My major birthday present this year was a new Sony Walkman. (Though I’d originally thought of asking for something a little more 21st century, I realized at one point I owned a slew of cassette tapes that’d been gathering dust since we’d gotten a car with a CD player.) My new tape player got regular use during the summer: playing prerecorded music as I took the dogs – Ziggy Stardust (Australian Shepherd/Sheepdog mix) and Cedar (Shepherd/Lab/something mix) – for a walk at the commonly named Bark Park. BPark has a wooded trail called the Hedge Apple Trail, a steep hill used in the winter for sledding, a creek and several playing fields. On Friday and weekend mornings (if the weather was clement) I’d take the pups and usually walk ’em through the length of the album. The following are five of my fave tapes from this summer:
Cheap Trick: The release of Oasis’ newie spurred me into pulling out Cheap Trick’s eponymous 1997 release on Red Ant for a July dog trek. I was glad I did. Cheap Trick was an artistic, if not popular, rebirth for a band that had seemingly descended into formulaic irrelevancy years ago. It deserved a larger audience than it received: the release plays to the band’s considerable strengths (few American groups have made hard rock sound so rollicking and propulsive – not to mention funny) and contains songs as good as any the group has ever done. (Personal Pick hits: “Say Goodbye” and the melancholy pop gem, “Shelter,” which sounds like it’d fit on a soundtrack for Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth.) Both disc & cassette are available in the clearance bins these days, and for those of you who still keep your copy of Heaven Tonight in regular rotation, it’s worth picking up a copy. Makes a good dog walk cassette, too.
Buster’s Happy Hour: After two days of rain and mugginess, I was finally able to take the pups to the park one Sunday. Tape du jour was Buster Poindexter’s Buster’s Happy Hour (Forward Records), a collection of jump and early rhythm-and-blues released while the man was hosting a short-lived variety show of the same name on VH-1. Most people recall Buster from his overplayed dance hit, “Hot Hot Hot.” Aficionados, of course, know that Buster is really a role played by David Johansen, former leader of the New York Dolls and a damn good solo artist in his own right. Johansen’s career has long comprised an unceasing series of confounded expectations. The Poindexter story is a prime example of this dynamic: Johansen donned the role years before the big retro swing movement gathered steam; once Brian-come-latelies began releasing their own versions of updated swing ‘n’ jump music, Buster put out a disc of Spanish dance music instead. Naturally, he jumped out of that when the likes of Marc Anthony started having hits. Instead, he picked up his old name back up and turned to recording traditional blues songs as David Johansen and the Harry Smiths.
Happy Hour, like all the Poindexter discs, is a fun bit of retro tunery that only occasionally catches fire. While Johansen could be an inspired songwriter with the Dolls or his early solo discs, as Poindexter he mainly relies on covers. Some of his choices make for surprising discoveries (Lucky Millander’s “Big Fat Mamas Are Back In Style,” the Kinks’ unjustly forgotten “Alcohol”), but too many of ’em falter when set alongside the originals. His duet with delightfully blowsy Soosie Tyrell, “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” for instance, is more a sketch than a recapitulation of the Louis Jordan original. Bet it took off on stage, though.
The one original that Poindexter does on the set is an enjoyably goofy novelty number co-written with Huw Gower, “The Worst Beer I Ever Had.” (“I’ve had Fosters down under/That would make an abo chunder!”) Most of the disc’s songs revolve around drinking & partying, but one of the more notable exceptions is his remake of Roy Brown’s 1950 R&B single, “Butcher Pete,” quite possibly the only song to combine references to cannibalism and cunnilingus.
Fool Around: The Best of Rachel Sweet: Miz Sweet was Stiff Records’ big bid for mainstream American pop acceptance in the late seventies: a fifteen-year-old Ohio girl with beaucoup show biz experience and a county lilt to her voice, wrapping her tonsils around songs by the likes of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker – plus oldies from the r-and-b giants like Carla Thomas. Add svengali Liam (“Walk Like An Egyptian”) Sternberg’s tuneful word salad into the mix, and you have one of the most entertaining misreads of the American audience that the new wave era has to offer.
Fool Around (Rhino) focuses on the cuts from her quirky debut album (also teasingly entitled Fool Around), though it doesn’t forget to include her so-so collaboration w/ Rex Smith on “Everlasting Love” (#32 on the Billboard charts) and the 1988 theme from “Hairspray” (sung as an adult but still retro teen-pop). Nuthin’ from her great voice-over songwork for John Waters’ Cry Baby, however.
Every once in a while I still catch a glimpse of Sweet – she was George Costanza’s cousin Shelly in one of the best-remembered Seinfelds, a supporting player in Bette Midler’s remake of Gypsy and a comedy vee-jay back in The Comedy Channel days. But even her big fan site doesn’t seem to know what she’s up to nowadays. In this era of mega-successful manufactured pop teens, I can’t help wondering what the Fool Around Gal thinks about it all.
Smell of Female: Reprehensible. But if I ever get on my high horse about some lyrical anti-P.C. conceptual artiste like Eminem, I hope someone out there makes a point of reminding me that I once wrote a piece in praise of The Cramps. I used to own the tastefully titled live Cramps set, Smell of Female (Enigma) on vinyl as a six-song EP. This version was reissued seven years later with extra cuts, including a studio track of Return of the Living Dead‘s end song, “Surfing Dead.” It’s such a good tape that I took it twice to the park one weekend. I love this band for its collectorish appreciation of rockabilly and psychedelia, of drive-in horror and Russ Meyer movies. The genius of The Cramps is the way that they recreate this stuff without ever condescending to it: unlike, say, Southern Culture on the Skids, you never get the sense that the band is mocking their material. If anything, they sound like they’ve stayed up all-night learning their licks off deeply cherished 45’s.
Among the songs heard on the original set (none of which, to my knowledge, have been released by the band in studio form) is the theme to breastman Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a cheesy paean to cycle mamas that’s sung by Crampsman Lux Interior with more conviction than the soundtrack’s original “who-the-hell-are-they?” band, The Bostweeds, could muster. Equally stirring is a remake of “Psychotic Reaction” with a psychedelic rave-up almost as deranged as the Count Five original. Aside from Interior’s suitably sinister non-voice, the prime appeal of this band lies in the guitarwork of Link Wray’s love child, Poison Ivy. Constantly playing on the verge of the song, swiping garagey fuzz licks or echoey rockabilly, Ivy is the one who regularly pulls the band away from its lead vocalist’s blathery bullshit. A live album, you get more of Interior’s interstitial nonsensical patter than you need or want, but then along comes Ivy with a suitably driving guitar riff and everything’s okay.
For me, the best Cramps can be found in the band’s early studio elpees, Songs the Lord Taught Us, Psychedelic Jungle and A Date With Elvis. But Female, which predates Date by a couple years, remains suitably sordid fun. “I ain’t nothing but a gorehound,” our man Lux brags in the tape’s statement of purpose: the perfect soundtrack for the person whose idea of a meat-is-murder statement is Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Aretha Now: One of the last tapes I played in August was Aretha Now, a ’68 release reissued in 1993 as part of the Atlantic & Atco Remasters Series. I own a four-disc boxed set of Aretha Franklin that I don’t play near as much I do her individual elpees. I prefer the woman in meal-sized servings as opposed to full banquets. Now, her fourth Atlantic album, is one of my personal faves, a solid slab of sixties soul. It opens with a blast: “Think,” a declaration so strong and unforgettable that the rest of the record doesn’t even try matching it. Instead, ‘Retha contents herself with effortlessly swiping “I Say A Little Prayer for You” from Dionne Warwick, then making Don Covey’s gimmicky trifle “See Saw” sound deeper than it actually is. If she doesn’t quite wipe away Ray Charles’ “Night Time,” she stands eye to eye with Sam Cooke on “You Send Me.” Second side of the tape is less memorable, but still plenty fine, thanx to the presence of Atlantic’s studio pros at their peak. Tough and sexy soul: no diva b-s, just lotsa pure take-me-as-I-am singing. A great tape for a walk on a day that’s gray and rain-threatening. . .
Wound up putting the kibosh on Walkmanning by late August, incidentally. One Saturday a.m. I was out with the mutts, midway through the first side of Lene Lovich’s Stateless. (Doesn’t hold up as well as other Stiff releases from the period, I’m afraid.) At one of the curves on the Hedge Apple Trail an elderly couple came upon us suddenly, and Dusty, herd dog that he is, tried to keep the two away from me. Nothing serious occurred, but it sure as heck startled them hikers. My dog weighs eighty pounds and has a pair of Bowie-esque blue & brown eyes that’ve been known to unnerve the unwary. I probably would’ve heard the duo coming if I hadn’t been listening to “Lucky Number.”
But now that it’s fall, I’m thinking about pulling the Walkman out again. First up, a Huxton Creepers release from the eighties: “Come with me, take a walk in the Autumn leaves.”