Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Houston, Texas In The 1980's-Beatnik Edition

                                     click for crystal days mix  

It rarely got cold in Houston but every once in a while we would get something equivalent to ice or, if lucky, a tiny amount of snow.  I remember one day, probably in 1986 or 87, being off for an ice day - since ice and snow were so unusual in Texas, things tended to come to a grinding halt when we got either because no one knew how to deal with it, it's still this way.  I attended a Catholic Preparatory School in Houston so maybe we were off for a religious holiday rather than inclement weather, in either case it was definitely a cold day and we weren't in school.  So a good friend and classmate and I headed up to a local McDonalds in the Memorial area of Houston, where he lived, to meet another friend who went to Memorial High School.

This other friend might have had an an off campus lunch and planned on skipping out afterwards. He was actually more a friend of my classmates, he was a year older than us and more knowledgeable about books and literary matters, or at least seemed to be, in retrospect he might have been bluffing more than we realized.  But in general he was a good guy.  He was interested in the Beats and writing and he had two other close friends with whom he would often spend time hanging out at the neighborhood Denny's drinking coffee and talking.   Its important to point out that in the 1980's, in Texas at least, this was distinctly odd behavior for teenagers.  Coffee houses are commonplace these days, but in the 1980's there weren't really any coffeehouses, Denny's was as close as you could get, and even if there was one tucked away in some hipper area of Houston (Montrose), you wouldn't find teenagers there discussing books, music and films.

I have fond memories of this person, as he seemed like a character from a different time, out of the past, he looked very 1950's American, as if he could have been an original Beat character.  Thinking back he looked a bit like that actor from Dead Poets Society, Robert Sean Leonard, except more emaciated.  He would carry around little quotations in his pocket that he had written down from books he liked.  It sounds pretentious and I suppose he was a bit, but he was also earnest and sincere and after all we were only 16 to 17 years old, so the net effect was rather charming. But what struck me that day at McDonald's was when he pointed out that he was actually wearing two pairs of jeans, one on top of the other,  in order to keep warm.   I was strangely impressed with this homegrown ingenuity, and it didn't really look too strange, because one pair was much smaller than the other. I had never seen this before and have never seen it since.  It's odd the things that stick with you from the past.

On the way back from the McDonald's he showed me a short story he had written about a baby being dropped on its head.  It didn't make much of an impression on me, not that I had any facility for evaluating prose, for all I know it may have been good.  I was strictly a neophyte trying to learn and honestly I was probably more interested in what I imagined were the extracurricular activities surrounding a literary lifestyle, in a word KICKS, than actually trying to write or think too much about writing.  I was a pretty voracious reader though, but even the stuff I dug, like Kerouac, I didn't really get from a writing stand point till years later. I still have a book he gave me as a Christmas gift around this time, Mallarme's "A Tomb for Anatole" .

Of his group of neo-beatnik friends, one was something of a jerk; pointy face,  little round Lennon glasses, and a completely contrived attitude, almost the exact opposite of his cohort, suspicious and condescending where his friend was open and accepting.  I don't know what happened to this cat, nothing good I imagine.  I remember him dramatically and obviously over acting his intoxication during a shared trip, he was that type of character.  The third of the trio was this guy's girlfriend. She apparently had problems at home and had been taken in by his family, which was interesting and an odd set up for a suburban middle class family. Always the quietest of the group, she has apparently gone on to become a well known avant-garde musician/singer ( something of a contradiction in terms).  For a while she worked at a local record store here in Austin.  Sometime in the late 1990's I recognized her and knowing nothing of her burgeoning underground fame, said "hey I remember you, you knew D.L. back in Houston!"  She seemed embarrassed and blushing tried to end the conversation as quickly as possible saying something like, "oh yeah, yeah that was a long time ago".  It was awkward, for her, not me, I just thought, wow you were a lot cooler when you didn't think you were.

A word about the mix that accompanies this post-it's a representation of some of the music we were listening to around this time, it's not supposed to be in anyway directly related to the Beats or beatniks.  There's a lot of great music from the 1980's I've discovered after the fact (the past 20 years) but I've resisted the temptation to include any of this to try and keep it faithful to what we were actually listening to at the time in question.  For instance, the Clean's "Beatnik" thematically would have been a nice addition, but that's not what we were listening to.  I've made an annotated track listing though to give a little background on my memories of these songs.

1. The Exploding Boy-The Cure- This B-Side to "In Between Days" is one of the best things the Cure ever recorded, I was in a cover band in high school and we would play this one.  I'm a sucker for fast acoustic strumming.

2. All In My Mind (acoustic)-Love & Rockets- I had forgotten this song and how much I liked it till I listened to the Express album again a couple of years back, it definitely brings me right back to my high school years.  A friend and I saw these guys at a very small venue in Houston, it was smaller than Cullen Auditorium, more theatre size with seating, and the band was not very good- Daniel Ash had a condescending rock star attitude that was obvious enough that the audience gave him some stick about it.  

3. 7 Chinese Brothers-R.E.M.- "Smell of a sweet short-haired boy" is how I always heard that opening line. Unless you lived through this point in the 1980's it's hard to understand that at one point Michael Stipe was cool and influential, there were a lot of want to be Stipe characters around at the time, the first time I saw REM live on the Fables tour (Cullen Auditorium on the University of Houston campus) there was a guy right up front dressed exactly as Stipe had been the last time he was in Houston on the Reckoning tour.  Where did all the Michael Stipe clones go?  

In any case enigmatic was the operative word, that and a sort of deliberate thrift store aesthetic. He did it well.  I remember reading as a child the Five Chinese Brothers book that Stipe is alluding to here, where one of the brothers swallowed the ocean, it stuck with me and hearing this song immediately connected with that memory in a way that made the whole song feel strangely familiar and nostalgic.  In their early interviews Stipe and Buck would talk of a lyrical strategy of re-contextualizing old sayings, cliches, and images from mythology, and childhood memories.  I was a fan and so I followed them through most of the 80's, but in retrospect they peaked with either this one or Fables.  Reckoning is still my favorite.

4. Hey- The Butthole Surfers- I bought the Butthole's first E.P. at Sound Exchange on a trip to Austin for my 15th birthday in 1985.  I remember my friend James and I played it on the wrong speed the first time through and it actually sounded pretty good at 35 rpm as well as its intended 45 rpm.  Its still the best thing they ever did, the blueprint for everything else they would do is all there in its seven songs.  "Hey" is a modern psychedelia at its best and probably one of the most gentle of their offerings. I remember my Dad shaking his head with equal amounts of dismay and amusement that their was a band with such a name.

5. Coney Island Steeplechase- The Velvet Underground- Unreleased Velvets finally saw official release in 1985-86 first with VU and then Another View.  The critical steam that had been building around the band since their demise was reaching its logical conclusion with these releases and the re-release of their first three albums around the same time. It didn't hurt that the Velvets were name checked by pretty much every worthwhile band at the time, most of these bands probably grew up reading their critical champions in the pages of Creem and Bomp and the like.  I particularly like Lou's lyrics in this one- "like a sister and brother who cling to each other when they find out their parents are mad, it would be so nice, like summer with ice".  Creem even put the Velvets on the cover of their November 1987 issue.

6. Rusholme Ruffians-The Smiths- A favorite from Meat is Murder centering around a riff adapted from Elvis's version of the Pomus/Shuman song "His Latest Flame".  The Smiths played in Houston, I think it was on the tour in support of The Queen is Dead and I remember thinking since I didn't have a car or any other way to get there that I'd just have to see them the next time, but the next time never came.  I dig the fairground atmosphere and the  picturesque narrative on "Rusholme Ruffians" and it ties in nicely with the Velvet's ode to Coney Island's Steeplechase

7. My Movie-JFA- Arizona's J.F.A. had one of the funniest names ever for a hardcore band, it stood for Jodie Foster's Army, see John Hinckley Jr. . They started out as a skatepunk band and developed into weird modern psychedelia on this My Movie single, which I still own in picture sleeve and colored vinyl.  Another childhood regret is that I never bought a JFA paisley skateboard, a beautiful looking board that now goes for a couple of hundred on ebay.  I did have a couple of paisley shirts circa 85-86 and when I wore them to school I was teased continually "hey there's sperm on your shirt", ahh schooldays.

8. Add It Up- Violent Femmes- The first Violent Femmes record got so much play in the 80's, you heard it everywhere (like Paul's Boutique in the early 90's), that it quickly became overkill, but its been long enough since I've heard this record that it sounds fresh again.  I don't think I owned the vinyl at the time, I just had a cassette dub.  Nice hypnotic rhythmic vocalizing and with the semi- acoustic backing it does conjure a neo-beat feel.

9. Somewhere Else-Doctor's Mob- These guys were out of Austin, I saw them perform this song in 1985 on an MTV show that IRS records produced called The Cutting Edge.  It was a more interesting predecessor to 120 Minutes, hosted by the Fleshtones' always enjoyable Peter Zaremba.  This particular episode, which I think was titled the austin music avalanche was (natch) a special on the Austin Music scene. I still have the VHS dub I made at the time, and it got tons of play. Unfortunately by the time I got to Austin four years later white funk and sub-buttholes noise bands were all the rage rather than these garage pop guitar bands a mid-80's Austin phenomenon that was loosely grouped under the title "new sincerity".

10. As It Is When It Was-New Order- Another song I had forgotten about till recently, I had Brotherhood on vinyl and used to listen to it a lot.  A lot of their songs play on a cloying melancholy, both lyrically and melodically, but it works, for me.  Their influence on Pavement, at least vocally, has been largely overlooked.

11. Crystal Days-Echo and the Bunnymen- I remember buying a second hand copy of Ocean Rain as a teenager, the cover really pulled me in and the music didn't disappoint.  Always a sucker for pop it had more immediate appeal for me than their other record I already owned Crocodiles - a great record as well (and another evocative cover) that just took me longer to appreciate. 

12. Garoux Des Larmes-Throwing Muses- I had the EP this is from, The Fat Skier  on vinyl, its still my favorite record by this band.  They seem to be largely forgotten these days but they were right up there at the time.  They were one of the American bands that were on 4AD for a while at least, which always seemed weird as 4AD seemed so, uhm, British.

13. Sound on Sound- Big Boys- I do believe that I purchased this record, Lullabies Make the Brain Grow, on the same 1985 birthday trip to Austin. Another interesting coincidence I haven't mentioned is that this weekend trip was the same weekend that MTV was in town filming the Cutting Edge special on Austin, there were flyers up all over the town for it.  "Sound on Sound" is not typical of the Big Boys sound, an Austin band whose music was diverse but usually stretched from hardcore skate stuff to a punk/funk hybrid that was surprisingly listenable.  

14. When the Shit Hits the Fan- The Circle Jerks- Why is American hardcore so much better than a lot of the English Oi stuff that inspired at least the seed of its sound? I dunno, it just seems weirder, funnier, and way more interesting and varied.  It has more personality, or at least the brightest lights did.  Or maybe its not as influential as I thought, it does seem to have developed at roughly the same time. Keith Morris is one of the greatest punk/hardcore singers ever.  I like the way this sits next to the following track.

15. Highway 61 Revisited-Bob Dylan- I had a store bought cassette of this album that received continual play in my first car in 1987.  We spent many a stoned afternoon after school driving around with no particular place to go listening to this at top volume.  In the 80's it was somewhat strange for kids to listen to Dylan.

16. Trails of Colour Dissolve-Felt- The first FELT record I heard was the compilation Goldmine Trash which was released in 1987.  It forever altered the way I heard music, it was a perfect distillation of most of the things I liked about pop, especially the way the guitars sound.  The bongos give it a bit of a Beat vibe and Lawrence was an enthusiastic fan of the Beats.  

17. Up On the Sun- The Meat Puppets- On this record the Meat Puppets channeled a stoned, more down to earth and funny version of REM, and it sounded perfect.

18. Second Guessing-REM- Again they loomed so large at the time, at least in my world (big fame was still a distant point on the horizon), that they easily rate a second song here.  I love all of Reckoning and was tempted to stick "Time after Time" on here just to fuck with S.M..  

19. Brave Men Run- Sonic Youth- I don't think Sonic Youth has put out a good record in over 20 years, but Bad Moon Rising, EVOL and Sister (their best) stand up nicely.  Daydream Nation is overrated but good, and after the "has its moments" of Goo it was all downhill.

20. A Few Hours After This- The Cure- Another great Cure B-Side, and now you've got their two best b-sides!  Robert Christgau had a funny and insightful line about the Robert Smith's songs, my taste differs greatly from Christgau's but he's always pithy and often funny- he said in a largely sympathetic and positive review of the Head on the Door "it's more like he doesn't know the difference between loneliness, solipsism, and satori". 

21. I Don't Owe You Anything- The Smiths- I didn't hear Sandie Shaw's version till years later but it clearly illustrates Morrissey and Marr's adeptness at composing an updated take on the 60's girl singer form.  This might be my favorite song on their debut album, my favorite record by the Smiths.

22. Ambiguity Song- Camper Van Beethoven- Another under appreciated band, maybe too funny and eclectic for their own good (historically speaking), but therein lay a large part of their appeal.  

23. Goin' Back- The Byrds- A sentimental choice, but I'm a sentimental person, so there you have it.

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