk of Wednesday was spent walking around in a stupor, I’ll also say that the way R.E.M. exited the stage is entirely in keeping with what I’ve come to expect from them in three decades as a fan: dignified, understated, no odious farewell tour or media blitz. Just a simple statement on the band’s website, and they’re gone.

Whatever conflicts I’m having about what to say don’t extend to the question of what to post. Of all the songs from 15 studio albums, eight compilations and two live albums, my favorite stands consistent. This one:

There’s a story behind my love of “Find the River,” and you’re going to get that, too.

In 1993-94, I worked for a small newspaper in Kentucky, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. It was a good place to work (then), situated in a vibrant college town on the banks of the Ohio River. One day, I spent a late afternoon driving up the Kentucky side of the river to Hawesville, then crossing to Cannelton, Indiana, and coming back on the other side. It was one of those pitch-perfect fall days — a little chill in the air, sunny if slightly overcast, the road windswept with coppery leaves. My companion that day was R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People,” the album that probably represents the nexus of the band’s widest appeal and highest art. When I got to “Find the River,” I kept backing it up, hearing meaning in the words that I hadn’t contemplated before.

I was 23 years old, and I had this sense, for the first time, that I was the man I would be, for better or worse. That I’d made some decisions and had defined myself in some irretrievable way, and somehow, in my mind that day, those notions hardwired themselves to Michael Stipe’s words:

The river to the ocean goes

A fortune for the undertow

None of this is going my way …

In Rockport, Indiana, not far from home, I pulled over at a secluded spot and I wept. For what? I don’t know, not even today. Something powerful. Something beautiful. Something inside me that was drawn out by this band that I loved so much.

(Now, of course, I look back and see an emotionally dramatic 23-year-old. Enough has happened in the intervening years to teach me that nothing is irretrievable, that there are not only second acts in life but third and fourth acts. That’s what I know now. What I knew then was all I could deal with then.)

A lot of the coverage of the band’s retirement has focused on just how out of favor they are now with the musical mainstream, and while that’s an unavoidable part of the story, it means nothing to me. From “Murmur” in 1983 to “Collapse Into Now” in 2011, a new R.E.M. album was an event-with-a-capital-E for me. Just as I’m willing to follow a favorite author wherever he wants to take me, I’ve always been eager to see what new horizon R.E.M. leads me to. Some (“Lifes Rich Pageant”) appealed to me more than others (“Around the Sun”), but I was always packed for the journey. As I’ve considered my sadness at this news, that’s certainly been one of the biggest factors: No more new R.E.M. to look forward to, ever. The other biggie: Perhaps the best part of being a fan of the band was the sense that together, the four of them (and, after Bill Berry left in 1997, the three of them) were so much more as a unit than they ever were apart from that. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps they’ll go on to great heights in their own directions. I’d love to be wrong about this. And, really, as long as they’re happy, that’s the most important thing. R.E.M. never lost their dignity, and I trust they knew when it was time.

But, see, I think the guys also understood the greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts thing. I think that’s why they had the foresight, when they were starting out, to say that all songs would be credited to Berry Buck Mills Stipe, regardless of individual contributions on any given tune. They knew they’d have to stand together. And they did, for 31 years.

I will miss them.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It’

And I feel queasy.

Useless Fact No. 1: When singing along with this song — and I always sing along — I prefer the alternate chorus: “It’s time I had some time alone …”

Useless Fact No. 2: On the subject of singing along … One of my party tricks, when I was a lad in college and my 20s, was the ability to sing all these lyrics verbatim. Which explains (a) my relative lack of talent at anything useful and (b) the reason I was not invited to many parties.

Enjoy!


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Mull of Kintyre’

Now that I think about this, I’m dead certain I’ve done this riff on the Paul McCartney and Wings song before, but for the life of me, I cannot remember where. So what the hey and all of that, I’m doing it again!

If once was enough for you, I invite you to chill out somewhere else till this is over. You could go here. Or here. Or even here. Whatever works for you.

Now, Mull of Kintyre

What I remember most about the clip above is seeing it through bleary eyes in the living room of my folks’ home in North Richland Hills, Texas, in the late ’70s. My stepfather had sent me off to bed that night with a promise that he’d wake me when McCartney came on — even at that young age, I was a huge fan of Macca. (I had made this determination on the basis of the song Rocky Raccoon a few years earlier, and while that may strike you as dubious, the fact is that I’ve remained a faithful McCartney fan for the many years since. I can think of few things that have remained with me that long.)

The story behind the song is pretty interesting, too. It was recorded between albums, and while it was fabulously successful in the U.K., it barely made a dent here in the U.S., topping out at No. 45 on the Billboard charts.

Because it wasn’t on a regular studio album, I promptly forgot the song after my slumbering stupor, until I read about it in McCartney’s tour program during his New World Tour in 1993 (I caught the May 5 show in Cincinnati). The next week, I had a copy of Wings Greatest and proceeded to wear it out, listening to the song repeatedly. It has everything that makes a McCartney fan happy: an undeniable hook, those great pipes (McCartney’s and the bagpipers’), terrific musicianship and a soaring chorus. If you’re one of those unfortunate McCartney detractors, I suppose it also has everything that fuels your contempt. You can go talk about that bullroar on your own blog.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Wendell Gee’

R.E.M. fans are a diverse, divided group.

You have the originals, who fell in love with Murmur and think everything since has marked a slow sellout.

You have the come-latelys, who jumped aboard with Out of Time or maybe Automatic for the People.

And in the largest group, you have people like me, who took the band into their heart early and have been faithful right along, even when that faith has been tested (and never more so than with Around the Sun, which we shan’t address again).

Of the resilient band’s considerable catalog, however, the album Fables of the Reconstruction is my clear favorite. From the first ominous notes of “Feeling Gravitys Pull” to the last, lingering banjo note of this song, “Wendell Gee,” I’m utterly in love.

The backstory of this album, however, is not a happy one for the band. They recorded it in England, in winter, with producer Joe Boyd. And they were miserable, with the experience and with each other.

Here’s a quote from singer Michael Stipe as told in the book R.E.M. Reveal: “We weren’t sure if we really liked each other or not, and that was really reflected in the record.”

It’s telling that the band never worked with Boyd again, but those fans who find themselves enjoying Stipe’s much clearer, much more confident vocals these days can probably thank Boyd, in part, for that. He clashed with Stipe, urging the singer to put more muscle into them.

“I had problems with the vocals,” Boyd says in the book. “Michael Stipe wanted them quieter than I did. It was a strange experience — everyone in the group wanted themselves turned down.”

It follows then that this song, perhaps the one I love the most on the album, was no favorite of the band, at least not initially. Guitarist Peter Buck hated it, claiming that its only redeeming feature was his banjo solo. He’s since reconsidered that view: “I must admit, I was wrong. I don’t love it, but I like it.”

I more than like it. For me, it’s the perfect slow singalong on a long car ride into the distance.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Sweet Adeline’

My wife and I went off to the eastern edge of Montana this past weekend for the Sidney (Mont.) Sunrise Festival of the Arts (more on that later in the week, probably). Along the way, she pulled out some CDs that we stashed away some time ago (yes, we still listen to CDs … sometimes).

Among them: “XO,” by Elliott Smith, whom I miss dearly. This is the first cut, and much as I love the entire album, I think it’s still my favorite song.

It has everything that I love about Smith’s music: The simple chord progressions that get overlaid with piano and harmonies, the smart lyrics (“Fully loaded — deaf and dumb and done”), the aching emotional honesty.

This CD was on heavy, heavy rotation about 10 years ago, while I was living in California, and when I hear it, my head is bombarded with images from that time in my life. In particular, I associate this song with cresting the hill just above old Candlestick Park, headed back south to San Jose after a night in San Francisco, the lights sparkling on the bay. Beautiful.

I must have listened to “XO” a dozen times all told over two days while we were on the road. I’ve missed it, and I’ll be holding it close from now on.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

Take it away, Jimi …

Have a happy Fourth, everyone!


Once More, With Feeling: An Interview With Paul Roberts of Sniff ‘n’ The Tears

Paul Roberts, 1978

 

By Jim Thomsen

Last week, I rhapsodized about one of my favorite pop-rock bands, Sniff ‘n’ The Tears. But I was really giving mad props to just one person: Paul Roberts, the band’s founder, singer, songwriter and sole constant since the British group came together in 1977. I’ve always been a fan of auteur types, artists who take control their own universe—sometimes by force—and make their art better for keeping it as undiluted as possible. I also admire artists who work for the sake of the art—and the craft—and aren’t obsessed with stardom. (When Roberts got burned out on music from time to time—he’s recorded one album per decade since the early Nineties—he turns to his second artistic career as a gallery-quality painter who created the Sniff album covers.) Roberts qualifies on all scores.

And so it was a pleasure to find that the Somerset, Great Britain, resident—now sixty-two and a father of three grown daughters—was willing to answer some questions via e-mail for our benefit.

Enjoy a visit with the man who brought the insanely catchy “Driver’s Seat” into the world. (And I should hasten to add that the new Sniff album, Downstream, which was released just this spring, is an accessible, absolutely wonderful collection of grown-up pop-rock gems. If you need a touchstone, I can safely say that if you like Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler’s solo recordings, you’ll find much to relate to and admire in this self-produced, self-released, under-the-radar delight.)

Q: Why a new album, after eleven years away ? Do you, in your sixties, feel any particular urge to round up a group of friends and hit the road?

A: I make the records because I love doing it, I don’t have unrealistic expectations for them but there are enough “Sniff” fans to make it worthwhile. As for touring, I would love to, but the demand would have to be there for promoters etc to get behind it.

Q: How often did you tour America with the band, and what are your memories of those days? Who did you open for, and were you received and treated well? Or were there some memorable bad times? Did touring tend to bring the band together or expose the personal differences among members?

A: We did one two-and-a-half-month-long American tour in 1979. The first half of the tour we supported Kenny Loggins and the other half, Kansas. On that tour only (guitarists) Loz Netto and Mick Dyche remained from the original band; Chris Birkin and Alan Fealdman had left. Chris had his own band and didn’t want to commit to Sniff now that success beckoned and Alan literally did not want to give up his day job which I believe he still has. Drummer Luigi Salvoni did not want to do the tour and was opposed to our new manager, Bud Prager, (who was instrumental in Foreigner’s success), who he felt was steering the band in the wrong direction.

In retrospect, I think he was right, but … we had a great time on tour and everybody got along fine, but in hindsight it would have been far better to have done a club tour. Bud felt we’d reach more people playing coliseums with Kansas but that goes back to the generic pop fodder argument. Now I think it’s better to play to an audience, however small, that is in to you.

Q: In listening to the Downstream lyrics, your thematic concerns seem to be more about the outside world — sometimes in torn-from-the-newspaper way, and sometimes in an appreciating-the-wonder-of-the natural-world way. Whereas in the first four Sniff albums, your concerns seemed proportionately more about the worlds between men and women. What does that say about the Paul Roberts of, say, 1978, as opposed to the Paul Roberts of today?

A: When you’re young, relationships are what occupy your mind, everything else is secondary. When the turmoil of raging hormones is behind you, you worry about what kind of world your children have to deal with. A more reflective state of mind.

"Buttoning The Red Dress," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts

Q: Why do you think Sniff ‘n’ the Tears didn’t sustain the commercial success portended by the breakthrough of “Driver’s Seat”? Was it about how the music didn’t fit into the music of the moment between 1978 and 1982? Was it about band stability? About label promotion and distribution? About your experiences on the road? Or was it about what was going on with you on a personal level?

A: I have never contemplated making music which “fitted in” with the times. I try and do what comes naturally, and work with musicians who complement that. In the music business, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and I would say it takes a huge amount of focus and determination to circumnavigate the pitfalls. We were unlucky in a number of areas and maybe not determined enough in others.

Q: After four albums in five years, you were without a record contract at the end of 1982. At that point, what were your thoughts about what to do with the rest of your life? Did you want music as much as painting, still, as viable careers? Or did you maybe think about packing it all in, in your mid-thirties then, and go somewhere completely different and do something completely different?

A: Chiswick were a small independent label who had done well out of licensing the band worldwide but they were not equipped to promote us properly themselves. So by the time we got to “Ride Blue Divide”, the last contracted album, believe me, there was no desire to continue working with them. I’d say that Love/Action (the band’s third album, released in 1981) was the one that should have changed our fortunes but we had been coerced into using a “producer” which Bud Prager felt had been lacking on the first two albums and going for a more produced sound. I don’t think it worked. It’s the album which to me sound most dated. It was time to take a raincheck, and that’s what we did.

Q: How would you describe yourself as a bandmate vs. a bandleader?

A: My main reason for wanting a band was for that interaction and consistency but I also I wanted my songs to be central to the concept.

"The Holly Walk," an oil-on-canvas painting by Paul Roberts (2007)

Q: My theory about why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears wasn’t a bigger radio/commercial sensation is this: The songs, like your singing voice, seems to exist in a middle register of emotion, lacking the anthemic soaring or the pumped-up dance-floor urgency of the biggest hits of the time. Your music, like your voice, doesn’t wail or rip or shred. They’re songs that simply lope along in second or third gear with great shimmery competence, complementing the comparative dryness of your vocal style, but they don’t grab listeners by the throat in the way that, say, The Clash did. Or Journey. Or just about anybody who was “big” then on the radio.

A: You mention The Clash and Journey; I remember two of the biggest bands at the time were The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, not to mention Tom Petty. One of my favourite bands ever would be Little Feat, who as far as I know never had a hit. Music is a broad church; I wasn’t plotting how to storm the charts, I just wanted to do music that I could feel proud of in my own way. Dire Straits had a second album failure but came back with a strong third album. In my opinion, that’s what we failed to do.

Q: It certainly wasn’t a function of the catchiness of the songs, or their arrangements or musicianship, in my opinion, because deep album cuts like “Roll The Weight Away” or “The Game’s Up” or “Steal My Heart” or “The Thrill Of It All” or “5 & Zero” float unbidden into my forebrain as often, if not more, than “Driver’s Seat” … but they do so in a sneak-up-on-me sort of way. I see them as subtle delights, rather than overt ones. What do you think?

A: The industry in those days was, and probably still is, geared for mega-success. A lot of the music I love is not that obvious, but there is room for it. Bud Prager, our manager, at the time also managed Foreigner. (He) believed that unless you made music that appealed to teenage boys in the Midwest, you could never hope to sell twelve million albums … which he seemed to think was the point. I never thought that was the point. I hoped that if I made good enough music that there would be enough people out there to build a sustainable career. For me, Tom Petty has done that. So has Paul Simon, JJ Cale, Tom Waits and many others. If something grows on you, it will stay with you for longer.

Q: I remember you saying not too long ago in an interview that Sniff ‘n’ the Tears suffered early on in the public consciousness by being compared to Dire Straits and the London pub-rock scene. But Downstream has many songs that sound … well … Knopfleresque. (The opening guitar licks on “Black Money,” for instance, sound like Mark Knopfler was sitting in on the recording session.) Have you grown more at ease with those parallels, however unfair they might have seemed at the time, given that your second, third and fourth albums went in move of a New Wave direction that Dire Straits never touched?

A: What had happened was that we had in fact recorded Fickle Heart (Sniff’s first album, recorded in 1977 and released in 1978) before Dire Straits’ first album. In fact, me and (guitarist) Mick Dyche ran into (original Dire Straits drummer) Pick Withers and were discussing this with him in Wardour Street when we were mastering and they were still recording. Unfortunately Chiswick’s distributor then went bankrupt and they didn’t finalise their deal with EMI for another year, so we found ourselves being accused of following in the path of Dire Straits. (As they say in the movies, any similarity is purely coincidental.) I never really thought the comparison bore too much scrutiny, but we were both laid-back muso-ish bands in the days of the three-chord thrash. New Wave was a meaningless description even then. All it described were the bands that had more to offer than attitude and haircuts.

Q: What have you been doing, for the most part, since the late 1980s, after your pair of solo albums? You seemed to take yourself off the regular-recording path. Has it been all painting, or have you been doing other work? Concentrating on your family? Traveling? Finding other artistic pursuits?

A: We made an album, No Damage Done, in 1992 and then toured Germany and Benelux. (Jim’s note: I actually overlooked this album since Allmusic.com doesn’t list it in its database, nor did I see it on Sniff’s Amazon page. Apparently, it was an import-only album. I’m glad Paul alerted me to it, for it was like Christmas for me—a “new” Sniff album to enjoy!) I might re-release it as I think I probably now own the rights. I have, of course, also been painting and enjoying seeing my children grow up.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with “Driver’s Seat”? A lot of artists tagged as “one-hit wonders”—and, sadly, that’s how America probably sees you since I believe that it’s the only song that got real airplay here—tend to resent being defined by the one song that gets cemented to their names. They tend to say, “You know, I wrote and recorded a lot of other good songs, too, you know. Hello?”

A: I’ve always felt that if you had to be a one-hit wonder, then “Driver’s Seat” was a pretty good song to be remembered by. People still love it. It’s not cheap or cheesy or formulaic. It’s got a great energy. Of course, there are other songs I’m proud of, but what the hell. I would never not play “Driver’s Seat.”

Q: If somebody wrote a book about your life, or if you wrote a memoir, what do you think it should be called?

A: What Next?

Paul Roberts, 2011

 

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Sniff ‘n’ The Tears and “Driver’s Seat”: One-Hit Wonder? It’s No Wonder

“The second album by this intellectual minded English ensemble is filled with the same kind of quality music that graced its debut last year. Writer / guitarist / vocalist / painter Paul Roberts is at the forefront, writing songs that are both heady in content and poignantly melodic. His songs have an eerie kind of esoteric quality to them.”

— Billboard magazine, June 14, 1980

 

By Jim Thomsen

It’s amazing to me how many pop and rock acts from the Seventies are still recording and releasing albums of new, original material.

Molly Hatchet? Still in business. America? Still at it. So is Foghat, and the Little River Band, and Kansas. Leo Freaking Sayer! Debby Effing Boone! Alan O’Day, whose one hit, “Undercover Angel,” was released over thirty-four years ago, put out an album in 2008. Who buys an Alan O’Day album nowadays? (Hell, who bought one in 1977?)

Who buys any of these albums?

Well, people like me, that’s who.

Because, to that list, add a band I love: Sniff ‘n’ the Tears.

Scratch your head for a minute as you think about that one. “Um … hmmmm … are you talking about the guys that did ‘Driver’s Seat’? Those guys are still around? Those one-hit wonders? Are you freaking kidding me?”

Yes. Yep. Yup. And nope.

I was in eighth grade, sporting headgear braces and Farrah Fawcett-feathered hair, when I first heard “Driver’s Seat” on my AM/FM clock radio. I promptly ten-sped down to Steve Nicolet’s Record Shack to procure the brand-spanking-new vinyl single with my newspaper bike-route money. I must have played it twenty-six times or more on my Sears belt-drive turntable before my mom called for me to come down to dinner. And then, I’m sure, I played it twenty-six times more as I did my algebra homework beneath the watchful eyes of my Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head poster. And probably 2,600 times since. As far as I’m concerned, “Driver’s Seat” is the most insanely catchy song ever created.

Now I’m less than two weeks shy of forty-six, with a stomach that slopes like a ski run, and temples shot through with tarnished silver. And as I write, I am listening to Downstream, the Sniff ‘n’ The Tears album released this spring, on my laptop computer. And it’s good, and it’s good for all the same reasons I eventually bought—and wore out—the first Sniff album, Fickle Heart, in 1978: Accessible songs, hook-riddled melodies and engagingly cryptic lyrics rendered in the pleasantly high, dry burr of founding member Paul Roberts’ singing voice.

In fact, as probably the only person in North America who owns all seven Sniff albums (and the two Paul Roberts solo albums), I can authoritatively say that everything Paul Roberts has recorded is like that. The man simply has the gift for catchy, tuneful pop-rock songs with sly, intricate arrangements that bring out something new for the ear with each listen.

His songs are the equivalent of sliders at happy hour; cooked just right, slathered with the right condiments and chased with smartly selected aperitifs, they go down tasty and easy and not a bit greasy. They simply agree with me, and I could sample them all night long. (Which may or may not explain the sloping stomach.) They’re not high cuisine, nor are they fast food. They’re merely pretty good appetizers.

That said, I understand perfectly why Sniff ‘n’ the Tears, which put out four records between 1978 and 1982 before calling it quits (for the first time, that is), was a one-hit wonder.

One, nobody knew what they were or what scene they fit into. They were New Wave, sort of, a little, but not really (though anybody who heard the serenely spacy synthesizer solo near the end of “Driver’s Seat” could be forgiven for thinking otherwise). They came from the London pub-rock scene that spawned Dire Straits, among others, but their pop songcraft was just a little too slick to be lumped in with the Dylanesque shuffle blues of Mark Knopfler & Co. They rocked, but not too hard, and in that regard they were as far away from being The Clash as they were Led Zeppelin. In short, they defied categorization. And, as any author pitching a book to a publisher knows, the inability to categorize is almost always the kiss of commercial death. Inevitably the bottom line is: “We love it, but we don’t know how to sell it.”

Two, their songs dwelled in a narrow, middling emotional range. They didn’t reach for anthemic heights, nor did they produce their records with the propulsive dance-floor rhythms of the music that made the Top Forty in that time. There was no cohesive lyrical vision, merely Roberts’ affably vague, vaguely sophisticated observations. Whether or not to try for bigger things was apparently a subject of constant tension between Roberts and the band’s manager, Bud Prager (who was filling the same role with Foreigner, among others).

Roberts drily distills the debate about how to follow up the band’s successful first album on the Sniff website: “Bud wanted the guy who was later to have huge success producing Bon Jovi. Bud felt that a big glossy rock sound with big choruses was what was required. It didn’t occur to him that poodle rock might not be our natural constituency. For Bud, there was only one way to do it and that was the way Foreigner had done it.

“There were other bands from England that did not fit the template. I remember him saying, ‘The Police will never make it in the States because Americans don’t like reggae.’”

Roberts held out for his producer, a first-timer, and won. Or did he? He picks up the story: “At the studio, the reaction to the album was fantastic and certain light-headed feelings of vindication were beginning to set in. Until Bud Prager took me to one side. He said, ‘Enjoy this evening, Paul, while you can. Everybody is telling you (that) you made a great album, but I’ve got to tell you it’s a disaster. There is no hit single, no ‘Driver’s Seat.’”

Both were right. The Game’s Up was a very good album, receiving positive reviews, and it remains Roberts’ favorite. But it yielded no hits. While Sniff charted a handful of singles in Europe, it stiffed in North America and never again found so much as reliable distribution over here.

Three, there is the unsmall matter of Roberts’ voice. I’ve spent more time than anybody ever should trying to find the words to describe this instrument, and what I’ve come down to is this: He sings like a man leaning against the outside of a nightclub at two in the morning, cupping a cigarette and a lighter in his hands as he sings alone, with a hint at an untapped well of unspeakable melancholy, to whatever traffic might be passing by.

It is a thin, scratchy, slightly hoarse instrument with a limited range that can’t wail, soar or snarl with much credibility or cohesiveness. And yet, it is wonderfully expressive within that narrow corridor—dryly pained, dryly sardonic, dryly seductive, but oh, so distant. He sings like a man who is afraid to let loose everything he feels, or simply can’t find his way to the fullest expression of his feelings, often floating his voice in a light croon or a dry whisper just behind a slow or midtempo beat.

He’s not unlike other critically acclaimed singer-songwriters of the era I like and admire—Mark Knopfler, David Knopfler and Lloyd Cole among them. But none of those guys had much in the way of hits (Dire Straits had only a handful of Top Forty singles; it was one of the last album-rock-station sensations)—and one can’t help but wonder if their too-cool-for-school singing styles, whether affected or genuine, didn’t impact their fortunes on radio and in video.

That indifference can best be summed up by a single word spoken by a friend on a recent road trip through Oregon. I played the Fickle Heart CD all the way through, and toward the end, my friend asked who the artist was. I showed him the CD cover and asked him if he’d like me to burn him a copy. There was a moment of silence, then my friend handed me back the cover. “Eh,” he said.

That didn’t bother me—believe me, I get it that Sniff ‘n’ The Tears is an acquired taste—and I get the strong impression that it doesn’t bother Paul Roberts, either.

In everything he’s said and written on the subject, Roberts’ attitude toward his fame—or lack of it—as a one-hit wonder can be summed up: “Oh, well.” He didn’t need music to make him whole; he’s been married for nearly thirty years, has three grown daughters and a second career as a commercially successful painter.

Now sixty-two, he lives in Somerset, near London, and lives comfortably (“Driver’s Seat” has made him a pretty penny on various reissues and commercial licensings for cars and stereo systems). He makes music when he feels like it (solo albums in 1985 and 1987; Sniff albums in 1991, 2001 and now 2011) and lives his life when he doesn’t. You might say that on trouble and strife, he has another way of looking at life.

I’ll tell you more about it next week … when I share an interview I recently conducted with the man himself.

In the meantime, enjoy one of Roberts’ best atmospheric compositions.

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Troy’

R.J. Keller

By R.J. Keller


I first heard Troy by Sinead O’Connor in the spring of 1988 when a friend of mine loaned me her copy of The Lion and The Cobra. I was seventeen years old and the song scared the shit out of me. But I was hooked.

It opens with vocals that are barely a whisper and with low, haunting strings. By the end of the song both she and the strings are howling her betrayal. At the midway point she wails, “I’d kill a dragon for you”…and she means it.



At seventeen I didn’t fully appreciate the song. I didn’t know that the title and fiery imagery had been borrowed from a poem by William Keats. I would later find it ironic that Keats absolved the object of his unrequited affection with the words, “Was there another Troy for her to burn?” while O’Connor used the sentiment as a scathing accusation. And in the mid-’90s I would shake my head when I heard people proclaim Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know the anthem for spurned women everywhere, because I knew the true honor belonged to the song I had heard so many years before.

At seventeen I only knew that I never wanted to experience the kind of heartache that had inspired this song. Eventually I did, of course, because we all do. And when it happened, I was grateful to Sinead O’Connor for giving me such a powerful outlet for the pain.

R.J. Keller’s fine first novel, Waiting For Spring, was recently released by AmazonEncore. To learn more about R.J. and her work, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, or like her on Facebook. Honestly, you should do all three.


Once More, With Feeling: The Larry Burnett interview

 

Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts in this space about the not-quite-a-hit-single “Cinderella,” (see below) recorded and released by the soft-rock band Firefall in 1976. As I wrote, it’s a pretty tune wrapped around some shocking and seemingly misogynistic lyrics. (Cinderella, can’t you see/I don’t want your company/Better leave this morning, leave today/Take your love and your child away.)

Since then, as hoped for, the songwriter — Firefall band member Larry Burnett — agreed to talk to me about what’s informed the song he wrote as a 16-year-old in 1968 — and what’s continued to inform it in his private life and in the public consciousness. I think you’ll enjoy this remarkably candid, self-effacing conversation with a musician who had a backstage ticket to the never-ending show that is classic rock.

Q: I’ve seen you discuss this in a few interviews that can be found online, but can you talk a little about what you saw around you as a teenager that led to the writing of “Cinderella”?

A: I, like so many (even my own son), come from a broken home (Mom left Dad when I was 4-ish).  For most of my adolescent and adult life, all was filtered through a lens of betrayal and suspicion. It was easy to look around and notice lives going awry and against their own standards.

Q: Was the lyrical view of “Cinderella” typical or different from the themes expressed in other songs you wrote in those formative years? What were your obsessions of the time?

A: Other songs I wrote during my teen years sucked. I was mostly obsessed with narcotics and having sex with some forty-something divorcee in the neighborhood … or any female, for that matter. I didn’t get laid until I was 18 and moved out of my folks’ house. Nancy Neal … I’ll never forget her. I actually crossed paths again with her when I was in Firefall.

Q: When the time came to choose songs for the first Firefall album, were there any misgivings within the band or the label about putting “Cinderella” on it? It seems quaint now, but it WAS 1976, and Middle America was still presumed to be churchgoing and innocent, and a song with “Goddamn, girl!” as the punchline passage must have at least raised a few eyebrows.

A: Once I wrote a song, I didn’t really care how it was handled for “business reasons.”  For the single, Atlantic edited out the word “God” from “Goddamn”, thinking that might help soften the impact.  I was never a fan of softening the impact, but, like I said, I didn’t really care.

Q: Feminists protested the playing of “Cinderella” on the radio, leading to it stalling out as a single just short of the Top 40, according to Firefall’s Wikipedia site. What do you remember about that?

A: I remember everyone being surprised at that … bunch of men, what do you expect?  Again, I write ‘em as I see ‘em.  People react how they react.  Some of the kindest words I’ve gotten regarding that song over the years have come from women.  Why? I couldn’t tell you, but kind words are kind words. I’ll take them gratefully.

Q: In reading your 2008 blog, I saw that you came to be a father relatively late in life, and now have a son who’s almost college age. How did you take the news that you were to be a father … and how did you take to BEING a father? How do you characterize your relationship with your son?

A: For many years I never saw myself as a husband or a father … and rightly so.  As I healed up from years of drinking and drug addiction, my self-image began to shift to one in which I thought I actually had something to offer in those roles.

I have an astonishing relationship with my son and I believe that he would agree.  I am driving to Connecticut on Saturday to see him in his last high school play (he is in them all, and quite the charismatic thespian, much to both of our pleasant surprises).

It was not as I had planned or hoped. His mother informed me that she did not want to be married to me anymore when he was about a year and a half old … and then had me removed from the house by the courts a week before his second birthday. I was deeply disturbed by it all, but figured as long as I didn’t disappear, like my own father had, it would be, at least, better than my own experience.

So, I was as present as I could be.  I saw him every few days throughout his childhood.  We spent many series of days and nights together. I attended and was present for all the big moments.  We vacationed together.

To her credit, his mother was a strong supporter of our relationship and time together, she just didn’t want to be married to me.

Q: How does the man that you are now, nearing sixty, relate to the kid who wrote “Cinderella”? Can you imagine having that mindset today, living what you’ve lived? What would the 2011 Larry Burnett say about the 1968 Larry Burnett?

A: I can imagine anything … bit of a curse. “A little less self-absorption, son …”

Q: When you pull out a guitar and start to compose a song nowadays, what do those songs tend to want to be about?

A: Same ol’ stuff … life and folks around me and the stories that lie therein … observing things (foibles, weakness, fear) that most won’t self-observe out loud. I provide a service. Other writers that I bow down to provide that same service for me.

Q: You’re still writing and recording music, and playing the occasional live gig, but as recently as 2008, you were working in a UPS store for $10 an hour. Do you think of yourself as a happy man, even content? Or are you still chasing after something?

A: Still chasing. Passes the time … and occasionally leads to some extraordinary music being made. I’ve actually had some pretty lucrative jobs over the years (classic rock on-air talent, transportation and logistics sales, copyediting) but my willingness to drop it all in pursuit of that chase has led me here.

Q: How do you look back on your Firefall days? Any big regrets, or do you see the journey — however it spun — as the destination, and every experience as a constructive learning moment? Could you take the stage with (Firefall bandleader) Jock Bartley and the others just as easily now as you did in 1975, or has there been too much time gone by and too much bad blood spilled?

A: I actually took the stage with Jock, Mark, David, Joe Lala and current members of Jock’s ghost band in 2009 for a reunion concert.  The concert went very well. Jock and I will never get along, (but) all that stops when we play … as it did in the ‘70s.

Regrets? Nothing that keeps me up at night or ruins my days. It all could have been handled better by us and those around us. We all did the best we could.

Whenever someone I am speaking with discovers that I was in Firefall (and many hundreds have over the years), I never have heard this: “Firefall? Yeah, I remember them. They sucked.”

Postscript: I ordered the two CDs that Larry Burnett has recorded in the last decade, via CD Baby, and found them to be full of accessible, enjoyable acoustic folk-blues tunes. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’

A hearty thank you to all who served, and all who gave everything.

Once More, With Feeling: The “Cinderella” You Won’t Find In Children’s Books

 

Guest post by Jim Thomsen

Last week, somewhere between Sublimity and Silverton, Oregon, between spitting rain and a sliver of sunlight far to the north, I broke the morning silence with the first CD of the second day of a road trip. The CD wasFirefall: Greatest Hits,” and the second song was “Cinderella.”

After the song was done, I punched replay. Then did it again. And again. Over and over I played it; my best guess is between nine and eleven times. By that time I let the CD advance to “You Are The Woman,” Firefall‘s biggest hit, I was on the outskirts of Boring, a boring town, and bearing down on decidedly non-boring Portland … and musing on the subject of stark differences.

“Cinderella,” see, is a lovely tune, full of lilting acoustic guitars, the occasional chime of an electric, and a flute part that floated atop the bobbing bass line like a seagull on the bow of a sailboat. It’s also one of the most hateful, misogynistic songs ever written, a caustic dismissal of a woman whose crime was loving a man who apparently let her love him until she committed the second crime of allowing him to have unprotected sex with her. (The chorus: “Cinderella, can’t you see? I don’t want your company. Better leave this morning, leave today. Take your love and your child away.”) On the last refrain, the song gets bouncier than ever, with some swampy harp urging along the beat, before settling in a sweet low fade.

Kind of makes you wonder about the songwriter, doesn’t it? I did some research online, and what I found revealed a lot about how songwriting sausage is made. Firefall’s primary songwriters were guitarist Larry Burnett and singer Rick Roberts. Roberts, who wrote Firefall’s biggest soft-rock hits, often did so with “his head in a big bag of cocaine,” according to a Burnett interview. Burnett, who by his own admission also had drug problems, insisted in another interview that he wasn’t the man in the song, and that he had in fact written “Cinderella” when he was 16. “I certainly didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend who was pregnant and I was working my butt off trying to support us,” Burnett said. “None of that was going on. But it was certainly happening around me in other people’s lives.”

OK, I can buy that. Then I thought, kinda makes you wonder what sort of discussions went on among the members of Firefall and their label, Atlantic Records, when it came time to choose songs to record and include on their 1976 debut album. “Cinderella” not only made the cut, but it was chosen as the second single. I can’t recall having heard “Cinderella” on AM radio, nestled between “Lonely Boy” and “Undercover Angel,” but I wish my parents had, just so the 11-year-old mean could have gauged their stricken expressions. I might not have ever been allowed to listen to the radio again if that were the case. And if my socioculturally staid parents would have soiled themselves, then imagine the feminist response. In an interview, Firefall member Jock Bartley explained what happened:

“’Cinderella’ ended up being an AM single that ironically enough we found out later was climbing the charts and got into the 40s and suddenly dropped with an anchor,” Bartley told classicbands.com. “We went, ‘What the hell happened?” We found out later that a number of women’s organizations on the East Coast; Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, kind of banded together and used their clout to tell this song was an inappropriate lyrical song, that basically says a guy kicked out a girl because she got pregnant.

“It was a fictional song. We certainly were not holding up the banner for any abusive kind of behavior or chauvinistic bullshit. It was a great song and one of my favorite Firefall songs. We found out that on the AM hits, it really dropped off the charts after there was an exerted effort put by some feminist groups, which was fairly ridiculous.”

Not sure I really follow Bartley’s reasoning there … but, whatever.

As for Burnett, the song doesn’t square very well with his current reality. At age fifty-six, he launched a regrettably short-lived blog in which he discussed life on the cold downslope of rock fame. At the time, he was living in Northern Virginia, scraping for performance gigs wherever he could and making ends meet by working for $10 an hour in a UPS store. Around age forty, he became a father to a son. And while he says it hasn’t been easy for either, given that he and the son’s mother divorced when the son was two years old, Burnett writes: “I love him. He loves me. There is no doubt between us of these two facts.”

Then he reveals something that reveals something, perhaps, about “Cinderella”: “A few days before my boy’s arrival home, I become uncomfortable. I wonder about my fitness as a father…  as his father. What will we talk about? Will we talk at all? What will we do? How will he greet me? Should I wrap him in my arms? Is he too old for that? Does he think I’m an idiot, yet (he is a teen, after all)? Does he see through my charade? Sense the fatherly fraud in me?

“This,” Burnett added, “is a small part of the influence of my own father’s absence on his son.”

I thought about that as I continued east on my road trip, to Walla Walla, Washington. Where I stopped to see my own dad. Or, rather, my own dad’s grave. He broke his back just trying to keep his head above water, my dad, but he did it with his children and wife at his side. He wouldn’t have had it any other way, and for that I am profoundly glad.

(Postscript: I contacted Larry Burnett by e-mail and asked him if he’d be willing to let me interview him about “Cinderella.” He agreed, and I sent him some questions. I didn’t hear back from by him by the deadline for this essay, but if and when he does get back to me, I’ll write a follow-up piece.)

 

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work onThe Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at thomsen1965@gmail.com.

 


Once More, With Feeling: 10cc

When I tell people that I have obsessive tendencies … well, nobody really doubts me. But today, I have a concrete example of it.

Let’s take a trip, shall we, to 1977:

 

The other night, I played this song 10 times in a row. The only reason it was not 11 is that I had to do something else. Answer the phone or go to the bathroom or something. I don’t really remember.

This, of course, eventually led to a full-on Google-led expedition into all things 10cc. They were active as late as 1995, when it was just Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman. Later on, those guys couldn’t stand each other any more and apparently still can’t. As a counselor in my own mind, I suggest that they heed a lyric from the above song: “A compromise would surely help the situation.” Nowadays, Gouldman and Kevin Godley are together in an outfit called GG/06, and Stewart and Lol Creme are largely out of sight.

You may remember Godley and Creme for the 1985 song “Cry” and its cutting-edge-at-the-time morphing video:

 

You may also remember that it was skewered by Beavis & Butt-head:

 

 

I also found this dandy acoustic version of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” featuring Gouldman (who wasn’t the vocalist on the original cut; Stewart was), the incomparable Neil Finn and Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera:

 

That’s all I got.


Once More, With Feeling: ‘Rocky Raccoon’

Among the many reasons I look back on my childhood with a fondness that’s almost criminal, this one looms especially large: My stepfather, Charles, had all of the Beatles’ albums — some on vinyl, some on eight-track — and we had a huge stereo console on which to give them a whirl.

This song, from the White Album, is the first Beatles song I remember loving. I must have been five or six years old when I first heard it, and it was enough to sell me on The Beatles in general and Paul McCartney in particular. (And I’ll just add that this homemade video, snatched from YouTube, is simply perfect.)

The big stereo I mentioned earlier also had microphones and a recording apparatus, and I remember spending hours with my brother Keith, making our own versions of this song and others by The Beatles. Those cassettes are probably drifting around somewhere in the family home, and wherever they are, I hope they remain well hidden.

Now, at the age I was when I fell in deep with this song, I didn’t have much in the way of musical discernment. It was later, much later, that I could consider this song in context and realize how slight it is, that I learned about John Lennon making fun of McCartney for it (particularly after it was parodied by Bob Hope (see below), which for a Beatle must have been the least cool thing ever). But you know what? All that hardly matters. For me, a sweet memory is hardwired to this song, and any time I hear it, I’m back in the mid-1970s in my suburban home, and let me tell you, that was a damned nice place to be.

____________________

Are you a writer looking to promote your latest work? Want to contribute a mini-essay for the Once More, With Feeling feature? I’ll happily host it. E-mail me at craig@craig-lancaster.com for details.


Once More, With Feeling: Collective Soul

So this will be the new Monday gig around these parts: an occasionally serious, more often comical dissertation on music that strikes a particular chord with me. (See what I did there? Strikes a particular chord. This is why music will be featured on Mondays. Frankly, I expect more of myself later in the week.)

Music, to me, is essential to the creative process, never mind that what I mostly create is unduly strident arguments about the relative worth of bands, to the point that I become highly annoyed if anyone disagrees with me. This happened yesterday on Facebook, when a friend posed the question of who should be blamed for Jefferson Airplane’s sad slide into dreck as Starship. I was prepared to de-friend him and possibly key his car if he persisted with laying blame at the feet of Paul Kantner. Luckily for both of us, he did not.

But today’s post is not about Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship. No, it’s about a much more inconsequential band: Collective Soul, and specifically the song “The World I Know.” See below:

Subtle, no?

When this song came out, nearly 16 years ago, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and scarcely took notice of it. I was mired deep in my bedrock musical predilections, notably R.E.M., Frank Black (and the Pixies, natch), etc.

But in recent weeks, because I’m eternally slow to pick up coolness, I’ve been toying around with Pandora radio, building customized stations that span the mellow-gold 1970s music that filled my childhood, the alternative rock I gravitated to in the 1980s, the grunge of the 1990s and whatever the hell I’m listening to these days (a weird amalgamation of rock artifacts and suggestions from much more musically inclined friends). And across all of those stations, the one song that keeps showing up as a DNA-confirmed relative is this one. It’s maddening. Not as maddening as the almost-as-perpetual appearance of Lionel Richie, but close. Dammit!

So, anyway, there you have it: Collective Soul is the type-O blood of my musical life.

The week’s gotta get better, right?

*****

Today marks the start of a new posting schedule. Check it, bleed:

Monday: Once More, With Feeling

Tuesday: Progress Report (what I’m working on)

Wednesday: Another Page (books that were influential for me — believe me, it won’t all be egghead stuff)

Thursday: Grab Bag (whatever I feel like doing)

Friday: The Word (the writing exercise I launched last week)

I’ll be taking Saturdays and Sundays off, like a regular Joe.