Friday, February 17, 2017


purchase Truck Stop Love

For a young college student, the transition from late spring final exams to full-time employment in summer is liberating. It’s also strange. You transition from hours upon hours of intense intellectual work to hours upon hours of menial, brainless labor: laying cement, cleaning toilets and in my case waiting tables.

Truck Stop Love, which has about 300 hits for most of its songs on YouTube, made poignant, alt country rock music that reflected beautifully on its time and place: the early 90s Midwest. Live, the Manhattan, KS band was unbridled and loud as hell. They were my soundtrack in the summer of 94’ and a band that deserved major attention.

The song “Townie” (75 hits as I write) is an anthem for the ones in ripped jeans and dirty t-shirts who roll around like tumbleweeds in the empty summer sun from one coffee shop or bar to the next--budget of a couple bucks. The opening of “Townie” floats--like much of the song--one guitar jangles and the other is fuzzed up. The scene is set:

“Bob’s at home lookin at her locket…You’re 22--hands in your pocket--looking for a friend to get you high. Should I get a haircut? Do I look like a Jimmy Page? You’re 22, got no money in your pocket. Looking for a girl to take you home.”

It’s one of a few Truck Stop Love songs, including the sweet and crunchy “Other Stars” that reflects on hair and haircuts. And hair was very important at this time.  Long hair was coming back and was the preferred style of grunge bands. You don’t forget Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain’s hair whipped over their shoulders or Kim Thayil playing his evil licks behind a gate of dark curls. As a college kid, you wished you had just come into school with long hair. Growing it out took time and made you come across as a wannabe. Once it got to the shoulders and you settled in with it for a couple months, you were cool. I cut mine just a couple weeks into a potential pony tail stage. It was skunky looking, and I never thought it was me.

“Small town boy, got a tattoo on your side….Small town boy, got a chain hanging from your pocket”. You’re 22, playin’ pinball in your pocket. Waiting on a lost cause to get you by.”

I stayed in my university town an extra year after graduation and was on the verge of becoming a “Townie”. The town began to shrink, however. Hitting bars started giving me a creepy embarrassment and the occasional flash fear of being a lifetime waiter. The thought of becoming that philosophy major who stuck around for twenty years to continue working in his favorite bar and hit on college girls sparked me to get the hell out of there. I ended up teaching in a tiny town in Japan.

"Hey Joe, you got some smoke? Well I got some fire. I’ll pay you back anytime. ('yeah right')."

I saw Truck Stop Love Twice. The first time was when I booked them for 250 bucks to play at our university as part of a punk show. The young kids who typically came to shows usually wanted fast and loud, so I was nervous that TSL might underwhelm when playing next to Compound Red and Alligator Gun, two great live bands from Milwaukee. Making matters more difficult was that one of the two singers, the one who sang on “Townie” and “Stagnation” (“I’ve been down to your bar/It looks the same or did you remodel?”), had a sore throat and wouldn’t sing. But when the audience of 40 started chanting “Townie! Townie!” the other band mates badgered him into it. The band had to be surprised a university audience knew and liked a song enough to call it out. Actually, as Music Director, I had kept their debut e.p. on our college station’s CMJ charts for about 6 months.

TSL stayed at my house that night. I remember the singer getting sick of the Possum Dixon cd I was playing and going up and changing it himself to Pavement. A German teacher, who was an old punk, sat down and gave the band a lecture on how to bring more attitude to their music, which was endured by the band as long as the Leinenkugels kept coming.

When I woke up the next morning and made my way downstairs, they had already left, a pizza box was against the wall and it said, “Thanks, Jake. We’ll see you again. Truck Stop Love.”

A year later after I had graduated I saw TSL in my university town again. They were without the above guitarist/vocalist and most of them had cut their hair. The sound wasn’t nearly as thick and gutsy as I had remembered. They basically seemed like a decent bar band at that point. Their album “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”, which was put out on Scotti Brothers, which had also released their brilliant e.p., did very little on college radio. They looked ready to fold. But for a year, their music described my life like poetry.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Small Town: Devil Town

[purchase the soundtrack]

Lots of TV shows have been set in small towns, but my favorite, by far, was Friday Night Lights. In fact, I’d argue that season 1 of the show was as good as any first season of any show I’ve seen. While there were some creative ups and downs over the show’s five season run (really, Landry killed a guy?), it still ranks as one of my all-time favorites. If you haven’t seen it, it is available on Netflix, and elsewhere, and you really should.

I’m not from Texas, and I’ve never lived in a place where football held such importance as the fictional town of Dillon, where the show is set, but what made the show so great was the way that it created a world that was nevertheless recognizable to more than small town dwelling Texans. Not only recognizable, but relatable.

The show also used music well. I’ve written before about the role that Explosions in the Sky had, although not as prominent a role as it did in the film on which the TV show is loosely based, but it also used popular music in a way that enhanced and commented on the narrative. Many articles have been written about the show’s music, so it isn’t just me.

One of the most memorable musical moments comes at the end of the first season, a season that started with a tragedy and built toward the Dillon Panthers’ rocky road to “State,” the championship game in (now demolished) Texas Stadium. SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers win, with an improbable second half comeback. Look—it is a TV show, and in its first season, with no guarantee of renewal, so forgive the creators (notably, Jason Katims, who went on to create Parenthood, and used a number of FNL actors as guests) if they wanted season 1 to have a happy ending.

After the triumph on the field, and the requisite hugging and mugging, the scene shifts to the team’s victory parade down the main drag in Dillon, with what seems to be the whole town out to cheer. But rather than set the parade to something easy and triumphant, they used the song “Devil Town,” which is anything but.

Originally written and recorded by Daniel Johnson, a talented songwriter who has battled mental illness, but whose voice, admittedly, is an acquired taste,“Devil Town” has been covered by others, probably most famously by Bright Eyes. In fact, when the Friday Night Lights episode was shot, the editor used that version, but when they sought permission to use it in the final broadcast, Bright Eyes declined. Bad move, Conor. Instead, the publishing company suggested a number of other artists, and the creative team decided to commission Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Tony Lucca to cover the song which was used in the scene.  It was also used earlier in the season, and again toward the end of the series. And in a very creepy promo for the show.

The song focuses on the dark side of a small town, and its references to the town’s residents as vampires resonated as a commentary on the odd hero worship that the residents of Dillon, and by extension, other similar places, had for a bunch of athletically gifted teenagers. Prior to writing this, I watched the episode in question again, to see how the song worked in context—and it really was perfect. The entire season didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of Dillon, while also providing a fair number of uplifting ones.

The show essentially starts with the team’s golden boy quarterback, destined for glory, getting paralyzed on the field, and ending up in a wheelchair. That opens the door for the feel good story of the shy, artistic and sensitive backup quarterback to learn leadership skills, have a relationship with the coach’s beautiful daughter and win the state championship. There are characters who are dealing with missing parents, or bad parents, or no parents, as well as strong families. There is love, lust and betrayal, both by adults and teens. People struggle to survive, and others succeed. The show illustrates both racial divisions and racial harmony. There are dreams achieved, and dreams dashed. There is the pure joy of watching a team come together and triumph, and there are craven boosters who use the team for their own benefit. And during the parade sequence, all of this was summarized in the faces and expressions of the characters, as the song played.

Fittingly, the episode, and the season, ended on an ambivalent cliffhanger. We see the victorious coach, who announced his intent to leave the team for a Division I college job, but had expressed second thoughts to his wife, listen to his paralyzed former star turned assistant coach lecture the team on what they need to do in the off season to repeat as champs, in language that could have come from his own inspirational speeches. He enters the locker room and receives a slow-clapping ovation from his team.

Will he go, or will he stay? Season 2 is also on Netflix.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Small Town: In A Town This Size

purchase John Prine [In a Town This Size]

There are a number of things that I like about John Prine.

There's the cynical lyrics about things that should be so damn serious but that he manages to cut to shreds; there's the simplicity of the song structure (yeah, most popular music is I-IV-V) but he makes a lot of that; and then there's his guitar chops - nothing outrageous, but mighty solid. This song is so typical of John Prine's guitar - just about crystal clear - nothing crazy but perfectly there.

For Valentines' day:

You cant steal a kiss
In a place like this
How the rumors do fly
In a town this size

Sunday, February 12, 2017

SMALL TOWNS: BOY (Bronski Beat) & GIRL (Tracey Thorn)

Sorry, a title like that and you're thinking a Small Town Romance, aren't you? Ain't going to happen, given the demographic, which is a shame, as it removes the opportunity to link to a favourite song. (The hell it does, Richard Thompson's sentiments perfectly and expertly underlining any love in any small town.) But these 2 songs, coming from differing perspectives, ultimately each define the risks of a near horizon, encapsulating and encompassing the threat of seeming/feeling different.

Bronski Beat exploded from nowhere in the early 80s, 2 Glaswegians and a Southend-er, all explicitly gay, united by their shared espousal of the then gay music scene, such as it was, often all camp stereotypes and suggestiveness. Irrespective of their home towns being very large and large respectively, the song nonetheless tapped into the sense of isolation in being the only gay in the village. With the video showing the very evident risks of being 'out' in the sticks. (Or anywhere, especially then?) Jimmy Somerville's voice an almost pure falsetto, unmistakeable, soars above the keyboards, the song remaining both iconic and anthemic to this day. (And here's a delightful clip to confirm that truth!)

"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face."

Sadly it proved too much for the band, an album and 2 singles later finding Somerville leaving after barely a year, to start the equally pioneering and actively gay rights  band, the Communards, alongside the now Reverend Richard Cole, Church of England pastor and radio personality here in the U.K. Bronski Beat lurched on, one hit with replacement singer, Jon Jon Foster, ahead of various less successful ventures.

Tracey Thorn is better known, arguably, for her partnership, with Ben Watt, now her husband, as Everything But The Girl. Or possibly for her honeyed deadpan vocals with Massive Attack. But, ahead of EBTG, after an earlier incarnation as a Marine Girl(s), she put out a beautifully spare, sparse and simple record, A Distant Shore, just barely amplified electric guitar and vocal. From this comes the featured song. Again the loneliness of perceiving oneself different from your peers, themselves fewer in a small town. But the metaphor holds to the extent that, actually, do we not all have small town hearts in our teenage development? If you feel lonely or different even London is a small town.
But rather than a song about the leaving of the small town, Thorn's song betrays a wistfulness for the simplicity thereof, on having left. Green grass etc.

"This is all too much for such a small town girl
Though I see more than you think
This world, very little did I like
And when I did it was not mine."

I came from a small town. I learnt my trade in the big city and have worked all my career in another. I now look whimsically back at those early formative years. I couldn't wait to leave. I would love to go back. I probably won't.

Boy or girl? Which will you choose?

(R.I.P. Larry Steinbachek of Bronski Beat, d. December 2016.)

Small Town: Our Town

Iris DeMent: Our Town


For me, the biggest problem with our current theme is that there are simply too many songs to choose from. Of course, country music offers endless possibilities, but even outside of that there is a tremendous amount of material to work with. Artists who never lived in small towns themselves offer fantasies, both light and dark, of what they must be like. Others, like Iris DeMent here, clearly know from their own experience.

DeMent sees growing through adulthood in a small town as a burden. Every familiar place holds a memory of something long gone. You can not look out your window without being haunted by memories. DeMent’s narrator finally must leave in order to shed all of these accumulated moments that can never come again. The town itself, in this case, is a shadow of its former self. People and businesses leave, and are not replaced.

I have lived in small towns for most of my life, and I know what DeMent means. But I can also say that not all small towns are like this. I hope to present other aspects of small town life before this theme is done. The town I live in now is the one my children have grown up in. It has changed, and I have memories of places and people that are gone. But this town has also renewed itself. New businesses and types of businesses have come in, and with them have come new friends. I haven’t found a song yet that expresses this life cycle, (suggestions?), but I do have a few things queued up that I hope to get to.

Meanwhile, there is this video. The notes on YouTube say it was made for the series finale of Northern Exposure. I never watched the show, so the images probably have some resonances that I have completely missed. But the sepia-toned images and the poignant close-ups seem perfect for this song.