It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Woke up this morning to the strangest sound; like living next to a major freeway, but more of a rumble. It woke me up, starting suddenly and rolling and rumbling like distant thunder. After a couple minutes, I got up to look out into the dark to see if I could make out what it was. The closest freeway is a mile away, and not busy at night. I couldn’t see anything that looked like a sudden LA-sized influx of traffic.

Suddenly it hit me. One of the joys of living on the north side of Sacramento is that most of these small towns were built around the railroads. I was hearing a sound I hadn’t heard like this in years—a passing freight train.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to spend some time each summer with our grandmother. One of her houses (she seems to have moved more than most grandmothers) was right across a narrow street from railroad tracks. I remember that when we’d first arrive, each passing train would awaken me as it growled past. But by the second night, it was just a comforting background sound like the ticking and quailing and cuckooing of the huge German clock in the hallway.

Trains seem to inspire musical feelings; I know they do in me. I started making a list of train songs, and I hope to come back and spend a bit of time riding each one. For now, I’ll just spit out a stream-of-consciousness blurb for each. Let me know if you have any favorites, or if there are some I’ve missed.

If Love Was A Train (Michelle Shocked)
Why Michelle ‘Shocked’ Johnston didn’t become a major star is beyond me. Brother Max (The Gourds) is benefitting from the same near-anonimity. Guess it’s better than watching ZZ Top go from serious blues influence to slithery pop gunk.

Midnight Special (Credence Clearwater Revival)
My dad bought ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ because it had this tune and ‘Cotton Fields.’ Since his death, I hadn’t heard the album until I got it again two weeks ago. It’s hard to laugh with joy and cry in pain at the same time.

Driving the Last Spike (Genesis)
Phil Collins accidently lets us get another glimpse of genious. Phil, Phil, Phil; come back to us and leave the trivial pop nonsense. This deserves a movie to be made of it. Collins actually did research before writing the song.

Canadian Railroad Trilogy (Gordon Lightfoot)
Gord knows how good this is; it shows up on more of his albums than any other tune I can think of. I know Lightfoot haters who say, “But that railroad song; I can listen to that.” I want to go to Canada and ride the railroads for as long as my money lasts.

Steel Rail Blues (Gordon Lightfoot)
Yeah, Canadians get trains better than USicans do. From his first album, it’s the kind of tune my Dad and his brothers would have taken to if it hadn’t been so quietly obscure.

Honky Tonk Train Time (Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis)
This one shows up in two different arrangements on the Smithsonian Jazz Collection; once on the piano set, once on the band set. (If you know someone who has these CDs, I’ll take out a bank loan to buy them. Call me; write me; send up smoke signals. I want these classics.) Kieth Emerson covered it as well. It rolls.

Hellbound Train (Savoy Brown)
How sad it was to see Foghat live in ’98. Right up until the nostalgic bit in the middle where ‘Lonesome’ Dave Peverett took the lead guitar and did some Savoy Brown. No, they didn’t do “Doin’ Right” or any of the great stuff from “Hellbound Train” but they did justice to “It Hurts Me Too.” Buy “Hellbound Train”, but don’t listen to the title track. Some clown decided the re-issue should have a fade-out ending instead of the jarring vaporisation of the original. So, buy the “Savoy Brown Collection” as well; you’ll get the original unbastardized version of “Hellbound Train” plus more rockin’ blues than you can shake a pick at.

Aww. Just took a look for some info, and found out Lonesome Dave died from complications of kidney cancer in February of 2000. What a huge loss to blues.

Southern Pacific (Neil Young)
Neil’s ‘re*ac*tor’ is one of his very best albums. Huge crunchy tunes which repeat the fact that he invented grunge and is still its master; goofball stuff like “Get Back On It” and “Motor City”:

My army jeep is still alive
Got locking hubs and four wheel drive
Ain’t got no radio
Ain’t got no mag wheels
Ain’t got no digital clock
(ain’t got no clo-o-o-o-o-o-ck)

and ending with the driving, gut-wrenching “Shots.” No one, no one, rocks like Neil Young.

Oh, and how ’bout the track I stole this title from, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nobody Loves the Railroads Anymore”?

Man there’s a lot of train songs. Maybe I’ll start a whole new site.

Comment: Meet Alden Marin

A reader writes regarding Meet Alden Marin:

“Zeppelin’s first Southern California show was actually May 2, 1969 at the Rose Palace in Pasadena.”

I didn’t check Alden’s figures ;) (He mentions their ‘first’ show at the Anaheim Convention Center.)

However, although the Rose Palace show was before they hit Anaheim in August, the first US tour made it to the Whiskey A Go Go (go, Buffalo Springfield!) on January 2nd, so LA wins. In fact, my old home town San Diego beats both Pasadena and Anaheim; the boys played the Fox Theater (now Copley Symphony Hall, one of the finest classical venues on the planet) on January 13th. It was their sixth SoCal date (the first five being a five-day run at WAGG.)

Thanks for writing (and for reading!)

Smooth Indeed

For the first time in musical history an instrumental made it to the top of the Album Oriented Rock charts. It’s kinda fun that it was done by a band from my old home town, San Diego’s own Nickel Creek.

Calling Chris Thile (pronounce it THEE-lee with a ‘TH’ like ‘thumb’ and you’ll make him very happy) a ‘mandolin player’ is like calling Chet Atkins a ‘Country Guitar Player.’ I get blisters just listening to him. My own Fender mandolin should be arriving any day now. Looks like I’ve got some catching up to do.Nickel Creek is bluegrass with an attitude. Nickel Creek is acoustic rock making a left turn in Albuquerque. Nickel Creek is doing what Jorma Kaukonen, Bela Fleck, and Stephane Grappelli did: creating a very new dimension to a very old genre. Members fiddler Sara Watkins, guitarist Sean Watkins, and mandolin player Chris Thile have been playing together professionally since they were in elementary school. Listening to a live radio broadcast on KPRI right now, it’s obvious they’ve made effective use of the time.

Nickel Creek's 'This Side'On August 7th, “Smoothie Song” made it to the pinnacle of the AAA chart; the first instrumental ever to do so. Named on the spur of the moment because the vendor at the fair delivered their smoothies just as they finished polishing the tune in their car, “Smoothie Song” was really going to be called something like “I Just Met the Girl I’m Going to Marry and Made a Complete Jerk of Myself” but they figured that wasn’t exactly a ‘radio friendly’ title.

Individually, the members of Nickel Creek have performed or recorded with The Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, Bela Fleck, Glen Phillips, Lyle Lovett and others. Rolling Stone included the band in their “Best of 2002″ while Time Magazine featured them in the music innovators special in May of 2000, naming them one of 5 Music Innovators for the Millenium. Both their albums were produced by the angelic bluegrass/pop legend Alison Krauss.

Their website is stuffed with the kind of info that fascinates me. Give it a visit, and read about three remarkable musicians with a passion for their music—and for life.

New York Times Article on Music File Sharing Ambivalence

Today’s Sacramento Bee published a partial version of a New York Times article by Neil Strauss regarding the confusion and discord in the music industry over file sharing. Once again, it’s obvious the powers-that-be just don’t ‘get’ how to use technology to share information without encouraging dishonesty by their own greed.

I’ve mentioned before what a great marketer Moby is; his comments in the article are salient, professional, and correct: “How can a 14-year-old who has an allowance of $5 a week feel bad about downloading music produced by multimillionaire musicians and greedy record companies,” he wrote. “The record companies should approach that 14-year-old and say: ‘Hey, it’s great that you love music. Instead of downloading music for free, why don’t you try this very inexpensive service that will enable you to listen to a lot of music and also have access to unreleased tracks and ticket discounts and free merchandise?’ “Here’s the article in full:

Since the Recording Industry Association of America began its campaign against file-sharing services and unauthorized song swapping online in 1999, it has offered one chief justification for its actions: downloading songs is stealing money from the pockets of musicians.

But the musicians themselves have conflicted responses to file sharing and the tactics of the association, a trade group that represents record labels, not the musicians themselves, who have no organization that wields equal power.

So, many musicians have found themselves watching helplessly from the sidelines as the recording industry has begun suing people who are their fans, their audience and their consumers — who also share music online without authorization. Last week, 261 lawsuits were filed, the first battle in what the association says will be a long campaign of litigation against the most active music fans sharing songs on services like KaZaA.

“On one hand, the whole thing is pretty sick,” said John McCrea, a singer and songwriter in the rock band Cake. “On the other hand, I think it’ll probably work.”

Many musicians privately wish file sharing would go away, though they are reluctant to admit it, because they do not want to seem unfriendly to their fans. So they have been happy to have the industry group play the role of bad cop. But with the escalation of the battle last week (with lawsuits filed against, among others, a 71-year-old grandfather and a 12-year-old girl), some musicians say they are beginning to wonder if the actions being taken in their name are a little extreme.This is especially true because, regardless of file sharing, they rarely see royalties.

“It would be nice if record companies would include artists on these decisions,” said Deborah Harry of Blondie, adding that when a grandfather is sued because, unbeknownst to him, his grandchildren are downloading songs on his computer, “it’s embarrassing.”

The artist Moby, on his Web site, offered a similar opinion, suggesting that the music companies treat users of file-sharing services like fans instead of criminals. “How can a 14-year-old who has an allowance of $5 a week feel bad about downloading music produced by multimillionaire musicians and greedy record companies,” he wrote. “The record companies should approach that 14-year-old and say: `Hey, it’s great that you love music. Instead of downloading music for free, why don’t you try this very inexpensive service that will enable you to listen to a lot of music and also have access to unreleased tracks and ticket discounts and free merchandise?’ ”

A few artists, like Metallica and Loudon Wainwright III, have come out strongly in favor of the record industry’s crackdown. It could be seen as a gutsy move, considering the criticism Metallica faced from music fans when it campaigned against the file-sharing service Napster, which was declared illegal.

In a new song, “Something for Nothing,” Mr. Wainwright makes fun of the mentality of file sharers, singing: “It’s O.K. to steal, cuz it’s so nice to share.” As for the lawsuits, he said that he was not surprised. “If you’re going to break the law, the hammer is going to come down,” he said.

At the same time, other influential musicians and groups — like Moby, System of a Down, Public Enemy, and the Dead — contend that the record industry’s efforts are misguided and that it must work with the new technology instead of against it.

But most seem ambivalent, or confused.

“I see both sides,” said Rodney Crowell, a country music singer and songwriter. “In some ways, I think the record companies have it coming, but at the same time, being a writer and therefore in the business of copyright, they’re saying it’s impacting our business by 30 percent or more, so we have to do something.”

The Recording Industry Association says there has been a 31 percent drop in sales of recorded music since file sharing became popular more than three years ago, but statistics from Forrester Research show that the sales decline since 2000 has been half that, or 15 percent, and that 35 percent of that amount is because of unauthorized downloading.

The situation has become so thorny that many top-selling artists, even those who have been outspoken about embracing new technology, declined to comment on the lawsuits on the record, for fear of upsetting their labels. In interviews, some musicians and their representatives said that their labels had asked them not to talk. And in a dozen cases, record labels did not grant interviews with musicians on the subject.

“I don’t think anyone really understands the impact of what’s happening, and they don’t want to make a mistake,” said Allen Kovac, who runs 10th Street Entertainment, an artist management company in Los Angeles. “The impact of lawsuits on fans is a double-edged sword. If you’re a record company, do you want record company acts being persona non grata at every college campus in America?”

Much of the stated concern over file sharing has centered on the revenue that record companies and musicians are losing, but few musicians ever actually receive royalties from their record sales on major labels, which managers say have accounting practices that are badly in need of review. (Artists do not receive royalties for a CD until the record company has earned back the money it has spent on them.)

Even the Backstreet Boys, one of the best-selling acts of the 1990’s, did not appear to have received any CD royalties, their management said.

“I don’t have sympathy for the record companies,” said Mickey Melchiondo of the rock duo Ween. “They haven’t been paying me royalties anyway.”

Musicians tend to make more money from sales of concert tickets and merchandise than from CD sales. In fact, many musicians offer free downloads of their songs on their Web sites to market themselves.

For some of them, the problem with file sharing is control. Before a CD is released, early versions of the songs often end up on file-sharing services, where fans download the music under the misconception that it is the finished product. Other times, songs online by one act are credited to another act. And fans exchange studio outtakes, unreleased songs, and live performances that some artists would prefer remain unheard.

Serj Tankian of the hard-rock band System of a Down, for example, said he thought that the free exchange of songs by his band and others online was healthy for music fans, but objected when that free exchange included unfinished studio recordings.

Ween, which recently left a major record label, Elektra, to release its records independently, has found a way to coexist with file sharing, which the band actually supports by encouraging fans to record and trade shows.

At the same time, Ween fans police eBay for people who are selling live recordings and KaZaA for people who are leaking songs before an album is released. “Before ‘Quebec’ came out,” Mr. Melchiondo said, referring to Ween’s latest CD, “our fans would message people on KaZaA who were sharing tracks and ask them to take the music down. And they also mounted a campaign where they put up fake copies of our record to throw people off.”

Mr. Melchiondo said that Ween’s fans acted out of respect for the band, not because of intimidation from the record industry or sympathy with it. “We never asked them to do this,” he said. “They just took it upon themselves.”

Comment: W. C. Handy Walking in Memphis

It was interesting to learn the meaning of the names in the song, but one wasn’t explained… who is “Reverend Green?”
Thanks
Sam

Although I can’t find an explicit answer, most sources claim it’s a reference to soul great Al Green, who has been a minister at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis since 1974.

Guess I shoulda mentioned that in the original article, eh?

Thanks for asking, Sam.

Threes?

I don’t believe the nonsense that bad things come in threes, but if anyone else does, I hope we’re through.
I’m not obsessed with death or anything like that—my own life has taken turns that make me certain I want to live forever. But humans are the only creature on this planet who take special notice of death, so consider this instinctive behavior.

The ‘Man in Black’, Johnny Cash, Dead at 71

Cash formed much of my early perception of music, right there with the Clancy Brothers, Marty Robbins, and Eugene Ormandy. It was fascinating in recent years to watch him take modern songs and make them his own.

Actor John Ritter dead at 54

No, he wasn’t a musician, and his most famous role was, to me, his most annoying, but John Ritter, when he was allowed to, could really act.