Tuesday, August 08, 2023

"Kick Out the Jams" and the Debt I Owe


“You can say what you want about any of those folks, if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”

After the 2021 Land of Hope and Dreams conference celebrating Dave Marsh’s work and ideas, someone complained about someone else’s performance. Marsh made the above comment in part to defend an old friend. He also wanted us to recognize the debt he owed.

On the eve of publishing the new Dave Marsh anthology Kick Out the Jams, I want to say the same about Marsh. I can put it even more forcefully. If you are not a member of my extended family, you know who I am because of him.

Most people Dave Marsh influenced wouldn’t put it quite that absolutely, but I bet many would have to think about it. That’s why the Land of Hope and Dreams conference came together relatively easily, and that’s why this new book came out of this discussion.

On Marsh’s 70th birthday, half a dozen of his friends began to discuss how to celebrate such a significant career in our own life stories. He had not only kept pushing us to think over the past four or five decades, but he was also how most involved found one another.

A member of the group talking about all this, University of Wisconsin African American Studies professor Craig Werner, had a similar conference upon his retirement from the school. I wrote about that one here: https://takeemastheycome.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-only-light-we-see-craig-werner-and.html

Werner and Marsh are both community builders, and we knew a celebration of Marsh’s work would tell a unique story of people and ideas set in motion around popular music.

About eight of us started meeting regularly on Zoom and, within a year, pulled together three weeks of activities that featured five spotlight conversations and twelve different panels featuring seventy different participants. Each had something to say about what set this work apart and its implications for the world we live in today. You can still find the whole conference with panel descriptions and bios here: https://landofhopeanddreams.co/

There’s also a YouTube page which houses the video links: https://www.youtube.com/@landofhopeanddreamsatribut7061

The idea of a sequel to Marsh’s Fortunate Son anthology, published in 1985, grew alongside this project. Fortunate Son is a terrific book, but it covers a little over a decade in a career that has spanned five. Since leaving Rolling Stone in 1983, Marsh not only wrote or edited a couple of dozen books, each an important and unique contribution in its own way, but continued working as a journalist for Rolling Stone’s wonderful spin-off Record, and a great magazine called Musician, as well as everything from the Village Voice to TV Guide to Alexander Cockburn’s political newsletter Counterpunch. Most significantly, throughout Marsh’s post-Rolling Stone career, he collaborated with music and sports journalist Lee Ballinger, music industry insider Wendy Smith, my co-editor on this book Daniel Wolff, and editor and agent Sandy Choron (as well as everyone else they knew) to produce a rock and politics newsletter designed to eliminate the divisions between insiders and outsiders in the record industry, Rock & Roll Confidential (later Rock & Rap Confidential) or RRC

The first Rock & Rap Confidential

The history of Dave Marsh’s writing after the Rolling Stone era is a history of making connections between artists, music industry workers, and fans around our common struggles. RRC brilliantly reflected, clarified, and helped facilitate what was happening in the 80s when even mainstream musicians were regularly making statements (and making benefit records and throwing huge events) around issues like hunger and homelessness, basic human rights, and neocolonial human rights abuses in Central America, Africa, and throughout the world.

One thing RRC did so well was to always bring these struggles home.

In 1987, I found my voice writing for RRC by connecting the antiapartheid movement to the racial divisions on the airwaves and around my college campus in Oklahoma.

But that wasn’t the start of Marsh’s influence on my life.

It started back when I turned teenager reading his work in Rolling Stone. My brother first drew my attention to Marsh’s name, along with Greil Marcus, Mikal Gilmore, Cameron Crowe, and other stand-out rock critics of that time.

They all influenced me, but Marsh in a singular way. When I seemed to be the only person in the world who thought a sophomore album was better than the debut, he would be the one voice that agreed. When I heard a hitch in a vocal or a four-note guitar riff that defined the impact of a performance, Marsh tended to be the one who pointed it out. Even and perhaps especially when we disagreed, Marsh’s work struck so deep it taught me something else. His writing repeatedly reinforced the idea that I didn’t have to agree with what everyone else was saying. What I really needed to do was speak honestly my own perspective whenever it was important to do so.

That may seem obvious, but it wasn’t the message this 13-year-old was receiving much elsewhere in the world. It was liberating, and, later, when I was trying to pick a major in college, the idea of Dave Marsh flashed through my mind as I declared English. I didn’t know anything of his short-lived career at Wayne State; but it was an intuitive leap that paid off.

About three years later, I met him at my school. A friend of mine ran the speaker’s committee, and I saw a Dave Marsh flier on her desk.

I said, “Get him!”

She said, “Join my committee and fight for it.”  

Marsh on the back cover of Fortunate Son

I did, and that whole experience—helping to host the event, a packed house in our campus little theater—taught me more about myself than I ever would have guessed. We all had great discussions, and, for my part, he left me with a piece of paper that had his home phone number and address, as well as the names of imprisoned voting rights activist Spiver Gordon and imprisoned American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. My Peltier cover story for the Kansas City alternative press The Pitch would help me land a second job writing for its chief competitor, The New Times.

But all that work started after I sent Marsh my term paper for the semester he visited campus. He was very complimentary and invited me to help with RRC, acknowledging that he had little to pay and comparing the offer to Tom Sawyer asking friends to help him whitewash his fence.

The line I remember verbatim guided my transition and the rest of my writing career: “What in hell does the last paragraph on page 11 mean that couldn’t have been said with half the words and none of the academic gobbledygook?”

“Nothing” was my answer, and that lit a fire in me. I started writing reviews of every record I was listening to that Marsh and Ballinger might use in the newsletter. Most of it didn’t get in, but I kept plugging away. Eventually, I became a regular.

I also began to pull together articles for an RRC-like newsletter I was calling The Red Dirt Runner, but that never got past an initial layout.

In October that year, I moved to Kansas City and started a newsletter called A Sign of the Times with other RRC subscribers in the area. We printed our local take on RRC for about three years, 2000 copies at a time distributed everywhere around town.  

Our first issue, every word that fit

The whole Sign of the Times bunch would collaborate with folks like Dirt Cheap Recycled Sounds owner Anne Winter, Carla Duggar and Katrina Coker of the ACLU, and Hollywood at Home video store owner Richard Rostenberg to form The Greater Kansas City Coalition Against Censorship, later called the Kansas City Free Speech Coalition. Marsh would visit and speak as an individual and as part of a panel at our first annual week-long celebration of free speech, Culture Under Fire, a tradition that lasted about a decade.

Because of the networks I inherited by working with RRC, I wrote music-related editorial columns for the Pitch, the New Times, the Note, and other area papers. Among other issues, I wrote about music censorship, racial segregation in our entertainment districts, and curfew ordinances aimed at east side youth.

One reason Marsh made so much sense to me was that he saw no division between journalism and activism. I could address questions of objectivity and professionalism by finding the right angle and stance to get the job done without compromising my ethics.

Though I was primarily a journalist, I helped Ron Casanova incorporate and raise awareness about his organization, the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless. Together with the free speech coalition, we held a national Break the Blackout Summit to strategize practical solidarity among poor people’s organizations. This would eventually lead me to ongoing work with the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. Marsh was there, one way or another, each step of the way.

After the death of Dave Marsh and Barbara Carr’s younger daughter Kristen at 21, we all began to focus more on health care issues. We took what we learned and held panels on musician health care at Folk Alliance and SXSW. Locally, we founded the Kansas City Music Alliance to find local ways to work on such issues. Thankfully, before long, Abigail Henderson would build the Midwest Music Foundation which did such things far better than we ever could have managed, but the Music Alliance is a precious memory, as was my time with the hip hop collective Flavorpak (which continues to this day), all informed by the idea that there’s an inherent good in gathering together to tackle the problems we all face.

I could go on, but I won’t. What’s that great line from Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”? “I will never total it all.”

In Marsh’s first anthology, he talked about how music opened the world to him, making him question everything he knew that held him back from the vision in music. “Looking over my shoulder,” he wrote, “seeing the consequences to my life had I not begun questioning not just the racism but all of the other presumptions that ruled our lives, I know for certain how and how much I got over….What was left for me was a raging passion to explain things in the hope that others would not be trapped and to keep the way clear so that others from the trashy outskirts of barbarous America still had a place to stand—if not in the culture at large, at least in rock and roll.”

Dave Marsh has always done that for me. He helped me find a place to stand and a way to work. That foundation contributed to everything else I have done.

This new anthology illustrates just how far Marsh carried that mission once he stepped away from Rolling Stone. In these pages, by looking closely at the realities of the music industry and the contradictory ideas it cultivates, he tackles common myths that keep musicians and fans trapped in a world where nothing can change. Among other stands, Marsh takes on Ticketmaster side by side with Pearl Jam. fights against the death penalty watching a friend’s execution, and frames the legacy of musicians like my Stillwater brother Jimmy LaFave who lost his own fight to the very same rare cancer that took Marsh’s daughter.

I love the fact that the MC5 song “Kick Out the Jams” which gave us our title, demands that we keep the music playing as key to overcoming all that we’re up against. In music, there’s a certainty that we can imagine a better world. Dave Marsh’s writing never quits pushing that dream toward a working reality.

On August 15th, to illustrate that point, writers, artists, musicians, and activists will gather at the Warwick Theatre at 3927 Main for a book launch party. Doors will be open at 5:30, and at 7:00 at least a dozen local musicians, artists, writers, and activists will take the stage to read from the book and/or make statements about the vision I have outlined above. In this way, here and in other cities where we are planning similar events, we plan to build on Marsh’s ideas in the only way they can truly be addressed, through community.



Thursday, April 20, 2023

Welcome to the Family, Sara Swenson and Kelly Hunt at Knuckleheads

Flynn, Swenson, Hunt (photo by Shelli Baldwin)

On Kelly Hunt’s 2019 debut album, Even the Sparrow, she has this remarkable song (well, one of twelve, this one called “Men of Blue & Grey”) about a greenhouse patched with glass photographic plates from the Civil War. New life finds its way through the images of dying soldiers. There’s something core to Hunt’s songwriting in such an image.

During her opening set, she talked of writing songs, picking her banjo on the green caboose that sits at the end of Main Street in her hometown of Weston, Missouri. From this port on the Missouri River, where the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail both began, it’s not only easy to imagine this young woman feeling all the yearning and fear in that history, but also almost impossible not to hear her wrenching hope and loss out of each word she sings.

She lay a solid foundation for Swenson, who came onstage and met us right where we’ve all been living these last three years. Accompanied by understated, precise guitar (and a little mandolin) from John Flynn, Swenson joined us in the darkest part of the night with her song “Brother,” a celebration of what just might matter most, that we’re there for each other when dawn seems so far away. It’s a beautiful meditation on that need, one that brings out the full swing of Swenson’s vocals, from an alto drawl someplace close to Lucinda William’s gravel roads to someplace not only high and lonesome but delicate and bright, a light in the darkness.

After, she said, “That’s the song my daughter calls my imaginary brother song.” And the room laughed, as we did many times that night. Swenson told stories of her kids and her sister’s kids. Then there was her grandfather, celebrated on the song, “My Little Girl.” That’s a song about a time, after her grandmother died, that little Sara called up her grandfather and asked if she could spend the night with him. She reveled in his memory, explaining how he liked to share information he’d gathered from newspaper clippings, always pointing at the family with such a decisive move she swore they could hear his index finger pop.

Adding to the familial feel of the set, Hunt joined Swenson most of the time, standing to her left while Flynn played on the right. Like the “imaginary brother” her daughter calls her on, Swenson managed to weave a family not only out of characters fictional and real in her songs, but out of the circle of friends, family, and fans gathered in Carl Butler’s Gospel Lounge in the back of Knuckleheads, already the most intimate room in the venue.

She did this with a hard focused, yet playful progression of ideas. The imaginary brother gave way to the “Messy Love” where two partners never quite give the other what he or she wants but manage to have what they need. Then she defined the whole of it with “Welcome to the Family,” a song Swenson smiled and introduced as, “We’re all just doing the best we can.”

She sang of one of her first glimpses of parenthood, the rollicking “O, My Babies,” inspired by her sister’s children. She followed that with the lingering contentment of “Night Sounds,” a song she punctuated with the end comment, “Those were the kind of night sounds you heard lying out on your deck in Hyde Park, before kids,” then hilariously impersonated children finding every reason on earth not to settle down and go to sleep.

Though she had us all laughing, she wasn’t done with the quiet. Hunt and Flynn went and sat down. Swenson said, “I’m going to try something.” She then offered a solo, acoustic version of the title track of her 2010 album, “All Things Big and Small,” a simple lyric, part prayer and part lullaby. “Hold these seconds near your heart like a locket.” Though we could hear the bands over in the Knuckleheads garage and out on the roadhouse deck, we leaned in and did just that.

Hunt then joined Swenson for a still spare—their voices and Swenson’s guitar—version of “Big Pretty City” from her 2014 album Runway Lights. Before she began singing, she explained she wrote it as a celebration of London. Without knowing that, it’s all too evident that this mandala-like work is a rich portrait of the ephemeral’s movement through that which seems eternal. The turning lights of that song brilliantly set up perhaps her most famous song, “Time to Go” (featured on the television show The Practice) and the close of this warm, familial vision, “Vistas,” a song about the infinite possibilities of a single relationship.

Introducing, “Time to Go,” Swenson laughed and said, “But don’t go yet. We’re not done.” The set ended with a surprise, the greatest song by the greatest songwriter lost to COVID. All three were on stage together for a gorgeous rendition of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” and joy and pain could not have been more perfectly wedded. Swenson, Hunt, and Flynn gave flight to that imaginary (but all too real) old woman in the song and gave everyone in the room a reminder of what community can be even in a portrait of its absence.

https://saraswenson.com/                          https://www.kellyhuntmusic.com/


 Earlier blog about Swenson: 







Thursday, March 30, 2023

One in the Sacred Now, Ana Egge and Iris DeMent at Knuckleheads Garage


Iris DeMent and Ana Egge

I’ve been sitting with it for a week. One morning I wake up, and “The Sacred Now” jangles in my head telling me that’s the heart of the show. The next morning, “Heart Is a Mirror” says it’s the introduction that led to “Sacred’s” conclusion. I abandoned a draft.

 In many ways, Ana Egge and Iris DeMent's show at Knucklehead's Garage was such a simple and direct statement from both. But it’s hard to overestimate the complexity and power of what that means in this fragile new world of rejoining one another in public.

 At one point during DeMent’s set, she said, “Did someone tell you all to be quiet?” 

We laughed. 

“If I’m not talking, you can get to know your neighbor.”

 It was indeed that quiet. Egge had set the hushed, warm tone of a roomful of friends getting to know each other, more interested in listening than talking. It’s the way she celebrated the “Cocaine Cowboys” with no apologies, the way she talked about the girls of New York with the ghost of Lou Reed and her friend Anthony by her side.

 Egge sings with a soft but solid push that reaches across the room. When she sang the words “Sweet Jane,” I felt like I needed to revisit The Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins. I’m not comparing the two singers so much as I heard a sense of lineage, and this new voice so perfectly of this moment. 

As she sang about a father mechanic and his daughter who struggles to connect with him, as she danced around the room with her own daughter, as she remembered a moment when it seemed everyone in the world was transfixed by an eclipse (when ideologies didn’t matter, just our shared humanity), time and again Egge drew the room close.

 On the opening performance of Egge's new single, “Heart Is a Mirror,” bassist Chris Donahue vamped a bit for the instrumental break. Egge noted, “We start the show with a bass solo.”

 Donahue would be out there all night. He was the musical heart, always the pulse. What better place to start?  

Iris, Chris, Ana play

 It was on DeMent’s “Say A Good Word” that the three first shared the stage, also at the precise midpoint of the evening. DeMent spent the main set at the piano. She began with a couple of songs in the personal, almost private vein Egge took, both from Sing the Delta, DeMent's first home. But then she sang the marching “Working on A World,” a song that declares “privilege just to be working on a world that I may never see.”

 That’s when she called out Egge.

DeMent began quietly, in a voice not that distant from Egge’s, “The home’s become such an angry place/Friends now wear an enemy’s face/The chasm’s grown so wide….”

 This is right where both artists work, shouting across that chasm even as they whisper. It made perfect sense when DeMent built a bridge out of the word “magnanimity,” read like a phrase from another language, making us believe there’s a way forward.

 When Egge left the stage again, DeMent began to fight through the thickets of that belief. Armed with gospel chords that occasionally sprawled and expressed everything from confusion to jubilance, DeMent anchored her set at the intersection of blues and freedom songs, honoring John Lewis, Rachel Corrie, and that person fighting by your side.

She would talk about Mahalia Jackson as “a real woman” and identify the Good Samaritan as “the real one,” not the demagogue of the moment. She would even give voice to a character from Chekhov, after a quick tender story about her college professor with a trunk of dog-eared books. “The Cherry Orchard” would speak through a woman facing the end of everything she knows, as aristocracy gave way to capitalism, managing to find new life in death.

Darkness in light and light in darkness wove their way through the night, DeMent admitting, “there is no separating the good stuff from the bad,” Egge acknowledging “There’s never going to be a way to make this easy,” the two together saying, “Life is so hard, who isn’t scarred?”  

Knuckleheads before the show

Perhaps DeMent’s bravest statement came with the song “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas.” Starting with the level of fear in a fascist state (not just the one in the title but increasingly the whole of the country and the world), the song pays homage to the Chicks for taking the heat for what they said about their Governor, the one who started not only the longest American war in history but the one just after it, the one that drew the most antiwar protest since Vietnam. She not only ripped the “war criminal” who lied about WMDs, and all his celebrity friends, but she called out, “Hey, Mr. Bezos, I’m talking to you.” She declared herself right by the side of all Americans taking a knee against police violence. This declaration--along with the Biblical promise that the very "rocks will cry out" at such injustice--drew the loudest applause of the evening.

Back when she first sang “Wasteland of the Free” in 1996 (a song she didn't need to sing this night to make the point), she railed against a world where “the poor have now become the enemy.”  With “Texas,” she makes it clear what her enemy is.

It's the opposite vision of “The Sacred Now,” the song for which she brought Egge back to close the set. This Byrds-like rocker offered the perfect meeting place for these two voices (hell with Donahue’s consistent support, three voices). “We remember, then forget again,” they sang. “All is lost,” then, “some hope is found.”

But “those who stand to gain draw dividing lines,” DeMent sang. The enemies are those trying to separate this room the whole night’s been about bringing together. “We can’t speak,” she acknowledges, “but still somehow, we all share the sacred now.” The most political line in the whole song is “it’s not a dream, it’s the sacred now.” That, coupled with the encore, “Let the Mystery Be,” declared it time--to set ideological divisions aside and build what's possible out of this sacred space.




Friday, February 24, 2023

In the Heart of the Crowd: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, KC and Tulsa

It’s been a tough six months or so for many Bruce Springsteen fans. First came the Ticketmaster dynamic pricing debacle that no one ever adequately addressed (and left empty seats to be filled with last-minute cut-rate ticket sales in Tulsa). Then Sirius Radio’s Live from E Street Nation talk show went on hiatus. Just at the beginning of the tour, Springsteen’s 43-year-old fanzine, Backstreets, closed shop. For me certainly, a weight hung over the show.

To Springsteen’s credit, he focused on what he did best and achieved far more than I could have imagined. For that reason, I feel it's important to mention the context, just as its important to let the review stand separate, the show celebrated on its own merits. DA

KC, Photo by Sarah Kathryn Funck

 “The first thing to remember about Bruce Springsteen is that he’s a musician.” –Dave Marsh, Monmouth University talk, 2005

 Though I thought his music perfectly fit the oil roads, sections, smelter skyline, and main drag of my hometown, I’ve never lived in Springsteen country. Aside from that handful of hits in the middle eighties, his 50-year career did not have eastern Kansas and Oklahoma as a base. A 16-year gap between Kansas City stops (1984 to 2000), two Oklahoma concerts in the 70s and only two more four decades later about sum up the relationship.

 So, I was lucky to get to see two nights of this tour with loved ones and family—first in my present home of Kansas City, second in the city next to where I grew up, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Though I’ve been going to these shows for 42 years now, I have never seen two so early in a tour (stops 8 & 9), and I’ve never had a close second show experience quite match the first.

 What wound up happening was much more powerful than I could have expected. And that’s ironic because most of what made it so moving was the company I kept, my family in KC and a longtime road buddy meeting family with me in Tulsa. But I think the surprise (and it probably shouldn’t have been one) was how much that companionship fit the show’s purpose and meaning.

The Castiles, Springsteen front left, George Theiss top center

Before “Last Man Standing,” the one moment in the show the normally talkative Springsteen chose to stop and tell a story, he recalled his 2018 death bed visit to the leader and only other surviving member of his first band, George Theiss. He used that memory to underscore the carpe diem of the “Prove It All Nights,” “Because the Nights,” and “Badlands,” all those songs at the core of what Pete Townshend once called the “triumph” in Springsteen’s tales of desperation and long chances.

 “Last Man” itself makes the concert’s central confession and pledge. He called on a “flock of angels” to “lift him somehow.” And where else would he seek deliverance? “Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd.”

So far, this new show stays focused on that ephemeral crowd, the souls gathered in the room, in many ways repeatedly reinforced by the emphasis on the band. His use of the Miami Horns may show it best. From a “Kitty’s Back” built for improvisation to a rousing “Johnny 99” that even formed a bit of a second line this Fat Tuesday, Springsteen repeatedly threw the focus to Ed Manion on baritone sax (and a good deal of tenor in Kansas City when Jake Clemons was out with COVID), Ozzie Melendez on trombone, Curt Ramm and Barry Danielian on trumpet.

 But everyone had their moments—Soozie Tyrell laid into fiddle, particularly thrilling on that “99” and “Darlington County” in Tulsa. The Disciple of Soul’s percussionist Anthony Almonte played supple and quick to push for mightier and mightier responses from Max Weinberg. Singers Curtis King, Michelle Moore, Ada Dyer, and Lisa Lowell filled out the sound with shining punches of soul fire. The core of the old band (and both Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in particular up front) vamping, clowning, cavorting, and taking memorable turns in the spotlight.

 In that bridge before the final refrain of “Backstreets,” where Springsteen has often lingered to sketch stories, this time he touched his broken heart and said, “I’m gonna carry it right here,” repeating “right here,” and tapping his breast softly until that final piece of the pledge, “until the end.”

 Aside from the lack of talk—one song after another, relentlessly plunging ahead—the show was also noteworthy for another absence—its lack of songs focused on anything overtly political. The politics are always there of course, in the hearts of the kids of “No Surrender,” in the belief in “The Promised Land,” in the “more than all this” of “Johnny 99.” The most all-encompassing political commentary might just have been that moment in “Wrecking Ball,” when he repeats “hard times come, and hard times go” over and over again before calling on that crane to tear it all down.

 This moment, tellingly, was followed by “The Rising.”

Before he used to sing “Straight Time” on The Ghost of Tom Joad tour, Bruce would ponder what we do when all the tricks that got us where we are, when all the tools that used to work, don’t seem to work anymore; in fact they seem to make things worse. With this new tour, Bruce Springsteen has obviously laid some tools aside, but he’s stuck close to the ones which keep the crowd feeling “high and hard and loud,” strong, not so much spectators as participants. 

When Springsteen closed both shows, he sang of feeling “split at the seams.” In 2023, for reasons ranging from COVID to opioids to state-sanctioned murder and the threat of World War III, every person in that room knew that feeling. As the man sings in the song, we need each other by our sides, and for these three (and six) hours and some days after, I certainly felt less alone.

Thanks to Ben Bielski, Cody Alan McCormick, Farrell Hoy Jenab, Josh McGraw, and Sarah Kathryn Funck!

KC, photo by Sarah Kathryn Funck